The Archetype of Beauty in Islam

Recently I published another academic article on my academia.edu profile titled, “The Archetype of Beauty in Islam”. Below I have provided the abstract and a brief excerpt of the article. For the full article, please follow the link. Enjoy. _________________________________________

Abstract: Beauty as a word has become an inseparable part of everyday communication. When uttered it is grasped and perceived immediately by the conjuring mind. Beauty as a concept, however, is littered with different interpretations and understandings as diverse as the languages and cultures that attempt to convey its meaning. Multiple philosophical treatises have arisen over the ages attempting to define exactly what beauty is and all have been the subject of disagreement and heated debate. Is the word  and the concept of beauty limited purely to its linguistic and cultural constructs — a subjective term projected by the individual level of aesthetic experience —  or is there a universal understanding of beauty that transcends the relative and unveils itself objectively to the entire human race? Likewise, is the practice of art able to similarly be understood and what is its connection with the ontology of beauty? If such a connection exists, is there an archetype which we can reference that not only adequately conveys our perception of what is beautiful, but conforms to the chosen definition? In order to address these questions we are required to adopt a sufficient paradigm—an ideological construct of interpretation—by which to make such assessments. We have chosen to confine our discussion through an Islamic perspective in our analysis of what constitutes as an archetype of beauty.  As such, ancient and contemporary Islamic views on the subject are addressed alongside non-Islamic sources so as to form a valid and objective method for identification of said “archetype” within the religious tradition. We concluded that the identity of the archetype within Islam is the masjid: the Muslim place of worship.

(pp. 3-8) Beauty as Transcendent

Abū ‘Alī al-Husayn b. ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā was a Persian philosopher well known as “one of the most important exponents of Neoplatonic metaphysics in the Muslim world”[1] and also a famous physician that produced the most widely used and timely treatise on medicine, Kitāb al-Qānūn fī al-ibb (The Canon of Medicine).[2] Ibn Sīnā’s perception of beauty is reflected in his metaphysical outlook:

[F]ollowing the Neoplatonic cosmological scheme, instead of separating the the lower earthly sphere and the superior divine sphere into two entities…, [Ibn Sīnā] put both spheres in a reflexive relationship underpinned by the principle of emanation. The universe emanates from from the superior divine world and is consequently a reflection of it, graduated in various levels. This reflexive relationship manifests itself in particular through the Divine Attributes [of Allāh] from which proceed the qualities of perfection which the diversified beings in creation possess in variable degrees.[3]

            In essence, Ibn Sīnā perceived beauty as an external thing transcendent to the earthly realm of human experience, which manifests itself in lower forms from the unified Attributes of Allāh. Therefore, when we speak of light as beautiful, we are merely acknowledging a lesser reflection of the true beauty of An-Nūr (The Light).[4] Our understanding of what beauty is lies within the transcendent perfection of the Absolute. Beauty then, according to Ibn Sīnā, is merely an abstract notion which we are neither capable of fully experiencing or defining within our limited existential framework.[5] This raises the question as to how we can account for beauty and the experience of the beautiful if the actuality cannot be grasped. How can we say that there is some absolute beauty if we cannot graduate our thoughts beyond the earthly realm? If beauty lies within that which is beyond, what gives us any indication that there is any sort of reflexive relationship taking place from a superior to an inferior?  Ibn Sīnā, possibly predicting these questions, attempts to answer the problem by suggesting first that, “The beauty (jamāl) and splendour (bahā’) of all things consists in that everything has to be as it has to be.”[6] He sees beauty as being essentially, the quality of perfection, or completeness. Things are beautiful because they ‘are as they ought to be’. His next solution is to suggest a method by which we can transcend the earlthy realm through the process of negating the limitations of our existence: Ibn Sīnā explains that, “[t]hrough the path of meditative introspection, the individual abstracts himself from imperfect and limited matter in order to reach the pure essences, or pure splendour…”[7]

            Is the following definition and method sufficient? It appears that Ibn Sīnā has not only begged the question[8] through his purported definition, but has also set up a self-defeater[9] to his own suggested method.

            The definition of beauty as perfection or the ‘completeness’ of a particular object doesn’t actually tell us anything about what beauty is, for if beauty is a quality of a thing and a thing in and of itself, it stands to reason that part of what makes something complete (especially in the sense of the Absolute), is that it has to be beautiful. It neither assist Ibn Sīnā in that his own proposed method only helps to further complicate the issue. As he understands the earthly human realm, “[i]mperfection and evil”[10] (ugliness) lie within and thus our understanding of things is imperfect, which is why we must negate ourselves to reach the true essences. The problem is, what is imperfect also includes his own method towards realizing beauty. If things are beautiful in that they ‘are as they should be’, then he must accept that they are in fact not beautiful because things within our lower existence, per his definition, are actually ugly. In this way, by conforming to his own definition and method, he defeats both and therefore renders his theory incoherent. Not only this, but he gives us no certain way to establish whether or not there is actual beauty.

            There may be however a way to save Ibn Sīnā from these glaring problems through his contemporary, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian-American Islamic philosopher, Sufi and university professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington State University.[11] Professor Nasr holds similar views to Ibn Sīnā in that he follows the same tradition of Neo-platonic emanationism in his conception of beauty: “Although beauty is ubiquitous, whether we are aware of it or not, there is a hierarchy of beauty, as there is of reality, being, and love.”[12]

            Professor Nasr articulates his view further. First he defines beauty through “Plato who said,  ‘Beauty is the splendor of the Truth.’” and that “[t]he Sufis would readily accept this assertion except that they would add that since Truth is also Reality in their perspective, as seen in the word al-ḥaqīqah, which means both, beauty can be said to be the splendor of Reality itself.”[13] In opposition to beauty, he suggests that “[w]hat appears to us as ugly issues from non-existence parading in the guise of existence…what appears as ugliness is the result of the deprivation of the light of Being and the shadow cast as a result of the distancing from the Source of this light.”[14] Analyzing this mystical language, we come to see that Professor Nasr is advocating more than Ibn Sīnā’s maxim that ‘things are as they should be’. It seems that rather than make beauty simultaneous with perfection or completeness, he emphasizes the splendor of truth and reality, making our understanding of the former contingent on the latter. Splendor, in fact, is literally “written on the face of all things”[15] and is within our very souls, which allows us to experience it.[16] Therefore, when we say something is ‘beautiful’ we are not doing so on the basis of its perfection, but an aspect of perfection itself and our ability to perceive this aspect. This splendor he closely ties with harmony, a sort of unity or coherence of the features that an object possesses:

Objects of beauty possess qualitative harmony associated with such realities as colors. They can also possess…quantitative harmony. This can be found, for example, in music, which in addition to the quality of sound, is related quantitatively to measurement and mathematics, disciplines studied in the science of harmonics.[17]

           In understanding actual beauty, he suggests that the lower forms able to be perceived by our senses must symbolize the higher reality of existence[18] and that this lower level of beauty “opens the door of the finite unto the infinite and frees the soul from the confines of the finite forms, although it is manifested in the formal order.”[19] This characteristically inductive approach first appears to be contrary to the idealism of the Neo-platonic tradition, however Professor Nasr remains loyal to it by suggesting that the only way to grasp the harmony of the lower forms, which is closely related to the lower forms of beauty, is by acknowledging that “[h]armony is the result of the reflection of the One in the manifold…”[20]

            Professor Nasr’s explications raise a number of troubling questions. For one, how is it that we come to understand actual beauty through harmony by the symbolic nature of the lower forms? Is not a symbol contingent on its reality and understood as such by first recognizing the latter? What grounds this principle of symbolism if the former cannot be grasped, but through the latter? Further, does Professor Nasr commit the same fallacy of question begging when he asserts that harmony – the principle feature of objects that indicates that they are beautiful – can only be grasped by first reflecting on the Harmony of the Absolute? If lower harmony, which is symbolic of Absolute Harmony and Beauty, is necessary to understand the latter, how is it that we must first reflect on the former? Even with beauty within us, how is it that this lower form of beauty can adequately reflect or be drawn to the Absolute if the very recognition of the former is contingent on the latter? It seems then that Professor Nasr, by his own definitions, does not escape the same incoherent circularity of his predecessor. Even if we attribute the fact that he recognizes the same method as Ibn Sīnā by which to ultimately come to understanding the transcendent nature of beauty through the act negating the self,[21] this does not provide a solution because the method presupposes an absolute beauty to reflect on prior to the negation of the lower forms necessary to realize it.

            Although both these great thinkers propose an objective understanding of beauty cemented in the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wasallam), they restrict our grasp on the ontology of beauty by creating a system of definitions and methods that ultimately render their views incoherent. Perhaps the Idealism of Ibn Sīnā and Professor Nasr are not adequate in defining and assisting us in perceiving beauty, and we need to focus on a more grounded theory.

_______________________________________ ENDNOTES [1]    Valerie Gonzalez, Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001), 6. [2]    U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Islamic Medical Manuscripts.” Last modified December 11, 2011. Accessed December 12, 2011. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/arabic/E8.html. [3]    Valerie Gonzalez, Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001), 12. [4]    One of the 99 names of Allāh. [5]    “But this divine beauty remains ineffable and its metaphysical structure cannot, herefore, define itself through the conditions of matter.” Valerie Gonzalez, Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001), 12. [6]    As quoted in ibid, 14. [7]    Ibid, 15 [8]    “A form of circular reasoning in which a conclusion is derived from premises that presuppose the conclusion ” Bradley, Dowden. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Fallacies.” Last modified December 31, 2010. Accessed December 12, 2011. http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/ [9]    A self defeating claim is one which ultimately destroys its own conclusions and therefore invalidates itself. [10]  Valerie Gonzalez, Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001), 15. [11]  Seyyed Hossein Nasr Foundation “Biography.”  Accessed December 14, 2011. http://www.nasrfoundation.org/bios.html [12]  Seyyed Hosein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 73. [13]  Ibid, 73 [14]  Ibid, 71 [15]  Ibid, 76 [16]  “Since beauty resides in the depth of the soul, and at the same time the soul yearns for it, God has made possible is experience through all the faculties, both outward and inward, that belong to the soul.” Ibid, 73 [17]  Ibid, 75 [18]  “According to the famous Hermetic saying, ‘That which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest.’ This principle also pertains to the experience of beauty.” Ibid, 73 [19]  Ibid, 75 [20]  Ibid, 75 [21]  “It is only  by passing through this gate of ‘annihilation’, or what the Sufis call fanā, that we are able to gain subsistence, baqā, in God and to reach the root of our ‘I’ and also therefore the Divine.” Ibid, 13

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