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In Search of Divine Truth

Striving for beauty through proximity to God is a theme that has always permeated Muslim poetry in different historical contexts. Here’s a look at poetics and ethics in Islamic art.

Let the beauty we love be what we do, there are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

The Patti Cadby Birch Court at the Met's Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands. Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.

The Patti Cadby Birch Court at the Met's Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands. Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.

Thus Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, who has been the object of popular veneration and, overriding sectarian, ideological and national divisions, a long lasting source of inspiration for Muslims around the world. With his knowledge of the inner spiritual recesses of Islam and skillful use of language, he is unsurpassed even among the most select company of Muslim mystics. In the West, the cult of Rumi has paralleled a rising torrent of Islamophobia, indication that the celebration of the great Sufi master may have little if anything to do with the intricacies of his message.

Dyed-in-the-wool secularists are wont to drop the second part of the verse quoted above due to its obvious invocation of religious worship. Rumi had foreseen the dangers of his poetry beguiling listeners and, in the process, obscuring both its source of inspiration and substantive thrust. As he put it in his inimitable way, he composed poetry—a form he claimed not to care much for—only to amuse his friends. Rumi was also insistent that his work be read in the context of Islamic revelation and religious practice: “I am the servant of the Quran as long as I have life/I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen One/If anyone quotes any-thing except this from my sayings/I am repelled by him and outraged by these words.”

With these words of warning from the poet himself, it is worth probing the meaning of the verse quoted at the outset. On the face of it, what Rumi is saying is that one must seek beauty in everything one does. But on closer reflection, it becomes clear that he is conveying this simple truth in light of the Islamic idea of beauty, a conception that pertains to the entire gamut of what constitutes the good and ethical life expected of a Muslim.

The beauty that the true believer seeks in the everyday is seen to flow directly from Allah, whose main attributes include beauty and majesty. Everything else is palpably false, a mere illusion. Muslim poets through the ages have celebrated the wonders of the Creator, the most perfect, the incomparable, and the ultimate beloved. Rumi is among the most exquisite practitioners of this art. Rumi asserts that the true believer sees the face of Allah everywhere and that his every act is akin to prostrating on the prayer mat.

These are not the thoughts of a surly theologian wedded to the strictures of ritualistic prayer. In the Masnavi, Rumi makes it plain that formal prayers are of no consequence compared to the intention and spirit with which they are performed. He relates the parable of Muawiyah, the first Umayyad caliph, who was woken up one day by Satan so that he could say his prayers. Muawiyah refused to accept that the devil had done this because of his continued devotion to God. Upon being prodded, Satan eventually confessed that if Muawiyah had overslept and missed the hour of prayer, the caliph would have felt sorrow and heaved many sighs, each of which would be regarded by God as equal to 200 prayers.

Rumi’s allusion to a believer’s nostalgic yearning for the beauty in prayer, a performance that entails kneeling and bowing the head in humble submission to God, has been echoed by several other Muslim thinkers. Among them is the acclaimed theosophist Ibn al-Arabi, who, incidentally upon meeting the 8-year-old Rumi, had remarked: “What an extraordinary sight! A sea followed by an ocean.” According to Arabi, the real measure of a Muslim’s faith lies in feelings of guilt about transgressions committed knowingly. There can be no sin unless one is aware of doing something that is either prohibited or reprehensible. What alleviates the tension between a religious ideal and its practice is knowledge of God’s mercy in absolving a believer’s sins after an act of genuine repentance. By expressing remorse about their lack of religiosity, Muslims seek to reaffirm their faith in full knowledge of the exertions expected of a believer in the quest for inner peace and external equilibrium.

The establishment of serenity and equilibrium is an ideal underscored in the teachings of the Quran and the practice of the Prophet. It is manifested variously in works of Muslim art and architecture, and inextricably linked to the very meaning of Islam as peace. As a learned connoisseur of Islamic art put it, “beauty is inherent in Islam” because it flows from the unity and perfection of God and finds outward expression in peaceful equilibrium or justice and generosity or plenitude. A Muslim is literally one who submits to the will of God by following the path of right conduct based on the Quran and the example of the Prophet. Far from being a passive and mindless activity, submission assumes dynamic effort and reasoned self-control against those personal inclinations and social tendencies that prevent a believer from heeding God’s commands, thereby destroying any internal and external sense of balance and proportion.

In the Islamic worldview, an emphasis on transcendental faith in a monotheistic God is balanced with an ethical conception of temporal life. The premium placed on egalitarianism in the Quran underlines the connection between monotheism and humanism (even if not quite the humanism of the “secular” variety familiar to the West). Moral equilibrium and balance are the building blocks of husn-i-ikhlaq, literally ethical beauty, but closer to the notion of good conduct, which Abu Hamid al-Ghazali said is the key to happiness. Striving for beauty in Islam requires doing what is just and generous, namely to put things in their proper place. It is not simply a matter of striking the right balance between the individual and the collective or the rulers and the ruled, but an individual effort to live an ethical life informed by knowledge of what is right and appropriate in any given situation.

The Islamic meaning of religion is best explained by invoking the three-dimensional spatial metaphor of Islam as submission related to external acts, iman or faith pertaining to the believer’s inner thoughts, and ihsan or virtuous intentions aimed at doing what is good and beneficial both for the individual and the community. In the hierarchy of importance spelled out by the Quran, faith in the one and only God together with the principle of the unity of creation precedes submission. Virtuous intentions expand and deepen faith so that it becomes a lived certitude, thereby ensuring that submission, instead of being restricted to specific rituals and attitudes, touches upon every aspect of a believer’s life.

If this triad of submission, faith and virtuous intentions is constitutive of Islam, its moving principle is the notion of jihad as a spiritual, intellectual and moral struggle. Jihad presupposes conviction in the principle of unitary faith. To isolate jihad from faith or virtuous intentions, as I have argued more fully in Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, is to lose sight of the high ethical standards that distinguish mere mortals from human beings, reducing the sacred to the profane, the transcendental to the plainly temporal.

What does this have to do with the idea of beauty in Islam? Ethics are intrinsic to the Muslim conception of earthly beauty as a direct manifestation of God who is both different and yet identical to created beings. According to Sufi wisdom, God was a treasure waiting to be known, which is why He created the world. God’s transcendence and incomparability in Muslim thought is invoked by the idea of His majesty and wrath while His immanence and likeness to created beings is represented by His beauty and infinite kindness. This is best explained in the Quran’s Surah Nur where God is described as the light of the heavens and the earth that guides creation. This profound verse establishes the link between God and His creation without simplistically equating the two.

It is no small coincidence that ihsan, literally good deeds but also implying perfection and excellence, comes from husn, meaning beauty. Whereas a Muslim is one who submits to Allah and need not be someone with faith (momin), the person who performs virtuous actions is called a mohsin. A believer’s inclination to do good and beautiful things stems from the certitude that Allah, though invisible to the human eye, sees all and bestows mercy upon those who practice ihsan toward their fellow beings, respecting and honoring them because they are part of divine creation. The act of doing something beautiful must necessarily be rooted in virtue and inner beauty. All human activity therefore is art insofar as it gives expression to inner beauty and is carried out in remembrance of God. This is what enlivens the Islamic concept of creating beauty through works of art and has been seized upon by a succession of Muslim poets to awaken the faithful to the imperative of compassion for God’s creation as well as the rewards for good and ethically sound behavior.


While Muslim poets have constructed beautiful verses in all ages, poetry like other forms of Islamic art has rarely been an end in itself. From the Islamic perspective, human beings can never equal the art of God. Muslim artists do not in theory seek to imitate God’s creation, which would be presumptuous and arrogant in the extreme. They do not add something alien to an object, but rather seek to bring out its essential beauty, whether it is a piece of metal, wood, glass, or a jumble of words. Since reality cannot be expressed in purely human words. Persian poets and, following them, generations of Urdu poets have developed elaborate poetic metaphors to say what cannot be conveyed in everyday language.

Folio from the Blue Quran, circa 9th or 10th century Tunisia, features gold and silver letters on indigo-dyed parchment.

Folio from the Blue Quran, circa 9th or 10th century Tunisia, features gold and silver letters on indigo-dyed parchment.

In the winged words of Shamsuddin Muhammad Hafiz, the 14th century Shiraz-based poet, even the most ordinary experiences of life are precious gifts from God: “Art offers an opening for the heart/True art makes the divine silence in the soul/Break into applause.” Muslim poets, like the rest of creation, see their primary task as one of unceasing praise for the Creator. And they do so in the main by spurring the faithful into God’s presence by inculcating in them the high ethical standards expected of true believers.

What differentiates the poet, concerned more often than not with matters of the heart and conscience, from the imam who gives Friday sermons? It is no exaggeration to say that most prayer leaders in mosques around the world rely on the power of fear to induce what they consider correct behavior. If the God of the orthodox preachers is distant and aloof from believers, the mystics have presented Him as being closer to them than their jugular. In the very first verse of his Masnavi, Rumi likens a believer’s heart to a reed-flute that strikes sweet musical notes with the breath of God. If Rumi is the best-selling poet in the world today, Hafiz is a close second: “Hafiz encourages all art/For at its height it brings Light near to us/The wise man learns what draws God near/It is the beauty of compassion in your heart.”

In South Asia, where Indo-Persian cultural fusion became marked after the 13th century, poets emulated the likes of Rumi even while establishing their own distinctiveness by composing ghazals in Urdu instead of Farsi. Among them was Mir Taqi Mir, who lived in north India during the 18th century. “All beauty on earth flows from the light of His effulgence/His divine spark too is what sets the sun alight,” he wrote. If it had not been written in Urdu, the thought in the couplet could just as well have been that of Rumi or Hafiz. In fact the rest of the work is Mir’s spin on the famous story by Rumi in which a devotee knocks on the door of the beloved friend, only to be turned away when he says “I” on being asked who he was. He is told to leave as there is no place in the house for the “raw.” Since separation alone can cook what is raw, the disappointed devotee goes away for a year during which he burns with yearning for the beloved. Suitably cooked and burnt, he returns to the friend’s door and when asked who he is replies, “You, dear, you” upon which he is invited in as there is room for only one in the house. Assuming the role of the shunned devotee, Mir followed his acknowledgement of God’s omnipresence with the verses: “Only by knowing myself could I find God/Now I know just how far I was from the truth … The beauty envied by the celestial nymphs Mir, resides within/If we cannot comprehend this truth, the fault lies with us alone.”

Contrasting God’s beauteous perfection with man’s miserable imperfections is a closely related strand in the ethical weave of Muslim poetry. Take the ineffable Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Like his predecessor Mir, Ghalib lived in an age of political, social and economic upheaval, a time of great new ideas and general uncertainty. The empire of the Mughals was a shadow of its former self and Britain’s East India Company was gaining ascendancy in ever larger parts of India. Ghalib witnessed the 1857 rebellion and its brutal suppression by the English, particularly in his beloved Delhi. This bitter, painful experience left a lingering impact on his literary corpus. An acute observer of everyday life but steeped in the Muslim mystical tradition, his poetry is inspirational and imaginative. In a verse reminiscent of Rumi, Ghalib notes that beauty is everywhere for us to see, but we do not have the courage to behold the glory of its sight. His moods shift from invocations of beauty to the playful and then to the sheer hopelessness of life: “‘Do good and you shall be blessed’/That is all the dervish has to say?/I sacrifice my life for you [Oh, God]/What else is prayer, I don’t know/It’s a trivial thing, I agree Ghalib/What’s the harm if it can be had for free.”

All too aware of the virtues of prayer and devotion, Ghalib confesses to being temperamentally incapable of ritualistic religion based on social closures. He claimed not to belong to any specific religion or community because, as a believer in the unity of God, he had abandoned cultural rituals. With no rituals to separate them, true faith can be established with all communities finding equipoise through their shared belief in the unity of God. He writes openly of his love of wine despite it being proscribed for Muslims. Apparently defiant before God, but in an actually expiatory spirit, Ghalib exclaims: “There is a limit to the severity of punishment/After all, I am a sinner and not an infidel.”

Following Ghalib’s footsteps, a succession of Muslim poets in India have given expression to their religious identity and sense of good ethics without losing sight of their humanity. Ghalib’s student Altaf Hussain Hali severely chastised Indian Muslims in his Musadas-i-Hali for their intellectual laziness, cultural depravity, double standards, and loss of ethical equilibrium:

If the stranger worships idols, he’s an infidel/If he believes in the son of God, he’s an infidel/If he calls fire his god, he’s an infidel/If he attaches miracles to the sun, he’s an infidel/But for believers the ways are expansive/They may happily worship whom they like/Turn the Prophet into God if they wish/Give imams a status higher than the Prophet/Visit shrines to offer gifts day and night/Or pray to martyrs if they so want/Neither the unity of creation is impaired/Nor is Islam distorted, nor does faith take leave.

The use of poetry to instill in Muslims the desire to wage a struggle for ethical beauty was taken to new heights by the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. He lamented that Muslims had lost all passion for life and, rudderless, were utterly lost: “Their prayers are aberrant, distracted and unfelt/For they lack the inner fire of a burning faith.”

Iqbal’s philosophy of khudi—the self or personality—was designed to stir his benighted coreligionists to purposeful action in keeping with the dynamic message of Islam: “Prevail over the world with the power of selfhood/And solve the riddle of the universe.” Iqbal realized that mankind as a whole, and not just Muslims, lacked the vision to fully comprehend the power they possess as lords of the world: “He neither knows himself, nor God, or the world/Is this, O Lord, your greatest creation?” The real cause of Iqbal’s angst, however, was that Muslims, who ought to know better, had lost the vigor to strive in the way of Allah. Muslims had diligently preserved the rituals of prayers, fasting, sacrifice, and pilgrimage, but there was no God in any of them anymore.

“One of the saddest signs of the dissolution of Islamic norms” has been “the loss of a sense of beauty” from everyday life. This comment by Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, two leading scholars of Islam in the contemporary world, would be heartily endorsed by any one of the poets mentioned earlier. Like Rumi, Hafiz, Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib, Hali and Iqbal, who were immersed in the Islamic mystical tradition in addition to knowing their Quran, sunnah and hadith, Murata and Chittick are acutely aware of the inextricable link between beauty and Islamic ethics. They note with considerable unease that in many Muslim cities, once renowned for their traditional crafts, “people think nothing of tossing exquisitely hand-wrought copper and wooden utensils into the garbage to replace them by gaudy plastic goods.”

In bemoaning the “plasticizing” of Muslim societies, Murata and Chittick are pointing their finger at a bigger and far more serious problem. They are raising the red flag on what they correctly see as the brazen distortion of the inner beauty of Islam in modern times that has resulted from the virtual eclipse of the idea of God’s likeness in the world with its attendant concepts of kindness and mercy. In their eagerness to promote specific political agendas, the ideologues of modern day Islam lay emphasis on divine transcendence and, in contravention of tradition, make much of God’s wrath and anger to justify waging war on those they regard as infidels. This is because “rationalism is easy to harmonize with love for science and technology,” while “a stressing of imagination [and] beauty … brings forward issues of human nature that few people feel comfortable with in the modern world.” Modern media thrives on the clatter and dissonance created by cries of so-called holy war; Islam as peace, harmony, and equilibrium just does not make headline news.


Tughra or the official signature of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, circa 1555-60.

Tughra or the official signature of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, circa 1555-60.

In a historically grounded variation and elaboration of the theme of balance and equilibrium in Islam, I argued in Partisans of Allah that the narrowly construed politics of Muslim identity have drowned out the essence of Muslim faith. Jihad, literally to strive to do what is good and just, is the core principle of Islamic ethics. Ghalib had once described the struggle to be human as the biggest challenge facing humanity: “Alas not all things in life are easy/Even man struggles to be human.”

The routinization of suicide bombings by Muslims targeting fellow Muslims and non-Muslims alike is the most horrific example in our times of the destruction of the human form and spirit that is God’s greatest creation. The ugliness of the mayhem of these murderous, almost daily attacks represents the ultimate undermining of Islamic ethics. This is what lends special urgency to the task of recovering the inherent link between ethics and beauty in Islam.

Striving for beauty is an endeavor to attain the perfection that God bestows on all creation. Not to give outward expression to the beauty within is to be in a state of oblivion, a sheer waste of a life that can only be lived once. Iqbal conveyed this forcefully in his Persian work Javidnama, the pilgrimage to eternity. A metaphorical escapade patterned on the Prophet’s ascent to heaven, it depicts the poet, guided by none other than Rumi, having discussions with important historical personalities at seven levels of space until he is finally in the presence of God from whom he hears the secrets of life firsthand:

To be is to partake of the beauty of God’s essence/Creating? It is to search for a beloved, to display one’s self to another being/All these tumultuous riots of being/without our beauty could not come to exist/Life is both transient and everlasting/all this is creativity and vehement desire/Are you alive? Be vehement, be creative/like Us, embrace all horizons/break whatsoever is uncongenial/out of your heart’s heart produce a new world—/it is irksome to the free servitor/to live in a world belonging to others/Whoever possesses not the power to create/in Our sight is naught but an infidel, a heathen/such a one has not taken his share of Our Beauty/has not tasted the fruit of the Tree of Life/Man of God, be trenchant as a sword/be yourself your own world’s destiny!

This article was published in the November 25, 2011 edition of Newsweek Pakistan.

About the Author
Jalal is a professor of history at Tufts University and a member of Newsweek Pakistan’s advisory board. This essay has been adapted from her Barbara Stoler Miller lecture, Striving for Beauty: Poetics and Ethics in Muslim History, given at Columbia University this April.
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