Analysis

Rediscovering Beauty in Ramadan

Ismael Abdela

 

Beauty is truth,

Truth, beauty,   that is all

ye know on Earth

and all ye need to know            Keats, 1819

 

The successful practice of faith relies on an intelligent balance on the part of the believer between the ‘outer’ and the ‘inner’, the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial’. No other time of the year are these creative tensions more excitingly in conversation than in Ramadan. In the unlikely setting of an energetic Marakesh marketplace, I was to reflect on what earns Ramadan the high accolade of being a pathway to taqwa in and of itself.[1]In this piece, I share one reflection. I present that Ramadan offers a momentary rejection of the material world, and a deliberate refocussing within, to the immaterial inner world. I suggest one reason this refocus takes place is that we rediscover ‘beauty’ as a spiritual category. I organise the discussion around the hadith     “Allah is Beautiful and He loves beauty.” [2]

The picture above was taken early Ramadan last year, in the touristic heart of Marakesh, Morocco. Ahmad, a dishevelled aged Moroccan beggar lay helplessly underneath graffiti that ironically read ‘beautiful’. The juxtaposition was striking. Ahmad sat defiantly at the centre of a marketplace buzzing with tourists, all incidentally looking for very different definitions of ‘beauty’, promised to them by profiteering holidaymakers. But there Ahmad lay, constructing his own stage of alternative beauty for anyone who cared to pay attention.

Intensely moved, yet equally intrigued, I knelt down gradually getting closer to him. Tension mounted as he carefully clenched his garments closer to his fragile person, erecting his knees against me in suspicious defence.

“Salam ‘alaykum, my name is Ismael,’ I gently greeted him.

‘Do you understand the writing under which you sit?’

‘No,’ was his brusque reply. The facial expressions he offered me were cold, seated behind harsh crystallised wrinkles of a face that told infinite tales. I explained it to him, and slowly qualified why the moment captured me. His body started to loosen – his cryptic reply came…

‘All beauty belongs to Allah, my son. And He distributes it as He wishes…’

I was unsure what he meant by that, whether to read it in an empowering or disempowering way. Yes, all beauty belongs to Allah, fair, but what was Ahmed suggesting about how he fits into that story?

My friend called me. I had to go. I apologised to Ahmad, got up, dusted my jeans, offered him a polite smile and began to advance further into the busy marketplace. I was unable to shake off his cryptic answer; it left me in a mental storm. Yes, all beauty belongs to Allah I reconciled, but Ahmad forced me to rethink the processes by which we see ‘divine beauty’ – suddenly not a trivial process. Our claim that ‘beauty’ is easily discernible to the human experience may be nothing short of arrogant. The hadith attests that Allah ‘loves beauty’; surely then the reflective believer would question how certain he is whether what he sees as ‘beautiful’ in this world, is what his Lord sees as ‘beautiful’?

Ahmad’s intervention began to make sense. After all, I told myself, the Qur’an is adorned with many beauties, which by its own admission, is accessible exclusively to those described as muttaqoon [3],  an elite group of awliyaa, friends of Allah [4]. Flicking through the Qur’an curiously in my mind’s eye, ‘beauty’ seemed a spiritual insight, a privilege – so much so that Allah made the most glorious delight in the afterlife to gaze upon His beautiful Face (subhanahu wa ta’ala). ‘Beauty’ suddenly represented a state to me, a journey – one that begins in this life and ends with the Face of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). It was no longer a shallow cultural construct. It became a spiritual question.

I took out my pen and paper with childish excitement, and scribbled collections of hadith as they raced to my mind. ‘If Allah is beautiful, as the hadith confirms, then surely Islam is a celebration of that very beauty,’ I enquired. The responsibility of the believer, then, must be to celebrate that beauty both outwardly and inwardly, through all bodily functions. But how do we celebrate beauty?

The Prophet (pbuh) affirms the body contains a morsel (the heart).[5]If this morsel is pure, everything is consequently pure. Here we locate the inner seat of divine beauty and perfection in a believer, I convinced myself. Allah’s Divine Gaze does not rest on our physiques, but upon our hearts.[6]It was making sense, and its pertinence to Ramadan central.

One of the glories of Ramadan is it is the month in which Allah ‘beautifies the Heavenly Gardens’ for us.[7]He does so, the hadith teaches, because His ‘servants have [momentarily] denounced the beauties of the material world… and are thus drawing closer to [Him]’.[8]  Interesting… The further away we are from the elusive beauties of this world, the more we are drawn to ‘true beauty’ – that is Allah and the Hereafter. It made perfect sense. I clenched the loose papers together and paused, sinking deeper into my chair.

Organising the chain of prophetic sayings around the principle of Allah being Beautiful, loving beauty, and its centrality to Ramadan was not only empowering, but spiritually instructive.

Ramadan offers us a unique opportunity to address this inner beauty by momentarily distracting us from the attractions and aggressions of the material world. It allows the believer to unlock the inward miracles of faith uninterrupted. If the logic of Ramadan is to attain taqwa – I ask what is taqwa other than an urgent search for this inner beauty? It is no wonder the Prophet taught us that taqwa is ‘right here’… pointing to his sacred chest three times. [9]

Ahmad’s encounter inspired me to reflect on whether we as humans can recognise the higher dimensions of beauty without Allah. Allah says in the hadith qudsi that – ‘My servant keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him. And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees…’.[10] It is at this point of the sinuous journey when Allah fits our senses with His divine lens, that we are guided to appreciate what is truly beautiful in this world – and what is not.

Ahmad was right. Beauty is only understood as part of a successful journey to Allah. Ramadan does not suggest works to frustrate our bodily limits, but presents an opportunity to unlock a spiritual imagination – one that rediscovers an inner beauty we are all capable of. Understanding this is central to a believer in constructing her/his religious imagination.

 

The Prophet would supplicate Allah to ‘beautify’ his inner as He has beautified his outer.[11] We, therefore, understand the architecture of beauty to rest on both visible and invisible components.  Ahmad, neatly juxtaposing an advert of popular beauty, represented the invisible inner kingdom that I needed to rediscover. What if he was the dusty, outwardly unimpressive, yet beautiful soul, celebrated in prophetic tradition [12]… that were he to raise his hands, Allah would surely notice him?

Ramadan gloriously magnifies the focus on this inner beauty. At no other time of the year is this discovery more available. Once we find the beauty of Allah within ourselves, we will not be entertained by any other beauty – is the divine promise. (islam21c.com)

Notes:

[1] God consciousness

[2] Sahih Muslim

[3] God conscious people

[4] Friends of Allah

[5] ‘There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is pure, the whole body is pure; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily this piece is the heart.’ {Bukh?ri and Muslim]’

[6] Allah does not look at your figures, nor at your attire but He looks at your hearts’ [Muslim]

[7] Imam Ahmad

[8] Ibid.

[9] Muslim

[10] Bukhari

[11] Imam Ahmad

[12] Muslim

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 July 2015 on page no. 11

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