“I believe I have an inalienable right to the beauty of the earth created long before I was born. But I sense that each time I succumb to ugliness, to the base and profane in my surroundings, I give up a piece of my birthright, and a quintessential part of my being dies.

The people who betray the land –they see my ability to adapt to ugliness as a portent of progress, an auspicious sign. But I see it as a flaw, a way of deadening my senses, of reducing myself to an automaton.[1] Richard Bode

islamic architecture iranian mosque celings

Islamic architecture and calligraphy on the ceiling of an Iranian mosque.

 

Not only did the poignancy of Bode’s words express my sentiment they also reminded me of the concept of beauty in the Islamic tradition, which led me to reflect on my love for the Arabic language.

Islam is a tradition and way of life imbued with depth, richness, and splendor, beginning with the Arabic language in which its sacred book was revealed.

Beauty is one of the many aspects of Islam that deeply attracted me when I considered becoming a Muslim, several years ago. Islam is a tradition and way of life imbued with depth, richness, and splendor, beginning with the Arabic language in which its sacred book was revealed. I am fascinated by the construct of language and how words cause us to experience reality.

Friedrich Nietzsche[2] thought language prevents human beings from living fully and authentically, creating instead a sort of reality manufactured by others, causing us to inhabit prefabricated lives.

Nietzsche understood words as being barriers to freedom and life. Language and our concomitant obsession with “truth” block the inner and outer individual, first-hand, genuine, vital, experiential, instinctual, immediate apprehension of life. Words impede the knowing of inner and outer realities, hinder original thought, and sensuous experience.

In Nietzsche’s view, language is a prison that traps us in a world of arbitrarily predetermined “concepts,” with perhaps the exceptions of poetry and music – even as music may itself be considered a universal language. In order to exist in “herds,” Nietzsche explains, human beings must come to an agreement about “truth.”

This “puzzling drive to truth” consists on designating things in tyrannically conventional manners: “…that which shall count as truth from now on is established. That is to say, a uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth.”

To Nietzsche, language is a misleading signifier that designates things solely out of convenience of expression. In “Human, All Too Human,” Nietzsche goes as far as stating that “Every word is a prejudice.”[3]

In Arabic, each word has multiple layers of meaning and depth, often irreducible to their English or other European (purported) equivalences.

I agree with Nietzsche to a great extent, however, I began to notice that learning Arabic made my experience richer and more expansive in ways that did not occur when I learned other languages. In other words, the Arabic language did not feel like a prison of ready-made concepts, but the opposite. Learning an Arabic word and its semantic root seemed to open up worlds and unfold layer upon layer of meaning. Arabic, the language of the Qur’ān, is impossible to adequately translate into English or other Western languages. In Arabic, each word has multiple layers of meaning and depth, often irreducible to their English or other European (purported) equivalences.

Words are organized in a cluster-like manner, according to, among other things, the feelings they evoke, and the imagery and purpose they serve; they are also interconnected and dependent on each other and on the larger context to derive meaning. Additionally, each word is multidimensional and polyvalent: It is alive and, like all living things, interacts, transforms and is transformed each time it comes into contact with the experiential layers of “reality.”

English is comparatively stiffer, incapable of the Arabic language’s poetic and metaphorical flights; it operates in systematically different ways. For one, in English (and in most Western languages), the meaning of words (and thus of concepts) is largely fixed. This linguistic rigidity causes words to become blinders that prevent us from perceiving, understanding, and experiencing reality in all its richness as it unfolds.

The fluidity of life and our experiential reality can be severely impacted by language. Yet, I believe the Arabic language suffers much less from Nietzsche’s malady than let’s say English or German. To know, speak, and live the Arabic language entails an entirely different conception of the universe and thus manifests a different reality, one that is spacious, holistic, rich, and interconnected, a far cry from our fragmented and fragmenting Western worldview, a fragmentation which is partially a result of language.

To know, speak, and live the Arabic language entails an entirely different conception of the universe and thus manifests a different reality, one that is spacious, holistic, rich and interconnected.

Let’s take the word إخلاص (‘ikhlāş), for instance.  ‘Ikhlāş is among the highest moral values.  ‘Ikhlāş is usually plainly translated as “sincerity” but it is much more than this.  ‘Ikhlāş does mean sincerity, but it also signifies sincere devotion, loyal attachment, genuine affection, frankness, candor, loyalty, faithfulness, fidelity, allegiance, purity, and innocence. Words related to and derived from the خ-ل-ص root mean to separate and to distinguish (as in, to separate lower motives from higher ones, to give one example).

‘Ikhlāş as a pursuit is a life-long process. It means being clear as to why we do things and doing them for the right reasons. This is connected to having the right intention, rather than deluding oneself as to why one is doing something. It is also related to doing things because internally one is thoroughly convinced of them, rather than primarily driven by external reasons or rewards. In other words, ‘ikhlāş entails the practice of being earnest and clear within oneself, and derivatively in one’s actions, at all times.

Besides the beauty of the language that gave birth to Islam, there are, among many other things, Islamic sacred music, Arabic calligraphy, heart-melting Islamic mystical poetry, hypnotic Sufi dance, majestic Islamic architecture, and a multitude of crafts. The manifold beauty of Islam is unsurpassed. And finally, there are prayers which involve both body and soul, representing the human totality. When we pray in the traditional Islamic way, our entire being is in harmony with the order of the universe because we are submitting to God, the Creator of it all.

The importance of beauty in Islam is fascinating and crucial because one of the overarching purposes of this deen (faith, religion, creed) is to bring peace, first within oneself, then with one’s surroundings and, eventually, with the entire creation.

The importance of beauty in Islam is fascinating and crucial because one of the overarching purposes of this deen (faith, religion, creed) is to bring peace, first within oneself, then with one’s surroundings and, eventually, with the entire creation, from which one is not separate, but rather inextricably linked by the fact that we all have the same origin. Meaning, all that is, all that exists was conceived by the same Creator.

As he explains in his memoir, Richard Bode considers beauty to be the antonym of violence. He views beauty as the antidote for all the anger and aggression in the world and reminds us that we have the choice of opting for beauty or hostility. Bode believes there is only one way to create harmony, which is by bringing beauty to it, be it through art, through the appreciation and protection of nature, and of course, through oneself becoming a beautiful soul, which leads us back to Islam. Islam is centered in beauty because beauty leads us to peace and gratitude.

Human beings crave beauty because it is a basic need. Some Islamic scholars consider beauty to be an objective reality that exists in things themselves, and therefore to demonstrably exist. It is present in all of creation because “Allah beautified everything that He created. And He began with the creation of man from clay.”[4]

There are two aspects of beauty in the human being, the beauty of the soul, body, and actions, and the second, and most profound and important aspect, that which connects us to the universe, and the divine in each other: “Allah is Beautiful, and He loves beauty,” said Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This means that all beauty and goodness flows from God.

~~~

[1] Bode, Richard. Beachcombing at Miramar. Kindle Edition., p. 88 (location 815). 2001.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Truth and Lies from an Extra Moral Sense, http://faculty.uml.edu/enelson/truth&lies.htm

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 323.

[4] Ghazi, Muhammad bin. Love in the Holy Quran. Kazi Publications, 2011. p. 367.

 

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