25 May 2011

"Beauty" is Irrelevant in Theology

Some Muslims place a great emphasis on what they consider to be "beauty". Beauty, of course, is a subjective marker and there's nothing wrong with it. How we treat others is an entirely different matter. It is with grace that the world began and it is with grace that we must move. The fondness of relaying how physically beautiful the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was is entirely irrelevant. The claim that he was the most handsome man is an unnecessary slogan of cultural realisation than anything touching the message of the Qur'an or the pious, humble way of the prophet.
When the ambassadors of Bani Amir went to Muhammad, they said, "You are our master." He said, "God is your master." Then they said, "You are most excellent of the highest degree." And when he heard this he said, "Say so, or less, and do not exceed reasonable bounds in praise."
In many ways it signals the poverty of theological discussions. To follow anyone based on his/her appearance or eloquence bears no weight upon truth. While there could be a genuine historical need to draw up the physical characteristics of individuals from the past to situate them more firmly within the narrative, anything outside it seems to be to be of no use at all.

In all honesty we do not know what prophets and their disciples looked like other than scant written descriptions. Given present-day celebrity obsessed media culture, it is not a bad thing. In a nutshell, it does not matter.

A moral of the story of the Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) is not that he was "beautiful", though some prevalent gossip totally obscures the moral with elaborations on his "beauty", but the power of Divine guidance and his will to resist the power of seduction. It was his grace that was beautiful, the preservation of his "beauty" through the strength of his will which drew upon Divine grace.

When people say this or that person is beautiful, it implies something purely physical and in relation to others. Yet true beauty is not referential. It does not deny others equal worth and is not oppressive. This is but one pearl of wisdom from Muslim theology that explores this issue:
Muhammad said, "That person will not enter Paradise who hath one atom of pride in his heart." And a man present said, "Verily, a man is fond of having good clothes, and good shoes." Muhammad said, "God is Beautiful and delighteth in the beautiful; but pride is holding man in contempt."
There are many others that enlighten the seeker, from the Prophet's response to Lady Aisha when she commented on Lady Safiyyah's short stature to the complete absence of aesthetic morality in the Qur'an. To believe is to love all of Allah's creation and to undertake a path of critical self-reflection of the ideas we inherit from forces that we meet and are surrounded by, from bogus eugenics to friendly dialogues. To believe is to respect each human being and to fall in love with good everywhere. It is to compare our own beliefs and values as Muslims with the sublime truths expressed in the Qur'an and to sincerely face the unfortunate fact that we linger far, far away from "beauty".

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