Tag Archives: beauty

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 3

Having outlined the teachings that pertain to faith and submission, we now turn to the last of the three aspects of the natural state mentioned in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام, beauty (ihsan). Iman and islam can be broken down into the categories given for each in the Hadith, but ihsan is simply “to worship God as if you see Him”; so while iman and islam are presented as specific creeds and practices, ihsan is a state of being. Islam and iman thus tell us what is the best thing to do and to think, but ihsan tells us how to do it. It is an attitude, intention, and way of life that should permeate all that one says, thinks, or does. Hence the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said to his companions, “God has ordained doing what is beautiful for all things.” When iman and islam are not beautified through ihsan, they lose their efficacy. The law becomes a dead letter that stifles instead of frees, and the creed becomes an empty doctrine that kills the heart by enclosing it in the precepts of the mind rather than enlivening both the heart and mind by infusing them with the light of truth. As one of the great scholars of early Islamic history wrote when commenting upon the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام, “Islam is the outer, iman is the inner and the outer, and ihsan is the reality of the outer and the inner.”[1] From this perspective, the reality of the “submitting way” is doing all things with beauty (husn).

Three Qur’anic passages discuss islam and ihsan together:

Who submits his face to God and does what is beautiful,
he has his reward with God,
he shall not fear, nor shall he sorrow. (2 : 112)

Who submits his face to God and does what is beautiful
has seized upon the firmest rope,
and to God do the affairs return. (31 : 22)

Who is more beautiful in religion
than one who submits his face to God,
does what is beautiful,
and follows the way of Abraham in pure faith. (4 : 125)

In Arabic, to submit one’s face means to submit one’s entire being, one’s essence; for the face, unlike other parts of the body, identifies who we are and is thus associated with our true nature. By joining together the states of submission and beautification, these three verses imply that the full depth of Islam -the reality of submission- is only attained through doing all that we can with beauty. This is because both islam and ihsan seek to control our passions and conceits, Islam by channeling and neutralizing them from outside through the pillars and the Shariah, ihsan by dissolving them from within. It should be noted, however, that when our passions and conceits are dissolved from within, many of the prescriptions and prohibitions that pertain to the outer neutralizing discipline do not need to be imposed because the actions they enjoin arise organically from our true nature (fitrah).

This world can never be perfect, but within the imperfection that defines our earthly existence, we can act beautifully. To do so is, in some small way, to make God present in the world, both by being conscious of God and because all beauty ultimately derives from God. As a famous hadith says, “God is beautiful and He loves beauty.”[2] And do not all things incline towards that which they love? According to the Qur’an beautification is part of God’s creative process:

It is God who made beautiful everything that He created. (32 : 6)

Who formed you and made your forms beautiful. (40 : 64)

He created the heavens and the earth through truth,
formed you and made your forms beautiful. (63 : 3)

God is thus the first to beautify; for us to beautify is to emulate God as best as we can. Although islam andiman are fundamental components of a complete human life, neither pertains directly to God. God does not submit; He can only be submitted to. God does not have faith or believe, rather,

He is the Knower of the unseen and the seen. (13 : 9, 39 : 46, 59 : 23)

For our Lord embraces all things in knowledge. (6 : 80, 7 : 89)

Ihsan is thus the mode of religious practice wherein the human being draws close to God by being as god-like as one can be; hence the Qur’an implores us,

Beautify as God has beautified you. (28 : 77)

Whereas God has made the outward forms of things beautiful, to be fully beautiful we must participate in the inner beautification of our characters; therefore the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم would pray, “God, you have made beautiful my creation (khalq), make beautiful my character (khuluq).”[3] Only after God has beautified one’s character is the human able to beautify in turn, for like comes only from like. This then leads to the continued beautification of one’s self:

Is not the recompense for beautifying
but beautification? (55 : 60)

As the character gradually grows in beauty, one participates more fully and freely in the beautification of his or her own soul and moves closer to God, the source of all beauty. As the Qur’an states,

Those who beautify
will receive beauty, and more. (10 : 26)

That which is most beautiful is God, for,

To Him belong the most beautiful names. (18 : 110, 20 : 8, 59 : 24)

In effect, the purpose of the Islamic tradition, or any religious tradition for that matter, is to beautify the human character. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “I was only sent to complete the noble character traits,”[4] and “Among the best of you is the most beautiful in character traits.”[5] The creeds explained in theology and the actions ordained in the Shariah are thus intended to engender a life lived in simple and utter beauty. A life lived in beauty is not lived on the periphery but in the heart. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “God does not look at your bodies, nor at your forms, He looks at your hearts.”[6] In fact, the heart determines all other dimensions of our being: “There is in man a clump of flesh. If it is pure, the whole body is pure. If it is polluted, the whole body is polluted. It is the heart.”[7] Nothing is more important for our final end than the state of the heart, for the Day of Judgment is,

A day when neither wealth nor sons shall profit,
save one who comes to God with a sound heart. (26 : 88)

When the heart is sound, the entire human is sound and the the ego has, in a sense, already died to the world.

The process of purifying the heart and slaying the ego is in a sense a process of learning how to worship freely with all that one is, not only because we are commanded to do so, but because it is pleasing to God. All of creation cannot but worship God in some way, for God is Absolute and we are contingent, God is the Creator and we are the created. As God tells us,

There is none in the heavens and the earth
that does not come to the All-Merciful as a worshipper. (19 : 93)

But human beings also have a degree of free will and thus have another form of worship prescribed for them so that they may freely choose to worship. This mode of worship takes form in the five pillars of Islam, the conditions of which are detailed in the Shariah, but this is only a bare minimum. For those who love God and are drawn to the Absolute, there is a degree of worship beyond the compulsory. These are the supererogatory devotions, such as reading the Qur’an regularly, performing extra prayers, fasting at times other than Ramadan, and giving alms beyond the required zakat. Sincere performance of the obligatory rites engenders a desire to please God more and draw nearer to Him, just as He draws nearer to us. This becomes manifest through increased devotion and remembrance of God, which then brings the worshipper even closer to God, for as God says,

Remember me, I am remembering you. (2 : 152)

Regarding the relationship between worship that is obligatory and that which is supererogatory, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said,

God says, “My servant draws near to Me through nothing that I love more than what I have made obligatory upon him. And My servant never ceases not to draw near unto me through supererogatory devotions until I love him. And when I love him, I am the hearing through which he hears, the sight through which he sees, the foot upon which he walks, the hand with which he strikes.”[8]

To reach the point where God is indeed the hand with which one strikes is not to imply union with God; rather it is complete awareness of our true nothingness before the Lord of the Worlds, Who is powerful over all things (2 : 255).

When one is aware of this fundamental reality, all that he or she does is an act of worship and beautification, and this is “to worship God as if you see Him.” For some this is a passing state that may last for a few moments, days, weeks, or months; for others it is supreme joy that will only be realized upon death. For the prophets and saints, it is the fullness of the human condition wherein on lives in the natural state, performing all actions with the perpetual awareness that,

He loves them and they love Him. (5 : 54)


[1] Abu Nasr al-Sarraj, Kitab al-luma, ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmuad and Taha ‘Abd al-Zaqi Surur, eds (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Hadithiyyah, 1970), p. 22
[2] Muslim, p. 93, no. 147
[3] Imam Abu Zakariyya yahya b. Sharaf al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2000 CE / 1421 AH), p. 248, no. 784
[4] Imam Malik b. Anas, al-Muwatta’, trans. A’isha ‘Abd al-Rahman and Ya’qub Johnson (Norwich, England: Diwan Press, 1982), p. 438
[5] al-Bukhari, p. 1086, no. 6029
[6] Ibn Majah, p. 604, no. 4143
[7] al-Bukhari, p. 27, no. 52
[8] Ibid., p. 1160, no. 6502