The Human Instinct for Beauty: Nurtured or Suppressed?

40 years of studying the Qur'an, a lifetime's journey with the book that the Prophet advised us, centuries ago, in his last sermon, that if we abide by, we will not go astray. If we listen to and internalize this book, and if this book becomes not only our guide, but our companion, the very soul through which we deal with life, then we will not go astray. With all the historical details, all the nuances of expression and grammar, all the complexities that go into learning the sciences of the Qur'an, the Qur’an is quintessentially about human virtues. It builds upon and elevates human virtues. It presupposes a sincere reader that takes it seriously, as it takes its readers seriously. It presupposes a reader who deals with the Qur'an morally and ethically, as it deals with its readers morally and ethically.


The Prophet said, "I was sent to perfect, elevate, and build upon human virtue.” Not to invent virtue. Not to offer the world an alien moral code, but to build upon human fitrah (instinct). To build upon what should be known instinctively as good, moral, and beautiful to human beings.


Look at Surah al-Furqan (Q 25). God describes those who truly understand their relationship with their Creator. The description is so succinct, so to the point. They “walk gently on earth” (Q 25:63). What do those who tread upon this earth lightly exude? God answers this by saying, “and who, when the foolish address them, reply with [words of] peace” (Q 25:63). Even when challenged with ignorance and ugliness, they tread upon this earth so lightly that what they exude and emanate wherever they go is one word: salaam (peace). What they exude unto the world is peace and tranquility. In a word, their impact upon this world is one of joy and happiness. Their existence in this world does not emanate anxiety. They do not tread upon this world spreading blame, rancor, and hate. They do not tread upon this world to turn the gaze of this world onto themselves. They do not walk on this earth saying, "Look at me, look at me. Look nowhere else. The only thing that matters are my feelings, my issues, and my problems. Nothing else matters." They tread upon this earth lightly. 


God continues in Surah al-Furqan to lay out an entire moral code that presupposes a human being who is capable of committing to morality, a human being who, when they are told to be beautiful, is not stumped, stupefied, or thoroughly paralyzed by the very notion of beauty. There are many people who have no clue what it means when God commands them to embrace ihsan, to embrace beauty in everything. Instead, they have but one emotional response: "What is that?" Listen to what God says in Surah al-Nisa’ (Q 4).


AND WORSHIP God [alone], and do not ascribe divinity, in any way, to aught beside Him. And do good unto your parents, and near of kin, and unto orphans, and the needy, and the neighbour from among your own people, and the neighbour who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom you rightfully possess. Verily, God does not love any of those who, full of self-conceit, act in a boastful manner (Q 4:35) 


God is telling us to worship our Lord, and to extend the hand of beauty to our parents. But the hand of beauty is not limited to the family. The same hand that is extended to parents must also be extended to the orphan, to the needy, to relatives, to neighbors, to any refugee, to any displaced human being, to any human being who travels and whose path crosses yours, and to those over whom you have power. Acts of beauty do not just extend to blood relations and to those in your geographical proximity. Yes, they apply to your tribe, your people, your community, and your neighborhood, but they also apply to those who cross paths with you as they travel on their way. They apply to any people with whom you interact.


Notice the Qur'anic command to tread upon the earth lightly and to exude salaam, a sense of beauty that brings happiness, serenity, and peace to human beings. Notice the Qur'anic command to be beautiful not only with parents and blood relatives. Yet this entire Qur'anic moral discourse is a non-starter—it completely crumbles—if the person engaging the text of the Qur'an has no sense of beauty, no patience, no willpower, and no serious determination to even begin unpacking what it means to tread upon the earth lightly. This entire ethical edifice is a no-go.


40 years of studying the Qur’an, and two years of teaching the Qur'an. After this journey was completed, I confess that what overcame me was an absolute sense of letdown. The Qur'an was taught, and after all the lofty discussions, after all the layers of knowledge were taught and conveyed, where are the students of the Qur'an? Where are the people of the Qur'an who can translate the Qur'an's simple and straightforward command to exude beauty wherever we go? Where are those who seriously care for not only their families, their communities, and their tribes, but even the wayfarer, the displaced human being, and the forced refugee?


As we finished the Qur'an, I was reading reports about how many Sudanese were fleeing the violence in Sudan to cross the Egyptian border. They are fellow Muslims. Sudan is another Muslim country. But there are numerous reports of how Egyptian authorities had not an inkling of Islam in them as they mistreated Sudanese refugees. In order to win the favor of Europe by ensuring that none of these refugees make an attempt to cross the Mediterranean, Egyptian authorities treated Sudanese refugees in ways that would be shocking even if it was done to an animal. Not a hint of Islam was present in the way that Muslims treated fellow Muslims. People escaped warfare, destruction, and death only to find themselves insulted, beaten, starved, and imprisoned. 


Closer to home, there are people who can walk the journey with the Qur'an and, when all is said and done, remain completely unchanged. They can walk the entire journey with the Qur'an and exude not a single ray of beauty. Their entire life remains self-referential. There is nothing in their life beyond their anxieties, their fears, their cravings, and the attention they demand for themselves, and nothing but themselves.


For a number of days, I would pray to God and say, "God, where is that fitrah that You speak about? Where is that instinct? I am losing faith that that instinct exists. Can people truly be instinctively beautiful, instinctively good?” I kid you not, a single day after that prayer, God allowed me to meet a human being who is not Muslim. In conversations and dealings with this human being, however, I discovered the instinct of this human being.


First, I should say that this person has been born of a great deal of hardship, pain, and trauma. But they do not direct their trauma into a series of excuses that entitle them to leisure or exceptionalism. Many people who claim trauma use it to claim an exception for themselves. With this non-Muslim, there is not a hint of bitterness. Rather, there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude about what they enjoy in life. Even their attitude toward money is such that they want to give it away to take care of others. Their joy and happiness in life is to save wildlife, to protect God's living beings. In conversations with this person, I learn that although they are non-Muslim, they have reached a conviction about the beauty of modesty in life, the beauty of not flaunting oneself on social media, and, a step beyond that, the beauty of not gossiping on social media. Beyond that, I discover that this young woman—although again, not for religious reasons, but instinctively—has reached the conclusion that premarital sex is wrong, that she should her save herself until marriage. One day after I was praying to God, saying, "I have taught Your book. Where is that instinct? Where is that fitrah?" I was allowed to meet this non-Muslim, a young woman who is more Muslim than the vast majority of Muslims. I told her that she is the embodiment of what Islam is. If she believed in one God and Muhammad as the final prophet of God, she would be truly an ideal Muslim.


This person is extremely pure with a very strong ethic of giving and of natural beauty. What is beautiful is to give. What is beautiful is to make people happy, to forget your own pain and trauma, and to elevate and remove pain from others. That is the natural ethic that this person has developed. There is no space to whine and complain about how life has been unfair to them. There is no space to whine and complain about who did what to them. There is only space to give, to spread happiness, to empower others, and to be empowered through empowering others. As I prayed, I cannot lie to you, everything in my being wanted this person to become Muslim, to say the Shahadah, to say that Muhammad is the Prophet of God, and that there is no God but God. I felt the way I feel whenever I meet beautiful human beings. If only people knew how Islam is the embodiment of what is beautiful, how true Islam is but a call for human elevation so that human beings can live in beauty, produce beauty, generate beauty, and, when all is said and done, enjoy beauty in the Hereafter. If only they understood that in Islam, God is nothing but beautiful, and God only loves what is beautiful. The only thing that God wants of human beings is more and more beauty. 


But then, as I prayed further, a scary thought came to me. Would this person have her instincts preserved if she did, in fact, become a Muslim? If I introduced her to Muslim communities and if she became involved in "Muslim issues," what would become of this person’s instinctive relationship of true beauty? What if this person stepped into a mosque or an Islamic center, and her instinctive joy about being with God was obstructed by a male ordering her to go to the back or to the women's section?


This person told me, "Maybe once in a lifetime, I would like to get my nails done, but I never have the time because I use my hands to work, make a living, and serve others. Who has the time or the resources to indulge in such a luxury?” I thought to myself, “If you only knew." This person told me that she naturally wears baggy clothes because she sees no point in showing off her body. That is the wrong type of attention she would like to receive, and she believes it is not a beautiful thing to put oneself on display. What would happen to the instinct of this person if she joined Islamic communities? She would be given the impression that what matters is a scarf on her head. You can be as vain as you want otherwise. You can put yourself on display in every other way, so long as you have a piece of cloth on your head. 


Then came the real purpose of this encounter after finishing the Qur'an. The Qur'an is a book of beauty for those whose instinct of beauty is intact. It elevates and perfects. It does not invent. If you have no relationship to the concept of justice, the Qur'an cannot teach you the value of justice. It can tell you to pursue justice. It can tell you God loves justice. It can tell you to make sure that you do not transgress upon the rights of others. But if you have no sense of what justice is about, none of this will truly reach you. 


The Qur'an elevates human instinct. Human instinct is indeed beautiful, and human instinct is, indeed, Divinely inspired. But we should reflect very deeply and seriously about whether the innateness of beauty, if it came into contact with Muslim practice, would be elevated. Would it be nurtured? Would it grow, or would it be corrupted, suppressed, and ultimately deconstructed? To me, that was truly a humbling lesson. For I could not give a simple answer to the question. I could not honestly tell God, "Yes, I am sure that this beautiful instinct would be elevated by my fellow Muslims."


One final thing I understood from this encounter. God, quite simply, is telling me, "Mind your business. Know your place. It is not your place to doubt whether human beings are given the instinct that I tell you I gave them. It is not your place to speculate about this powerful moral message of the Qur'an that exudes beauty in every passage. It is not your place to ask when, where, or how. What you see is but a limited portion of reality. Teach the ideals, even if it seems that no one is eager to embrace the ideals. Teach your Lord's message. Raise your voice with the call to guidance, regardless of who heeds the call or who comes to you. Regardless of who says, ‘Ameen.’” 


I know that so many of the realities that we confront as Muslims have the potential to twist, deface, and deform that instinct. Take even the five pillars of Islam. One of the most sacred and sanctified duties that we as Muslims are called to perform is the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. We are called to visit the site of the Prophet Abraham, the Prophet Ishmael, and the Prophet Muhammad, the center of God's universe.


Last year, there were many complaints about the system used by Saudi Arabia, called Motawif. Many people who sought to go to Hajj by complying with Saudi requirements paid anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000—with $20,000 being the more common price—and either had their reservations downgraded or canceled altogether, yet the money was still taken. Many have still not received a refund. Others made reservations using the Motawif and ended up having to sleep in the desert. There are many horror stories.


This is the system that Saudi Arabia demands Muslims use to go to Hajj. To add to this, part of the money from the system went directly into the pockets of Islamophobic Hindu nationalists. This year, Saudi Arabia has replaced the Motawif with Nusuk, and, yet again, there is the same ugliness and dishonesty. People have spent days trying to make reservations using Nusuk. If they manage to get through, many have sent money and never received the reservation confirmation to this day. They have sent anywhere from $20,000 up to $30,000, and have not received any confirmation that it resulted in a Hajj reservation. Many have even sent money only to be told that there are no spaces available.


It has reached the point that the British government had to intervene because the Saudi government has slashed the places available for Hajj, meaning that Muslims from Britain now have to be on a waiting list for 10 years before they can possibly go to Hajj. And that is for British citizens. You can imagine, then, if you are from a country that Saudi Arabia pays no attention to, how much longer the wait would be. At least Saudi Arabia will listen to the British government. Imagine if you come from Pakistan, Iran, or Egypt. With something as sacred as the duty of Hajj, the intuitive moral principles of trustworthiness and professionalism, the simple ethics that you should be able to take for granted, are not practiced by those who have anointed themselves the protectors of the Two Holy Sites.


For what seems the millionth time, last Thursday, Israeli right-wingers again violated the sanity of the al-Aqsa Mosque. The Israeli right-wing party, the Lehava, has planned a racist event par excellence. Last year, at this event, the Israeli right had several members of the government join them. This year, even more members of the Israeli government will be joining them. In this event, they will march raising the Israeli flag. During this march, they will chant racist slogans like, "Muhammad is dead, the second Nakba is coming." In other words, they are saying that the second genocide against Palestinians is coming. They chant, “Death to Arabs.” The irony is that as they march, they are protected by Israeli police. When marchers assaulted Palestinians last year, instead of intervening to stop the assault, Israeli police were filmed joining in the assault against Palestinians. In preparation for this racist march, last Thursday, Israelis decided to once again storm the al- Aqsa Mosque. They went to the Dome of the Rock and performed Hasidic prayers, and 80 Palestinians were either shot or beaten. So many Palestinians were injured when they tried to intervene or stop the violation of the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque. This time, however, the Israelis made sure there were no cameras.


As they violated the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque, they were joined by National Security Minister, Ben-Gvir, the Minister of Finance, Betzalel Smotrich, and, of course, the Minister of Transport, Miri Regev. Regev went to the Emirates and was filmed being welcomed with a red carpet. She has bragged about how Israel is now welcomed by the Emirates. Again, this is the same woman who joined in violating the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque in preparation for the racist march. 


Could you imagine if this racist march took place in a Muslim country? Has there ever been a march in a Muslim country where people yelled slurs at Jews, Christians, or any other group? Could you imagine how this would be packaged and universalized into some type of claim about the essence and nature of Islam? But, of course, because it is Israel, Israel receives a free pass. Always. No moral scrutiny. No moral objection. Not even protests. In fact, the last violation of the al-Aqsa Mosque was hardly even reported in the news. There was a formal objection and protest by the Jordanian government, but other than that, nothing. 


Yes, I know it is easy for one's sense of instinctive beauty to become corrupted and twisted as the reality that confronts Muslims, day and night, is also ugly and twisted.


Instead of seeing ugliness and insisting upon your individual moral obligation to respond to this ugliness—as the Qur'an says, by exuding beauty—it is easy to use the ugliness of others to give yourself a free pass. But that is a moral cop-out. It is not as if Muslims hear about the ugliness committed by racists against Palestinians and decide to dedicate their lives to serving the cause of the al-Aqsa Mosque and to protecting Jerusalem. That is not what most Muslims do. Most Muslims, instead, use incidents of ugliness committed in places that do not directly impact them to endow themselves with a perpetual sense of skepticism, lethargy, and moral apathy. It is like saying, "The world is so screwed up, so I only have space and energy to worry about my cares and my needs." God knows that is a moral cop out. God knows that no amount of philosophizing about the atrocities committed by Islamophobes, the atrocities that are committed every day against Palestinians, or the atrocities committed every day by authoritarian governments, could serve as a moral cop out.


Your power and strength is in affirming the message of the Qur'an by being a perpetual ambassador of Islam and by exuding beauty. Whatever you do, wherever you go. That is your contribution. That is your response to the ugliness committed at the al-Aqsa Mosque. It is like defying the devil by saying, "As you try to convince me that there is no justice in this world, there is no fitrah, there is no instinctive beauty, and that the very concept of beauty does not exist and is fundamentally meaningless, my response to you, devil, through my personal Sira, is that I will exist to prove you wrong and to prove that women and men of God affirm the truth of God, regardless of how dark the world might seem to be.”


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