On Beauty

So here is the thing about me and beauty: I’m either completely oblivious to it, or it sears me senseless.

I would have gone on for months without as much as giving anyone a second glance. Not just because the gaze should be lowered, but because I genuinely see nothing that is worthy of such a look.

Nor am I, generally speaking, particularly observant. I live in my head. Even if the first look at that gentleman sitting across from me on the subway gave me a hint of remarkably sculpted cheekbones, I’m not supposed to gape, right? Might as well not even bother with the first look. Back to thinking about how brie and apples make a stellar combination, or what in earth is in store for us in this season of “Dexter.”

So I’ll go on for months like this, until one day. One day, my gaze is frozen on someone–usually someone no one turns to look at a second time. A thousand alarm bells start ringing. People like this exist? What I’m seeing is so enchanting that I know it’s my mind, I know it’s the months of retreating inwardly that are causing me to act up.

That, of course, doesn’t make it any less real.

I stand there, and if I’m lucky enough to have a friend close by, she reminds me to close my mouth. She usually knows me well enough to not ask what on earth I am seeing in him. She knows I’ll just whips around and snap: “But how can you not see it?”

It’s really, really strange. Is the person really that beautiful? Am I just seeing what I want to see? Is a part of my mind so sick of ignoring men that it clings onto the first trace of beauty, of noor, that it sees on someone’s face?

It’s not just any beauty, mind you. It’s the kind of beauty that reminds one that Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty. In its temporal manifestation, beauty can become a kind of teaser for the One who is Beautiful. The attraction to one with this peculiar, transcendent form of beauty is neither completely asexual or sexual in nature. For those forms of attraction are just those that help humanity function according to the way it has been creative.

Think about it. A sexualized beauty has a functional purpose: finding partners. Asexualized beauty helps cultivate tender feelings towards children or pets, making it less of a nuisance to tend to them. There’s an aesthetic sense of beauty that gives some guidance to decorators, designers, and craftspeople. But in terms of functionality, it pretty much ends there. No one’s going to get a promotion based on the way they see the swell of flesh under an eyebrow. (Hat tip to Philip Roth for making that the defining mark of Faunia’s beauty in in The Human Stain.) Unless you’re an artist or creative director who happens to have an audience that gets you, you have nothing to gain from noticing the way a scarf brushes a woman’s cheek, the scented stillness of a night in the woods. You just drink it in, and turn that into a remembrance, into dhikr.

Seeing flashes of human beauty–not just in a package consisting of sculpted cheekbones, flawless skin, and slender, tapered hands, but the overall perfect assembly of features that is a cause of wonder–continue to remind me of God’s beauty. When I was younger, I’d be wistful, a little pained, or even confused, by beauty.  But that is no longer so. Now I just smile inside. Wide. I understand that what I’m really longing for is Allah’s Beauty. I understand, in Tariq Ramadan’s words, that modesty is not about avoiding beauty, but dealing with it. Perhaps that dealing happens by acknowledging the source of that beauty, reminding ourselves of its source, and praising that Source. And willing and and anticipating and praying for a chance to see Him.

But I want to be even better than that. Next time, I hope I remember to say the same prayer the Prophet did: “Ya Allah, you have made your creation beautiful, so make my character beautiful.”

Ya Allah, Ya Al-Noor, Ya Al-Jameel, glory is to you. You have made your creation unbelievably beautiful. Make all of our characters beautiful as well.


14 thoughts on “On Beauty

      1. Rabiya

        If I had known you’d respond to my comment, I would have put more effort in it, lol. MashAllah, your thoughts and writing both are amazing! I was so glad to have found your blog, I pretty much skimmed through many of your entries this one night because I wanted to read it all. And then I had to let go of the computer but I wanted to comment before I left and that’s pretty much all I could think in those few seconds =)


      2. I’m so happy that my writing was worth your time! Thank you for coming back and sharing the experience of reading my posts. May Allah protect and preserve you.


  1. Another lovely post! Keep them coming – just love how you bring it back to the Divine in many (if not all) of these pieces – I think we often forget what we should be thinking about when we are out in the real world – we are human, we have thoughts – but in the end, we can make those truly Pure when we think of the source of all the beauty we see around us – whether in our fellow human or in the natural world that moves forward as we do.


    1. I really like your connection to purifying our human selves. We’re not perfect, but we can do our best to be mindful of Allah’s role in all matters.
      And thanks as always for your generous comments. Feedback like this keeps me going!


      1. Aww, you’re welcome Sarah! You didn’t win that Best Writer award for nothing. 🙂 Myself and your other readers enjoy your writing, so the least we can do is leave comments and hope they give you a similar (hopefully positive) feeling as your writing does for us.


  2. yomnaelsaeed

    This post reminded me of that day, in Al-Madina Al-Monawara, when I a super-duper handsome Iranian sheikh. He looked in his 30s. It was literally jaw-dropping & I could not lower my gaze. It was extremely bad of me to be unable to curb my nafs in this holy city, but it was so, as u called it, asexual. That man’s beauty had nothing to do with the mainstream beauty criteria like the eyes color or the body building. It was something magical that I can’t express..
    He reminded me of prophet Yusuf. I know imagine his beauty was that kind of so-rarely-found type of beauty. I think so because he’s a prophet, one of the holiest creatures & closest to Allah. I think the “sexual” fitna that happened to him was due to the nasty nafs of the woman, not his “type” of beauty..


  3. Pingback: Why I left. | A Muslimah Writes

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