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.

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