Ali Asani on Beauty

September 19, 2019
Professor Ali Asani
Harvard Professor Ali S. Asani. Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Ali S. Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures (FAS), delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on September 19, 2019.


To God belongs the East and the West, wherever you turn there is the face of God. Indeed, God is all-embracing and all-knowing. (2:115)

This verse from the Qur'an along with the saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad “God is beautiful and loves beauty” are the focus of my reflection on beauty this morning.

There are many forms of beauty, just as there are many forms of hate, intolerance, and bigotry. We live in a world obsessed by perceived and accepted forms of what is beautifuland what is not. Indeed, not everyone sees beauty in exactly the same way. As we all know from hidden treasures discovered in nature, beauty can sometimes be disguised, misleading, veiled, and even terrifying. There are those who enjoy sunny days best, but there are also thosecalled "pluviophiles"who enjoy the rain, thunder, and lightning over anything the sun may offer. To them, grey and rainy days are beautiful and welcoming, intimate and deeply spiritual. Indeed, as stated in the Qur'an, all of Creation, as a manifestation of the Divine, is beautiful, even in the face of our own partialities. Can any of us imagine such a static world where there be only one form of anything, especially beauty? We are all different for a reason and for a purpose. We all have our contributions to make, if only we are given the freedom and allow others to explore the same freedoms. Freedom itself is beautiful. Respect of that freedom even more so.

And, yet, we are not, it seems, as concerned by the inner core of ourselves or of anything, provided it fits appropriately into the worldview mold generally accepted as being pleasing to the eye. The Qur'an tells us that everything perishes except the face of God (28:88). Thus, In Islam, little importance is placed on physical beauty since it does not last. As humans we are meant to look deeper into what constitutes real and enduring beauty. We should seek to cultivate inner beauty, so that it mirrors divine beauty, and allow our souls to be nourished by it. We must remember that physical forms are temporary. So is our narrow-mindedness. Nothing can ever be considered truly beautiful that violates the well-being, trust, respect, and acceptance of all of God's work as manifest in creation.

We learn at a very early age that we should "not judge a book by its cover." In doing so, we may miss out on a great adventure within the book's pages. A search for beautyin all of its many and varied manifestationsis, in essence, a search for God and the meaning of existence. God is the ultimate source of beauty. And beauty is the truest manifestation of Divine Love itself.