By Daniel Thomas Dyer
October 12, 2018
I have often wondered why the Beautiful and
the Joyful do not usually appear in Islam’s traditional lists of Divine Names.
Most of the listed Names are in the Quran, and these two are not. So it might
at first seem that God does not wish to be seen as beautiful or joyful.
However, the Quran does refer to the Divine
Names as a whole as al-Asma ul-Husna, meaning “the Beautiful Names”. For
example: To Hu belong the Most Beautiful Names [59:24].[i] So perhaps all the
Names together manifest beauty, and we could infer from this something about
the nature of beauty itself: it is what we recognise when we perceive a certain
coherence or wholeness.
Looking at a few of the Names – the Subtle
(al-Latif) or the Balancer (al-Adl) for instance – can help us appreciate this.
Most of us would accept that subtlety and balance play a role in creating
beauty, and we can assume the other Qualities do too. In fact Muslims have
sometimes attempted to divide the Names between Names of Beauty (Jamal Names)
and Names of Power (Jalal Names), because the more gentle ones in particular
seem to evoke this beauty, whereas the more stringent ones evoke a sense of
power. Taken altogether, perhaps there is a sense of overpowering beauty.
A variation of Jalal normally appears
individually among the Divine Names: there is al-Jalil (the Powerful, Mighty,
or Majestic). This tends to make the lack of a similar variant for al-Jamal
appear all the more significant. Even though Muhammad said quite plainly, “God
is beautiful and loves beauty” [ii], we might ask, Why does God not
self-identify as the Beautiful?
Turning to the concept of God as the
Joyful, the Quran does not name Allah as such. Allah is described as being
pleased on a number of occasions due to the beautiful character or conduct
displayed by men and women. Ridwan is one word used to describe Allah’s
good pleasure, for instance: Return to your Sustainer well-pleased and
Outside the Quran, we find Hadith Qudsi
that powerfully communicates a sense of God’s joy. Rumi certainly sensed it,
for he addressed God with these words, “You are joy and we are laughter,”[iii]
and he makes it clear that joy is the result of witnessing God’s beauty. But
despite these inspirational examples, the fact remains that the Quran is not
explicit with regard to this quality of God either.
Could it be that these two qualities are
best left to be discovered rather than pointed at too overtly? After all, no
beloved should ever have to tell her lover she is beautiful, and the joy of
love needs to be tasted in the secluded chamber of the heart. Perhaps it makes
sense that Allah’s most ecstatic pronouncements are not found in the Quran but
in the Hadith Qudsi, those intimate whispers from Allah to the beloved Prophet.
Human experience teaches us that flaunting beauty or joy tends to diminish
them. Is Allah’s shy reserve even meant to be a lesson to us?
Beauty and joy seem to require a certain
modesty, and at the same time a kind of stepping back (perhaps out of
ourselves) to perceive the Whole. The Divine Names could be said to form a
sacred container in which we experience beauty – and within that beauty the joy
awaits. After all, beauty and joy are– along with Love Itself – the nearest we
can probably get to describing the Divine Essence (Dhat) hidden within the
Divine Qualities. Both the Qualities and the Essence are denoted by the Name
Allah, which is broken down etymologically by The Physicians of the Heart as
The word “Allah” according to some scholars
comes from the root Waliha, and this root combines the vast concepts of
total love and being passionately beyond all constraints of mind. Combining
these, we get the meaning “to fall madly in love, to utterly dissolve in an
There is danger here—something so beautiful
and joyful that it makes us lose control. God is described as the Infinitely
Loving (al-Wadud) in the Quran, and it is also a Name that appears in all the
traditional lists of Ninety-Nine. Again, that small voice asks, If God is
explicitly named as the Loving, why not the Beautiful? Why not the Joyful?
Unhooked from love, perhaps beauty and joy
are simply too heady. A sense of beauty based on an appreciation of the whole
elevates us, but a partial and superficial appreciation – some bright, shiny
object catching our eye –often leads to infatuation and fragmentation. A
balanced relationship to beauty and joy probably requires some maturity that we
ourselves are in a coherent, wholesome, genuinely loving state. The old saying,
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” starts to take on a mystical
profundity: an encounter with true beauty is not an encounter with something
out there, but with something coherent that pervades us too.
Rumi has plenty to say about beauty, how it
can both elevate and abase us. In his Mathnawi, he describes Iblis (Satan)
asking God for some temptation which he can use specifically against men. God
offers various things which Iblis is moderately pleased with – possessions,
money, wine, etc – but then woman is displayed to Iblis and he is finally
Face and mole
and eyebrow and lip like cornelian,
it was as though
God shone forth through a subtle veil.
that coquetry and light-springing gait to be like the
Divine glory through a thin veil.[v]
[Mathnawi V, 960-61]
So Iblis sees the light of God shining
through woman and can see how men will succumb to lust. But this does not lead
Rumi into pious moralising on the sins of the flesh, and his solution for
containing beauty is not to demand that women be covered up and closeted away.
Rumi invites men to see women for who they really are rather than as sex
Woman is a ray
She is not just
[Mathnawi I, 2437]
Men must learn to see more deeply and
follow that “ray of God” home:
All that beauty,
power, virtue, and excellence
here from the Sun of Excellence.
They, the light
of that Sun, turn back again,
like the stars,
from these bodily walls….[vii]
“Make it your habit to behold the light
without the glass,” Rumi advises a few verses later. Physical beauty is like a
coloured glass through which the colourless Divine Light temporarily shines.
That, men should develop the habit of seeing the Source of beauty: this is the
container for beauty that Rumi recommends.
This is reminiscent of the “Parable of
Light” in the Quran, which, interestingly, appears directly after verses
concerned with the practicalities of sexual conduct. Nothing happens in the
parable; it simply invites us to see more deeply through a series of protective
God is the
light of the heavens and the earth.
of His light is,
as it were,
that of a niche containing a lamp;
the lamp is
enclosed in glass, the glass like a radiant star;
lit from a
blessed tree – an olive tree
neither of the east nor of the west –
the oil of
which would almost give light
the fire had not touched it: light upon light![viii]
As for joy, the Mevlevis certainly
understand the importance of containing it. Golpinarli, a twentieth century
Mevlevi historian, highlights this when he describes Mevlevi elders cautioning
devotees never to reveal their rapture (cezbe) – something they refer to as
“spilling one’s blood outside”…
In Mevlevihood, it is strictly forbidden to
reveal one’s rapture during a whirling ceremony, or when listening to a song in
praise of the Prophet, or a musical improvisation, or during a recitation of
the Quran, because such displays are also deployed the hypocrite. It is
forbidden to shake, to harmonize with the melody, to sigh aloud, or even to let
others know that one is weeping.[ix]
The whirling dervish has developed a
certain reputation for rapture, so there is temptation for the dervish to play
up to these qualities. Perhaps the sobriety described above has been developed
to safeguard against this.
It could be argued that the human being is
essentially driven by a love for beauty and the joy that it brings. Even the
desire for power can be reframed as a love of beauty: it is the desire to
control the manifestations of beauty. It is so easy for us to idolise these
manifestations. When we speak of God as
beautiful, the mind may wish to form a picture; the alluring pull to reduce God
to some sensual fragment is extremely strong. Joy is equally alluring: who
doesn’t strive for happiness? How often are we driven to look in the wrong
places for beauty and joy, to commodify, idolise, or feign them? Today’s
consumer society is carefully designed to manipulate these failings of ours,
offering various forms of pornography (subtle and not so subtle) to entice us.
In the age of the image there are no containers at all, and our apparent
freedom actually enslaves us.
We need containers of some kind, but we
also need to be shrewd and compassionate as to what form they take. In the
realm of sexual conduct, for instance, more often than not the containers need
to be placed around men rather than women. Marriage is one traditional
container, but perhaps a genuine relationship with the Divine Names and an ability
to see more deeply are other, more subtle containers, which have all too often
been neglected in the Muslim world in favour of a lazy, heavy-handed curtailing
of women’s freedoms, which only exacerbates male misconduct and arrogance.
Perhaps true beauty needs to shed a little
of its shyness in the Islamic world right now. It is needed as an antidote to
the false beauty and joy of modern consumer society on the one hand, and the
sterility of puritanical corruptions of Islam on the other.
I am reminded of two complementary scenes
from Mevlavi life: One evening in a house somewhere in Konya, Rumi is sitting
among a circle of women, sharing his wisdom in between choruses of sacred song
by female musicians. Circling the house outside, the women’s men folk are
keeping guard in case religious authorities may wish to intervene. A circle of
power containing a circle of beauty, containing a point of purest joy.[x] But
today at our Mevlavi gatherings, there are generally more women than men, and
so when we practice standing Zikr, we have a circle of women containing a
circle of men, containing our Shaikh and Shaikha. The possibilities for our
time are different, and women can offer protection too.
[i] Trans. by Camille Helminski, The
Light of Dawn, A Daybook of Verses from the Holy Quran
[ii] Hadith: Muslim #131
[iii] Mathnawi V, 3315; trans. by Kabir
and Camille Helminski in The Rumi Daybook
[iv] The Physicians of the Heart, A Sufi
View of the Ninety-Nine Names of Allah, by Wali Ali Meyer, Bilal Hyde, Faisal Muqaddam,
[v] Trans. by Reynold Nicholson
[vi] Trans. by Kabir Helminski and Ahmad
Rezwani, Love’s Ripening
[vii] Trans. by Kabir Helminski
(unpublished notes from a lecture)
[viii] Trans. by Camille Helminski, The
Light of Dawn, A Daybook of Verses from the Holy Quran
[ix] Mevlevi Adab and Customs, by
Abdulbaki Golpinarli (not yet published in English)
[x] See Rumi and His Friend: Stories of
the Lovers of God, trans. by Camille Helminski and Susan Blaylock, p. 191
(5:15) O people of the Book!
There hath come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to
hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary): There hath
come to you from Allah a (new) light (nuran) and a perspicuous Book, -
(5:46) And in their footsteps
We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: We
sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light (nurun), and confirmation
of the Law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who
(61:8) Their intention is to
extinguish Allah´s Light (nura) (by blowing) with their mouths: But Allah will
complete (the revelation of) His Light, even though the Unbelievers may detest
Note 2: Allah’s nur is
(89:22) Is one whose heart
Allah has opened to Islam, so that he has received Enlightenment from Allah
(nūrin min rabbihi), (no better than one hard-hearted)? Woe to those whose
hearts are hardened against celebrating the praises of Allah! they are manifestly
wandering (in error)!
(57:28) O ye that believe! Fear
Allah, and believe in His Messenger, and He will bestow on you a double portion
of His Mercy: He will provide for you a Light by which ye shall walk (straight
in your path), and He will forgive you (your past): for Allah is Oft-Forgiving,
(4:174) O mankind! verily there
hath come to you a convincing proof from your Lord: For We have sent unto you a
light (that is) manifest.
Can there be any doubt about the
meaning of any verse or the meaning of any word from the Quran? If there was any doubt or need to interpret,
or a word in any verse open to multiple meanings, the Quran would be poetry and
not Allah’s word. The proof of Allah’s attribute of Oneness or Tawheed is in
every verse and word from the Quran which have only a single clear meaning. Unfortunately,
man treats the Quran as if it were poetry and takes whatever meaning appeals to
The light of Allah is not Allah Himself,
nor a woman, nor beauty, but knowledge and guidance from Allah. It is the light
that makes Truth stand out clear from Error (2:256). It is available only to
the seekers of Allah’s light and the non-seekers remain in darkness which is
why the metaphor of the lamp rather than that of the Sun.
(2:257) Allah is the Protector of those who have
faith: from the depths of darkness
He will lead them forth into light.
Of those who reject faith the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into
the depths of darkness. They will be
companions of the fire, to dwell therein (For ever).
The absence of Allah’s light is aptly
described as darkness upon darkness as follows:
(24:40) Or (the state of those who are without
Allah’s light) is like the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean, overwhelmed
with billow topped by billow, topped by (dark) clouds: depths of darkness, one
above another: if a man stretches out his hands, he can hardly see it! for any
to whom Allah giveth not light, there is no light!
Allah’s light is further explained as
Allah’s nur is His revelations or Books of
(42:52) And thus have We, by Our Command, sent
inspiration to thee: thou knewest not (before) what was Revelation, and what
was Faith; but We have made the (Qur´an) a Light, wherewith We guide such of
Our servants as We will; and verily thou dost guide (men) to the Straight Way,-
(5:15) O people of the Book! There hath come to you
our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and
passing over much (that is now unnecessary): There hath come to you from Allah
a (new) light and a perspicuous Book, -
(5:46) And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son
of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel:
therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come
before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah.
(61:8) Their intention is to extinguish Allah´s
Light (by blowing) with their mouths: But Allah will complete (the revelation
of) His Light, even though the Unbelievers may detest (it).
Allah’s nur is His guidance
(89:22) Is one whose heart Allah has opened to
Islam, so that he has received Enlightenment from Allah (nūrin min rabbihi),
(no better than one hard-hearted)? Woe to those whose hearts are hardened
against celebrating the praises of Allah! they are manifestly wandering (in
(57:28) O ye that believe! Fear Allah, and believe
in His Messenger, and He will bestow on you a double portion of His Mercy: He
will provide for you a Light by which ye shall walk (straight in your path),
and He will forgive you (your past): for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
(4:174) O mankind! verily there hath come to you a
convincing proof from your Lord: For We have sent unto you a light (that is)
And you are wrong about art, poetry and
music. I have a better understanding about these subjects than you. If the Quran
is misquoted ever so slightly, I can catch the mistake. The same is with Ghalib’s
poetry. You cannot pass off a non-Ghalib couplet claiming it to be Ghalib’s.
The light of God is neither beauty nor a woman. It is knowledge from the
divine that shows us the difference between right and wrong. It is what
dispels the darkness of ignorance. The parable of light is not about “containment”.
It is about enhancing the effect or about “Light upon Light”. What constitutes divine
The bare moral principle for which the metaphor is the olive oil which is
self-radiant without fire touching it. The source is a tree which is neither
from the east nor the west meaning the source of this knowledge is not the
earth but the Heavens or divine,
The teaching is through words, and the words contain the message, preserve
it and make the message clear. The metaphor for this is the glass whose function
in a lamp is also to contain and protect the flame without diminishing or
distorting its light.
The lighting of the lamp is the manner in which the Quran elucidates the
bare moral principle making it come alive and as clear as light.
The meaning of light upon light is now very clear.
Let us take an example:
The bare moral teaching: Be kind to parents
How the Quran teaches the same: Thy Lord
hath decreed that ye worship none but Him, and that ye be kind to parents.
Whether one or both of them attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word
of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour. (Quran 17:23)
And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: "My
Lord! bestow on them thy Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood." (Quran 17:24)
for the Islamic way of life are not just simple do’s and don’ts. These describe
vividly the best way to follow the principles. The command describes the body
language that is appropriate (lower the wings of humility) – once such a
posture is assumed, can a person misbehave? The command says that even the
expression of impatience such as saying uf (just a sound emitted which means
the equivalent of “Oh No!”)is to be avoided at the mistakes the elderly often
make. It says that only words of honour are to be used with parents such as
“beloved father/mother”. And how beautiful is the prayer that is
taught! "My Lord! bestow on them thy Mercy even as they cherished me
in childhood". The prayer reminds us of how our parents cherished us in
our childhood which primes us or puts us in the frame of mind to behave towards
them in the same kindly manner overlooking their infirmities, follies,
forgetfulness, repetitiveness, sensitivity and many other afflictions of old
age that require our constant attention, love, care and patience.
The unparalleled excellence with which the
Quran teaches us the moral way of living is at several levels. The first level
is the principle itself which is illuminating in itself like the olive oil from
a sacred tree. The second level is the use of imagery created with words and
using the most effective devices of the psychology of influence such as priming
and through reinforcement by repeating the message but in different ways and in
different contexts to make the point clear and beyond doubt. The third level is
the linguistic excellence and all of these within the framework of a complete
and self-sufficient system of belief in a God who is the Creator, Sustainer,
Helper, Law Giver, the source of all power, the Wise, the Aware, the Knower,
the Just, the Merciful, the one who Rewards, the Forgiver, the Lord of the Day
of Judgment and with many more attributes. The Quran sheds light on many truths
but specially on the complete way of living a moral life and the source of this
knowledge/light is Allah Himself. Verse 24:35 describes precisely this.
The next verse says that “Lit is such a
light in houses where God is remembered excessively” meaning in places of
worship and not in places frequented by the poets to enjoy the beauty of a
To mix the divine with the profane is
always the endeavour of Iblis. Recognise the difference between the divine and
the profane or between what is from God and what is from Iblis. This is not
easy Mr Watson going by the number of popes who have fathered illegitimate
children and the Catholic clergy in general, immersed in sexual excesses of the