The Aesthetics of Islamic Law

When Islamic law is discussed, particularly in a polemical context, it is usually evaluated from either a moral or a practical angle. Those who espouse its virtues tend to say something along the lines of: God, being our creator, deserves our obedience (aka, a moral argument); and His ordinances are best attuned to human nature (aka, a practical observation). Very rarely are purely aesthetic considerations of Islamic law invoked. The main reason for this is probably that post-modern conceptions of beauty tend to contradict the fitrah, making aesthetic-based arguments for the universal validity of Islamic law ineffective since Islamic law and the fitrah are intertwined. However, if we consider the fact that fashion isn’t synonymous with style – the latter is timeless, whereas the former can be ugly – and if we try to consider the matter without using the current moods and fads as our guiding beacon, we shall perhaps be able to understand why God Himself invokes beauty when proclaiming His ordinances on clothing:

O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal your private parts and as adornment. But the clothing of righteousness – that is best. That is from the signs of Allah that perhaps they will remember. (7:26)

God has thus determined that clothing should be worn, amongst other things, for aesthetic reasons: it would not only be highly inconvenient to walk around without any clothing, it would also make life much poorer in color and shape. We can extend this reasoning to other regulations in Islam. For example, we know that the Prophet ﷺ instructed us to recite the Qur’an with a melodious voice, and it is not uncommon for non-Muslims who do not understand Arabic to nevertheless be drawn to Islam by hearing the Qur’an recited aloud. One should never forget that aesthetics are an important aspect of life and therefore also Islamic law. Muslims are obliged to eat wholesome food to care for their health. Meals are not partaken in simply for the sake of nutrition, but they are recurring minor social events that are (or should be) surrounded by more than mere consumption of food. Imam al-Nawawi was of the opinion that conversing during a meal is a religious recommendation. A Muslim is by necessity a kind of aesthete.

One of the most controversial aspects of Islamic law is its regulation of male-female social interaction. According to Islam, men and women are not free to, for example, bathe together half-naked (something described by some critics as ”gender apartheid”). In times like these, with the #MeToo phenomenon and the American president having been caught on tape saying that he grabs women’s private parts, defending Islam’s stance on the matter is easier than ever, but how do we treat the issue from an aesthetic point of view? Is such a thing even possible?

The society that perhaps more than any other in history organised itself around aesthetic principles and considerations, based on the idea that everything from the ordinary to the ceremonial could and should be elevated to refined art, was 10th and 11th Century Japan. This was the Heian period in the country’s history, a period that amongst other things gave us the world’s first novel, The Story of Genji. Literary sophistication was a given for the people of that time (it was not just a question of writing well, one had to write well; that is, according to the rules of calligraphy). All of one’s doings and movements had to be conducted with style; every conversation needed to be witty and sprinkled with literary allusions; even politics were tinged with elegance:

The ‘rampant aestheticism’ of the period extended even to the day-to-day activities of the government, in which the officials were expected to perform stylized dances as part of their duties, and in which (as we know from a thirteenth-century chronicle) the Intendant of the Imperial Police was chosen for his good looks as much as for his family connexions. [1]

In a society like this, where beauty and artistic taste were valued above everything else and nothing was left to chance, where everything was organised around the idea that the aesthetic must come first – how were male-female social interactions viewed?

The woman of Heian Kyô participated in outdoor activities as little as her sister in the Moslem world; and on the rare occasions when she did leave her house the walls of her ox-carriage protected her, more completely than could any yashmak, from the eyes of strangers. […] Normally she was hidden behind her screen of state, whose function for the Heian woman was analogous to that of the Islamic pardah. Though she might intimate her artistic taste by letting her sleeves protrude outside the curtains, normally she could never show herself to any man except her husband and her father. The ‘lady who loved insects’ will not allow even her parents to see her face to face: ‘Ghosts and women’, she explains to her parents through a small opening in her screen, ‘had best remain invisible’. This is not introduced as an example of the lady’s eccentricity, for the author comments that it is a ‘sensible remark’. [1]

Note that the woman quoted goes above and beyond what was customary in her own time (and also beyond Islam’s regulations – we do not advocate the idea that women should be completely hidden away). She does not even let her parents look at her. It is neither prudishness nor religious zeal that motivates her, for there is nothing morally objectionable in socialising freely with one’s parents (quite the contrary). It is instead certain ideas about style and taste that guide her behaviour. Someone belonging to our own cultural sphere will find it extremely challenging to understand such a mindset, but it should not be completely impossible to relate to the above attitude, as there are some traces of a similar mentality in our own time: aristocratic reclusiveness is one example, the limousine’s tinted windows illustrating the point. The person hiding inside the limousine is not a victim of an oppressive social structure; there is a certain prestige associated with being inaccessible in such a context. In Muslim communities, the veil has traditionally been a status marker and this was also the case during the Heian period. Therefore, to equate the niqab with misogyny is, if nothing else, bad history.

However, the question remains: why should covering up be aesthetically superior? Let me share an aphorism, courtesy of Horace Engdahl (a member of the Swedish Academy):

Cultures where free socialising among the sexes is impeded by strict rules and Draconian punishments are also the most eroticised, with the quickest conquests and the most penetrating glances. [2]

Today’s time is the antithesis of the Heian period, where the vulgar and easily accessible is preferred over that which requires effort; in fact, the latter is deemed suspicious. A clear example of the fact that accessibility is promoted over the difficult to achieve is the increase in bans on Muslim women’s non-revealing clothing. This comes at a time when everyone with a mobile phone is a Google search away from ogling naked women.

However, why not enjoy the female body, an aesthetically appealing sight? The problem with ubiquitous nakedness is that it leads to a devaluation of female beauty and results in female nudity inflation. The Swedish critic and distinguished novelist Malte Persson coined the term “post eroticism” to describe contemporary Swedish literature’s depiction of sex life as sad and uninteresting. This is a predictable end result of sex losing all mystique. The tragic phenomenon of “pornography induced erectile dysfunction” speaks for itself. Young men with unlimited access to Internet pornography end up being unable to engage in actual intercourse because overexposure to the female body has stripped it (pardon the pun) of charm and attractiveness. This is something that the Japanese of the Heian period seemed to have been aware of. They knew that the value of easily accessible public property tends to be low, and this is why the man on the street was denied the right to view female bodies. In other words, the women of the Heian period knew how to value their own selves. The problem in today’s society is that women are not allowed to do just that; those who choose to deny strangers the right to stare at their bodies are condemned, and some even wish to put such women under the liberal man’s tutelage. Those within our society who prefer the challenging over the easily digested are regarded with skepticism: do they not want to be like everyone else in society; why are they being so difficult?

We live in a time when the current mood and fads are not only the guiding beacon—they are morality itself.

Works Cited:

  1. Morris, Ivan, and Barbara Ruch. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. Vintage, 2013.
  2. Engdahl, Horace, and Elena Balzamo. Le Dernier Porc. Serge Safran éditeur, 2018.

About the Author: Hamdija Begovic is a guest contributor. He is a Bosnian-Swedish novelist and academic and he currently teaches sociology at the University of Örebro. His interests include the sociology of knowledge, the ontology of modernity, and “Muslim critical theory.”

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

4 thoughts on “The Aesthetics of Islamic Law

  1. found this article interesting and informative, never thought about law in terms of beauty

  2. Why are you glorifying the Heian period?What is wrong with women going out of the house?A significant amount of achievement takes place outside of the house.
    And aristocrats have their limousine windows tinted because they want to avoid attention.The real problem that some sisters deal with is the why does it attract attention part? There are limits to be observed regarding accessibility and inaccessibility.

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