Beauty and Aesthetics in Classical Islamic Thought: An Introduction

Plato once wrote in the Symposium that “if there is anything worth living for, it is to behold beauty”. Beauty has been at the heart of the Mediterranean philosophical tradition since Plato uttered these words. But the full scope of beauty for Plato included more than just shapes, colors, proportion, harmony, and melodies. In addition to physical objects it also included psychological and social ones, characters and political systems, virtues and truths. It included not only things that are aa joy to see and hear, but everything which causes admiration, arouses delight, and brings enjoyment.1 Although beauty was beheld and appreciated subjectively, for the most part it was considered an objective aspect of reality. But to what end? For none other than to behold the supreme beauty of The Good that transcends its worldly manifestations. Plato’s notion of beauty was very broad and included moral and cognitive values. This was not Plato’s personal idea, but the generally accepted view in the West and the Islamic east well into the eighteenth century.2

However, for the past two centuries, discussions of beauty have revolved around the field of inquiry we now call ‘aesthetics’. The term aesthetics derives from the Greek aisthetikos (sensitive, perceptive) and from aisthanesthai (to perceive by the senses or by the mind, to feel). The Greek aisthesis and aistheta mean “things perceptible by the senses”. Therefore, aesthetics initially had nothing to do with “beauty” or “art” as it is currently understood, so how did it become associated with beauty?

It is at the hands of Alexander Baumgarten (d. 1762) in the eighteenth century that aesthetics reaches its apotheosis as a separate branch of philosophy, like logic, concerned with the study, understanding, and exploration of that which is perceivable by the senses. Since beauty is the most perfect kind of knowledge the senses can have, Baumgarten reasoned, then beauty and its effect on the beholder became the central focus of aesthetic investigations. The term was popularized in English by the translation of Immanuel Kant (d. 1804), and used originally in its etymological sense as “the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception”. Kant had tried to correct Baumgarten, but the meaning Baumgarten had given to aesthetics attained popularity in English by the mid-nineteenth century and removed the word from any philosophical basis. It eventually became associated with the late nineteenth-century movement that advocated “art for art’s sake”, whereby aesthetics became merely preoccupied with the subjective manner in which beauty is experienced. As such it is a notion with  firm roots in a specific Western cultural and philosophical context.
By the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the so-called Liberal Age, Arab thinkers were appropriating many Western categories and developing an Arab aesthetics along similar lines.3 However, “aesthetics” has no direct Arabic equivalent. The Encyclopaedia of Islam includes an entry titled “ ilm al-jamal”, which is a modern-day rendering. In the entry the author writes that a general theory on aesthetics and “precise definitions for the terms used in this field are lacking in the history of Arab civilization”.4 Therefore, if aesthetics is understood as a theory of art or beauty for its own sake then the medieval Islamic mentality yielded no comparable ‘aesthetics’.
If indeed aesthetics is a cultural and intellectual development peculiar to the West then it is no surprise that Islam has no equivalent term or tradition. Coining neologisms like ilm al-jamal or “Islamic aesthetics” may be anachronistic and the scholar can either abandon all use of the term or else engage with it critically. I have opted for the second option.5

The Encyclopedia of Islam entry goes on to state quite rightly that “nevertheless, it is possible to trace [in Arabic/Islamic thought] certain features common to the elements of aesthetic emotion and to their formal expression”.6 The lack of an exact Arabic equivalent to aesthetics, therefore, does not mean that the correlata suggested by the term “aesthetics” in modern discourse (perception, beauty, pleasure, image, form, proportion, harmony, color, creativity, art, etc.) were not dis- cussed. They were discussed at length but within often multiple and diverse discourses. Muslims not only enjoyed beauty but promoted the fine arts. What De Bruyne says about medieval Europe is also valid for medieval Islam: “The fact that the medieval authors did not develop a systematic theory of the arts does not mean that they were not aware of the relationship between art and beauty.”7 For example, if we understand aesthetics to refer to a wide range of issues connected with beauty then the medieval Islamic tradition did have aesthetic theories. These theories were enmeshed in theological, philosophical, or jurisprudential discussions or within wider intellectual contexts (literature, optics, alchemy) and not as a sui generis topic in any modern sense. The precise nature of beauty depends on the author, period, and school of thought under consideration.
Likewise if we understand aesthetics to refer to issues of an artistic nature, here again we  find the medieval Islamic tradition replete with discussions and references to art, crafts, creativity, aesthetic pleasure, and the like.8 However, there is no l’ art pour l’ art.9 It must be understood that the realm of the aesthetic was much larger than it is nowadays and our investigation must take this broader perspective. Umberto Eco, in his seminal work Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, aptly summarizes our point here:

We must look for the ways in which a given epoch solved for itself aesthetic problems as they presented themselves at the time to the sensibilities and the culture of its people. Then our historical inquiries will be a contribution, not to whatever we conceive ‘aesthetics’ to be, but rather to the history of a specific civilization, from the standpoint of its own sensibility and its own aesthetics consciousness.10


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