Beauty in Sufism

The Teachings of Ruzbihan Baqli

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Kazuyo Murata
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University New York Press
    , June
     2017.
     212 pages.
     $72.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438462790.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With her recent book, Beauty in Sufism: The Teachings of Rūzbihān Baqlī, Kazuyo Murata has added a useful contribution to scholarship on medieval Sufi metaphysics and underscored the need to widen our gaze past the category of love as the central conception of the Sufi path. In the introduction, Murata establishes her goal to investigate Muslim conceptions of beauty through a case study of the thought of Rūzbihān Baqlī (1128-1209), a Sufi teacher and writer from Fārs. Composed in both Arabic and Persian, Rūzbihān Baqlī’s work went on to affect the development of Sufi thought in the Ottoman Empire and South Asia and has received previous treatment by other scholars, including Henry Corbin and Carl Ernst. Murata suggests that previous publications have overlooked the significance of beauty within Baqlī’s thought and points out that no scholarly publications have investigated beauty, specifically, as a concept of import in Sufism.

Murata’s resulting excavation comprises five chapters. The first chapter examines the discourse of beauty as developed by what Murata calls “the three schools of thought” of philosophy (falsafa), Sufism (taṣawwuf, ʿirfān), and dogmatic theology (kalām) from the eleventh to the early twelfth century (11). The second chapter, on the language of beauty, then develops the specific technical vocabulary of beauty that Rūzbihān uses in his work, focusing particularly on the ontological status of beauty and ugliness. According to Rūzbihān, all created things are ultimately beautiful (ḥasan) because they are the handiwork of a beautiful God. The human perception of beauty or ugliness then depends on the degree to which any individual sees God in any particular created thing.

Murata extends this discussion of the relationship between God and beauty into the third chapter, which focuses on how Rūzbihān combines Sufi principles, Greek philosophy, and ʿAsharī theology in his understanding of God. This chapter breaks down the theological distinctions between God’s essence, his attributes, and his acts, and explains how God creates the universe by manifesting his attributes through specific acts, which humans perceive as created things. Within this framework, beauty as ḥusn is one of the attributes of God’s essence and is thus necessarily present in every act. In contrast, beauty as jamāl is an attribute of the acts, and thus “designates [God] in relation to His creation” (67). In this case, God’s jamāl designates a loving or gentle relationship towards his creation, as opposed to his jalāl, his position of majesty and awe. As a result, although some acts of the creator might not be beautiful (jamīl), they are all beautiful (ḥasan) as manifestations of the beautiful God.

The last two chapters of Murata’s book trace the impact of this theology of beauty on Rūzbihān’s understanding of, respectively, all human beings and prophets. Chapter 4 begins by describing the complete cycle of the human spirit, which begins by standing in witness before God in the pre-eternal covenant and then seeks to return to God by moving through a series of stations over the course of an embodied lifetime. Beauty serves as the impetus behind this return, as appreciating the beauty (ḥusn) of created things develops an individual’s ability to see the creator behind “the clothing” of his creation. And whereas all beautiful, created things both clothe, and thus reveal, the creator, human beings do so best of all because only they embody the complete range of divine attributes. Rūzbihān thus argues that cultivating passionate love (ʿishq) for beautiful people is necessary to develop love for, and intimacy with, the beautiful God. Finally, in chapter 5, Murata explains that, while all humans are beautiful, the prophets best manifested God’s beauty. Of the prophets, Rūzbihān returns most frequently to Adam, Joseph, Moses, Abraham, and Muhammad when elaborating his understanding of beauty. In particular, Rūzbihān celebrates Adam and Muhammad as the most perfect mirrors of divine beauty. Thus, “to love beauty … is simply to follow the most perfect human being, who has set down for humankind a beautiful model” and a path for returning to a beautiful God (127).

Murata lays out the complex metaphysics of a complex thinker with precision and clarity and is at her best in the last two chapters, which focus entirely on Rūzbihān Baqlī’s thought. These chapters contain much material that will be of use to scholars working on Sufi theology and metaphysics, Qur’anic hermeneutics, and prophetology. Moreover, these two chapters strongly imply that by centering their discussions on the idea of love in Sufi thought, previous scholars have missed a fundamental point undergirding the metaphysics of at least one crucial Sufi writer. For Rūzbihān Baqlī, the love for God required for salvation emerges only through the contemplation of created, and particularly human, beauty.

Indeed, I wished that Murata had highlighted this argument more strongly, and brought out more connections between Rūzbihān’s metaphysics of beauty and the greater moment in the development of Sufi thought in which he developed his work. The first three chapters contain short introductions to key concepts in Sufi, philosophical, and theological discussions that may be useful for students, but her treatment of these three intellectual currents often appears reductive. Her third chapter approaches, but ultimately falls short of, discussing the complex relationship between these three currents at the turn of the twelfth century. This period represents an important historical moment when Sufis writing in Arabic and Persian faced the challenge presented by the precision and complexity of theological and (Greek) philosophical thought and developed different modes and models as a response. This monograph could lead to useful discussions that situate Rūzhibhān Baqlī’s work either diachronically, in relation to a greater trajectory within Sufi intellectual history, or synchronically in relationship to his two great contemporaries: Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī and Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī. I am looking forward to future publications by Murata, and hope that she will continue to apply her impressive hermeneutical skills to tracing the development of Sufi intellectual traditions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ariela Marcus-Sells is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kazuyo Murata is lecturer in Islamic Studies at King’s College London and coeditor (with Mohammed Rustom and Atif Khalil) of In Search of the Lost Heart: Explorations in Islamic Thought byWilliam C. Chittick, also published by SUNY Press.

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