The Sunnah’s Inner Beauty
The Qur’an says: To Allah belong the most beautiful names. [7:180] In a sahih hadith we read: ‘Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.’1 Now these aren’t statements about feelings, impressions or sentimentality, they’re statements about the very nature of the Divine Reality! Imam al-Munawi comments upon Allah’s beauty (jamal): ‘He is the possessor of absolute and perfect Beauty. From this Beauty, every manifestation of beauty that exists in creation emanates. His Essence (dhat) is beautiful; His Attributes (sifat) are beautiful; and His Acts (af‘al) are beautiful. If His Face were not veiled by light (nur), the majestic splendour of His Face would annihilate creation as far as it extends.’2
A more recent commentator had this to say about the above hadith: ‘Allah, exalted is He, is beautiful in regards His Essence, Names, Attributes and Acts; and He loves both outer and inner beauty. [He loves] outer beauty, like cleanliness of one’s body, clothes and home; and their like. As for inward beauty, it is beautification of character with excellence. This is why one of the prayers of the Prophet ﷺ would be: “O Allah, guide me to having beautiful conduct and character; for none can guide me to beautifying them except You. And avert from me bad conduct and character; none can avert them from me save You.”3 And Allah knows best.’4
Religion, then, is the recognition of such beauty, as well as the quest to actualise it in our lives and society at large.
For believers, to imitate the Prophet ﷺ is to imitate beauty. Emulating the example of the Prophet ﷺ – known in religious parlance as his Sunnah (lit. “way”) – must be at the core of every believer’s life. The Qur’an states: You have in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful example. [33:21]
The love, respect, attachment and admiration Muslims have for the Prophet ﷺ (from which imitation of him is arises) is not just an impressive fact of history, it is a central part of faith itself. He was a man who experienced life in an exceptional range. Not only was he a shepherd, merchant, orphan and exile, he was also a leader, law-giver, statesman and soldier. He was also a husband, a father who was bereaved many times over, a friend, a companion, and a widower. And in all these roles he was an exemplar. His wife, the lady Aishah, was once asked as to what he was like. She responded with these words: kana khuluquhu’l-qur’an – ‘His character was that of the Qur’an.’5 So her intimate knowledge of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ led her to conclude he was the living embodiment of the Revelation – he was, figuratively speaking, the ‘walking’ Qur’an.
For Muslims, therefore, the Prophet’s Sunnah represents the very perfection of human conduct and being. It is to such beauty – and not to the mediocrity or ugliness offered by the norms of today’s dominant culture – that believers must fix their gaze.
In the botanical world there are certain plants which need to be grown on a trellis or a support of some kind, if they are to grow to their full potential. Otherwise they tend to sprawl across the ground, without direction, their leaves devoured by snails and slugs, their purpose unfulfilled.
In a similar way, man is a ‘climber’ too, and we need not look very far for examples of the human inability to grow or to flower without a firm support or framework. In this sense the Prophet’s Sunnah, Gai Eaton wrote, ‘provides not only a framework but also, as it were, a network of channels into which a believer’s will enters and through which it flows smoothly, both guided and guarded. It is not his way, the Muslim’s way, to cut new channels for his volatile life through the recalcitrant materials of the world against the grain of things. At first sight one might expect this to produce a tedious uniformity. All the evidence suggests that it does nothing of the kind; anyone who has had contact with good and pious Muslims will know that though they live within a shared pattern of belief and behaviour, they are often more sharply differentiated one from another than are profane people, their characters stronger, their individu-alities more clearly delineated. They have modeled themselves upon a transcendent norm of inexhaustible richness, whereas profane people take as their model the fashions of the time. To put it another way: the great virtues – and it is the Prophet’s virtues that the believer strives to imitate – can it seems be expressed through human nature in countless different ways, whereas worldly fashion induces uniformity.’6
The Sunnah, however, insists that a certain sense of haybah, or “dignity” of character, is essential to make even the most valuable manners respected and respectable. The belief that the Sunnah can be practiced without the least change in how we do things “on the streets” or “in de hood” is more ego than Islam. The Sunnah comes to elevate and dignify. Indeed, the greatest achievement of the ego is to make the practice of the Sunnah look ugly or undignified. For nothing is more troublesome than when the ego seeks to wear the robe of the Sunnah.
At the end of the day, those who drag the Sunnah down to their own crass, unrefined levels need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner beauty?
By the same token, to follow the Sunnah out of anger, protest, resentment or identity politics, darkens and deforms it and causes people to flee from Islam. Following it out of love for Allah’s Beloved ﷺ, intuiting its beauty and wisdom, is a radiant light and conclusive proof.
At the end of the day, those for whom the Sunnah is little more than a tool with which to vent their political angst and frustrations need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner beauty?
Likewise, to limit the Sunnah to no more than a few outward expressions of piety and external modes of behaviour makes it look superficial, unworthy and uninviting. The consequence of such shallow piety and religious reductionism: the Prophet’s beauty is veiled behind his Sunnah. Just to be clear. Emulating and imitating the Prophet ﷺ in his comings and goings, and in his manners and modes of behaving, is the hallmark of a true believer; of a lover, even. But outward emulation is of little worth unless it both reflects and engenders a profound inward conformity.
At day’s end, those fixated upon just the external aspects of the Sunnah need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner wisdoms and beauty?
The Sunnah, let’s not forget, is the middle way; and strict compliance with the Sunnah is what faith enjoins so as to avoid the fringes of deviancy. But strictness driven by the ego’s diktats is extremism; strictness that is born of the Spirit is pure submission. In fact, one of the great virtues of the Prophet ﷺ was his perfect sense of balance and proportion; of being able to put things in their right priority, correct order and proper perspective. The closer we contour the Sunnah, the closer we are to such balance.
At the end of the day, those who obscure the lines between the Spirit’s rigour and the ego’s; making them cold, harsh and hostile, need only ask this: How long will I ignore the Sunnah’s inner beauty.
As for those who consider the details of the Sunnah to be trivial and insignificant, for which we need to apologise or to exorcise from Islam; and if not, then from the public sphere, they either have a poor grasp of the realities of faith, or else are uninterested in the prophetic light. For his beauty ﷺ is in the detail, not just the broad strokes. We seek refuge in Allah from ugliness; and ask that He make us people of beauty.
1. Muslim, no.147.
2. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:224.
3. Muslim, no.771.
4. Al-Sa‘di, Bahjat al-Qulub al-Abrar (Cairo: Dar al-Furqan, 2004), 203
5. Muslim, no.746.
6. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 201.