By Idris Tawfiq
What Does Beautiful Really Mean?
British Writer and Speaker
They tell us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, don't they? Have you ever seen a rather odd married couple walking down the street and wondered to yourself, "What does he really see in her?" Some couples, even though obviously made for each other, seem a rather strange combination, and it is difficult at times to find what they see as attractive in each other. That is, of course, if we're only going by looks. But there is much more to a relationship than external appearances, isn't there?
I remember some years back, before I embraced Islam, going to an exhibition of paintings at the Hayward Gallery in London by British artist Francis Bacon. The paintings were beautifully displayed and very well-lit. They were framed in very beautiful gold frames. The paintings themselves, however, were very strange. All of them tried to express human forms in twisted shapes and in very vivid, bright colors. You certainly couldn't describe any of the paintings as beautiful. Most of them were, in fact, rather grotesque. But I was amazed at the end of the visit to find myself describing the whole exhibition to a friend as "painfully beautiful." There was something very appealing about the way the paint had been put onto the canvas, which made the normal distinctions between ugly and beautiful seem quite false. The very way that emotions had been portrayed was quite beautiful.
In the same way, some people can be very beautiful, even though they are not much to look at. Others can be quite ugly inside, even though on the surface they fit all the requirements of what a good looking person should be. Some people we call "shallow," even though they might look very athletic and strong. The shallowness comes from the person within. There must be something special, then, for a person to be a beautiful person. In fact, when we describe someone as a beautiful person we are usually talking about the kind of character they have, rather than what they look like.
I wonder if there is then a fixed idea of what beauty and ugliness are really like. Is there a certain type of person who everyone would describe as beautiful? There can't be, because different cultures find different types attractive. People with dark skin seem to like fair skinned types, for example, whereas people with whiter skin find olive or dark skin more attractive. Beauty is most certainly in the eyes of the beholder.
One person might like a particular car, thinking it the most fantastic thing ever seen, but this person's friend might not like it at all. Take clothes, for example. We don't all wear the same clothes, because some people prefer different clothes to others. What one person finds to be a beautiful dress, another might find horrid. "It's lovely, isn't it?" your friend might say, while all the time you can't see what all the fuss is about.
Some people go on holiday to France, others go to New York. Some people paint their front doors red, whilst others paint them green. Some people like dogs, others like cats. There is no accounting for taste, and there is no formula that everyone would agree on to describe something as beautiful. Even "ugly" is difficult to define. What one finds ugly, another might find plain or even quite attractive.
The real test of beauty or ugliness, though, is to be found in a person's character. Goodness of character shines out. People who have a good character, a beautiful character, attract others to them. It has nothing to do with what they look like, but it is the kind of person they are.
We read in the holy Qur'an that [We [Allah] have created humans in the best of moulds.]
(At-Tin 95:4). Allah didn't make mistakes with any part of His creation, so every person has a real capacity for beauty. It is how we use the gifts and the talents that Allah gives us that makes our character good or bad.
We can grow in virtue day by day, by doing good deeds and by keeping to the commandments and the tenets of our faith.
Whatever our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) looked like, he was certainly the most beautiful person to have lived. His character was so sweet, so pure, and so close to Allah that he has never been equalled. He attracted people around him who would have done anything and everything to help and to keep him safe.
The first Muslims, strong Arab men, used to a hard way of life in the Arabian Peninsula, referred to Muhammad (peace be upon him) as "the best of men."
They even used to describe him as "dearer than my father and my mother." What a character that must have been, so beautiful that Almighty Allah would talk with Him.
If we are looking for real beauty in our world, then, we should go to what Allah has made. We see His beauty in the world around us, in nature, in plants and animals. We see His beauty in science and the greatness of the universe. We see His beauty in kindness and goodness, expressed from one person to another. And, more than anywhere else, we see beauty in good people. To become like these good people we have only to imitate the lives and example of other good people who have gone before us, like our Prophet (peace be upon him). After the holy Qur'an, the Sunnah of our Prophet is all we need to lead lives that will be beautiful.
And when our lives are over it is not the ones who were physically attractive in this world who gather lots of mourners at their funerals. Those who have lead good lives attract good people to them. Their funerals are attended by all those whose lives they have touched. If we are looking for real beauty, then, we need only look to the people around us. The most beautiful of all will be the ones who have lead their lives as good Muslims, close to Allah and obedient to His will. Their very presence will be like a beautiful perfume, so attractive are they to those around them.
Let us never fall into the trap of seeing beauty only in what a person looks like. That kind of beauty is skin deep. Allah alone can see the real beauty of each person He has created. In trying to live as good Muslims, we, too, might one day reach that kind of beauty that is so attractive to others.