- Beauty in Sufism: the teachings of Ruzbihan Baqli by Kazuyo Murata
This in every way an excellent book. Murata cuts through the extravagant prose of Ruzbihan Baqli and presents a very plausible account of his central thesis. Anyone who knows this thinker will understand how difficult this is since he is usually far from concise or clear. Despite this he is a very interesting and important thinker and Murata has done a considerable service to those interested in the thought of the period, and mystical philosophy as a whole in the Islamic world, with her work here. She underplays her contribution since she denies that what Ruzbihan is doing when talking about beauty is anything to with classical aesthetics, but she is mistaken. Although clearly beauty within a religious context raises different issues from those in other contexts, they are still aesthetic. Murata's point is that beauty for Sufi thinkers is not so much about feelings about how things look as it is a reflection of how they are, but then this contrast exists as part of ordinary aesthetics also, albeit usually in a different way. We often wonder what the connection is between how things really are and what they look like, and the introduction of a religious perspective does little to change this basic and familiar dichotomy.
The book starts with a long and very interesting discussion of the Arabic aesthetic terminology. There are two main terms here and they both have links with something other than just the appearance of what is being called beautiful. She is able to explain how Ruzbihan adapts the scriptural language to a Sufi context in such a way that it can be readily understood, although it probably can only be entirely understood by someone who has actually gone some way along the appropriate spiritual path. The discussion by Ruzbihan is anchored by his close reading of Qur'anic passages and the hadith (prophetic traditions) which help him organize his ideas perspicuously. This is made easier by the systematic nature of much Sufism, with its emphasis on the significance of a hierarchy of stages. Our ideas form a progression, and beauty is one of the ways in which that progression can be experienced, so for example in the familiar story of the Egyptian women cutting themselves by accident when they gazed on the beauty of Joseph, Zulaykha is said not to have cut herself. She was to a degree prepared for that beauty. There is a nice account of the precise links taken to exist between beauty on the one hand, and love, friendship, admiration, and similar [End Page 1] notions on the other. She is quite right in contrasting what Ruzbihan says about love for God and people and love of cosmic beauty, but does not go on as she might to have done to point out that the latter was the main concept of love used by the falasifa, the philosophers within the Peripatetic tradition, and this could have led to a contrast between a sort of cold intellectual love and the warm love between living things. Sufis like Ruzbihan expected the latter type of love to be used in their relationship with God and are rather dubious about the impersonal notion of love based entirely on the intellect.
The way it is supposed to work is that God is revealed in the beauty of the world and the more beautiful someone is, the more capable he is at seeing that beauty. So the Prophet is taken to be the most beautiful person since he saw God in every beautiful thing in the world. Ruzbihan's approach is systematically built up with his use of appropriate quotes from the Qur'an and hadith, the traditional sayings of the Prophet and his companions. God is not present in everything in the sense that everything is part of Him but rather He discloses Himself through the physical world and the result is beauty. Loving beauty then becomes a religious...