Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Beauty In and Of Creation

Surah 7, Al-A’raf, Ayat 31-32

Ya banil Adama khudhu zinatakum inda kulli masjidinw-wa kulu wash-rabu wa la tusrifu.  Innahu la yuhibbul-musrifin. [31]
Qul man harrama zinatal-lahi-latil akhraja li ibadihi wat-tayyibati minar-rizq.  Qul hiya lilladhina amanu fil-hayatid-dunya khalisatany-Yawmal-Qiyamah. 
Kadhalika nufassilul-Ayati liqawminy-ya lamun. [32]

O Children of Adam!  Beautify yourselves for every act of worship, and eat and drink freely, but do not waste:  verily, Allah does not love the wasteful. [31]
Say:  ‘Who is there to forbid the beauty which God has brought forth for His creatures, and the good things from among the means of sustenance?’
Say:  ‘they are lawful in the life of this world unto all who have attained to faith – to be theirs alone on Resurrection Day.’  Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people of innate knowledge! [32]

I want to focus today on the beauty – in and of creation…. the beauty that God has created around us, and the beauty we re-create as beings entrusted with consciousness, (or as Quran puts it, Allah’s Vice-Regents on earth).  Our first relationship with beauty lies in our capacity to appreciate it in its many forms in nature, God’s creation.  In fact, Quran  reminds us that appreciating beauty is a path to understanding the transcendence of Allah.

Surah 16, An-Nahl (The Bee), Ayat 5-17

And Allah creates cattle:  you derive warmth from them, and various uses; and from them you obtain food; [5] and you find beauty in them when you drive them home in the evenings and when you take them out to pasture in the mornings. [6]
And they carry your loads to many places you would not otherwise be able to reach without great hardship to yourselves.  Truly, your Sustainer is most compassionate, a dispenser of grace! [7]
And it is Allah who creates horses and mules and donkeys for you to ride, as well as for their beauty:  and He will yet create things of which today you have no knowledge. [8]

Think of the birds in all their glorious forms and patterns and colors – the phylogenetic descendants of the dinosaurs – and think of what life forms God will create in another 250 million years, or has already created on other planets.

And Allah made the night and the day and the sun and the moon subservient to laws, so that they may be of use to you; and all the stars are subservient to Allah’s command:  in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who use their reason! [16:12]
And all the beauty of many hues which Allah has created for you on earth:  in this, behold, there is a message for people who are willing to take it to heart!  [16:13]
And Allah made the sea subservient to laws, so that you might eat fresh meat from it, and take from it gems which you may wear.. [14]
Is then, the One who creates comparable to any being that cannot create?  Will you not, then, bethink yourselves?  [16:17]

The Quran references beautiful things in creation that the Prophet and his followers knew from their world.  We recognize them still today, but we can add so many more from the world we live in now, things that 7th century Arabs could never have dreamed of. 

I heard an author interview recently, of a woman who had written a book about the oceans.  She is also a surfer, and she and others like her travel around the world in pursuit of the biggest waves they can find, waves as high as 40 to 60 feet tall.  I never really understood why people would try to ride 60 foot waves.  But when the interviewer asked her if she was afraid, she said, “Of course it is incredibly dangerous, and you know that.  Of course you have to fight fear going into it.  But once you catch that wave, you have to be so focused, you do not have room for fear.  When you are riding a 60 foot wave, every cell in your body is responding to the energy of that wave.  You lose your sense of self.  You become one with the universe.  That is why we do what we do.”  How beautiful is that!

What are some of your favorites?  What are some of the things that you have done or seen that made you feel close to God?  Some of mine:  the stars at night in the desert; the Grand Canyon; Bryce Canyon;  galloping on a horse at full speed in an open field; standing on a beach looking out at the ocean – any ocean.

The other way we connect to beauty is when we try to create something beautiful ourselves.  This includes creating beautiful things, but also doing beautiful deeds.  Abou El-Fadl reminds us that “In the Quranic usage, to do acts of ihsan – goodness – is to perform beautiful deeds or acts of grace and beauty.  It is as if ihsan  is at the very logic of creation, as natural as the rules of symmetry that define not just balance and beauty but reality.  Ihsan is not just kindness or generosity; it is life giving and life sustaining.   “Do good as Allah has been good to you.”  [Quran 28:77]

Creating art of any kind is also a form of ihsan, an act of grace and beauty.  Allah has given us all the ability to create something, be it delicious food, a painting, a poem, a song, an original design for a website, a flower garden, a beautiful building.  When we create, we are channeling, in our own finite way, a part of the energy of God’s creation.  And every once in awhile, we manage to achieve something that borders on the sublime… a Mozart concerto, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, De Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, a child’s drawing for her mother – what are some of your favorites?

But we can never forget that everything we create is only a finite and temporary reflection of the greater creative Truth that is Allah.  Quran reminds us of this.

Surah 10, Jonah, Ayah 24

The parable of the life of this world is but that of rain which We send down from the sky, and which is absorbed by the plants of the earth whereof people and animals draw nourishment, until – when the earth has assumed its artful adornment and has been embellished, and they who dwell on it believe that they have gained mastery over it – there comes down upon it Our judgment, by night or by day, and We cause it to become like a field mown down, as if there had been no yesterday.  Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people who think!  [24]

Created works of beauty are like that.  They fade, or are forgotten, or are misunderstood or unappreciated by subsequent generations.  One form of Buddhist  practice ritualizes the impermanent aspect of beauty.  Mandala paintings are created by Buddhist monks, who painstakingly place grains of sand to create exquisite works of intricate, multicolored design.  They can literally take weeks or months to create the most elaborate works of art.  And as soon as they finish, they carefully sweep up and collect all the sand, and lovingly release it into a moving stream or river.  In doing this, they symbolize the impermanence of the beauty of this world.  They have created a ritual around the idea that beauty is not static.  The real beauty is in the act of creation itself, an ongoing, dynamic process.  This is why we feel energized when we are inspired to create something – the process of creating is beautiful in itself, even if we are never satisfied with the result of our effort.  Creating makes us feel what it is to be alive.

In the second part of this khutbah, I would like to share an example of how our ability to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, and our ability to create beauty ourselves have merged into one elegant process.  The progression of human creation to the age of computers led recently to the discovery of a way to simulate the act of creating through mathematics.  A mathematician named Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1980s revealed a new form of mathematics – fractile geometry – and gave us a tool to create visual images of the creative process itself.  Mandelbrot’s set of equations is based on adding and multiplying, but carries these operations millions and billions of times – not possible until humans had invented computers - in order to create a complete set, a set that creates a model of infinity.  It has been called “one of the most astonishing discoveries in the entire history of mathematics.”  [Find visual images of the Mandelbrot set on You Tube.]

The basic model looks rather like a feathery, seated Buddha, but no matter how much you magnify it, it continues to create new patterns, and the little Buddha image eventually reappears, over and over.  The image can be magnified indefinitely.  When color is added to the equations, they yield visually stunning images of infinite complexity.  One scientist has called it “the thumbprint of God.”

The Mandelbrot set creates patterns that mimic those in nature, not linear and finite, but infinitely varied and complex.  Living creatures are also complicated structures, created from simple rules, simple laws of physics and chemistry, repeated millions, billions of times following the map of their DNA.  Scientists have already begun to explore ways that fractile geometry could provide maps to natural selection, and even the workings of our brains.  Some have noted that geometric art forms - mandala paintings, stained glass windows, Islamic art – all creations of the human brain - exhibit echoes of the Mandelbrot set, created centuries before it was discovered.  So we see that laws – God’s natural laws – govern the creative process, not just in nature, but within our brains.  Our brains are hardwired, if you will, to create acts of goodness and beauty, if we only follow God’s natural laws.  The Mandelbrot set, in visual form, can be seen as a representation of ihsan. 

The set yields new patterns all the time, never exactly the same one twice, but always following the same mathematical formula.  One mathematician equated the set with life itself, commenting, “God created a system which gave us free will.  It’s the most brilliant manoeuver in the universe… to create something in which everything is free.  How could you do that?”  Another said, “The Mandelbrot set shows us that you can have chance and deterministic laws at the same time.  It’s not whether God plays dice with the universe that matters, it’s how God plays dice.”  Sir Arthur Clarke (who wrote 2001, A Space Odyssey) said this about the set, “We’ve all heard about maps that lead to hidden treasure.  In this case, the map IS the treasure. “

Albert Einstein believed that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious [the God we cannot know].  It is the source of all true art and science.”   I would add that experiencing the mysterious by engaging in the process of creating the good and the beautiful is an act of worship as powerful as prayer.  As with prayer, it is the process that links us to our Creator.   The result of our efforts is not the real point.  The point is that when we stop creating, we cut our link to God’s life giving creative energy, we become hardened and bitter and lost.

Surah 39, Az-Zumar (The Throngs), Ayat 22-23

Afaman-sharahal-lahu sadrahu lil ‘Islami fahuwa ala nurim-mir-Rabbih.  Fawalul-lilqasiyati qulubu-hum-min-dhijril-lah.  Ulaa ika fi dalalim-mubin. [22]
Allahu nazzala ahsanal-hadithi Kitabam-mutashabiham-mathaniya taqsha ‘irru minhu juludul-ladhina yakhshawna Rabbahum thumma talinu juluduhum wa qulubuhum ila dhikril-lah.
Dhalika hudal-lahi yahdi bihi many-yashaa.  Wa many-yudilil-lahu fama lahu min had. [23]

Could, then, one whose bosom God has opened wide with willingness towards self-surrender unto Allah, illumined by a light from our Sustainer, be likened to the blind and deaf of heart?
Woe, then, unto those whose hearts are hardened against all remembrance of God!  They are most certainly lost in error!  [22]
God bestows from on high the best of all teachings in the shape of a divine writ fully consistent within itself, repeating each statement [of the truth] in manifold forms – a divine writ whereat shiver the skins of all who of their Sustainer stand in awe:  [but] in the end their skins and their hearts do soften at the remembrance of the grace of God…
Such is God’s guidance:  guiding therewith those who will to be guided – whereas those who choose to go astray can never find any guide.  [23]


  1. One of my favorites of yours. I love hearing about ihsan in a formal prayer setting.

    Do you have any links to a Mandelbrot set?

  2. Beautiful alhamdullilah. Some of the khutbah on this site bring tears to my eyes