Citation metadata

Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe
Date: 2001
Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an
From: Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an(Vol. 1. )
Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 212


A quality in persons or objects that appeals to the human senses and exalts the spirit. At least a dozen terms describe beauty in the Qurʾān, which is more often understood as a moral quality than an aesthetic one. It is a quality defined by its deep effects upon the beholder rather than by its own properties. Aesthetic terms (e.g. the various terms related to jamāl, iʿjāb, zīna, ḥilya, zukhruf, ṭayyib, alwān, qurrat ʿayn, bahīj) signal moral choices to be made or divine grace rendered (see CONSOLATION ), while moral terms (e.g. the various terms related to ḥusn, itqān, fitna, karīm) signal either beauty or the appropriate response to it. Reference to three kinds of beauty is discernible in the Qurʾān. The first characterizes the signs (q.v.) of God in creation (q.v.): awesome, delightful, instructive or useful, but ultimately transitory. The second describes the ornaments produced by human beings: attractive and enticing but also meaningless and even deceptive. This, too, is transitory. The third kind of beauty is not of this world but rather is sublime and eternal. Each of these three categories will be discussed in sequence.

The Arabic word most often translated as Page 213  |  Top of Article“beauty” (jamāl) occurs only once in the Qurʾān and in that instance it has an aesthetic denotation: “And livestock… you find beauty in them when you bring them home in the evening and when you put them out to pasture” (Q 16:5-6). Yet other forms and effects of beauty are frequently cited. Humans delight in their children (q.v.; Q 28:13); fair winds (Q 10:22; 30:46; see AIR AND WIND ); rain (Q 30:48) and the earth (q.v.) afterward (Q 57:20) and seed that grows (Q 48:29); fine animals (Q 2:69) and fertile pairs (Q 22:5; 26:7-8); and nice clothes and pure things (Q 7:31-2; see BLESSING ). God has made things beautiful on purpose, as seen in the phrase “the creation of God, who has perfected (atqana) all things” (Q 27:88; cf. 22:6; 95:4). “We placed constellations in heaven and made them beautiful (zayyan nāhā) to the beholders” (Q 15:16; cf. 37:6-7; 50:6; 67:3-5). “It is God… who has formed you and made your forms beautiful (aḥsana ṣuwarakum)” (Q 40:64).

Earthly beauty, however, can be a temptation and a test. Q 18:7 asserts: “What is on earth we have made a [mere] decoration for it (zīnatan lahā), so that we might test which of them is best in his actions” (cf. Q 57:20). Q 2:221 notes that beauty must not be the overriding criterion: “A believing slave-woman is better than an unbeliever, however much the latter pleases you (aʿjabatkum).” Other verses remark that humans deceive themselves and others with superficialities (zīna). Significantly, the calf of gold (q.v.) is made from “the people’s ornaments” (zīnat al-qawm, Q 20:87). We hear of unbelievers dazzled by their own stratagems (Q 13:33) and of him “whose evil act is made to seem fine to him (zuyyina lahu sūʾu ʿamalihi)” (Q 35:8; cf. 9:37; 10:12; 47:14). Forms of natural and man-made ornamentation (zukhruf) can be assessed as both positive and negative: “The earth takes on its ornament (akhadhat al-arḍu zukhrufahā) and is adorned (azzayyanat)” (Q 10:24) but humans deceive each other with “fancy talk (zukhruf al-qawl)” (Q 6:112).

The delights of paradise (q.v.) are sometimes evoked by the mention of beautiful objects, e.g. luxuries such as gold (q.v.) and silk (q.v.; e.g. Q 35:33) or couches and rich drinking cups (e.g. Q 56:12-18; see CUPS AND VESSELS ). More often, however, the pleasures of paradise are described in terms that would appeal particularly to desert dwellers: trees, gardens, shade, and water (q.v.; see GARDEN ). The Qurʾān itself is more often described in terms that mark its connection to the divine. The jinn (q.v.) who hear the Qurʾān do not call it “beautiful” but “a wonder” (Qurʾānan ʿajaban, Q 72:1), while humans break out in goose-flesh (Q 39:23). God himself is the subject of an extended metaphor in the Light Verse (Q 24:35; see VERSES ) from which the listener infers his beauty, though he is never called “beautiful.” Aspects of divinity are awesome rather than beautiful (see GOD AND HIS ATTRIBUTES ). Yet a ḥadīth says what the many qurʾānic references to beauty seem to imply: “God is beautiful and loves beauty” (Muslim, Ṣaḥīh). Beauty was certainly a factor in the later theological concept of the “miraculous inimitability” (iʿjāz) of the Qurʾān (see INIMITABILITY ). See also ART AND ARCHITECTURE AND THE QURʾĀN .

Rosalind Ward Gwynne


Primary: al-Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad, al-Ḥikma fī makhlūqāt Allāh, Beirut 1398/1978; Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ; Rāzī, Tafsīrṣ ed. M. Muḥyī l-Dīn; Suyūṭī, Itqān, ed. M.A.F. Ibrāhīm, 4 vols. in 2, Cairo 1967, esp. chaps. 64 and 73; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, ed. Shākir; Ṭabarsī, Majmaʿ, 5 vols., Sidon 1333/1915.

Secondary: K. Cragg, The mind of the Qurʾān, London 1973; H. Kassis, A concordance to the Page 214  |  Top of ArticleQurʾān, Berkeley 1983; Nwyia, Exégése; F. Rahman, Major themes of the Qurʾān, Minneapolis 1980.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2686400078