Roger Scruton

Why We Should Stop Using the Word “Islamophobia”

Recently the British philosopher Roger Scruton was sacked from his government position for stating in an interview that Islamophobia is a propaganda word “invented by the Muslim Brotherhood”, among other statements. The interview was intentionally redacted by the journalist to put Scruton in the worst light possible. Since then the journalist has disappeared from social media after refusing to release the full tape of the interview.

Roger Scruton

The treatment that Scruton has received is typical. He has dared to sin against what the Western zeitgeist considers sacrosanct. There is no forgiveness possible, and he is given no opportunity to justify himself. The zeitgeist is his judge, jury and executioner, and there is no appeal possible. Scruton has been unpersoned; he is considered to be no longer a human and to not deserve to be treated with human decency.

This is especially sad because Scruton has been one of the very few Western intellectuals who has tried to engage with Muslim intellectuals. Second-rate intellectuals like Jordan Peterson are happy to regurgitate 19th century Orientalist theories about Islam without bothering to actually read a recent scholarly book or two on the religion. The great progress that the Western study of Islam has made in the past few decades has completely passed them by. Scruton, however, has been willing to sit with intellectuals like Hamza Yusuf in dialog. He also has a close relationship with a hijabi Syrian lady trying to rebuild Syria’s destroyed architecture. Scruton has been one of the very few intellectuals willing to treat Muslims as humans rather than as second-class humans to be shunned.

While Scruton’s views on Islam do not always hit the mark, we should acknowledge that he has done far more than others to try to engage with it and understand it. He should be celebrated for this and whatever erroneous statement he makes should easily be forgiven. So even if what he had said about Islamophobia had been unacceptable, it should still be the easiest thing in the world to continue to consider him a respectable intellectual and thinker and to continue to engage in dialog with him.

But the truth is that his view of the term “Islamophobia” hits the mark.

The problem with “Islamophobia”

According to the New World Encyclopedia,

The term phobia, from the Greek φόβος meaning "fear," is a strong, persistent, and irrational fear or anxiety of certain situations, objects, activities, or persons. A phobia disorder is defined by an excessive, unreasonable desire to avoid the feared subject. Phobias are generally believed to emerge following highly traumatic experiences.

"Phobia", The New World Encyclopedia.

According to this definition of phobia, Islamophobia is an irrational and unreasonable fear or anxiety about Islam.

For a politically-minded person, Islamophobia is a very useful word (similar to homophobia and other modern, politically-instituted “phobias”). It helps insinuate that a person who criticizes or dislikes the object under question is irrational and unreasonable. It helps identify a group of humans as irrational and unreasonable, and in this way helps justify demeaning and dehumanizing them and their concerns.

Islamophobia makes dialog impossible. If you fear Islam, you are the problem, not Islam. It discards the subjective experience of those who fear or dislike Islam while promoting an authoritarian ideology that accepts nothing less than full submission to a positive view of Islam as the only option for a reasonable and rational human.

Making Islamophobia sound like a reasonable word may seem like a great accomplishment for a politically-minded Muslim. It helps create an easy-to-use framework for attacking anyone who expresses criticism of Islam. Calling them an “Islamophobe” automatically suggests that the attacked person is irrational and unreasonable. Whatever concerns or criticisms they have are worthless. And not only that, the politicization of the word also helps take this attack further, making it an attack on their basic humanity. An Islamophobe is not a person with human rights, they are an irrational and insane unperson who should not be treated like a human.

But what do we gain by using this slur against people? It does not change anyone’s mind about Islam. It only helps drive their opinions underground, so that they start to feel that there is an oppressive system above them that prevents them from freely voicing their opinions. Islam restricts their freedom of speech so that the only places where they can voice their opinions become Internet forums and YouTube comment sections.

By forcing criticism of Islam and Muslims to go underground, we only help it grow. Not only do these people hold on to their former opinions, they feel encouraged to only become more extreme because of the feeling that their opinions and their humanity are discarded from the start by Muslims.

The rationality of fearing Islam

Islamophobia implies that it is irrational to fear Islam. This sounds frankly idiotic to someone who feels that the evidence is all around them for why they should fear Islam. Terrorist attack after terrorist attack reinforces the view that Islam is a danger to society. Documentaries are constantly published about the suffering of women under Sharia courts in Pakistan or Britain.

The disgust that our Muslim intellectuals at terrorist attacks does not help remove the association between Islam and terrorism for the simple reason that most people do not get to see the statements of these intellectuals.

The first step to dealing with the fear of Islam in the West is to acknowledge that this fear is rational. Within the subjective experience of the Western person who is exposed to images of terrorism and abuse of women, it is perfectly rational to conclude that Islam is a source of these evils. Calling them irrational is only taken by them as an insult and a slur. Islamophobia tells them that if they make the rational connection between Islam and terrorism, that they are doing something wrong. But they know perfectly well that they are rational, so the insult does nothing to prevent them from making such a connection. It only reinforces their view actually, because they start to sense that there is an Orwellian force from above that wants them to throw away their rationality for a new, politically-instituted faux rationality that somehow finds it logical not to connect Islam with terrorism and other negative things.

It is perfectly rational for a person to fear or dislike Islam based on the information that they are exposed to everyday. The problem is not with the rationality of these people. The problem is with the information that they are exposed to. Discounting these people’s subjective experience is a most futile exercise. The rational conclusion based on the information that they are exposed to is that Islam is a problem. If we want people to stop making this conclusion, we cannot do it by attacking their rationality, but by changing the information.

The information received by a Westerner about Islam is partly true and partly made up of prejudices. The true part consists of the news of terrorist attacks and articles and documentaries about the suffering of women and women’s rights activists among Muslims. The right course of action is not to attack people who bring such information to people’s minds when it is done with journalistic integrity. The right course is to remove the causes for such information being created in the first place by working to promote a tolerant and civilized Islam that naturally prevents terrorism, the abuse of women and all other incentives for the creation of negative information about Islam.

Humanizing the “Islamophobe”

The way to convincing a person who has a negative view of Islam that their view is wrong or imperfect is not to dehumanize them by calling them an Islamophobe, but by treating them as complete humans equal to ourselves.

Kant’s moral philosophy teaches us that the only proper way to treat a fellow human is to treat them as “ends” rather than “means”. Every human is endowed with infinite worth and inviolable dignity from the moment they are born. This is a moral right possessed by all humans, and breaking it by dehumanizing those we dislike only reflects negatively on ourselves. Breaking Kant’s categorical imperative to treat humans as infinitely worthy proves that we are willing to dehumanize some humans. We do not believe in universal human rights and arrogantly think that we can be judge, jury and executioner against humans we dislike.

So how do we treat someone who fears or dislikes Islam? By treating them as if they have every right to come to their own conclusions about Islam. When a Muslim treats a person who dislikes Islam as if the person has infinite worth and dignity, the result is that the person ends up seeing an aspect of Islam that they did not see before.

Good and evil are not equal. Repel evil with good, and the person who was your enemy becomes like an intimate friend.

But none will attain it except those who persevere, and none will attain it except the very fortunate.

The Quran, verses 41:34-35.

Whenever we treat a person who dislikes Islam as less than ourselves, we are showing them that we are willing to discard their inviolable dignity for the sake of our desire for power and comfort. Sensing that we dehumanize them, they will only feel justified in further dehumanizing us. This creates a positive feedback loop that only increases the radicalization of both sides so that we end up with angry and intolerant Muslims who accept nothing but submission to a positive view of Islam from others, and angry and intolerant dislikers of Islam who feel fully justified in working to further increase people’s negative view of Islam by writing or sharing information on Islam’s negative aspects.

This is not how civilized people should behave. By treating critics of Islam with the utmost respect and consideration (regardless of whether they treat us the same way), we show that we follow a higher, better and more civilized morality and in this way prove that we are worthy of being engaged with intellectually. We should display kindness and consideration to critics of Islam, not out of an attempt to manipulate them, but because that is the type of people we are.

A Muslim imam’s preaching for respect and tolerance sounds rather hollow when they are willing to dehumanize people by calling them Islamophobes. An Islamphobe is a person, and persons have the right to be treated the way we like to be treated ourselves (Kant’s categorical imperative). By calling them Islamophobes we break the first rule of morality when it comes to our fellow humans. Nothing we say after that will have any force or meaning. We have started by dehumanizing those who dislike us.

Conclusion

If Islam truly makes us moral and civilized, this should first of all things come out in our actions and words. By using “Islamophobia” we break the first rule of moral and civilized treatment of others, in this way showing ourselves to be rather immoral and uncivilized. We make dialog impossible by calling critics of Islam irrational. If they are intrinsically irrational, then no conclusion they can reach is valid. If we make it a condition for them to like Islam before we consider them rational, then we are basically telling them to sell their independence of mind and conscience to us so that they can become fully human.

Rather than using Islamophobia to dehumanize our opponents, we should make every effort in the opposite direction, constantly showing them that we continue to see them as respected and dignified humans regardless of what conclusions they have reached. They are humans whose subjective experience has made them develop a negative view of Islam based on the information they have received. We do not fix this situation by putting the guilt on them and their rationality, but by showing them that there is a problem with the information.

If as a Muslim you cannot see an “Islamophobe” as an equal human, then you have not learned the first lesson of morality.

The Dark Side of Swearing: The Philosophical Reason Why Using Profanity is Wrong

A philosophical investigation of why using various forms of profanity is dangerous and harmful in the long-term. Included is a discussion of why using the word “sexy” casually is wrong.

The line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” from the 1939 film Gone with the Wind was one of the most shocking examples of profanity that had been shown on screen up to that time in the English language. The Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s brought with it a flood of profanity-celebrating cultural products; films, novels and songs. There is a good reason why the celebration of sexual freedom and the celebration of profanity come hand-in-hand: they are both symptoms of the same process–the increasing corporealization of humans that takes place when a culture abandons its traditional values.

This article heavily relies on the philosophical thought of the great British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton (1944 – ).

To corporealize a person (a verb I have coined) means to treat them as if they were a mere body rather than a person. Seeing a person you respect slip on a banana peel in front of an audience is highly embarrassing because it corporealizes them: it takes attention away from their unique personhood and reveals them to us as mere bodies, helplessly flailing around and falling. Immediately after such an accident, it becomes extremely difficult to take that person seriously, for example if they were about to give a speech. It will take a while for the memory of the embarrassing incident to fade away so that we can start to see the person again as a person, not an object, and so that we can take them seriously.

Rape is a form of corporealization: it is to use a person as an instrument for one’s own pleasure, with their humanity, their personhood, stripped away from them. Mugging someone is also a form of corporealization: the person is treated as a mere instrument, a tool for enriching oneself, without consideration for who they are and what kind of person they are. Rape and mugging are, in a way, the same crime: the crime of treating a person as if they were merely a tool that can be used for one’s own purposes.

Whenever we treat someone as if they were not a person, as if they were not possessed of an inviolable dignity, uniqueness and transcendence as humans, we corporealize them. The philosopher Kant calls this to treat a person as a means (instrument) rather than as an end (aim/goal).

The Golden Rule of Jesus and Muhammad, part of what C. S. Lewis called that Tao, is to “treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.” We like to be treated as centers of independent moral judgment, not as tools of other people. It is a horrible violation of your dignity if someone right now comes along, drags you away from the screen and starts to cut your hair without your consent. This treatment corporealizes you–throws away your independence, your free will, and treats you as if you were merely a random collection of atoms that can be treated however that person wishes. The Golden Rule teaches us to never treat others in such a way, since we ourselves never want to be treated like that. Kant formalized this by declaring that we must always treat others as ends, not means.

Profanity is shocking, gross and insulting because the basis of profanity is always to cause in the minds of the audience the image of a corporealized human.

Profanity always associates humans with gross or inferior matter or with sexuality (profanity can also have religious blasphemy as its basis, which will be dealt with later). The strong sexual element in profanity is due the fact that when a person is revealed to us as a sexed animal rather than a person, they become something less than human in our eyes. Their moral depth, their free will, their conscience, their inviolable dignity as humans, is all thrown out to to be replaced by the image of an animal. We can do anything we like to them because only humans, only persons, deserve to be treated according to the Golden Rule. You do not treat cows according to the Golden Rule. Cows can be slaughtered.

The dark side of profanity is that, by corporealizing fellow humans and stripping away their personhood, we justify to ourselves treating them with the worst treatment. Whenever you hear someone say “She is a cow,” you should immediately translate this to yourself as, “She is not a person.” When a woman is called a “whore”, the implication is that she is not a person–she is merely goods that can be sold. When a man is called a “jerk-off”, the intent is to bring to the mind of the listener or reader the image of that man masturbating. By depicting them as engaging in a degrading sexual act, the implication is that he is just an animal-like creature who does not deserve to be treated like a human.

Of course, such insults in general are only weak suggestions and insinuations that we can ignore. But the problem is that when they become commonplace and respectable to use in public, as they have largely become in Western culture, this has an influence on the way we envision fellow humans. Profanity teaches that some humans are not humans. And this lesson can be taken to heart. It is very hard to take the idea of the inviolability of humans seriously in a culture that constantly corporealizes people.

A moralist will call expressions like “What the fuck?” a “degradation” of culture when it is used by the elite. I have a hard time respecting the writer Reza Aslan because he keeps using the word “fuck” on Twitter. “What the fuck?” brings the imagery of sexual intercourse out of the bedroom in order to grab attention and create a reaction. It is effective at that, but there is a cost to it. If you do not care about the cost, or do not realize there is a cost, then you will have no trouble using it. Many in the West think it is just a silly social rule that such expressions are frowned upon.

Using profanity is the act of breaking something in order to grab attention. When an intellectual does that, it shows their shallowness and lack of reflection, because it means that either they have not thought carefully about the nature of profanity, or that they are irresponsible enough to know that profanity involves breaking something without caring about the thing broken.

The cost, the broken thing, is that by bringing sex out of the bedroom, the corporealization of humans is normalized. I recently saw a social media post by a teenager who complained that he/she was being made very uncomfortable by their mother wearing a dog collar in the house (apparently as a playful expression of her sexual submissiveness to her husband). Seeing one’s mother as an object of sex makes it very difficult to treat her as “Mother”. “Mother” is a social definition, a person within a social context, she is not a body with sex organs. We never want to think of her sex organs because that destroys the social “Mother” in our minds. Once she is reduced to her sexuality, the person fades away so that only the flesh remains. The child no longer knows how to treat her: is she Mother or is she a sexed female animal?

The mother’s excuse was that she was free to celebrate her sexuality the way she wanted. And her logic makes perfect sense within the West’s present culture: why shouldn’t a woman be proud of her sexedness when everything around her tells her to be proud of it and to show it off?

The cost of bringing sex out of the bedroom is that it literally breaks down social relations. To give an extreme example; a boy cannot respect his parents if he constantly sees them having sex, even if technically they are doing nothing wrong and no one is being harmed. By strongly impressing upon the child their sexedness, their bodies, the fact of their being animals, the human element evaporates. The child is disgusted, turns away and wants to have nothing to do with his parents. The child wants Mother and Father, two social persons, not two sexed pieces of flesh. When Mother and Father reduce themselves to sexed animals before the child, they are engaging in child abuse. They are depriving the child of the right to socially relate to them by forcing the child to see them corporealized.

Using any form of profanity is an act of either taking sexuality out of the bedroom where it should remain, or an act of dehumanizing people in order to insinuate that they should be treated as less than human. It is true that it is degenerative because encourages us to corporealize society and throw away the basis for the way we relate to other humans as humans. It calls for turning society into something that has the harsh, inhuman atmosphere of a jungle. Everyone is a piece of flesh; there remains no inviolability for humans.

An important expression of corporealiziation is the way today in the West people have no trouble dehumanizing their political opponents. Imagine the irony of people saying they believe in human rights while habitually using insults on Twitter to insinuate that this or that person is not really a human and therefore deserves no human rights. Supposedly respectable members of society have no trouble calling Donald Trump a “piece of shit” on Twitter.

Regardless of your hatred for him, if you cross the line and dehumanize him this way, you are showing that you do not really believe in human rights. You maintain a double standard where only people you like are really humans. And this is what is clearly seen in almost all Western political discourse today.

Whenever a disliked person is dehumanized like that, the hard-won centuries of development of the humanistic ideal is thrown into the trashcan. In order to vent their anger, these people are willing to reduce fellow humans to animals or worse, completely forgetting the inviolable place that each human should have in a modern, civilized society.

What conservative Christian (think Victorian) and Islamic society achieve is a non-corporealized human culture where people are forced to treat other people with respect whether they feel like it or not. These traditional, civilized societies continually emphasize persons and de-emphasize bodies through keeping bodily functions, including sex, out of sight. Read Victorian newspapers and you will see how respectful everyone is forced to be toward everyone else. Today’s culture appears totally insane and completely unhinged by comparison–everyone is suffering from a form of insanity that blinds them to the humanity of the persons they dislike. Non-corporealized, traditional cultures keep this form of insanity in check, and an important part of their method for keeping it in check is the fact that they strongly disapprove of profanity and public expressions of sexuality.

Traditional Christianity and Islam had civilized culture figured out: you do not dehumanize others, and you do not do anything to spread a dehumanizing, corporealized worldview even if it is by a mere swearword. Today’s Western culture has no idea what it is doing: it thinks it calls for human rights when it freely dehumanizes millions who belong to the opposing political camp. It calls for children’s rights when it destroys their ability to relate socially, as humans rather than animals. to their families as it encourages the open celebration of sexuality.

If you want to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, then you will always avoid profanity. Yes, it is good at grabbing attention. But damaging your home and civilization just to grab attention is a rather cheap trick.

Religious profanity

Religious profanity, like all profanity, involves breaking something in order to grab attention. In this case, rather than breaking the Golden Rule of the non-corporealization of fellow humans, it breaks a rule valued by a particular religion. No self-respecting intellectual should be guilty of this because it still indirectly breaks the Golden Rule by treating other humans the way we do not like to be treated ourselves.

Saying “damn” is inappropriate because it makes light of a very serious matter: eternal damnation in Hell. Saying “What the hell?” is similar, it brings something grave and serious into a casual context, in this way stripping it of its importance. Similar to the way corporealization strips the personhood from a human, these curse words strip the gravity and religious significance of an important item of faith, desecrating them. Corporealization is the desecration of a human, while religious profanity is the desecration of an item of faith.

If you do not care about the feelings of a Christian who is hurt when you insult Jesus, it shows that you are not truly civilized–that the centuries of development of the humanist ideal have passed you by. You are not a respectable member of polite society. For this reason I expect every self-respecting intellectual to avoid curse words of religious origin.

The problem with “sexy”

The word “sexy” is not a swearword, but it is closely related to our topic.

I was recently disappointed to see some Islamic intellectuals use the word “sexy” on social media casually. This is of course not a very big deal. But the problem with “sexy” is that, like profanity, it celebrates the corporealization of humans. The word “sexy” is properly used to describe the fact that a human possesses the capacity to stimulate other humans sexually. Rather than celebrating a person’s personhood, it celebrates their bodies. It turns them into objects and forgets the fact that they are inviolable subjects looking into the universe, not mere objects that can be treated in isolation of their personhood. A “sexy” woman is a woman who can titillate men’s sexual desire. We do not care about her moral character and personhood, the fact that is brought to the fore is that she is a female with desirable sexual features and sex organs that can be used for a man’s pleasure.

It would have been much worse if those Muslim intellectuals had used the word to describe a woman. They did the much less serious act of borrowing a corporealizing term and using it in a non-sexual context. The problem remains that by using the term, they are taking part in the West’s corporealizing culture to some degree. They are taking part in normalizing the use of the word “sexy” in non-personal contexts.

Note that the word “sexy” is perfectly fine to use toward a woman with whom you have a consensual personal relationship. There is no problem with me using it to describe my own wife in private because we have an interpersonal relationship. She has given consent to a personal relationship with me that involves a sexual element. But even here it can still be wrong to use if I use it in a casual way that implies she is merely of interest to me by the virtue of her body. What takes away the wrongness is the constant reassurance in the relationship that I see her as a person, not a body. The constant presence of the interpersonal aspect of the relationship makes room for engaging in eroticism without it being dehumanizing and corporealizing. All eroticism that loses sight of the person and focuses entirely on the body is automatically improper, obscene and corporealizing.

For more on the interpersonal aspect of human sexual relations please see the interesting article “What #MeToo and hooking up teach us about the meaning of sex” by Elizabeth Schlueter and Nathan Schlueter.

Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Theory of Aesthetics

Why is this beautiful?

There is something special about beauty, as has been recognized by philosophers in the recent centuries. If someone says the above piece of architecture is ugly, I would judge them either liars or somehow morally corrupt.

When we appreciate beauty, we feel morally uplifted. This is very strange. Why should appreciating some design have any relationship with how I feel about myself?

This makes me feel like a better person.

This moral sense of beauty is wonderfully expressed by Roger Scruton in the following passage:

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and public world. We can wander through this  world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But—and this is again one of the messages of the early modernists—beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our ‘fallen’ condition, as Eliot acknowledged it in The Waste Land. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental.1

My point in this post is to take those thoughts slightly further using my Islamic education, especially al-Ghazali’s simulation theory.

A beautiful Gothic cathedral is a “glitch in the matrix” that creates a state of awe in your mind best expressed in the Quranic verse:

Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You!2

The state of mind tells us that while from inside the universe things may appear meaningless and random, if we could only look beyond, we would see that they have an architecture and a meaning; history has a director; God exists and watches on.

Appreciating beauty leads to a certain state of the mind. The way that taking a drug creates a certain mental state, appreciating beauty too does something to the mind, creating a special mental state. This state of mind produced feels meaningful because it points beyond the here and now, beyond the confines of space and time, beyond the individual human, in short, beyond the universe itself.

In Islam, we use the word ayah (“a sign that points toward something”) to refer to anything and everything that points to God. It might be possible to explain all beauty using the ayah concept alone (although I am not perfectly sure):

A beautiful thing is anything that points the human mind to the transcendent, i.e. to God.

The similarity between mystical experience and the experience of beauty is well-established. That, according to my theory, is because they are the same thing. The state of awe that beauty forces upon us makes us feel infinitely small, makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and larger than the universe, and most importantly, makes us feel judged by an all-seeing subject, an eye that knows us better than anyone else and is ready to accept us.

That is where the morally uplifting nature of beauty comes from. When faced with beauty, just as we are casually judging it, we suddenly become aware of an eye that looks back and judges us in return. Something suddenly goes click inside our psyche, we are transported beyond our circumstances, and we are offered a chance to become better than we are. We are on the edge of a great revelation but we do not know what is being offered or who is offering it.

For me appreciating the Quran creates the same psychological experience as appreciating beauty, natural or man-made.

This Quran, in pointing to God, is a universe that speaks. And this universe, in pointing to God, is a silent Quran.3

Many Western hippies have visited Fez, Morocco in their seeking of meaning in life. While Morocco has much beauty to offer, meaning that it helps travelers come face-to-face with the all-seeing subject that looks back at us, judges us and offers us forgiveness as we try to judge beauty, the same experience can be had for much cheaper at home by looking at the architecture of most churches and their surrounding scenery.

Moroccan pottery.

Beautiful art, whether Islamic or Christian, points to God. The experience of beauty, whether in Fez or in the English countryside, is one and the same. Both point to God and make moral demands on us, promising us salvation in return for piety.

The problem with Fez and Turkey’s many tourist attractions is that beauty is devoid of moral teaching, therefore while a lover of beauty is elevated by it and motivated to seek God, if they do not go through with this seeking (through religion or at least through the effort of direct communion with God without religion), they end up as moral failures who never reach what they seek. They admire God through beauty but are too cowardly to talk to Him face-to-face.

I have met some of these unfortunate seekers who never become finders. The fact that you can experience the moral uplift of beauty means that you are capable of contemplating God’s face and communicating with Him. But there is a next step you have to take, which is to seek moral guidance. You can experience God, but Your God can speak, so why don’t you listen to what He has to say?

Most mysticism ends in narcissism. Rumi’s poetry, Morocco’s beauty and Gothic architecture all lift us up into the stratosphere like a thousand tons of rocket fuel, but if we are content with this experience, if we seek the experience itself without bothering to listen to God, then our mysticism and spirituality becomes self-worship. We appreciate art or chant the name of God and enjoy the uplift that comes with it, but the moment God starts speaking to us we shun Him and run away, as if saying O God, give us the good feeling of being close to You, but do not make demands. You are lovely, beautiful, amazing, but stay where I put you.

The narcissistic mystic does not chase God, he chases the feeling of what it is like to be close to God. The one who chases God is eager to listen to Him, while the narcissistic mystic feels inconvenienced by His voice.

Ugliness

If beauty is that which points to God, ugliness is that which points away from Him. Beautiful architecture “traces the contours of God’s face” so to speak, helping us know what it feels like to be near Him even though we cannot see Him. Ugly architecture, on the other hand, often present us with faceless edifices that point to nothing beyond themselves, almost claiming that God does not exist and they are all that there is:

Ugliness personified: Zaha Hadid’s gigantic faceless worms (Galaxy SOHO in Beijing, China)

There is nothing to relate to as a human in the above building. It is an alien, impenetrable thing that might be an alien organism capable of wiping humanity out for all that we know. Beautiful things help us come face-to-face with God and offer us salvation. Ugly things offer us nothing and tell us we are not needed. Ugly architecture offers us cruel and vacant faces, telling us life is meaningless and that there is nothing beyond. Like those dismal Soviet apartment blocks, they remind us of the hopelessness and meaninglessness of existence without God. They can be interesting to look at as technological marvels, as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles below, but they are as morally uplifting as a washing machine.

The cruel, blank, inhuman faces of modern architecture.

And as a cure for the horror of experiencing looking at the above building, here is something beautiful and humane, a building that seems to whisper to us about God, almost as if it is an angel who points to God and offer us everything we could desire if we choose to be morally upright:

Religious propaganda

An important clarification has to be made here. By saying that beauty is all that points to God and that all that points to God is beautiful, I am not referring to religious propaganda, which is often ugly.

A Muslim-made billboard that quotes a verse of the Quran and talks to Christians about how Islam is better for them is not going to create any mystical experience in the hearts of the Christians who view it, because they know there is a human will behind the billboard that cannot be automatically trusted. The billboard might use a beautiful verse and a beautiful design, but the attitude behind the object makes it fall flat. Propaganda-makers pretend to possess the whole truth and refuse to acknowledge their doubts and their human weaknesses. Propaganda tries to change the course of history, it is an expression of the desire for a group of humans to make another group of humans do their bidding (I am not saying this is always bad, it can be done with good intentions, but the point is that it is not beautiful; it is not morally uplifting).

Unlike propaganda, beauty has no human will behind it and does not claim to be perfect. It does not matter who funded the above building and for what purpose. It stands on its own and humbly points to God, without pompously thinking that it knows what your beliefs should be, what you should do with your life or how history should go. It merely helps you have an experience of God while leaving it up to you to discover the truth on your own.

There is a certain class of religious art that does make truth-claims but that is not propaganda because it is aimed at members of the religious community itself; it does not seek to change them but only to reaffirm their faith and worldview. Such art is experienced by us as beautiful provided that we are members of that community because the attitude behind it no longer matters since we share the same attitude as its creators. It does not pompously claim to know the truth or try to change your way of life. It uses beautiful imagery to re-create mystical experiences you have already had in the past. The unsavory ingredient of attitude and politics is not present, so the artwork can be appreciated for itself.

Above, what might be experienced as a threatening cultural incursion by a Christian if they were to see it hung as a poster on some wall in their city is experienced by a Muslim as an apolitical reminder of many beautiful-mystical things: Ramadan, the peacefulness of small Middle Eastern towns in the desert, the Prophet’s migration to Medina PBUH. For a Muslim it points to God in numerous ways. For a Christian, if they were to see it hung in the wrong place (on a church’s wall!) it would be a direct, political attack on their way of life and independence of conscience. A beautiful thing in the wrong context can send all the wrong messages; instead of causing mystical experience it can cause discomfort and dread.