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No Veiling (ḥijāb) save Light (al-nur) : Some Aspects of Babi-Baha'i Aesthetics



"No Veiling Save Light" : Some Aspects of BĀBĪ-BAHĀ'Ī Theological Aesthetics

Stephen Lambden  (1996 rev. 2005-6)



"His [God's] beauty (jamāl) hath no veiling (ḥijāb) save light (al-năr);  

His Face (wajh) no covering (niqāb)  save theophany [revelation] (al- ẓuhūr)."  [1]

(cited, , Baha'-Allah, Seven Valleys, AQA 3:132; trans.39 [adapted])


Introduction : the theological-aesthetic background

Many aspects of Bābī-Bahā'ī  theological aesthetics have a background in the history of religions; in Islamic and other pre-Bahā'ī philosophical, poetic and religious motifs, theologies and notions of "beauty". A basic introductory word about aesthetics  will first be given here before a consideration of select relevant background materials.

0.1. Aesthetics

An immense amount of literature exists in the `field' of aesthetics  (= lit. `perciptibles'; from the Greek aisthētikos  = `perceptive') which originally meant relating to perception by the senses or, more generally, to the `sense of beauty' and `love of art', themselves born out of a sense of `good taste'). In the west the term "aesthetics" gained currency in the 18th century being coined by a certain Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762) and modified and utilized by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804):

         "Although aesthetics was initially tied to the notion of a science of sensory knowledge and taste, it soon came to be understood more broadly as theoretical reflection on matters pertaining to the arts, beauty, and whatever else attracts attention by virtue of formal, sensory and expressive qualities." (Brown, 1992: [NHCT] 17) 

 Theological-philosophical aesthetics has key roots in the speculations of ancient Greek philosophers. Plato (c. 429-347) in his dialogue the Symposium relates the ascent of the soul to the vision of the "Good" by means of the allure of the "Beautiful". For him "The Beautiful is the chief propaedeutic [preliminary aspect] to the Good, which is the Form of Forms, the end, also of the religious quest" (Enc. Rel. 1:40). Plotinus  (205-270 CE), the founder of Neoplatonism, extended these ideas in his Enneads (`Nines') and influenced Jewish, Christian and Islamic mystical and other concepts of beauty. ADD

0.2.  Bahā'ī Aesthetics

 A Bahā'ī theological aesthetic of beauty might be regarded as the theology and mysticism of the divine Beauty about which much is divulged in Bābī-Bahā'ī scripture. It could be considered to have to do with theological and extra-theological concepts of "beauty"; not only as they pertain directly or indirectly to the divine, to God and His Messengers pictured in both masculine and feminine forms, but also to humankind. This could include aesthetically moving manifestations of human spirituality and art. Then there are the multifarious aspects of the beauty of God in the panorama of creation. Depending on one's definition, aesthetic ("beauty-related") factors may be said to pertain to numerous aspects of life and to many theological and human constructs in various academic and non-academic fields of thought. A vast multi-faceted aesthetic tradition and literature has existed for several millennia. Recently published by Oxford University Press is their noteworthy, massive1998 four volume Encyclopedia of Aesthetics  which contains hundreds of articles and bibliographies, including, for example,  a useful section `Islamic Aesthetics' (vol. 2: 537-541).  The paragraphs to follow will only attempt to provide a preliminary survey of the thousands of relevant Abrahamic and Bābī-Bahā'ī scriptural and other materials of interest to out theme. 

1.0 The background in Abrahamic religion

 The Bābī-Bahā'ī theology of beauty has its background in the sacred scriptures, traditions and philosophies of past ages. It must suffice to briefly survey something of the myriad aspects of beauty  registered in the Holy Books and writings of the Abrahamic religions  -- primarily Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Weight in this paper will be given to the Islamic theological and mystical (Sufi) aesthetical tradition as background material. This is the backdrop out of which much Babi-Bahā' material developed and can be best understood.

The beauty of God and of such celestial beings as are traditionally held to surround Him exist in his "court" (e.g. the [Arch] angels) or (for one reason or another) inhabit Paradise, is  celebrated in the sacred books (the Bible and the Qur'ān) and traditions of the Judaeo-Christian religions. Paradise itself is pictured as a beautiful place inhabited by beautiful angelic and other beings. It is also, of course, the case that the natural and supernatural world[s] of creation and their inhabitants are, in one way or another, reckoned the beautiful creations of the beautiful divine Architect.

Both masculine and feminine aspects of the divine Beauty are registered in past sacred writ. Diverse gender specific terms are used to denote the Divinity and notions of the Divine Beauty -- also reflected in various graphic/iconographic representations of the divine. Occurring, for example, some 2570 times in the Hebrew Bible, the first word for God therein is `Elohim the name of the "God" Who "in the beginning" created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). Grammatically this designation of "God" is a feminine plural though used with singular meaning. Why it occurs as a plural has not been satisfactorily explained according to a recent authoritative entry (by Ringgren) in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament  (1:272). One possibility is that the plural form is an `intensification'(?; lit. emphatically "God"/"Goddesses") implying "totally God".

The Islamic equivalent of (the Hebrew) `El =` Eloah = `Elohim is the personal name for God Allāh which is singular in form though again grammatically feminine. In a recently published, al-Azhar approved, essay by Lella Badawi (summing up an Islamic perspective) it is stated that,

"The word for God in Arabic is Allāh, which has a grammatically feminine ending, although it is treated as grammatically masculine. The effect is to suggest a vision of God that transcends the masculine and feminine." (Badawi, 1994:84).

  However the gender or genderlessness of God is expressed, He / She / It is considered in one way or another "beautiful" in a multitude of sacred and authoritative scriptural texts gleaned from major world religions be they Abrahamic or "Asian"/ non-Semitic.

For Bahā'īs the Essence God (the ultimate dhāt Allāh = dhāt al-dhāt)  is transcendent; a `Wholly Other' neither male nor female. One cannot really predicate such gender specific pronouns as `He', `She' or even `It' to an ultimately sexless and Unfathomable Divinity. The vehicles through which communication with humankind is made possible, however, are human beings -- who are either women or men. These mediatory male or female persons have been considered concrete manifestations of the divine Beauty. So too the more ethereal, metaphorically described spiritual channels through which God communicates with His earthly representatives and with humankind -- such, for example, as the manifestations of the "Holy Spirit" and of the Angelic hosts. Prophet figures mirror an indirect or hypostatic Divine Beauty which cannot be directly experienced or conceived. From the  Bahā'ī point of view the "Beauty" of the Ultimate Godhead can only be indirectly known and experienced.

The divine Beauty as the reality of Bahā'-Allāh is personified and pictured in Bābī-Bahā'ī scripture in images of both female and male beauty. Such personifications include the (Ar.) huriyya  (= houri)  "Maiden" and the fatā or ghulām  (="Youth").  In certain Bahā'ī scriptural texts these images  coalesce so as to suggest their being essentially synonymous metaphorical depictions of the Ultimate Divine "Logos-Self" (nafs), the Spiritual Reality of Bahā'-Allāh and other Manifestations of God. In Bābī-Bahā'ī scripture there is something of a transcendendental equality of gender-defined images of the Divine as well as suggestions of an ultimately super-androgenous Divinity.    

1.0 Judaism & Christianity

The Hebrew Bible has a rich and diverse vocabulary of "beauty". Important are derivatives from the root Y-F[P]-H = "to be fair, beautiful", yāpeh  ("beauty"; cf. Arabic wafā')  which often indicates both male and female (human) beauty; including, for example, that of Sarah wife of Abraham (Genesis 12:11), Abishag the Shunammite (1 Kings 1:3f), Joseph son of Jacob (Genesis 39:6; see below), the young David (1 Sam. 16:12) and the lovers in the Song of Songs (see below and Henton Davies IDB 1:371-2; Ringgren, TDOT VI:218). Another key Hebrew root is  P-`-R = "to beautify, glorify" from which derives the word Tiperet  meaning (like the Arabic bahā') both "beauty" and radiant "glory" including that of God Himself (YHWH see 1 Chron 29:11 cf. Gikatilla, 1994:225). Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition there are numerous religious, mystical and philosophical writings that indicate the eternal and eschatological beauty of God.

Within Judaism the Deity is sometimes pictured anthropomorphically. He is a handsome man or humanoid clothed in beautiful garments; one who radiates a beauteous and majestic splendour; a radiant glory. According to Ezekiel 1:26 God had "the likeness as it were of a human form". One profoundly, divinely beautiful or handsome could thus be visioned by the enraptured mystic. For Ezekiel such a vision was that of the "Glory of the Lord" (Heb. kabod YHWH);  "such was the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the Lord (kabod YHWH)".

Closely related to the Merkavah  ("Chariot") vision[s] of Ezekiel (1 & 10, etc) are the various Hekhalot, the "Heavenly Palaces [Celestial Halls]") Jewish mystical literatures (early centuries CE ?); including the Hekhalot Rabbati  ("the Greater Palaces") and the Hekhalot Zuṭarti ("the Lesser Palaces") as well as the third (III) or Hebrew Book of Enoch.  Therein God is envisioned as a mighty King enthroned upon a "throne of glory" (Jer. 14:21, 17:12) with an appearance and countenance (panīm) of splendid, overwhelming beauty. In summing up the doctrine of God in these texts Schafar writes:

        "First, God is overwhelmingly beautiful. This is valid for most of the Hekhalot texts and has flowed into the formula derived from Isaiah 33:17, that the Merkavah mystic desires "to behold the king in his beauty" (lir`ot et ha-melekh be-yofyo)." (Schafer 1992:16).   

Illustrating this he cites the following lines from the Hekhalot Rabbati:

            "Lovely countenance, 

            adorned countenance

            countenance of beauty

            countenance of flame[s]

            is the countenance of the Lord, the God of Israel,

            when he sits upon the throne of glory...

            His beauty is more lovely

            than the beauty of the gevurot ["powers"];

            his embellishment is more exquisite

            than the embellishment of the bridegroom and bride

            in the house of their wedding." (Sect. 159 cited ibid, 16)

Present in the Merkavah Rabbah ( "the Great Chariot"; 2nd-5th cent. CE?) and developed in later texts is the ancient Jewish esoteric doctrine of (Heb.) the Shi`ur Qomah. This relates to the contemplation of the measurements-dimensions of the "form" or "body" of the Deity. It was an anthropomorphically oriented esoteric tradition; a branch of mysticism relating to cosmic proportions, the majestic and beautiful appearance and quasi-bodily "form" of God. Partly rooted in the Song of Solomon (see below) images and motifs of Divine beauty and majesty are central to it (see Scholem EJ 14:1417f)

Numerous (arch) angelic figures who represent or are manifestations of the Godhead within esoteric Judaism are possessed of divine traits expressive of "beauty" and "glory". According the Hebrew book of Enoch  (III Enoch), for example, God, the Holy One, so glorified Meṭaṭron -- who for some is the celestial Enoch, the "Prince of the Countenance" and the "Great Glory" (Ziwā' Rabbā') -- that "There was no sort of splendour, brilliance, brightness or beauty in the luminaries of the world that he [God] failed to fix in me [Meṭaṭron  = Enoch]" (9:4 trans. Alexander in Charlesworth, 1983:263)[2]  

Possibly having ancient Mesepotamian roots (Weinfeld, 1996) is the classical kabbalistic ("received") Jewish mystical scheme or "Tree" of the ten Sephirot ("Countings", "Spheres"), the emanated divine Powers. The sixth [seventh] emanated power is Tipheret ("Beauty","Glory"; cf. Talmud  ḥagigah  fol. 12a). It occupies a central position in a largely `masculine', sometimes anthropomorphically conceived decad believed by pious Jewish mystagogues to have been important in the act[s] of creation and the divine manifestation. The tenth Sephirot  known as Malchut ("Kingdom") conceived as the Shechinah  (loosely, Divine "dwelling", "presence") has, in this connection, been considered the feminine aspect of the Deity.

The "beauty" (Heb. yāpeh)  of both "lover" and "beloved" are celebrated in the Biblical Song of Songs (Heb. Shīr ha-shīrīm) -- traditionally though seldom today ascribed to King Solomon  (10th cent. BCE?). This work was variously non-literally (e.g. mystically, allegorically, typologically) interpreted within Judaism and Christianity. Some representatives of the former religion understood it in terms of Israelite history or the relationship between "God" (= the Lover) and "Israel" (= the beloved") and derived from it such arcane mystical insights as are found in those Jewish texts representative of the Shi`ur Qomah  tradition (see below; Scholem, 1960 [65]). 

Within Christianity the Song of Songs  has been interpreted of the "beauty" and relationship between Christ and the Church (+ the individual soul). This is exemplified in the (partly extant) commentary (dating from the early 240s CE) and homilies of the learned exegete Origen (185-254 CE). His primarily allegorical approach was variously developed in the patristic, medieval and later periods. e.g. by Gregory of Nyssa (d.c.395) and Gregory the Great (d. 605 CE) (see further Littedale, 1869:xxxiiff; Pope 1977 [83]:112ff).

The Canticles ("Song of Songs") have had a very significant place in the history of both Jewish and Christian mysticism. Rabbi Akiba (fl. mid-1st cent. CE), an influential figure in formative Rabbinic Judaism, had seen this work as of stunning magnitude; "for the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies" (Mishnah, Yadaim  3,5) In one way or another many Christian and Jewish commentators have confirmed this viewpoint. -- on one occasion `Abdu'l-Bahā mentioned its allegorical level of interpretation (000).

Motifs and traits of fair, fine or comely "beauty" figure prominently in the rich tapestry of the Songs of Songs. A complex work of unknown date and authorship[s], the Song  has taxed exegetical ingenuity, furthered eisegetical contemplation and inspired mystical ecstasy. The import of the powerful female assertion of identity, for example, this beloved one's being very dark, swarthy or black (`radiant'? Heb. she ḥorah; Arab. sawd`) and [but?] fair, beautiful and "comely" (Heb. n'wah;  Arab. jamīlat) (Song 1:5), has led to numerous different interpretations (see Pope 1977:307ff; Landy 1983:150ff; Falk, 1982:110-111). Well-known and somewhat clearer are the words of the male lover, "How beautiful [Heb. ypah; Arab. jamīlat] you are, my love, ah, how beautiful (Heb. ypah; Arab. jamīlat)  your eyes like doves" echoed in the response of his female beloved, "How beautiful (Heb. ypeh; Arab. Jamāl) you are, my love, and how handsome!  (Heb. na`īm Arab.  ḥulw) [3] (1:16a trans Munro, 1995:22; see also Song 5:10ff 6:4, 7:7; etc) [4]

Lundy, in the insightful and perceptive volume Paradoxes of Paradise,  has asserted that "Beauty in the Song is an all-pervasive quality, that one cannot separate from the love of the lovers, the world they inhabit, or the language in which the poem is written (Landy 1983:138; see further chapter 3 `Beauty and the Enigma' [137-179]).

The prophet Isaiah predicted that in eschatological times God himself would be made manifest bedecked with bahā' ("glory"  [+ "beauty"]) and Jamāl  (also "beauty"). "In that day shall the Lord of hosts (YHWH Sabaot = Arab. rabb al-junūd)  be for a crown of glory (Heb. `ateret tzevi = Arab. iklīl jamāl), and for a diadem of beauty (Heb. tzepirat tifarah = Arab.  tāj bahā'),  unto the residue of his people." (Isa. 28:5). [5] 

It will not be irrelevant to note at this point that this text is understood of the messiah in the Aramaic Isaiah Targum:  "At that time the Anointed One (or Messiah) of the Lord of hosts shall be for a diadem of joy and for a crown of glory unto the residue of his people" (Stenning 1949:86-87).            

As mentioned, Isaiah 33:17 contains the line "Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty (Heb. melek be-yafyo = Arab. al-malik bi-bahā'ihi;  33:17a). These words have been understood to refer to an expected messianic King. Hence the expository rendering of the Isaiah Targum, "The glory of the Shekinah of the everlasting king in his beauty shall thine eyes see..." (Stenning 1949:108-9). The promised Jewish messiah is to appear as a radiant and beautiful King - note the use of bahā' (= "beauty") in the (Eli Smith) Cornelius Van Dyck Arabic translation (1860s ->),  a version cited by  and beloved of `Abdu'l-Bahā.

 It will not be out of place to note here that an Arabic version [6]  of the opening few verses of Psalm 50 have been applied to Bahā'-Allāh by the Baha'i poet Mirza Muhammad Sidihi, Na'im (c. 1856- c. 19XX) in one of his Istidlaliyya  ("Testimonia") writings (Haifa mss., 68). Bahā'u'llāh is viewed as the predicted manifestation of the (Arab.) kamāl al-Jamāl Allāh ("the perfection of the beauty of God") to appear from Zion (cf. Bahā'u'llāh's Lawḥ-i Karmīl ("Tablet of Carmel").  

A  theology of the "beauty" (Greek kalos, translates the Heb. yapeh  in the LXX)  of Jesus Christ is not much in evidence in the New Testament (cf. Heb. 1:3; Rev 1:16). Despite the influence of the Isaiah 53 understood to be a prophecy of Christ the "suffering servant" in whom is ".. no form nor beauty" (53:1), a concept of the beautiful Christ did surface among certain of the Church Fathers. This was partly due to the influence of various texts within the Greek Bible (LXX see Bertram, `kalos' TDNT III:553f). Important also was the messianic, Christologically oriented exegesis by Origen (d. 254 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (d.c.236 CE), Gregory of Nyssa (d.395 CE) and many subsequent Christian writers of such passages within the Song of Songs as have been mentioned above (1:16;5:10-16).

Like other Fathers, the aforementioned Cappodician Gregory of Nyssa made many important philosophical-theological-aesthetical statements. He spoke of spiritual beauty and the unfathomable Archetypal Beauty of the Divine Beloved. A few relevant passages from his early treatise On Virginity  must suffice to illustrate this;

 So it is with the study of beauty. The man of imperfect intelligence, when he sees an object marked by external beauty, draws the inference that the object is also beautiful within because it happens to exercise a pleasurable attraction  on his senses. He does not penetrate any deeper into the matter. But another person, whose mind's eye has been purified, when he sees such phenomena, despises them: they are merely the material on which the archetype of beauty operates. And he uses what he sees merely as a step towards the vision of that spiritual beauty whose communication is the  ultimate reason why all other things are rightly called beautiful....

 ... For God is not dependent on anything for His beauty; His beauty is not limited to certain times or aspects; but He is beautiful by Himself, through Himself,  and in Himself. He is eternal Beauty─not changing from  one moment to the next─constantly the same beyond all change or alteration, increase or addition." (On Virginity, 46.364A..; trans. Musurillo, 1979:107,111).

Space forbids any consideration of countless other relevant writings with the pre- and post-Islamic Christian literatures.

2.0 Islamic theological aesthetics.

Numerous Islamic sources have a bearing upon the myriad dimensions of general, philosophical, theological, poetical, mystical and other aspects of `ilm al-jamāl ("aesthetics"). Important expressions of the Islamic sense of `beauty' are found, for example, in Arabic and Persian poetry written in the ghazal form and touched upon in numerous Sufī theological, poetical and theosophical writings. According to Kahwaji "Islam enlarged the idea of beauty by inviting its adherents to contemplate universal beauty". From `Abbāsid times beauty was a "favourite subject of adab" (= "humanitas"). While Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, d.1037) expressed the "sensory character of the beautiful" and distinguished "the act of the good and the useful", al-Ghazālī (d.505/1111) explained "the attraction of the beautiful by the pleasure which it gives and the repulsiveness of the ugliness by the pain which it causes"  though  "spiritual beauty perceived through reason is nobler than the beauty of images perceived through sight" (Iḥyā', IV, 296ff cited Kahwaji, EI2:1134f; see further below).   

2.1. The Arabic and Persian vocabulary of "Beauty"

The word Jamāl ("beauty") occurs only once in the Qur'ān as a term descriptive not of beautiful human or supernatural beings, but of "cattle" (al-an`ām)  "wherein is beauty" (fīhā jamāl)  for such as "bring them home to rest and... drive the forth abroad to pasture" (trans, Arberry, Q. 16:6). As a Name or Attribute of God Jamāl ("Beauty") is not found in the Qur'ān. It is not (directly) listed as one of the ninety-nine "most beautiful Names" (al-asmā' al- ḥusnā)  mentioned in the Qur'ān (7:180;17:110; 20:8; 59:24) and listed in various prophetic and other traditions (see Bihār 2 4:184ff;208f; Mishkat, 2:707-8; Robson, I:483-4).

Quite common in the Qur'ān are derivatives from another Arabic root ḥ -S-N including a verbal noun,  ḥasan  meaning `goodness', `fairness', `beauty' or `excellence' (see Kassis, 552f). From this root is derived the Arabic word  ḥusn  which may, among other things, signify  "beauty" and various associated qualities such as "handsomeness, prettiness, loveliness, excellence, superiority, perfection" (Wehr, 1979:208). [7] 

Beauty is also a key sense of the Arabic word bahā' -- for Bahā'īs the "Greatest Name" (al-ism al-a` ḥam) in its sense of "splendour" or radiant "glory" (for some details see Lambden, 1993 and 1997 [forthcoming]). Additionally there are, of course Persian words for "beauty" which -- apart from these Arabic [loan] words -- are used in Sufi theosophical and poetical writings. e.g. zīb (`ornament,' `elegance,' beauty) / zībā ("beautiful") zībā'ī ("Beauty", "Gracefulness") naghz ("Beauty", "Gracefulness"...; cf. Māzandarānī, AA 3:21; Nurbaksh, SS II:29f).

2.2 The Beauty of God in various ḥadīth


Despite its relative unimportance in the Qur'ān, there are important hadīth  (traditions) in which concepts of Jamāl  ("beauty") / jamīl ("beautiful") (and synonyms) are theologically and in other ways significant (see Wensinck, 1992 I-II:372f). A key utterance is the following statement of the Prophet Muḥammad recorded in the authoritative (Sunnī) compendium of hadīth,  the  ṣaḥīḥ  ("sound") of (Abu'l- ḥusayn) Muslim (d. 261/875) -- as well as the Musnād  of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d.241/855) and the Sunan  of Ibn Mājah (d. 273/886; see Wensinck, ibid I:373);

 "God, exalted be He, is Beautiful al-jamīl]  and loveth Beauty [al-jamāl])

(Muslim,  Ṣaḥīḥ, Imān: 147).

In his al-Futuḥāt al-makkiyya ("Meccan Intimation/ Openings/ Revelations]") Ibn al-`Arabī cites and refers to this ḥadīth as an  ḥadīth thābit ("established hadīth" (II:114 = 73, Q.118). It became a key foundational text in the Islamic articulation of mystical theologies of Beauty.

Important in Sufism were various other traditions ascribed to the Arabian Prophet in which the divine Beauty figures including one in which the Prophet is reported to have said "I saw my Lord (rabbī) in the most beautiful of forms (aḥsan sūratin)" (cf. Ernst, 1996:104.fn. 54). There also exists an anthropomorphically inclined hadīth of considerable importance (yet somewhat questionable authenticity) which highlights the divine Beauty by likening the "form" of the Deity to, "a beardless youth [amrad], wearing a cloak of gold, upon his head a crown of gold, and upon his feet sandals of gold" (from Ikrima, cited Chittick, 1989:396 fn.3; see further Corbin, 1969[81]:272+376fn1). [9] Muhammad is, furthermore, said to have seen Gabriel in the form of the handsome contemporary Meccan Daḥyā al-Kalbī (Aḥmad, al-Musnad, II:107...) and visioned his Lord as a "handsome  youth with cap awry (kaj-kulāh)" (000).

A prophetic tradition in which the word bahā' occurs with the sense of "Beauty" or "Glory" was cited by various Sufis; most notably by Rūzbihān Baqlī Shīrāzī (see below) who, at one point in his Mashrab al-arwāḥ states,

        "Whenever God wishes to adopt someone as his loving intimate, He shows that person the glory of His Beauty, so that the person falls in love with everything beautiful. The Prophet said, "The red rose is part of God's glory [bahā']. Whoever wishes to contemplate God's glory [bahā'], let him behold the rose." The gnostic said: The vision of God's glory [bahā'] occurs at the site of intimacy and expansion." (trans. Nurbaksh SS II:26; cf. Schimmel, 1975:299; Ernst, 1996:36f; cf. Lambden, 1983:27+fn.13).

It is evident from various writings that Răzbuhān  struggled "to conceptualize his overwhelming vision of the divine beauty in the theophany of the red rose." (Ernst, 1996:37).        

2.3 Beauty and the Names and Attributes of God.

In Islamic theology the divine Beauty is intimately associated with the divine Identity or Essence and with various divine Names and Attributes referred to in the Qur'ān and traditions. Both Sunnī and Shī`ī traditions reckon them to be ninety-nine in number and to be expressive of the  al-asmā' al-ḥusnā' ("Most Beautiful Names") --  ḥusnā' is a feminine  superlative form of the masculine al-a ḥ ḥan ("most beautiful"). It came about that Muslim mystics and thinkers, through their inner experiences [10]  and theosophical reflections, divided the divine Attributes ( ṣifāt  Allāh) into two basic categories; those of  jalāl ("Majesty", "Power"... ) and those of Jamāl  ("Beauty", "Kindness"...) expressing the dual aspects of the divine "Wrath"/ "Power" (qahr) and "Grace"/ "Benevolence" (lu ḥf)  (see Ernst, 1996:44-45). Rooted in such juxtapositions of pairs of `opposite', polarised concepts -- in the widely attested syzygy of the divine attributes Jamāl ("Beauty...") and jalāl ("Majesty...")  -- are many passages in Sufi literatures (cf. Laylī and Majnăn) as well as in diverse ethico-spiritual texts and mystical-theosophical passages within the writings of both the Bāb and -Bahā'u'llāh (see below).

Of central importance to a consideration of Bābī-Bahā'ī scriptural concepts of beauty is the occurrence of Jamāl ("Beauty") along with jalāl ("Majesty") and bahā' ("Radiant Beauty", "Splendour", "Glory") as divine Names/ Attributes in various Shī`ī hadīth. A key text is the Du`a al-sahar,  a Shī`ī Dawn supplication for the month of Ramadan which exists in various versions or recensions -- one going back to the Twelver Imām Mu ḥammad al-Bāqir (d.c. 126/743 ?), the Du`a al-sahar ("Dawn Supplication") and another to Imām Ja`far al- ḥādiq (d.c.148/765?), the Du`a yawn mubāhila  ("Prayer for the Day of Mutual Execration"; for trans. see Lambden, 1997b). A not inconsiderable number of the Bābī-Bahā'ī occurrences of the words Jamāl ("Beauty") and Bahā' ("Beauty", radiant "Splendour") as Divine Names / Attributes are rooted in this supplication[s]. The aesthetic cascade of the opening lines -- line [1] regarded by Bahā'u'llāh indicative of his person -- are most relevant:

O my God!

I beseech Thee  by Thy Bahā'  (radiant "Splendour", "Beauty" )

at its most Splendid (abhā')  for all Thy Splendour (bahā')  is truly Resplendent (bahiyy); 

 I, verily, O my God! beseech Thee by the fullness of Thy  Splendour (bahā').    

O my God!

I beseech Thee by Thy Jamāl  ("Beauty") at its most Beautiful (ajmal)

for all Thy Beauty (jamāl)  is truly Beauteous (jamīl); 

 I, verily, O my God! beseech Thee by the whole of Thy Beauty (jamāl).

 O my God! I beseech Thee by Thy Jalāl  ("Glory") in its utmost Majesty (ajall)

for all Thy Glory  (jalāl)  is truly Majestic (jalīl); 

 I, verily, O my God! beseech Thee by the totality of Thy Glory (jalāl)."  (see further, Lambden, 1997b [forthcoming]).

The significance of Jamāl ("Beauty") finds a place (among other Divine Attributes) alongside jalāl ("Majesty") and kamāl ("Perfection") in the important treatise  al-Insān al-kāmil..  ("The Perfect Man.." see I.13) of `Abd al-Karīm ibn Ibrāhīm al-Jīlī (d.c. 832/1428). His treatment of Jamāl  ("Beauty") opens as follows:

"Know thou that the Allāh   ("Beauty of God") --exalted be He -- is an indication of His Elevated Attributes (aw ḥāfihi al-`ulyā)  and His Most Beautiful Names (al-asmā' al- ḥusnā'; see above).

The Divine Names and Attributes are primary indications of the Jamāl Allāh  ("Beauty of God").  In his Fawā'id the important Sunnī Ḥanbalite author Ibn Qayyīm al-Jawzīya (d.751/1350) considered God's beauty to be fourfold and to relate to the comprehension of His [1] Essence [dhāt]; [2] Attributes; [3] Names and [4] Acts. Love of the Divine Beauty expressed in the Names and Attributes of God is high in the hierarchy of the human appreciation of the Beautiful Divinity (see Bell, 1979:120f)

Q 2.4 The Divine Eschatological Beauty

The concept exists in Islam of the eschatological, beatific vision of the Beauty of God (ru'yat Jamāl Allāh) -- though its manner or mode were much disputed. In the hereafter (the `world to come' al-ākhira)  or in the new eschatological era in other words, the vision of God is sometimes pictured as a vision of Beauty. `Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī (561/1166; eponymous founder of the Qadirī Sufi order) for example, wrote in his  Sirr al-asrār ("The Secret of Secrets"):

"The vision of Allah is of two kinds:  one is seeing the manifestation of Allah's attribute of Perfect Beauty directly in the hereafter, and the other is seeing the manifestation of the divine attributes reflected in the clear mirror of the pure heart, in this life, in this world. In such a case vision appears as the manifestation of light emanating from the Perfect Beauty of Allah and is seen by the eye of the essence of the heart." (al-Jilānī 1991:51).

Q 3.0 Beauty in Islamic Mysticism, a Trajectory

No full survey of Sufī poetical and prose writings reflecting or dealing with "beauty" can possibly be attempted here. What follows is but a selective trajectory of notes bearing upon this theme.  

3.1. Abū-Ḥamīd al‑Ghazālī (d. 505/1111)

In his al‑Maqṣad al‑asnā fī sharḥ ma`ānī asmā' Allāh al‑ ḥusnā  ("The ninety‑nine beautiful names of God..") al‑Ghazālī comments at some length upon the Name of God al‑Jalīl  ("the Majestic"; No. 42). It indicated God as "the one qualified by the attributes of majesty (jalāl)"; including "might (al-`izz), dominion (al-mulk),  sanctification (al-taqdīs),  knowledge (l-`ilm),  wealth (al-ghanī)"  and "power" (al-qudrat).  God is thus One "absolutely majestic" (al-jalīl al-mu ḥṭlaq).  His attribute "the Great" (al-kabīr)  indicates "the perfection of essence" (kamāl al-dhāt)  while  "the Majestic" (al-jalīl)  implies His "perfection of attributes (kamāl al- ṣifāt )"  (see al-Ghazālī, 1986:126; 1992:112).

When, al-Ghazālī continues, "the attributes of majesty (ṣifāt val-jalāl)  are related to the intellectual perception apprehending them, they are called beauty (jamāl), and the one qualified by them is called beautiful (jamīl)." (ibid).  

The term `beautiful' (jamīl) was "posited initially for the external form apprehended by sight.." [11]  then "later transferred to the interior form which is apprehended by insight, so that one could say: `good and beautiful comportment' or `beautiful disposition'-- and that is perceived by the insight rather than by sight .." (ibid.,112).

Al-Ghazālī continues to underscore the supremacy of the Divine Beauty. He reckons that God alone is absolutely beautiful:

"For the absolute and truly beautiful one (al-jamīl al- ḥaqq al-mu ḥlaq) is God alone may He be praised and exalted ‑‑ since all the beauty (jamāl)perfection (kamāl),  splendour (bahā'), and attractiveness (ḥusn) in the world comes from the lights of His essence (anwār dhātihi)  and the traces of His attributes (āthār ṣifātihi).  There is no existing thing in the world except Him which has absolute perfection with no competitor, be it actual or potential. For that reason the one who knows Him or contemplates His beauty (jamāl) experiences such delight, happiness, pleasure and joy that he disdains the delight of paradise as well as the beauty of sensible forms. Indeed, there is no comparison between the beauty of external forms and the beauty of interior meaning apprehended by intellectual perception." (1986:127; 1992:113).

Having said this al-Ghazālī notes that he has clarified this matter in the Kitāb al-muḥabbat ("Book of Love") (XXXVI) in his Iḥyā `ulūm al-dīn ("The Revival of the Religious Sciences"; IV:36) and states

 "Once it is established that He (God) is beautiful and majestic (jalīl wa jamīl), then every beautiful thing  (jamīl) will be loved and desired by whomsoever perceives its beauty (jamāl).  For that reason is God ‑‑ great and glorious ‑‑ loved by those who know Him, as external beautiful forms are loved by those who see, not by those who are blind." (1982:127;1992:113) [12]

3.2 Rūzbihān Baqlī Shīrāzī (d. 606/1209).

At this point it  may be appropriate to underline the close relationship between expressions of spiritual love and beauty. The writings of the celebrated Persian love-mystic (al‑`ārif al‑`āshiq) and fountainhead of shaṭṭḥiyyāt ("ecstatic utterances"), Rūzbihān Baqlī Shīrāzī (d.1209) are seminal. Many of his Arabic and Persian works are intimately concerned with theological and mystical senses of beauty; the unfolding and experience of the pre-eternal Divine Beauty ( ḥusn-i azal)  enshrined in all things. Related to Abū al-Ḥasan al-Daylamī's  early treatise on mystical love and beauty, the `Alif al-alif al-ma'lūf.. ("[The Book of) the Inclination of the Tamed Alif.."; Takeshita, 1987), his celebrated  Kitāb `abhar al‑`āshiqīn (= [Corbin) "Jasmin des fidčles d'amour") successively  deals, with "theophany in beauty, the prophet of beauty, the prophetic sense of beauty" as well as "the pre‑eternal source of love" and "the esoteric tawhīd" (so Corbin, `Abhar al‑`āšeqīn' EIr. III:215). A passage from his Arabic treatise on 1,001 aḥwāl ("spiritual states") entitled Mashrab al-arwāḥ  ("The Tavern of Souls") must suffice to illustrate the centrality that he, like many other Sufi mystics,  gave to the enraptured soul's experience of the Beauty of God, the true Beloved One. "Beauty" ( ḥusn, jamāl) is an eternal attribute of God such that

"When God wishes to steal the heart of his devotee, he projects the lights of his beauty into the devotee's heart, and through His beauty pours the wine of `loving‑kindness' and `love' therein. Love is increased as the viewing of beauty is increased for `love' and `loving‑kindness' are closely related to the seeing of the Eternal Beauty." (Mashrab 132, trans. Nurbaksh SS II:30)

For Ruzbihān the "beauty of God" is alluded to in the qur'ānic beatitude, "So blessed be God, the finest [`most beautiful'] of creators (aḥsan al-khāliqīn)" (Qur'ān 23:14). Aḥsan is the superlative of H-S-N from which Arabic root  ḥusn = "beauty" is derived. The manifestation of the Divine Beauty in the sphere of creation is indicated. That the Prophet Muhammad had a vision of the Divine Beauty is, furthermore, indicated in the prophetic saying, "I saw my Lord in the most beautiful (aḥsan) of forms." Such a vision of God in the "raiment of beauty" is only possible when the devotee "becomes accepted by the Eternal Beauty" through sanctity and detachment from transitory things (hawādith).  On attaining this vision a one may become "mirror of God's beauty in the world". The principle sources of beauty were those graced with the "pre‑eternal beauty (ḥusn azal), including such Prophet figures as Adam, Joseph, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. They were manifestations of the divine Beauty, the "finest demonstrations of God's Beauty in the world".

`Beauty' is one of the characteristics of love in the lover, which God reveals to him only at the end of his journey towards Him. As his journey becomes completed in love, he sees nothing praiseworthy except by virtue of God's beauty within it. This is why the lover prefers `virtuous beauty' (hosn) over all other forms of beauty in the realm of being" (Mashrab, 132, trans. Nurbaksh ibid). [13]

3.3 Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn al-`Arabī (d. 628/1240)

The Great Shaykh, Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn al-`Arabī in his Istillāḥāt al-Sufīyya  ("Sufi Lexicon"; begun around 1218 CE) defined (spiritual) haybah ("Awe") as "the effect of the witnessing-visioning, the contemplation (mashāhidat)  of the Majesty of God (jalāl Allāh) in the heart (fī al-qalb)."  He clarifies this by stating that it may also arise through  that Jamāl  ("Beauty") which is the Beauty of the jalāl Allāh (Jamāl jalāl Allāh = "the Beauty of the Majesty of God"; text Rasā'il, 5 = Jurjānī, 287). The closely related Divine Jamāl ("Beauty") and jalāl ("Majesty") also feature in the definition of uns ("Intimacy"):

 "Uns ("Intimacy") [denotes] the effect of the witnessing/ visioning/ contemplation (mashāhidat)  of the Beauty of the Divine Presence (Jamāl al-haḍrat al-ilāhiyya) in the heart (fī al-qalb) -- this is the Majesty of Beauty (Jamāl al-jalāl)."  (Rasā'il 5 = Jurjānī, 287).   

The subsequent definition of Jamāl  ("Beauty") follows that of Jalāl  ("Majesty"):

"Jalāl  ("Majesty") [denotes] the characteristics (nu`ăt)  of Stunning Power [of God; al-qahr)  which come forth from the Divine Presence (al-haḍrat al-ilāhīya)." (Rasā'il  5 = Jurjānī, 287)   

 "Jamāl  ("Beauty") [denotes] the characteristics (nu`ăt)  of the [Divine] Mercy (ra ḥmat)  and Graces (al-al ḥāf)  which come forth from the Divine Presence (al-haḍrat al-ilāhiyya)." (Rasā'il, 6)

The close relationship between the Jalāl ("Majesty") and Jamāl ("Beauty") of God is  more than evident in Ibn`Arabī's treatise on this very subject, his  Kitāb al-jalāl wa'l-Jamāl ("The Book of Majesty and Beauty"; Rasā'il, 3-17) which -- after the basmalah  and the statement, "In Him [God] is the Strength ( ḥawl)  and the Power (quwwat)"   -- begins,

        "Praised be to God, the Mighty. Relative to being Manifest (li-ẓuhūr) His jalāl ("Majesty") is His Jamāl ("Beauty")".

For Ibn `Arabī it is the individual's intense Love of the Divine, Absolute "Beauty" which leads to the attainment of true tawḥīd  ("Union [with God]"). Speaking of beauty and God in his al-Futūḥāt al Makkiyya  ("Meccan Illuminations") the Great Shaykh states that "He [God] is beautiful, while beauty is intrinsically loveable; hence all the world loves God." It is the love of beauty which underlies the human love of God. Everyone has the capacity for this (see Ibn `Arabī, Futūḥāt, 114.8 trans. Chittick, Ibn `Arabī, 1988:97).

 3.4 `Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashānī (d. c. 730/1330)

The Shī`īte Sufi `Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashānī in his Istilāḥāt al- Sufiyya  ("Sufi Lexicon") under the letter "J" (Jīm) includes an entry Jamāl ("Beauty"; no. 56). His initial definition is that Jamāl ("Beauty") is "His [God's] theophany (`Self manifestation', tajallī)  by means of His Face-Identity (bi-wajhihi)  before [unto] His Ultimate Essence (li-dhātihi)."  As a disclosure of His "Beauty" which is "Absolute" (al-mu ḥlaq)  the Divine Majesty (jalāl)  is evident.  All in consequence experience His theophany (tajallī)  as an expression of His Stunning Power (qahhāriyyatihi  cf. above on Ibn `Arabī's definition of jamāl). His awesome Power is "the Sublimity" or "Loftiness of the [Divine] Beauty" (`ulūww al-jamāl).  Kashānī quotes the poet and lexicographer Abū `Amr al-Shaybānī (d.c.213/828?)

                       Your beauty (jamāl) goes bare‑faced

                       In the realities of all things,

                        With nothing but your glory (jalāl)

                        To conceal it.

For Kashānī these lines indicate that Jamāl  ("Beauty") is essentially synonymous with, a veiled form of that majestic grandeur which is the divine jalāl ("Majesty","Splendour"). The theosophical extent of the interrelationship of this syzygy of divine attributes is brilliantly spelled out by al-Kashānī as follows: 

 "For all Jamāl ("Beauty") there is a jalāl ("Splendour","Majesty") and behind every jalāl ("Splendour", "Majesty") there is Jamāl ("Beauty"). Since in descriptions of jalāl  ("Splendour", "Majesty") there is a sense of concealment and might (al-`izzat), this implies exaltedness (al-`uluww)  and power (al-qahr)  on the part of the Divine Presence (al-ha ḥrat al-ilāhiyya), as well as humility (al-khu ḥă`?) and awe (al-haybat?) on our part. Conversely, since in descriptions of beauty (al-jamāl) there is  a sense of nearness and unveiling, this implies gentleness, mercy and affection on the part of the Divine Presence ‑ and intimacy on ours." (Kashānī, Istliḥāt, 19 [1991] trans. 13 [adapted])

 3.5 `Abd al-Karīm ibn Ibrāhīm al-Jīlī (d.c. 832/1428).

The significance of Jamāl ("Beauty") also finds a place (among other Divine Attributes) alongside jalāl ("Majesty") and kamāl ("Perfection")  -- three terms used to classify the Divine Names and Attributes (al-Jīlī, I:92) -- in the important treatise  al-Insān al-kāmil..  ("The Perfect Man.." (see I.13) of `Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (832/1428). His treatment begins,

"Know thou that the Jamāl Allāh ("Beauty of God") --exalted be He -- is an indication of His Elevated Attributes (awsāfihi al-`ulyā) and His Most Beautiful Names (al-asmā' al- ḥusnā' see above).

Other Divine Attributes are listed which are fundamental to or synonymous with Jamāl ("Beauty"); including, ra ḥmat ("Mercy"), `ilm ("Knowledge"), luṭf ("Delicacy","Kindness", "Grace"...), na`im ("Excellence, Comfort...") and jūd ("Bounty") etc. (I:89). al-Jīlī further invites his reader understand,  to "Know .. that Jamāl ["Beauty"] is al- ḥaqq  =  the "True One", "Divine Reality", the "Truth"... . He also closely associates Jamāl ("Beauty")  with jalāl ("Majesty"..).

 3.6 Muhammad ibn Ibrahim  Ṣadr al-Din Shirazi, Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1050/1641)

In the fifth chapter of his Persian Partow Namih ("Book of Radiance") Mullā Ṣadrā has a fifth chapter entitled  "On the Essence of the Necessary Being and Its Attributes" which developd a close association of jamal ("Beauty") with the wājib al-wujūd ("Necessary Being") or Godhead:

 [46] The Necessary Being (wājib al-wujūd) has absolute perfection (kamāl) and beauty (jamāl). The beauty of a thing is that the perfection that befits it be obtained unto it. So nothing has beauty (jamal) like the beauty of the Necessary Being (jamal-i wājib al-wujūd), because its perfection (kamal) is not other than its essence. Necessary Being is the giver of all perfection; thus, complete beauty and perfection belong to it. The Necessary Being is the perfect good; they call It the "Giver of good," meaning benefactor; nothing is more beneficial than It, and all things exist because of It. It is named "Giver of good," also, because all things desire It. Therefore nothing is more beneficial than It, and all things need It and Its generosity. And, since the Necessary Being is unique, It has no equal nor opposite. .."  (trans. Ziai, 1980:41, translit. added).

4.0  Anthropomorphic-theomorphic "Beauty"

"Whoever becomes intimate with God becomes intimate with all beautiful things and handsome faces" (words of Dhū'l‑Nūn, cited Takeshita. 1987:129). 

Anthropomorphic-theomorphic traditions about the Beauty of God as visioned by the Prophet Muhammad in human form have been cited above (2.2). They were especially influential in Persian and Indian Sufism from around the time of Fārid al-Dīn `Aṭṭār (d.618/1221; see ibid; Schimmel, 1978:290-291). Noteworthy is the fact that they led some Sufis to practise nazar ("envisioning"), "the contemplation of a beautiful young man, considered a witness (shāhid)  to the beauty of God" (Malamud, 1996:99). In this respect one is reminded of the many testimonies to the handsome "beauty" of Joseph in Islamic mysticism (see below). Also worth recalling is the spiritually ecstatic adoration of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d.672/1273) for the mysterious Shams al-Dīn of Tabrīz (Per. Shams-i Tabrīzī; "The Sun of Tabrīz")While various anti-Sufi Muslim writers reckoned the celebration of an human tajallī ("theophany") of beauty to be tantamount to heretical ḥulūl  ("anthropomorphic indwelling"), it yet became a tremendous force towards spirituality.

For such Sufis as Ahmad Ghazālī (520/1126), `Ayn al‑Qudāt al‑Hamadāni (d.525/1131) Ibn al `Arabī (d. 638/1240), Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, Fakhr al-Dīn `Iraqī (d.c. 688/1289) Hāfiz Shīrāzī (d.791[2]/1389[90]) and Nūr al-Dīn `Abd al-Rahman Jāmī (d. 898/1492) being enraptured with any form of "beauty" in "real love" (`ishq-i haqīqī) is a ladder to the love of the Absolute Beauty. It was not infrequently considered that human beauty, 

"is the most direct manifestation of Divine Beauty, for, according to the famous hadith, "God created man in his own image". The theomorphic nature of man is the metaphysical basis for the central role that human beauty plays in certain forms of spiritual contemplation.." (see Nasr `Preface' to `Iraqi, 1982:xiii).

 It will be appropriate to illustrate aspects of this theme with a section from `Flash VII' *[14* of the Lamahāt ("Divine Flashes") of Fakhr al-Dīn `Iraqī;

            "Love courses through all things.... No, It is all things How

            deny It when nothing else exists?..

            All love for someone else

            is but a whiff

            of Thy perfume:

            none else can be loved.

            It is not so much wrong as impossible to love other than Him, for

            whatever we love (aside from that love which springs from the very

            essence of the lover, the cause of which is unknown), we love either

            for its beauty, or its goodness─ and both of these belong to Him


           The beauty of each lovely boy

           each comely girl

           derives from His─

           on loan.

But beauty and goodness alike are hidden behind the veils of intermediate causes, behind the faces of those we love. Majnun may gaze at Layla's beauty, but this Layla is only a mirror. Therefore the Prophet said, "Whoso has loved, remained chaste, kept the secret and died, dies a martyr." Majnun's contemplation of her loveliness is aimed at a beauty beside which all else is ugliness. He may not know that "God is beautiful" [Hadīth] ‑ but who else is worthy of possessing beauty?

                        That which owns

                       no existence in itself─

                        from whence would it derive

                       such beauty?

And also, "God loves beauty,"[hadīth cntd/] for beauty by its very nature is made to be loved. God with Majnun's eye looks upon His own beauty in Layla, and through Majnun He loves Himself.

                        He who is equal to Your love

                          is You Yourself

                        for You and You alone

                         gaze forever at Your beauty.

Let no censorious pen scratch out the name of a Majoun who views in the mirror of his loved one the Absolute Beauty Itself... 

All that exists is the mirror of His Beauty; so everything is beautiful, and He loves everything. Or to be precise, He loves Himself. In fact, any lover you see loves only himself, for seeing but his own face in the mirror of his beloved, he must needs come to self‑amorousness The Prophet said, "The believer is the mirror of the believer"..."(`Iraqi, 1982:85-6). [15]*

 A similar theomorphic, mystical aesthetic is presupposed in `Flash V' of the Lawā'ih ("Sparks of Inspiration") of the aforementioned Jāmī of Herat (d. 898/1492),

"The Absolutely Beautiful (jamīl `alī al-mutlāq = God)  is the Fountainhead (`Lord') of Divine Majesty (dhū'l-jalāl) and Abounding Graces (al-ifdāl). Every beauty and perfection (jamāl va kamāl) manifested in the theatre of the various grades of [created] being is but a sign [`mark', `stamp'] of His Beauty (simat-i jamāl)  and a token (`attribute',`mode') of His Perfection (sifat-i kamāl) reflected therein.." (trans. Whinfield+ Kazvīnī [1906] 1978:6f [adapted]).

While the patriarch Joseph is a human-angelic paradigm of male "beauty", the celestial houri ("maiden") is a superhuman-divine locus of female "beauty": ".. beautiful pictures.. He painted Joseph and fair-formed houris" (Rūmī, Mathnavī II:1237-8 trans. Nicholson, 1977:352). The following notes (4.1-2) will set the scene for a consideration of their role as archetypes of the divine Beautry in Bābī-Bahā'ī scripture. 

4.1 The theomorphic beauty of Joseph son of Jacob

 Like the `immortal heroines' of ages past (Sarah, Asiyih, Mary, Fātima) Joseph is pictured as a pious patriarch of great handsomeness or beauty. This in both the Bible and the Qur'ān. Genesis 39:7 reads, "Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking (Heb. yefeh toar wi yefeh mareh)".  These words were the subject of comment in many Rabbinic and later Jewish literatures. An example from antiquity is furnished within the Hellenistic Jewish romance, the Story of Joseph and Aseneth (1st Cent. CE?) where we at one point read "For who among men will give birth to such beauty and such great wisdom and virtue and power as (owned by) the all-beautiful Joseph?.." (13:14, trans. Burchard in OTP2:224). Not only Jews but Christians and Muslims have all made much of the motif of the handsome beauty of Joseph.

Following Gen 39:7 is the narrative of the attempt of Potiphar's wife's failed attempt to seduce Joseph; an episode which led to his being cast into prison (see Gen. 39:6ff). The somewhat unique qur'ānic version in  which Potiphar's wife -- Zulaykhā in Islamic legend -- has her female associates (critical of her uncontrolled love and failed seduction of Joseph) experience the angelic nature of her unrequited Israelite love:

"Certain women that were in the city said, `The Governor's wife has been soliciting her page; he smote her heart with love; we  see her in manifest  error.' When she heard their sly whispers, she sent to them, and made ready for them a repast, then she gave to each one of them a knife. `Come  forth, attend to them,' she said. And when they saw him, they so admired him that they cut their hands, saying, `God save us! This is no mortal; he is  no other but a noble angel.' `So now you see,' she said. `This is he you blamed me for. Yes, I solicited him, but he abstained. Yet if he will not do  what I command him, he shall be imprisoned, and be one of the humbled." (Q. 12:30-32).

It was partly on the basis of Qur'ān 12:30ff Joseph is pictured as the paragon of handsome beauty in numerous Islamic Qisas al-anbīyā' ("Tales of the Prophets"), Sufi poetical and other literatures. The section about Joseph in the Ta'rīkh al‑rusul wa'l‑muluk  ("The History of Messengers and Kings") of Abū Ja`far al-Ṭabarī (d.923) is introduced as follows: "Jacob's son Joseph had, like his mother [Rachael] more beauty than any other human being." (trans. Brinner, ADD MISSING TEXT