Aesthetics and the Limits of Rationalism

Aesthetic preference doesn’t always have reasoning. Why do you like one piece of art but not another? Why does one interior design look attractive to you but not another? Why are some fashions aesthetically pleasing but others look garish? In many of these cases, we struggle to exactly define what it is that makes that thing beautiful. Art critics are able to articulate a great deal in appreciation of great art, but the most moving and inspirational work defies such explanation and, indeed, transcends it.

Religious experience has much in common with this phenomenon, and not coincidentally. Allah, after all, is beautiful and loves beauty while He is the source of all beauty, as the Prophet ﷺ described. Words escape us in explaining what we feel in our worship, devotion, and love, but that doesn’t make our feelings any less real or any less compelling.

And in our moral evaluations as well — reasoning is not always on the table. Not that Islamic ethics and morality cannot be expounded and their wisdoms reflected upon. But oftentimes, explanations and discourse are surface-level, which is not to say they are not important and at times crucial. But the experience and taste beyond mere words is the heart of the matter. And we hear anecdotes of scholars who had dozens of analytical proofs for the existence of God, but all that did not match the faith and conviction of one pious heart. And even the most advanced, sophisticated reasoning will not move the one whose heart and mind have been sealed off from the truth.

Our minds naturally recognize their limit, naturally recognize that there is that which is greater and more powerful and more beautiful beyond us, what cannot be comprehended but can only be tasted, if Allah wills. Let us not buy into the faux-rationalism of modernity, which preaches to us that only those things that can comfortably reside within the realms of our conscious thought and ratiocination are real. We know that with respect to our Lord — laysa ka mithlihi shay and He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing.

Aesthetic preference doesn't always have reasoning. Why do you like one piece of art but not another? Why does one…

Posted by Daniel Haqiqatjou on Thursday, April 21, 2016

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