ABSTRACT

The Qur’ān is beautiful. That might seem like an aesthetic judgment. It might also seem like mere opinion, easily contradicted or disputed. It may also be the sort of bald declaration a scholar should not make. Yet it would be hard to argue that the Qur’ān has not grown more beautiful with the passage of time, that the appreciation of the Qur’ān on aesthetic grounds has not become more widespread, commonplace and institutionalized over the centuries. There has long been something nearly objective about the beauty of the Qur’ān. The way in which this beauty has overflowed the limits of its sui generis genre — a recitation transmitted to and among believers — says something about the enduring rigor of belief in its aesthetic qualities. For those who cannot read the Qur’ān, which includes nearly all non-Muslims and a large proportion of Muslims as well, and therefore cannot experience aesthetic pleasure based on either the meaning of the text or how that meaning and its expression are related, there remain two other vital ways to appreciate its beauty. First, a Qur’ān, or a page of the Qur’ān, or even a mere verse of the Qur’ān, written in any one of many styles of calligraphy, may be extraordinarily beautiful, even to someone wholly ignorant of the Arabic script and therefore unable to distinguish letters let alone read words. A non-Muslim non-Arabophone reader can experience the calligraphy of the Qur’ān as beauty in the abstract. The Qur’ān as physical object can be and has been rendered repeatedly into an objet d’art. Second, a chapter of the Qur’ān can be recited according to complex rules, which require years of training to master, so that it is rendered extraordinarily pleasing to the ears, as the many Qur’ān recitation competitions across the Muslim world, some of which can be found on YouTube, attest. It is not unusual for a beautiful man with a beautiful, athletic voice to all but sing the Qur’ān to the hushed pleasure of a crowd. The Qur’ān as intangible object can be rendered into a 78performance that leaves the spectator in a swoon. In neither the case of calligraphy nor the case of professional recitation is the text’s meaning of immediate consequence. The Qur’ān as experienced today very nearly marks a perfect cleavage of form from content. The calligraphy is beautiful regardless of the text’s meaning, as is the recitation. It is enough to know that the verses written in calligraphy or sung in recitation are from the Qur’ān to predispose the viewer or listener to understand them as beautiful. If any further convincing is still required, the objet d’art or the performance accomplishes it.