One of the beauties of traditional sacred cultures is that the body, far from being seen as an obstacle to spiritual growth, can be a portal to the sacred realm. Sages like Mawlana Rumi, the Persian sage, have spoken about how the five external senses open to the world, and there are internal senses that open up inward, as it were, to the sacred realm. That is why every sense has a way of being satisfied, uplifted, and sacralized.
The sense of scent, very much like that of hearing, is inherently spiritual: it is unseen, but felt. It moves towards the aerial, the ethereal. It is a "barzakh", a bridge or isthmus, between the world of the material and the spiritual.
Rumi indeed describes the task of perfume as one of reminding us of the origin: When union with the Lord has left our sight
We need to be reminded of His might,
Like when the fragrant rose’s life is spent
Rose water lets us still breathe in its scent [Rumi, Masnavi, 1:671-2]
That is why there is such a rich tradition of incense, perfume, and bukhur in so many Muslim cultures.
That is why there are such beautiful stories of the Prophet (alayhi salat wa salam) having filled every space he entered with the scent of roses, or Imam Ali having done the same with the scent of Jasmine. Many pilgrims experience the space of the Ghar-e Hira, where the Prophet received the first revelation, as being filled with a sweet fragrance. Let us begin by looking at the Prophet’s comments on fragrance and incense.
The Prophet on fragrance and incense:
There are many sacred details about the Prophet’s love of perfume. Quite a few of them are traced back to A‘isha herself. It is well-known that when in a state of ihram during the pilgrimage, pilgrims refrain from adorning themselves with perfume. Nevertheless, A‘isha states that when the Chosen One (S) was in ihram, she adorned the Prophet with a Prophet “with a perfume that is not like yours.” [Sunan an-Nasa’i, 2688.]
A‘isha also goes on to say that he put perfume on almost like an anointment, to the point that his beard and skin would glisten with it. “I used to put perfume on the Messenger of Allah using the best perfume I could find, until I saw the perfume glistening on his head and in his beard, before he entered Ihram.” [Sunan an-Nasa'i 2701]. Another saying states that Prophet never rejected perfume. [Mishkat al-Masabih 3017 and Sahih al-Bukhari 2582]
Discussion of perfume show up in many of the teachings of the Prophet, far beyond merely being pleasant. The Prophet also spoke of the healing properties of different incenses, as specified that Indian incense (al-‘ud al-Hindi) contains healing for seven different ailments, one of which is a respiratory illness. [Sahih al-Bukhari 5692, 5693].
Another narration states that the scent of Paradise can be detected from forty years of traveling away. (Sahih al-Bukhari 6914). Fragrance is not merely an earthly phenomenon, but also a celestial one. Paradise itself was said by the Prophet to have a scent like “sweet basil waving in the breeze”, indicating that even the celestial realm is not bereft of scents. There is also reports of braziers (holders for coals used in burning bukhoor) in paradise, as the people to first enter paradise are said to have braziers of pearl.
The sayings which speak in a context of forbidding perfume seem to have to do with the very power of perfume, so as to tell women to not indulge in them right before coming to prayer. In other words, it seems to be less about perfume itself and more about the distraction of perfume in a prayer context. [Sunan an-Nasa'i 5263]
The Prophet even specified the preferred perfume for men, which was identified as Musk. Musk is a natural substance obtained from the glands of deer. And many sages like Rumi (who refers to musk on 48 occasions in the Masnavi alone!) have marveled at how blood can be transformed into something so fragrant. [Masnavi 1:1471]
Perfume in the Sufi tradition:
One minor indication of the importance of the fragrant senses, and their connection to healing, is that one of the greatest Persian Sufis, Farid al-Din ‘Attar, is named as the “perfume-seller.” He would have been something of an herbalist.
It was not only human bodies which were to be adorned with senses, but also sacred sites. The Prophet specifically instructed the mosques built in villages be not only cleansed and purified, but also perfumed. [Sunan Ibn Majah 758]
Perfumes were in such demand in Muslim societies that the bazars/souqs which historically were used for selling them could fund building of whole madrasas. The most famous one is in Fez, the 14th century al-Attarine Madrasa, one of the great masterpieces of Islamic arts.
Mawlana Rumi uses the metaphor of fragrance to talk about how our good words rise up, the way incense does, to rise up all the way to God. [Masnavi 1:882]
The 20th century South Asian mystic, Hazrat Inayat Khan, likewise described incense in similar words through this dialogued imagined between a seeker and incense itself: "Incense, tell me the secret of your being.” “I am the heart of the lover of God, whose deep sign rises upward, spreading its perfume all around." --Hazrat Inayat Khan
So indeed, let us come to our senses!
But not merely in the sense of "let us be rational", the way that expression is used today, but let us fill and overflow our senses, open them up as a portal to the realm of spirit that permeates the sacred here and now.
Bio: Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. He leads online courses on Islam through Illuminated Courses, and offers spiritually oriented tours to Turkey
and Morocco, as well as an Umrah program, through Illuminated Tours. His most recent book is Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition (Yale University Press). He has elaborated on the themes of this piece in his online course, Heart of the Qur’an, which is open to everyone.
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