16 Forever: Islam & Our Culture’s Fixation on Youth


Reconstructing Beauty Series: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI

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While it’s a natural instinct in all of us to seek to beautify ourselves and seek out beauty in others, we live in an age in which there is, as one author puts it, “a profound attachment to looks and aesthetics.”1 Instead of considering our physical appearance as simply one aspect and dimension of our being, we are often told—subtly as well as explicitly—that it should be the center of our focus, and the means by which we value ourselves and others.  This is in no small part due to the fashion and beauty industry, a multi-billion dollar global business that churns out products and images that define for us what beauty is, and what we need to buy in order to attain it.

Often, the image of beauty put forward by this industry, and reinforced in many ways in our society, is that of a woman who is flawless in form and feature, and most importantly, young.  Any sign of age is considered a defect. Gray hair and wrinkles are unacceptable, and even laugh lines and smile lines are considered repugnant.  Many cosmetics are marketed not only as revitalizing and enhancing, but as literally transformative; such products will not only beautify you, but are ‘age-defying’ and ‘age-reversing’, erasing years from your life and making you more like the idealized, adolescent woman that fits this image of perfection.

Studies have found that an aversion to looking older is found not only in middle-aged women (for whom these products have long been targeted) but increasingly in younger and younger women who are turning to cosmetic procedures2 , and also in men, for whom the cosmetics industry is booming.3

What are the effects of this aversion to aging?  And what does it mean to live in a society where the height of beauty is looking forever sixteen or eighteen?

The Problem with the Idealized

While there is certainly a fresh-faced appeal in men and women in their teens and twenties, putting such an image forward as the only standard for beauty is troubling on many levels.  This narrow standard does not speak to the multitude and diverse ways God has manifest beauty in human beings.  It also reinforces the idea that any sign of age is unequivocally tied to ugliness.  This and similar ideas lead people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s to desperately grasp at a perpetually youthful look, instead of considering that there may be more refined, mature images of beauty that progress with age.  Not comfortable in their own skin, they become deeply dissatisfied with their appearance and/or that of their spouses, which can lead to a myriad of issues and problems.

A Broader Perspective of Beauty

Instead of encouraging a robust and healthy conception of beauty, such ideas promote a narrowed and distorted version of it.  There is more to beauty than the particular, exacting (and often digitally altered) images that we are shown again and again by the fashion and beauty industry.  We must consider such images in light of the teachings of our religion, which emphasize that God has created us in due proportion and form4 , and the repeated example in His creation of the beauty of variety and diversity:

“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (Qur’an 30:22)

A wonderful illustration of this can be seen in the Mothers of the Believers, who were each ‘ideal’ women, but very different from each other, not only in personality, but in age, background, form and feature.  It is also a point of reflection to consider that the first love of our beloved ﷺ (peace be upon him) was Khadija, a woman who was many years the Prophet’s senior.

Appreciating Signs of Age

In addition, we should not be repulsed by signs of age, but consider them reminders of our inevitable mortality, and as opportunities for introspection and change.  We should live our lives aware that we are constantly moving from one stage to another closer to our death, and conscious of the fragility and shortness of this life.  Islam teaches us in so many ways that we should keep this reality in the forefront of our minds; the Prophet ﷺ encouraged us to “remember often the destroyer of pleasures (death)”5 and to “visit the graves, for they remind one of death.”6

Imam al-Busiri, in his famous work Qasidat al-Burda, likens gray hair to a guest that arrives to remind one of one’s mortality:

Verily my soul which is laden evil did not heed advice

Due to its ignorance, from the warning by grey hair and old age.

And I have not prepared of good deeds a feast,

For a guest (that) has lodged on (my) head nor did I honor (him).

The Prophet ﷺ also said, “Gray hair is light on the face of a Muslim.”7 While it is not specifically prohibited to dye gray hair (with certain conditions), one should consider one’s internal state when doing so, and realize that while one can conceal the signs of age, one cannot erase its reality.

Contextualizing Beauty

Physical beauty must also be put in its proper context, taking into account the reality of the purpose of our lives.  Beautifying our inner state and inner ‘image’ should be given critical importance, for “God looks not at your faces or bodies but at your hearts.”8 A poet stated, “Do not be like Iblees (Satan) and see in Adam only water and clay,” meaning we should look beyond mere form to value what is deeper and more meaningful.

Our Attitude Towards Aging

Our culture’s negative feelings towards aging are not only manifest in its obsession with youthful looks, but also in the way it often rewards and idolizes adolescent behavior.  Advertising encourages us to preoccupy ourselves with gadgets, toys and entertainment.  We find music, television and movies filled with portrayals of relationships in which maturity and responsibility are absent and an objectifying sexuality is key.  In many ways, we are being taught that we should not only strive to look like adolescents, but to act with the immaturity of them too. For this reason, we see many grown men and women lacking wisdom, responsibility and maturity in their behavior and displaying a lack of seriousness and purpose.

We must realize that there is a level of dignity and maturity that should come with age and that should alter one’s behavior as one becomes older.  A thought-provoking prophetic tradition states,  “There are three to whom God will not speak on the Day of Resurrection, nor praise, nor look at; theirs will be a grave punishment: an old man who fornicates, a king who lies, and a poor man who is arrogant.”9

Fornication, lying and arrogance are sins in and of themselves, but when enacted by such people there is an added element of incongruity.  A king has no one to fear in this world due to his power, and therefore has no need to lie, and a poor person has little of worldly things for which to feel arrogance.  In the same way, for an old man to fornicate is not only something sinful but an act that is unbecoming and ill suited to him.  He should have matured and reached a level of self-discipline that would preclude indulging his desires in a prohibited way.  The greater lesson here is that we should be constantly developing and growing spiritually, in a way that would lead us from the hot-bloodedness of youth to a more composed, disciplined and serious nature as we age and realize the gravity of our purpose in life.  The prevailing attitude towards age in our society is one that undermines this natural progression towards maturity, and we should recognize this and work towards a dignified attitude and behavior that befits our age and experience.

Conclusion

While we may be aware of Islamic teachings on beauty and age, our understanding and feelings about them are often more deeply shaped by the prevailing ideas in our culture and what we see around us.  It is for this reason we must turn a critical eye to the ideas that we are being taught and consider whether they are sound, psychologically and intellectually as well as Islamically and spiritually.  As the title of this series indicates, we may need to ‘reconstruct’ some of the ideas we hold dear and reconsider how we think about beauty, age and related concepts.  May Allah bless us with clarity of understanding, and grant us a deep and profound beauty that makes us beautiful in His sight.

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  1. Ojoma Akor, “Aging Gracefully as a Woman” []
  2. Use of Botox and Dysport in 13-19 year olds has increased 2 percent over the past year and 100 percent in the past 15 years. Ther has been a 509 percent increase in Botox use by all ages over that period. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/face-it/201102/too-young-look-old-what-youth-fears-about-aging) []
  3. Male cosmetics sales in the U.K. are growing at twice the rate of the female market.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/03/08/us-britain-grooming-idUSTRE6273CI20100308 []

  4. Qur’an 82:7 []
  5. Sunan at-Tirmidhi []
  6. Sahih Muslim []
  7. Al Bayhaqi []
  8. Sahih Muslim []
  9. Sahih Muslim []

11 Comments

  1. muslima says:

    ASA,may Allah(swt) reward you for such an important and relevant reminder.May Allah(swt) keep us in His protection and keeps us guided of all the evils around us.Ameen

  2. Ramadan says:

    Jazakallahu khayr

  3. Yasmin says:

    Jazakallah khair for this wonderful post!

  4. Ali says:

    “Advertising encourages us to preoccupy ourselves with gadgets, toys and entertainment. We find music, television and movies filled with portrayals of relationships in which maturity and responsibility are absent and an objectifying sexuality is key.”

    I’ve always found commercials advertising things which don’t carry any particular purpose in my life. In fact, its almost as though they are creating a need for a feature like watching TV in a car or on your phone. I also do feel that people look at true maturity as illustrated in Islam as childish and kid like almost. But when it comes to parties, going wild, boyfriends and girlfriens and sex, that is the peak of maturity. In other words, you have become a true man and true woman when you have achieved done these things. What’s sad is that this is apparent even amongst muslims themselves.

  5. Niyi says:

    JazakAllah

  6. Salaams,

    I’m elated that this issue is being brought to the fore by your sisters and I hope that Allah grant you ample good deeds for your efforts. I work as a personal trainer at a large corporate gym in a very “posh” sector of Atlanta and I’ve seen first-hand how warped conceptions of beauty can have enduring effects on perception, mostly, though not exclusively, from the side of women. Everyday I am reminded of the potency that television, Hollywood (or color-conscious Bollywood…as if Hollywood isn’t race-conscious), and these stupid magazines have on our perception of reality. How ironic is it that these things, which are often the farthest things from reality, are what inform our perceptions of what is real the most. And how terrifying that we – our children especially – are being inundated with these images constantly. It’s hard for me to penetrate the depths of the inner beauty in people when they can’t see the light for themselves…because they’re to busy worrying about how some model looks in Vanity Fair or whatever. We live in dark and strange times…

    I have found, though, that the injunctions of the Prophet do help to keep one healthy and vivacious, such as the mandate to abstain from alcohol (and intoxicants in general), the order to eat wholesome foods, and the example of being physically active (I have in mind the Prophet’s predilection for archery and the Companions love of wrestling, in the masjid of all places :D). With these, I think one can age gracefully, as we say in American culture, but without the cognizance that life serves a greater purpose, it’s totally futile and meaningless, so far as I’m concerned.

    Anyway, jazaks again.

    Salaam/Peace

    • Shazia Ahmad says:

      As salaamu alaykum Br. Ra’shaan,

      Jazak Allahu khayran for your comment! I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts. Throughout the series, I think all of us authors have been trying to make sure that our articles do not seem to push an opposite extreme, of NO attention to one’s physical appearance or neglecting one’s health (which some of us need to work on more than others!) The main goal I think was to do two things really:

      1) To expand what’s considered a ‘beautiful’ physical image, to one that is more open to diversity and variety and beyond what mainstream media teaches us.

      and

      2) To talk about developing an inward beauty – when our society puts so much emphasis on the physical, it’s nice to step back sometimes and put things in context and realize there are other dimensions to one’s being that should be developed and worked on too.

      I hope this is not misunderstood to mean that we shouldn’t care about how we dress, look etc.

      Take care,

      salaam
      shazia

  7. tahirah says:

    I thank you from my heart for taking the time to write this for us all to read.
    I have a few wrinkles and laughter lines which have come with age consisting of a life thus far inclusive of being granted the jewels in my life, my children. I have tried to teach my children from an early age to respect people and to try and treat them as they themselves would wish to be treated without basing anything on appearance. I have tried to guide both myself and my children to believe that a good heart and strong spirit are the most important part of any person, of any colour, in any part of Allah’s (swt) world.

  8. lanee says:

    Seems..beautify the heart is not belonging for any gender or any age, as it is the key to be beautiful.

  9. Joanie Haramain says:

    ‘Beauty is useless, character is the BEST.”

    This article may be an avenue for people to reflect on the real essence of beauty which doesn’t only focus on the physical aspect but also on the INNER aspect which doesn’t fade unlike the former. May ALLAH (SWT) grant the author the ability and strength to publish more articles related to this and more relevant perspectives about the value of spiritual BEAUTY.

  10. Samara says:

    Thank you for sharing so beautiful thoughts….
    I have a question:

    I am a 18 year old girl and I dont know why I have got wrinkles ,under eyelines and etc onmy face ,these are signs of aging at a very tender age … When asked few my friends they said may be coz of misbehavour with your parents…I wasn’t into the reigion before but alhamdulillah started knowing the beauty of Islam since last 2 to 3 months But I am unable to understand what and to react to my problem,Sometimes it doesnt bother me much but then my mom keeps reminding me look at you face . Please need an answer
    Jazakallah

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