‘Women, Perfume and the Coolness of My Eyes’: Exploring a Profound Hadith

Peace, one and all…

In a well known and very interesting hadith, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:

“Made beloved to me from your world are women and perfume, and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer.” (Ahmad and An-Nasa ‘i)

Ever since I first encountered this tradition, I thought it was both beautiful and profound.  I find it beautiful for several reasons.  Firstly, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) speaks very movingly of the things he (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) finds beautiful.  Secondly, it speaks against many of the common misconceptions of Islam – as being a faith set firmly against the autonomy of women.  Thirdly, it gives me a very strong sense of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) as a man who loved women, enjoyed being with them and indeed, sought out their company.

As I was reading this tradition again recently, it struck me that we might also read this hadith in a more allegorical manner.  However, before I do that, it is important to point out that this is not an attempt at exegesis.  It is simply my own reaction to the Prophet’s (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) words.  In that sense, it marks my attempts to think with the hadith.  Therefore, whatever I say here should not be seen as authoritative.  Rather, I am attempting to explore symbolic meanings – or, better yet, possible symbolic meanings (very much in the manner outlined in The Poetics of Religious Experience by Aziz Esmail: see this excerpt).  If there is any truth in what I say, it has come from God.  All else has come from my own misunderstandings.

When read allegorically, this hadith can also be understood as a description of our human process of encountering the other.  The first thing to note in this regard is the phrase: ‘Made beloved to me from your world’.  This reminds me that although the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is indelibly human, he is also part of another world entire.  That is, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam)  is the human recipient of the Divine Revelation contained in the Quran and so, in that sense, partakes of another realm.  We might say that he (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) has already reached the goal (and travelled far, far beyond it): he is thus the symbol and metaphor of a perfected human being (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam).  He (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is thus our role model in the long journey towards God.

It is interesting that the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) first refers to women.  Our first entry into this strange world comes through a woman.  The Quran has this to say:

‘We have enjoined on man kindness to his parents; in pain did his mother bear him, and in pain did she give him birth’ (46:15).

A woman, in most cases, raises us, nurtures us and teaches us love.  In one way or another, every human being upon the face of the planet has had their lives affected, deeply and personally, by their mothers.  To love women, and to love woman, is thus essential for any spiritual growth.  In another profound statement, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:

A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father. (Bukhari, Muslim).

For men, in particular, the call to honour and love woman is also a call to honour and love what is other than themselves.  In a direct, personal manner, it is an injunction to honour what is fundamentally different from maleness and from masculinity (however one might define it).  On a deeper level, the call to honour the other, at the very beginning of human life, is a profound idea: it suggests, to me at least, that honouring the other is a fundamental part of living – so important, in fact, that we are forced to learn it from our first moments on earth.

The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) then refers to ‘perfume’.  This reference lies behind the amazing use and diversity of perfumes in the Muslim world.  Indeed, a visit to an Islamic bookshop is rarely complete with buying one or two small bottles of `Ittar.  Why is perfume mentioned here?  Or, to put it another way, what allegorical significance could perfume have?  Well, it is worth remembering the provisional nature of these remarks.  But, perhaps, it might have something to do with the nature of perfume itself.  That is, we put on perfume to beautify ourselves, and to help ease away some of the less pleasant aspects of human nature.  In the allegorical sense I am exploring here, perfume helps our interactions with the other.  In a sense it is a form of social convention – the idea that some smells are better than others.  That is, it speaks to the practice of relationship – in a metaphorical, as well as directly physical manner.

I would tentatively argue that adab (in the sense of being appropriate behaviour) is moral and behavioural perfume.  To perfume our behaviour is to think about how the other might regard us, before we proceed.  It is to understand the rights of others, as we consider our own course of action.  On a deeper level, it is to help make the world created by our interactions as ‘sweet-smelling’ and as gentle as possible; it is to make the world more beautiful.

The last portion of this profound hadith states: ‘and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer’.  The phrase ‘coolness of the eyes’ refers to something that brings a person joy and happiness, an easy sight amidst the heat of day (remember, the context for this is modern-day Saudi Arabia).  In other words, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is saying that prayer is the thing that gives him the greatest amount of comfort, rest and refreshment in the entire world.  Why?  Well, mostly because the Quran commands Muslims to pray.  But what does it mean to pray?  Well, many Muslim conceptions of prayer see it in terms of appearing before a King, of presenting oneself before the King of the Universe (Malik al-Mulk).  This is, of course, true.  Allah is indeed al-Malik (the King).  He is also al-Maalik (the Owner/Master).

On a deeper level, prayer is also an act of relationship; it is an orientation towards the Divine.  I have offered a few thoughts on the Symbolism of Prayer elsewhere (see here as well).  Suffice it to say here that prayer is about an ever-deepening opening out in the presence of God.  When seen in relation to the rest of this hadith, perhaps we might say that true prayer (true opening to God) is the final stage of our eternal journey.  As we struggle to pray, we continuously learn new things about ourselves and our relationship to God.  Moreover, it is important to realise that we cannot approach God fully until we learn to approach our human relationships with love and honouring (with perfume in other words).  Prayer is thus an encounter with the ultimate other, God.

And God knows best.

Related Link: Dar al-Masnavi

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman

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24 thoughts on “‘Women, Perfume and the Coolness of My Eyes’: Exploring a Profound Hadith

  1. Asalaamu alaikum.

    Beautiful way of looking at this hadith, mashaAllah. You have opened my eyes to looking deeper into hadith statements, not just taking the “overt” or outer understanding of it, and even looking at more than just the context (which is very important and often forgotten), delving into the possible symbolisms and different layers of potential meaning present. Shukran.

  2. Wa alaikum salaam Aaminah,

    Jazak Allah for your kind thoughts. All that is right and true comes from Allah, Sustainer of All Being. Only the mistakes are mine.

    I used to forget that as much as it is religion, Islam is also a process – it aims to take the raw material of the human soul and shape it towards a better end.

    Allah! Help us all to become whatever we were meant to be.

    Abdur Rahman

  3. interesting, sidi Abdur Rahman:

    you may appreciate the following excerpts from an article by Sh. Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi, “On True Love” [sorry about the length]:

    http://jerrahi.org/writings_english/onlove.htm

    I read that the truth of Muhammad (saws) comes from three sources. These three are mentioned to us with the words of his love, for love itself is the source of all existence. He says, “I was made to love three things from your world: women, and perfume, and the comfort of my eye is in salat.” He mentioned women first and salat last.

    ….Allah teaches men to love through His own love: that is how he made man to love woman. That is why the Beloved of Allah said, “I was made to love women.” He did not say: “I loved women.” He attributed loving women to his Lord.

    …Allah created Adam as His perfect creation, as the microcosm of all He has created; He breathed His own soul into Adam. Thus Adam’s exterior is created, and his inner being is Truth. In this way Allah has honored humanity above His angels.

    The Prophet said that he was made to love women, nisa’—in Arabic,a plural word without a singular. He did not say imra’ah, which is “a woman” in Arabic. Thus it is not anonymous femaleness that he loves.

    As humanity is for the Creator, woman is for man. Man, by the will given to him and by Allah’s order, feels closeness and the secrets of the universe open in woman. Whoever views woman in this light, and loves her, is exercising divine love. Whoever is only affected by lust is seeing an empty image, without soul. This person does not know his own soul, nor does he know whom he loves, nor what love really is. The love which our master and guide, the Beloved of Allah, was made to feel for women is part of Allah’s love for Him.

    The Prophet Muhammad (saws) says, “I was made to love three things from your world: women, and perfume, and the comfort of my eye is in prayer.” And Allah Most High says in the Qur’an,”Allah gave each its due when He created it.” Allah gives all creatures what they deserve. What they deserve is measured by the realization of the beautiful Names and attributes of the Lord placed within them. Nature was created before things existent in it: that is how we identify it. The reality of Nature is the breath of the Compassionate One, the divine breath spread in the eighteen thousand universes and manifested in matter: mountains, oceans, forests, animals, and man. As visible nature, in its beauty, is to the divine breath, so is woman to the Beloved of Allah.

    The Prophet of Allah, when he tells of the things he was made to love, puts woman above man. He uses the word “thalath,” feminine three, not “thalathah,” masculine three, and yet in the same sentence there is the word tib – perfume, which is masculine. In Arabic grammar when it is said, for example, “Fatimah and Zayd came,” the verb is in the masculine form. Thus the Prophet has purposefully and ungrammatically given precedence to the female over the male. In addition to the first loved one being feminine, third loved one, salat, is also (gramatically) feminine. The pattern is repeated thus: Dhat (Essence) is feminine; Adam is masculine; Eve is feminine. It is the concept of trinity: man (masculine) is between two feminines. They are linked : Essence to man; man to woman; woman to Essence.

    Tib (perfume) is mentioned after nisa’a (woman) because the breath of life, procreativity, is in woman.

    The Prophet of Allah was created as a servant of his Lord. He never claimed to be a master. He submitted: worshipping, praising and knowing his Lord, until his Lord wished to raise him to the level of an active being. As a sign of his level, Allah gave him the secret of the effect and the influence of beautiful smells upon living beings. The sensation of smell is a most effective influence, creating heedfulness, love, remembrance, and consciousness. It is the sign of life. There is a second birth of consciousness in the one already born of woman. That is why the Prophet was made to love perfume after women. (It also refers to the “perfume” of the good woman.)

  4. Salaams Sidi Dawud,

    Welcome to my online home. Jazak Allah for sharing these comments with us. I haven’t yet had a chance to read through them in any great detail. But I can see that they contain insight and wisdom. I have read many other works translated by Shaykh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi, and have always found what I have read to be inspiring. Allah!

    Allah bless you always.

    Abdur Rahman

  5. There is an another thing we learn from the phrase, “the coolness of my eyes.” My teacher says that it refers to the possibility that there two ways of looking: one with cool eyes, and the other with hot eyes.

    The former are the eyes that let perception in, literally “taking it all in,” such as the eyes of the Deer. The latter are predatory eyes, which search another (and make them uncomfortable), such as the eyes of the Lion.

    It is the first kind of seeing that is really perceptive, the latter is aggressive and judgmental. The first is giving (attention) to the other, and the second is taking (significance) from the other.

    So – read together with your understanding of the relationship with the “yang” – the woman – and the possible inner meaning of “perfume”… the subtlety of this preference seems even more… subtle! And delightful! Peace be upon the beauty of the Prophet!

  6. Asalamualaykum
    a very insightful read.
    JazakAllah for that.

    Just found it interesting that you focussed on the concept of motherhood, whereas the prophet spent few years with his mother…no mention of his wives, even tho they gave vital support.

  7. Salaams The Prophecy,

    Jazak Allah for adding your interesting thoughts to this discussion. I’d never thought about this phrase in that way before, but it makes sense to me. Ever more subtle indeed!

    And God is subtle beyond all understanding

    Abdur Rahman

  8. Wa alaikum salaam Emma,

    Welcome to my online home. Allah bless you for stopping by and for adding your thoughts. They and you are most welcome.

    There was no actual intent to focus largely, or even solely, on the Prophet’s mother (or in motherhood more generally) – alaihi al-salatu wa al-salaam. Your comment regarding the Prophet’s wives – alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam – is correct and adds to the richness of the subject.

    Ma’as salama,

    Abdur Rahman

  9. Salaams dear bhai,

    You have enlightened me a lot. I could never see this astonishing depth of the hadith untill Allah showed it to me through you.

    “This reminds me that although the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is indelibly human, he is also part of another world entire.” — Alhamdulillah..

    sf had pasted this quote in my blog once:
    ‘Prophet(SAW)represents the point of contact between the Divine and the human. So far as the source of the Prophet’s revelation is concerned he belongs to the ancient world, so far as the spirit of the revelation is concerned he belongs to the modern world.’
    -Allama Iqbal.

    “Made beloved to me from your world are women..”
    I had looked at this in only one way- woman as a mate in life specifically in sexual relationship. It is true that it is one of the great pleasures in this world. Eventhough that in itself is great, now knowing from you of the greatness our Prophet found on women as a whole.. it just gives me an awe.

    Our prophet is indeed Rahmath-un-lil-Aalamin (Love and Blessing for all worlds).

    Previously my knowledge was that “Made beloved to me from your world are woman and ..” as against women. He loved women for all dimensions they had.

    You have increased love, respect and admiration for my Prophet in my heart. May Allah bless you for that. (Ameen)

    “Subhanallah maa ajmalaka
    Maa ahsanaka maa akmalaka.
    Kithe Mehre Ali Kithe teri sana..”

  10. Salaams Abdul Muneer,

    Long time, no see! 🙂

    Well, the guest who returns after a long absence is doubly welcome! 🙂

    Thank you for your kind words, and for the profound insight from Allama Iqbal. In truth, all that is right and true comes from God. Only the mistakes are mine.

    I am glad that your love, respect and admiration for the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) has increased. May it always do so.

    Abdur Rahman

  11. Salaam, Abdur Rahman.

    Thank you.

    And a correction I must make to my comment above:

    So – read together with your understanding of the relationship with the “yin”* [edit: not yang] – the woman – and the possible inner meaning of “perfume”… the subtlety of this preference seems even more… subtle!

    I learned a great deal from Shaykha Camille Helminski’s book Women of Sufism.

    -Prophecy

  12. Assalaamu alaykum,
    Thank you for your thoughts on the Prophet’s (pbuh) hadith. I really enjoyed reading them. It was very eloquent as well. I wish you luck on your soul’s journey; I, too, am a convert. I will be visiting your blog often, it’s wonderful!

  13. Wa alaikum salaam Zahara,

    Welcome to my online home. Allah bless you always. Thank you for your comments.

    Please feel free to stop by anytime you wish. I am honoured by your kind words. Anything that is good in what I have written has come from Allah, Sustainer of All Being. In all truth, only the mistakes are mine.

    I am honoured to meet you

    Abdur Rahman

  14. Jazakallah Brother Abdur Rahman and all others who shared their opinion. It seems to me that the hadith is simply an explanation of the following Quranic verses:

    “Fair seeming to men is made the love of desires, of women and sons and hoarded treasures of gold and silver and well-bred horses and cattle and tilth. This is the provision of the life of this world. And Allah – with Him is the goal (of life).

    “Say: Shall I tell you of what is better than these? For those who guard against evil are Gardens with their Lord, in which rivers flow, to abide in them, and pure companions and Allah’s goodly pleasure. And Allah is the Seer of servants.” (Al-Imran verses 13 and 14).

    As a human, the Holy Prophet had the same desires as all humans and these are not forbidden to Muslims as long as one partakes of them within the limits allowed by Allah (hadud Allah). But as the verse tells us, these are the provisions of this life. The real goal of a Muslim’s life is the Hereafter, the key to which is in prayer. Hence the Holy Prophet emphasizes this by saying that prayer is the coolness of his eyes because that is what will allow us to achieve the real goal.

  15. al-salamu alaikum brother Hamid,

    Welcome to my online home. May Allah bless you always. Ramadan mubarak to and your whole family.

    Thank you for your comments. I agree with your thoughts. My intent was merely an attempt to explore some further possibilities.

  16. The hadith does not say that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace,”loved three things” but rather:

    حبِّب إليَّ من دنياكم النساء والطيب ، وجعلت قرة عيني في الصلاة

    “Two things of your world were made lovely to me, perfume and women; and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer.”

    So the hadith has two halves, the first half is “your world” and the second half is “Allah’s world.” Regarding the first half, the Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, says that he was given a character such as he valued cleanliness, neatness and purity represented by perfume, and on the other hand he prized marriage and sociability with women rather than shunning them, the way other religions look down on women as unspiritual. On the contrary, our Prophet said the best Muslims are those who treat their womenfolk best; i.e. those who beat their wives or disparage women have pagan-like or non-Muslim characters. This is not to say that the Prophet was sensual or was transfixed by women; on the contrary our Mother A`isha, Allah be well-pleased with her, said he possessed full self-control.

    Allah Most High said “Beautified for mankind is love of the pleasures from women and offspring, and stored-up heaps of gold and silver, and horses with their marks, and cattle and land. That is the comfort of the life of the world. Allah! With Him is a more excellent abode” (3:14).

    There is no end to appetites and we were not created to feed our appetites like animals but to know Allah and go back to Him. The Prophet (s) is teaching us balance and proportion. Hence we are ordered to cast our gaze downward and not dwell on the beauty of the other sex, or indeed of this whole world which is destined to perish. So the prayer is mentioned in the second half of this hadith and described as the “coolness of the eyes of the Prophet” i.e. the recipe for true happiness, lasting peace of mind and the soul’s rest which is an otherworldly value. Hence in another saying the Prophet said: “O Allah! I seek refuge in you from a nafs that is never sated.”

    The direction of the hadith and the whole point of the Prophet’s message is: try to be a little less fascinated by this transient world and do not notice it too much; find a way to strengthen your spirit because it is the only eternal part of yourself; the rest will perish.

  17. Sidi Abdul Rahman, may Allah bless you. This is one of the finest expositions of this hadith I can ever hope to encounter. Allahumma salli ala Muhammad wa ala alihi wa ashabihi, who were bearers of the sword, yet intense lovers of women, perfumes and prayer!

  18. Salams Sidi Umer,

    Welcome to my online home. May Allah bless you always. It’s a profound and beautiful hadith. If I have said anything right or helpful there, it has come from God. Only the mistakes are mine.

    Salams and love from Wales

  19. So, the author of this article thinks that when Prophet SM was saying his love about women, he meant “mothers”? This does not appeal to me even if the Quran is cited. Quran is correct. Hadis is correct. But there is no basis of the relationship of this hadis – as understood by English translation of the hadis – with verse 46:15.

    However if one puts the verse first and then bring in the hadis, then the hadis can have full meaning to relate to the quaranic “mother” (in verse 46:15).

    One should be cautious when something is written on Quran and Hadis.

  20. Masha Allah! Very beautiful Sidi! Also I would recommend Shaykh al-Akbar’s profound writings on this very hadith in his Fusus al Hikam although I can’t pretend to understand but a small portion of what he is saying!

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