Arabic and Islamic views on fragrance

Medina

Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, The Prophet’s Mosque, Medina. Photo: Thomas Kruger

The Islamic world view on fragrance and its cultural relevance

Welcome to The Scented Salon at The Fragrant Man. This is a place for discussion, education, and appreciation of fragrance. A place for the dissemination of various opinions including yours.

Let’s zoom over to Medina in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a chat with Thomas Kruger from Ensar Oud. Thomas and Ensar are based in Jordan. They travel constantly through the Middle East and South East Asia on fragrance-related business. Today they are in Medina.

Medina

Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, Medina. Photo: Thomas Kruger

Jordan: Thomas, welcome and thank you for joining us. A couple of weeks ago in this salon we were discussing the purpose of perfume with John Oehler. What are your thoughts? Here is where the conversation is up to:

Great perfumes have always had one purpose: to seduce.
– John Oehler

It is the blood of the Arabs, and certainly not something one indulges in to seduce someone before going to the restaurant. Its purpose is to elevate the spirit and the individual.
– Serge Lutens

Thomas: Sorry John, but I’m with Serge on this one. The idea that olfactory sensation is limited to the erotic prevents us from experiencing the magic dormant in our sense of smell.

The fragrant tradition of the Arabs have spread westward on the wings of ‘their’ religion. Today, 80% of the world’s Muslims are non-Arab. The Islamic community is international, trans-racial, and when it comes to fragrance… trans-gender. Today, perfumes that stay true to Islamic ideals are made by Muslims in Europe, America, and the Far East, rather than just in the Middle East.

I’ll admit, perfume can be a powerful aphrodisiac, and looking at the typical lifestyle where you go out to a club, a pub, or a party, there’s certainly a great truth in John Oehler’s statement. Yet, although it takes quite a shift of consciousness for the typical Westerner to understand, to Muslims seduction is rarely the main intention when putting on perfume. In fact, it’s often way down on the list. The reason is simple: in Islamic culture, romance is a private affair. When a guy sets out to some social event, he doesn’t expect to mingle with ladies aside from his wife. At home, behind closed doors, on the other hand, seduction is not only fair game, it’s encouraged.

I’ve never seen this in a non-Islamic context, but when a group of Muslims meet up, even if they’ve never met each other, it’s completely normal for one of the guys to whip out a bottle of oud and start handing out swipes to those around him. This practice has almost turned into an obligation at gatherings of dhikr, where we invoke a sense of the sacred by reciting mystical odes and poetry. Obviously, here seduction doesn’t even come to mind.

Photo: Thomas Kruger

Photo: Thomas Kruger

Jordan: Kafka had a question in a previous discussion here on the following quote in relation to the purpose of perfume. What is the meaning of purification in this context?

Serge Lutens, who now lives in Marrakech, is of the opinion that perfumes are not about frivolous seduction. This is not a unique viewpoint in the industry, since many perfumers perceive their work as an art form; but if most reject associations of sensuality and eroticism as a marketing ploy, Lutens’s criticism is more metaphysical. In his view, perfumes are meant to convey a sense of purification and harmony with the world, which is deeply inscribed in Arab culture. – Marcello Aspria

Thomas: Lutens hints at an important dimension of perfume that’s completely absent from the mainstream view: purification. There’s a well-known saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: ‘Purification is half of faith’. Muslims have a ritual purification they perform before their prayer, and the seal to the act is perfume. I’ve spent some time in the company of living luminaries of Islam and of the habits I’ve picked up from them is that they perfume themselves before each prayer.

Medina, Al-Masjid an-Nabawi

Inside The Prophet’s Mosque, Al-Masjid an-Nabawi. Photo: Americophile

Cleanliness and perfume also go together metaphysically in so far as we’re taught that our companion beings who share an unseen but parallel existence with us are affected by fragrance. What traditional cultures call ‘evil spirits’ are turned away by good smell, which is why incense-burning forms part of religious practice wherever it’s found.

Medina

Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, Medina.

Scent permeates the barriers set by modern mono-culture. In Islam, we move seamlessly from lighting a chip of agarwood which aids spiritual focus to putting on a dab of favourite oud oil which adds romance to a candle lit dinner with your loved one.

Jordan: Thank you for your fragrant thoughts Thomas. Waft on.

Coming up we talk with Ensar from Ensar Oud.

It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white…
Jenquest Photography has some stunning black and white images of Medina and Saudi Arabia as well as The Hajj.

We will also be covering the following:

– Denyse Beaulieu in New York launching her book The Perfume Lover

– A chat with Dr O in Vienna and a look at his private collection

– We return to Singapore and investigate Stuart Koe’s Private Collection

– An interview with a Malay woman about her fragrant choices and how they compliment her personal beliefs

– Fragrant molecules explained by Łukasz Szcześniak from The Chemist in the Bottle

– Gaharu Hunters – The Search for Oud in 2013

– The Cost of the Oil in the Alabaster Box

– Daniel returns to Malaysia after a cologne shopping spree in Paris and Rome. He really needed to update his wardrobe from designer-label-mainstream-generic to niche. We have a look at his choices before and after his trip

– Portia on Perfumery

– The Smell of Space – Part 2

– Fragrance Masterclass – Event reporting

– Travelling with Fragrance – a look inside Clayton Ilolahia’s suitcase

32 responses to “Arabic and Islamic views on fragrance

  1. This was fascinating, riveting and educational for me! I love this idea of men on the streets sharing a bottle of oud! And the idea of purification..how I feel about some of the essential oils I use…there is this definitive spirituality to it, right? Thank you Jorday for this great interview. I look forward to what is coming up!

  2. It was for me too. When I receive a fragrance from Saudi I do take it down to the local diary to for the men there to swipe onto their wrists. They put it on the front side for ease of smelling.

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  4. I would retract my statement about seduction if it were not for one thing — it has provoked some fascinating responses to the contrary. I admit to having been “occi-centric,” if that’s a word. I had in mind “western” culture and classic western/French perfumes, as well as stated objectives by some master perfumers. But I’m well aware (and thankful) that there’s a world of rich cultures beyond the West. In fact, I’ve spent many years in Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist societies where what I said would be greeted with “Huh?” by most people.

    So Jordan, thank you for using me as a thorn to incite other views and to open some (maybe many) eyes to the wider world of fragrances, how we use the, and why we use them.

    • The Thorn! Thank you John. I will also clarify to the readers that your seduction premise relates to the plot of Aphrodesia rather than that been your absolute personal viewpoint. The idea has certainly become a great talking point with lots of varied and interesting opinions.

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  10. Thank you for the love Jordan and Genie!

    Are you referring to contemporary perfumers in Iran Genie? It would be fascinating to learn more, but I can’t seem to find anything tangible.

    Aspects of my work have to do with reinterpreting memory and I would love to retrace those paths someday, especially back to Lalun!

    Such a pleasure to have an open cultural forum such as this, Jordan. Thank you for expanding our horizons. Time to burn some “Esphand”!

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  18. i just started to be part of your smellful, oudi, rosy lovely blog, i was following your OUD articles to discover how the west smells it and to get more infos.
    i think the way we as Muslim’s use perfumes is not well understood due to many reasons, i would like to shear with you our deep believe in perfumes, its part of our rewarded daily practice as if we were praying, because prophet MOHAMMED use to put it and asked us to do so. its not just for personal benefits, its keeping us more attached and bounded with each other.

    Thank you for your hard work , its inspiring and teaching me.

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