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Dec 5, 2017

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Shaykh Lutfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran

Feature Articles

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Dec 05, 2017

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Oludamini Ogunnaike

College of William and Mary

Oludamini Ogunnaike’s research interests include Islamic philosophy, spirituality, art, and African and African diasporic religions.

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The Silent Theology of Islamic Art

Is the reward for iĥsān anything other than iĥsān?1
– Qur’an 55:60
God has inscribed beauty upon all things.
– Hadith
Beauty is the splendor of the True.
– Plato
Just as a mental form, such as a dogma or a doctrine, can be an adequate, albeit limited, reflection of a Divine Truth, so a sensible form can retrace a truth or a reality which transcends both the plane of sensible forms and the plane of thought.
– Titus Burckhardt

If asked to introduce Islam to an audience unfamiliar with the religion or civilization, I would not necessarily recommend a translation of the Qur’an; nor a book of Islamic law, theology, or philosophy; nor one of the many popular books purporting to introduce Islam to the West. Rather, I would recommend listening to a beautiful untranslated recitation of the Qur’an in an Arabic maqām (melodic mode); or contemplating an illuminated Ottoman manuscript of the holy book in thuluth or kufic calligraphy; or marveling at Fes’ Qarawiyyin, Isfahan’s Shaykh Lutfollah, or Cairo’s Ibn Tulun mosques; or listening to the music of the poetry of Hafez, Amīr Khusrow, or Ibn al-Fāriđ. 

These masterpieces of Islamic civilization communicate the beauty and truth of its revelation with a profound directness simply unmatched by articles or books about Islam. One of the many curious aspects of contemporary times provides proof: despite the dissemination of virulent propaganda against Islam in the West, many people from Western societies queue for hours to admire the architecture of the Alhambra in Spain and the Taj Mahal in India as well as exhibitions of Islamic calligraphy and miniature paintings, and to attend sold-out concerts of traditional Islamic music. This is due to another paradox: these most tangible and outward manifestations of the Islamic tradition represent its most subtle, inward, and essential realities. Hence, it seems it is better to show than to tell. 

To many, the silent theology of Islamic art can speak more profoundly and clearly than the most dazzling treatise, and its beauty can be more evident and persuasive than the strongest argument. The Qur’an was not revealed as a set of syllogisms or prosaic rational proofs2 but as a recitation of unmatched linguistic beauty, filled with symbols, stories, metaphors, and poetic phrasing. Indeed, its formal beauty inspired many of the earliest conversions to Islam. Before the first books of fiqh (Islamic law) or kalām (theology) appeared, the first generations of Muslims had developed masterpieces of Islamic architecture, such as the mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; an unprecedented art of calligraphy; and an entire new literary tradition. But although the Islamic arts are essential and important to the Islamic tradition, as are Islamic law and theology, they—along with the remarkable aesthetic the Islamic civilization developed over the centuries—sadly have been neglected in recent times. While this is a significant loss for all of humanity, it is particularly tragic for Muslims. As the hadith says, “God is beautiful, and He loves beauty,” so indifference to beauty is tantamount to indifference to the divine.

Making the Invisible World Visible

In the Islamic tradition, the sense of beauty and excellence—at once aesthetic, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual—is encapsulated by the untranslatable Qur’anic term iĥsān. The classic definition of iĥsān comes from the hadith of Gabriel, wherein the Prophet ﷺ describes it as “to worship God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you.” Most simply, the Islamic arts cultivate iĥsān because the patterns on traditional prayer carpets; the geometric designs and calligraphy ornamenting mosques and Islamic homes; as well as the architecture of these homes, mosques, and madrasas help us to worship God as if we “see Him” through these displays of beauty, for “God is Beautiful and loves beauty.” This “as if” (ka anna in Arabic) seeing occurs through “imagination” (khayāl), a term that has a technical definition in Islamic discourses distinct from its everyday meaning in English. 

In the writings of Ibn ʿArabī and other Sufi thinkers, instead of representing something imaginary or unreal, imagination (khayāl) is a creative and perceptual faculty that clothes pure meanings (or ideas) and spiritual realities in sensory forms, and also perceives the meanings represented in these sensible forms. It is the faculty responsible for true dreams and visionary experiences and their interpretations, as when the Prophet ﷺ saw milk in a dream and understood it to be the sensible form of the supra-sensible reality of knowledge. Imagination allows us to make the invisible world visible, and to trace visible forms back to their invisible meanings. Thus, imagination is a barzakh (a liminal reality separating two realities, but also participating in them) between the visible and invisible worlds (¢ālam al-shahādah wa al-ghayb), between the worlds of matter and spirit, and between sensory forms and intelligible meanings.3

Indeed, for many Sufi theorists, everything other than the divine essence is imagination and is thus a kind of dream that must be interpreted. Ibn ¢Arabī writes, “Know that you yourself are an imagination. And everything that you perceive and say to yourself, ‘this is not me,’ is also an imagination. So that the whole world of existence is imagination within imagination.”4 Just as our dreams represent or manifest different aspects of our individual consciousness, the dream of everything other than God (mā siwā Allāh) reflects and represents different aspects of the aspectless divine unity. While it is impossible to directly contemplate the divine because of its absolute unity (in order to contemplate something, there must be both a subject and an object of contemplation—which would violate pure unity), the dream is composed of signs (āyāt) and symbols that manifest and allow us to contemplate, meditate upon, and “see” aspects of the invisible divine. This is why the Qur’an is full of verses (also called āyāt) encouraging us to contemplate the signs of creation, including ourselves. According to Abū al-¢Atāhiyah’s famous lines, “In every thing there is a sign that indicates that He is One” (wa fī kulli shay’in lahu āyatun tadullu ¢alā annahu al-Wāĥidu). The Qur’an states even more explicitly in Surah Fuśśilat, “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth” (41:53).

Since it is through imagination that the signs of creation come into existence, it is through imagination that we can trace them back to their origins and meanings, and that we can interpret and understand them by recognizing the aspects of the divine they manifest. Islamic arts play an important role by bringing the basic elements of our surroundings (such as light, shade, space, time, color, sound, scent, and silence) back to their geometric, archetypal realities (their malakūt in Qur’anic terms), which are more easily integrated into the divine unity—one reason Islamic civilization and its arts are so focused on geometry. In other words, Islamic arts make things metaphysically transparent; they allow us to perceive the light of God in and through them, as if they were stained-glass windows. It is through imagination (khayāl) that the Islamic arts render the invisible divine visible, and it is through imagination that we can perceive the mysteries of transcendent divine unity immanent in these sensory forms.

Imagination is often contrasted with reason (ʿaql in its limited meaning5): where imagination is synthetic, reason is analytic; where imagination is “both/and,” reason is “either/or”; where imagination draws connections and analogies, reason separates and draws distinctions. As William Chittick explains:

Imagination understands in modes foreign to reason. As an intermediary reality standing between spirit and body, it perceives abstract ideas and spiritual beings in embodied form. Since it itself is neither one nor the other, it is intrinsically ambiguous and multivalent, and it can grasp the self-disclosure of God, which is He/not He. Reason demands to know the exact relationships in the context of either/or. But imagination perceives that self-disclosure can never be known with precision, since it manifests the Unknown Essence.6

In this schema, it is imagination—not reason—that is perfectly equipped to encounter the ambiguities of manifest multiplicity and perceive the unity therein. It is imagination that can trace seemingly contradictory statements and phenomena back to the common origin that unites them, without erasing their distinctiveness on the level of sensory forms. The imaginal faculty can both represent and perceive the same truth or reality in a tree, a geometric pattern, a work of calligraphy, or verses of poetry, despite their outward differences. Thus, it is no wonder that the rise of extreme sectarianism and mutual misunderstanding across the Muslim world has coincided with the decline in the appreciation and production of the Islamic arts: both trends are the result of a widespread atrophy of the imaginal faculty and a consequent lack of familiarity with the inner dimensions of the Islamic tradition.7

Ibn ¢Arabī, al-Ghazālī, and many of the other great scholars of Islam have argued that reason and imagination must work together to correctly understand and interpret the signs of God, both in His books and the books of the cosmos and the human soul. This is clearly illustrated in one of the most profoundly paradoxical verses of the Qur’an: “There is nothing like unto Him, yet He is the Hearing, the Seeing” (42:11). The first part of the verse apparently declares God’s incomparability and transcendence (tanzīh) and, according to Ibn ¢Arabī, is addressed to our reason, while the second half of the verse declares God’s likeness and immanence (we also see and hear) and is addressed to our imagination. It is only by understanding both halves of the verse, by “seeing with two eyes”—both reason and imagination—that we can come to know God through His signs.

Left to its own devices, reason can deduce that God must be above and distinct from everything we perceive, but it is unable to perceive the presence of the divine in phenomena (except in an abstract causative sense) or state anything positive about the nature of God. It is only through poetic prophetic revelations and reports, and through using the imaginal faculty to contemplate God’s signs, that we can understand and perceive the positive attributes of the divine. If God were simply the Necessary Being (al-wājib al-wujūd) or the first cause of the proofs of theology or philosophy, people wouldn’t love Him any more than they love the Big Bang.

In other words, religious forms must always contain truth and presence: without presence, their truth becomes abstract and uninspiring, like a half-remembered fact from middle school geography, while without truth, their presence becomes vapid and meaningless.8 The twofold miracle of the Islamic arts is that they make the divine truth and the truths of its revelation present and tangible to us, while imbuing our tangible surroundings with the beauty of divine truth. In a certain sense, jalāl (divine majesty and rigor) corresponds to the pole of truth, while jamāl (divine beauty) corresponds to that of presence. Neither can exist without the other, but it is the pole of beauty and presence that inspires love, that force which moves everything in the cosmos, including our souls, both from and back toward their divine origin and end.9

Love, Beauty, and Islamic Art

In the Qur’an, the Islamic tradition in general, and our everyday experience, beauty (whether iĥsān or jamāl) is always connected to love, and love to beauty. “God is beautiful, and He loves beauty” the hadith says, and the Qur’an repeatedly says, “God loves the beautiful-doers (muĥsinīn)” (2:195, 3:134, 3:148, 5:13, 5:93). Islamic thinkers, as different as al-Ghazālī and Ibn Sīnā, even defined love as an inclination or attachment to what is pleasing, perfect, and/or beautiful.10

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Detail from the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain

As such, the beauty of Islamic art attracts love, both human and divine. Whether praying in or even just strolling through the beautiful mosques of Istanbul or Isfahan, one cannot help but feel love and beloved, regardless of the circumstances outside. This gentle presence of beauty and love causes the sakīnah—the deep peace engendered by the awareness of the presence of God—that is one of the most characteristic features of the architecture of all traditional mosques. The harmony of their geometry makes the barakah (sacred presence) of the space tangible, helping to bring our souls into balance.

Turning to the literary arts, the Islamic civilization’s obsession with love can be found in verses of love poetry scattered in Islamic treatises of logic, law, geometry, theology, and philosophy. Until recently, the culture of love permeated nearly all of the traditional Islamic literary genres and understandings of reality. For scientist-philosophers, such as Ibn Sīnā, love was quite literally the force that moved everything in the cosmos, from rocks to angels.

Moreover, love is essential to the cultivation of iĥsān and the closely related concept of ikhlāś (sincerity). As a hadith says, “None of you truly believes until God and His Messenger are more beloved to him than anything else.” Without this selfless love, our pious actions and worship are motivated either by pretentious arrogance (riyā’), which the Prophet ﷺ called the lesser or hidden shirk (idolatry, setting up a partner alongside God), or by a selfish desire for rewards or to escape from punishment in this life or the next, instead of by loving God for His own sake and loving others for His sake, as well.11 Either way, this limits our love and enslaves us to our own selves and desires: “Have you seen him who has taken his desire to be his god? God has led him astray” (45:23), “but those who believe are more intense in love for God” (2:165). To paraphrase a verse by the poet Hafez, “apart from lovers, all I see is self-righteous hypocrisy.” The Qur’an directs the Prophet ﷺ to give love as the reason and reward for following him: “Say: if you love God, then follow me and God will love you” (3:31).

Love always attaches itself to beauty of one kind or another. When mosques and places of learning are beautiful, we are drawn to them. When speech is beautiful, we are drawn to it. Beauty inspires love, and love moves our souls.

Love is the truest and most sincere motivation for any action; it is what moves our souls in one direction instead of another. Love always attaches itself to beauty of one kind or another. When mosques and places of learning are beautiful, we are drawn to them. When speech is beautiful, we are drawn to it. Beauty inspires love, and love moves our souls. This is true for supra-sensible divine beauty, which the Islamic arts try to make sensible, but unfortunately it is also true for the gaudy, shallow “beauty” of shopping malls, skyscrapers, and the “adornments of this world” (zīnat al-ĥayāh al-dunyā, Qur’an 18:46), which are really a parody or a shadow of true beauty. This begs the question of the difference between the liberating beauty of Islamic art and the distracting, hypnotizing “beauty” of the dunyā. How can one discern between the two, and why is it important to do so?

In order to distinguish Islamic art from other forms of art, we must define and demarcate Islamic art. Although Western art historians were slow to recognize the unity of the Islamic arts in cultural regions as different as West Africa and Central Asia, scholars such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Titus Burckhardt have compellingly made the case for a universal Islamic approach to the arts that manifests itself in different variations in different local contexts. In doing so, these scholars have helpfully distinguished Islamic art from Muslim religious art and from art made by Muslims. The form and content of traditional Islamic art springs directly from the Qur’anic revelation and diffuses the perfume of the Muhammadan blessing (barakah Muĥammadiyyah).12 The Islamic arts incorporated the techniques and methods of Roman, West African, Byzantine, Sassanid, Central Asian, and Chinese artists to give birth to a new art depicting the new religion’s vision of reality. The true source of Islamic art is the Islamic revelation, not its historical precedents or influences. This singular origin accounts for its remarkable unity across time and space.

Art made by Muslims or even art made in Muslim societies is not necessarily Islamic art. The late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid designed many famous buildings, but none are examples of Islamic architecture. Conversely, students of all faiths at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London produce works of traditional Islamic calligraphy, illumination, and geometric design. It is the form of the art, shaped by revelation and not the identity of the artist, that makes a work distinctively Islamic.

Religious art, meanwhile, includes items of religious significance or those used for religious purposes. Not all religious art is Islamic art, while much of Islamic art is religious art—even if not obviously so. Syrian wood inlay cabinets and tables may be used to hold alcohol, but their geometric patterns portray some of the loftiest realities of Islamic metaphysics and cosmology. Posters of Mecca and Medina or mass-produced prayer carpets emblazoned with the Kaaba are religious art but not Islamic art, despite the sacred architecture of the sites they depict. The recitation of the Qur’an in traditional maqāms and even the singing of inspired poetry in these modes and rhythms are both Islamic and religious art, whereas “Islamic” parodies of Justin Bieber songs and the popular auto-tuned, acapella qaśīdahs in four-part harmony may be religious, but Islamic or sacred they certainly are not. 

While difficult to define in concrete, formal terms, Islamic art is recognized easily, especially by those familiar with other dimensions of the Islamic tradition. Whether visual or sonoral, the Islamic arts project unity (tawĥīd), which manifests as symmetry, harmony, and rhythm—the imprint of unity on multiplicity. The Islamic arts do not mimic or imitate the outward forms of things but present their inner, archetypal realities, hence the emphasis on number (geometry) and letters (calligraphy), which are the basic building blocks of space/time and language. In traditional calligraphy, geometric ratios govern even the shapes and sizes of the letters, which gives the lettering art its remarkable harmony.

The Islamic arts also all bear the imprint of the Qur’an in terms of its meanings (ma¢ānī) and structures (mabānī). Like many sacred texts, many of the surahs and verses of the Qur’an have a chiastic, or ring, structure. That is, the final section mirrors the first, the penultimate section mirrors the second, and so on, until the center, which contains the main theme or message. This symmetric, polycentric structure of overlapping patterns is clearly reflected in the geometric patterns of illumination that adorn Qur’anic manuscripts; the tessellations that adorn the mosques, madrasas, and homes where its verses are chanted; and even the structure of the musical maqāms in which it is recited.

Islamic art is founded on the interconnected sacred sciences of mathematics, geometry, music, and cosmology, not so different from the medieval Christian notion of ars since scientia nihil est (art without science is nothing). All of these sciences connect the multiplicity of creation to the unity of the Creator and engage the qualitative, symbolic aspects of multiplicity as well as its quantitative dimensions. Aristotle divided philosophy into three parts: physics, mathematics, and theology (ilāhiyyāt). Physics addresses the natural or material world, and theology the divine, while mathematics (and the associated sciences of geometry and music, which are numbers in space and time, in the visual and sonoral domains, respectively) deals with the intermediate, archetypal, imaginal realm—the barzakh, between the divine and the terrestrial. These sciences of the intermediate realm allow the Islamic arts to serve as a ladder from the terrestrial to the celestial, from the sensory to the spiritual. They also have their foundation in Islamic metaphysics and spirituality, which give the artists direct access to the spiritual realities and truths represented in their art.

Plato describes beauty as the splendor of the true; the inability to discern between beauty and ugliness, therefore, corresponds to and accompanies the inability to discern between the true and the false (al-bāţil). Harmonious and geometric, true beauty is timeless and reflects the beauty of the unseen, leading to tranquility and the remembrance of God. False beauty, like ugliness, is fleeting, discordant, and unbalanced, reflecting the chaos and multiplicity of the lower world and the lower levels of the human psyche, which leads to imbalance, dispersion, and heedlessness (ghaflah). It brings out the opaque aspect of creation that hides or veils the divine, whereas true beauty brings out the transparent or reflective aspect of things that makes them legible as signs of God.

The Two Streams of Islamic Art

Beauty is found in two things: in a verse, and in a tent of skin.
Emir ¢Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī

While the Islamic arts are many and diverse, they can be roughly categorized into two domains: adab and ambience—that is, the arts of language and those that create the environment in which people live (such as dress, architecture, urban design, and perfume). In precolonial times, both of these domains were nearly ubiquitous; they were part of the education of not only Islamic scholars but all Muslims. Virtually all scholars studied, quoted, and wrote poetry. Many were masters of geometry; some were architects; while others, such as al-Fārābī and Amīr Khusrow, were master musicians. Even those scholars who were not accomplished artists were nurtured by the arts of adab, which they studied, and the arts of ambience that marked the institutions of their education. Some of the finest masterpieces of Islamic architecture are madrasas, such as the Bou Inania of Fes and Ulugh Beg in Samarqand, because it was understood that architecture can support and nourish the soul, kindle the intellect, and nurture all the other Islamic sciences. Moreover, the arts of adab and ambience were not limited to mosques, madrasas, and palaces but determined the structure and form of the cities and homes in which Muslims lived, not to mention the utensils and tools they used; the clothes they wore; and the melodies, poetry, and idioms that filled their hearts and flowed from their tongues. As Ananda Coomaraswamy notes, in traditional societies, “the artist was not a special kind of man, but every man a special kind of artist.”

"Adab" is a word that is notoriously difficult to translate into English. Meaning at once “custom, culture, etiquette, morals, courtesy, decorum, and civilized comportment, as well as literature,” to have adab is to be well-read and educated, to have good manners, to be cultured or refined, and to have the wisdom to give everything and everyone their due rights. The literature of adab is so named because it is designed to cultivate adab in its readers. Studying Islamic literature in the traditional fashion shapes and refines one’s soul, intelligence, behavior, and speech according to the prophetic norm of elegance and eloquence.

The Prophet’s wife ¢Ā’ishah called the Prophet ﷺ “the Qur’an walking on earth,” and the arts of adab nurture the creation of such character. Virtually all works of Islamic literature are, in one way or another, commentaries on the Qur’an. Even the profane poetry of Abū Nuwās or al-Mutanabbī bears the imprint of the revelation in its language, images, idioms, and rhythms. The sophisticated belles-lettres of al-Jāĥiż, al-Ĥarīrī, Niżāmī, and Sa¢dī sharpen not only the linguistic but also the intellectual and moral faculties of their readers. The philosophical allegories of the Brethren of Purity, Ibn Sīnā, Suhrawardī, and Ibn Ţufayl draw on Qur’anic narratives and concepts, while integrating and inspiring the imagination and the intellect.

The influence of the Qur’an is even more evident in the more sacred works of adab, such as Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī’s Mathnawī; ¢Aţţār’s Manţiq al-ţayr; Ibn ¢Aţā’ Allāh’s Ĥikam; and the poetry of al-Būśīrī, Hafez, Ibn al-Fāriđ, Yūnus Emre, Amīr Khusrow, Ĥamzah Fansūrī, Shaykh Aĥmadu Bambā, Shaykh Ibrāhīm Niasse, and many others whose meanings, structures, styles, and even sounds closely mirror those of the Qur’an.13 These works of adab are like lagoons that open onto the ocean of the Qur’an, which in turn opens onto the divine reality. Works of adab bring us closer to the Qur’an and bring the Qur’an closer to us: they train us to read and interpret verses that have multiple levels of meaning, to read verses and stories from multiple perspectives, and to dive into their depths for pearls of meaning; they teach us how to read and live the Qur’an and Sunnah. In short, they cultivate adab.

Throughout Islamic history, most Muslims learned metaphysics, cosmology, and ethics through these poems and works of literature. To paraphrase a South Asian Muslim nawab’s lament: “We lost our culture and the living reality of our religion when we stopped studying the Gulestān of Sa¢dī.” Our grandmothers and grandfathers and the former generations of Muslims learned how to realize, live, and put into practice the Qur’an and Sunnah, in large part, through the poems and works of the literature they memorized and studied, even if they could not read or write. The words of the eighth-century (second-century hijrī) scholar and muĥaddith Ibn al-Mubārak seem even more true today: “We are more in need of acquiring adab (courtesy) than of learning hadith.” 

The traditional madrasa combines the learning of adab with the beautiful arts of ambience. Whether in the elaborate and ornate tessellation of the Ben Youssef madrasa of Marrakesh or under the simple shade of a baobab tree in the Sahel, surrounded by God’s artwork of nature, Islamic learning traditionally takes place in a beautiful ambience. This is significant and intentional, as one’s surroundings have a profound impact on one’s thoughts. Contemplating the twin rosettes/stars on a Moroccan door helped me grasp the relationship between the divine essence and names, and their manifestations in the cosmos and the human soul, and it was while gazing at the tiles in the Bou Inania madrasa in Fes that I realized the meaning of the metaphor describing God as “a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The most ubiquitous and important art that creates an Islamic ambience is the recitation of the Qur’an. This is the first and highest form of Islamic art, from which all others are derived. The precise art of tajwīd and the science of the maqāms, the musical modes in which the Qur’an is recited, bring out the beauty and geometry of the Qur’anic revelation as it was revealed to the Prophet ﷺ. In reciting the Qur’an, we participate in the divine act of revelation and the prophetic act of reception, both of which have a profoundly transformative effect on our souls. The sound of Qur’anic recitation is an integral part of the soundscape of any Islamic city or town and is nearly always arrestingly beautiful. This is significant because in traditional Islamic civilization, truth (of which the Qur’an is the highest example) is always accompanied by beauty. In fact, beauty is a criterion of the authentically Islamic. There is nothing Islamic that is not beautiful. This axiom governs every other traditional art of ambience, such as calligraphy; architecture and geometric design; music; and even dress, food, and perfume. As music plays such a prominent role in contemporary Western culture, it is important to examine music as an Islamic art more closely.

Many who know little about music or Islam confidently proclaim that “there is no such thing as Islamic music” due to the lack of consensus about the status of music in Islamic law. First, it is important to distinguish the English term music from the Arabic mūsīqā. Although both are derived from the same Greek word meaning “the art of the muses,” they have slightly different meanings and connotations. Whereas a native English speaker would classify the religious chanting of poetry, prayers, the adhān, or the Qur’an as music or musical, these arts would not be considered mūsīqā, which has the connotation of involving instruments and being non-religious. Similarly, the instrumental and vocal music (in the English sense) that accompanies some Sufi ceremonies is seldom considered mūsīqā; rather, it is called samā¢ (audition) or dhikr (remembrance).

Nevertheless, instrumental music, whether mūsīqā or samā¢, remains controversial in the Islamic legal traditions precisely because of its tremendous power to elevate or debase the soul. Simply compare the behavior of an audience at a heavy metal concert with that at a concert of Andalusian music. When criminals or soldiers pump themselves up to commit acts of violence, they seldom listen to the Indian classical music of Ali Akbar Khan. Traditional Islamic music has a remarkable power to induce states of remembrance, peace, contentment, joy, courage, harmony, balance, and most especially love and longing for the divine. The Islamic philosophers developed elaborate musical theories based on the principles of Pythagorean harmony to explain and refine preexisting folk traditions of music. Court musicians produced a refined and refining art that served as the acoustic equivalent and accompaniment of adab, while the Sufi orders developed powerful traditions of spiritual music capable of transporting the soul into the divine presence. Although Islamic music differs widely from culture to culture, it has certain common features related to its Islamic cosmology and emphasis on tawĥīd. It typically has a regular rhythm (rhythm is the imprint of oneness across time), often increasing in pace toward the end of the song or concert, before dropping off into silence (which mirrors the acceleration of time as the final hour approaches); it often includes śalawāt or Qur’anic recitation; and it is characterized by a unity of melodic voices, eschewing the complex harmonies and multiple voices that characterize the best of Western music (e.g., Bach), due to its emphasis on tawĥīd. For the skilled musician in an Islamic tradition, playing music is like praying with one’s instrument, and for the prepared listener, it is like listening to the wordless praise of the angels and the cosmos. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr notes, “Islamic civilization has not preserved and developed several great musical traditions in spite of Islam, but because of it.”14

It is important to note that music and other traditional Islamic arts not only belong to the past but are contemporary living traditions. All of these art forms are dynamic: they continually change, adapt, and create new possibilities, all without departing from the fundamental principles of their particular form, the very principles that make them Islamic. These same principles can be applied to new art forms, such as web and graphic design, photography, and cinematography. The cinematic arts are primarily derived from the theater, which was never a major Islamic art, as it was in the ancient Greek, Christian, and Hindu civilizations. In fact, Greek works of drama and theater were just about the only works Muslims did not translate into Arabic, perhaps because the Islamic revelation is based more on a presentation of “the way things are” and not on the heroic sacrifice of a God-man (Christianity) or on the myths about personified aspects of the divine (ancient Greek and Hindu traditions) that are repeated in liturgy and passion plays. The relatively non-mythological character of the Islamic tradition, and its emphasis on the unity and omnipotence of the divine, precluded dramatic tension within the divine or between human heroes and the divine. However, Persian Shi¢ism developed the drama of ta¢ziyeh depicting the events of the battle of Karbala, and while not a central sacred art, it was nevertheless an important Islamic religious art form. This is probably not unrelated to the fact that Iran has the most developed cinematic tradition of any Muslim country. Although some of Majid Majidi’s films come close, I believe a truly Islamic cinematic art has yet to develop. Islamic cinema is not just movies about Islam or Muslims, or cinema made by Muslims, but the very philosophy and techniques of the art must be rooted in the Islamic perspective, much as Bresson’s work is rooted in Catholicism, Terrence Malik’s work is rooted in a Heideggerian philosophy, and Tarkovsky’s work is rooted in his own unique metaphysical vision influenced by Russian Orthodox Christianity.15

All of the Islamic arts exist to support the supreme art: the purification of the soul, the cultivation of character, and the remembrance of God. “I was sent only to perfect the beauty of character,” the Prophet ﷺ said. There is no question of “art for art’s sake” in the Islamic arts because all of them have practical, psychological, and spiritual functions. The Islamic arts are not a luxury; rather, they serve as essential supports for that art which is the raison d’être of Islamic law, theology, and indeed the entire Islamic tradition—the realization of the full potential of the human state (and thus the entire cosmos, through humanity’s role as khalīfah) through the remembrance of God. The neglect of the Islamic arts has severely crippled the ummah’s ability to pursue this highest art, both individually and collectively.

Can Art Heal Our Souls? 

Know, O brother ... that the study of sensible geometry leads to skill in all the practical arts, while the study of intelligible geometry leads to skill in the intellectual arts because this science is one of the gates through which we move to knowledge of essence of the soul, and that is the root of all knowledge.16
– Ikhwān al-Śafā
Beauty will save the world.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

As these epigrams suggest, the Islamic arts are gates through which we can access the deepest truths of the cosmos, the revelation, and ourselves. The neglect of these arts is a terrible blow, not only to our aesthetics but also to our ethical, intellectual, and spiritual lives. Just as our bodies, in a sense, become what we eat, our souls become what we look at, listen to, read, and think about. When the Islamic arts are rare, unrecognized, and underappreciated, what then happens to our souls?

Just as our bodies, in a sense, become what we eat, our souls become what we look at, listen to, read, and think about. When the Islamic arts are rare, unrecognized, and underappreciated, what then happens to our souls?

The loss of the Islamic arts is also deeply connected with the rise of extreme sectarianism, the atrophy of the imaginal faculty, and the overall difficulty perceiving unity in diversity. In traditional Islamic cosmology and metaphysics, multiplicity and difference govern the outward world of appearances, whereas unity increases the farther one travels inward, into the world of meaning and spirit. Because God is one, as one approaches the divine presence, things become more unified. Those without access to this unity are unable to perceive and participate in the harmony—the reflection of unity in multiplicity—that links the world of appearances to that of realities. Imagination and the arts are bridges that unite these two worlds.

Isfahan Lotfollah Mosque Ceiling Symmetric

Interior side of the dome of Shaykh Lutfollah Mosque

Those with a deep appreciation of the Islamic arts can appreciate the barakah of and identify the profound realities represented in the architecture of Almohad Morocco, Mamluk Egypt, or Safavid Iran completely irrespective of the official legal school or theology of these dynasties. Moreover, those familiar with the profound principles of Islamic art cannot help but notice these same principles, albeit in a different mode, in the sacred arts of the other revealed religions. Islamic art, like Islam itself, synthesizes and confirms the traditions of sacred arts that came before it.17 Anyone familiar with the theory and principles of Islamic music cannot help but admire Bach, and those adept in adab will find much to appreciate in the works of Shakespeare and Chuang Tzu, despite the great differences in the way the Muslim composer and these authors applied universal principles. In addition, anyone familiar with Islamic sacred geometry cannot fail to recognize the same principles at work in Buddhist and Hindu mandalas and temples.

This is precisely what Muslim scholars and artists have done for generations: understood, appreciated, and integrated the arts and sciences of other civilizations. One of the clearest signs of our decline has been the virtual disappearance of these synthetic and creative intellectual and artistic processes. This has also been accompanied by increasing tensions between different Muslim groups and minority communities of other faiths that thrived in Muslim-majority lands for centuries. The Qur’an describes the diversity of humanity as providential and divinely willed in order for us to know one another, and through this knowledge, to better know ourselves and our God.18 As Muslims lose touch with knowledge of our arts, of our history, of ourselves, of our tradition, and of God, we lose touch with reality and with the ability to recognize the truth and humanity of those who differ from us.19

For Muslims who practice a craft, such as the Islamic arts of calligraphy, poetry, or Qur’anic recitation, that craft provides them with a model for Islamic spirituality. A craft is an activity that requires continuous practice and improvement over a lifetime, not a cookie-cutter mold into which one either fits or does not. If we view the purification of our hearts, the attempt to follow in the Prophet’s footsteps, and the quest to know God as a craft or an art form instead of as an identity, we can understand how different approaches can lead to the same or a similar goal. Thus, I believe the recent epidemic of takfīr could be ameliorated by understanding the practice of Islam as an art form instead of focusing on an either/or notion of Muslim identity.                     

All is not lost, however. Discernment, whether intellectual or aesthetic, is difficult to recover once lost, but the Qur’an says, “Ask the people of dhikr, if you do not know” (21:07). Those Islamic societies and communities with thriving traditions of Islamic spirituality tend to have thriving artistic traditions, even if they are not economically wealthy (as in West Africa). This is because the practice of Islamic spirituality, being the science of taste (dhawq), refines one’s taste, enabling recognition of spiritual truths and realities (ĥaqā’iq) in sensible forms; similarly, the Islamic arts support and refine the practice of Islamic spirituality. The revival of the arts must be a priority for Muslims worldwide because the arts are vital to the rejuvenation of the Muslim mind and soul.20 As Plato wrote, “The arts shall care for the bodies and souls of your people.” While many have attempted to reduce the Islamic tradition to a list of dos and don’ts in the realm of behavior and belief, the Islamic arts serve as a powerful reminder of the more profound realities of the tradition, of iĥsān, and of the purpose of the entire Islamic tradition in the first place: the highest art of bringing the human soul back to its fiţrah, which perfectly reflects all of the divine names and qualities, both the jalāl (the majestic) and the jamāl (the beautiful). 

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