ART: THE ISLAMIC APPROACH
Islamic Metaphysics as Artistic Method
Man of the Western world is engrossed in his environment, the material world, visual reality. He derives not only his science and art from them, but his religion and spiritual life. When the religions of the East came to him, he could only understand them in terms of visual reality, turning the invisible spirit into material form.
When Christianity approached pagan Rome, pure and invisible religious sentiment had to be manifested by representation which was the religious vocabulary of pagan idolatry. The word which Christ brought was turned into an image accessible to the senses so that the image could become as persuasive as the word of God.
In the Christianity of the Middle Ages, the images of the child Christ, the Virgin, and Christ on the cross were ordained by the church. There ensued the development in Christian thought of the concretization of the spiritual, and representation in figurative form. There could be nothing more difficult for a Muslim than the concept of “the flesh and blood” of God, which is so vital to the Western Christian imagination.
If Islamic art avoids figurative religious representation, it is not only because of the interdiction of the dogma, but also because the visible world cannot have value unless it is through Allah; and Allah is invisible. Art seeks to separate the religious imagination from the concrete reality of this world and its everyday life.
Allah in His Holy Qur’an gives little, if any, value to this temporal world:
“ What is the life of this world
but play and amusement?
B ut best is the abode in
t he Hereafter for those who
a re righteous...”
Surah An’am, v .32.
His Prophet (peace be upon him) says, “If this world had the value of a bird’s or a mosquito’s wing in the opinion of Allah, He would not have given a drop of water to drink to the ones who do not believe in Him.”
So, this world is for the ones who believe in it, who desire it. The other world is for the ones who believe in and desire their Lord.
Man has two pairs of eyes. One is in his head, which is called basar in Arabic. The other is that of the heart, which is called basirah. The poet says,
“ This world is a mirror. All shown in it is created.
I n the mirror of Muhammad, Allah is reflected.”
The scope of the eyes of the head is limited. In its limitation it is as if blind.
Four such blind men felt an elephant in the dark of their blindness. One touched its trunk and said, “This creature is like a hose. ” Another touched its ear and declared that the elephant appeared to be like a fan. Another handled its leg and said, “I find the elephant’s shape to be like a pillar.” The last laid his hand on its back and said, “Truly this elephant is like a throne.”
The eyes of the head are only like the palm of the hand. In their limitation, they do not have the power to grasp the entirety.
The whole, that which is from the beginning to the end, may be seen by the basirah, the eye of the heart. Basirah is the eye of al-nafs al-natiqah or al-ruh al-juz'i. It is one’s soul. It is that which is meant when Allah says:
“ We have indeed created man
i n the best, most beautiful,
most perfect form...”
Surah Tin, v.4
Those who have realized the existence of this soul in themselves say that one’s being, mind, heart, that sacred secret in every man, one by one and all together, are not other that al-nafs al-natiqah. It has no place; it is both inside and outside, one. As the world around us shifts and changes, separates and gathers, it also shifts, changes and gathers as it responds to different influences. Wherever one puts one’s finger, it is there under the finger tip. Whatever the eye meets is what is seen. Whatever one is conscious of, becomes that object of consciousness. It is a whole- indivisible. It is that which enables the hand to hold, that which sees in the eye, hears in the ear, speaks in the tongue, and which walks in the feet. It is all. Yet, if the hand is cut off, the eye taken out, even if one’s body is dead and gone, no harm comes to it, nor is any of it lost. This is basirah, the eye of the soul.
This eye, by the will of Allah, sees the inner reality of oneself and of the material universe around one. The visible universe, the world of matter, of suns and stars, the minerals, vegetables, animals and men is the lowest of Allah’s creation. Allah describes Himself in a Hadith Qudsi, divine precept, as “I was a Hidden Treasure, I loved to be known, so I created Creation.”
In the state of “Hidden Treasure”, the universe, which is called ‘alam al-lahut, is pure essence, which cannot be described, because this state has no words, names, attributes, or likenesses. It is as if a limitless ocean of darkness moved with Allah’s wish “I loved to be known.” None except Allah has the knowledge of ’alam al-lahut.
“ He (Allah) only has the keys to the unknowable,
none but He knows it.”
Surah An’am, v. 59.
But with the force of Allah’s wish to be known, the ocean of Essence of 'alam al-lahut moved, and from its waves, the Light of Muhammad, the first manifestation of Allah: the total soul, the causal mind, the pen and the realm of the word and the mother of sacred books, ‘alam al-jabarut, was created. In this state of creation, the truth of Allah descended from His Essence to the created word.
In this realm are the names of His Divine Attributes - al-asma’ al-husna, the realm of the souls which contains all souls of the creation to be- the masaq, the hidden tablet, the source of all Allah’s messages- al-lawh al-mahfuz.
Then the ocean of ‘alam al-jabarut moved with the power of the Pen, which moved to write the word, and from its waves, ‘alam al-malakut was created. This is the realm of spiritual beings, the angels, the rewards of Allah, the eight paradises, the justice of Allah, the seven hells, angels, jinns, dreams and death.
With the wind of Allah’s “love to be known”, the ocean of ’alam al-malakut moved, and from its waves ‘alam al-mulk wa shahadah, the material worlds, were created. The mystery of “I was a Hidden Treasure, I loved to be known, so I created Creation” was revealed.
Because they are named differently, and because they have evolved one from the other does not mean the four realms are separate from each other; nor are they created at different times. They are created all at once with the order of Allah: KUN - Be! and they became. Allah says,
“Our order is but one word,
Kun; at the blink of
an eye it becomes”.
Surah al-Qamar. v. 50
Everything came to evolve from the dhat, the Essence of Allah. It is not created from nothing, as nothing can be created from nothing; nor can a thing which exists become nothing. All realms, visible or invisible to our worldly eyes, are the extension of one light, an ocean of light with the waves coming from Allah and going to Allah. All existence, all occurrences come from Allah and return to Allah .
The perfect man contains all these realms, since Allah has created man “in His own image”: in the image of His Attributes, in the image of all His creation. The perfect man, as well as the whole of creation, are certainly not Him; there is none like Him. He is one; they are not Him but they are from Him. Man contains all the secrets of the entire creation. lf man knew, he would know all the asma’- the beautiful Names of Allah, and all the sifat; the attributes of all the creation are within his being. If man knew, he would be able to see material things with the worldly eyes of his body, to see rational existences with the eyes of his mind and to see spiritual reality with the eyes of his heart.
This is why the Moslem artist does not separate the spiritual from the concrete, nor does he attribute spirituality to the concrete. He does not seek to spiritualize the real, nor concretize the spiritual. Hadrat ‘Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) has summed up this attitude in these sentences:
1. al-tafiqatu bila jam’in ishrak- the ones who see existence as other than and separate from Allah are in a state of shirk, attributing partners to Allah, the unforgivable sin.
2. wal jam’un bila tafriqatin zindiqah -the ones who think that existence is Allah, who deny the existence of any other power except material powers, these are the ones without religion. They think that the visible material world is Allah, and deny the possibility of any other being. They have devised for themselves very convincing theories, and proofs dependent on what is visible and tangible as to the absolute truth of their belief.
3. wal-jam’un wal tafriqu tawhid- the ones who are able to both associate and dissociate, the ones who can view the world and Allah as separate and at the same time as one, have achieved Unity. They have been able to become aware of their souls, which Allah describes:
“ We have created (the soul of)
man in the most beautiful, best,
most perfect form.”
Surah Tin v. 4.
They have found the secret of all existences within themselves; they have found themselves one with all existences, thus reaching the state of fana’ fi’llah, losing themselves in Allah, achieving Unity.
The soul which “Allah breathed into man” is not matter. The eye of the soul does not see the Attributes of Allah, which are reflected in the mirror of this universe, in the shapes and forms of things. The shape, the color and perfume of the rose are not what the nightingale loves in mystic poetry. Neither is it Leyla’s body that Majnun loves in the love epic of Majnun and Leyla. Matter is but a sign, which becomes a veil covering the truth, just as the human body is the coarse cover of the fine soul. In Islamic art, matter must become weakened, dissolved, evaporated.
Islam is not a church system, nor merely dogma; it is a way of life which affects all and everything in a Muslim’s life and being. His faith directs and influences who he is and what he does. Art becomes similar to his act of prayer, where there is no intermediary between him and his Creator.
In art, the imitation of nature does not intrude between the artist and the proof of Allah’s existence. Nature does not really exist. The reality of this passing world is but a dream. There is only one proof in Islam, which is that Allah is Self Existent, All-Present and Ever-Lasting. All else comes and goes, is temporal and changing. In a sense, this temporality, this change in the creation, which is not self-existent, is proof of the eternal Self-Existing Allah.
Change, transformation, becomes the goal of art, even in the choice of impermanent materials, as well as in the aesthetic of transforming solid into fluid. It denies form, which reminds one of the solidity of the figures of idolatry. It dematerializes matter, obtaining a formless, vaporous, transparent, all encompassing space of light which moves from before the beginning to after the end.
This is manifested in what is called an arabesque, the transformation of a solid surface into lace; or a geometric pattern like a web where the eye wanders on the complex lines of polygons, always returning to a beginning, bringing the Muslim close to the beginningless and endless Allah; or the forest of columns inside the early mosque which create a space without beginning or end; or tiles covering the exterior of a Persian mosque like camouflage, integrating it into the gardens; or the moving line in a calligraphy evoking waves rolling in a shoreless ocean.
A Special Problem—Iconoclasm
In the early centuries of Islam, there existed some figurative sculpture and painting modeled after Greco-Roman and Sassanid examples, mostly in secular building such as the palace of Qusayr ‘Amr in the desert near Damascus. In the entrance hall, there was the image of the Caliph sitting on a throne, with the seven kings of the world bowing to him. The mosaics of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus contained city-scapes of the great cities of the world which Muslims aspired to conquer. ‘Abdur Rahman Nasr of Cordoba built a palace three miles to the north of Cordoba, near the mountain of al-Alus, and had the portrait of his favorite concubine, Zuhrah, on its door.
It is clear, at a time when Islamic art was seeking to find itself, that commemorative sculpture and painting were done purely for political and personal reasons. Otherwise, the early Caliphs were opposed to building monumental buildings such as palaces or great mosques, or even dressing extravagantly. When Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, the conqueror of Persia, asked the Caliph Hadrat ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) permission to build a government building, he ordered him to build a simple building which would protect him from the heat of high noon and from rain.
When Mu’awiyah built a small palace called Hadhra in Damascus, he asked a wise man of the time, Hadrat Abu Dharr al-Ghiffari, about it. He answered, “If you built that with state funds, you are a traitor to Allah. If you built it with your own money, you are guilty of being a terrible spendthrift.”
When Hadrat ‘Ali went to visit Jerusalem, he saw some Muslim soldiers wearing silk clothes which had been taken as war booty. He threw dirt on them and had their clothes torn. When he went to visit Damascus, the governor met him with great pomp, dressed in ornate clothing. Hadrat ‘Ali did not look him in the eye or salute him. Later he addressed him as “Oh Arab who is imitating the Persian kings with this clothing, how quickly you have changed character.” When the governor explained that the city was filled with hostility, and he was wearing these clothes to look formidable to his enemies, Hadrat ‘Ali said, “If what you say is true, you have thought intelligently and you have schemed well.”
In newly occupied territory, the Muslim conquerors, because they were few in number, seemed to have felt the necessity of dressing in such a manner as to appear formidable, and to live in palaces like a King - an idea which to the population was both customary and acceptable. They felt that they had to match the existing temples and churches by building mosques equal to or surpassing them in size and splendor. But the image never entered a mosque, nor was any religious subject from the Holy Qur’an illustrated, with rare exceptions, as will be discussed in reference to miniatures.
There is no injunction in the Holy Qur’an forbidding the representation of the human figure in art, yet there are many verses protecting Islam against idolatry. There is one verse which some theologians show as proof of religious interdiction against images.
“ Oh ye who believe, intoxicants
a nd gambling, (dedication of) stone (altars),- (ansab)
a nd (divination by) arrows are an
a bomination of Satan’s handiwork,
so shun them...”
Surah Ma’idah, v. 90.
The word al-ansab is interpreted by them as idols, figurative images. Meanwhile, earlier in the same surah, (v. 4), Allah says:
“ Forbidden to you is...
t hat which is sacrificed
o n stone (altars)- (‘alan-nusub)...”
Ibn ‘Abbas, Mujahid, ‘Ata, Sayyid ibn Jubayr and other early interpreters of the Holy Qur’an agree that ansab are stones upon which the Arabs, prior to Islam, used to make sacrifices, and which were considered holy. Therefore, these stones had nothing representational or figurative about them. It is impossible, then, to use this Qur’anic injunction to forbid Muslim artists to make images. Another verse of interest is:
“ They made for him (Sulayman) what he
wished of synogogues
and images and bowls (large) as
watering-troughs and fixed
Surah Saba’, v. 13
Some men of knowledge use this verse as proof that the making of images is permissible. They interpret the word tamathil, which is plural of timthal, as meaning an image made out of marble, brass etc.- in short, sculpture. It is interesting that Allah counts these sculptures among the many gifts which He bestowed upon Hadrat Sulayman (peace be upon him). It appears, according to many interpreters of this verse, that these sculptures were of prophets, angels and pure and saintly men, and they were included in temples.
There are yet other proofs that the Holy Qur’an does not forbid the making of images. In this case, Allah’s prophet Hadrat ‘Isa (peace be upon him) in direct reference to an image says:
“...‘I have come to you
with a sign from your
L ord that I make for you
o ut of clay as it were a
figure of a bird and breathe
i nto it so that it becomes a
bird by Allah’s leave...’”
Surah Ali ‘Imran, v. 49.
Some say that Allah permitted this as a miracle. Yet it is clear that the miracle is the image coming alive by Allah’s permission, not the making of the bird out of clay.
What appears to be forbidden is the making of images as idols or to compete with Allah in the process of creation. This interdiction becomes evident in the hadiths-precepts of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). In a hadith repeated by Muslim ibn Subayh, he says, “I was in the house of Yasar ibn Numayr with Masruq who saw some images in a room. ‘Abdullah ibn Masud said, ‘The greatest punishment of Allah will be upon men who make images.’ Muslim reports what these images represented, saying, “I was in a house with Masruq where there were images of Hadrat Maryam. Masruq said, ‘These are the images of the king of Persia’. I said, ‘No, they are the images of Hadrat Maryam’”.
In another hadith, a wood carver came to Hadrat ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) and said, “I am a maker of images, give me permission to continue making them.” Hadrat ibn ‘Abbas said, “I heard the Prophet say: ‘All makers of images are in Hell. On the day of last judgement, Allah gives life to the images and sends them to hell with their image-makers where they torture their makers,’ ” and he continued, “If you have to continue in your art, make the images of trees or parts of beings who do not possess life.”
According to another report, ibn ‘Abbas said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah ,say: ‘Whoever makes an image of someone, on the day of last judgement he will be asked to give life to the image which he made and he will not be able to do so. He will be thrown into hell-fire until he can give life to the image he made - and he will never be able to do it.’”
It is evident, in the first hadith, that the forbidden images in question are either that of Hadrat Maryam, which even then were venerated in Christian churches, or of the king of Persia, who also was an object of veneration. In the second hadith, where the makers of images are asked to give life to their images, they are competing with Allah in the process of creation, and setting themselves as partners to him.
The sin which attracts the great punishment of eternal hell-fire is explained by Hatabi, as “the great punishment on the makers of images is due to their worshipping images instead of Allah.” This punishment is not due to all makers of images, but only to those who consider the images they make as their idols, or those who propose them to others as idols.
According to Abu ‘Ali al-Farisi the reason for the great punishment on the day of last judgement for the makers of images is that they propose that Allah, the Creator, resembles the created being and that Allah is matter. The Holy Qur’an states clearly, in Surah Ikhlas, (v. 4):
“ And there is none
li ke unto Him.”
This is the principle of faith; the one who likens Him to any other negates this principle. Therefore he deserves the harshest punishment. Yet the image as idol, which appears to be forbidden, does not have to represent man or imitate nature; the first example mentioned in Surah Ma’idah (v. 90) concerns sacrificial stone altars.
In a hadith reported by Hadrat ‘Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) the Prophet effaced and eliminated everything which had the form of a cross on it in his house. A cross is only a symbol; it is not a representation. The Prophet kept a painting of mother and child representing Hadrat Maryam and Hadrat ‘Isa when he destroyed all the idols in the Ka‘bah. This is documented in the hadith reported by Azraqi: “When the Prophet entered the Ka‘bah, he ordered Shaybah ibn ‘Uthman, ‘Erase everything except what is under my hand.’ What was under his hand on the central column close to the door was an image of Hadrat Maryam holding the child ‘Isa.” This hadith proves that the prophet (p.b.u.h.) felt that no one in Makkah was going to venerate this image.
Yet the worst idolatry is to set oneself up as an idol in claiming to be able to create. Many verses in the Qur’an state that none other than Allah has the power to create.
In a hadith, Abu Zur’ah relates: “I entered with Abu Hurayrah to the house of Marwan. When Abu Hurayrah saw a painter painting images, he said ‘I heard the Messenger of Allah (p.b.u.h.) say: ‘Allah Most High declares: who is a worse tyrant than the one who pretends to create as I do? Let them create an atom or a grain of barley from nothing.’”
Therefore, the absence or rarity of figurative images in Islamic art is not due to religious interdiction. The religion, mostly through the precepts of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) warns and instructs about the purpose and use of art; it appears that this warning is aimed only at using images as idols, representing Allah in material form and claiming the power of creation which belongs only to Allah.
The Purpose of Islamic Art and the Example of Calligraphy
What is the purpose of Islamic art, which chose to be non-figurative, abstract not so much because figurative art was forbidden, but because abstraction was the appropriate means to express its content?
The earliest and simplest purpose of Islamic art was conceptual illustration. The first example may be a diagram which the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) drew on sand as described in a hadith related by ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud: “Once the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) drew a square on the sand, then drew a line from the centre crossing the side of the square and extending out. He divided that line with small crossing lines at many points, and he said, ‘The line inside this square is man, the square around it is his appointed life. The extension of the line outside the square is his ambition. The small crossing lines represent the arrows of calamities which affect man in his life and ambitions. If some of those arrows miss him, others will certainly hit him. Finally his appointed death will certainly cut him off from his ambitions.’”
During the period of the Caliphs, if buildings in occupied territories had figurative images combined with early abstract decorations, their purpose was not strictly that of architectural decoration. As Ettinghausen says, “These were symbols of the aspiration that the whole world under the rule of the Caliph would be centered around the baytullah.”
The seven kings bowing to the Caliph in Qusayr ‘Amr, the cities of the entire world in the mosaics of the grand mosque in Damascus, the crowns, the diadems, the images of powerful lions crushing fawns, all put in conspicuous places, were symbols of imperial power aspiring to world domination, expressing this aspiration in the known visual vocabulary of the occupied kingdoms.
During the Abbasid period, the Islamic empire started to disintegrate. In 756, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Eastern Persia and Egypt fell out of the central govemment. There were disturbances in every corner of the empire. By the 10th century, the commanders of thc Turkish mercenaries protecting the Caliph were so powerful that the Caliph’s rule was only that of a figurehead. In this period of decentralization, the importance of art as imperialist symbolism or even for the purpose of religious unity was seriously diminished.
A new society was formed, replacing in importance the warriors who fought for Allah’s sake with a new urban class of rich merchants. Although the palace remained the cultural and artistic centre, the new middle class exercised the influence of its attitudes and taste upon the culture. The new bourgeois taste demanded culture, education and not only the pursuit of religious knowledge, but scientific and worldly knowledge as well. It demanded recognition by exteriorizing its wealth.
To satisfy that need, new forms of industry in the applied arts appeared: fabrications of textiles, jewelry, pottery, book binding, etc. These art objects were decorated with pictures and ornamental motifs.
Already at the time of the Umayyads, philosophical and scientific books were being translated from Greek into Arabic. With increased interest in the worldly sciences, such books were translated as De Materia Medica of Dioscarides on herbal medicine and Pseudo Cialeno’s book on poisons translated as Kitab al-Diryaq, as well volumes on medicine, astronomy, history and philosophy.
The originals of most of these books were illustrated; the translators copied the images of vegetation, diagrams and animal and human figures as scientific illustration. The new middle class also needed amusement and recreation, which was satisfied by the appearance of a light literature like Kalilah wa Dimnah, a book of animal fables, Maqamat of Hariri, whose hero was Abu Sayyid (who bore a great resemblance to Robin Hood), and love stories such as Bayad wa Riyad and Waraqah wa Gulshah, where lovers never meet, and find union only in death. These books were also abundantly illustrated.
This is the beginning of the art of miniatures, an exception to the principles of the religious art of Islam. These were book size illustrations, whose content was partly scientific illustration and partly stories in picture form.
At the same time, the written word, whose place was already great in the Islamic world, because Allah has sent the truth with His “Divine Word” in the Holy Qur’an, became widespread with its dissemination into secular literature.
Arabic calligraphy evolved into an art form, becoming the perfect expresssion of the Islamic principle of abstract art. It addressed the heart as well as the mind, in a religion where there was no possibility of visualizing Allah; calligraphy materialized the word of Allah. Eventually it reached the same place in the mosque that figurative painting had in the church.
The role of these images of the word is not so much to be seen, to be felt, but to help the believer understand that which the eye cannot see. Mixed with the arabesque decoration of the mosque, it often became invisible and indistinguishable from its background. This emphasizes the fact that calligraphy in a mosque is decoration, not an image to distract one from devotion. It is a decoration of life, distilled, purified and dedicated to Allah.
It becomes a part of the infinite space suggested by the vast vocabulary of Islamic design. It moves in a rhythm of perfectly balanced inflected curves and high straight verticals. The initimate thought which it carries has an effect even on the one unable to read it, from the impression received of its movement and elegance.
The calligrapher is an example of the Muslim artist in the service of Allah and his faith. He tends to depend less on his passions, emotions and originality and more on the discipline and skill of execution. As such, calligraphy developed as an immaculate, complex and perfected form of art which reflects the true character of Islamic art and artists.
To escape the imitation of nature, to avoid even the visual memory of the world around one becomes the goal. Closing its eyes to the exterior, turning into itself, Islam cultivates an art of visionaries. Even when a reminiscence of vegetation appears in the inexaustible decorative inventiveness of Islam, the humble flower scrolls are changed into infinite spirals. With extremely complicated formulas, it combines not only innumerable decorative designs, but combines elements belonging to different systems. Curves, spirals, knots and stresses intertwine with zigzags, squares, triangles, diamonds and polygons.
The line, which totally escapes any reference to nature in its harmonious curves, contains the element of movement; with its geometric disposition it achieves a sense of calm. This limitless decoration becomes a vivified flowing space of light which is perceptible in and of itself, not as a means of making visible that which it illuminates.
There is a verse in the Holy Qur’an which has become a divine ordinance for the art of calligraphy and the calligrapher. It is the first verse of the chapter called “The Pen”. According to Islamic metaphysics, the Pen is the first of Allah’s creations. The Pen preceeds the Word, which it wrote by the will of Allah. The verse reads:
“ Nun. By the Pen
and that which
Surah Qalam, v.l.
Many men of knowledge have interpreted this mysterious verse, wherein Allah vows on the letter “Nun.”, (N), the Pen and what it writes to assure His beloved Prophet (p.b.u.h.) of the truth of his mission.
This verse begins with the enigmatic letter “Nun” and ends with a “Nun”, the last letter of the sentence. The shape of the first “Nun” has been likened to all possibilities of creation, of spiritual and material universes, tying them to that which was before them and to that which will come after. The resonant sound of the “Nun” is likened to all that happens in the creation, whether exterior or interior, physiological or psychological. For instance, the action of the hand of the calligrapher when he writes, his inner artistic considerations, his spiritual involvement in this action, the aesthetic response which the art work receives from the observer and the relation of all these to each other, to us and to our Creator is attributed to the resonant sound of the letter “Nun”.
The “Nun” at the end of the verse, although it is the same letter, has a different station. The “Nun” at the beginning is like the source, the cause; the one at the end is like the effect. The first is the one, the unit, the individual; the last is the one within the multiplicity. The first “Nun” is like time flowing from before the before until now and the last “Nun” is likened to time from now until after what is after. The first is that which can be thought of and known; the last is the unknown to which it will change. The “Nun” says: “Oh men, gather one and all, gather all your knowledge, your art, everything, try to know what this single letter means. You will find that you cannot unless Allah sends you its meaning, written, through His messenger. Therefore, first believe in Allah and His
Prophet and His revelations and His Qur’an. Then, pure and conscious, watch the creation which is the sign of that which the Divine Pen wrote.”
The letter “Nun”, whose shape is like an inkwell, whose sound is like a resonant supplication, means, for the calligrapher, a divine secret which would divulge itself if he would give due devotion to his art, acquiring and implementing knowledge, wisdom, care and balance. He knows that if he writes beautifully, it will become known to the One who sees; then he will know that he, like the “Nun”, is a writing of his Lord. He, like the pen he holds, is a pen in the hand of his Creator. Then Allah will write through him that which can only be beautiful, good and true.
Everyone has a place within the Universal Order like a letter on a written line- beautiful, harmonious and united with the rest. Therefore, the Muslim artist seeks to fit himself into the law of unity within himself, seeks to be in harmony with Divine Harmony. Externally, in his art, he attempts to be in harmony with the art of the Creator, which is the inner reality of nature. Otherwise, he and his art will deserve only to be torn, discarded, burned, like an unsuccessful sketch.
Man, however, is not created to be thrown into fire, except those who seek ugliness whereas they are given beauty, desire bad when they are offered good, prefer lies when they are taught the truth, opt for pain when they are given joy. Then they are thrown to hell whereas they have been offered paradise.
Muslim artists, as do all Muslims, submit their will to the will of Allah. The calligrapher, instead of moving his pen with his own will, wishes to be a pen in the hand of his Creator. Islamic calligraphy does not obtain its beauty from the wandering imaginations or egocentric appetites of the mind of the artist, but from a balanced, harmonious and refined spirituality, nourished by clear artistic principles derived from the immense culture of his religion.
The artist knows that he is not the maker of the art which comes through him. In fact, he is critical of whatever is added by him. This system in Islamic art is called “divine negative criticism.” The artist has two witnesses which support the negative criticism which he applies to himself One is his artistic observation, his visual experience. He sees nature as a calloused sign of its essence. Nature contains the creation within its shell. The ordinary eye and mind cannot see this essence. The second witness is the pressure of the wish for the divine which he has within him. He feels that the essence of reality is over and above what his eyes can see. That is why Islamic art appears to some as surrealistic.
Miniatures: Secular Art Becoming Mystical
“ When spring comes You are uncovered,
Y our light pours upon the earth and Your
b eauty surges from it”
In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongolian invasion of the Islamic world brought new images and techniques from the Far East, for instance, the subject matter of landscapes and a colour concept which may be called painting with light. During this time, Islamic mysticism spread through the Islamic world, but its center of activity became concentrated in the Eastern regions of Mesopotamia and the Near East.
The sufis seek to understand and to know the divine, and to come close to Him through the love of Allah. With this love, the sufi seeks God everywhere. According to Islam, the union with the divine is only possible in the hereafter. The sufi wishes to join the here and the hereafter and hopes to die before dying. This dying before dying is called “fana”’, to become “not”, to leave the desires and attachments of this life and this world. He is at war with his desires, his ego; he wishes to leave matter behind and reach divine light.
In this other world of light, he does not see, he has visions - shapes in light. The world becomes like the one sun reflected in a thousand windows. Nature becomes a mirror which reflects Allah’s attributes. Reality stops being reality, matter becomes spirit, opposites become one. The earth and the sky, the here and the hereafter lose their differences.
The painter of miniatures abstracts the images of this world, turns them into a schema. The folds on clothes become like spirals; rocks turn into sponges; colors are arbitrary- red skies, white earth. Trees become ornaments.
The painters of miniatures, like the mystic, are trying to transcend matter. They are making pictures of landscapes not of this world. These are not idealized or abstracted nature but the vision of those who have turned away from this world and aspire to the next. These images deny all that is sensible, suggestive of volume, of solid ground upon which things stand, of perspective, and effects of daylight .
The whole image pulsates with that light which comes from within. What is seen is not of ordinary space and time but an image through which is united the real and the surreal, this world and the hereafter.
The Aesthetic Conclusion
In the art of calligraphy, in fact, in all Islamic art, there is a law which the artist tries to apply. It is called qalb wa irja’, the law of transformation and return to the cause, to the origin. For instance, in calligraphy, it is, in the simplest sense, transforming the word into writing, and then bringing the writing back to the meaning of the word, or, in the decorative arts, it is as if transforming a solid wall into the geometric patterns of its molecules, then bringing it back to the void of non-existence. On another level, with this law, the artist attempts to transform the one, the unity into multiplicity and multiplicity back to unity and oneness. In the understanding of the aesthetics of Islamic art, this law has to be kept in mind.
The definition of the word aesthetics, which comes from the word aesthesis in Greek, is the science of the knowledge of the senses, in other words, sensitivity. In Arabic it is translated as sensitivity to that which is “novel, wonderful, hitherto unseen,” badi’, bad’, words which are derived from ibda, meaning originating, creating. In fact, one of the ninety-nine attributes of Allah is Badi’, “The Originator.”
The partial wonder which is art aims to transform into perceptible form the total wonder of the creation of Allah, the Originator, to transform the invisible vastness into a visible focus. Art is to make an image of an idea. The total wonder, the creation of Allah is without a model. The partial wonder is its transformation to the level of man’s understanding, although nothing made by man can come close to the art of the Great Artist. It aims to reflect the beauty of the All-Beautiful. The value of art is in its returning to the Origin, the Cause, and in its coming as close to it as possible. Art attempts to transform the greater wonder into a form which man can comprehend and then, through inspiration, he may have a taste of the greater whole through contemplation of the fraction and the reflection of it.
Man has no power to create, he can only become a means, an instrument to create. No matter how beautiful art is, it is always imperfect in comparison to its cause and to its origin. In fact, the Muslim artist purposely introduces an imperfection into his work.
On the moral side, the sensitivity as well as the object of sensitivity may be based on that which the spirit of man values, such as good, justice, conscience, compassion, etc., or what his flesh desires, such as lust, gluttony, riches, envy, vengeance, etc. Islamic art reflects that which is beautiful to Allah as is mentioned in a hadith, “Allah is Beautiful and loves the beautiful.”
The beauty which Allah loves is explained in the interpretation of the verse from the Qur’an:
“ Our Lord, grant us that which is beautiful
i n this world and that which is beautiful
i n the hereafter.”
(Surah Baqarah, v. 201)
The word hasanah is that which is desirable, a cause of joy, that which is good and beautiful. Although it is one and objective, its influence upon different beings is variable in accordance with their sensitivity. To the lowly, it is that which pleases his ego, his flesh, his lust. The beauty which is expressed with the words of Allah in His Holy Qur’an is that whch relates to the soul of man, which is eternal and is seen by the basirah, the eye of the soul. That beauty does not only depend on harmony, on logic, or on the consensus of the community, nor on its resemblance to nature; nor is it distorted by imagination and association. It is a beauty which inwardly all recognise, yet to which few are heedful and understand.
As it is said, “Art is a spiritual geometry made visible by material means.” To understand it one has to be in tune with it, one has to possess the same values, characteristics and beauty within one's own being.