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The Aesthetics of Islamic Art

Author(s): Lois al Faruqi


Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring, 1977), pp. 353-
355
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/430294
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AFTER WORDS

Criticism and Countertheses

THE AESTHETICS OF ISLAMIC ART content and form of their artistic products.
Professor Edward Madden (JAAC, XXXIII, From the cradle to the grave, in prayer five
4, Summer 1974, 423-30) has produced one of times a day, in social functions, in all types of
the most lucid and sympathetic discussions of public gatherings, on the radio and even in his
Islamic aesthetics that has been produced by daily speech, the Muslim hears and recites pas-
a non-Muslim author. He has noted the dearth sages from the Holy Book revealed by Allah
of materials on aesthetics by Muslim writers, to the Prophet Muhammad. Since the art works
however, he attributes this to an ill-founded created by his fellow Muslims share so many
idea that the Muslim has considered it "hope- similarities with that Qur'an, it is not necessary
less to make anyone outside the Islamic com- for him to be "educated" to respond to them.
munity genuinely understand and appreciate A second reason for this rapport with the
the symbolism of Islamic art." The truth is tradition is the fact that for the Muslim there
that, with recent exceptions, the Muslim is no secular art as opposed to religious art,
neither wrote on aesthetics for the Muslim no secular politics as different in jurisdiction or
reader nor the non-Muslim reader. Even in goal from religious politics, no secular actions
connection with the literary arts, which which contrast or are in opposition to religious
might
be considered the major field of artistic crea- duties. The Muslim considers his life to be
tion for the Muslims as well as their Semitic a unity, his religion to be as much concerned
ancestors, there is no major treatise which can with the way he manages his business affairs,
properly be described as dealing with the participates in political affairs, or even greets
aesthetics of that art. Aesthetic discussion is his neighbor as it is in his ritual obligations or
equally absent from the literature dealing with his upholding of the 5 "pillars" or belief,
the visual arts, music, and dance. This is true prayer, care of the needy, fasting, and pilgrim-
despite the lively creative production over cen- age. His religious ideology is at the same time
turies in all these fields; despite the concern a political, an economic, a social and an aes-
for the field by the ancient Greeks, from whom thetic ideology. Therefore the person deter-
the early Muslims took so much; and despite mined by Islamic culture need not receive
the clear relation to the religion and world formal training or read books on aesthetics to
view of the Muslim peoples which their aes- understand Islamic artistic creations.
thetic creations reveal. The reason for this Both Professors Madden and David Richard-
lack of interest in the whole field is not known, son (Afterwords, JAAC XXX, 4, Summer 1975,
but it is certainly not accurate to ascribe to the487-88) seem to miss this unity in Islamic cul-
Muslim a despair resulting from inability to ture. The former has been perceptive enough
explain his art to outsiders. to see the unity of the fine or "museum" arts
There are at least two explanations for the with the crafts, minor arts, decorative arts, and
Muslim's preoccupation with his tradition. objects of everyday use (pp. 423-24), yet he
One is the "training" that everyone growing speaks of secular art as a separate entity (pp.
up in a Muslim environment gets from con- 427-29). Richardson, influenced by the West-
stant contact with the Qur'an, that aesthetic ern notion of complete separation between
production par excellence which has molded religious and secular, between church and state,
not only the thought and actions of the Mus- has fallen into the mistake of treating Islam
lims for over thirteen centuries but also the the religion as a religious ideology foreign to

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354 AFTERWORD S

that secular "world-outlook" or "metaphysical art-or more specifically, the interlaced l


world-style" which he designates as "Levan- is a symbolic expression of "restless motion,
tine," "Near Eastern," "Magian," or "Arabian." "an ever-changing reality," of a reality whi
The Muslim would never agree that such bi- is "in flux" (p. 488).
furcation exists. Facts would never allow the Neither of these opposing views seems to
honest historian to wrench Islam the religion have grasped correctly the essence of the
from Islam the politic, economic, social, and Islamic Weltanschauung or its expression in
artistic ideology, nor Islam the cultural unity art. Professor Madden has rightly described
from the "Arabian," "Semitic," or "Mesopota- Islamic art as one in which there is no single
mian" stream of which it is the most recent focal point on which all artistic movement
flowering. Though Professor Richardson at converges, but this fact should not have made
one point writes of a shared Weltanschauung him
of jump to the erroneous consequent that
Muslims and other peoples of the Near East- Islamic art therefore is non-directional and
ern Culture of the first millenium of the lacking in movement. On the contrary, it is
Christian era, he at another point in his After- full of motion, but that motion is one which
words, separates Islam the religion from draws the eye in every direction. It is an art
Islam the world view, and claims that the vwhich can be described as "multi-directional,"
two belong to different "transcendent guiding but never as "non-directional." It is true that
groups of ideas" (p. 488). the early mosques with multiple aisles and
The truth is that not only do Islam the arches of which Madden speaks do not have an
religion and Islam the world view belong to "upward thrust." But one should not there-
the same "world-outlook," but that early fore leap to the conclusion that they impart
Christianity, Neoplatonism, and Monophy- "no feeling of motion in any direction" (p.
sitism grew in and were influenced by the 428). Instead, the person standing inside the
same Mesopotamian world. Despite unique "aisled hall" mosque structures of Cordoba,
characteristics and doctrines, these ideologies Quayrawan, or Damascus will feel the aesthetic
also reveal much that is held in common. It pull along repetitive aisles and arches, regard-
is for that reason that, among these people, less of where he stands amidst the forests of
the visual arts and music reveal many common columns and arches, regardless of which direc-
characteristics and even astonishing rapport. tion he faces. He is "moved" over a never-
This is not an acceptance of artistic themes ending series of visual entities. This is what
or styles by one or the other from a position of represents the Islamic expression of "timeless-
aesthetic destitution. Rather, it is an ideo- ness," of "eternity," and of "infinity," which
logical confirmation and accord that is basic Madden has rightly ascribed to Islam. It is a
for what similarities exist between the art three-dimensional version of the "infinite pat-
products of these peoples. This inter-religious tern"-not an example of static inactivity.
"understanding" revealed in the arts of pre- In contrast to Madden, Professor Richardson
Renaissance times is a further negation of the perceives rightly the complex movement in-
idea mentioned earlier that the Muslim has volved in Islamic art; but he sees it as an aes-
not been able to communicate with the non- thetic expression of a Heraclitean reality in
Muslim through his art. It is only after ideo- flux, as an expression of the sociological ex-
logical revolution of the Renaissance, and perience of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia,
those further revolutions which followed it in or even as the influence of the Indian subcon-
Western Europe from the sixteenth to the tinent on Islamic art (p. 487). The dynamic
twentieth centuries, that the Muslim and energy which he finds in the interlace of non-
Christian became estranged ideologically and, Islamic art traditions is for him an anti-Islamic
consequently, artistically. or perhaps a non-Islamic representation. There-
Another issue raised by these two articles re- fore he is forced to posit another contrasting,
gards the feeling of movement found in Islamic secular Weltanschauung to the Muslim peo-
art, a matter viewed in such differing ways by ples, which, as has already been argued, is
the two authors. According to Madden there falsely conceived. Whether in architectural
is "no feeling of motion in any direction" in planning, in decoration, or even in musical art,
an Islamic work of art, and the mosques of the motion found in Islamic art is not the wild
"the earlier years" are described as imparting dynamic kind found in early North European
this static quality (p. 428). He goes on to art, whether pagan or Christian. There is no
speak of the "lack of directionality" in Islamic chaos in Allah's creation or design for it, and
art. For Richardson, on the contrary, Islamic there is no chaos in the art expressions symboliz-

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Afterwords
Afterwords 355

ing that creation or design. There is likewise the Divine. This does not imply an Islamic
no relationship with the teeming movement rejection of nature. On the contrary, the
which expresses the Hindu ideology. That is Qur'an is precise in its condemnation of those
still another kind of aesthetic movement meant who pursue the extremes of an ascetic life
to aptly symbolize a different religio-cultural (Qur'an 2:201; 2:268; 28:77).
idea. "Dynamism" therefore may not be the Another way in which the Muslim artist "dis-
proper term to describe the movement which solved" matter and thereby reinforced the
is surely evident in Islamic Art, though it message of God's transcendence can be called
may be perfectly relevant for the interlaced "disguise of materials." This stylistic rein-
designs in another tradition. "Ceaseless change" forcement of abstraction is found in the over-
is not what the Muslim artist had to express, whelming prevalence of decorative arabesque
though it may have been a dominant idea for coverings. The base materials for a building,
the Hindu artist. Instead the emphasis in for example, are often insignificant-crudely
Islamic ideology and in Islamic art is on cut stones, reused bricks, and even rubble.
orderly and organized movement. These are covered with elaborate ceramic, brick,
Professor Madden has perceived correctly the or stone facings, over which the artists exert
"general preference for abstract art in all Mus- tremendous care and effort. In addition, marble
lim societies, and he explains it as the only way and other stones are cut with elaborate pierced
the Muslim found for symbolizing "the uni- work which negates their natural properties.
versal, transcendent, unity in multiplicity, and The weight of the bricks and stone of a huge
necessary being." He goes on to say that "it dome are visually dissipated with stucco mu-
would be impossible to draw attention away garnas decorations and/or a multitude of win-
from the limited, the historical, and the paro- dow perforations. Fragile columns hold huge
chial by using pictorial icons" (p. 427). Un- walls lightened by brick and plaster orna-
fortunately, he fails to discern any relation- mentation.
ship between abstraction and the principle of The "dissolution of matter" therefore is not
Islamic style commonly known as the "dissolu- only a "perfectly legitimate" symbolism, as
tion of matter." The Muslim artist did not only Professor Madden concedes, but is itself just
reject animal and human figures as proper as revealing of "the Islamic Revelation" (p.
429) as stylization and abstraction. Madden
vehicles for the expression of his religio-cultural
ideology, for his statement of tawhid. He de- fails to see the relation between these various
vised other ways of aesthetically "making his stylistic elements and techniques, all of which
point." One of these was the artistic use of are designed to express views of a God who
stylization. When figures from nature were putcannot by symbolized in terms of our natural
to use, they were rendered in such a way as world or its creatures. For this the Muslims
to give more the impression of design than of created the arabesque, an entity which sub-
the naturalistic portrayal of creatures or ob- sumed much more than the geometric vegetal,
jects. Second, the artist affected by Islamic and calligraphic patterns with which Professor
ideology further molded his artistic style to Madden equates it (p. 427). Rather, the
express the utter transcendence of the Divine characteristics of the arabesque or the "infinite
by "dissolving" or, better, "disguising" the pattern" determine the content and structure
material world with which he worked. He of all aesthetic products of Islamic culture, not
evolved two techniques or stylistic devices for
just in Fatimi Egypt as Madden contends (p.
expressing this non-naturalness of Allah. It is 427), but from the Dome of the Rock of Jeru-
these which can be said to fall under the label, salem (691 of the Christian era) all the way
"dissolution of matter." The first of these down to the inlaid box made yesterday in
stylistic tendencies involves a "camouflage of
Damascus.
structure," the second, a "disguise of materials." Lois AL FARUQI
Structural elements are rarely emphasized Wyncote,in Pennsylvania
an Islamic building or article. Stucco, ceramic,
brick, or wooden decorations hide the basic
form and mechanics of construction and cause
THE LOOKING BACKWARD FALLACY
the viewer to concentrate instead on the arab-
esque designs of the overlay. Even the floor It may appear as if no intelligent reader
plan of a building denies visual concentration should disagree with John Fisher's editorial in
on structure and thereby reinforces the Islamic a recent issue of this Journal (JAAC, XXXIV,
rejection of nature as proper representative of 4, Summer 1976 395-396). The view he presents

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