Now, what is the relationship between Islam and Art? I believe the best point to start is to recite this prophetic tradition. The Prophet (pbuh) said “God is Beautiful and loves beauty”. Now this search for beauty and esthetics is evident in his own example. We see that he constantly sought for beauty in life. He wanted to beautify his own self, inner and outer. He also wanted to beautify his own physical appearance, his own home, the cleanliness. It was part of his message because cleanliness means beauty.
He also wanted to beautify his own city. We know that he launched, forced plantation campaigns in Madinah. He proclaims some areas as sanctuaries in which there was no permission to cut a tree or to kill an animal. He wanted to keep it as beautiful. Also he wanted to beautify his own environment. You know beauty, that search for beauty, his use of comb, his use of perfume. These are all manifestations of that search for beauty in life.
Now, why this is important? Because art is a search for beauty. Wherever you see beauty, you see the traces of the divine. As Plato said once, “Beauty is the splendor of the truth”. You know the beauty means the truth. You see the truth wherever you see the beauty. And this is what art does. To be able to appreciate what Islamic art does and the real beauty, the authentic beauty of Islamic art however one needs to know the language that Islamic art speaks. Yes it speaks a language and every traditional art form artist speaks a language and one needs to know that language. Also one needs to know the most basic concerns and teachings of that religion.
Now in the case of Islam, Islamic art speaks a different language. One needs to know that language. Let me give you an example. The calligraphy and say the recitation of the Quran are some of the most central forms of art. Some of are architectural but calligraphy is one of the most central form of art in Islam. Why this is the case? Let me try to explain.
In Christianity, the highest expression of truth is Jesus. Now God becomes a man and this man is the highest expression of truth. So Christian art focuses on, centralizes that man, that God man in its art form. So icons, icon making, the pictures of Christ are central art form in Christianity.
But in Islam things change. Islam, the highest expression of truth is the Quran. And the Quran in Islamic art wants to look at that object which is the Quran. How do you do that? Calligraphy is a form of doing that. You write the Qur’anic verses slowly, beautifully as if you wanna assimilate the message of that book. And this is how it works. Calligraphy is a silent and continuing reflection and contemplation of the word of God. Because in islam, the word becomes a book. And art wants to cloth that book, wants to contemplate on that book. And calligraphy is one of the best ways of doing that.
Similarly recitation of the Quran is one of the most central parts of Islamic art. Another thing, let me try to give you another perspective to master that language that Islamic art speaks. La ilahe illa Allah, the tawhid is the most central teaching of Islam. How is that reflected in Islamic art. If you enter a Buddhist temple or a Christian church, you will see a figure at the center, say a Buddha statue or an icon of Christ. You know in a Buddhist temple or a Hindu temple you will see a similar thing happening. There is going to be something at the center which will define space. It could be a Buddha statue or it could be an icon but that will define the space.
But in a mosque, and this is really, really important to understand the tendencies of Islamic art. In a mosque, there is nothing. There is this empty space, there is this void. Why is this the case? Because La ilahe illa Allah, to say La ilahe illa Allah is to say God is transcendent and imminent at once. And there is no intermediaries between God and the world, and God and the man. There is no intermediary.
So rejection of this intermediary is also rejection of any object which can stand between you and God. So Islamic art leaves that space empty as a void. Because negation of the world at the same time is affirmation of the presence, the infinite presence of God.
So understanding that concept of emptiness, that void is crucially important. That becomes the symbol actually, not an icon but that emptiness, that void becomes the symbol of God’s transcendence, simultaneous transcendence and imminence. Transcendent in the sense that God is beyond everything we can imagine and imminent in the sense that God is closer to us than our jugular vein as the Quran puts it. So that emptiness embraces that idea.
That’s not the all story. There is something else going on as well. We enter a mosque. You also see all art forms. Calligraphy, geometry, arabesque art forms, abstracted life forms framing that emptiness. Yes it is an emptiness but it’s not that abstract otherwise it wouldn’t be accessible to everybody. So Islamic art frames that emptiness with calligraphy, with abstracted life forms, with geometry and no art form is as geometrical as Islamic art.
Why is this the case? Let me try to explain that one. This floral, abstracted life forms, like flowing on these tiles are representing this feminine, this beautiful aspect of the world. But there is also this geometry in the world. The world is an osculation between geometry and this flexibility. Geometry stands for the laws that are governing the world. The world is a reflection of God’s majesty and our laws in this world. And on the other hand there is this openness. There is not only laws but there is also freedom, there is also flexibility in the world.
So that life forms represent that flexibility, that feminine, that beautiful aspect of the world. Geometry represents that majestic, that rigorous aspect of the world. And the world is an osculation between this majesty and this beauty. God is the creator of a mother’s heart and God is also creator of natural laws. That is giving you a total world view.
So I said several things. You know that emptiness is really important to understand. And knowing the highest expression of truth is Quran is really important to understand in Islamic art. And also concerns behind these symbols, geometrical forms, floral abstracted life forms in mosques is also very very important. Another thing that you will see in a mosque. When you enter into a mosque, you know you put your forehead to the ground. This is actually a sanctification of the world, this nature. You put your self in an attachment with the ground, you put your forehead to the ground. This is to say that the world is not a demonized place. It’s actually a sacred place. Everywhere in the world is sacred. This use of ground in the mosque architecture is another expression of this intrinsic piece between world and man. That’s another aspect of Islamic art. One of the message that Islamic art gives.
From another perspective you know the use of light for example in a mosque. There are many verses that talk about light. One of the names of God is light according to Islamic tradition. This embracing lights, this opening, this use of windows without colors as if you wanna absorb that divine light. Again there is no intermediation between that light, there is no color but you wanna assimilate light as it is in itself without any distraction, without any veiling or filtration. That’s another aspect of Islamic art that is quite striking.
From another perspective of Islamic art, one can say while looking at these things, you know Islamic art is a manifestation, is an expression of most central teachings that is La ilahe illa Allah. Also I said Islamic art reflects Islamic world view, you know the majestic and beautiful Names of God, and how Islamic art is an expression of Muslim world view. I believe we can say that Islamic art is a silent theology, is a silent metaphysics.
One can see the same thing in Islamic music, in Islamic miniatures. This is always the case. It’s always good to know the most central concerns of this religion in order to appreciate the beauty that Muslim artists produce.
Also I wanna add this. We need Islamic art more than ever. Because in art forms, you are being immediately stricken. The beauty of a soul immediately strikes you when you see an art form. There is no mediation. When you see a beautiful art form, for example when you see Taj Mahal, there you will see the beauty of Muslim soul. When you see Blue Mosque, there you will see the beauty of Muslim soul. When you see a taliq, assouls ??? calligraphy form, there you will see the beauty of Muslim soul. When you hear a Qawali song, there you will see the beauty of Muslim soul.
Art can transcendent its boundaries which we construct. Especially nowadays where, in which Islam is being demonized, being misrepresented in media, I believe art can be a way to punch hole in those walls that separates us. So we need art, we need Islamic art more than ever.
Yes we can replicate by the way, we can replicate traditional art forms. Calligraphy, miniature, architecture. We can replicate them but also I believe we need to use modern art forms. Again by starting from our own world view, we need to use these modern art forms to express ourselves. So Islamic art is a must and we cannot do without it, especially nowadays to convey the beauty of this religion and the beauty of Muslim soul to larger audiences.