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The Dominating Principle of Islamic Art Comes From The Quran


By: Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The principle, the truth of the Nature of Reality which dominates over Islamic art and the philosophy of beauty which governs it, comes directly from the Qur’an and hadith.

It is, however, much too subtle to be seen externally. One of the reasons is that you don’t have a book in Islam on the philosophy of beauty or how they did architecture? No body knows how the Badshahi Mosque or the Taj Mahal or Isphahan mosque was built. This tradition was handed over orally from generation to generation through the artistic guilds, those of chivalry, the brotherhood organisations that were ultimately connected to the Çarâqah or the esoteric path. What are these principles that have dominated over all forms of Islamic art from its beginning?

The first is tawhid, the doctrine of unity. All authentic Islamic art must reflect Divine Unity. There are consequences for that. First is that you must always have an integration of the form. There is a centre to it. Islamic art is always a centered art. It has a centre from which it speaks – whether architecture, calligraphy, miniature, carpet weaving etc.-and that is a reflection of tawhid. One can extend this principle to great lengths, as it is the most important of all principles of Islamic art. It means to exclude from Islamic art all forms of idolatry.

Theologically idolatry means to make an idol or statue and say that it is God. This is only the external understanding of idolatry. But an understanding of Islamic art is always related to Sufism which tries to transcend the external forms to reach tawhid within, to understand the unity of creation. It is not accidental that every great calligrapher of Islamic lands is related to Sufism. Anyhow the first important principle i.e. tawhid works on many levels; of integration, of lack of alienation, of lack of tension between parts, integration of the psyche of the listener instead of dispersion etc.

Second principle is that of Jamal. Up till modern times all art took beauty into consideration. Modern art has developed the cult of ugliness, considering beauty to be trivial and unnecessary and even a luxury. The modern theoreticians of art considered that art should be related to utility and not to beauty. The Islamic perspective has been summarised in an important Áhadith that defines Islamic art in the whole of Islamic civilisation. “Allahu Jamâlun yuhibu ‘l-jamal”(God is beautified and He loves beauty). Beauty is reality, ugliness is unreality. To live in ugliness is to live in illusion, in unreality. This is in contrast to much of the modern art, which tries to discover the ugly, the evil and says that it is important, the good is not important.

There is the famous saying, “In every thing there is a sign which bears witness to His Oneness.” Islamic art tries to accentuate that aspect instead of hiding it.

Thirdly, there is the un-iconic character of the Islamic art. In many civilizations art flows from the representation of the Divinity. Examples of the Christian or Hindu art could be cited in this regard. All Christian art is dominated by the image of Christ. On the other hand, un-iconic art means an art that refuses to depict the divine in a direct from. It excludes a statue or an image that represents divinity. The reason for it is the emphasis of Islam upon tawhid on the highest level. It is not a religion based upon the manifestation of divinity like the Hindu avatars or Christ who, in a sense, is the Abrahamic avatar since for the Christians he represents the descent, the incarnation of the Divinity. Islam places itself on the position of the Divinity Itself, the pure Divinity, the Absolute Reality which cannot descent in the world of forms or it would no longer be the Absolute. That is why Islamic art is characterised by an attempt to bring the Sacred into the world without representing the Divinity directly.

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About the Author
Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the world's leading experts on Islamic science and spirituality, is University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. Professor Nasr is the author of numerous books including Man and Nature: the Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (Kazi Publications, 1998), Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford, 1996) and Knowledge and the Sacred (SUNY, 1989).
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