May 8th, 2014




“Lā ʾilāha ʾil ʾāllāh, muḥammadun rasūlu-llāh” – There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.  The familiar Muslim profession of faith, the shahada, is one of the central tenants of Islam, and its recitation in public one of the five pillars of Islam.  It is a profession of Unity, both in the sense of the explicit assertion of the unity of God, and in the sense of the unity of Muslims in this fundamental belief.  Yet one of the most striking aspects of the Islamic tradition today is the remarkable diversity of practices associated with it.  Islam cannot be reduced to the often-cited five pillars of Islam, nor is it entirely captured in the sacred script of the Qur’an.  Islam is a religion practiced by Muslims, literally “those who submit to the will of God, or Allah.  But with the myriad of choices faced by believers every day, the issue of discovering God’s will becomes far more complex.  One might turn to the Qur’an for guidance, and indeed, this is often the first course of action for many Muslims.  But how can such a compact book, comprising of 114 relatively short surahs (chapters), hope to explicitly describe the appropriate behavior for the uncountable set of situations life presents?  To address life’s more subtle concerns one may turn to personal intellect, to tradition, or even to external sources of wisdom.  Regardless, each believer must inform his lifestyle, and by extension his religious practice by his individual circumstances.  In short, there is no unified religion of Islam.  Islam may be a monotheistic religion, but it is certainly not a monolith.

The diversity within Islam runs so deep that it even affects the expression of an explicit command from the Qur’an: to revere the prophet of God, Muhammad.   An almost universal, ever-present element in the life of Muslims, the “seal of the prophets,” Muhammad, finds his way into the hearts of his followers in various ways.  For example, many Muslims connect to the prophet by imitating his recorded behavior and practices, which are collectively known as Sunnah.  Others, like many of the Sindhi people, express their connection by writing poetry with the prophet as a subject or theme (Asani, 159).  However one of the most striking differences is the appreciation of the fundamental ontological nature of the figure of the prophet Muhammad.  In some circles, the prophet Muhammad’s role is strictly limited to that of the human receptacle for the revelation of the Qur’an.  As such, he is deserving of great respect, but not to be elevated to any higher station. To others, the prophet takes on another metaphysical dimension as the ideal man: man’s perfect state and his origin in the sense that a platonic ideal is a source.  This second view is captured by the piece on the so-called “Primordial Muhammad” from which the rest of humanity was derived.  In this piece, one sees the name, Muhammad, in the center of a circle, and touching one of the encircling dots.  This is meant to represent that Muhammad is the origin of humanity, not in the sense of its beginning, but rather in the sense that a circle’s center comprises its origin.  Further, Muhammad has a dual expressed nature as “seal of the prophets” and thus, in the circle of time, dotted by the various prophets, he holds a distinguished position, indicated by the light emitted from his dot.  And of course, there are even more debates about the appreciation of the prophet Muhammad in Islam.  The one most relevant to this blog is the divide over a particular hadith (saying of the prophet) that is frequently cited to justify the ban on images of the prophet and other beings, in which some see this ban as a means of showing respect, while others see their images as a means of expressing their love for him.

This ban on images would seem to pose a daunting barrier to the progression of Islamic art, and in fact there are many other challenges to the aesthetic dimension of Islam, not the least of which is the debate over the place of music and Qur’anic recitation.  Still, one cannot help but be amazed at the staggering quantity and quality of work produced by the Islamic community.  But, can one be sure that all of the art is truly “Islamic” in nature?  It seems a little presumptuous to claim that all art created by Muslims is “Islamic” in nature.  In fact, scholars are still split on the definition of Islamic art, or whether it truly should be a category of art at all.  However, one notable scholar, Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, does believe in the deep unity and profundity of Islamic art.  He expresses his view in his book Islamic Art and Spirituality, saying, “Whether in the great courtyard of the Delhi Mosque of the Qarawiyyin in Fez, one feels oneself within the same artistic and spiritual universe despite all the local variations in material, structural techniques, and the like”(Nasr, 3). Inherent in this view is the belief that Islamic art cannot be reduced to a set of materials or their means of construction; there is something symbolic or hidden in Islamic art that transcends its physical manifestation.  It is not something that one can decompose entirely, but something that one must “feel.”  In fact, according to Nasr, Islamic art is not concerned with the “outward appearance of things, but with their inner reality”(Nasr, 8).  Thus, to Nasr, at least, Islamic art is highly symbolic, where every detail may be a reminder of nature’s inner reality, the innermost of which is God.  This maximalist approach to Islamic art is explored in the crude piece presented in the post on the “Seven Spheres of Heaven.”  In this post, a multitude of meaning is drawn from a relatively simple clay tablet to show how every minute detail of this piece of art could be viewed as symbolic of the Mi’raj, Muhammad’s ascent through the levels of heaven to meet God. Such an interpretation requires a bit more that the explicit expression of the artwork.  To extend this principle, as Nasr would put it, “It is therefore to the inner dimension of Islam, to the batin…that one must turn for the origin of Islamic art”(Nasr, 5). And thus, art is the necessary companion of those who thirst after any inner meaning, or batin, in Islam.

The prime example of a Muslim concerned with Islam’s hidden dimensions is one who follows the branch of Islam called Sufism.  Sufism is a term that is quite difficult to define, however, broadly speaking, Sufis are those who believe in a God that is more immanent than the more distant deity of less esoteric interpretations of Islam.  Central to the belief is the view that, since the appearance of creation in “pre-eternity” on the day of alast, all of reality has been bent towards a return to union with God.  To the Sufis, this is accomplished by an arduous process of cleansing of the self, and a humbling of the ego, or nefs.   A particularly meaningful ayat (verse of the Qur’an) to Sufi’s is “To God belongs the East and the West; wherever you turn, you will perceive the face of God.” (2:115).  From this, many argue that all things in nature have a symbolism and a hidden lesson to be learned about the true nature of God.  In fact, the overwhelming desire for knowledge of and union with God is the source of the multitude of Sufi pieces of art, nearly all of which are laden with layers of symbolism and references to nature.  One of the great Sufi poets, Farid al-Din Attar, is best known for his epic poem, Mantiq al-tayr, or “the Conference of the Birds.” In it the poet beautifully describes the souls path to union with God symbolized by the story of a host of birds searching for their king, the Simorgh.  Each of the birds in the story takes of the characteristics of a particular human personality, and is taught and led according to their character.  Thus, the story provides a guide to the Sufi path for all different types of dispositions.  In the post, “Conference with a Chicken,” the lessons from the stories centering about the finch are compressed and re-expressed in comic form to show that the story has not lost any relevance since its medieval creation.  Like many great poems, “the Conference of the Birds” has proven to be quite timeless.

Poetry has long been a revered method of expressing devotion for Sufis, however, in a wider Islamic context, it is far more divisive.  The history of poetry in Islam is one of misunderstanding and conflict.  Before the official advent of Islam with the prophet Muhammad’s original recitation of the Qur’an, pre-Islamic Arabia had been home to a large number of poets whose poems were most often employed in the polytheistic faith of the region.  At the conception of Islam, the prophet went to great lengths to distinguish himself from the poets of the time and establish the Divine nature of his revelation  (Renard, 109). He condemned many poets and waning his believers to be mindful of them Yet as his position solidified, one of the great poets of the time and formerly one of Muhammad’s greatest opponents, Ibn Zuhayr, presented the prophet with an original composition in his honor.  The positive reception of this gift has caused debate over the position of poetry in Islam, an issue that was, and is still, largely left to be answered by cultural contexts.  For example, poems may be composed in honor of the prophet, like the Sindhi poems mentioned above.  They may also be means of expressing a heartfelt love for God, as many Sufi poets, like Attar, were wont to do.  The post on “Divine Love” explores how poetry found expression in the context of Medieval Islamic Persia.  The theme of love and the images used to express it are particularly compelling in these renderings, yet at surface level, they have nothing to do with the exoteric practice of Islam.  Nevertheless, there are still parts of the Islamic world that shrink from poetry of any form, while other parts embrace poetry to such a degree that it is seen as having a mystical power. For example, the Egyptian poet, Al-Busiri, wrote a poem, the Burda, which is purported to have been received by the prophet in a dream and lead to the poet’s miraculous recovery from a terminal illness.  Today, many still hold that the poem has special healing powers, and it is one of the most widely memorized poems in the Islamic world.  Poetry does holds a tenuous position in Islam, but its potency is undeniable.

Though it is extremely popular, the reception of the Burda, and most poems vary widely across different cultures.  In similar fashion to the imposition of pre-Islamic poetry on Islam, many cultural traditions survive, and find new life with the arrival of Islam.  For example, the Berti people of Sudan find that there is a certain spiritual potency to drinking erasures of verses from the Qur’an and lists of the names of Allah  (El-Tom 415). This practice is widely employed as a form of medication by faqis, which are better known in the traditional Islamic sense as hafiz, those who have memorized the entire Qur’an (415).  This is likely the by-product of a pre-existent traditional conception of the process of spiritual healing blended with the sacred place of the Qur’an in Islam.  Novel ritual practices such as this are, in fact, quite common in Islamic Africa, whether it be through devotion to certain marabouts whose practice resembles that of priests of traditional religions, or from the belief in the baraka (spiritual blessing) received from the creation and display of a certain Cheick Amadou Bamba by the Muridiyya Sufi order in Senegal.  The intersection of cultural norms in Islam is discussed in the post  “Ogun’s return,” in which element from a traditional Nigerian mythology (Ifá) are embedded within a traditionally Persian, Arabic, or Urdu love poem.  The traditional Sufi imagery and Yoruba (Nigerian tribe) insertions serve to express the same sentiment, a desire for return to God.  This piece shows that one cannot hope to understand Islam without first specifying the cultural context under which particular practices emerged.

The need for contextual understanding, of course, is not limited to the realm of cultural differences.  The interpretation of Islam is just as temporal as the beings who practice it.  Islam is a dynamic religion, and while it is evident that certain elements of the tradition persist throughout the ages, the words of modern day scholars cannot be equated with an ancient master such as Al-Ghazali.  Oftentimes,  there will even be a lack of consistency between the two time periods under investigation.  Time has presented Muslims with different struggles over the ages, and the writings of the thinkers have mirrored the issues of their day.  For example, in the Complaint and the Answer, Muhammad Iqbal employs the poetic form of conversation with the Divine to examine the place of Muslims in the modern world.  In the Complaint, he poses as a believer who charges God with having forgotten His people and left them to their present decline (Iqbal, 3-33).  Yet, in the Answer, the poet responds in the voice of God saying that His people have forgotten the ways of their forefathers (namely Ali, Uthman, Ghazali, ect.) and instead, “education and refinement” have lead them to idolatry (Iqbal 59).  Iqbal employs this traditional method of expressing devotion to express his view about the state of Muslims in the wake of the expansion of the West and Modernism.  Many similar figures followed suit, choosing to express their ideas by drawing on the traditions of the past, and in some cases prescribing a return to said traditions.  In like fashion, the post, “Nasrudin and the Christian” employs the use of a traditional Islamic folk-tale to comment on the ideas of some of the reformist thinkers.  The simple stories of this character, Nasrudin, are typically used to present compact truths or bits of wisdom, and so they provided an ideal means for a concise critique of some reformist stances. Through the story presented, one is able to perceive the power of using old mediums for modern reflections.  Without a doubt, the ideas in Islam are not exactly those conceived of at its inception, but there does seem to be some continuity, which is quite evident by the efficacy derived from the past tradition.

Islam may, in fact, comprise a continuous tradition, however, the price of this dynamism is the unity of a clear definition.  And yet, there remains some conception of Islam as one distinct religion.  As the Sufis might say when speaking of the nature of God, Islam participates in both unity and multiplicity.  It is multiple and yet one.  To ignore either of these aspects would be to miss the true character of the religion.  As we have seen, sect, culture, and time each play their role in contextualizing Islam.  And yet, according to many scholars like Prof. Nasr, there is a distinct “universe” from which all of Islamic art springs.  This, however, requires a very nuanced understanding of the batin, or inner meaning of the tradition.  For those lacking the exposure necessary, it is far simpler to refine one’s understanding of the multiplicity of Islam and its artwork.  One would hope this could combat sentiments of the Muslim as “the other.”  If nothing else, this blog attempted to present the necessity and, indeed, beauty of context in Islam.  That being said, what is presented here is but a drop in the sea of Islamic art, and only provides a fleeting glimpse at its diversity and profound beauty.





Works Cited

Asani, Ali. “In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems.” Religions of India in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995. 159-86. Print.

El-Tom, Abdullahi Osman. “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 55.4 (1985): 414. Print.

Iqbal, Muhammad. Complaint and Answer: Shikwa and Jawab-i-shikwa. Trans. A. J. Arberry. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1955. Print.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic art and spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Print.

Renard, John. Seven doors to Islam spirituality and the religious life of Muslims. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Print.

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