W6: “Spiritual Mathematics”

I wanted to bring many ideas together in this video, ideas of art, architecture, geometry, spirituality, divinity, nature, and interpretation. First, to explain the medium of a series of images and the pace – I wanted to create a meditative end product, one where all the various big ideas I was bringing together would be integrated quietly and invite contemplation, rather than with many things going on and flashing across the screen and being distracting. Next, to explain the choice of images – as I read Nasr’s Islamic Art and Spirituality, I was struck by the paragraph that begins, “There is within Islamic spirituality a special link with qualitative mathematics…” (47) As his sentences built one upon the other, with its references to Pythagoras and his art (his art being mathematics) and his sagacity, an image took shape in my mind, before I turned the page on this long paragraph, the image of a snowflake. The image of a snowflake, it seemed to me, in its “lucidity and perfection” (48) and its geometry, manifests Nasr’s point about Islamic art marrying the divine, the natural, the mathematical, and the architectural, articulated especially as he writes: “The use of rigorously defined geometric spaces, precise mathematical proportions, clearly defined lines and volumes relating to exact mathematical laws were means whereby the space of Islamic architecture, as well as its surfaces, were integrated. The principle of Unity as thereby made more manifest and the Islamic space within which Muslims carried out their ordinary lives as well as moments of worship were sacralised.” (48) Then reading on I realised it had seemed so to Nasr too, as he went on to use this very image as an illustration of his argument.

Furthermore, what Nasr does not mention is the way water crystallising into a snowflake might parallel the way in which he claims that the “great masterpieces of Islamic architecture… are like crystallizations of light.” (50) Thus the soundtrack of the call to prayer is meant to evoke not only the spiritual dimension but also more specifically the mosque, architecture, to underscore this reflection. I think the crystallisation of water into snow might also parallel the way in which he asserts that “the sacred architecture of Islam is a crystallization of Islamic spirituality and a key for the understanding of this spirituality.” (59) If we take Nasr’s word, a snowflake, too, with its breath-taking geometry, its exquisite perfection, its reflection of light, holds the key to understanding Islamic spirituality. I think a simple snowflake can be read as an ayat, a sign of the divine in nature, in everyday life.

Moreover and crucially, snowflakes are known not only for their geometry but also for their uniqueness. Kenneth Libbrecht explains, “The precise morphology of each falling crystal is determined by its random and erratic motions through the atmosphere. A complex path yields a complex snowflake. And since no two crystals follow exactly the same path to the ground, no two crystals will be identical in appearance.” (2004 6) The structure and appearance of the eventual snowflake is dependent on its environmental conditions – “How the water vapour keeps on condensing and where the snowflake falls” as well as temperatures is what shapes the snowflake. (Roach 2007) In this way the image of the snowflake also calls to mind for me Necipoglu’s historical, socio-political orientation, thus integrating Nasr’s focus on spirituality and aesthetics with Necipoglu’s emphasis on context.

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