Friday, July 1, 2011

ISLAM


If we are to take heed of Ananda Coomarswamy’s words – that traditional art can only be properly understood in its context, not with our modern eyes, then we need to know more about Islam if we are to understand anything appropriately about some of the world’s most beautiful buildings – the mosques. S. H. Nasr probvides us with one text that seeks to explain things for the west:

In the Islamic perspective, religion is not seen as a part of life or a special kind of activity like art, thought, commerce, social discourse, or politics. Rather, it is the matrix and worldview within which these and all other human activities, efforts, creations, and thoughts take place or should take place. It is the very sap of the tree of life as well as the total environment in which this tree grows. As has been said so often, Islam is not only a religion, in the modern sense of the term as it has been refined in a secularised world in which the religious life occupies at best a small part of the daily activities of most people. Rather, Islam is religion as a total way of life. Islam does not even accept the validity of a domain outside the realm of religion and the sacred and refuses to accord any reality to the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane or secular, or the spiritual and the temporal. Such terms as “secular” and “profane” in their current understanding cannot even be translated exactly into the Islamic languages in their classical form, and current terms used to render them in these languages are recently coined words usually derived from the idea of worldliness, which is not the same as “secular” or “profane.”

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam Religion, History and Civilization, Harper Collins, New York, 2003, p.26.

As for the written text, it was the response of the soul of Muslims to the Quranic revelation that created the art of calligraphy, which was closely associated with the text of the Quran from the beginning and which constitutes, along with architecture, the supreme plastic sacred art of Islam. Architecture itself is a sacred art because it grows from and finds its highest expression in the architecture of the mosque, whose very spaces are defined by the reverberations of the recitation and chanting of the Quran.
Ibid., p.40

"Ihsan  is that thou adorest God as though thou didst see Him, and if thou seest Him not, He nonetheless seest thee."
ibid., p.58

A prophet owes nothing to anyone save God. He brings a message that has the freshness and perfume of veritable originality because his message comes from thre Origin, a message vis-a-vis which he remains the passive receiver and transmitter. Revelation (al-wahy) in Islam is undedrstood in the precise sense of reception of a message from Heaven through an angelic instrument of revelation without the interference of the human substance of the receiver, who is the prophet. It needs to be added, however, that the message is always revealed in forms that are in accordance with the world for which it is intended and with the earthly receptacle chosen by God for His particular message.
ibid., p.63

The Quran refers constantly to the world of nature as well as the human order. The sky and the mountains, the trees and animals in a sense participate in the Islamic revelation, through which the sacred quality of the cosmos and the natural order is reaffirmed. . . . Natural phenomena are not only phenomena in the current understanding of the term. They are signs that reveal a meaning beyond themselves. Nature is a book whose ayat are to be read like the ayat in the Quran, in fact, they can only be read thanks to the latter, for only revelation can unveil for fallen man the inner meaning of the cosmic text. Certain Muslim thinkers have referred to the cosmos as the “Quran of creation” or the “cosmic Quran” (al-Qur’an al-takwini), whereas the Quran that is read every day by Muslims is called the “recorded Quran” (al-Qur’an al-tadwini). The cosmos is the primordial revelation whose message is still written on the face of every mountain and tree leaf and is reflected through the light that shines from the sun, the moon, and the stars. But as far as Muslims are concerned, this message can only be read by virtue of the message revealed by “the recorded Quran.”
Ibid., p.p.70-71
 
One of the most important economic institutions through which religious values and attitudes have been propagated in Islamic society is the guilds (asnaf or futuwwat), some of which still survive in parts of the Islamic world. Futuwwah (jawanmardi in Persian), which can be rendered as “spiritual chivalry,” was originally more closely connected with the military class than with craft guilds and merchants. Towards the end of the ‘Abbassid caliphate in the seventh/thirteenth century, it became more associated with the crafts and has remained so during the past eight centuries. Futuwwah – which means the combination of the virtues of courage, nobility, and selflessness – was associated from the beginning of Islamic history with the name of ‘Ali, who is considered the master of futuwwah and in a sense the “patron saint” of the guilds. Some guilds, however, are considered by their members to have been founded at the beginning of human history by the son of Adam, Seth. The qualities associated with futuwwah gradually became incorporated into the guilds, which were often linked to the Sufi orders and in which the art of making and producing objects from cloth to buildings was combined with religious and spiritual considerations.

The guilds were usually headed by a master (ustadh), who not only teaches the disciple the techniques of the art or craft in question, but also inculcates moral and spiritual discipline in the student. The process of the production of objects, which then enter the marketplace, is thus combined with religious and spiritual training. The profoundly religious character of Islamic art, from the central sacred arts of calligraphy and architecture to the art of creating objects for everyday use such as carpets, textiles, or utensils for the home, is related to the structure and nature of the guilds, which over the centuries have produced most of the objects of Islamic art. In Islam, art is not considered a luxury, but an integral part of life itself, and everything has its special art (fann) by virtue of which it can be made or done correctly. Through the guilds, Islam was able to imbue its arts and crafts, which are inseparable form the arts, with the deepest values of the Islamic religion and thereby to Islamize completely the atmosphere in which the traditional Muslim lived and functioned. Without doubt, the guilds are among the most important of Islamic economic institutions, responsible for linking the production of objects to the deepest ethos of Islam. If Islamic art reflects what lies at the heart of the Islamic message, it is because this art issues from the most inner dimension of the Islamic tradition and is executed and produced, thanks to the guilds, by those for whom the process and technique of making things has remained inseparable from the supreme art, which is the perfecting of the soul and drawing it nigh to God – a goal that constitutes the heart of the Islamic message.
Ibid., p.p.104-106

Baghdad soon became the greatest cultural center of the Islamic world, perhaps of the whole world, in the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries.
Ibid., p.121

Note 3: The date on the left refers to the Islamic lunar calendar, which begins with the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina in 622C.E., and the date on the right to the Western calendar.
Ibid., p.187

To understand the total reality of Islam as a religion and also the interactions of Islam with the modern world, it is necessary to be aware of this rich intellectual tradition of a religious character that is over a millennium old and contains some of the most profound meditation on God, the universe, and humanity in its existential situation in a universe in which human beings are condemned to seek meaning by virtue of being human.
Ibid., p.173

At the heart of this revelation stands the doctrine of the Oneness of God and the necessity for human beings to bear witness to this Oneness in this earthly life. The vast majority of Muslims remain fully aware of this truth today, as they have since the dawn of religion, and their struggle is to preserve the message revealed to them, to live according to its tenets, and to fulfil the end for which men and women were created despite all the obstacles that a powerful world living in the forgetfulness of God has placed before them today.
Ibid., p.180

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