Beauty and Aesthetics in Islam

The Islamic civilisation allowed the development of autonomous norms of beauty that were inspired by the faith of Islam. The Islamic artistic tradition viewed the beauty of the universe, emphasized in the Quran, and the literary qualities of the Quranic text itself, as compelling evidence for the divine hand. In this fascinating article, HRH Princess Wijdan Ali investigates the unique philosophy that underpins and guides Islamic art and the Muslim artist-artisan and developed the elements of a real and original philosophy of art, beauty and aesthetics in the Islamic culture.

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HRH Princess Wijdan Ali*

Note of the editor

This article was first published in the Essasys in Honour of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, compiled by M. Kaçar-Zeynep Durukal (Istanbul: IRCICA, 2006, pp. 299-306). We are grateful to Dr. Halit Eren, General Director of IRCICA, and Mustafa Kacar-Zeynep Durukal, editor of the book, for allowing publication. A first version of this article was published on www.MuslimHeritage.com in January 2007. The present version was slightly revised and edited. See also on our web portal HRH Princess Wijdan Ali: Inauguration Address to the Conference Science and Islam: Past, Present and Future (part of the British Science Association Festival of Science, University of Salford 8-12 September, 2003): Listen or Watch.

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Since its outset, Islamic art followed a selective process that favoured certain motifs and styles to others. This process was undertaken by the artists themselves, many of whom were converts to the new religion and, thus, compliant with the new ethical and aesthetic criteria and to the new patrons' needs to which art, hence forward, had to comply. Among these needs, those of worship played a predominant role. It was in religious architecture that Islamic art first expressed its genius for integrating pre-existing artistic traditions and adapting them to its own scopes and demands. The best examples of this kind of early integrations are the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem - the first monument of Islam (688-692 CE) - and the Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus (ca. 706-716 CE).

Figure 1: An Abru (marbling) sample from Dr. Mehmet Kileci. (Source).

The selective process followed by the early patrons and artists in Islam was a defining one in the development of early Islamic art. It arose out of the need for new aesthetics, different from the alien traditions of Graeco-Roman and Hellenistic cultures that had exerted themselves for centuries on the Semitic East. The new Muslims needed an aesthetic mode that could satisfy the spiritual and contemplative nature of their religion, to reinforce its basic ideology and social structure and be a constant reminder of its principles, whose roots went back to Abrahamic monotheism. Such art was to reinforce the awareness of God, the fulfilment of whose will was the be-all and end-all, the raison d'être, of human existence. The challenge was taken up by the early Muslims, who worked with the old motifs and techniques known to their Semitic, Byzantine and Sassanian predecessors, developing new ones as the need and inspiration arose.

As the influence of Islam spread from Spain to the Philippines, the newly developed modes of artistic expression were adopted and adapted in various parts of the world. The new styles provided a basic aesthetic unity within the Muslim world, without suppressing, prohibiting or undermining regional variation. The meeting of the Arab-Islamic mind with classical and local traditions spawned new artistic modes and styles in Islamic art, such as in the Umayyad Qusayr 'Amra in the Jordanian desert (c.712-715 CE). However, this type of kinship did not last long, and soon Islamic art shed its borrowed norms to create its own, based on its inner concepts and beliefs. With the passage of time, definite patterns and styles developed, and eventually distinctive art forms were created, all foreign influences were discarded and Islamic art emerged with its own individual characteristics.

A hundred and fifty years after the coming of Islam, Islamic art had formed its own language and aesthetics. For example, the Great Mosque of Cordoba (785 CE) in al-Andalus and Ibn Tulun Mosque (879 CE) in Egypt no longer represented phases in a tentative evolution, but were in their own right unsurpassable masterpieces, brandishing their very own rules and aesthetics.

In its creative phases, the art of the Muslim world was the product of a new syntax and of a new semantic order for an older visual structure. For Muslims, it was not a new invention but a recombination with internal modifications of their own experience and their own knowledge. The Muslim world, over the ensuing centuries, maintained this symbiotic relationship with the cultures preceding or surrounding it. Until the 18th century, Islam remained the only major culture that was in physical contact with nearly every other centre of civilisation in Asia, Africa and Europe, with the intensity of the contacts varying from place to place and century to century.

All creation reflects the cosmic intelligence, but only man, who is the central being in the terrestrial world that he inhabits, reflects it in an active, creative sense. Reason deals with the sensory world and intellect with the metaphysical world. When a complementary relationship between reason and intellect is achieved, it can become the guide which ultimately leads man to the highest form of 'knowledge' possible. For a Muslim, Islamic art is one of the means by which he can attain this 'knowledge', whether through creating it or by contemplating its beauty.

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Figure 2: Another Abru (marbling) sample from Dr. Mehmet Kileci (Source).

From the spiritual and ethical point of view, Islamic art originates essentially from the Qur'anic Message, whose values it aims to translate into the plane of physical shapes. Every external image is complemented by an inner reality which is its hidden internal essence. The outward form, or dhâhir, underlines the quantitative, physical aspect that is obvious, and easily and readily intelligible. It is represented in the shape of a building, the shell of a vessel, the body of man, or the outward form of religious rites. Meanwhile, the essential, qualitative aspect is the hidden or inward (bâtin) which is present in all beings and things. In order to know each in its completeness, one must seek the knowledge and understanding of its outward and temporal reality, as well as its essential and inward corporeality, where the eternal beauty of every object resides. It is the scholar who comprehends the logic of the composition, while the unlearned only appreciates its aesthetic value. This interpretive concept forms the most important philosophical aspect of Islamic aesthetics.

In classical Arabic, there is only one word to indicate a man who works with his hands, sâni' (pl. sunnâ'), meaning a worker, an artisan, someone who practices a craft or a trade and is also creative in his work. It is the amalgamation of a trained craftsman and a creative artist, for which there is no literal translation in English. The traditional artist or artificer's work is to make objects that would function as well as please the eye. The beauty of the artefact depends upon its perfection as a work of art and not on its appearance alone. A beautiful object is so because it is perfect; it is not perfect because it is beautiful. For the traditional artist, art is not a gift, but knowledge to be acquired and, therefore, traditional art is not in any current sense of the word 'self-expressive.' Anyone who insists on his own way is not an artist but an egoist.

In European Mediaeval art and Oriental art, it was the exception rather than the rule for the artist to affix his name to his work. The artist's personality was of no concern to the traditional patron, for all he demanded was a man in command of his job as an artist-artisan. Such a philosophy aims at the greatest possible freedom from oneself. Hence, the traditional Islamic artist was anonymous and rarely signed his name, for it was the outcome of his work that mattered and not his person. What counted was the result rather than the deed or the doer.

Numerous Islamic artists lived and died in total obscurity. Of the few whose names have been preserved, little was ever known of their lives. For the Muslim artist, self realisation came through the act of creativity and not through personal fame. Only in later periods, when contact with foreign materialistic cultures increased and materialism permeated traditional Islamic societies, did artists begin to seek personal recognition. No one will ever know the names of those who designed and executed countless exquisite Ottoman embroidered pieces made between the 16th and 18th centuries. However, many came to enjoy them, not as isolated pieces of art, but as a headdress for a young lady to wear in the hammam or a hand-towel to wipe a gentleman's fingers with after a meal. They were made as part of a bride's hope chest and dowry and were simultaneously functional and visually pleasing. By all standards, those pieces which showed ingenuity in design and perfection in execution, cannot but be considered works of art.

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Figure 3: A calligraphy sample. (Source: The Art of Calligraphy in the Islamic Heritage, Istanbul: IRCICA, 1998).

The anonymity of the Islamic artist does not mitigate the value of his work, but belongs to a type of culture dominated by the ideal of liberation from one's self. The strength of this philosophy is conducted against the illusion of 'I' being the doer, when in fact ‘I' is only the instrument of the real 'Doer'. Here, human individuality becomes a means rather than an end.

All religions in fact share this concept. In Christianity, Christ told his disciples: "I do nothing of myself." The Hindu Krishna said: "The Comprehension cannot form the concept; I am the doer", while for a Buddhist "to wish that it may be made known that I was the author is the thought of a man not yet adult." Any adherent to such a philosophy, regardless of his faith, would hardly contemplate signing his works. For such a person, creativity is part of his or her belief system and what should be recognised is the end product of that creativity and not its instrument, the sâni' or artist-creator.

For the Muslim artist, the doctrinal foundation of Islamic aesthetics lies in the following Hadith-s (sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad: "God has inscribed beauty upon all things," "God desires that if you do something you perfect it," "Work is a form of worship," and "God is beautiful and He loves beauty." Hence, perfecting one's work by creating attractive and well-made objects that serve a purpose becomes a form of worship and a religious obligation easily fulfilled by the artist, through adherence to the faith and its principles. Islamic artists were constantly searching for new ideas and techniques that could further intensify their enchantment and fascination with embellishing the whole of life and with making the enjoyment of its beauty a consistently private action.

Here we have to stop for a moment to get acquainted with the person who interprets beauty in his work, hence the question: Who is a traditional artist? He is humble, honest and pious, conscious of the values entrusted to him that he strives to keep alive, often regardless of his unfavourable circumstances. He creates the external art form in the light of the inspiration which he receives from the Divine and, in this way, the art form is able to lead man to a higher state of being and ultimately to unity with God. Through his willingness to follow laws laid down by tradition, avoiding all that is superfluous and non-functional and comprehending his identification with a primary purpose, the traditional artist becomes the anonymous instrument of the Creator, without expressing himself consciously. His originality lies in his ability to achieve a profound synthesis of materials, techniques and quantitative functions in what he creates.

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Figure 4: Another calligraphy sample. (Source: The Art of Calligraphy in the Islamic Heritage, Istanbul: IRCICA, 1998).

In the traditional sense, originality combines the true aspect of both permanence and change. Permanence is achieved through the world of archetypes and through following rules of traditional art styles, while the element of change comes from the capacity of creative imagination to produce a new synthesis of materials, techniques and function. In other words, the significance of the creative arts depends on the artist's enlightened and sensible use of space, shape, surface, colour and matter. What is called talent in other artistic traditions, in Islamic art is the combination of reason, intellect, skill, training and insight. It is the ability of the artist to project his inner-self, by adhering to tradition, in order to create a form that reflects to the outside world certain spiritual and aesthetic values.

When the receptive mind of the viewer picks up the form and absorbs it, the circle of communication becomes complete. Artistic creativity, according to the Islamic perspective, is nothing other than a pre-disposition, or isti'dâd, which God has given man to assist him to follow the path that leads to Him. In order to fulfil his role, the artist becomes, by means of effacement and selfless service, as transparent as possible an interpreter of the traditions to which he pertains. Hence, the relationship that the Muslim artist always has is between the practice of the virtues and the excellence of professional work.

Accordingly, all Islamic art is created as the result of the marriage of formal sciences and the crafts. Sciences here mean the process of nature and the knowledge of the laws and principles which govern matter and which are in themselves related to the metaphysical order. As for the crafts, they are not provisional ad hoc ways of making things, but embodiments in the world of shapes of renditions of science that possess their own laws and regulations. Both these orders of knowledge connected with the sciences and crafts were incorporated within the craft guilds, which were the organising bodies that created traditional art. Up until the 19th century, artisans of the guilds and brotherhoods followed to the letter the Prophet's Hadith "God desires if you do something you perfect it." For them, the artisanal pact was a unanimously respected professional code of honour. The handing down from father to son, or master to apprentice, of unchangeable rules and practices implied neither stagnation nor repetition, but assured a constant source of inspiration to the artist and stability on the technical level.

Islamic art never received the patronage of the religious authorities, for the simple reason that in Islam there is no such dichotomy between the religious and the secular. The so-called secular powers in traditional Islamic society always possessed as much religious significance within an all embracing Divine Law as did the specifically religious elements. However, there were and are such arts as Quranic psalmody, sacred architecture and calligraphy, which can be said to have issued from the mosque, as opposed to the arts of music, poetry and miniature painting, related to the court. Yet in view of the subtle, inter-relationship between the court and the mosque, spirituality was as much an attribute of music and miniature painting as it was of calligraphy.

Figure 5: "Ya Ali" panel written with jal'i sulus and nesta'lik reciprocal style by Mehmed Aziz Efendi (Source: Muhittin Serin, Hat Sanati ve Meshur Hattatlar, Istanbul 2003 (reproduced with the permission of the author).

The term 'aesthetics' never existed in Islamic culture and traditional society did not use it or any other term that might imply the same meaning and significance. The contemporary Arabic term jamâliya, which is synonymous to aesthetics, is borrowed from the West and is defined as the ‘science of beauty,' 'ilm al-jamâl. In Islam, neither the Quran nor the Prophet's traditions (sunna) refer to art. There were no treatises written expressly on Islamic aesthetics, nor were there set rules for what constituted Islamic principles in art and what did not. However, it is not difficult for Muslims to draw their own conclusions from both sources. The Hadith of the Prophet "God is Beautiful and He loves beauty" can be considered to be the foundation of Muslim aesthetics. In Islam, art and faith are inseparably bound together. Within the framework of strict rules, sufficient liberty is left for the artist to arrive at creative works. As Islamic art performs a spiritual function and because of its intimate relationship to the form and content of the Islamic revelation, whatever connection exists between it and the Islamic revelation cannot simply be on the plane of socio-political changes brought about by Islam. The answer must be found in the religion itself.

Islamic art and architecture traditionally place the highest importance on the achievement of beauty. This construes a natural outgrowth of the Quran which emphasizes goodness, truth and knowledge, while placing the principal emphasis upon Beautiful Deeds, al-a'mâl al-hasana. Another example of this emphasis on beauty is the ninety-nine Holy Attributes of God which in Arabic are the Beautiful Names of God (asmâ' Allâh al-husnâ). The basic mandate of Islamic art and architecture, apart from fulfilling necessary functional requirements, is to display a purposeful sense of beauty. Meaningful beauty in Islamic art demands both a quantitative dimension of concern, achieved mainly through a process of pragmatic environmental adaptations and a qualitative dimension, expressed essentially through Islamic aesthetics.

Aesthetically speaking, Islamic art and, in particular, architecture represent the spiritual and physical aspects in the lives of Muslims and revolve around the concept of unity (tawhîd). The idea of a centre or axis is a main key in understanding Islamic art and the world of Islam, with its spiritual and physical components. The centralisation of God in the Universe and the spiritual world is echoed in the central focus of the Kaaba (Ka'ba) on earth (set with corners to cardinal directions), of the mosque in the Islamic city and its terrestrial alignment towards Mecca and of the mihrâb on the qibla wall.

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Figure 6: A hilye written by Hasan Rizâ Efendi in sulus-nesih calligraphy (Topkapi Palace Museum Library, Hirka-i Saadet, nr. 21/237). (Source: Muhittin Serin's Hat Sanati ve Meshur Hattatlar, Istanbul 2003 (reproduced with the permission of the author).

Thus, the spiritual and temporal life of Muslims is regulated in circles, which revolve around an axis and represent the constant revolving movement of the believer's life towards God. It is reflected, amongst other things, in the steps of the whirling Mevlevî Dervishes, the pilgrim's tawâf around the Ka'ba and the circular units in arabesque compositions. Hence, the idea of centrality remains unchanging. Therefore, to understand Islamic art by only analyzing the outward manifestation of its quantitative characteristics and ignoring its fusion within the general spiritual framework which it defines is pointless. Because Islamic aesthetics focus on the spiritual representation of beings and objects, instead of their material values, the outward appearance of an object in no way encompasses its essence and true self. Each dhâhir, or outward quantitative and physical appearance, differs from its bâtin, or inward qualitative and spiritual essence, while perfection can only be attributed to God the Creator.

Therefore, to copy living figures from nature, though never intended to represent God, is regarded as a futile way of directing the recipient to the contemplation of transcendence and the truths embodied in tawhîd, the Doctrine of Unity. For a Muslim, beauty is not an aesthetic portrayal of humanity or human attributes, nor is it an ideal state of nature, the concept of which the Renaissance European artists copied from the ancient Greeks. The transcendence-obsessed culture of the Muslims seeks to stimulate in the viewer or listener, through the creation of the beautiful, an intuition of, and an insight into, the nature of God and man's relationship to Him. Thus, the traditional Muslim artist chose a two-dimensional stylisation to represent his forms and totally neglected the exact imitation of nature, with its limitations.

To conclude, I would like to quote a traditional master sâni' (artist-artisan) from the city of Fez: "Birds, horses, weasels and other quadrupeds are to be found everywhere. One only has to look around and imitate. That requires no knowledge. But if I say to you, deploy four rosettes (tasatir) beginning alternately in an eight-ray and in a ten-ray star, so that side by side, and leaving no spaces, they fill the entire wall, that would be a different matter. And that is art!"

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  • Burckhardt, T., Art of Islam, London, 1976.
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*HRH Princess Wijdan Ali is the Dean of the College of Arts and Design, University of Jordan, Amman. She is the Founder and President of the Royal Society of Fine Arts, Amman.

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