Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dr. Ejaz Akram

The Islam Seminars
Third Seminar: Art of Islam [Sep. 2007]
Aiwan-e-Iqbal Complex, Lahore

Truth & Beauty:
The Perennial Relationship between Art & Spirituality.
Dr. Ejaz Akram

1. Beauty absolutely is the Cause of All Things.
…“Beauty absolutely is the cause of all things; being in harmony - which is consonantia and of illumination, claritas – because, moreover, in the likeness of light it sends forth over everything the beautifying distributives of its frontal reign and for that it summons all things to itself.” This is a very strong quote, which essentially argues that if beauty is the cause of all things it must be none other than God himself. And to corroborate that through the Islamic tradition - of course - one of the 99 names of God is al-Jamil, the Beautiful; another name is al-Haq, the Truth, the Right. And in God, all of them, unite. So in God al-Haq and al-Jamil are fused into one. That which is beautiful can only be true, and that which is true is - indeed - beautiful.

2. A Crisis of Beauty Generally Everywhere.
Professor Mumtaz highlighted towards a certain crisis of beauty; and I think it is not just in the Muslim world, it is generally everywhere. And those of you who were present in the last lecture that I delivered a couple of weeks ago on the issue of environment, the environmental degradation is itself actually sprawling of ugliness. It is taking something away, and that something is certainly natural beauty, but also the man-made beauty and the arts and crafts associated with it.

Lets suppose that there is indeed a crisis of beauty then shall we end if Beauty and Truth are so intricately related, then can we say that there is also a crisis of truth? And here you will have many people who will bemoan the extent of secularity of this world in which such philosophical positions have arisen that there is no such thing as Truth. The Truth cannot be known. That everything is relative.

2.1 The Extent of Secularity: ‘Everything is Relative’
Were it so then the statement: ‘everything is relative’ would also be relative, which means, perhaps it is true, and perhaps it is not true; and the statement: ‘everything is relative’ is an absolute statement, and so the absurdity of the philosophical premise of new arts and sciences is quite obvious.

So if there is a crisis of beauty and truth…then there are reasons to be worried about. A case in point is the takeover of certain mosques in Bosnia Herzegovina in the Balkans that were built during the Ottoman period - that our Wahabbi brothers took over, bought them, removed the beautiful glazed tile work, removed the exceptionally beautiful calligraphy, and painted them in this whitewash. Now what is the justification for such an act? According to them - this is bida’h.

2.2 Decline in Beauty: Decline of Intellectuality in the Muslim world
So beauty in this sense - the decline in beauty, or appreciation for beauty - it is concomitant with the decline of intellectuality in the Muslim world. Normally the cognitive elite in society is the vanguard of knowledge; and also by the same token…somebody who recognizes beauty, its forms, and can appreciate it, and teach it and pass it over...The elite in the Muslim world, and certainly if you look around in Pakistan consider many things beautiful.

2.3 The Elite of the Muslim World: Travel to Paris and London!
Those who have been endowed with the means to travel [in the Muslim elite] do not travel mostly to Tashkent and Bukhara, they go to Paris and London. They find glittery sky scrapers and subways the symbols of progress, pleasing and beautiful. It ranges from the dress, to Western attitudes, music and what have you. If you talk to the elite seldom will they have gone to the Seckler Gallery of Art or the Smithsonian; Herschel Museum, which have a large collection of Islamic arts and artifacts. That’s the state of the elite.

2.4 Exemplars of Beauty Have Been Taken Away!
Now if you look at the masses, the masses don’t know. The masses cannot know. The exemplars of beauty have been taken away. All the things that could be moved - the movable property - in terms of beautiful objects - a lot of them have been taken away. So the exemplars of beauty are missing. If you wish to be a first rate miniature artist you have to be able to afford a ticket to Washington or London, and get the visas, and go there, and look at these things; because there are very few here.

And so this is also another structure of impoverishment of beauty that has come about because of – perhaps - political reasons.

A woman who is a khana badosh [nomad], raising her cattle in the pastures of different parts of Pakistan, doesn’t know that her ghagra [skirt] is indeed very beautiful. If you put her in a university or with other people in the mainstream life of our country’s elite, she will probably have a complex about it, and very soon switch over to other forms of dress. And think about this! This is…and it needs actually a full circle; which very few Muslims indeed get a chance to travel; which is spending a lot of time in those countries, and studying art either formally or informally and looking at the whole history of art, and the history of science, and the theory of knowledge, and look at the general crisis that pervades all of them; Only then your eyes can open and that ghagra will appear beautiful to you.

3. The Modern Theory of Aesthetics is not a Coherent Philosophy of Beauty.
Now here the modern theory of aesthetics is not a philosophy of beauty. I deny that the modern theory of aesthetics - in its various forms and fashions - is actually a coherent philosophy of beauty - it is not. It is not because aesthetics not only deals with beauty, the field of aesthetics allows to dealing with ugliness at par with beauty - because things are relative. ‘I might find ugliness very beautiful’, and therefore that relativity cannot qualify the theory of aesthetics in its various forms as a coherent philosophy of beauty. Now beauty in this sense I could argue is not only in the eyes of the beholder. Subjectivity alone is not the sole criterion of beauty. Beauty also is inherent in the object and the beauty of that object lies in relation to the symbol to which it is symbolizing. And this is a very important thing.

4. Beauty is based upon The Science of Proportions
Professor Mumtaz gave a very crude example of Madonna’s painting, but you could look at Van Gogh’s Scream, you can look at so many things, you can look at a person being strangled to death, or something that is not so pleasant, and then you can look at what it symbolizes.

And here is a big difference between the scary masks of the Orient and the Chinese civilization, which actually have a full cosmological justification for having a scary face; that is something else we can talk about; but I am saying just randomly.

Beauty is something that is based upon the science of proportions. It has to be harmonious. You can have the most beautiful eyes, and the most beautiful nose in the world, and the most beautiful lips, and you can put together by computer software and get a damn ugly human being! And you can have very average eyes, very average nose, very average lips and you can have a very beautiful human being!

5. This World: a Reflection of Heavens
In the connection of Truth and Beauty, it is also very important to look at another name of God which is al-Musawir, is somebody who fashions, somebody who creates forms; and the reading that you had by Titus Burckhardt, who has invoked this, “Innal laha katabal ihsana ala kule shai’in” “Verily there has been beauty or Ihsan”- not only in terms of beauty of object, beauty of art as such, but also beauty of deeds, and many things - “upon all the things in the world”; and so in that sense the world, this world becomes a reflection of heavens. If heaven is perfect, and we find small windows in this world that are actually reflecting heavens, that is through the vehicle of beauty; because there is no such thing as ugliness in heaven. And all those things that are actually ugliness, that constitute ugliness, either in human relations or in devastation of environment and so-forth, are actually man-made.

So if you go to the pristine wilderness of any part of the world that has not been touched by human beings, think of what would constitute ugliness. It would be very difficult to find ugliness in something that man has not put his foot upon!

Thus divine beauty is thus reflected on earth. A very simple example of divine beauty is the human face, which combines the physical beauty with spiritual beauty.

6. ‘Just about everybody was an artist’: Creating a Personal Environment
The Christian Free Masons also argued that God is the Grand Architect of this world; Plato said that Beauty is the splendor of Truth; and if you look at the aphorisms of even East Asian traditions one can just go on and on; there are in the traditional corpus of knowledge an overbearing amount of arguments, information, beautiful aphorisms that will point towards the connection of beauty and truth. Even in the traditional world - lets say, we locate the traditional world before the arrival of the renaissance pulse in Europe - when the European Western arts and crafts of traditional nature were still alive, just about everything was beautiful.

The reason why I say that just about everything was beautiful was because just about everybody was an artist. Look at even in the Islamic tradition, the word for ‘art’ and the word for ‘industry’ are both ‘sana’. Sanat is industry or crafts, and it is also arts. A person who was making something was an artist. A child often had to fabricate toys for himself, and had this utility aspect of beauty; Beauty not only for commercialization sake or for the hung walls of the museums, but beauty in your hands.

Lets say we were sitting in an auditorium in Europe or America we do not know what we are sitting on, who made it, who did they make it for, they just made it for profit. And somebody went to the shop and bought it.

If you go back to my village the chair that I am sitting on, I know who made it. And the person made it for me. He had me in his mind when he made it. I have an organic relationship with the object of beauty. In all of these things they create a personal environment in which these things, the art and the artist, and the object of art itself they partake. And this is the fundamental element in traditional living.

7. The Art which is a Product of the Human Maker is Greater than the Artist Himself.
Now within the traditional world not all art is sacred art. That it would be a mistake to consider all traditional art as religious art. Although indirectly most of the traditional art - somewhere or the other - will bear the imprint of the cosmological truths that have something to do with religion. Even today you can make a mural, a painting of the Holy Family, the Virgin, Christ - We can say that this is religious art. It may not necessarily be traditional art. But the sword or pots and pans from the medieval age will have some kind of method in which the manner of nature is imitated. So the artist is actually imitating nature. and here nature - as I also mentioned last time - in its deepest sense - is none other than God.

God is Asaneh of different things. He is the one who made the one who makes. That God has fashioned the maker. In this sense, the maker is conceiving of a certain type of art that is based upon certain intuition that exists prior to him. The art which is a product of the human maker is greater than the artist himself. ‘And traditional art is traditional because of its conformity to the cosmic laws of forms, its symbolism and the formal genius of a particular universe in which it has been created.’ Also its hieratic style. It has an overbearing reflection of hierarchy that exists in every instance in nature. Conformity to the nature of material used and finally conformity to the truth. The origin of this type of art therefore cannot be human. And I think this is something that Professor Mumtaz tried to argue.

8. Traditional Art focuses on Essential Nature of Things rather than accidents…
So traditional art has following additional features. ‘They must conform to the symbolism, and symbolism must conform directly to revelation, and therefore by virtue of being so connected indirectly to revelation, traditional art focuses on essential nature of things rather than accidents, and the accidental aspects. And traditional art is in conformity with harmony which pervades the cosmos, and the hierarchy of existence which lies above the material plane with which the art deals yet penetrates into the plane.’ So it must deal with the Real and with the illusory veil upon it.

Traditional arts, as I mentioned earlier, is also functional. Its utility is for the pontifical man for whom beauty is an essential dimension of life. So art for arts sake, and for existence in museums, is not known in the traditional world. Art becomes something to be afforded today, something to be bought, to be consumed, and to be displayed for boosting the human ego. Traditional art in contrast is for the sake of God.

9. External Space Impresses upon Your Soul.
And it is no coincidence - even if you look at the earliest Islamic arts. Take architecture for example. Why is that that the prototype of what was to be in later years of the Islamic mosques emerged at the very beginning of Islam? And so the form!

Here what we will talk about is actually the skeleton of the traditional art - and just like all of us share a similar skeleton but we have variation on top of it - similarly within the Islamic world, if you go back and look at even the earliest mosques like ibn Tulun, you will find within the Islamic world that the form has essentially remained the same; and the Muslim artist - the Muslim architect - has remained faithful to that form because that form is not perceived purely by an act of mental imagination; that there is something higher than a mental imagination; there is something of intuitional, of the nature like ilham that is a certain nitch of prophecy, in which the mode of art has been conceived. So it is in that aspect divine and heavenly.

It is true that later on when you see the same mosque – let’s take the beginning - from Ibn Tulun - very austere, very beautiful, and then you gradually progress and you see the mosques say, in Egypt, in the early Mamluk, in the earlier Mamluk period versus the Behri Mamluks, there is a difference; there is gradual ornamentation of the mosque, and again ofcourse, if you come to the time of Mimar Sinaan in the Ottoman Empire, there is more splendour and grandeur, which is concomitant with the Muslim position in the world; but at the same time, the prototype, the skeleton has remained there.

Now compare this, for example, the movements of art that happened in post-reformation in post-enlightenment in Europe, and imagine and know how many Christians were driven away out of Churches just because of Baroque and Rococco. The ambience that the traditional art creates is very, very necessary for the soul.

The whole principle of Feng Shui, for example, is that your external space impresses upon your soul. And if you want to realize fuqr in your life, which is spiritual poverty, emptiness, then you must be like a zen garden. And how long does it take to build a perfect zen garden? About 400 years! It cannot be the work of a single artist. It cannot have claim to individuality. It must come from a source that is common and universal.

We are running out of time. I wanted to talk about the question of destruction of traditional art and the question that was raised whether it is possible to do Islamic art today. There are a couple of more points that I would like to emphasize especially in relation to Truth and Beauty.

10. Form is Not Accidental.
Truth and Beauty have an invisible partner - they are connected through an invisible partner - and that is knowledge. This is not just information - this is sacred knowledge, sapiential knowledge. And it is the knowledge of the forms that actually draw the bridge between what constitutes Truth, and what constitutes Beauty.

Forma or morphe, Naama in Indo-Persia, sura in Arabic; the form is by which an object is what it is. Now this is a bit philosophical, but please bear with me. I would like to drive this point home. It is very important. That form is not accidental but determines the very reality. It is essence of the object - while essence itself belongs to the archetypical world. ‘It is essential to the object, whether natural or man made, and it has an ontological reality and participates in the total economy of [the] cosmos. The science of forms is therefore a qualitative science and not quantitative.’ That form cannot be conceived of as a quantity, but a quality.

11. Sacred Forms allow Man to Transcend Himself.
Also from the point of view of hylomorphism, the form is reality, and the object on the material plane of existence, but as a reflection of the archtypical reality that opens upwardly into the formless form becomes a vehicle in reaching the Truth. So the relationship of form - or the position of form - in conceptualizing beauty is of fundamental importance. Or one can restate - that ‘each object possesses form and content which this form contains and conveys.’ For sacred art the content is always sacred, or sacred presence is placed in particular forms of revelation which sanctifies certain symbols, forms and images to enable them to become containers, and transforms them into vehicles for the journey out of the world of becoming. So the forms - in this sense - actually are belonging to the realm of Being. Sacred forms, therefore, allow man to transcend himself; and religious art allows man to do just that.

12. God is Concrete Reality.
In todays’ philosophical position, form has become an abstract idea; of a mental type in modern philosophy, which is then relegated to a material level. That is the form of this table. Due to which the physical and the material are associated with concrete, while the ideas and thoughts - and often even divinity - are associated with the abstract.

Now here if you reverse this, and you state the same thing metaphysically, the report would be opposite; and we can say that God is concrete reality - and here, ofcourse, it is a question of faith as well as philosophical position - God is concrete Reality compared to which everything else is abstraction; and the world of essences and forms is real, and the world below is abstract. And the matter - out of all the types - is the most abstract.

And it is quite paradoxical to think of the modern fetish with wisdom of the body, because it still cannot get rid of Plato in its philosophy. Both Plotanus and Plato were argued that Art is the nemesis of paradigm. That paradigms shift - that fashions come and go - that art in its most sapiential character is timeless. Plato said that, ‘The work of creator whenever he looks to the unchangeable pattern must necessarily be made fair and perfect. But when he looks to the created order only and uses a created pattern it is not fair or perfect.’

13. The Appropriate Art Form Is Only Accessible Through Contemplation and Inner Purification.
The appropriate art form is only accessible through contemplation. The Greek position Plato, and the Orphic position, as well as the Islamic position - all the spiritual tradition relating to traditional arts - is that the appropriate art form is only accessible through contemplation and inner purification. Only then can the artist gain an angelic vision which is the source of all traditional art.

14. Traditional Art & Science.
And here there is also another element that ties art with science: that the technical character of traditional art is at once scientific and mysterious.

If you look at, for example, the Masjid-e-Lutfullah in Ispahan and see that why one minaret will reverberate through the movement of acoustics or earthly kind through the other minaret; it is quite not known. It is just like the phenomenon of the pyramids. The pyramids in Egypt have been built with amazing astounding resilience, and stand for thousands of years. It is not exactly known why. There are so many theories abound as to how they must have been built. But there are still theories, competing theories.

15. The Esoteric Element is Integral to the Production of Art.
And so there is some kind of mystery to the traditional art which is due to this esoteric knowledge. You do not find, for example, in the commentary of the fuqaha or the exoteric exegesis of the Quran, or for that matter the people who excel in kalam - Islamic theology – although quite important things - but you do not find treaties of art and explication of the anagogical method. You will find by analogy, and by the way of analogy - it is used; and the anagogical method is never used in the sciences. But in the works of tasawwuf you will find that. So this esoteric element is integral to the production of art.

16. Destruction of Traditional Art from the Top.
I had several other things to say, but let me quickly say that the destruction of traditional art in the modern world; the ramifications of the modern world for traditional type of art; and the destruction that is wrought upon the traditional arts and crafts; first, of course, in Europe, and then its over-running the rest of the world, I would not say that the traditional art and its connection to spirituality is fully dead. It is far from that. I think it is very much possible to do that even though there are two ways in which the destruction of traditional art takes place. And it is the destruction of traditional art from the top that is most dangerous. If that does not happen, the traditional arts and crafts and the spiritual yarns of art can survive.

I can give you an example that in Christianity is an example of how the traditional art was broken from the top. It was a loss of principles that gradually led a movement of arts in a certain kind of life that in which there was no room for the old types of art.

Then you have the example of the destruction of traditional arts from below. When the British textiles went in Bengal, the Bengali weavers - the Julahas of Bengal - used to weave the thinnest cotton in the world. It was so thin that the whole yarn would fit in a large match box. Bengal is one of hottest and humid places in the world so they needed something like that. And when the British went - the British textiles knew that they were no competition because no one would wear them over there - so they cut the hands of the weavers and hence the entire industry was eradicated. This is an example of how the art is taken out from below.

It is industry, it has something to do with utility and so forth, but there are many other things. It is not just weaving of the cloth. There is all sorts of arts associated with the weaving of that cloth. So there are two modes of destruction that takes place one is from the top which is loss of principles, and second by force, eradicating the type of economy or killing art by force. This is nearly not as dangerous as the former one.

17. Saying No to Modernization is Possible
And as far as what must be done, I think that there is little that can be on one plane – of course - saying no to modernization is considered one of the impossibilities. I do not think it is an impossibility. I also think that modernization may very well mark the end of an age, but at the same time, we have examples in which certain luminaries - whether in the form of philosophers, artists, poets, what have you - they have come, and they can stop the process of doom and decay.

18. Nothing Remains but the Face of God.
As Martin Lings Shaikh Abu Bakr Sirajuddin (R.A.), he said, that all the things that come into being are subject to doom and decay. So that much we must keep in mind; and that we have that the race of time is indeed against us, but ever so often God will send a luminary to arrest that process of decay. Maybe not to finish it, but to arrest it and prolong it. That all depends on the Hands of Allah Ta’ala.

Let me finish with the quotation by Ahadaddin Kirmani who said, “O Lord! Thou knowest that even now and again we never gaze except at Thy Beautiful Face. The beauties of this world are the mirror of Thy Beauty. In these mirrors we only saw the Face of the King.” So in the end as the Quran also says, “Kullo mum alaiha fa’an wa yabka wajhu rabbi zul jalal-e-wal-ikram”. Nothing remains but the Face of God. And even if the world veers off the path of Truth and Beauty, there will still be Beauty.

No comments: