Liberal scholars overwhelmingly avoid limiting art to a particular form of expression such as dance or music, as orthodox scholars such as al-Mawdudi categorically condemn most forms of such expression. What remains consistent however, is the call for God’s will to be taken into consideration in all forms of self-expression. Given that Muslims are ordered to consider God’s commandments in all aspects of their everyday life, striking a balance in artistic expression was not always considered the trying negotiation it is today.
One can, in large part, credit the recent conflict to globalization and capitalism. Both movements have integrated the world and its denizens in a manner where most individuals are shifting towards integration, not only of ideas but also of lifestyles. It is foreign dance and singing competitions that make young Muslims today seek to push the bar of what could (if possible), constitute ‘Islamic dance’ and ‘Islamic music’. Their plight is extremely complex as it seeks to challenge the boundaries of a religion that has long been interpreted by clerics and scholars who tend to enjoy upholding as many boundaries as they possibly can.
And yet, this is not the definitive nature of the religion itself. As mentioned earlier, Islamic theology has very little to say on specific forms of art and almost all interpretations of religious texts in this regard tend to revolve around interpretation via ijma and qiyas. These interpretations range widely from the Salafi, Wahabi and Deobandi to the Sufi and Barelvi schools of thought, with a veritable rainbow of individual recommendations in between.
Amid such a dilemma, one often ends up qualifying the art in question. The outward form, or dhahir, which underlines the quantitative and physical aspect that is obvious and readily intelligible is separated from the essential, qualitative aspect that is kept hidden, or inward, batin. The art of Islam is essentially a contemplative one, where the work of man will never equal the art of God but seeks only to emulate the shaping of human ambience. It is connected with the concept of ihsan as set forth in the Hadith of Gabriel narrated by Umar ibn al-Khattab, whereby the religion rests on three fundamental principles: Islam (submission to the Divine Will), Iman (faith), and Ihsan (spiritual virtue). Perhaps the most useful rules of thumb for comprehending Islamic art were put forth by the great jurist, theologian and sufi thinker al-Ghazali.
Ghazali writes of three types of beauty: The first is external physical beauty (dhahir) that he regards as the most debased ” . . . as to [mans] beauty, he is little more than nauseous matter covered with a fair skin. Without frequent washing he becomes utterly repulsive and disgraceful.” (Chapter I of Kimia al-Saadah (The Alchemy of Happiness).
The second type involves moral beauty (batin): “The former kind of man [a man who is only acquainted with sensuous delights], will say that beauty resides in red-and-white complexions, well-proportioned limbs, and so forth, but he will be blind to moral beauty, such as men refer to when they speak of such and such a man as possessing a beautiful character. Such love is directed not towards any outward form, but towards the inner character. Even when we wish to excite love in a child towards anyone, we do not describe their outward beauty or form, etc . . . but their inner excellences.”
The final variety is the spiritual; which he regards as the most sublime—”The heart of man has been so constituted by the Almighty that, like a flint, it contains a hidden fire which is evoked by music and harmony, and renders man beside himself with ecstasy. These harmonies are echoes of that higher world of beauty which we call the world of spirits; they remind man of his relationship to that world, and produce in him an emotion so deep and strange that he himself is powerless to explain it.”
Ultimately the supposed conflict between religion and art rests entirely on the individuals’ perceptions of both. Ayn Rand, in what is perhaps one of the most comprehensive modern treatises on the nature of Art ‘The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature’ stated “contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” This operative requirement can well be seen as a fundamental cornerstone in decoding the seemingly impossible choice of reconciling creative expression with religious devotion.
The individual that is religious will instinctively direct his or her art in the vein of verifying and/or expressing his or her faith. The individual that is not religious will denote his or her art from outside this scope and will no doubt find some other prism from which to view it for Rand prefaced her arguments with “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.”
While many would consider taking a ‘to each their own’ approach on the veritable quicksand of loopholes that frames the discourse surrounding art in Islam as a cop out, the fact remains that there simply isn’t enough evidence to corroborate Islamic views on modern art. Islamic art has traditionally limited itself to matters that concern Islam and operates from within the religious framework. Modern and postmodern artistic endeavors seldom bother to take traditional aesthetic models into account. The debate comes back to the individual artist’s approach towards reformation. There are those artists who wish to explore and push the boundaries of their faith and art and those that consider this a violation.
At the end of the day, the aesthetic of belief is entirely dependent on the individual’s personal interpretation of their religion. Ironically, the same tends to be true for the aesthetic of creativity.