The Aesthetics of Belief

If people are smart, religion and art can co-exist.

By Maria Amir

The_Box_by_Zahiruddin“It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically: it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary.”—Ayn Rand

Over the years I have encountered many a drawing room discussion bemoaning the fact that Islam is allegedly ‘anti-art’. The allegation generally stems from ignorance, as do most allegations, but the intonation persists. Many reformist Muslims have found it particularly challenging to reconcile their religion with their expression of it, especially when said expression seeks an artistic outlet.

The essential dilemma here lies in defining what, if anything, constitutes art. It is only in the past two centuries that the superlative East has become accustomed to taking all of its cues from the ‘Western World’, and sadly this trend has also infringed upon most definitions of self-expression. The irony this development poses is bitter at best.

Defining art is a notoriously difficult enterprise as it is, but for Muslims it also involves narrowing down what Islam is willing to acknowledge in the realm of aesthetics. The presumption separating religion and art on grounds that the former operates along set rules and patterns and the latter encapsulates the entire range of human expression, is an extremely simplistic view of both ‘art’ and ‘religion’. Traditionally, it may be said that the original patron of art in all societies has been religion, from the Catholic Church’s commissioning Michelangelo’s paintings in the 1500’s to Indian classical dance and raagas inspired by tales in the Ramaayan and Upanishads.

What most of us tend to overlook in our consideration of art and religion, is the fact that both overwhelmingly center on ‘expression’. The former navigates emotion and the latter devotion; neither of which can be completely separated from the other and in the case of Islam each informs the other. Many continue to posit the idea that reconciling the domain of aesthetics with religion is impossible, as aesthetics pertains to beauty for its own sake, whereas religion revolves around the glorification of God. Both assertions are fundamental and true, however one needs to take into account the fact that in the case of religion the concept of beauty is seldom, if ever, separated from anything. ‘Beauty’ is perceived to denote anything that complements or corresponds with God and his creation and thereby a believer’s art is often informed and directed by his or her belief.

Many continue to posit the idea that reconciling the domain of aesthetics with religion is impossible, as aesthetics pertains to beauty for its own sake, whereas religion revolves around the glorification of God.
This is not to say that conflict does not arise when this is not the case. In instances where a person’s religious faith conflicts with their definition of ‘freedom’, there is a potent divide between religion and art, as inherent oppositions are pit against each other. In several sufi traditions, the believer ‘seeks’ freedom within their belief in God whereas in secular traditions freedom is invariably located outside of this domain. Both tangents have little to do with dogma or affiliation and everything to do with perception. One’s art is essentially categorized by how one perceives it – as an expression of emotion or of faith – both of which can be interchangeable.

This conflict was first publicly alluded to when German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten formally developed the concept of ‘aesthetics’ in the 18th century. Baumgarten coined the term, deriving it from the Greek aisthanesthai (to perceive) and also clarified that aesthetics meant perception by means of the senses. The term was subsequently applied to the philosophical study of all the arts and manifestations of natural beauty, and came to be mainly associated with artistic creativity. In Islamic culture the term “aesthetics” never existed, nor any other term that might imply its meaning or significance. The contemporary Arabic term jamaliyyah, now synonymous with aesthetics is borrowed from the West and is defined as the ‘science of beauty’ or ilm al-jamal. This definition firmly grounds ‘beauty’ as a perceivable and definable component of the human condition: something that can be analysed and expressed not in the whole (reserved exclusively for divine creation), but in the sum of its parts (elements that combine to form harmony). This is perhaps why the most popular modes of Islamic art include calligraphy, architecture and poetry, all of which rely primarily on scale, proportion and depth that can be deconstructed ad infinitum. The Islamic tradition tends to circumvent the more subjective arts, which rely primarily on intuition and self-perpetuated emotion such as dance and music.

The idea of a center or axis is the key to decoding most Islamic art, according to Islamic scholar al Ghamidi, who draws the evocative corollary of the whirling Mevlevi dervishes; the pilgim’s tawaf around the Kabah and Islamic architecture and calligraphy’s predominant usage of the circle in its imagery. “I will not limit art to the pithy realm of ‘haraam’ and ‘halaal’ for that brings in too much literature and jurisprudence that we can never know definitively because much is left to interpretation,” he says. “What is for certain is the believer’s intention, if the artist’s heart, mind and will are centered towards God than his art will inevitably be Islamic.”

In Islam, neither the Quran nor the Prophetic tradition (sunnah) refers to art specifically. There were no treatises written expressly on Islamic aesthetics nor were express rules laid down for what constituted Islamic art and what didn’t. The religion binds art and faith together; and beauty is perceived to involve all things that please God. Within the framework of tradition, sufficient liberty is left for the artist to express him or herself but the exclusion clause remains, Islamic art must be in accordance with Islam.