Art as a Reflection of Civilization

“Islamic art” is broadly understood as all the arts that have been produced in the Muslim world. However, it does not simply denote the crafts of Muslim patrons. “Islamic art” is qualified as “Islamic” because its contents often refer explicitly or implicitly not just to scripture but religious values as a whole. Orientalist art historians in the 19th century began to treat “Islamic art” as a strictly codified means of expression concentrated in the Middle East, failing to notice the intricate differences under the umbrella that is Islamic art in the Muslim world at large. Islam was able to bring out the best qualities in multiple cultures.

Art is often an indicator of what a civilization, society, or individual takes to be valuable or telling. It is worth considering that an artisan in Damascus may have “thought of his work as Syrian or Damascene” and not as necessarily Islamic.[1] This is because Syrian or Damascene artwork was Islamicate by default. They were already understood to be intertwined. “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.”[2]  

With that being said, “the so-called decorative arts—carpets, ceramics, metalwork, and books—are types of art that Western scholars have traditionally valued less than painting and sculpture.”[3] So much so that the discipline of Aesthetics itself as a philosophy, method, and form of knowledge that arose from eighteenth-century European Classicism was “based not only a specific concept of beauty and the arts but also on a view of the world and humankind that ignores the artistic practices of ‘primitive,’ medieval or Oriental art.”[4] 

As one reader of Commentary Magazine noted, “The concept of superior and inferior art or civilization is not an absolute concept, but rather one which is a function of ideals, goals, and standards which may vary with geography, history, and possibly other factors.”[5] Western art historians in the past favored European art over Islamic art, despite both showing great attention to detail. European preference of their own artistic tradition for reasons fueled by predetermined bias shows us how judgment of art is a judgment of its’ sources inspirations, persuasions, attitudes, and convictions about life. 

Islamic Art and Western Artistic Trends

In the last 50 years, however, there has been more earnest appreciation and examination of Islamic art in Western scholarship. How much of contemporary Western art aligns with Islamic values? Was German writer Hugo Ball hinting at reform of Western art that just so happens to conform to the Islamic ruling on figural representation (according to the opinion of most classical scholars), when he said, “The image of the human form is gradually disappearing from the painting of these times and all objects appear only in fragments?” 

As we know, taswir (figural representation) of living things is still present in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies and has been for centuries. Answering questions like “What really is Islamic art?” is a hefty task. It involves legality among other considerations. But it is worth pondering on for the sake of understanding how art in general reflects its host cell– not just the artist, but civilization as a whole. Art can act as a response, a protest, or a snapshot of societal values. The Dada movement, sometimes known as the “anti-art” movement, had its last real hurrah at the end of the 1920s when its pioneers “took part in a series of exhibitions of provocative art, nude performances, rowdy stage productions and incomprehensible manifestos.”[6] However, their impact has heavily shaped the evolution of Western contemporary art.

The Dada movement initially served as a means of critiquing the senseless brutality of World War I. Kickstarters of this art form did not want to assign a definition to what would be considered “Dada art,” making it their agenda to avoid artistic norms all-together. But, of course, certain themes developed nonetheless.

Reading a brief history of the emergence of this movement, one might think there could be a promising link to an Islamic critique of modernity; Dada artists sought to challenge nationalism and materialism. Their work was at first meant to address culture in ways that weren’t provocative except in that it was not typical for its time period. It evoked humor and was often an outlet for political expression. It invited an exciting wave of new images, but it also endorsed irrationalism, which may have been a very early precursor to postmodern thought. Artists progressively became more daring. Niyya out, nudity in.

The lack of purpose behind some modern artwork goes against the importance of acting and observing with intent (niyya) in Islam. In a post-Enlightenment West, intellectuals saw a conflicting relationship between reason and religion. “European consciousness generally relegated Islamic thought…to an inferior level: it was viewed as no more than an adulterated reiteration of Greek philosophy, or a conglomerate of half-baked ideas that lacked the “rationality” typical of Western thought, which had been developing since the Renaissance.”[7] As trust in religion faded, ironically so did reason in art forms like that of the Dada movement. Tables turned when the Dadaist legacy was to confusingly “reinstate the balance between reason and anti-reason, sense and nonsense, design and chance, consciousness and unconsciousness.”[8] If Dada artists were walking on a tightrope, their descendants have fallen. 

While irrationalism as a movement does not necessarily oppose reason, it should be asked what kind of intuition is being privileged in this art form and what it says about the Western subconscious. It may be true that sometimes only the learned are equipped with the tools to understand jamaliya in its “outward and temporal reality, as well as its essential and inward corporeality”[9] while most people see aesthetic appeal without thinking much about its inner anatomy, but it does not mean the average person cannot truly wonder if their perception of beauty aligns with their values. Most Muslims can articulate why Arabic calligraphy or praise poems are beautiful because the allusion to Islam is clear. Likewise, no one would be surprised at why “erotica museums” with exhibitions of private parts are shunned. This art form has no respect for male or female awrah. But what about art that neither cites a Quranic verse nor flagrantly offends the tenets of faith? 

There are plenty of memes about contemporary art. It’s hard not to make a joke out of stories about a child spilling his Chef Boyardee SpaghettiOs on a canvas and it somehow being worth over a million dollars, or someone taping a banana to the wall of a prestigious gallery and seeing visitors seriously contemplate its significance. For many, contemporary art is a continuation of the kind of rebellious irrationalism that seeped into artistic practices at the onset of the twentieth century. The medieval Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina (d. 1037) presented his definition of beauty as it consisting of al-nazam (order), al-ta’lif (composition) and al-i’tidal (symmetry). Random paint splashes would not make the cut. A saying goes that “calligraphy is the geometry of the Spirit.” The seemingly complex composition yet pleasing sense of order and symmetry has had people mesmerized for many years. 

Moving forward some decades, minimalism is now the talk of the century among art critics and spectators. A major critique of minimalism is its reflection of a soulless civilization. Like the Dada movement, a call to end materialism was made with minimalism: “Franco Bertoni in his book titled Minimalist Architecture said that a simplicity that exalts the true values of life and eliminates all that is superfluous and misleading around us and obscures recognition of the essential”[10].

There is something to be said about unnecessary splendor, many people have reservations about the clocktower and other newer constructions towering over the Kaaba in Mecca for this reason. But how many would trade in the Quran in Maghribi or Kufic script, for a translated rendition in Courier New font? Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes, “Islamic calligraphy is the visual embodiment of the crystallization of the spiritual realities (al-haqa’iq) contained in the Islamic revelation.” 

Minimalism “has turned out to be the default style of the technocracy, as witness countless office suites, corporate towers, hotel lobbies, and home interiors around the world.”[11] While abstract art has at least preserved its relationship to mysticism, minimalism is often a direct reflection of modernity. For both to be purified nonetheless, it must be recognized by the artist that creativity is “nothing other than a predisposition, or isti’dad, which God has given man to assist him to follow the path that leads to Him.”[12] 

The Diverse Palette of Islamic Art

The plethora of Islamic artistic styles is a reflection in itself of Islam’s ability to shine through different landscapes and cultures. Islamic art provides “a basic aesthetic unity within the Muslim world, without suppressing, prohibiting or undermining regional variation.”[13] From the Great Mosque of Xian to the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the religion demonstrates that “cultural phobia is untenable in the light of classical Islamic jurisprudence and is antithetical to more than a millennium of successful indigenous Islamic cultures and global civilization.”[14]

There is not an “I”slamic art with a capital “I” but a set of religious virtues malleable to different aesthetic ventures. “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.”[15] The similarities that bind the many developments together imply a certain underlying understanding of what is beautiful. For example, “Geometric and vegetative motifs are very popular throughout the lands where Islam was once or still is a major religion and cultural force, appearing in the private palaces of buildings such as the Alhambra, in Spain, as well as in the detailed metalwork of Safavid Iran.”[16] We are reminded of the sense of order and symmetry Ibn Sina described. “Just as the religion of Islam embodies a way of life and serves as a cohesive force among ethnically and culturally diverse peoples, the art produced by and for Muslim societies has basic identifying and unifying characteristics.”[17] 

Much of preserved historic Islamic art was made by converts who were “compliant with the new ethical and aesthetic criteria” they were introduced to.[18] “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.”[19] If this was possible for newly found Islamic societies at the time, it is possible for the Western world. “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.”[20] This does not mean that Western art needs to be stamped with the shahada in impressive cursive in order for it to become “Islamic art.” It means that Islam must be embraced as an ethos in order for art in all Western societies to reach its full potential. 

An Islamic Assessment of Modern Art

Art does not come into existence only by way of hand. Art is a product of thinking. For a Muslim, asking what “Islamic art” is, is just asking what art is. ‘Ilm al-jamal, as aesthetics was called in the Islamic tradition, is not easy to navigate, especially since “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.”[21] But comparing traditional art with that of modern art and dissecting their civilizational implications could offer more clarity on how to prescribe an Islamic judgment of art in general. 

Does a production of something become art as soon as it transcends function? “A coat is a product which meets a basic necessity, whereas the cloak is a piece of art.”[22] Could it be both? “The traditional artist or artificer’s work is to make objects that would function as well as please the eye.”[23] Modern minimalism has made objects of convenience also objects of beauty. While the sleek qualities of modern art is also pleasing to the eye, there is an important link between what a society deems as art and what a society’s core projects and principles are. Some could go as far as to say that “technology is actually the practical arm of a spiritual ambition: to abolish nature.”[24] What does this say about a civilization that takes this to be an artistic standard? It’s also important not to reduce (tech-inspired) minimalism as an entire category. Apple products pass Ibn Sina’s checklist too; they have composition, symmetry, and order. But what is the ultimate intention of these products, and art that reveres its kind? We have a complicated topic at hand, because while these things do make parts of our lives easier, and can even give us quicker access to spiritual tools (adhan apps, memorizing Quran through Youtube, etc.), they are also a part of a greater network, attached to a hegemonic world order that does not operate on Islamic ethics (surveillance capitalism, materialism, etc). There are also classist assumptions made if this style of art was to be ranked supreme. 

Divine beauty in Islam is seen through God’s creation. One could say that technology is proof of the remarkable capabilities Allah bestowed upon mankind. Can modern minimalism and futurism inspire the same spiritual experience humans have had with calligraphy or nature? The difference between modern, minimalist architecture in the West, and more traditional, simplistic architecture like we see with the mosque of Djenne in Mali, is that the former is tied “with a perennial desire of zoon politikon, of the city animal, which is to abolish context, and more specifically, the dependence on agrarian and natural conditions.”[25] Cosmic intelligence as it is revealed through nature is increasingly ignored. There is a kind of arrogance in this drive to trailblaze earthly masterpieces and replace them with the likes of skyscrapers believed to be entirely man-made, in the sense that the Divine Architect has played no part, because He simply does not exist for the executive mortal in charge of those glass ceilings. Man cares less and less about the environment, and yet when his last days creep by, he dreams of Heaven’s gardens.

There are numerous aspects of this topic to explore. What about the practice of adding your signature to your artwork or insisting your name is attached to it? “Numerous Islamic artists lived and died in total obscurity,”[26] is there a level of humility from the artist that must be expected? “For the Muslim artist, self-realization came through the act of creativity and not through personal fame.”[27] In the end, niyya should be central to artistic endeavors as it should be with any other pursuits and actions. Yet, there is something remarkable about the tradition of anonymity, as it “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.”[28]

The question has to be asked then, who is the traditional artist? Perhaps it is simple: the one who remembers that “in Islam, art and faith are inseparably bound together.” [29]

Works Cited

  1. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-islam/beginners-guide-islamic-art/a/arts-of-the-islamic-world
  2. https://muslimheritage.com/beauty-and-aesthetics-in-islam/ 
  3. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-islam/beginners-guide-islamic-art/a/arts-of-the-islamic-world
  4. Puerta-Vilchez, José Miguel. Aesthetics in Arabic Thought: From Pre-Islamic Arabia Through al-Andalus. Brill, 2017. 
  5. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/art-and-civilization/ 
  6. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/dada-115169154/
  7. Puerta-Vilchez, José Miguel. Aesthetics in Arabic Thought: From Pre-Islamic Arabia Through al-Andalus. Brill, 2017.
  8. https://www.mdc.edu/wolfson/Academic/ArtsLetters/art_philosophy/Humanities/dada2/Dada.htm 
  9. https://muslimheritage.com/beauty-and-aesthetics-in-islam/
  10. https://www.ukessays.com/essays/cultural-studies/quality-of-life-based-on-minimalism-cultural-studies-essay.php
  11. Maleuvre, Didier. The Art of Civilization: A Bourgeois History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
  12. https://muslimheritage.com/beauty-and-aesthetics-in-islam/
  13. Ibid.
  14. http://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/amcdouga/Hist347/additional%20rdgs/article%20culture%20imperative.pdf
  15. https://muslimheritage.com/beauty-and-aesthetics-in-islam/ 
  16. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-islam/beginners-guide-islamic-art/a/arts-of-the-islamic-world
  17. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna/hd_orna.htm
  18. https://muslimheritage.com/beauty-and-aesthetics-in-islam/ 
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. http://www.venets.org/getfile.php?id=112
  22. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna/hd_orna.htm
  23. http://www.venets.org/getfile.php?id=112
  24. Maleuvre, Didier. The Art of Civilization: A Bourgeois History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
  25. Ibid.
  26. https://muslimheritage.com/beauty-and-aesthetics-in-islam/
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.

Photo credit: Dave Tada (https://davetada.tumblr.com/)


About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a writer for Traversing Tradition. She is a journalism and political science student. Her interests include history, literature, and politics.

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