Towards An Islamic Theory of Culture Part III: It Starts and Ends With Tawḥīd

This article is part three in a three part series discussing culture and Islam. You can read part one here and part two here.


We have already discussed some perspectives on the matter of culture relating to Islam, and indeed both paradigms mentioned in the previous installments of this series offer a glimpse into how Islam might contend with this predominantly Western discourse.

Another perspective that, for the sake of brevity, was not explored in the previous installment, but most explicitly presents an attempt to realize an Islamic “theory” of culture, can be found in the writings of Ismail Al-Faruqi (1921-1986). An American Muslim thinker of Palestinian origin, Faruqi published a plethora of books and essays about Islam as a worldview, some of which were published posthumously. The most notable of these is treatise The Islamization of Knowledge (1995) and the encyclopedia titled The Cultural Atlas of Islam (1986). 

As with the other authors we have discussed thus far, Faruqi attempts to place Islam at the crux of his discourse. He observes how the Islamic faith in practice cannot be relegated solely to a personal experience: “Islam seeks to put itself in evidence in the style of life, at home, in the public building, on the street, in the institutions, the city – everywhere.” [1] This recognition is critical to Marshall Hodgson’s concept of the Islamicate, and similarly, Alija Izetbegovic proposes such a worldview in his “third way.” Unlike Izetbegovic, however, Faruqi, in multiple works, seeks to realize this centrality by tying it directly to the centrality of God:

“Islam teaches that God is indeed our Lord and Master. Consciousness of Him is the first and last requisite […] It is natural therefore that awareness of God be the objective of every endeavor […] that within the Ummah, everything be theocentric, God-oriented” [2]. 

The theocentricity of Islam is distinguished from other faith traditions through the principle of tawḥīd (absolute monotheism). Faruqi argues that tawḥīd is not merely a tenet of creed, it is also a philosophical foundation. All matters of a Muslim’s life, his belief, spiritual and social obligations, are all in service of tawḥīd. When taking Islam as an entire system of thought rather than a set of customs and superstitions, tawḥīd is the philosophical foundation upon which it stands. All endeavors, be they personal, social, political, intellectual, scientific or artistic, must be in service of this sublime divinity. 

For Faruqi, it would then follow that culture also falls under this pattern of thought. He illustrates this through artistic motifs from Muslim history, focusing on the concept of beauty. “Al-Tawhid is not against artistic creativity; nor is it against the enjoyment of beauty […] it sees absolute beauty only in God and in his revealed will or word.” [3]

The Qurʾān brought about significant changes to the trajectory of the Arabic language and in turn, the languages that would encompass the Islamicate. As Islam’s foundational text, the preservation of the Qurʾān demanded the preservation of a particular moment in the Arabic language. The syntax, grammar and morphology of that moment became the objective standard irrespective of later dialects. Rules of articulation (tajwīd) had to be specific and clear, and the room for error was intolerable in preserving the Qurʾān. Revered as the literal word of God, preserving the Qurʾān was not purely for religious pragmatism but a matter of affection: to venerate God’s unattainable beauty. This is what Faruqi considers the basis for the calligraphic tradition across the Islamic world. 

The various forms and styles of calligraphy across the Islamic world developed primarily for Qurʾānic mauscripts. “All Islamic art has recoursed to and used the highly emotive words of the Qur’an and hadith, of Arabic or Persian poetry or of the Islamic wisdom literature and rendered them in Arabic calligraphy.” [4] This artistic phenomenon did not develop in a totalizing fashion, but rather in accordance with tastes across various regions of the Islamic world. No style of calligraphy was entirely identical to another: for instance, the Maghrebi script of Northwest Africa was distinct from the Diwani style of the Turks. 

Despite differences within categories of Islamic art, Faruqi observes some consistent motifs which reflect the theme of tawḥīd, suggesting that “to realize that God … is visually inexpressible, is the highest aesthetic objective of man.” [3] For the Muslim artist, an attempt to encapsulate God in form or figure is not only taboo but futile. Instead, expressing this inexpressibility comes in thematic signifiers. For Faruqi, these are presented in the recurrent use of uniform patterns and infinite repetition, realized in some strict and distinct calligraphic scripts, yet more apparent in arabesque art. 

Arabesque refers to a genre of decorative art consisting of repetitive geometric patterns built up of natural elements, such as botanical figures. Faruqi interprets the uniformity and repetition in arabesque patterns as reflections of the principles of God’s unity and infinite perfection. Similarly, he suggests that this geometric uniformity, while inspired by natural elements, is simultaneously distinguished from it by exaggeration in its regularity. For Faruqui, this is a representation of God’s transcendence: God is the totally-other-than-creation, totally-other-than-nature and hence, transcendent.” [3]

Of course, Faruqi’s reading would require one to dismiss works of art from the Islamicate which offend or contradict these ideals. Art forms such as miniatures depicting human forms certainly did exist in Muslim societies. A rebuttal to this, one might contend, is that such forms are not a contradiction unless one assumes that what constitutes the “Islamic” is comprised solely on Muslims behavior. Faruqi’s approach does not concern the behavior of Muslim artists in a given context. Rather, he attempts to provide a theoretical approach to understanding these artforms through Islam as a textual reality. In the same respect that Faruqi observes a theocentricity in Islamic artforms, we could argue that his own methodology is, in a sense, theocentric. 

Art, from Faruqi’s prespective, presents only a microcosm of the wider Islamic thought system, and in his discourse, we find an example of how art and culture can be critiqued by a standard defined by the most fundamental aspect of Islamic theology: tawḥīd. Tawḥīd itself is an entire paradigm; it defines the Islamic cosmology and gives a glimpse into an alternative approach to the study of culture. 

An Invitation

In the process of writing and rewriting this work, I have come to a number of realizations.

Firstly, even within Western discourse, there is no all-encompassing definition of culture. Secondly, through researching works by Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers concerning Islam and culture, we find both similarities and differences with Western cultural critics. The manner in which the likes of Izetbegovic and Faruqi attempt to ground their thought in Islamic ideals parallels the Arnoldian approach. Indeed, these thinkers see the cultural objective of Islam as making “the will of God prevail.” [5] The questions of who God is and how His will is defined are where these thinkers dramatically depart from that approach. 

Expanding upon this, as shown in our study of the Islamicate, the nature of Islam — its theology, tradition and religious apparatus — cultivates a unique way of thinking about the human experience at both the individual and societal level. Hodgson’s venture into this subject area proposes an understanding that culture (and by extension, art) functions as part of the project of Islam — a means by which the ideals of faith might be manifested in the most mundane activities of life.

The purpose of this series was not to discuss Muslim cultures or Islamic art. It was first and foremost a theoretical exploration of how the subject of culture has been discussed by Western thinkers, and how Islam might offer an alternative approach to the matter.

Beyond that, I hope this might serve as an invitation to the Muslim reader to consider the topics of culture and the arts in more depth.

Much has been said already on the matter of representation in the landscape of modern media, including here at Traversing Tradition. What has not been explored in nearly such depth is how Muslims can play a role in shaping the future of the said landscape.

How might Muslim artists approach the creative industries with an understanding of culture grounded in their faith tradition? And how might we interact with and critique art, both from within our community, and beyond?

For so long the conversation of . . . has been founded upon the rhetoric of, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re on the menu.”

But my hope is that our community might instead ask, “Do I want a seat at the table, or do I want to run the restaurant?”

This is the direction I hope and pray our community might take, and in the process give rise to a flourishing artistic scene that celebrates our values, invites others to share in them, and points us all towards fulfilling our shared purpose:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ ٱلْجِنَّ وَٱلْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ 

“I did not create jinn and humans except to worship Me.”

[Qurʾān, 51:56]

Works Cited:

[1] Faruqi, I. & Yusuf, I. 2012. “Islamic Culture.” From: Islam: Religion, Practice, Culture & World Order, International Institute of Islamic Thought, London; Washington, 2012, pp. 86–90. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvkc67zd.26. Accessed 7 Sept. 2021
[2] Faruqi, I. & AbuSulayman, A. 1982. Islamization of knowledge: General principles and work plan (3rd ed.). Herndon, Va., U.S.A.: International Institute of Islamic Thought, pp. 2-5, 34-39. 
[3] Faruqi, I. 1992. Al Tawḥīd: Its Implications for Thought and Life. United States, International Institute of Islamic Thought pp.199-202
[4] Faruqi, I., & Faruqi, L., 1986. The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: Macmillan p.343
[5] Arnold, M. 1882. Culture and anarchy: an essay in political and social criticism. New York, Macmillan. pp. 13-14


About the Author: Ibraheem Ali is a junior copywriter and contributor at Traversing Tradition. A graduate of English Literature with a Masters in Global Creative and Cultural Industries. His interests include Literature, Film, Cultural Studies and Islamic History.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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