Published by Tajul Islam
Friday, 27 May 2011 18:18
Ismail Razi al-Faruqi
That nothing is rerum natura can serve as a vehicle for expressing the divine, does not by itself rule out the possibility of an object of nature serving as a vehicle for expressing that very truth itself, namely, that the divine is indeed infinite and inexpressible. It is one thing not to express the divine because it is inexpressible, and another to express the truth embodied in this preposition. Admittedly, the challenge to express sensorily the truth that God is sensorily inexpressible staggers the imagination of any artist. But it is not impossible. Indeed, it is here that the artistic genius of Islam scored its triumphal breakthrough. We have seen that stylization, which was known and practiced in the ancient Near East was pushed to a new level of perfection in the reaction to Hellenic naturalism imposed by Alexander and his successors. Under Islam, now confronting that same Hellenism in Christian disguise, the Semitic reaction was as strong in the field of esthetic endeavor as in that of theological endeavor.
Islam's vehement denial of the divinity of Christ is matched by its denial of naturalism in the esthetic representation of nature, by its encouragement of stylization. A stylized plant or flower is a caricature of the real object of nature, a not-nature. By drawing it, the author seems to say "No" to nature. May it not be a fitting instrument to express not-naturalness, i.e., the mere negation of naturalism? Given alone, however, the stylized plant or flower would express non-nature but in an individuated way which suggests that the death of nature in that object is itself individuated. By giving the denaturalized state of the natural object, it may even express a heightened naturalism, the very opposite of the Islamic purpose, as health is often represented through sickness and life through death. Something else therefore is needed to preserve the inexpressibility of the divine being if Islam was to succeed where Judaism had failed."
It is to this challenge that the Muslim artist now rose. His unique, creative and original solution was to represent the stylized plant or flower in indefinite repetition in order, as it were, to deny any and all individuation, and in consequence, to banish naturalism from consciousness once and for all. An identically repeated object of non-nature does express non-natureness. If the artist could, in addition, express esthetically by means of a repeated object of non-nature infinity and inexpressibility, then the result might well be tantamount to the witness, la ilaha illa Allah expressed verbally and discursively, for the inexpressibility and infinity which are the content of artistic representation would suggest themselves as qualities of non-nature. The Islamic soul therefore thought that there is a way for the visual arts to conform with the primal dictate of Semitic consciousness. But the major hurdle here is how can anything in rerum nature, however stylized, be the vehicle for expressing infinity or inexpressibility?
1. Arab Consciousness: Islam's Historical Substrate
To achieve a solution, Islamic consciousness fell back upon its own historical substrate, namely, Arab consciousness. This was the historical matter which the divine revelation informed and used as a Sitz-im-Leben for its occurrence, as a vehicle and carrier of divine truth. It was this consciousness, concretized in the person of Muhammad (SAAS), that
received the revelation and communicated it to mankind in space and time. It was the medium of prophecy. Its achievement in the art of language and letters was indeed a miracle before Islam, and this fact determined that the mode of the new revelation be that of the literary sublime, for it was ready for and capable of carrying it.
The first instrument of Arab consciousness and the embodiment of all its categories is the Arabic language. Essentially, Arabic is made up primarily of three consonant roots, each of which is susceptible of conjugation into over three hundred different forms by changing the vocalization, adding a prefix, suffix, or "middle-fix." Whichever conjugation is affected, all words which have the same conjugal form have the same modal meaning regardless of their roots. The meaning of the root remains; but attached to it is another, a modal meaning, given to it by the conjugation and remaining always and everywhere the same." The language then has a logical structure, at once clear, complete and comprehensible.
Once this structure is grasped, one is a master of the language, knowledge of the meaning of roots being then of secondary importance. The literary art consists in the construction of a system of concepts related to each other in such ways as to put into play the parallelisms and contrasts engendered by conjugation of the roots, while enabling the understanding to move through the web in continuous, unbroken line. An arabesque in which a thousand each of triangles, squares, circles, pentagons, hexagons and octagons are all painted with different colors and interlace with one another dazzles the eye, but not the mind. Recognizing each figure for what it is, the mind can move from one pentagon to another despite their color variance and cross the tableau from end to end, experiencing some delight at each stop with realization of the parallelism provided by the identical shapes, i.e., by the identical modalities of the various root-meanings, and of the contrast provided by the root-meanings themselves.
This constitutive character of the Arabic language is also constitutive of its poetry. Arabic poetry consists of autonomous, complete and independent verses, each of which is an identical realization of one and
the same metrical pattern. The poet is free to choose anyone of some thirty patterns known to the tradition. But once chosen, his whole poem must conform in each part to this pattern. To hear and enjoy Arabic poetry is to grasp this pattern and, as the poem is recited, to move with the metrical flow, to expect and to receive what the pattern has anticipated. Surely the words, concepts and percept-constructs are different in each verse. That is what provides the color variation. But the structural form is one throughout.
This basic geometry of the Arabic language and of Arabic poetry enabled Arab consciousness to achieve a grasp of infinity on two dimensions. The root words are many, indeed infinite, since any new combination of any three consonants could by convention be assigned any new meaning. Arab consciousness adopts foreign roots with impervious equanimity, relying upon its conjugation mill to Arabize them thoroughly. The infinity of their number is matched by an infinity of their conjugation. There are known patterns of conjugation; a limited number of roots have been conjugated and their conjugations known and used. But a dictionary of the Arabic language such as Webster or Oxford, wherein all the words can be gathered and listed, is categorically impossible. For not all the traditionally known roots have been conjugated; the root list is never closed; not all modalities of conjugation have been used; and the list of modalities is not closed. New modalities are not ruled out by tradition-consensus, but await the genius who can justify and use them to his advantage. The Arabic language, therefore, like the Arab stream of being, is a system bright at the center (because of tradition) and fuzzy at the edges which spread indefinitely in all directions."
To return to poetry. The metric pattern of the verses being constitutive, it does not matter for the verses of a poem whether they are read in the order the poet had composed them or in any other order. Read forward or backward, the poem is just as sweet, for the poet has taken us through the pattern with every verse; and the repetition has delighted us by disciplining our intuitive faculty to expect and to realize what we expected in the variety of facts of meanings and percept-constructs. By definition therefore, no Arabic poem is finished, closed and in any sense completed so that no addition to or continuation of it could be affected or conceived. Indeed, the Arabic poem can be extended in both directions, at its beginning and at its end without the slightest offence to its esthetique, if not by any man on account of personal style, then surely by its own composer. Indeed, if we are good listeners, we would be supposed first to join the poet in his poetry-making as in a live performance and second, to continue his poem for our own benefit now that his recitation has wound us up in the momentum it generated and launched us into its own infinite poetical space. It is not an uncommon phenomenon in the Arab world for a poet, when attended by a good audience, to be "assisted" extemporarily by that audience in the recitation of his poetry which they have never heard before, or to be commented upon by addition to his poetry of more of the same."
2. The First Work of Art in Islam: Al Qur’an at Karim
It was this Arab consciousness which served as substrate and matrix of Islam. The Islamic revelation, al Quran al Karim, came as the chef d’oeuvre, the sublime fulfillment of all the ideals and norms of that consciousness at once.
If anything is art, the Quran certainly is. If the mind of the Muslim has been affected by anything, it was certainly affected by the Qur’Én. If this affecting was anywhere deep enough to become constitutive, it was so in esthetics. There is no Muslim whom the Qur’anic cadences, rhymes, and awjuh al balaghah (facets of eloquence) have not shaken to the very depth of his being; there is no Muslim whose norms and standards of beauty the Quran has not rekneaded and made in its own image.
This aspect of the Quran the Muslims have called its i‘jaz (power to incapacitate), its "placing the reader in front of a challenge to which he can rise, but which he can never meet:' In fact, the Quran itself defied its audience, the Arabs, with their highest literary excellence, to produce anything "like the Quran" (2:23), and chided them for their failure to do so (10:38; 11:13; 17:88). Some of the enemies of Islam among the Prophei's contemporaries rose to the task and were humiliated by the judgment of their opponents as well as by that of their own friends. Muhammad (SAAS) was called "a man possessed" (18:22) and the Qur’Én "a work of magic" (21:53; 25:4) precisely on account of its effect upon the consciousness of its hearers (69:38-52).
Everybody recognized that although the Qur’anic verses did not conform to any of the known patterns of poetry, they produce the same effect as poetry, indeed, to a superlative degree. Every verse is complete and perfect by itself. It often rhymes with the preceding verse or verses and contains one or more religious or moral meanings embedded in literary expressions or articulations of sublime beauty. So mighty is the momentum it generates that the recitation impels the audience irresistibly to move with it, to expect the next verse and to reach the most intense quiescence upon hearing it. Then the process starts again with the next one, two or group of three or more verses.
Did then the Muslim Arab come out of Arabia in the seventh century with any art? Did he contribute anything relevant to the subsequently developed arts of the conquered peoples? In ignorance or prejudice, and often in a pitiable combination of both, every Western historian of Islamic art has answered, "No." The grandfather of the discipline asserted: "The men who formed these armies [the first Arab armies of Islam] were mainly Bedouin, but even those who came from permanent settlements, such as Makkah and Madinah, knew nothing of the art of architecture." The younger generation repeat after him ad nauseam: "From its Arabian past, the new Muslim art could draw almost nothing."
How contradictory to their allegations is the truth! All the new Islamic arts obtained from the Arab past, all that is constitutive and important, namely their spirit, their principles and method, their purpose and the way to achieve that purpose. Surely, Islamic art needed materials and themes for its efforts in the visual fields, and it got these wherever it found them. But it is offensively superficial to point to this as "borrowing" in any discussion of the meaning and significance, history or theory of the art. An art is an art by virtue of its style, its content, its manner of rendering, not by the materiaux it uses which, in most part, are derived by geographic or social accident. Islamic art is a unity at all because of this foundation, through Islam, in Arab consciousness. It is the categories of Arab consciousness that determined the artistic productions of all Muslims."
B. ESTHETIC REALIZATION IN THE VISUAL ARTS
Western visual art has relied almost totally on human nature, whether expressed in the human figure, the landscape, the still life or even the abstract design or no-design. Islamic visual art was not interested in human nature, but in divine nature. Since its purpose was not to express new facets of human nature, it did not esthetically discuss the figure, i.e., it did not portray the infinitesimal shifts in human appearance expressive of human nature. Human character, the a priori idea of man analyzable into a million details revelatory of another depth or height in the human personality-all this was for the Muslim artist just beside-the- point. The divine is his first love and his last obsession. To stand in the presence of divinity is for him the hallmark of all existence and all nobility and beauty. For this end, Muslims surround themselves with every prop and stimulus inductive of an intuition of that Presence.
First, since stylization produced a denaturalization of nature, the first Arab Muslims pushed that device to its conclusion. Further, stylization means the absence of variation, and of development from trunk to branch and leaf extremities as occurs in the vegetal kingdom. Trunk and branch became of the one thickness, one texture, and one share or shape throughout the drawing. Development was annulled also by the absence of variation. All the leaves and flowers in the same drawing were made alike. Finally, the deathblow to naturalism is repetition. By repeating the stalk, leaf and flower over and over again, and making them proceed one from another indefinitely in a manner impossible in nature, all idea of nature is banished. Repetition produces this effect so assuredly and unmistakably that it even tolerates its own enemy i.e., development provided what has developed within a portion of the work of art is repeated in the work of art as a whole. Thus, nature in annihilated from consciousness, and un-nature is presented. If stalk, leaf and flower still leave a vestige of nature in the consciousness of the beholder, then the line, straight, broken, circular, jetting or trajecting, in free-lance designs or geometrical figures, will do the job better, beyond all doubt. It may be combined with the stalk-leaf-flower material to tell the beholder still
more eloquently the "geometrizing;' un-naturalizing aspect intended. Finally, if repetition is subjected to symmetry, so that it extends equidistantly in all directions, then the work of art becomes in essence an infinite field-of-vision. By accident, only a part of this infinite field is arbitrarily singled out by the artist and framed by the physical extremities of the page, wall, panel or canvas. Where animal of human figures are used, as in the miniatures of Persia, un-nature is achieved by stylization of the animal, and by giving the human faces and bodies no individuation, no character and no personality. A man, like a flower, can represent un-nature, through stylization. But this is precisely the effacement of personality and character. That is why the greatest Persian miniatures always have a plurality of human figures indistinguishable from one another." Like the Arabic poem, the miniature is made of many parts, detached from one another and each constituting an autonomous center of its own. As the audience takes its delight in holding in consciousness the literary jewels set up in the patterned body of the verses, so the spectator contemplates the minor arabesques in the carpet, door, wall, horse saddle, man's turban or clothes, etc. within a given center in the miniature, bearing in mind that there are other centers ad infinitum to which he may move."
In all painting and decoration in Islamic art there is movement, indeed compelling movement from one unit in a design to another, and then from one design to another, indeed, from one whole field of vision to another as in the great portals, facades or walls, is beyond question. But there is no work of Islamic art where such movement is conclusive. It is of the essence that the vision of the spectator continue; that it seen the production of the continuation in the imagination; that the mind set itself in motion requesting to behold infinity. Mass, volume, space. enclosure, gracity, cohesion. tension-all these are facta of nature to do away with if an intuition of un-nature is to be gained. Only a design, a momentum generating pattern will surround the Muslim lover of beauty, bursting into infinite space in all directions. This puts him in the contemplative mood requisite for an intuition of the divine presence. Not only the design on the cover of a book, an illuminated page he is reading, the carpet under his feet, the ceiling, front, inside and outside walls of his house, but its floor plan as well, constitute such an arabesque where the garden, patio, vestibule, and every chamber is an autonomous center with its own arabesque generating its own momentum. But what is an arabesque? We have used the term above assuming the reader's knowledge of it. Rightly so! For the arabesque is immediately distinguishable from any other artistic form. It is ubiquitous in all Muslim constitutes the definitive characteristic or element in an Islamic art. It is rightly called "arabesque" because it is Arab as Arabic poetry and the Arabic Quran are Arab in their esthetique. Its presence transforms any milieu into something Islamic, and it is what gives unity to the arts of the most diverse peoples. It is readily recognizable, indeed unmistakable. Essentially, it is a design composed of many units or figures which join together and interlace in such way as to cause the spectator to move from one figure or unit to another in all directions, until the vision has crossed the work of art from physical end to end. The figure or unit is indeed complete and autonomous; but it is joined to the next figure or unit. The vision is compelled to move on, having followed the outline and perceived the design of the one figure, to seek those of the next. This constitutes its "rhythm." The movement can be dull the more detached the figures are from one another. It can be uninvolving as in the case of a simple weave of straight lines. However, the more closely related the figures are, thus compelling movement, punctuation and rhythm, and the more resistance to the movement is put up by the circuity and brokenness of the lines, the more power is the arabesque's momentum. The greater the momentum, the easier will the mind generate the "idea of reason" for the imagination's take-off beyond the physical boundary of the work of art, as it attempts to produce what the mind has demanded. It is necessary for this process to be repeated, and so there are many different arabesques in any work of art, each covering one structural part. The purpose is obvious: the launching of the imagination upon its doomed flight. It may come with the second, third, or tenth arabesque, if' not with the first.
Arabesques are floral or geometric, depending on whether they use al tawriq (the stalk-leaf-flower), or the geometric'rasm (figure) as artistic medium. The geometric figure can be khatt (linear)if it uses straight and broken lines, or rami (trajectory) if it uses multicentred curved ones. It may also combine all these together and be called then rakhwi. Arabesques are planar if they have two dimensions, as most decorative ones on walls, doors, ceilings, furniture, cloth and carpets, book covers and pages have. They can also be spatial, or three-dimensional, constructed with pillars and arches and the ribs of domes. This kind is the distinguished specialty of architecture in the Maghrib ami Andalusia, and has reached its highest exemplification in the great Mosque of Cordoba and al fIamrii' palace in Granada. In al Hamra, a whole dome is made of innumerable interlacing arches standing on visible columns, which only the most fervid imagination can see and trace in their course. There, the momentum is so mighty that it can propel and launch anybody willing to move with its rhythm to immediate intuition of infinity. The grand facade of a tremendous mosque, the portal in a large wall, the
panel in the portal, the knob on which vision happens to fall, the miniature on a page of a book, the design on a carpet, or one's own clothes, or belt, or buckle of a belt express to the Muslim: la ilaha illa Allah by causing him to perceive the infinity and inexpressibility of the transcendent realm of not-nature, of not-creation.