Islamic Art

The non-figurative or abstract arts of Judaism and Islam must not be overlooked. The former was revealed in the Torah itself and is exclusively sacerdotal. The latter is akin to it by its exclusion of human and animal representations; as to its origin, it issued from the sensory form of the revealed Book, that is, from the interlaced letters of the verses of the Koran, and also—paradoxical though this may seem—from the forbidding of images. This restriction in Islamic art, by eliminating certain creative possibilities, intensified others, the more so since it was accompanied by express permission to represent plants; hence the capital importance of arabesques, of geometrical and botanical decorative motifs. Islamic architecture, inherited from the neighboring civilizations, was transmuted by its own particular genius which tended at the same time both to simplification and to ornamentation; the purest expression of this genius is perhaps the art of the Maghrib, where no pre-existing formalism invited concessions. In Islam the love of beauty compensates for the tendency to austere simplicity; it lends elegant forms to simplicity and partially clothes it in a profusion of precious and abstract lacework. “God is Beautiful,” said the Prophet, “and He loveth Beauty.”

Islamic art allies the joyous profusion of vegetation with the pure and abstract severity of crystals: a prayer niche adorned with arabesques owes something to a garden and to snowflakes. This mixture of qualities is already to be met with in the Koran where the geometry of the ideas is as it were hidden under the flamboyance of forms.
      Islam, being possessed by the idea of Unity, if one may so put it, has also an aspect of the simplicity of the desert, of whiteness, and of austerity, which, in its art, alternates with the crystalline joy of ornamentation. The cradle of the Arabs is a landscape of deserts and oases.
      Let us also mention the verbal theoph­any which is the psalmodized recitation of the revealed texts,1 calligraphy being its visual mode;2 or again, in Islam, the canonical prayer, the majestic movement of which ex­presses the sacred in a manner that from the point of view in question is not without relation to the mudrasof India.
Christianity corresponds to a volitive decision between the here-below and the hereafter; Islam, on the other hand, is a sapiential choice of the Truth, and in the light of this Truth all must be known and evaluated. In metaphysical truth there is neither here-below nor hereafter, everything is contained in it, and this can be seen in Islamic art. Everything natural to man finds its place in this truth. The world is seen in God, and thus is given its meaning and spiritual efficacy.
      It is understandable that the smiling grace of Islamic architecture should have appeared to many Christians as something worldly and “pagan”; the volitive perspective envisages the “here-below” and the “beyond” only as levels of existence which mark separation and opposition and not as universal essences which unite and make identical. In Renaissance art virtue becomes crushing, lugubrious, and tiresome; beside the Alhambra the palace of Charles V seeks to be grave and austere but only achieves a heaviness and opacity which banish all higher intelligence, contemplation, and serenity.

“… After looking at the Alhambra for hours, it became clearer than ever to me that Islamic art is contemplative, whereas Gothic art is volitive, not to speak of the Renaissance, in which the volitive becomes worldly, hypocritical, sensual, and ostentatious. For Charles V the Alhambra was worldly because it is beautiful and joyful, and to this apparent worldliness he opposed the dull, oppressive, and completely unspiritual ostentatiousness of his palace. Here ugliness and stupidity wish to pass themselves off as virtues, namely seriousness, strength, and otherworldliness. The otherworldly is seen purely in ‘volitive’ fashion, as something negative, and not as something spiritual which reveals itself in creation.
      “After the Alhambra and the Alcázar of Seville I have never seen anything which appeased my spirit more than the Mosque at Córdoba, and seldom seen anything which so aroused my indignation as the Christian addition in this mosque; the Catholicism of the Renaissance shows itself here in its most horrible form—a proof that exotericism is aware of only a fraction of the devil’s power, and indeed beyond certain limits allows it free play: to be precise, in those realms which concern the Intellect. There is only one ancient and beautiful Madonna there, and one other good old picture. But enough said…” [from a letter to Titus Burckhardt, August 1954].

Muslim art shows in a very transparent way how art should repeat nature—understood in the widest possible sense—in its creative modes without copying it in its results. It is abstract, but also poetical and gracious; it is woven out of sobriety and splendor. The style of the Maghrib is perhaps more virile than are the Turkish and Persian styles; but these—and especially the latter—are by way of compensation more varied.3

The spiritual intention of Islam is brought clearly to view in its art: just as its art captures the all-pervading and the all-inclusive, and avoids narrowness of every kind, so Islam itself seeks to avoid whatever is ugly, and to keep in sight that which is “everywhere Center.” For this reason it replaces, so to speak, the “cross” by the “weave.” A center which is a center only at a definite point, it rejects as “association”; it wishes to dissolve a priori every individualistic entanglement; it knows only one Center: God. Every other “center,” such as the Prophet, or Islam itself, is loosened in a rhythm or in a “weaving.” The Kaabah too is in its center a world-containing web.

1 For instance, the chanting of the Koran, which can be in various styles, is an art; a choice can be made between one style or another, but nothing can be added to them; one can chant the Koran in certain ways, but not in others. The modes of chanting express different rhythms of the spirit.
2 Outside the Far East, there are scarcely any but the Muslim peoples who possess calligraphies equivalent to the Chinese ideograms, thanks not only to the richness and plasticity of the Arabic characters, but also to the concentration—due to religious reasons—of the pictorial instinct on writing alone.
3 Persian miniatures integrate things in a surface without perspective, and thus in a sense without limits, like a piece of weaving, and it is this which makes them compatible—at any rate as “worldly” objects—with the Islamic perspective. In a general way Muslims distrust any “materialization” of religious subjects as if in fear that spiritual realities might become exhausted through an excess of sensory crystallization. The sculptured and dramatic imagery of the Roman Church has indeed proven to be a two-edged sword; instead of making it “appreciable” and popular, the Church ought to have maintained in it the hieratic abstraction of Romanesque statuary. It is not the sole obligation of art to come down towards the common people; it should also remain faithful to its intrinsic truth in order to allow men to rise towards that truth.