By Muhammad Maroof Shah
Aug 1 2018
Almost everything that has to do with celebration of beauty and regard for many art forms is suspect today in the name of Islam. Aesthetic dimension of life/Islam has not been given due consideration by Madrasas, Universities or other educational institutions and it is no wonder that our lives, our surroundings, our cities and other living spaces are largely bereft of beauty. Few know that cultivating beauty in every act is the fulfilment of Islam.
The Islamicate world has been a cultured world with much emphasis on beauty, on poetry, on arts, on higher intellectual pursuits and so many applied/traditional sciences. Any talk about study of Islam or revival of Islam bypasses more than three fourth of Islamic legacy. It is law and some dose of theology and passing, often dismissive references to philosophy and esoterism and mostly non-academic talk about history and modern trauma of encounter with colonization that forms the main body of Islam in our sermons, curricula and classes. Islam as the Religion or Religion of religions as distinguished from a religion, as metaphysics, philosophy and culture distinguished from exotericist theology and legalism is what is mostly missing when we talk about defending Islam or teaching it. Islam as an abstraction, as something to be drilled, imposed and opposed to other religions and world heritage of sciences, arts, philosophies has been sold to the people with the consequence that Islam appears often to be in danger that some specialists and ideologues are needed to save for us.
There is all pervasive strange anxiety to understand and defend Islamic as a prefix or category that situates itself against what is branded non-Islamic in every human or even “divine” discipline. The idea is to Islamize even Islam itself, to return to so-called pure Islam, Islam shorn from its context and embodied legacy of rich cultural expressions. Some slanders against world religions, world philosophies, Sufis, intellectual elite of Islam, arts and new approaches in different disciplines rule the roost. A few questions related to art and aesthetics that Muslims mostly have ceased to ask and no wonder fail to answer (by even Islamic Studies/Madrasa pass-outs)showing how little we understand how Islam has been understood/expressed in history and lives of Muslims:
• Why is Islamic Shahadah read as “There is no beauty but Beauty” by many a guardian of Islamic culture? How come Muslims now fail to understand Ihsan as commandment to beautify and often ignore/are averse to arts and fail to note significance of what are called Beautiful Names (Asma al-Husna) of God? What is the connection of so many names of God with beauty? Isn’t it possible to understand denial of God or apostasy as choosing ugliness over beauty?
• Why did Muslims use feather as a bookmark for the Quran and what peacocks meant in Mughal works?
• How come we find pervasive astrological references in the Islamicate world? For instance, we see fish, representing the zodiacal sign Pisces, on ceramics and metalwork in Anatolia.
• What do trees, their branches and flowers in general, represent in the Islamic culture?
• Is there such thing as Islamic architecture that distinguished Muslim monuments, dwellings and cities and why Muslims now ignore it except in case of mosque design? What happened to Mecca in the name of reconstruction in recent history and why Muslims are still indifferent? Was Islam indifferent to the question of space?
• Why is order of activation of special organs of perception (lata’if) yellow, red, white, black- green? What explains Islam’s privileging white and green? Is it connected with Sirr and Ikhfa? Why is blue dominant colour in architecture, in mosques and mausolea?
• Why should we continue to build minarets as we no longer need them for reaching out to people living far away? Why don’t Muslims build mosques the way their Prophet (SAW) built at Medina and instead use elaborate symbolic structures and take great care of interior design and beauty? Why Muslims have been lavishing so much care in beautifying mosques, shrines and tombs? How come the notions of architect as priest and transforming dwelling place into cosmos or “giving it the value of imagio mundi” are alien to modern would be experts on Islam?
• How come we reconcile the explication of cultural face of Islam by Ahmed Amin, Pickthall, Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Lamya al-Faruqi besides Nasr and others with most juristic manuals on Islam that seem to write it off? What about the phenomenon of Khusraw whose brand of Islamizing Indian culture involved transforming music? How come such important figures as Ghazzali, Ibn Hazm, al-Shawkani, Abdul Ghani Nablusi, Sultan al-Ulema al-Iz ibn Abdul-Salam and many other towering Ulema and saints didn’t toe popular line of rejection of music in the name of Islam? Didn’t Sufis win some famous debates between jurists and Sufis on music?
• Why is black drape over Ka’ba? What explains traditional black colour of Layla?
• How come gardens in Islamic culture got modelled on Paradise? Whose diagrams became model for designing Taj Mahal and what about compelling readings that read the Taj Mahal as conscious evocation of Divine Throne (Arsh)?
• What is the symbolism of ornaments, turban design, carpet design and general fabric design Muslims have worn? Why, for instance, the particular design of carpets with alternating jasmine and peony floral patterns you have seen?
• How come Muslims, in every age and from the earliest times, largely ignored some commonly believed prohibitions of representing living creatures and music and decorating mosques and building tombs for saints and kings? Did they betray Islam thereby or it is we whose understanding of Islam as culture is a problem? Is it known that “The prohibition of images in Islam is not however absolute”?
• Why has the art of talking about women and ‘civilizing sexual passion’ – ghazal – as an art form been so important for major Islamic languages/cultures? What explains its central features?
If one fails to get illuminating answers to such questions from average pass-outs In Islamic Studies departments or religious seminaries, don’t be surprised. They fail to appreciate or take account of scores of other questions on Islam’s intellectual and spiritual legacy as well. Either curriculum is faulty or level of engagement below standard or method of teaching-learning faulty. Figuring of certain names / themes in curriculum doesn’t matter much unless it is translated in real capacity building of students/ comprehension of primary texts. Taking Islam seriously as it has been embodied in culture, in arts, in philosophy and Tasawwuf or taking culture seriously in what is called Islamic Studies is a task that has yet to properly begin in Kashmir.
Much Ado About Nothing
Good arguments need consideration, bad arguments need refutation and no arguments (like dead deliveries) call for silence or lamentation if they are taken as arguments. Dr Tawseef’s response to my previous column on Nasr falls in the last category. Since this needs for some readers a clarification, a few remarks follow.
• To my first and third statements, he has not stated any objection but simply asserted he doesn’t agree as if impressionistic disagreement could refute the fact – dismal engagement with Islamic intellectual legacy – presented for anyone to verify. To the second statement, he has no counterargument as such but creates a straw man to thrash by confounding my critique of product (pass-outs) with the critique of curriculum that was not my primary subject.
My point was that proof is in the pudding – average pass-out have little acquaintance with much of Islamic legacy. Imagining contradiction in my endorsing Summer School as contribution with my dissatisfaction with previous record regarding how Islamic Studies has been done shows a strange logic or lack of imagination. I didn’t brand students with teachers or generalize about all students in my comments – I have great respect for some teachers/students and have learnt/keep learning at their feet many things. Slanders/ad hominum “arguments” attributing the worst corruption imaginable – that one can sell one’s pen for being a resource person – are best left alone for God to take account and not deserving even refutation.
• I maintain that in much of (as distinguished from everywhere) the Muslim world Islamic Studies as characterized by me or authorities Dr Tauseef quotes does not exist. One can count on fingers institutions/departments that do Islamic studies in the desired sense. The rest is a poor adaptation of the idea called Islamic Studies. The best institutions for doing this remain mostly in the West – all doyens of it Nasr, Fazlur Rahman and Ismail Raji al-Faruqi – did it mostly in the West.
• To check how Islamic Studies is done here, let us ask a fair sample of recent Masters and PhDs to discuss, in any language, randomly opened one page of classics of Muslim philosophy like Hikmat Al-Ishraq, Al-Isharat Wa'l-Tanbihat Or Asfar or of Sufi classics such as Tawaseen or Fusoos or even commentary on Fusoos or of classics of wisdom poetry or Quranic exegesis by Ibn Sina, al-Sulami or al-Maybudi. If they hesitate it shows one can pass exam by mugging up Wikipedia notes and dispense with reading primary texts (curriculum/readings suggested don’t emphasize that either) though still claim a Masters/Doctorate in Islamic Studies.
• I had long back seen syllabus and fair sample of students before commenting and knew about course on Architecture in IUST but there was no teacher trained in Islamic architecture to teach it. How many theses have been written on Islam and arts so far?
So the learned author’s analysis rests on misunderstanding my critique of the product (pass-outs/PhDs) as critique of curriculum.