Shaykh Lutfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran
The Silent Theology of Islamic Art
To many, Islamic art can speak more profoundly and clearly than even the written word. Is it wiser then for Muslims to show, not to tell?
Is the reward for iĥsān anything other than iĥsān?1
– Qur’an 55:60
God has inscribed beauty upon all things.
Beauty is the splendor of the True.
Just as a mental form, such as a dogma or a doctrine, can be an adequate, albeit limited, reflection of a Divine Truth, so a sensible form can retrace a truth or a reality which transcends both the plane of sensible forms and the plane of thought.
– Titus Burckhardt
If asked to introduce Islam to an audience unfamiliar with the religion or civilization, I would not necessarily recommend a translation of the Qur’an; nor a book of Islamic law, theology, or philosophy; nor one of the many popular books purporting to introduce Islam to the West. Rather, I would recommend listening to a beautiful untranslated recitation of the Qur’an in an Arabic maqām (melodic mode); or contemplating an illuminated Ottoman manuscript of the holy book in thuluth or kufic calligraphy; or marveling at Fes’ Qarawiyyin, Isfahan’s Shaykh Lutfollah, or Cairo’s Ibn Tulun mosques; or listening to the music of the poetry of Hafez, Amīr Khusrow, or Ibn al-Fāriđ.
These masterpieces of Islamic civilization communicate the beauty and truth of its revelation with a profound directness simply unmatched by articles or books about Islam. One of the many curious aspects of contemporary times provides proof: despite the dissemination of virulent propaganda against Islam in the West, many people from Western societies queue for hours to admire the architecture of the Alhambra in Spain and the Taj Mahal in India as well as exhibitions of Islamic calligraphy and miniature paintings, and to attend sold-out concerts of traditional Islamic music. This is due to another paradox: these most tangible and outward manifestations of the Islamic tradition represent its most subtle, inward, and essential realities. Hence, it seems it is better to show than to tell.
To many, the silent theology of Islamic art can speak more profoundly and clearly than the most dazzling treatise, and its beauty can be more evident and persuasive than the strongest argument. The Qur’an was not revealed as a set of syllogisms or prosaic rational proofs2 but as a recitation of unmatched linguistic beauty, filled with symbols, stories, metaphors, and poetic phrasing. Indeed, its formal beauty inspired many of the earliest conversions to Islam. Before the first books of fiqh (Islamic law) or kalām (theology) appeared, the first generations of Muslims had developed masterpieces of Islamic architecture, such as the mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; an unprecedented art of calligraphy; and an entire new literary tradition. But although the Islamic arts are essential and important to the Islamic tradition, as are Islamic law and theology, they—along with the remarkable aesthetic the Islamic civilization developed over the centuries—sadly have been neglected in recent times. While this is a significant loss for all of humanity, it is particularly tragic for Muslims. As the hadith says, “God is beautiful, and He loves beauty,” so indifference to beauty is tantamount to indifference to the divine.
Making the Invisible World Visible
In the Islamic tradition, the sense of beauty and excellence—at once aesthetic, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual—is encapsulated by the untranslatable Qur’anic term iĥsān. The classic definition of iĥsān comes from the hadith of Gabriel, wherein the Prophet ﷺ describes it as “to worship God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you.” Most simply, the Islamic arts cultivate iĥsān because the patterns on traditional prayer carpets; the geometric designs and calligraphy ornamenting mosques and Islamic homes; as well as the architecture of these homes, mosques, and madrasas help us to worship God as if we “see Him” through these displays of beauty, for “God is Beautiful and loves beauty.” This “as if” (ka anna in Arabic) seeing occurs through “imagination” (khayāl), a term that has a technical definition in Islamic discourses distinct from its everyday meaning in English.
In the writings of Ibn ʿArabī and other Sufi thinkers, instead of representing something imaginary or unreal, imagination (khayāl) is a creative and perceptual faculty that clothes pure meanings (or ideas) and spiritual realities in sensory forms, and also perceives the meanings represented in these sensible forms. It is the faculty responsible for true dreams and visionary experiences and their interpretations, as when the Prophet ﷺ saw milk in a dream and understood it to be the sensible form of the supra-sensible reality of knowledge. Imagination allows us to make the invisible world visible, and to trace visible forms back to their invisible meanings. Thus, imagination is a barzakh (a liminal reality separating two realities, but also participating in them) between the visible and invisible worlds (¢ālam al-shahādah wa al-ghayb), between the worlds of matter and spirit, and between sensory forms and intelligible meanings.3
Indeed, for many Sufi theorists, everything other than the divine essence is imagination and is thus a kind of dream that must be interpreted. Ibn ¢Arabī writes, “Know that you yourself are an imagination. And everything that you perceive and say to yourself, ‘this is not me,’ is also an imagination. So that the whole world of existence is imagination within imagination.”4 Just as our dreams represent or manifest different aspects of our individual consciousness, the dream of everything other than God (mā siwā Allāh) reflects and represents different aspects of the aspectless divine unity. While it is impossible to directly contemplate the divine because of its absolute unity (in order to contemplate something, there must be both a subject and an object of contemplation—which would violate pure unity), the dream is composed of signs (āyāt) and symbols that manifest and allow us to contemplate, meditate upon, and “see” aspects of the invisible divine. This is why the Qur’an is full of verses (also called āyāt) encouraging us to contemplate the signs of creation, including ourselves. According to Abū al-¢Atāhiyah’s famous lines, “In every thing there is a sign that indicates that He is One” (wa fī kulli shay’in lahu āyatun tadullu ¢alā annahu al-Wāĥidu). The Qur’an states even more explicitly in Surah Fuśśilat, “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth” (41:53).
Since it is through imagination that the signs of creation come into existence, it is through imagination that we can trace them back to their origins and meanings, and that we can interpret and understand them by recognizing the aspects of the divine they manifest. Islamic arts play an important role by bringing the basic elements of our surroundings (such as light, shade, space, time, color, sound, scent, and silence) back to their geometric, archetypal realities (their malakūt in Qur’anic terms), which are more easily integrated into the divine unity—one reason Islamic civilization and its arts are so focused on geometry. In other words, Islamic arts make things metaphysically transparent; they allow us to perceive the light of God in and through them, as if they were stained-glass windows. It is through imagination (khayāl) that the Islamic arts render the invisible divine visible, and it is through imagination that we can perceive the mysteries of transcendent divine unity immanent in these sensory forms.
Imagination is often contrasted with reason (ʿaql in its limited meaning5): where imagination is synthetic, reason is analytic; where imagination is “both/and,” reason is “either/or”; where imagination draws connections and analogies, reason separates and draws distinctions. As William Chittick explains:
Imagination understands in modes foreign to reason. As an intermediary reality standing between spirit and body, it perceives abstract ideas and spiritual beings in embodied form. Since it itself is neither one nor the other, it is intrinsically ambiguous and multivalent, and it can grasp the self-disclosure of God, which is He/not He. Reason demands to know the exact relationships in the context of either/or. But imagination perceives that self-disclosure can never be known with precision, since it manifests the Unknown Essence.6
In this schema, it is imagination—not reason—that is perfectly equipped to encounter the ambiguities of manifest multiplicity and perceive the unity therein. It is imagination that can trace seemingly contradictory statements and phenomena back to the common origin that unites them, without erasing their distinctiveness on the level of sensory forms. The imaginal faculty can both represent and perceive the same truth or reality in a tree, a geometric pattern, a work of calligraphy, or verses of poetry, despite their outward differences. Thus, it is no wonder that the rise of extreme sectarianism and mutual misunderstanding across the Muslim world has coincided with the decline in the appreciation and production of the Islamic arts: both trends are the result of a widespread atrophy of the imaginal faculty and a consequent lack of familiarity with the inner dimensions of the Islamic tradition.7
Ibn ¢Arabī, al-Ghazālī, and many of the other great scholars of Islam have argued that reason and imagination must work together to correctly understand and interpret the signs of God, both in His books and the books of the cosmos and the human soul. This is clearly illustrated in one of the most profoundly paradoxical verses of the Qur’an: “There is nothing like unto Him, yet He is the Hearing, the Seeing” (42:11). The first part of the verse apparently declares God’s incomparability and transcendence (tanzīh) and, according to Ibn ¢Arabī, is addressed to our reason, while the second half of the verse declares God’s likeness and immanence (we also see and hear) and is addressed to our imagination. It is only by understanding both halves of the verse, by “seeing with two eyes”—both reason and imagination—that we can come to know God through His signs.