Islam and Art
I would like to start off by reminding myself that the point of this blog is to discuss the process of bringing meaning into our lives. To have a clear shot of where we are heading.What is our purpose in this life? Is it to have a career, get married, make money, be famous? Why do I always feel empty when I set such a goal… when do I feel like there is more to life than just this? I remember reading “notes from my travels” by Angelina Jolie and my infatuation with volunteer work… why would I want to spend the rest of my life helping poor people around the planet and totally put my life on hold? What explains that selfless act of gratitude? Why does my chest tighten when I see injustice? Why does my heart fill with joy when I see a baby smile? All of these clichés are so typical, we’ve been through them all… but can you tell me why this happens to us?
It is an Islamic belief that people are born with a state of innocence, in other words “fitra”: this is a pre-state into achieving total submission to Allah Almighty. Submission means to acknowledge the presence of the Creator in this world, that we have a limited amount of control in this world. There are things that are out of our hands. We have to be synchronized with the way the world goes round. We have to have complete trust in God because He is the All-Knower and we only know a glimpse.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The life of this world compared to the Hereafter is as if one of you were to put his finger in the ocean and take it out again then compare the water that remains on his finger to the water that remains in the ocean.” [Sahîh Muslim (2858)]
So what is the logic behind creatures knowing only little? I love Imam Zaid Shakir’s comment about Man made a conference (I’m paraphrasing) that Man does not have wings to fly, cannot breath underwater, walk on water, etc. but what Man can do is think: build a plane to fly, a submarine, a boat, a car, etc. Man’s mind is far more superior than all the other creatures. That reason, that light, that gift of thought is what God has blown into us when He created Adam (as). We are actually privileged beings compared to the other creatures.
So what is the goal of creating a creature superior to the rest?
Allah says in surat Ad-Dhariyat (The Winnowing Winds)
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ
“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” (Quran, 51:56)
All the damage that we have in this world is due to the fact that people forget what their sole purpose is. People concentrate on money and fame, making it their god, “the false gods” as the Quran puts it. Why do we commit these crimes? Because our conscience is wired differently, it is functioning for something else than its initial cause.
لَهُمْ قُلُوبٌ لاَّ يَفْقَهُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ أَعْيُنٌ لاَّ يُبْصِرُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ آذَانٌ لاَّ يَسْمَعُونَ بِهَا أُوْلَئِكَ كَالأَنْعَامِ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَلُّ أُوْلَئِكَ هُمُ الْغَافِلُونَ
“They have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. Those are like cattle; rather, they are more astray. It is they who are the heedless.” (Quran, 7:179)
I believe -and God knows best- that to worship Allah entails contemplating His creations, meditating, reflecting upon them. Observing the world and linking it to the Creator. Sometimes it takes somebody’s help to remind you of that, to make you look differently at the world around you. Wasn’t the Prophet (peace be upon him) a reminder? Such people are still alive today, we have shuyukh, da’iyahs, teachers that spend their whole lives passing this knowledge and reminding people.
But here’s the deal: “Our culture’s dominant way of thinking are taught to us not in our places of worship but in our media and educational institutions” (Vision of Islam, Chittick & Murata)
Why can’t we use Art, these “media institutions” as a bridge between our sacred knowledge and us?
An artist has a talent to look at things from a different perpective, he/she could express hidden emotions, an idea through a tangible work that people could relate to. Once these emotions are out, there is room for more things to record and transform inside him/herself. Dadaist artist expressed the horrors of war through mind-boggling paintings. Georg Grosz and Otto Dix have fascinating images that are unforgettable. Jackson Pollock and his emotionally intensive paintings give us an idea of his psychological state and how Art helped him get it out of his chest.
Muslim artists should help find the beauty in this world. Because they have the opportunity to look around them, to breathe literally. (Something we forget to do these days unfortunately.) They look at things differently, they are a medium of expression that makes you think outside of a box.
“Look to no one but the Painter
who paints over sorrows with delights,
the One whose elixir of grace transforms
hard rock into agate and rubies”
(Divani Shamsi Tabrizi 2291, Rumi)
Overall, if Art is an image of us then Neo-Islamic Art would be the expression of our relation with the Divine. It would help us to start accepting Islam as part of our identity whether we are from Gambia, Malaysia, or even Ecuador. There are artists now applying this idea like:
Yusuf Misdaq Yoshi from Brighton, UK,
Nadia Janjua from Washington D.C.,USA,
Dalia Al Shimi from Cairo,Egypt,
Tarek Atrissi from Amsterdam, Holland
Art would be a tool to keep our head in the game, remind us of our purpose:
وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَنِي آدَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَى أَنفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتَ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُواْ بَلَى شَهِدْنَا أَن تَقُولُواْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَذَا غَافِلِينَ
“And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” (Quran, 7:172)
*Sketch by Nadia Janjua from the series “30 days of Autumn”, 2009, for more info please visit http://www.njartitecture.com