The approach to Art all Muslim artists should know

BismiLlah al-Rahman al-Rahim,

It all started out with an e-mail. A fresh Fine Arts graduate asking for some basic pointers on how to lead her art into a more Islamic style, how to make the form fully express its Islamically inspired content. It seems simple right? Just copy old Islamic art with its patterns, take some arabic calligraphy classes and you’re set, right?
But that’s the answer I got:

As much as I would very much like to help you to find the right track to fulfill your aspirations it is quite strenuous for me to address too many issues with a clear map highlighting their inter-connectiveness. I think the best way is that, on my next visit to Egypt, I will try to let you know in advance and we can attempt to arrange for a suitable meeting to discuss these various aspects directly.

A few months later, I get a call and before you know it I am sitting on a couch, hearing things that I’d never thought I would.

Dr. Ahmed Moustafa is a giant in modern Islamic art. A pioneer.
After obtaining the highest degrees in the Fine Arts faculty in Alexandria and a MA, the country gave him a scholarship for a PhD in London. Since he trained in the “Neo-classical European” style, the professors weren’t really impressed with his work. They weren’t denying that it was very strong anatomically and composition-wise, but what was he trying to say? They’ve seen this style millions of times, they started it, they owned it, it’s their culture. So where is his?
“It was like I was offering them left-over food, or like I had cooked a typically English meal for them.” Dr. Ahmed says today, recalling his early years.
They kept on asking him what was his culture? what did it express? He was dumbfounded. He could recite all the big names of European art from the Renaissance til Modern times but he was unable to artistically express anything from his homeland, identity, religion. “All that I knew about Islam was the basics and that my name was Ahmed. It was like my whole identity was in a box and I never bothered to open it. I remember praying to God and asking him: ‘Please God make my talent subservient to You…'”
After finishing his studies, Dr. Ahmed had a few days left in London before his papers were ready for him to travel back home. He went to the library and came  across an article by Nabia Abbott debating with Eric Schroeder Ibn Muqla’s contribution to Arabic script (click here to read it). He was impressed that Western academics were discussing Arabic scholars, calligraphers, that he had not a single idea about. He asked the Library assistant if they had any books about Ibn Muqla. “Unfortunately not, but you’re in luck because Ms Nicolette Gray is here, you could ask her” Nicolette Gray the expert in Roman lettering.
He took the article to her, she was really interested but unfortunately could not help him solve the issue discussed in the paper. “Let me ask Basil and get back to you.” That’s Basil Gray the famous specialist in Islamic miniatures and also Ms Nicolette’s husband.
“Ibn Muqla’s been bothering scholars for 250 years with his script. It remains unresolved. Are you interested in researching it?” said Mr. Basil. Egypt is breathing down my neck, they’ll cut off my salary if I don’t come back, Dr. Ahmed would say. “That’s not the problem here. The issue is if you would like to do it or not. The rest can fixed easily.” Ms Nicolette would finally assure him.
And so  began Dr. Ahmed adventures in Arabic script. Leading him to Morocco, Turkey, and years and years of research, he finally submitted his PhD at Central St Martins College of Arts under the title: ” The Scientific Foundation of Arabic Lettershapes according to the theory of “The Proportioned Script” by Ibn Muqla (272-328AH/886-940AD)”.
It was a breakthrough.

Ibn Muqla is so important in Arabic calligraphy because he put down the theory of cursive writing. He was the reason behind the change of Kufi script to Cursive (thuluth, muhaqaq, toumar). Dr. Ahmed says that most Arabic calligraphers don’t know what these terms stand for. And he even states that there was a hierarchy in Arabic calligraphy:
The Geometrician: the one who sets the rules of calligraphy
The Investigator: the one who verifies that the rules are followed
The Teacher
The Calligrapher

Change happened because Kufi script is linear and dry and there’s consistency in its thickness. And as they say : “الرطوبة علامة الحياة ” which literally means that moisture is a sign of life.
The first one to put Ibn Muqla’s theory into practice, his first indirect disciple was Muhammad Ibn al-Bawab. He implemented all his instructions.

There’s a golden rule that says that every work of art is a success if there’s a perfect equilibrium between content and form. When these both are totally compatible, then the work is perfect.
Content in Islam is from the Almighty  Himself which is the Qur’an. What form will be of the same stature?
This content is perfect. What form could possibly equal it?
The answer is from the Almighty Himself. It appeared in the 3rd century Hijra/10th A.D. in “The Theory of Proportioned Script” by Ibn Muqla  ” نظرية الخط المنسوب لإبن مقلة “.

Which brings us to answer the famous question: why did Islam prohibit drawing figures?
Islam did not prohibit it. It was a simple conclusion based on what God Almighty says:

وَلاَ تَقْفُ مَا لَيْسَ لَكَ بِهِ عِلْمٌ
And do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge
(Surat al-Israa, verse 36, {17:36})

If you haven’t seen the Archangel Gabriel (AS), why bother yourself trying to draw him (AS) ? You’ll never get it right.
But if you wish to show me how to mount a horse, please draw it for me. And draw it beautifully.

Syriac, Aramaic, and Hebrew are old dialects of Arabic. But they only have 22 letters. Arabic has 28. Just like the phases of the Moon. You might say but the lunar month can have 29 days, we would say and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) ordered us to count لا as a separate letter. Thus 29 letters.
And Dr. Ahmed went on and on about geometrical rules, sevens, golden section.

All and all, he emphasizes on the beautiful posture in space, in other words حسن الوضع .
Because we must remember that Ihsan is superior to Jamal. Jamil is beauty on the sensual side, and Ihsan it’s beauty at its core. Allah doesn’t associate “Jamil” to Himself in the 99 Names. Of course He is Jamil in everything sensual. But sensual is only the outer layer. Once you see the core, the outer becomes insignificant.
So one must rethink about the words we use to describe God Almighty.

 أَنِ اعْمَلْ سَابِغَاتٍ وَقَدِّرْ فِي السَّرْدِ وَاعْمَلُوا صَالِحًا إِنِّي بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ
[Commanding him], “Make full coats of mail and calculate [precisely] the links, and work [all of you] righteousness. Indeed I, of what you do, am Seeing.”
(Surat Saba’, verse 11, {34:11})

So our work of Art must be done with Ihsan and we will be rewarded with good deeds. Aesthetics and ethics are two sides of a different coin, you cannot have one without the other.

For more info about Dr. Ahmed Moustafa: 


~ by youngmuslimworld on September 27, 2011.

4 Responses to “The approach to Art all Muslim artists should know”

  1. All of a sudden, I am left asking myself, “Do I really know Who I am seeking?”. I know I have to go back and reread this twice, thrice and let these teachings manifest themselves in my photos… and ask as Dr. Ahmed Moustafa asked, “Please God make my talent subservient to You…” Not that I am claiming to have any artistic talent that even approaches his, but you know what I mean. I will say this though: When you wander the courtyard of Alhambra or gaze upon the ceiling of Sultanahmet Cami, you FEEL that there is a deep, deep tradition of perfection in this faith. Coining this quest for Perfection with Ihsan says it all. Perhaps its safe to say, only then can you reach true Realiazation. True Beauty.

    • Exactly my point! It does take a while for us to adapt to this new perspective on Art. And I had that same feeling of awe and amazement at the Alhambra…
      May we all reach True Beauty, Meziana, Ihsan in our work, lives, etc.

  2. I really appreciate your article. Thank you. I don’t usually leave comments, but I wanted to say that Syriac, Aramaic, and Hebrew are not old dialects of Arabic. They are all related languages. Please see which shows the relation between them.

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