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The divine word and Islamic art

Sep 9, 2011, 2:46 PM

The Word of Allah is the origin and principle of Islamic art par excellence. Just as the Word descends from the unseen and unmanifest order to the visible and material realm, so too does the art that is based upon it descend from the ‘formless’ sonoral level to the formal visual plane. And just as the Word, once having entered the formal plane of calligraphy, ‘develops’ horizontally by becoming ever more complex, similarly Islamic art unfolds is diverse possibilities through the course of history and in numerous Muslim cultures. By continuously reaffirming the presence of the One in the many and Unity in diversity, Islamic art, through its multifarious forms, allows for all Muslims to gain access to the spiritual journey back to the Origin form which the Divine Word issues.

In seeking to understand the relation between the Divine Word (kalimat Allah), which for Muslims is of course the revealed text of the Noble Quran, and Islamic art, it is important to turn our attention to an important reality which concerns the outward manifestation of the Islamic revelation. If one studies carefully the way in which Islam grew on the earthly plane, one becomes struck by the fact that the outward signs of the revelation, such as Quranic calligraphy, become more and more apparent in the plastic arts as one draws further away in time form the origin of the revelation. Today one often forgets that according to traditional Islamic sources, which are the only ones to matter for us, the Quranic revelation was first received aurally by the Blessed Prophet (s) and only later was it written down. Before the revelation become visible in the form of calligraphy, it was an invisible sonoral revelation. In entering this earthly abode, the Quranic revelation followed the metaphysically necessary trajectory form the Invisible (or absent) World (‘alam al-ghayb) to the Visible World (alam al-shahadah).

It is important to pause a moment and explain further the nature of a sonoral revelation because of its central importance for he understanding of the Islamic experience of the Divine Word and also for its consequence for Islamic art as a whole. Now, sound cannot be seen and therefore from the point of view of our natural external senses is associated with not only the invisible but also he immaterial, for in our natural experience of things we usually associated the material with the visible and palpable. Being immaterial, the sonoral refuses to become imprisoned in any earthly vessel. Sound in fact penetrates our body rather than being an object out there to be seen or felt. When we hear music or poetry, and, on the highest level, he Revealed Word, all of which are sonoral in nature, they break the barrier between us and the         world outside of us and enter into our corporeal reality. While objects of plastic art remain objective to us, the sonoral arts seem o become part of our subjective reality without course losing their objective

The Quranic revelation, once manifested in this world through the agency of the archangel Gabriel, first came as a sonoral revelation which penetrated into the inner being of the Prophet and only later was it written in the form of calligraphy as the Sacred Text.  

If for the moment we identify form with its corporeal aspect, we might say that the process of the manifestation of the Quran was form the formless to the world of form. The Noble Quran firs descended vertically from the World of Divine Command (‘alam al-amr) into the hear of the Prophet, or from the Formless in the metaphysical sense through a series of descents to the world of form, and then manifested itself horizontally from sound to writing, a process which traced on he horizontal plane the transition from the formless to the world of forms, according to established metaphysical principles. This transition from the formless to the world of form has also been interpreted by certain Muslim sages as the transition from colourless to colour, here colourlessness referring to the unconditioned and formless truth and colour to the truth conditioned by formal constraints. The famous Sufi poet Jala al-Din Rumi, for example, speaks of the link that relates colourlessness to colour when he compares colour to a cloud as colourlessness to the moon covered temporarily by that cloud.

The flowering of Islamic art itself follows this process and exemplifies this principle. First of all, the sacred art of Quranic psalmody precedes in time the sacred art of Quranic calligraphy, which itself unfolds from the original Kufic into many other distinct forms and styles. Secondly, when one studies Islamic architecture, one sees that in the earliest mosques, the Divine Word is hardly depicted anywhere while the walls are completely white, a colour that in the domain of colours symbolizes the colourless. In these early mosques one experiences the ubiquitous presence of the Divine Word without its becoming identified with a particular and distinct colour. Gradually, calligraphy, and also in many cases colour, makes their appearance in the mihrab, which is like the heart of the sacred space of the mosque and into which the Divine Word is uttered during the canonical players, symbolizing the process whereby the Quran descended into the heart and the mind of the Blessed Prophet. And in the same way that from the heart and tough of the Prophet the Quran spread to those around hi as sonoral revelation, then was written forms, the calligraphic forms and colours spread the mihrab to the rest of he mosque, both inside and outside, and then to the rest of the urban setting and objects made by artisans. Gradually, hey became an abiding reality of the whole of life of traditional Muslims, surrounding them everywhere.

The depiction of the Word of God in the form of beautiful calligraphy at a later stage of Islamic history is therefore in accordance with the metaphysical laws of manifestation which require the process of externalization to processed form the invisible to the visible, form the formless to the formed and in this case form the audible to the visible and, on another plane, form the clolourless, symbolized by white, to colours. Islamic art displays ever-greater use of the depiction of the Word of God in the form of Quranic calligraphy as one draws further away from the source of the revelation. This should be more easily understood in light of the afore-mentioned principles and also the principle that manifestation involves a movement from unity to diversity and complexity with continuous reassertions of unity as long as a spiritual tradition is live.

There is, however, another principle that is also at play here. The less one knows, the more one is in need of explanation and, also, the less aware one becomes of the presence of the Sacred, the more one is in need of external reminder of that presence. One can see this principle in action in many different religious climates. As for Islam, since its whole history lies before us, it is easy to observe how the living traditional community responds to this greater need for palpable reminders as the centuries go by. Gradually the use of Quranic calligraphy, usually combined with symbolic geometric patterns which are also reminders of presence of the One in the many, becomes ever more common until it becomes an ever present reality remaindering Muslims wherever they go in the city and also wherever they are within their private living spaces of the reality of God and His Word. We can see this process in going from the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

To be continued