We humans have always tried in various ways to express ourselves. Where this burning desire emanates from is for historians and other such experts to discuss, but there is no doubt that the desire was there from the start, and it is still with us. The best way that mankind has found to pour forth this need for expression is through the myriad forms of art that we see all around us. The oldest art form is considered to be cave paintings, also known as parietal art, and currently the oldest known cave paintings are over a staggering 64,000 years old.
Let us move on from rudimentary paintings on cave walls to arguably the most famous artist of all time, Leonardo Da Vinci. Amongst his most well-known works of art are the elusive and priceless Mona Lisa, Vitruvian Man, the Last Supper, Lady with an Ermine, and his self-portrait in red chalk. Another famous painting by Da Vinci recently made global headlines. Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Saviour of the World”) is a painting of Jesus Christ that Da Vinci made around 1500. Some 517 years later it was sold at auction by Christie’s in New York for $450.3 million to become the most expensive piece of art in the world.
Officially the painting was sold to Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Farhan on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism on the 15th of November 2017. Unofficially it was bought by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman. The Saudi leadership bought the artwork as a gift for the Abu Dhabi government, a close regional partner. The reason for this purchase being so hush-hush is that news of the prince’s acquisition damages his claim that he will impose more transparency on the money accumulated by various members of the sprawling Saudi royal family. The most expensive painting in the world is to be put on display at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Yes, the Louvre in Paris, the world’s best known museum which houses the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, has for the first time in its long and distinguished history decided to open another branch, way out in the deserts of the predominantly Muslim Arabian peninsula.
Why would a Muslim pay such an extortionate amount for a painting of the Christian Jesus, painted by the founding father of the High Renaissance? Are we Muslims not meant to have a reputation for being totally artless, especially when compared to the visual veneration Christianity has of Jesus? Some may argue that this reputation, to be fair, is somewhat self-inflicted since Muslims generally do not promote images of God or any of His prophets, especially the prophet Muhammad. Many a Muslim scholar would argue back that we do not need visual imagery to heighten our spirituality as the words of the Qur’an are more than enough. However, one can easily argue that this artless reputation has no basis in reality.
Art is the most vivid expression of our human existence. It can represent an individual, a community, a nation, a race, a gender, even an entire faith. Since art expresses the beauty of the human experience, Islamic art expresses the beauty of the spiritual experience. I know of many Muslim households that have framed artwork hanging on their walls, usually in the form of Arabic calligraphy. Muslims, like many others, artistically express themselves in many different ways, be it through our food, our homes, our cars, our clothes, our writing, our language. So for us art, and certainly the concept of art, is a big part of our daily lives, whether we realise it or not. Not bad for a group of people who are stereotyped as being bland and uncreative. In fact, just do a quick Google search on “Islamic art” to see the wealth of artistic experience that exists in the Muslim world.
Art still continues to define and shape who we are today. It also helps us to better understand who we were. Take the recent case of a 3000-year-old sculpture of the head of a king that was found in Israel. Archaeologists are currently baffled as to who the head represents, and why a piece of figurative art from the iron age is of such unusually high quality.
The power of art is also recognised by groups such as ISIS who appear to be against the open display of art. Publicly, for the cameras, they will destroy a few statues and other works of antiquity that are centuries old. Privately, they are more than happy to hypocritically benefit from the selling of many other pieces on the artistic black market. The Nazis also understood the importance of art (Hitler was himself a failed art student), but albeit in a different way, which is why they tried to hide and preserve tens of thousands of works of art they looted from museums and wealthy families all across Europe. For more on this please see the excellent 2014 George Clooney movie The Monuments Men, well worth a watch.
One person who definitely sees the power of art in Islamic culture is the British artist Zarah Hussain:
Islamic art is often vibrant and distinctive…Art is the mirror of a culture and its world view. The art of the Islamic world reflects its cultural values, and reveals the way Muslims view the spiritual realm and the universe. For the Muslim, reality begins with and centers on Allah. Allah is at the heart of worship and aspirations for Muslims, and is the focus of their lives. So Islamic art focuses on the spiritual representation of objects and beings, and not their physical qualities. The Muslim artist does not attempt to replicate nature as it is, but tries to convey what it represents. This lets the artist, and those who experience the art, get closer to Allah. – Zarah Hussain, from a 2009 BBC News article on Islamic art
Another person who sees Islam as being anything but artless is Mary Beard. Beard is many things: a historian, a classicist, a Cambridge don, a public intellectual, a professor, and an author. She is also a famous TV historian. There are many such famous TV historians who are ever-present upon our television screens, such as David Starkey, Lucy Worsley, Bettany Hughes, Michael Woods, Waldemar Januzczak, AJP Taylor, Neil Oliver, and Kenneth Clark, to name but a few. Beard is another famous name that can be added to that list. Recently Beard was seen as one of the presenters in the epic BBC 9-part documentary series called Civilisations.
The title of the documentary series is a reference to a previous BBC TV 13-part documentary series called Civilisation, which was written and presented by Kenneth Clark almost fifty years ago. That landmark program offered one man’s personal view of western European civilisation, from the end of the Dark Ages onwards. It was partly conceived by David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two, to demonstrate the potential of colour television.
This new series (not only in colour but now also in high definition!) ranges more widely, featuring African, Asian, American as well as European cultures to explore how human creativity began and developed, how civilisations around the world influenced one another, and how artists have depicted the human form and the natural world. It spans 31 countries on six continents, covering more than 500 works of art. Alongside Beard are fellow presenters Simon Schama and David Olusoga, and they all explore humanity’s desire to create and express.
Episode 4 of the series is titled The Eye Of Faith and was first aired in March 2018. It featured Beard on her own travelling extensively all over the world and some of her visits included: sixth-century mosaics at Ravenna, which the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his consort Theodora commissioned to demonstrate the divinity of Christ; the Angkor Wat Hindu temple complex in Cambodia; a statue of the Virgin Mary in Seville, Spain, known as La Macarena; the painting known as the Tintoretto Crucifixion in Venice, Italy; the Buddhist caves of Ajanta, India, whose celebrated Buddhist murals were executed over 700 years starting in the 2nd century BC; the Anglican Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, an architectural masterpiece in the English fenlands; the 500 year old Kennicott Bible in Oxford, England; and the Quwwat Al-Islam mosque in Delhi, India.
It is clear from this episode that Beard has a unique way of looking at art. She depicts humans and gods in an erudite yet light-touch way. Beard understands that great art makes emotional demands that we may not make of ourselves otherwise. The visionary imagery we see before us can be quite soul-stirring, but only if we understand it well enough, and only if we allow it to be.
There is also a corresponding book, How Do We Look/Eye Of Faith, to the two episodes in the series that are written and presented by Beard. How Do We Look focuses on how humanity has artistically represented the human body, and Eye Of Faith focuses on how human beings have artistically depicted God or gods. In this book Beard implies that informing her travels throughout is the question of “how people look at religious art — or what it is to look ‘religiously’ ” In a review of the book journalist Kathryn Hughes says that “Meaning is always an ongoing process for Beard, concerned not so much with making as making-over.”
The TV program proved so successful that in June 2018 it was announced in the Queen’s Honour List that the Queen was awarding Beard a dame hood. In typically down-to-earth fashion Beard described it as a “smashing honour” and attributed it to the growing interest in her field of work. At the start of the Eye Of Faith episode Beard describes her intellectual quest as follows:
For millennia, art has been used to bring the human and divine together. And it’s given us some of the most majestic and affecting visual images ever made. I want to explore what really lies behind these extraordinary creations and reveal the kind of religious work that art does all around the world. But, for me, the story of religious art is about more than this. It’s about controversy and conflict, danger and risk. Whether it’s Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Jewish, I want to expose the dilemmas that all religions face when they try to make gods visible in the human world. When does the worship of an image turn into dangerous idolatry? Where does divine glorification end and worldly vanity begin? What actually counts as an image of God or of God’s word? – Professor Mary Beard
She goes on to explain the widespread prevalence that such art has:
Religious art gets everywhere. You don’t only find it in churches, temples and galleries. Religion has always brought out the artfulness in people, on the body, in the home, and on the street. – Professor Mary Beard
She ends the episode at the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, a building that has been in turn a pagan temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. Now it is a monument to Western civilisation itself and a pilgrimage site for tourists. She ends with the following quote about the modern religion of civilisation:
Only the bare bones of Ancient Greek or any other religion stand here today, but it’s become the focus of a worship of another kind. It’s easy to come to a place like the Acropolis and to assume that whatever religion there once was here has gone for good. But I think we should be a bit more careful. However secular they might be, when people here look at this monument, when they admire its art and engage with its mythology, many are reflecting on questions that religions have often helped us face. Where do I come from? Where do I belong? What’s my place in human history? I think people are engaged in a modern faith here, the one we call civilisation. It’s an idea that behaves very much like a religion. It offers grand narratives about our origins and our destiny, bringing people together in shared belief. And the Parthenon has become its icon. So if you ask me, “What is civilisation?” I say, “It’s little more than an act of faith.” – Professor Mary Beard
But it is her visits to the Sancaklar Mosque and the Blue Mosque, both in Turkey, that really caught my attention. Amongst the people she speaks to is the brilliant calligrapher Soraya Syed, who gives a deeper insight into the Arabic lettering that adorns almost every mosque around the world. In the aforementioned review Kathryn Hughes adds the following candid insight about Islamic art, the Blue mosque, and about Beard herself:
In the second part [of the book] a standout section sees Beard upending that stale old assumption about Islam being an artless religion. To prove her point she takes us into the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and points out that, while there may be no images of human or divine forms, joyous streams of holy writ dance along the ceramic walls and ceiling. So exquisite is this monumental calligraphy, with its repeating visual rhymes and rhythms, that at some point the script ceases to be text and becomes instead its own picture. This effect is even more striking given that the majority of visitors to the mosque will historically have had neither the laser-sharp vision nor the literacy in Arabic to make out the meaning of the words suspended hundreds of feet above their heads. What we are looking at on the walls of the Blue Mosque is nothing less than the divine in visual form. It is this ability to read closely in the interstices of culture that makes Beard such an invigorating guide. – Kathryn Hughes, 01 Mar 2018, theguardian.com
Presented below is a transcript of the 12 minute segment from the episode where Beard travels to these mosques in Turkey. I have tried to provide a link to a video, and I hope it still works. If not, then please try to view all 9 episodes (I am sure they are available somewhere online such as catch up TV) as the entire series is a magnificent eye opener on the vast world we all reside in. So if anyone, including yourself, thinks of Islam as joyless, soulless, uncreative, and artless, then I would strongly advise them to spend the next 12 minutes watching this. The video is a link to the entire episode, with the relevant clip in question beginning exactly at the 30 minute mark. Enjoy!
Out on the rural fringes of Istanbul is one of the most striking religious creations of modern times. It appeared on the landscape less than a decade ago and has drawn people in ever since. It’s the Sancaklar Mosque, the work of one of Turkey’s most visionary architects. This is one of the most startling mosques in the world. What the architects wanted to do is to harness the power of modernism, which is often thought of as a very secular movement, to express the very essence of religious space, stripped of all the non-essentials. And it’s certainly untraditional in all kinds of ways. But, in other ways, it’s exploiting the traditions of Islam very heavily. This inside space is meant to be reminiscent of the Cave of Hira, where the Prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Word of God that became the Koran. And, of course, it also evokes one of the classic stereotypes that many people now have of Islam, that it’s a religion that is in some way artless. That it prohibits not just the image of God and the Prophet, but the images of living creatures which only the Creator, God, is supposed to be able to create. In fact, the only man-made image is a wonderful piece of calligraphy which is a quote from the Koran. It’s as if what we’re expected to do when we come in here is to see, and go away with, the Word of God. Islam, as a faith of the word, is enshrined in the Koran itself. There are many famous sayings and stories that condemn idolatry and give warning about the dangers of images.
But in the ancient city of Istanbul itself, a very different picture of Islam fills our field of vision. Islam is absolutely not an artless religion. In the whole history of the faith, you cannot trace a single, uncontested line about images of living creatures or about the image of God. In the Middle Ages, the Islamic world held some of the most intricate debates on aesthetics, the nature of beauty, the optics of the human eye, and our sensory experience of the natural world. And there’s a kaleidoscope of stories and parables that are Islam’s conversation with itself about the role of the artist and the purpose of the image. And one of the most revealing takes us into the domestic life of the Prophet Muhammad himself.
One day, Muhammad came home to discover that his wife Aisha had acquired a tapestry with images of living creatures woven into the design. And she’d hung it up. Muhammad is furious, he won’t even go into the house because it’s the Creator God who’s supposed to create living creatures, not some tapestry artist. So, Aisha takes it down, but she doesn’t let it go to waste. She cuts it up and turns it into cushion covers, and that, apparently, creates no problem.
The story of Aisha’s cushion is a wonderful illustration of how Islamic attitudes can shift according to the role and the setting of the image. But there’s one kind of Islamic art whose role and function is much more significant than any other. As soon as Muhammad received the Word of God in the 7th century, calligraphy, or the art of beautiful writing, was taken to the very heart of Islamic identity.
Soraya Syed, calligrapher: “There is an obligation on the calligrapher to serve the community in which he or she is writing for. But calligraphers were highly esteemed. The pen is the potent symbol of knowledge.”
The art of calligraphy became the means by which the sacred word could be set down, spread, and remain uncorrupted for all time.
Soraya Syed, calligrapher: “From the very birth of Islam, the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad were by the pen. Therefore, it sanctified the use of the pen at the outset of Islam. And, ever since that point, artisans have been trying to beautify the divine word through that pen.”
Serdar Gulgun, art collector: “Of course, the text of the calligraphy is very impressive but, for me, what is more important is the visual of the calligraphy, the graphic, the balance and the rhythm of the calligraphy. To be a good calligrapher, you have to have years of work in you. Even on one single letter. It takes a complete life to come to that maturity to do a good calligraphy. So, you see all his life in a single stroke.”
With exquisite penmanship, Islam had an art form to set it apart from many other religions. And it was said that while the Koran was received in Mecca and spoken in Cairo, it was Istanbul that produced the finest calligraphers able to write it down.
This is the Blue Mosque. It was commissioned in the 17th century by Sultan Ahmed and, in its almost excessive size and splendour, it was designed to surpass all other mosques in the city. There are no idols or images of living creatures. Instead, the walls are alive with the most ornate patterns. Plants and flowers intertwine in the most vivid glaze of ceramic tiles. And, laced into the scheme, are some of the most extraordinary examples of monumental calligraphy in the Islamic world. It’s as if the Blue Mosque itself was conceived as a great library of Islamic script, and it’s here that we see calligraphy at its most powerful.
When you enter the building, above the door there’s a message telling you to expect something special, that you’re going through the Gates of Paradise. And that’s just one of a whole series of notices throughout the Mosque, often beautifully written snippets of the Koran which guide the thoughts of the faithful and interpret what you see. If you look up into the dome, you’re reminded that it’s Allah who supports the heavens and the world. And it was a message that basically says that you should take back there into the outside world the state of purity that you’ve reached through prayer. It’s as if there’s a written programme here, telling you how to experience the building and how to look at it.
But for those who worshipped and still worship here, there’s another way of reading this writing. Placed high above the prayer hall, the script becomes almost illegible. When it was first painted, many of the faithful would have been illiterate. And, even for those who could read, the clarity of the message is obscured in the rhythm and patterns of the text.
Soraya Syed, calligrapher: “This very magnificent, elaborate script is quite complex. It’s not always easy to read and I don’t think it was meant to be read. Because sometimes it’s there also as a form of blessing. And, just by looking at it, you can absorb some of that blessing.”
What we have to remember is that writing can work in other ways. Here, we are seeing God represented in visual form but not as human. Here, God is displayed as his word in the Koran. It’s God in the art of writing. Now, Islam is by no means the only religion to use writing as a way to negotiate the problem of how you represent the divine. The Christian gospels, for example, can claim that God is the word. But in Islam, more than anywhere else, we see the image becoming the word, and the word becoming the image. In the face of all the debates and prohibitions on images, Islamic calligraphy evolved to redefine what an image of God could be.