Words Amatulla Z.
Header Credits Fatema J. (@fatemajosh)
One of the great triumphs of Islamic civilization was to envelope its subjects in the beauty of Islamic art that attempted to go beyond the aesthetic into an experience of the divine. God is beauty, the Quran tells us, and so, the idea that when you sit in a beautiful masjid, or its courtyard garden, or are surrounded by the beauty of carpets, or mosaic, or the light shining in through an intricate window, you should feel the presence of God is the Islamic point to its ornamentation and design.
“Religion is both truth and presence,” says the Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. “Without presence the truth becomes abstract, it becomes unreal. Without the truth presence has no significance. Every religion must have both elements. Classical Islamic civilization and Islamic art presented the presence of the divine whereas metaphysics, theology, all the other sciences represented the truth in its abstract or cerebral sense. We see this in the two great central arts of Islam in architecture and calligraphy.”
Nasr goes on to explain how spirituality is tied to Islamic art, how the great empty space inside masjids reverberates with sound to remind one of the Divine Presence. As for calligraphy, the other great Islamic art – its straight lines, Nasr says, reflect the geometric elements in Islamic art that can repeat infinitely and remind us of the Divine. With lines, calligraphy also has curves; more representative of the floral elements reflecting nature and what is changing, transient, impermanent.
To me, this is concrete and jungle together, straight lines and curves, permanence and impermanence, walls and vines, but I thought I’d find some Muslim artists who make Islamic art today and ask if they see it in their work as well.
“Beauty walks the line between being measured and being free when you create art,” says Hawra Harianawala, a visual artist in Houston. “Creators in general are always dancing between the idea of freedom and restriction.” We were discussing calligraphy and she was referring to the rules that govern it as well as the freedom the artist still manages to find.
We turned to a discussion of one of her own paintings. It has a quote in it but Harianawala hid parts of the quote.
“There’s no good reason for why I do that but I enjoy not giving out the whole story,” she says. “Only I know what it means and unless the viewer comes and asks me they don’t know. Some people are curious and they ask about it; that’s fun for me. I don’t like pieces that are too obvious. They don’t pull people in or make them think.”
Fatema Josh was invited to exhibit her Islamic art at an exhibit that was part of the Islamic Arts Society Gala in Houston. I asked her if she could also see this duality. “What is concrete in art is what is established and traditional,” she said. Yet there is a jungle, the wilder side. Josh sees herself playing with this duality when she takes those concrete elements and combines them freely with modern elements.
The paintings that were exhibited at the gala were an example. They featured recognizable masjids: Al-Aqsa and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi. “When the viewer is seeing it they know exactly what it is but at the same time they find it really intriguing to connect with the way it’s executed,” she said. “I’ve not used just a traditional brush on it; I’ve used a palette knife on it; there’s layers and layers of paint. My vision is to bring the form together but not exactly representing that form. Looking at the piece the viewer has a happy and joyful experience; almost like a dream. My way of portraying Islamic art is trying to bring a concrete element with a more liberating twist to it.”
It takes me back to Nasr’s idea of truth and presence. You have to begin with the geometric elements that repeat forever, the infinite and eternal, the truth. After that, in this world, we are to a great extent, free.
Each artist works within the definitions of their own belief and their own meanings. But because these have to correspond with the deeper truths, the challenge for a Muslim artist is, perhaps, greater than it is for one who is not bound to express this.