Islam and the Political Aesthetic

An illuminated page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written entirely in gold. (British Library)

NOTE Sept. 22: With today’s events in Pakistan (and attending, preventable deaths and violence), my predictions about the numbers involved in the protests worldwide appears to have been off, certainly in scale.  Nevertheless I still stand by my argument that those protesting are vastly outnumber by those standing to the side.

There was a brief moment, early in the crisis – immediately after the deaths of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya – when there was a strange and welcome alignment that we haven’t seen before.  The murderers aside, those protesting the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in an anti-Islamic video found themselves in accord with the U.S. government and several other reasonable observers – not to mention the actors fraudulently recruited to the production.  All agreed, in effect, that the video was a tawdry scrap of agitprop.  The producer, an Egyptian Christian, seemed so embarrassed by his feat that he wouldn’t appear in public.  As the journalist Ashraf Khalil observed, the deaths in Benghazi and elsewhere excepted, these videos were best mocked and then ignored.

But the demonstrations, predictably, grew and spread, and the predictably righteous reaction grew and spread in the West, and the ghost of Samuel Huntington rattled his chains.  I personally believe that the demonstrations across the Islamic world are less a spontaneous show of the easily aggressed feelings of Muslims than a deliberate mobilization by conservatives who seized on this video to maneuver against the democracy movements swelled during the Arab Spring and threatening their power.  (But that is for another post.)

I was alarmed by how stupidly and easily Western observers fell into their cliched, pat observations about Islam, casting the thousands (perhaps only hundreds) of demonstrators for the plural billion Muslims around the world who no doubt wondered (as I did) what to make of this spectacle.  While several anti-American demonstrations did take place, it is important to note that hundreds of millions of Muslims did not participate.  They were probably angered and riled by this transparently deliberate attempt to insult them – you would be angry, too, if somebody told you to obscenity your mother – but they probably dismissed it out of hand. They have more important things to worry about.

This didn’t keep self-important and in many cases self-appointed Western observers from telling those quiescent masses of Muslims what to think and believe about the insults rained down on them from YouTube and Charlie HebdoThey should get over it, become accustomed to their religious beliefs being mocked and denigrated.  As if you went to see The Last Temptation of Christ to spite your grandmother, or told your LDS co-worker that you found The Book of Mormon a laugh riot, he should really go see it.

But at the heart of these condescending arguments are as much an assertion of the political aesthetic as those demonstrating in the streets: that art should have a political purpose.  So as long as those hurling rocks and those hurling polished epithets agree on that, let’s understand what we’re talking about.

It’s difficult to capture succinctly a thousand years of artistic philosophy, but it is certainly true that the tradition of Islamic art shies from the physical representation of the human form. This is not exclusive, of course, but toward one end of this spectrum, particularly in the Sunni tradition, depictions of the Prophet are virtually unknown. (This should not shock anyone familiar with the iconoclasts or, for that matter, the severe Western anti-clerical movement that simply defaced churches across the West — resulting in such austere secular monuments as the French Pantheon.)  Nonetheless, Shiites are known to depict their saints in icons, particularly during the ashura, that would be familiar to Christians and Buddhists.  But overall the Islamic tradition discourages human or natural forms, leaving the Creation to God.  This seems a constraint, of course, but perhaps no more so than any canvas. Limitations define greatness.

This tradition encourages, at the other end of the spectrum, an extraordinary devotion to geometry in design and architecture.  Seen in illuminated manuscripts of the Qur’an (see above) and the ornamentation from mosques to homes, complex patterns and designs adorn. In their beauty and order they mirror Creation, reminding me of the Qur’anic Surah Al Rahman (“the Gracious,” 55):

The sun and the moon follow courses computed;
And the herbs and the trees both bow in adoration.
And the sky has he raised high, and he has set up the balance,
In order that you may not transgress the balance.

Cairo lattice window,
from an 1882 lithograph

This is perhaps most often seen across the Islamic world in the well-known lattices that serve both as shades in a sun-soaked climate and barriers from the prying eyes of neighbors to protect the modesty of women within.

Alicatado tiles, Spain (Tennessee Tech)

The intricate patterns of the latticework have been replicated in ceramic tile work, particularly in mosques and madrassas. The Blue Mosque in Herat, Afghanistan, stuns the viewer with its lapis tile work, overpowering the mosque that shares its name in Istanbul.  Tilework migrated from the Mahgreb north into Spain after the Moorish conquest, and now is popularly known in the West as Spanish mosaic tiles.

La Mezquita de Cordoba (M.C. Escher)

While living in Europe I was delighted to learn about the influence of Islamic design on Western art.  One of my favorite artists, the Dutch graphic designer M.C. Escher, was most influenced after a visit to la Mezquita at Cordoba in Spain (now a cathedral and World Heritage site).  The fantastic perspective of the mosque’s interior and the intricate, tessellated tile mosaics forever influenced his most famous and familiar works.

Consider these two comparisons as just an example (the links above will provide many more).  The one the left is from la Mezquita. The right, Escher’s inspiration.  (With all due credit to Philosufi and Fatih Gelgi for elaborating on what I learned while visiting the Escher Museum in The Hague!)

Wikipedia article on Alhambra

Tecpatl ceramics, Mexico (Tennessee Tech)

I visited Gibraltar, Seville, Sintra (Portugal), and Toledo where the Islamic influence remains despite the worst efforts of the Inquisition.  Ceramic tiles with their repeating patterns are still made in Seville.  From there, the Spanish colonial influence, affected profoundly by the Islamic conquest, lives on 1,000 years later from my native California to South America.

Sagrada Familia (The Joy of Shards)

And back again.  You can see this most explicitly in the meticulous exploded-mosaic style of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, which hosts most of his design and architecture.  His masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia, still under construction a century after it began, whose details are covered with fragments of brightly colored Spanish tiles intricately reassembled.  Gaudi was fanatically dedicated to his work but also profoundly religious and dedicated all his talents and devotions to this modernist cathedral.

So let’s make this abundantly clear: the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 8th Century directly influenced the quintessential modernist expression of 21st Century Catholic Europe.  We can’t rewrite history, but it’s hard to imagine this happening in quite the same, sublime way if the Islamic artistic tradition followed Western conventions of human and natural representation.  The Western artistic tradition we know today wouldn’t exist without the deep religious restraints of the Islamic tradition.  And since we are People of the Book, this is something to celebrate.  But Samuel Huntington would have us throwing rocks with those demonstrating in the streets, insisting that the gulf between our cultures is too wide and ne’er the twain shall meet.

What relevance does this have beyond the debased little video and the assaults that killed four Americans and others?  Only that those events sparked an argument about art and politics — although those engaged in the argument are too dimly self-important to realize it — and in that argument nobody so far has talked much about the Islamic artistic tradition, which is profoundly devotional and influential. Those who critique the “Muslim” reaction are very willing to accept the insult without sharing any reverence.  We live in a believing world.  To ignore that demonstrates a profound disrespect and ignorance that is, at the very least, the tinder which the radicals are working desperately hard to spark.

I believe that we could all look at the examples of the art posted above — or by perusing the links — and agree, too, that these objects are very beautiful and that beauty forms the basis of human expression.  (Perhaps we might even confuse some of their provenance?)  That, for others, God is written on the walls, provides a deeper understanding.  But there is nothing political about either of those expressions or experiences.


About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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