The intellectual achievements alone, however great they may be, do not make a great civilization and culture. A wide intellectual curiosity, as displayed in the medieval Islamic civilizations, is undoubtedly one of the hallmarks of an accomplished culture. But intellect is only one aspect of culture. A civilization may be great in science and technology but still essentially barbaric. What brings true culture to a civilization are its aesthetic, ethical and spiritual faculties expressed through its art, literature and religion. In this article we will examine the aesthetic achievements of Islamic civilization, in art, architecture and literature.
Key perspectives: Islamic architecture; Islamic craft; spirit of Islamic art; Islamic literature.
The greatest achievements of Islamic art were in Architecture. The Islamic architecture was syncretic, a creative synthesis of the Persian, Byzantanian and Indian architectural motifs. The spectrum of Islamic architecture covers a wide range from the symbols of royal power like Qutub Minar, temples of austere devotion like the Great Mosques in various parts of the Islamic world, monuments of lyrical beauty and grace like Taj Mahal, majestic tombs like the tomb of Humayun and magnificent palaces of lavish and sensuous luxury in Turkey. One of the greatest among medieval architects, Sinan who was believed to have designed and built more than three dozen mosques and palaces lived in the Turkish Ottoman empire, in the reign of the Sulaiman, the “Magnificent”.
The other unique achievement of Islamic architecture is in ornamental architecture. The aesthetic mind of Islam loved surface ornament. In architecture, this led to “plane surfaces covered with tiles so that walls, vaults, domes and minarets glowed with blue, green and turquoise, rose and yellow. In no other style has applied colour become such an integral part of architecture”. [Encyclopedia Britannica] This brings us to a unique feature of Islamic architecture: a lavish and colourful sensuality, which is absent or less, pronounced in other architectural styles. In India, blending of the Indian and the Islamic motifs gave birth to the “Indo-sarcenic” style. TajMahal and Fathepur-sikri stand, among others, as two great monuments of the aesthetic genius of the Indo-sarcenic art.
Next to architecture, the other major artistic achievements of Islamic culture were in crafts, especially ornamental crafts. The Islamic craftsmen created marvels in almost every material, in metal, cloth, leather, ceramics, glass, wood, gold, silver—-metalworks, carpets, satins, brocades, tapestries, vessels, vases, boxes, jewellery, weapons. For example, the Islamic kingdom in Granada, Spain, was well known for its intricate metal works. Carpets were another specialties of Islamic craft. The famous Damascus sword, made of Indian steel was the combined result of ancient Indian steel technology and the metalworking art of Islamic craftsmen. Crafts industry was an important part of the medieval Islamic economy.
In paintings and sculpture, religious prohibition against depicting human forms perhaps prevented the creative flowering of these art forms. However mughal paintings in India attained a certain level of artistic excellence and gave birth to a new style or school of painting.
The Spirit of Islamic Art
This brings us to the question what is the essential temperament and idea behind Islamic art. We may perhaps answer this question better, if we look at Islamic art in a comparative perspective with the Greek, Gothic and Indian art. The main idea behind Greek art is a rational and aesthetic sublimation of physical form and at its highest aspiration, seeking to bring a divine power of beauty into physical form. The idea behind Indian art is to express the deeper spiritual truth and beauty behind the outer form. An Indian temple represents two great spiritual ideas of Indian religion: first is devotion to an indwelling divinity seated in the deepest core of the heart’s sanctuary¾the sanctuary of the Indian temple conveys this idea; second is the ascending aspiration towards an infinite and inexhaustible Oneness expressing itself through a multitude of names and forms, forces and being in the Universe. The ascending tower of the Temple and the crowded figures of divine and semi divine beiges, men and animals conveys this idea. The idea behind, the Christian or gothic architecture is confined to a single spiritual emotion or aspiration, that is heart’s devotion to a personal divine.
The temperament and idea behind the Islamic Art lies perhaps, somewhere between Indian and Greek aesthesis. The Islamic art expresses neither the spiritual beauty of Indian art nor is it the rational beauty of the physical form as in Greek. It expresses the religious and aesthetic intuition or aspiration of an intermediate or subliminal consciousness of deeper emotions, sensations and the vital force. Islamic mosques convey predominantly the sense of the submission of the vital force and will to a formless and impersonal Divine rather than the heart’s devotion to God as in gothic cathedral.
The idea of behind the recessed sanctuary of the Islamic mosques could be either the exoteric idea of the formless divine Creator, King or the father beyond all the inner and outer world, beyond the “seven heaven”, or the mystic idea of the inner depth. For example, the Great Mosque of Kalroum at Tunisia, with its narrowly and deeply recessed sanctuary culminating in a luminous core, conveys the sense of a mystic inner depth. The majestic Tombs of Islamic architecture conveys no sense of gloom or fear over death but the aspiration towards a joyous paradise. The emotional and sensuous element of Islamic art comes out strongly in the secular structures like Taj Mahal, which is a monument of Love and in the ornamentals. The following remarks by Sri Aurobindo on the Indo-sarcenic art applies perhaps to all Islamic art:
“Not rational but magical beauty satisfying and enchanting to some deeper quite suprarational aesthetic soul in us is the inexpressible charm of these creations—-The Taj is not merely a sensuous reminiscence of an imperial amour or a fairy enchantment hewn from the moon’s lucent quarries, but the eternal dream of love that survives death. The great mosques embody often a religious aspiration lifted to a noble austerity, which supports and is not lessened by the subordinated ornament and grace. The tombs reach beyond death to the beauty and joy of Paradise. The building of Fatehpur-Sikri——–give form to a nobility, power and beauty, which lay hold upon but do not wallow on the earth—-. The all-pervading spiritual obsession is not there, but other elements of life not ignored by Indian culture and gaining on it since the classical times are here brought-out under new influences and are still permeated with the radiant glow of a superior lusture.”
Next to Art, the other important part or expression of the aesthetic genius of a community is its literature. The literary achievement of Islam begins from its very origin and source: The Koran. Many scholars who studied Koran in its original Arabic script, both Muslims and non-muslims, consider the scripture of Islam as a literary masterpiece. The Koran was written or revealed in the form of poetic prose. Encyclopedia Britannica describes Koran as “highly intense—rhapsodic, much of it rhymed,—-at times fiery, powerful”. John Alder Williams, says on the Arabic language and the way in which it is used in Koran “Arabic when expertly used is a remarkably terse, rich and forceful language and the Arabic of the Koran is by turns striking, soaring, vivid, terrible, tender and breathtaking— It is meaningless to apply adjectives such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘persuasive’ to the Koran; its flashing images and inexorable measures go directly to the brain and intoxicates it.” Another western scholar of Islam, Professor Gibb remarks on the Arabic language and style used in Koran. “No man in fifteen hundred years has ever played on the deep-toned instrument with such power, boldness, and such range of emotional effect.” So, Koran is not only a religious scripture but also a masterpiece of literature.
Poetry is the main forte of Islamic literature. The Islamic mind loved poetry. Poetry was cultivated assiduously in the royal courts of Islamic kingdoms. When Islam entered Persia and the Islamic poetic mind blended with the Persian poetic genius and mysticism it gave birth to great mystic poetry of Sufism and some of the brightest stars in the firmament of mystic poetry like Julal-udin-rumi, Athar, Hafiz, Mansoor and Rabia. However, Islamic literature is not confined to mystic poetry of the Sufis. It covers a wide range from the exalted spiritual poetry of the Sufis; sensuous lyrics or mystic poetry couched in sensuous symbolism of Omar Khayam (“A jug of wine, a loaf of bread¾and thou”); historical epics and narratives like that of Firdousi’s Shah Nama; stories, folklore and fables like Arabian Nights; various kinds of romances like the mystical romanticism of the Sufis, epics like Laila-Majnu, manual of courtly love like The Rings of Dove of Ibn Hazan and also some ribald and frivolous verses of popular romance like “such was my kissing, such was my sucking of his mouth that he was almost made toothless.” This shows medieval Islamic culture was not boringly puritanical and suppressively monotones like some of the later talibanic cultures or most of the modern Islamic states. There was a great freedom and variety of creative self-expression.
Edward Mcnall Burns, Philip Lee Ralph, Robert E. Lerner, Standish Meachem, World Civilisations, Goya Soab, New Delhi.
Sri Aurobindo, Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry