Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art; Islam

Yes, that's right, Islam.

The 2 great rival imperial religions have long influenced each other, even though they would both now prefer to forget that history as they beat the 12th century war drums once again.

The universe of Islam is as wide, varied, and conflicted as the universe of Christianity. There is the famous divide over the Caliphate succession that gave us the apocalyptic and messianic version of Islam known as Shia, and the legalistic more straightforward version known as Sunni. We say rather patronizingly that Islam never went through anything like the Reformation or the Enlightenment, while forgetting that Islam had universalist movements (like Sufism) that not only tolerated, but accepted other religions while we Christians were still roasting heretics; and long before anyone ever thought of the word "liberal." The most famous (in the West) of such Muslim universalists was the founder of the Dervishes, the poet Rumi.
Islam, like Christianity, has its fundamentalist movements. They started at about the same time, and for the same reasons, as Christian fundamentalism. The puritanical Wahabism that dominates Saudi Arabia was a reaction against both modernity and Sufism from the 19th century. The extremist Deobandi school that forms the center of Taliban beliefs began in 19th century India; a reaction against both modernity and forms of Islam that would accommodate it. Sayed al Qutb, the spiritual father of Al Qaida, wrote his major works in the 1940s and 50s. Muslim fundamentalism, like Christian fundamentalism, is a modern phenomenon. As Christian fundamentalism is largely hostile to Christian art and architecture, so Muslim fundamentalists would regard the works discussed below with scorn and derision.

It was through Islam that the works of the great Greek scientists returned to the West. It was Islam that introduced to the West once again the works of Aristotle, and his project to apply rational thought to understanding the phenomena of the world (there was an Islamic school of Aristotelean reasoning called Falsafa). Islam made its own unique and indispensable contributions to mathematics and optics. Algebra is an Arab invention known in Arabic as Al Jabr. It is no accident that we call our numerals "Arabic" because they are; they replaced the unwieldy Roman numeral system. It was an 11th century scientist from Basra named Abu Ali Hasan (known in the West as Alhazen) who laid the foundations of modern optical science (the Italian Renaissance architect and inventor of linear perspective Filippo Brunelleschi owned a Latin translation of Alhazen's book on optics). Without Muhammad Ibn Sinna, (known as Avicenna in the West) there may not have been an Aquinas.

So many of the architectural elements that we assume to be intrinsic to the Gothic style (always associated with churches) were Muslim creations; the pointed arch, the buttress, the ribbed vault, even stained glass. It was Islam that would carry the old Roman architectural vocabulary of arches and vaults (as understood by the Byzantines) into the far east, into India and to the frontiers of China.

Whereas Christianity began in 3 centuries of persecution, Islam began in success. By the time of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Islam controlled all of the Arabian peninsula. Within a century of his death, it would rule an empire that stretched from Spain to India.

The earliest surviving Muslim monument, built within 60 years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad, is already a masterpiece (something that cannot be said for the earliest Christian art which doesn't appear until more than 2 centuries after the life of Christ). It is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.


The Wailing Wall with the Dome of the Rock


The Dome of the Rock with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the background.



The Dome was built in the middle of the most fought over ground on earth, The Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews and Christians; or the Haram al Sharif, The Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims. The Caliph Abd al Malik initiated construction of the Dome in 687 over what the Jews called "The Foundation Stone" that they believed to be the site of the sanctuary of their last temple. The Rock is sacred to all three of the major Western religions as the site of Abraham's sacrifice of his son (Isaac to Jews and Christians, Ishmael to Muslims).
The Caliph intended the Dome to send a message to the Jewish and Christian residents of Jerusalem proclaiming the superiority of Islam and its continuity with the 2 earlier religions. The Jewish patriarchs and prophets are considered prophets by Islam. Muslims believe that Jesus was born of a Virgin and that he rose alive into Heaven. They believe he is a prophet second only to Muhammad, but not the Son of God. The Dome announces that Islam is the fulfillment of the previous religions and that Muhammad's revelation is the last and supersedes the previous revelations.


The Dome is a type of Early Christian structure adapted to the purposes of a new religion. The Dome may well have been built by Christian craftsmen, either recent converts, or hired locally or from Syria. It is an expanded version of the round martyrium church with its ambulatories around a martyr's tomb. The Dome even recalls the octagonal baptisteries of late Roman Italy. Like many early Christian churches, the Dome makes use of columns recycled from earlier Roman buildings.
The Dome may well be a variation of the domed Anastasis built by Emperor Constantine over the Tomb of Christ as part of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The dimensions of the Dome of the Rock and the 20th century dome of the present Church are similar.


The dome proper is made of wood and plaster and was rebuilt a few times after earthquake damage. The magnificent mosaic in the dome dates from 1448 and was the gift of the Ottoman Sultan Mohammed II, the same one who conquered Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire.


The mosaics around the clerestory of the dome are the 7th century originals. They are almost certainly the work of Byzantine craftsmen.
The one thing that is conspicuously absent from these mosaics and from the later mosaics in the dome is figurative imagery, no saints and angels, no people at all. The ornament that was off to the sides in Byzantine mosaics is now the main event.

The Quran says nothing about art or figurative imagery, but the Prophet said a lot, and felt very strongly about it. According to the Prophet's collected quotations (the Haditha), Muhammad said that on the Day of Judgment, the artist who fashions a human image will be commanded by God to make the image speak. Of course, the artist will fail this test, and it's off to perdition. Muhammad believed that such art was a presumption and an insult to God the Creator. This Muslim hostility to imagery (and the success of Islam) will provoke a major crisis over imagery in the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire, the Iconoclastic Controversy. More about that later.

There is almost no monumental painting or sculpture in the Muslim world. What in the West are regarded as crafts are major art forms in Islam, most notably calligraphy. Writing came late to the oral culture of the early Arabic world, and had a religious esteem that writing seldom had in the West. Some Muslim mystical traditions say that the first thing that God created was the pen so that He could write down all that was to come. Muslims regard the Quran as a book authored by God Himself. Some regard it as so holy that it is "uncreated," with God from the beginning of time and ever open before His throne. The calligrapher making a copy of the Quran had a huge burden of responsibility. The layout of the page and the letter forms must not only be clear and legible, but must carry something of the awe, mystery, and power of the Author of the words on the page. Above is a magnificent page from a 9th century Quran written in gilded letters on parchment dyed ultramarine blue. The page above has a rhythm, cadence, and structure that the best 20th century abstract artists (like Mondrian) would envy.


Quran from Cairo, 1376, opening pages

We forget in this age of mass market publishing what labor and expense was involved in the making of a book before the introduction of paper and the invention of the printing press. The parchment pages of these Qurans are made from sheepskin. Vellum parchment is made from lambskin. One large complete Quran made in the 9th century for the Great Mosque in Damascus cost the lives of an estimated 300 sheep. Not only were calligraphers involved, but gilders, painters, and book-binders. Sometimes there was as much time, labor, and expense in making an important book as in constructing a building.

Textiles, including carpets, were also a major art form. The desert country that makes up much of the Islamic heartland is largely colorless and monotonous. Where ever the traveler spread a carpet, there was a little reminder of paradise. Since the line between what is sacred and secular was never a hard one in Islam, the colorful pattern of the carpet refreshed the eye, gladdened the heart, and instructed. Paradise, whether the paradise gardens in literary romances or the Paradise of Allah, was always thought of as a well watered abundant garden; a natural metaphor for a desert dwelling people. The garden of paradise is full of flowers and fruit, and above all is colorful. We can see that sample of a colorful flowery paradise in the 15th century carpet from Egypt above.
The carpet shows not a literal image of a garden, but a pattern based on floral motifs and geometry. Islam preserved the ancient Greek idea that the world is ordered according to mathematics; an idea that goes back to Pythagoras. They expanded upon the Platonic and Pythagorean idea that God thinks in numbers and geometry, and that He so ordered the world at the Creation.

A lot of Islamic pattern is radiant pattern, like what appears in the carpet above. The pattern begins with a central point and becomes progressively more complex as it moves outward from the center. Islamic pattern contains infinitely multiplied geometric motifs, and infinitely divided ones. And no matter how complex the pattern gets, it all remains tied logically and structurally to a central point; a metaphor for God's oneness and infinite potential.





Above is tilework pattern and a dome from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain; the last great Islamic palace and the best preserved. Islam carried the anti-optical symbolic form pioneered in early Byzantine art (perhaps by Arian artists) all the way to abstraction. The forms above refer to nothing in nature. They are purely mathematical. God and His Creation are orderly, harmonious, measured, abundant, and ethical. These patterns would find their way into the Medieval West in manuscript ornament, in the patterns of traceries of Gothic rose windows, and even into the floor plans of entire cathedrals.

The mosque, like the synagogue and the church, is a place of congregational worship. Unlike the church, there are no sacraments, no sacred mysteries that take place in the mosque. There is no Muslim equivalent of the Jewish seder or the Christian Mass. There is no altar. Indeed, there is no compelling reason to go to the mosque at all. The prayers said in the mosque can be said at home or anywhere. Unlike churches, mosques are not formally consecrated. If they are made sacred at all, then it is through the prayers said in them.
While there is a wide variety of belief in Islam, there is not much variety of worship (unlike Christianity). Islamic liturgy is very simple. All Muslims are required to face in the direction of Mecca five times every day, and to say a series of rote prayers and make some prostrations. The whole ceremony can be done alone, requires no clergy, and takes only a few minutes. Mosque is from the Arabic word masjid which means "place of prostration."

The mosque is the place where Muslims gather every Friday to say these very same prayers together and to hear a reading from the Quran and a sermon. By tradition, it is modeled on Muhammad's house in Medina and faces in the direction of Mecca. The wall closest to Mecca in the mosque is the qibla. The courtyard where the faithful gather -- recalling the courtyard in Muhammad's own house, and the courtyards in houses throughout the Mediterranean world -- is called the sahn. Muhammad declared that the human voice was the proper instrument for calling the faithful to prayer, so the tower where that call is made is called the minaret.

One of the finest mosques ever built was made for Ahmad Ibn Tulun in the 9th century. He was officially the Governor of Egypt for the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, but he acted more like an independent dynastic ruler. The mosque was the centerpiece of his new capital city and once attached to Ibn Tulun's palace.

Today, the Ibn Tulun Mosque is in the heart of crowded chaotic modern Cairo.


The Ibn Tulun mosque is the oldest in Cairo and the largest in Egypt


The Mosque had been restored many times in its history. Among the most famous and notable additions are the 13th century domed fountain house and the minaret.


The Mosque arcades with their ornament are original to Ibn Tulun's time. They are pioneering examples of that Arabic invention, the pointed arch.






The Ibn Tulun Mosque, and others like it in Spain and Tunisia, would inspire Western architects after the long period of recovery from the collapse of the Roman Empire had concluded. Western architects beginning in the 11th century would learn the old Roman techniques of building wide span arches, and added Arab techniques of making those arches stronger by making them pointed instead of round. Most of all, these great noble buildings in the Arab world would stoke the fires of ambition in the West, in the spirit of admiration and rivalry, to begin the projects that would lead to the great cathedrals of Europe.

7 comments:

Rick+ said...

     Fascinating, as always, Doug! Thank you! A few years ago, I ordered a free Quran, being given away by the New York Islamic Society. I was stunned to received a huge, hardback book, beautifully illuminated. I thought it would be good to know what it said. Of course, now I'm probably on some FBI watch list.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Indeed fascinating, dear Counterlight!

Counterlight said...

I'm sure I'm on someone's list just for posting this.

John I. said...

You'd think I'd know this stuff being married to an Art teacher these many years. Some blogs opine and whine, some blogs belch hate, YOUR blog educates, and for that ... many, many thanks!

John I.

Fahim kamtan mirza said...

What Does "Islam" Mean?

The word "Islam" itself means "Submission to Allah." The religion of Islam is not named after a person as in the case of "Christianity" which was named after Jesus Christ, "Buddhism" after Gutama Buddha , "Marxism" after Karl Marx, and "Confucianism" after Confucius.

Similarly, Islam is not named after a tribe like "Judaism" after the tribe of Judah and "Hinduism" after the Hindus. The Arabic word "Islam" means the submission or surrender of one's will to the will of the only true god worthy of worship, "Allah" (known as God "the Father" in Christianity).

Anyone who does indeed submit to the will of Allah as required by Islam is termed a "Muslim," which means one who has submitted to the will of Allah. Many people in the West have developed the sad misinformed trend of calling Islam "Muhammadenism" and it's followers "Muhammadins." This is a totally foreign word to Muslims and unrecognized by them. No Muslim has ever called his religion "Muhammadenism" or called himself a "Muhammadin."

What Is The Basic Concept of Islam?

Islam teaches us that this life is a life of worship. We are placed on this earth in order to worship Allah and obey His command. During this earthly life we are subjected to a series of trials. We have the option of enduring these trials and conforming to certain laws, and our reward will be great in the next life, or we may decline to endure these trials and choose to not conform to the law, then we will be made to regret it in the next life.

Each person will be solely and completely responsible for their own final reward. We are also told that God has designed these laws to make this life a better, safer, and more tolerable one for us. If we elect to conform to them then we will see the result in this life even before moving on to the next.
We are told that the earthly life is a life of faith and work, and the next life is one of reward and no work. We have been placed on this earth to worship God, fast, pray, be industrious, good, kind, respectful, and a source of uprightness and morality. We are told that God has no need of our worship. Our worship can not increase the kingdom of God nor add to His power, however, it is in our best interests both in this life and the next that we do.

Unlike some other religions which claim that God entered in a covenant with a certain group of people and that this group is genetically better than all other human beings, or closer to God, Islam on the other hand teaches that no color, race, tribe, or lineage is better than any other. Islam teaches that all humans are equal in the sight of Allah and that the only thing that can distinguish them in His sight is their piety and worship.

"O humankind! Verily! We have created you from a male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Verily! the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most God-fearing. Verily! Allah is The Knower, The Aware." The noble Qur'an, Al-Hujrat(49):13.


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Counterlight said...

Speaking of rival imperial religions...

khairul3v3n said...

I was always searching for something in religions that people of different religion can enjoy together.Your style of writing in here does not hate but educating.Thank you for that.The arts in here are amazing.Why not people just learn of different religions as an education instead of mixing informations with hate and bias,trying to convert people here and there.ur blog is fascinating!