Pages of the Knower

Photography by Hawkinson Photography

When I started Knower, the thought that kept returning to mind was to make something symbolizing the ability of transmission.  The ageless saying ‘Knowledge is power’ also buzzed between my ears endlessly.  I started thinking about ways to transmit knowledge and those aspects of knowledge which ‘stand’ behind everything – the hidden information, as it were, that governs how things are.

Many cultures have story tellers and teachers who share vital information about the history of the culture, why things happen the way they do, and what governs our sense of reality.  In some cultures this is transmitted orally and in others this is written; since the most important source of this kind of information for Muslims is the Qur’an, the symbol of a book felt appropriate for this sculpture.  Binding it with a traditional medieval knot-tying technique, modified for glass, was also important.  I felt it needed to feel displaced in time, to give a sense that the knowledge being represented is also outside of time, or unbounded by time’s constraints.

The shape was derived from visiting with a couple experts on cross-cultural aesthetics.  It is based on the Golden Section, a 1:1.618 ratio rectangle; Dr. Scott Olsen, an expert on what is called the Phi ratio, said that one of the things eerily consistent across all cultures is the way we gravitate to this ratio in art.  Dr. Lisa DeLong, an expert on Muslim art at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in the UK, said the awareness of this ratio governed much of the traditional Muslim aesthetic.  The pages of the book are Golden Section rectangles, and I used my observations of how hand-made copies of the Qur’an are laid out to guide where the elements were placed on each page.

The number of pages was a bit more problematic.  With one page representing an aspect of knowledge and God being the Knower of All, this would lead to an infinite number of pages which in turn would take quite a long time to put together.  I settled on thirteen for a couple reasons.  This is the number of lunar months in the year, a month reflective of the awareness of life, its processes, and its interconnectivity.  Also, thirteen is five plus eight; five is the number of ‘ The Pillars of Faith‘ in Islam (Declaration of Faith, Prayer five times a day, Fasting during Ramadan, the Paying of Tithes, and the once-in-a-lifetime commitment to travel on Hajj to Mecca) and eight represents the bridge between Heaven and Earth of the Qur’an.  In architecture, an octagon is typically used to bridge the cube of the earth-bound structure with the circular, heavens-reaching dome, and the eight-sided figure can be found in both Christian and Muslim art reflecting the awareness of the metaphorical ‘bridge’ between humanity and God (this ‘bridge’ being Jesus for Christians and the Qur’an for Muslims).  In the Qur’an, eight is also the number of angels who will carry God’s throne at the last judgment – a reminder for Muslims of personal responsibility.

About twenty different page ideas were explored.  I thought the Trivium and Quadrivium of traditional schooling would be good, then I thought of all the different paths of knowledge we study, and finally it felt appropriate to narrow the pages down to how we, as humans, observe the construction of the universe.  Not how we  believe the universe was made, but how we perceive the evidences of God’s hand in everything.  So the pages, more or less, tell the metaphysical story of creation and the universe.  Each page has a passage from the Qur’an, and a complementary passage from another book of scripture, etched in the languages they were written.

Cover.  The cover page is from tile patterns at the Alhambra, the elegantly astounding symbol of Moorish Spain.  This society was the most egalitarian Europe had ever seen, with at one point a Jewish doctor being the court-appointed Surgeon General to the Muslim Caliph.  The front is a geometric pattern, and the back uses an interlacing of organic forms; this dichotomy of structure and freedom reflects the Muslim understanding that freedom exists most expansively when seated within Divine law.  One Imam told me this concept is like flying a kite:  The kite (a human soul) will go as high as the sky when the string (the Commandments) is used, but when the string is cut the kite will come crashing down.

The Heavenly City.  The City of Heaven, described by both Paul and John in the New Testament.  An expert on the Taj Mahal told me that it is believed the Mughal (Indian Muslim) emperor who built it based the floor plan on Paul’s vision from a copy of the New Testament the emperor owned.  This diagram has been used by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim artists for centuries as they seek to understand Divine concepts of balance, order, and governance.

Faith and Reason.  Mohamed challenged the spiritual understanding of those who followed scripture like ‘dogs’ (meaning only with the heart) or like ‘monkeys’ (meaning only with the mind).  The Divine gift of reason helps us to function as human beings in society and order our thoughts; the Divine gift of faith draws our hearts closer to the true purpose of existence.  Each without the other is unbalanced, and both are Divine gifts – when used together, reason is tempered with faith and faith is balanced with reason.  God made us with both capacities so we can use them both, and learn through the process.

The Council of Birds.  A Persian poet said that, of all the animals on earth birds are closest to humans; the difference is that our wings are wings of spirit.  Farid ud-Din Attar wrote an epic poem describing the search for enlightenment by a council of all the world’s birds.  Thirty representatives were selected, and they spent many, many years traveling across mystical landscapes in their quest to find enlightenment.  At the end of their journey, they came to the reflective pool of the Simourgh (Persian for phoenix), and seeing themselves transformed the Simourgh appeared.  The center is a Phoenix, done in a Persian style and as a petroglyph, and this is surrounded by thirty birds drawn naturalistically (for the species mentioned on the quest in Farid ud-Din Attar’s poem) and in the style of cave carvings, petroglyphs, and rock art from around the world.

Number.  The red star is made of the even numbers two through twelve, and the star behind it is made of the odd numbers one through thirteen.  As humans we use number to describe, catalog, and correlate what we see, and Westerners owe a large portion of our understanding of numbers to the Muslims who transmitted their appreciation of all things math.  In the book the Wisdom of Solomon, it states that God constructed all things through measure, weight and number, and this view of the universe resonates through every culture giving number a certain reverence and mystical weight.

Little, Big.  An ancient Hindu saying is, ‘The wisdom of all the universe is contained in a single grain of sand.’  All things relate to all, and the Creator is mindful of the smallest particle in the midst of governing the orbits of galaxies.  This is a model of the smallest discovered sub-atomic structure and a map of the milky way, and serves as a reminder that the Creator of All is also intimately aware of our own personal situations.

The Stars Above.  There is an ancient phrase, ‘As Above So Below.’  This is a reminder of our interconnection as elements of Creation, but also is a reference to the idea that stars and the heavens are there to guide us in our activities, and that our souls are designed to reflect the Celestial balance and music of the heavens.  This is what led the Magi to the Christ child, and what drove Johannes Kepler to discover the laws of planetary motion, trying to find that peculiar resonance which links humanity to the heavens.  This is based on the astrolabe – Muslims were masters of astrolabe design and construction, because it was always a priority to find where they were in relation to the stars.

Seven Sacred Grains.  The ability to cultivate food and provide for ourselves is linked to our human identity.  In the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the first humans were commanded to till the earth, and these seven cultivated grains (amaranth, barley, corn, oats, rice, rye and wheat) are the things that made survival, and civilization, possible all across the world, from the dawn of humankind.

Writing.  One story holds that Adam, seeing bird tracks across wet sand, had the inspiration to begin writing.  This is a calligrapher’s layout grid, with the first and last letters of the alphabet in the center.  The grid is filled in with the most ancient symbols for God, sacredness, and peace, intermixed with the footprints of birds native to the Arabian peninsula.

The Four Humours.  From the most ancient of times, medicine has been a mystical profession.  Imhotep, the famous Egyptian architect and doctor, wrote the oldest treatise on medical treatments – providing a model still in use by doctors today.  Musim health professionals derived treatments for their patients which treated not just the symptoms, but the whole person, often calling for change in diet, environment, and religious habits, designed to make the entire person healthy, happy, and well.

Cartography.  Muslims were masters of map making, it was vital to always know the direction of Mecca.  Mecca held the symbols of God’s concern and love for mankind; by always being aware our current position in relation to these symbol’s of God’s love, in one sense we are always keeping God in the center of our life.

Engineering.  Learning how things fit together is something we identify as being human – when another animal does it, we always see this as a ‘human’ trait.  This is wonderful in building things designed to make life easier and more beneficial, but also helps us in our awareness that all things fit and interlace together, that everything we do ripples across the pond of existence and impacts others in ways we can’t comprehend.

The Alchemical Marriage.  This is the marriage of balance, or yin with yang.  The cold would never be cold without the hot, and the sweet would be impossible to enjoy without awareness of the bitter.  These are not opposites in the sense that they are inimical to each other, but rather are sides of the same page or coin – one cannot be fully realized without the other, and creation happens in the energetic tension between them.  Our unique position as thinking creatures leads us to find the balance, as we walk the path using the gifts of both faith and reason.