Category: Beauty and Belief Islamic Art Exhibit at BYU

Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While a graduate student working on my MFA in glass, I discovered Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr‘s book Islamic Art and Spirituality.  Using his extensive understanding of Islam and many other world religions, Dr. Nasr examines the sacred creativity which helps define us as human and gives lasting value to our constructive efforts.  I was struck by his thoughtfulness, compassion, and the ease with which he communicates complex and multi-faceted concepts.  His books Knowledge and the Sacred, Sufi Essays, and An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines followed; through his association with The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts he invited Dr. Keith Critchlow to examine the physical structures of traditional Islamic art, and Dr. Critchlow wrote Islamic Patterns:  An Analytical and Cosmological Approach which also impacted me greatly.  A Shi’a friend recommended I also read Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning:  Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism, which I read in concert with Dr. Nasr’s Man and Nature:  The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man–the two books, written decades apart, harmonized beautifully.  I owe my budding as a Christian artist to Dr. Nasr’s work.

During the closing weeks of the Beauty and Belief:  Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture exhibit at BYU, the Museum of Art and the Wheatley Institution brought Dr. Nasr out for a Distinguished Lecture in International Affairs, Islam:  Truth and Beauty.  His lecture, Transcending the Complexities of Truth and Beauty, was one of the best-attended lectures at the museum since it was founded.  Thankfully, the museum recorded the lecture and preserved it in podcast format, and you can listen to it through this link , or watch a video of it here.  A Muslim friend laments that there are few self-critiquing Muslim scholars, and was very pleased to meet Dr. Nasr on his visit to BYU.  Not only does he examine his own faith honestly and thoughtfully, Dr. Nasr is able to bridge the divides which separate many faiths and brings a measure of peace and growth to all who listen.  Meeting him and hearing him speak was truly a treasure, and it was certainly exciting to get to meet one of my heroes.

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Photos courtesy of Emily Ellis, Dr. C. Lance Harding, Ph.D., and Wikimedia Commons

My friend Lance, Dr. C. Lance Harding, Ph.D., came to the 99 Names workshop as my “ringer”–he knows so much about the uses of geometry in sacred art and architecture, I knew that he could answer any questions which threw me.  Luckily, he never had to pull out his blue mavin card and was able to enjoy the workshop.  With his insight and experience with sacred art from around the world, it was a pleasure walking with him through the exhibit Beauty and Belief:  Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture, and he was kind enough to share his feelings about the exhibit.

1.  What is the basis of your interest in Islamic Art?

While studying at The Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts Department in London (now called the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts), I gained an appreciation and interest in the concepts behind Islamic Art.  At our school we studied the foundations of Traditional and Sacred Art from various cultures.  I was interested in learning some of the basic principles for combining religious belief with works of art.  The simple basic concepts found in Islamic works of art gave examples of how this could be done.  First, the making of Arabic Calligraphy from sacred writings into a visual art form in texts and in their mosques was an important way for teaching the “Word of God” to the Islamic people.  Christians did much the same thing in their hand written texts and also by making biblical stories the basis of their stained glass windows inside the cathedrals.  The Islamic use of geometric pattern, that represented the order and power of God or the “Fear or Awe” of God opened up a whole new world for me in terms of representing God’s Creation.  The beautiful Arabesque (or plant form) designs that are a major part of Islamic Art add a further dimension representing the “Love of God” and the Paradise of God–God’s grace and love for mankind.

2.  As you walk through the Beauty and Belief exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art, what is your overall impression?

My overall impression of the Beauty and Belief exhibit is that the people who created these wonderful works of art were master-craftsmen.  They did not separate their art from their craft.  Their objects of adornment and their daily useful objects often became one and the same.  These works of art must have been used to combine what they considered to be sacred with the objects of their daily life.

3.  How does your background, both as an artist and as a person of faith, inform your reactions to the exhibit?

I believe that my background as a Christian, and as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has prepared me to accept the sacred art and teachings of other faiths and cultures.  My studies of art in other cultures in connection with my studies of Islamic Art has brought me to the understanding that all of God’s children have had access to divine inspiration and knowledge which was handed down to them either through their ancestors from God or given to them directly by God.  So, when I study and examine closely Islamic works of art, I see God in them just as much as when I examine Christian art or when I try to interpret Biblical Jewish art and architecture.

4.  Which piece or pieces are you drawn to most strongly, and why?

I am naturally drawn to those pieces in the Islamic exhibit that are derived directly from geometry and geometric form.  In London I studied ancient and sacred geometry and that was the foundation of ancient architecture and works of art.  I have always been interested in the basic order of the universe found in God’s creations as expressed in these types of art and architecture.  I see geometry and symmetry as the basis of all creation.  It is contained in all natural forms as well as being the basis of number, mathematics, science, and art.

5.  This exhibit is comprised of works made by artists who testify of their faith with every piece.  As a Christian how do you respond to this?

The concept of making art as part of your lifestyle has always intrigued me.  In the Islamic world they seem to have the ability to find the sacred in every day objects by turning them into sacred works of art.  This is what “Sacred” means–to make holy or to set apart and improve that which is routine in our lives in order to bring God into the scheme of things.  Faith is something that is meant to be put into practice every day in our lives.  Beautiful works of art represent and increase that faith.  As a Christian I see the basic Christian virtues of knowledge, temperance, patience, Godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity, along with consistency and endurance, incorporated into Islamic works of art.  (II Peter Ch. 1)

6.  How has this exhibit, and your work with Islamic art in general, informed your faith as a Christian?

The works of art in the BYU exhibit as well as the many other Islamic works I have seen and studied have given me the knowledge that there are certain universal principles that God has extended to all peoples and cultures, particularly those of the three Abrahamic traditionsJewish, Christian, and Muslim.  I have always been interested in the three Abrahamic religions.  Jewish and Christian teachings about God, related to the “Light”, the “Life”, and the “Love” of God, appear to match the three basic elements of Islamic art which are the “Word of God” (or the Light), the “Fear or Awe” of God (or the Life), and the beautiful Arabesque plant form designs (which are the Love of God).  I believe that the time will come as God’s influence returns to this earth, that Jehovah–Christ–Allah, different Names, but the true God of this World–He will unite all the children of Abraham and they will live side by side together in peace.

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Photos by Emily Ellis, Hawkinson Photography, and Wikimedia Commons

In concert with Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir’s profound Beauty and Belief exhibit at BYU, the Museum of Art has scheduled a series of workshops sampling aspects of Islamic culture.  I was asked to present the first workshop in the series, and Friday we did “Why the Camel Smiles:  Exploring the Tradition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God from the Qur’an.”  My friend Emily came and took pictures.

Many faiths have traditions of Names for God, and share the belief that “Name” may not be the most appropriate word.  “These are more attributes than Names,” a gentleman from Khadeeja Mosque explained.  “God is infinite, and these are only approximations of His infinite Divine Attributes.”  Although he was speaking specifically of the Sunni tradition, his sentiments echo among many Divine Name traditions.

In Christianity, there is less of a specific tradition of a codified list of Divine Names, but Mary Fairchild cataloged over a hundred Names for God from the Bible here.  One mystical tradition among the Abrahamic faiths is the tradition of the 72 Names of God from the Torah (link).  “Of course, they’re not names like what we use to address each other,” a Rabbi friend told me, “but are more symbols of intent.  Meditation on them allows you to draw closer in spirit to the Divine.”  The mystical Names from the Torah are not meant to be pronounced aloud, and anyone can benefit from meditation on the images of the Names themselves.

One of my favorite examples of a Divine Name tradition is the subject of an Arthur C. Clarke short story, The Nine Billion Names of God, in which computer experts are called upon to catalog the Names of God so the universe can be complete.  In the interests of time, I elected not to list them.

During the workshop, we visited about the process of learning of another faith through a tradition like the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God in Islam (in practice a parallel somewhat to observance of the Beatitudes for many Christians).  The 99 Names traditions in Islam are an outgrowth of passages from the Qur’an and from inspired utterances of the Prophet Mohamed (known as Hadith Qudsi); have a good list with English translations and commentary from Rumi here, and Julie Hliboki reflects on the 99 Names as an interfaith vehicle for peace.  We spoke about the use of geometry and color in Islamic art, and visited displays in the Beauty and Belief exhibit to see some examples.

Returning from the exhibit, we touched on some geometric constructions, and I invited the workshop participants to reflect on which Divine Name was most personally meaningful–and make an abstract design responding to this.  Then we built mosaics with an eye to the tracery windows of Damascus.

People that attended the workshop had a chance to learn a bit more about Islam and Islamic art, and a tradition much more universal and personally applicable than expected.  While respectfully exploring the faiths of our neighbors, many times we can find much to strengthen our own.  I’m grateful to Emily for the pictures, and to the museum staff; they gathered all the supplies and did the dirty work mixing cement so we didn’t have to.  The workshop was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to the rest in the series.

And why does the camel smile?  Only he knows the hundredth Name.

After prayers on a recent Friday my friend Dr. Ahmad Salah, Imam for Brigham Young University, invited me to go with him through the new exhibit Beauty and Belief:  Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture at the BYU Museum of Art.  For several years, Dr. Sabiha Al-Khemir, Founding Director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, has been planning and assembling this astounding exhibit containing 250 pieces from 50 collections around the world.  Dr. Salah and I have known each other since we spoke at the beginning of the 99 Names project; he’s a civil engineer from Egypt, working here in Utah, and has been the Imam for BYU’s Muslim congregation for several years.  A year and a half ago, he presented with me for an exhibit of the 99 Names project at Orem Public Library, and he wanted to visit with me while walking through the fruition of Dr. Khemir‘s work.

While visiting with Imam Ahmad, we took in the many works, never made any smart-alecky comments about other visitors, and shared insights from our different perspectives.  Two items were particularly intriguing.  One was a bronze griffin:

And the other was a page from an account of the Prophet Mohammed‘s miraculous Night Journey:These, surprisingly to me, had quite a bit to do with each other.

The Griffin is known as the Pisa Griffin, and comes from a spire of Pisa Cathedral in Italy.  During renovations, it was noted that this griffin which had adorned the church for generations had markings not typically associated with traditional Christian typology; with further study, it was discovered to have been built by Muslim artisans in Al-Andalus.  Ahmad shared with me that, for many Muslims raised in Cairo, griffins have a special meaning.  For one, the fantastical creature by itself is a witness of Divine creativity–since God is Infinite and the Creator of All, whenever an artist envisions an amazing creature he or she is also bearing witness to the Divine might; how could the artist think of such a thing unless the Creator’s majesty has already encompassed it?  So, the more inventive the artist’s creations, the louder the witness to his or her own Creator.  The second meaning has to do with Mohammed’s miraculous experience of the Heavenly Realms.

During Mohammed’s Night Journey, he left Earth from the stone in the center of the Dome of the Rock.  His escort and means of transport was a miraculous being, a horse-shaped angel named Buraq.  This marvelous creature showed Mohammed the seven levels of Paradise, and gave witness to the fate of those who live righteous lives, fully submissive to the Divine Will.  Although figurative work is common in Islamic art and permitted in applications outside of the actual worship space, Mohammed himself refused to have his likeness painted–he was afraid that future veneration of his image could become idolatry.  For many Muslims around the world, naturalistic rendering of holy figures or beings feels inappropriate for related reasons.  This image of the Night Journey is not to be seen as an illustration, then, but as a visual allegory to remind us of those miraculous, marvelous events so long ago.  For many Muslims growing up in Cairo, many of whom feel uncomfortable with a naturalistic image of Buraq, the griffin became an allegorical symbol both for this angelic servant of the Divine, and for the promises of Paradise to which her presence alludes.

When Ahmad shared all this with me, we started talking about the irony of the Islamic griffin on top of a Catholic cathedral, then it dawned on us this really wasn’t ironic at all.  How fitting a symbol of heaven would be found at the peak of such a holy site?  It felt to us, the Christian and Muslim standing together looking at this beautiful work, that this one thing symbolized the promise for the entire exhibit–crossing bridges of understanding and meeting each other as friends.

(Note:  Although – contrary to Western misconception – the Qur’an does not prohibit figurative art per se, many Muslims, including my friend Ahmad, feel uncomfortable with figural representation of the Prophet Mohammed and the other prophets of Biblical and Qur’anic record.  This is due more to a fear that figural depiction of such remarkable and noteworthy people may become confused with iconography or the sin of idolatry, than a blanket prohibition of all figural work.)

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