Thursday, December 27, 2007

How not to seek beauty in Islam

Oliver Leaman has written yet another challenging and iconoclastic work. Perhaps the most surprising result of this intriguing (and it must be said infuriating) work is that he denies not only that there is such a thing as Islamic art but also that consequently there is no Islamic aesthetic. This might well be disturbing for a reader who has picked up a volume that purports to introduce the notion of Islamic aesthetics! In fact, this book does nothing of the sort; it deconstructs naïve concepts of Islamic art and its appreciation but does not offer an alternative aesthetics. Leaman’s key claim (which may seem laudable) is that one ought to move away from essentialising and objectifying disciplines in Islam. Just as philosophy is philosophy, art is art. The adjective ‘Islamic’ does not qualify anything but merely obscures, occludes and insists that one needs some special training to ‘appreciate’ it. In a sense this is worrying news for the Islamic art historian. But the real question to consider is whether it is true: is there such a thing as Islamic art? Is there a particular Islamic aesthetics? In order to answer this question, we need to reconsider Leaman’s argument and his actual aim in making it, which seems to me to be breaking the closed shop of Islamic art historians and snatching the aesthetic prism away from romantic visions of the ‘essential spirituality of Islamic art’.

Leaman begins with setting his sights upon Islamic art historians. He takes them to task for a number of misconceptions. First, by qualifying their objects of inquiry as Islamic they do not take those objects seriously as art. Second, they insist on a particular training in Islamic civilisation to understand what they call Islamic art. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they offer no serious aesthetic theory. These attacks will certainly come as a shock to a number of Islamic art historians who would certainly refuse to admit any of these points. Like Leaman’s earlier attack in the early 1980s on historians of Islamic philosophy, this present attack may apply to some practitioners but cannot really be applied to the majority. As before, Leaman’s iconoclastic zeal destroys far too much.

Leaman’s work is divided into nine chapters which all share a particular theme. The wrong-headed ways in which people approach Islamic art are merely symptomatic of their more general mistaken analyses of the Islamic faith, Islamic thought and Islamic civilisation. Chapter 1 begins with ‘eleven common mistakes about Islamic art’. Most of these relate to the sin of essentialism in which Islamic studies specialists are seen to be so heavily implicated. He rubbishes the idea that Islamic art is essentially a spiritual, Sufi meditation upon symbolism in Islam, in particular exemplified by the iconic centrality of the Kaʿba. Over-enthusiastic symbolic interpretation is an esoterist’s art; it does not explain, it merely mystifies. Calligraphy is the Islamic art par excellence; another mistake that renders other art-forms somewhat inauthentically ‘islamic’. Two of these mistakes are directly linked to Leaman’s earlier work on Islamic philosophy: al-Ghazālī is accused of having killed off painting, just as he did with philosophy, and Islamic art is seen as a marginal pursuit to the concerns of Islamic civilisation. However, none of these salient and laudable critiques amount to a proper denial of the possibility of Islamic art, let alone its actuality.

The second chapter moves on to a popular motif in the study of Islamic art and creativity, namely the postulation that in Islam only God can create and act. If that is the case, the idea that humans can create and fashion artefacts would seem to be a blasphemy. If God alone is al-khāliq and al-muṣawwir, then surely there can be no Islamic art? Leaman articulates this nonsensical contradiction to further his argument against essentialist approaches to Islamic art. Art cannot be reduced to the playful manipulation of existing symbols. Leaman invokes the related theological debate about secondary causality, that is, whether it is only God who acts in the cosmos or whether humans (among others) are real agents possessing ability, will and action. He suggests that much of the essentialist approach is predicated on the simple premiss that the essence of Islam and its theology is Ashʿarite, rejecting secondary causality, affirming an atomistic cosmos and denying true agency and creativity to humanity. Any student of Islamic intellectual history knows that this is a gross generalisation. But the nature of Leaman’s exaggerated argument is that it depends upon the construction of an oppositional position that is extremely flimsy and therefore easy to destroy.

The following chapters develop Leaman’s argument by considering particular art forms like literature (including a discussion of the miraculous literary quality of the Qurʾan), music, gardening, and architecture. Throughout one perceives the pernicious Ashʿarite thought lurking in the wings and one cannot help feeling that this present book owes much to Leaman’s earlier work on philosophy. The discussion on the nature of the Qurʾan is particularly salient because it encapsulates a particular aesthetic vision since the dogma of the scripture is so closely associated with an aesthetic judgement of its inimitability. Leaman concludes the book with two short chapters on the importance of philosophy and the desire to approach art as art and not as a mere cultural artefact or symbol. He is right to argue that philosophy does indeed determine the ways in which we see the cosmos, how we see it and what exactly it is that we see. This is where aesthetics begin to connect with epistemology. Each Islamic philosophical tradition has a specific doctrine of interpretation that define three categories of entities: things in themselves, the world in which they dwell and the words that we use to articulate them. Our very act of seeing is both a representation as well as an act of interpretation. Leaman raises an interesting question about whether there can be an Illuminationist, Peripatetic or Sufi aesthetics of representation. But would that in any case entail a consistent, timeless Islamic aesthetics? The very fact that art is respected (or was at least) in Islamic civilisation is a recognition of the importance of representation and interpretation. This is a situation quite unlike the disdain for art in a Platonic utopia. Plato famously criticised art for being a doubled inauthentic imitation: at the first level the thing in this world is already a pale imitation of the perfect form in the higher intelligible realm, and at the second level the artist produces an even paler imitation of the thing in his artistic representation. To invoke his allegory of the cave, it is as if the artist lives within a further cave and is hopelessly remote from reality. Islamic theologians and philosophers did not on the whole have such an austere disregard for things in this world or for the possibilities of beauty here. If anything, Islamic thought can (another gross generalisation yes) be considered to have an optimistic approach to the possibilities of knowing what exists and to recognise that this world and things that exist in this world possess reality as well. Two essentialist slogans (one aesthetic and the other theological albeit with a meaningful message within them) are worth bearing in mind: God is beautiful and loves beauty (as the famous aphorism/tradition has it), and this world is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Can one possibly forsake art when the theologian insists that God does not forsake the world? Would we want to live in such a disenchanted and alienated world?

Leaman’s book does raise some interesting questions: is there such a thing as Islamic art? Can Muslims countenance a secular art? Whither the study of philosophy in Islamic culture? Can one produce an aesthetic theory that applies to Islamic civilisation? These are important intellectual matters that ought to exercise Muslim minds. Perhaps because of the nature of the present world situation, Muslims (especially Muslim thinkers) seem to be in such a state of siege that discourse beyond the practicable and the tangible seems to be anathema. But intellectual life sustains and nurtures. The intellectual and cultural products of a civilisation are indispensable aspects of its identity and its sustaining power. It is thus more crucial than ever that Muslims regain the significance of ideas and struggle in the global market of ideas and for this jihad a proper understanding of philosophy (including aesthetics), its historical development and its commitment are more important than ever before. This reviewer has no straightforward answers to offer; all that he can do is to indicate the questions that he thinks are worth pursuing. Such a pursuit of doing well (call it iḥsān or following the old Zoroastrian saying call it ‘thinking, speaking and acting well’) increasingly becomes one of the few resources left to our humanity.

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