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al-Ghazali and Aesthetics

Al-Ghazali and Aesthetics R. H. Princess Wijdan Ali, Ph.D. (The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) in International Conference on al-Ghazali`s Legacy: Its Contemporary Relevance (24-27. October. 2001) at The International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC)

1. Introduction : Aesthetics or Beauty The Concept of beauty has preceded that of aesthetics by several centuries, if not millenia. Beauty is the quality, or cumulative qualities, in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. Since the beginning of time man has tried to include beauty in his life. The Ain Ghazal statues found near Amman in Jordan go back to 7000 B.C. and are believed to be the earliest sculpted figures in the world. Their eyes are made of sea shells and defined by a black line showing that, since a very early stage in his development, man possessed an aesthetic sense and attempted to add an element of beauty to his creativity. On the other hand, aesthetics is a newly developed Western concept that should be examined accordingly. The 18th century German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten was the one who coined the term, deriving it from the Greek aisthanesthai (to perceive), meaning perception by means of the senses. It denotes what he conceived as the realm of poetry, a realm of concrete knowledge in which content is communication in sensory form. The term was subsequently applied to the philosophical study of all the arts and manifestations of natural beauty, and came to be mainly associated with artistic creativity. The plan of this paper is as follows: in Section 2 Islamic aesthetics is outlined. AlGhazalis concept of beauty is then discussed in Section 3, followed by his views on art in Section 4. The paper is concluded, in Section 5, with general remarks on the idea of a center or axis in Islam that applies to the implimentation of beauty in the life of a traditional Muslim. Islamic Aesthetics In Islamic culture and traditional society, the term aesthetics never existed, nor any other term that might imply the same meaning and significance. The contemporary Arabic term jamaliyyah, which is synonymous with aesthetics, is borrowed from the West and is defined as the science of beauty, ilm al-jamal. In Islam, neither the Quran nor the Prophets tradition (sunnah) refers to art. There were no treatises written expressly on Islamic aesthetics, nor were there set rules for what constituted Islamic principles in art and what did not. However, it is not difficult for Muslims to draw their own conclusions from both sources. In Islam, art and faith are inseparably bound together; consequently, the saying of the Prophet, "God is Beautiful and He loves beauty.", can be considered the foundation of Muslim aesthetics. Within the framework of tradition, sufficient liberty is left for the artist to
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arrive at creative works by following a set of models or typical forms that he or she will use or adopt according to circumstances and the particular goal of the work. Because Islamic art performs a spiritual function, and because of its intimate relationship with the form and content of the Islamic revelation, whatever connection exists between it and the Islamic revelation cannot simply be on the plane of sociopolitical changes brought about by Islam; the answer lies in the religion itself. Consequently, ties between religion and beauty in Islam are of an organic nature. Islam places the highest importance on the achievement of beauty. This represents a natural outgrowth of the Qur`an that emphasizes goodness, truth and knowledge while placing the principle emphasis upon Beautiful Deeds (al-amal alhasanah). Another example of this emphasis on beauty is the ninety-nine Holy Attributes of God that in Arabic are the Beautiful Names of God (asma` Allah alhusna). The basic mandate of Islamic art and architecture, apart from fulfilling necessary functional requirements, is to display a purposeful sense of beauty. Meaningful beauty demands both a quantitative dimension of concern, achieved mainly through a process of pragmatic environmental adaptations, and a qualitative dimension, expressed essentially through Islamic aesthetics. Thus, from a spiritual and ethical point of view, Islamic aesthetics originates essentially from the Qur`anic Message, whose values it aims to translate into physical shapes. Every external image is complemented by an inner reality that is its hidden internal essence. The outward form, or dhahir, underlines the quantitative , physical aspect that is obvious, and easily and readily intelligible. It is represented in the shape of a building, the shell of a vessel, the body of man, or the outward form of religious rites. Meanwhile, the essential, qualitative aspect is the hidden, or inward, batin, that is present in all beings and things. In order to know each in its completeness, one must seek the knowledge and understanding of its outward and temporal reality, as well its essential and inward corporeality, where the eternal beauty of every object resides. It is the scholar who comprehends the logic of the composition; while the unlearned only appreciates its aesthetic value. This interpretive concept forms the most important philosophical aspect of Islamic aesthetics. Al-Ghazalis Concept of Beauty Being one of the most spiritual philosophers of Islam and one of the greatest jurists, theologians and Shufi thinkers of all time, al-Ghazalis awareness of beauty is of a Sufi perception that could only relate to God the Beautiful. For him everything in the universe is created by God, each created thing reflects Gods majesty and beauty; therefore each event in mans life also reveals Gods way of guiding us. He writes of three types of beauty: The first is external physical beauty (dhahir) that he regards as the most debased form as is obvious in Chapter I of Kimia alnaungan_nur_wahyu.tripod.com/id17.html 2/7

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al-Ghazali and Aesthetics

Saadah (The Alchemy of Happiness): " . . . as to [mans] beauty, he is little more than nauseous matter covered with a fair skin. Without frequent washing he becomes utterly repulsive and disgraceful." The second type is moral beauty (batin) that he relates to a persons character: "The former kind of man [a man who is only acquainted with sensuous delights] will say that beauty resides in red-and-white complexions, well-proportioned limbs, and so forth, but he will be blind to moral beauty, such as men refer to when they speak of such and such a man as possessing a beautiful character. But those possessed of inner perception find it quite possible to love the departed great, such as the Caliphs Omar and Abu Bakr, on account of their noble qualities, through their bodies have long been mingled with the dust. Such love is directed not towards any outward form, but towards the inner character. Even when we wish to excite love in a child towards anyone, we do not describe their outward beauty or form, etc . . . , but their inner excellences." The third type of beauty that al-Ghazali describes is the spiritual; it is the most sublime, because it is directly connected to the of the Almigthty and is attained through ecstasy: "The heart of man has been so constituted by the Almighty that, like a flint, it contains a hidden fire which is evoked by music and harmony, and renders man beside himself with ecstacy. These harmonies are echoes of that higher world of beauty which we call the world of spirits; they remind man of his relationship to that world, and produce in him an emotion so deep and strange that he himself is powerless to explain it." Harmony is crucial in a musical composition. For a Sufi, harmony is an essential component of life. To be in harmony with ones environment, with others, and with ones self facilitates the persons quest in gaining an insight into the nature of God; therefore harmony is as vital in life as it for a musical composition. Al-Ghazali continues his discussion by comparing the pleasures of physical and spiritual beauty: "We come now to treat love in its essential nature. Love may be defined as an inclination to that which is pleasant. This is apparent in the case of the five senses, each of which may be said to love that which gives it delight ; thus the eye loves beautiful forms, the ear music, etc . . . . This is a kind of love we share with the animals. But there is a sixth sense, or faculty of perception, implanted in the, which animals do not possess, through which we become aware of spiritual beauty and excellence. Thus, a man who [is] only acquainted with sensuous delights cannot understand what the Prophet meant when he said he loved prayer more than perfumes or women, though the last two were also pleasant to him. But he whose inner eye is opened to behold the beauty and perfection of Allah will despise all outward sights in comparison, however fair they may be."
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In Kimia al-Saadah (The Alchemy of Happiness), Al-Ghazali divides mans nature into three categories: the first resembles animals, the second resembles devils, and the third resembles angels. Here again beauty is elevated and associated with God, and the act of its contemplation with that of the angels: "Some of thy attributes are those of animals, some of devils, and some of angles, and thou hast to find out which of these attributes are accidental and which essential. Till thou knowest this, thou canst not find out where thy real happiness lies. The occupation of animals is eating, sleeping and fighting; therefore, if thou art an animal, busy thyself in these things. Devils are busy in stirring up mischief, and in guile and deceit; if thou belongest to them, do their work. Angels contemplate the beauty of God, and are entirely free from animal qualities, if thou art of angelic nature, then strive towards thine origin, that thou mayest know and contemplate the Most High, and be delivered from the thraldom (thrall?) of lust and anger." In Ihya` Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), al-Ghazali dwells on the concept in its material and spiritual dimensions, comparing the two and elaborating on the sublime beauty of the Almighty: "Know, O dear readers, that every which is beautiful is dear to one of the senses. Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Material beauty can be perceived by the eye. The beauty of divine glory can only be appreciated by the mind. The word beauty is used to describe the attributes of individuals. It is therefore said that man has a beautiful character. The word applies to his qualities, and not to his physical appearance. He is loved for his beautiful attributes as one is loved for his beautiful appearance. If this love is deep, it is called ishq. Even more wonderful is when a dead man is loved, not for his appearance , but for the innate qualities he possessed. All worldly beauty is a spark of that permanent beauty of Allah and a spark of His light. So, how can he not love Him who is ever beautiful and the prime source of beauty ? He who realizes this, loves Him the most. Nothing can be compared to the beauty of the sun and the moon. Allah is creator of these beautiful things. So how should He be loved ? Love for a created thing is defective. To love a creation is a sign of ignorance. But one who knows Him with knowledge of certainty knows of no beauty except the Creator of beauty. He who knows workmanship as the attribute of a workman does not got to anybody except to him. Everything in the world is the workmanship of Allah and the sign of His creation. So he realizes Him through His creations and realizes His attributes and His workmanship, just as one realizes the qualities of a writer through his written book. A man of little intellect understands love as physical union or satisfaction of sexual lust." al-Ghazali on Art
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In order to be able to relate al-Ghazalis perception of aesthetics to our times, it is essential to explore his idea of art. In a traditional society, every act whose application requires skill can be termed art; so that there is the art of agriculture, the art of architecture, the art of smelting, the art of painting, the art of poetry, the art of medicine, the royal art of alchemy, and the spiritual art of tasawwuf. A traditional Muslim never thinks that anything can be made otherwise than by art. Moreover, no distintion exists between a fine and applied art; but only between a free and a servile operation. For example, a calligrapher or miniaturist works freely while conceiving the work to be realized, then works as a laborer as soon as he picks up his qalam or brush to execute it. There is no such thing as art that is useless; only the freedom of the artist to work to an idea, conceived in his mind, and by means of tools controlled with his hands. In classical Arabic there is only one word connoting an artist who works with his hands, it is sani (pl.sunna), meaning a creator, a worker, an artisan; someone who practices a craft or a trade and is also creative in his work. It is the amalgamation of a trained craftsman and a creative artist, for which there is no literal equivalent in English. For a traditional Muslim sani , it is taken for granted that traditional plastic arts, such as architecture, calligraphy, mosaics, painting, etc . . . . , require knowledge of traditional science in order to perfect the technique as well as the beauty of the created object. The beauty of the artifact depends upon its perfection as a work of art and not on its appearance alone. God prescribed perfection for all things (inna Llaha katabal-ihsan ala kulli shai`) is a hadith where ihsan means virtue that includes the idea of beauty and perfection. A beautiful object is so because it is perfect; it is not perfect because it is beautiful. For the traditional artist, art is not a gift, but knowledge to be acquired and, therefore, traditional art is not in any current sense of the word self-expressive. In Islamic aesthetics there is not art for arts sake alone devoid of function, nor a division between fine art and utilitarian artifacts. For Muslims, the doctrinal foundation of Islamic aesthetics lies in the sayings of the Prophet: "God has inscribed beauty upon all things"; "God desires that if you do something you perfect it"; "Work is a form of worship"; and "God is beautiful and He loves beauty". Hence, perfecting ones work becomes a form of worship and a religious obligation easily fulfilled by the artist, through adherence to the faith and its convictions. The Qur`an says, "Nothing is greater than the Remembrance of God", giving the trueraison detre of man as the worship of God; consequently, mans entire existence should be an act of devotion and remembrance of his Maker. To be able to remember God continuously, it is necessary, in effect, for members of the Muslim community to contrive to surround themselves with a favorable atmosphere for this remembrance at every moment of their lives and not only during the five ritual prayers. Such surroundings should be beautiful and serene, so that the
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natural and artificial objects one encounters can become the occasions for, and act in support of remembrance, dhikr. Thus, arts duty is to transform the physical environment into a reflection of the spiritual world. Hence, the objective of Islamic art is to enhance, among Muslims, the awareness of God through the creation and contemplation of beauty. Growing up in a traditional milieu impregnated with Islamic aesthetics, taking for granted that one is surrounded with utilitarian objects that reflect harmony and beauty in his daily life and embracing Sufism at an early stage of his life, Sufi music and song in type of sama is the art form that answers to al-Ghazalis artistic needs. For al-Ghazali music is where his concept of beauty resides because it is the vehicle that helps him reach his goal. In Ihya` Ulum al-Din, he elaborates on the state of the listener and the stages that one goes through: "Ecstasy comes with an understanding of songs . . . . sama songs bring truth . . . In sama, there is a connection of ecstacy which is a deep feeling in mind, arising out of the effect of songs. He (Abu Hussain Daraj) said: "Sama has taken me to the field of beauty and given me drink of sweets in the cup of purity and thereby I gained the station of contentment". Al-Ghazali describes the final phase that a listener of sama reaches as: " . . . . that of the hearer of songs who has reached the highest stage of marifah after crossing different stages. He abandons everything except the knowledge of God. He even loses his sense of self and his own personality. He is like a man who is tossing around in the ocean being submerged therein. His condition is that of the women who cut their hands unknowingly after seeing the exquisite beauty of Joseph. Thus, the Sufi loses himself and enters the stage of fana` fillah, oneness with Allah. He loses himself from all things which surround him." Moreover, through Sufism, one could understand the synthesis between the spirituality of courtly arts. Although Sufis were naturally related to the mosque, many were among the ulama` (scholars, men of learning), who were profoundly connected to the political authority. Some Sufi groups (turuq, sing. Tariqah) kept aloof from public office; while others allowed their members to accept even the highest worldly posts. The influence of Sufism was strong among the so-called feminine arts patronized by the court. Many musicians and miniaturists under the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid dynasties were Sufis. Those s arts supported by the court were interiorizing by their very nature and of a highly spiritual quality, which could only come about through the influence of Islamic esotericism. For example, members of Ottoman trade and craft guilds (ahl al-hiraf) belonged to various Sufi turuq and religious fraternities calledahis or akhis, inheriting their professions from father to son. All creation reflects the cosmic intelligence; but only man, who is at the center of the terrestrial world that he inhabits, reflects it in an active, creative sense.
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Because the purpose behind the creation of the universe is to worship God, with man at its center - "I created him only that he might worship Me." - man is the sole creature who is endowed with a combination of both intellect and soul, and who can give meaning to creation. By creating beauty, man, the artist, stimulates in the viewer or listener an insight into the nature of God and of mans relation to Him. The aim underlying a work of art, in all its forms, is to reach a state of realization of the Creator through the contemplation of perfection that is a synthesis of the beautiful and the functional. Al-Ghazali exploited beauty as a means to reach such a union with the Beautiful. He created a triangle composed of man, beauty, ecstasy and a circle composed of creation of man - exploitation of beauty - ecstasy revolving around a central axis union with God and a coil of the same components yet in a different configuration. (projection) Conclusion The idea of a center or axis is a main key to understanding Islamic art and the world of Islam, with its spiritual and physical components. The centralization of God in the Universe and the spiritual world is echoed in the central focus of the Kabah on earth (set with corners to cardinal directions), of the mosque in the Islamic city and its terrestrial alignment towards Mecca, and of the mihrabon the qiblah wall. Thus, the spiritual and temporal life of Muslims is regulated in circles, which revolve around an axis and represent the constant revolving movement of the believers life towards God. It is reflected, amongst other things, in the steps of the whirling Mevlevi Dervishes, the pilgrims tawaf around the Kabah, and the circular units in arabesque compositions; hence the idea of centrality remains unchanging. Because Islamic aesthetics focuses on the spiritual representation of beings and objects, instead of their material values, the outward appearance of an object in no way encompasses its essence and true self. Each dhahir, or outward quantitative and physical appearance, differs from itsbatin, or inward qualitative and spiritual essence; while perfection can only be attributed to God the Creator. Therefore, to copy living figures from nature, though never intended to represent God, is regarded as a futile way of directing the recipient to the contemplation of transcendence and the truths embodied in tawhid, the Doctrine of Unity. For a Muslim, beauty is not an aesthetic portrayal of human attributes; nor is it copying an ideal state of nature, the concept of which Renaissance Europe borrowed from the ancient Greeks. The transcendenceobsessed culture of the Muslims seeks to stimulate in the viewer or listener, through the contemplation of the beautiful, a perception of the nature of God, in order to facilitate the realization of the ultimate union with Him. And this is exactly how al-Ghazali perceived beauty, summing it up as follows: "For the next world is a world of Spirit and of the manifestation of the Beauty of Allah; happy is that man who has aimed at and acquired affinity with it".
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