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A Muslim perspective on Art and Creativity

Basma Elshayyal's picture

Close your eyes. Visualise a drop of water. What comes to mind? What do you think other people might see, or think of?

A mother – perhaps a tear of happiness or sadness on her child’s cheek? A physicist – a mass held together by surface tension and hurtling downwards in response to the pull of gravity? A child – the welcome herald of plenty of muddy puddles to splash in, or the opposite (wet play, everyone indoors)? A farmer – life to parched earth?

The list is endless, for life around us can become what we make of it, what our senses perceive and what our consciousness creates. Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc. through harnessing originality, progressiveness, or imagination.

Inspired by Creation

As a Muslim, one is always exhorted to look around, contemplate the beauty and wonder of Creation in the world around you and to become inspired by it.

Do they not look at the Camels, how they are created? And at the Sky, how it is raised high? And at the Mountains, how they are fixed firm? And at the Earth, how it is spread out?

(Qur’an, 88:17-20)

Furthermore: ‘Allah is Beautiful and loves Beauty.’ ( Hadith) This instructs Muslims to involve beauty in all that they do.

Bearing these in mind, art, creativity and beautification and adornment of one’s surroundings, then art becomes akin to an enjoyable religious duty for which one is rewarded, rather than a luxury. It is something which is inspired by the signs of God’s wonderful creation all around us and which those, who are blessed to be endowed with sensitive souls, intuitive minds and expressive hearts, take pleasure in creating and sharing selflessly with others.

Expressing awe and wonder

Concrete examples range from the eloquence, rhythm and beauty of the Qur’an when recited or the adhan (call to prayer) to incredible calligraphy; from the breathtaking scale of architecture that also encompasses wondrous detail and intricacy to the delicate miniatures which survive to this day and the uplifting and soul-nourishing songs and music. All reflect the theme of tawhid (the Oneness of God) and express the artist’s sense of awe and wonder.

Titus Burckhardt, the twentieth century philosopher, makes an interesting comment on this point:

The Muslim artist, by his very Islam, his 'surrender' to the Divine Law, is always aware of the fact that it is not he who produces or invents beauty, but that a work of art is beautiful to the degree that it obeys the cosmic order and therefore reflects universal beauty.

From ‘The Essential Titus Burckhardt: Reflections on Sacred Art, Faiths and Civilisation’

Creativity in service to others

Taking this strand of thought one step further, creativity is not merely limited to the arts but stretches out to countless other forms of self-expression and service to others.

Consider the following:

Another innovation regarded air purification, mainly in mosques with high domes. For instance, in the Suleymaniye Mosque built by Mimar Architect Sinan between 1550 and 1557, there is a soot room. Oil lamps and candles were used in large numbers to light buildings; and these would generate much smoke as well as burn oxygen. To solve this problem, Sinan used aerodynamics to drive the smoke to a filter chamber; which was then collected and used for making ink used for calligraphy in books and archival material. This particular mixture of ink protected books from book worms; and the filter system purified and sweetened the air which resulted from burning candles and peoples’ exhalation. Looking up, you will also see an ostrich egg hanging from the chandelier. Through many years of research, Ottomans had discovered that these eggs secrete chemical substances into the atmosphere which repel spiders and mosquitoes. Hence, spider-web free mosque domes! (Professor S. AlHassani, Manchester University)

True creativity becomes immortal, in whatever form it takes – whether written, drawn, painted, spoken – a beautiful and soulful way of sharing one’s inner humanity with the rest of the world, today and forever.