Spirituality in Islamic Art and Design

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by Issam Nabulsi

[This lecture was presented at the University of Melbourne in October, as part of the AsiaLink "Sense of Islam" series. It focuses on spirituality in contemporary Islamic architecture. Issam Nabulsi studied under Rasem Badran and worked with his firm in Amman, Jordan, before coming to Australia. He has his own architectural firm (Mimar Architects), involved in some residential work, but particularly in institutional architecture and as a consultancy to other projects.]

Today's topic is spirituality in Islamic art and design, and my focus will mostly be on architecture and design. We were told at university that architecture is the mother art, but I guess that was the professors pushing their own bandwagon in terms of architecture! Islamic art is a vast, diverse topic, so please forgive me today, I really have to condense it and gloss over a lot of interesting areas where I could go into a lot more in depth.

Islamic art and design is firmly based on the idea of unity; almost everything Islamic has its reference back to the idea of unity, of one God. Genuine Islamic architecture provides a vehicle, in that it is providing some sort of plastic form or experience through which the person experiencing the architecture can contemplate the idea of a divine unity.

The aim of all Islamic art and architecture is then to show this divine unity or to make the experiencee (if there is such a word) aware of the divine unity and the interrelatedness that exists within creation to the divine unity. One of the aims then is to lead the experiencee to this realization. Islamic art or design is aimed or geared towards doing that and is an expression of that principle in particular.

To begin to understand Islamic architecture is to understand the principles of Islam. It's such a diverse topic, we'll go through it and describe it in a nutshell, and see how we go. Even in this day and age of secularism and a bit of suspicion towards any sort of organized religion, we need to look at the principles upon which Islam is based so that we can look into how Islamic architecture then expresses that.

Islamic civilisation is based on the view that the revelation was propagated through the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and I believe that in a few of the previous lectures that the life of the prophet Muhammed was the topic of the day.

That message or that revelation is the same pure and simple message, life principle, that was propagated by the entire lineage of prophets starting from Adam, including Noah, Moses, Abraham and Jesus. The very word Islam, meaning peace, is well known; it can also be translated as submission. But the meaning I prefer is being at ease or being at one with the divine will. It's very important because it implies a harmony. And the creed of each of these prophets was simply that there's none worthy of worship except God and that particular prophet of the day was a messenger of God. In an Islamic view, Muhammad (PBUH) the seal of the prophets, is that current prophet, he's the final prophet and therefore he's the current messenger of the day.

Therefore you have the creed of Muslims being "la ilaha illallahu, Muhammadur rasulullah": there is none worthy of worship except God, and the prophet Muhammad is the messenger of God. This statement or creed is in its simplicity the basic attitude that summarizes the spiritual aspect of Islam.

It's so simple: there's no priesthood in Islam; each Muslim has the responsibility or takif of being the best representative of God on earth that he can be or she can be. He or she has the capacity of fulfilling all the religious functions associated with the personal, the family and the social spheres.

In its universal sense Islam can be said to have three levels of meaning (sorry if this is a bit wordy and we're going into some in-depth topics; you're probably thinking what's this got to do with spirituality in art and design, but we're getting there).

The first basic level is that all beings in the universe are Muslim. This is somewhat of a revelation to most non-Muslims, that Muslims view all beings in the universe as Muslim; that there is a basic surrendering to the Divine will from everybody and every creation.

For example, whether you are outwardly Muslim or not, there is a basic level of submission to natural laws. You need to sleep, you need to go to the toilet, you need to engage with others socially, and you have a range of other physical natural requirements. A cow would eat grass, and has no option except to eat grass, and doesn't think otherwise; doesn't think "oh, I feel like a burger tonight". It hasn't got that sort of will. A rock cannot help but fall if it's dropped. God has created these universal laws, and all obey them voluntarily or involuntarily, and in that way, all creatures are Muslims, because they're submitting to the will of God.

In actual fact, Muslims believe that all people are born pure Muslims, in a state of submission, and it's only their environment, and the impact of that, that makes them otherwise (afterwards). In other words, the innateness of
basic human character is Muslim, and that is why when a person becomes a Muslim, other Muslims refer to them as being a revert not a convert, because you're coming back to Islam.

The second level are those who accept with their will the sacred laws of revelation, in that they assume they surrender their will to those laws. So the outwardly Muslim people are the second level (and these are not levels in term of hierarchy, but just different).

So when someone asks me "why do you fast?", I don't say to them "look, I'm fasting because it's good for my body, it's a cleanser, it's good because I can exercise some self control, its good because I can feel for the less fortunate, it's good because it creates a brotherhood with other people". These are all good side effects, but simply, I fast because God tells me to and has ordained it for me. So it's that level of people who obey, basically, God's commandments.

The third level is that of pure knowledge and understanding. It is that of the '`arif', or in English terms, the closest word that I've come across is the 'gnostic'. It is the level that has been recognized by Islam as the highest and most comprehensive. At the beginning we had a bit of calligraphy which said "'allama bil qalam" which implies "and God taught man by the use of the pen", so that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding has always been the highest pursuit that you could undertake as a Muslim.

The 'gnostic' is a Muslim whose whole life is being surrendered to God - he has no separate individual existence of his own - he's like the rest of creation in a way. He's like the cow, the bird, who has full submission to the creator and doesn't think to disobey or to be contrary. And like them he reflects the divine to his own degree.

And so this person or this gnostic is like the rest of creation; the difference is he does so actively; he submits actively whereas other creation does so passively. They do it by virtue of their character, their innateness. His participation is a conscious one and therefore his interaction with his environment is a conscious interaction.

Within nature there are many signs of the divine, and it's interesting that the verses of the text within the Qur'an are also called signs. In Arabic the word for verse in Qur'an is 'ayah', which actually means sign. So both nature and Qur'an speak of the presence of God, and they do so purely.

To the person or to the adherent of sacred law, the signs merely serve to be prescriptive - "do this!", "do that!", "do this!", "do that!" - but to the gnostic the Qur'anic signs and the signs within nature are symbolic. And if the symbolism of that text is to disappear completely and be reduced just to its literal meaning (and a lot of Muslims fall into this category at the moment), man will still know what to do in terms of his duty, but the symbolic aspects of his life will become unintelligible. The phenomena of nature would become just a mere fact, as we have in our daily lives today. "Nice day today". "Yes it is, it's 25 degrees". "Oh, it's good weather for a BBQ". It is that very basic, factual analysis of the nature around us, instead of seeing the signs in nature that reflect the existence of divinity.

And this dry analysis or quantitative analysis of nature is precisely what the higher intellective capacity of Islamic culture does not accept. The spirit of Islam emphasizes by contrast the unity of nature, the unity which is the aim of Islamic design expressed in the different signs within nature and the Qur'an. So it can be said that the idea of unity is not just a basic principle of Islamic art and design, it actually dominates Islamic art and design.

Seyyed Nasr has mentioned that the very canon of art in Islam is abstraction. So what you will see then is that art and Islamic architecture and design tends to go towards abstraction rather than literal interpretation.

Unity cannot be represented directly. It can be symbolized, though even then only subtly and by hints. Islamically there's not one concrete symbol for unity; we don't have any sort of symbol that expresses unity. The basic creed of belief that I mentioned before, that there is none worthy of worship but God, is actually a statement that has negatives in it. "There's none worthy of worship but God". The abstract symbol of unity is negation; in other words we can sort of understand what God is by saying "he's not that", "he's not that", 'he's not that' and by elimination we can sort of get to know what he is. (I'm sorry, I'm using the word 'he'; it's very traditional in Arabic language to use the word 'he', but in Arabic the word for God, 'Allah' - as you probably would know - is actually genderless; God is not he or she, so don't take it that way).

For instance in Surah Ikhlas, one of the verses in the Qur'an, God devotes a chapter to describe himself. And you'd think he'd devote the biggest chapter, but it's only three verses. It says in that chapter "Say God is One"; and then the negatives come into it. It says, "He does not beget, nor is He begotten", so he's not born nor does he give birth; "And there is nothing like unto Him". And that's the end of the verse, that's the end of the chapter. So through that negation; "He does not beget, nor is He begotten; And there is nothing like unto Him" we can start to understand the nature of God. He's not like a man, he's not like his creations. He doesn't get tired, he doesn't get sleepy. He doesn't suffer like we suffer; he doesn't have any of the corporeal constraints that we have, because he created all those things. So in that way we know what God is by knowing what he isn't.

So the traditional Muslim designer looks upon all artistic work as sacred, and he studies it according to those levels that I mentioned before.

The first is the law as contained in essence in the Qur'an, and exemplified by the prophet (PBUH), and thereafter by scholarly tradition and jurisprudence as as taught by qualified masters. (Who are the qualified masters? There's very few of them around at the moment).

It covers every aspect of the social and the religious life of the believer. The catchphrase Muslims often say is "Oh, Islam is not a religion, it's a way of life". It's very simplistic, but it is like that; it's not simply something that we do as rituals, but actually permeates and goes through every aspect of your life. Even to the extent that going to the toilet is an act of worship, having sex is an act of worship, and so on. All the routine and other day to day acts that you might engage in, going to work and so on, can become acts of worship.

So first is the law. It's that basic "here are the laws, here are the requirements; you do these".

Second is the path. And this deals with the inner aspects of things, and this is where the spiritual life comes out.

For instance, a Muslim might pray a ritual prayer, before sunrise; and he or she might fulfil all the outward requirements of that prayer. He may first take ablutions and prepare for the prayer, and then engage in the prayer, face the correct direction, have the correct clothing on, face Mecca, make sure that the place where he's praying is clean, and all that sort of thing; and then recite all of the things that he needs to recite in that prayer; and yet really he has only completed that prayer on the level of law. On the level of path it would be issues such as the sincerity of the prayer that come into it; the modesty, the awe that that person experienced while they were praying; the utter devotion within the prayer. Those are the things that would come under consideration. That I class as the path.

And last is the absolute truth which lies at the heart of both of those approaches. Sayd Nasr again illustrates this point with a simile. If you can picture the law as being the circumference of the circle, the path is its radius, and the centre is where the truth is. So you can see that the law is dictated by the path (the radius) and it's all focused on the centre point, the one point which is the unity, the truth. From this concept you can develop a science of the universe, a science of the soul, and at its core a metaphysical intuition that appeals to all people.

The truth is there whether its recognized or not. It's still there. And it is the arousing of this intuition in all people, outwardly Muslim or not outwardly Muslim, that is the main duty of the Muslim artist or architect.

What I'm saying is that truth exists always; it's just waiting to be recognized. And so when speaking about Islamic art it may be that a work displays recognition of this truth; but it hasn't necessarily been completed by a Muslim. It could have been completed by a non-Muslim whose intuition, that basic innate quality, has led to that discovery. The artist may have recognized a sign; maybe not in the Qur'an, but maybe in nature; and abstracted it and expressed it. Therefore, in this context, it would be regarded as Islamic art.

The problem has been in the last couple of centuries that where Muslims live, by and large, they have not been very free to pursue these sort of discourses, this sort of discussion, these sort of initiatives. And so really the challenge at the moment is because Islamic art and architecture has almost stagnated. It has stayed in the time of 200 years ago and hasn't really progressed.

And what we saw in the last century (post World War II) was the influx of Western ideals and principles in Islamic art and architecture, coming into the areas where Muslims are - to ridiculous levels. For instance, in the Gulf countries where you have, in the middle of the desert climate, a multi-story glass facade village that is kept cool by 24 hours of air-conditioning; and only because it can, only because they've got the dollars to pay for that.

Whereas in essence that architecture, that expression of architecture, is not appropriate for that area nor that culture. I was working with Rasem Badran in 1990 to 1992, and now in the last twenty years there was the recognition of the need to build a bridge from where Islamic art had left, stopped developing; a need to build a bridge from that point to this point. A lot has changed in that time; namely the use of materials has changed dramatically.

But the first port of call in trying to do that is to raise the awareness of the appropriateness of the architecture, and the appropriateness of that architecture in marrying into the Islamic culture and lifestyle, and how it was actually much more appropriate, because it was something that had not just popped up but had eventuated over a number of centuries and actually had holistic solutions to people's requirements. I'll go through some of those in a little while.

I'm talking very abstractly, and to bring some specificity to this talk, I'd like to share the spiritual aspects of Islamic design with regards to what I've been doing - I apologize I don't have Alhambra to show you, I don't Isfahan to show you; I've never been to those places (I'd love to) - I've only got the work that I've done to show you, and hopefully it will be enough to illustrate the points that I'm trying to get across.

Starting with ablution - on the level of law, we talked about it being one of the basic levels. The most important aspect of design in architecture is to facilitate the Muslim's functional needs, and one of those is ablution.

You'll find most things in Islam have a functional aspect to them and they have from that function developed a symbolic aspect, a deep and meaningful aspect. So ablution has a functional aspect, which is to keep clean. But at the same time ablution has a symbolic aspect in that it's cleansing, not just externally, but it's actually cleansing spiritually.

So the requirement to have ablution facilities is a basic level of law-type requirement in any design which services Muslims. The focus on wash areas is so that a person may perform proper ablution rituals including the proper use of the toilet (by the way, this picture is RMIT, but I think it's basically the same as the one that's at Melbourne University, it's almost the same prototype). In Islam, as I mentioned to you before, there are actually requirements and rituals as to how to even use a toilet. So we address that at RMIT and at Melbourne.

And we're addressing it in a different way in our bid for the Royal Women's Hospital redevelopment. Because you can just imagine if somebody unknowing about Islamic toilet requirements walked into a cubicle that had that! "What do I do with that?" I guess it wouldn't be too hard to work out. But nonetheless, what we are doing now in our Royal Women's Hospital bid consultancy is saying to them "let's make it a lot more subtle and convert all disabled toilets so that they're usable by people with a disability and by Muslims". Because what you need in a Muslim-friendly toilet is water to wash yourself; you need a lot of room; and the orientation has to be correct, and there are some other factors as well.

So the ramifications extend into the design of both community projects and also into residential projects.

We also, on the level of law, have to have a place to pray. Now a place to pray for me could be a two metre by one metre space, and that would be sufficient, as long as it was clean and as long as I could face the correct direction. Obviously on a community level it needs to be a bigger space for congregational prayers and so on.

This is the space at RMIT. It was a significant challenge because we were trying to marry the aspects of path (which I'll talk about a bit later) with aspects of law. Sure, we could facilitate the aspects of prayer; but it was very tricky because the building wasn't orientated in anywhere near the direction of Mecca. So we actually had to create false walls within the space, and not so much disorientate, as reorientate a person coming through the building. So they are coming into it fully confident that this is the direction in which I should pray, without someone having to tell them so. That's for prayer.

One of the other aspects is privacy. This is just a snapshot of a house we did in Eltham. You can see that by having, for instance, recessed windows, there's a shadow cast on the window constantly, and that allows for that privacy to occur. There's other reasons why we did the recessing; for shading so it wouldn't get the western sun and so on. But that's one of the aspects. On the level of law, we need to provide for privacy.

You'll find that a lot of the traditional Islamic houses are so focused on this aspect of privacy, it affects window placement, window shape. You have something called a 'mashrabiya', traditionally, placed in front of a window, which is like a lattice screen so the person inside can see out but the person outside couldn't see in.

Also, the issue of privacy affected the traditional design of houses in that they were mostly inward focused. So unlike the traditional brick veneer home in suburban Melbourne on a quarter acre block which is outward focusing (all of the windows are facing outwards, you have a five to ten metre setback from the front yard, two to three metres on the sides, and so on), the traditional Islamic house would most likely have the courtyard inside and focus inwards. That way there is no restrictions on the windows, be they open, be they small. And the courtyard served other purposes both functional and symbolic. That was relating to the issue of privacy.

At Melbourne University for instance, the direction in which people needed to pray was towards the one that is shown in the picture. And we had the windows there; we didn't want to lose that light; but we didn't want people to lose their concentration and be distracted by what was happening outside. So we put the clouded glass in the windows and obscured the view, allowing the nice soft white light to come through, but containing that view.

The other issue of law would be segregation. (If you haven't visited this facility, please do - it's open for everyone to have a look). In terms of segregation in this mosque or in this prayer facility we had to have the option of being able to segregate between males and females at various times, and so we had these large panels that were on a pivot (the bottom view shows them closed) and you were able to open or close them, and that served the purpose quite well.

In terms of orientation, as an issue of law as well - it was very important in any prayer facility that the person not be confused as to the direction of prayer. So we had, at RMIT as I mentioned, to reorientate the person so that they came around and they were focused to the correct direction. We had these lights, like tarmac lights, but on the ceiling, so you're actually guided by them and just follow these lights around to the correct direction.

On the level of knowledge and inner spiritual development that is the path, there are a number of things that we've been trying to tackle. And the main one is stimulation of the senses. Because through stimulating the senses, through the tools available to the architect such as light, matter (different materials), use of water, wind, color - these sort of tools - we are able to stimulate the senses.

RMIT was a huge challenge to us, because it was in a multistorey building. We had a space between two floors, whereas Melbourne University we had a 4 metre floor to ceiling space. So you can imagine, as with churches, as with any religious type building, you are really trying to focus on height, because height tends to be related to spirituality. At RMIT we didn't have that; we had three metres; and that was it (2.7m I think, something like that). We actually created a false dome in there, to give that sense of elevation. I think you would agree that this space gives the impression that it's a spiritual space, and that's what we were trying to do through stimulation of the senses, through light, through the use of color, and so on - forms such as the dome, the arch, and so on. We were trying to put across that it was a spiritual space.

After that in terms of the path (and I've put a few commercial samples here where really I should be putting some mosques), this image is trying to illustrate the concept of continuous space.

I have a young architect working for me now who's doing his thesis on continuous space in Islamic architecture. Continuous space is an interesting subject. What it relates to - if you can imagine - is the idea of being contained in a form, coming into a building, it's got walls, it's got a roof, and so on. But the surface treatment on those forms and surfaces are such that if you were to stand in front of that wall (it would probably be mosaically tiled in a geometric pattern) your sense of perception would go beyond that wall. That wall would have depth, an infinite depth. So the wall doesn't become a barrier any more.

Similarily inside a mosque where you would have a dome we would treat that dome in such a way where if you're underneath that dome, firstly you feel like you're the focus, because you're actually a node geometrically of that dome, you're generating that form. But also if you look up at the surface, the way that it's treated, you wouldn't know where it ended and where it started, and again it's symbolic of the universe that it's there as a functional element. The concept of continuous space is something that you would put across in any Islamic architecture.

And similarly at RMIT the concept that this space is continuing around a corner. The first thing you want to do when you come to this space is go and see what's around the corner.

One of the other aspects in terms of the path or the spirituality is simplicity and sublimity. Islamic architecture tends to be very sublime, very simple. Even when it's embellished, it tends to be very simple. That's a commentary on the fact that what we're not trying to do in Islamic architecture is to set up something aside from God to be worshipped or to be monumentalized.

I understand Christina's presenting something regarding some architectural monuments in Islamic architecture, and I don't want to talk about that because she's going to. But in the early periods of Islamic architecture the focus was away from monumentality because of this notion that you are trying to set something up apart from God. And the focus was more on abstraction and simplicity. I would contend that perhaps Muslims lost their way when their focus came towards monumentality, embellishment, and decoration.

The concept that you have simplicity and sublimity is something that's common to most Islamic architecture, even in South-East Asia and other places aside from the Middle East.

These pictures are of Doncaster mosque; we've also tried to incorporate another aspect which isn't related to the path I guess, its related to the fact that Islamic architecture needed to be [???].

So that's basically how we've tackled it in Melbourne - we are a very small company, a very small firm. We're not an international firm by any means, and therefore the examples that you see are very limited. But that's what we've tried to do on our level - that's to tackle the issue of law, of basic requirements, and the issue of spirituality which is then to take that sensory aspect a bit further and try to evoke feelings of spirituality with that sort of sensual stimulation.

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