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A Civilization in From

Islamic art, calligraphy, Samir el-Sayegh

Light, showers down an aesthetical construct, orchestrated to a universal rhythm. A flickering wick comes aglow, the story of creation, unravels to speak a thousand tongues, in silence. Its translucent form with nature, to this music, sways, & the earth, like a woman, gives birth, to man. Divinity, in all its splendor, now, in motion. The planet’s first heartbeat. Out of this movement, dots bloom into lines to transcribe an existential philosophy ingrained in the seed of life.

“Islamic art is an innocent response to the philosophy of the universe,” our host, poet, historian & calligrapher Samir el-Sayegh clarified. The original masters of this art selflessly gave themselves to magnificence & life breathed their bodies to expression. Some master calligraphers went as far as intentionally removing their eyes so as to draw an image that exists in the mind. “The hand is drawing a perfect circle, not because there is a circle in view but because this circle exists in the mind as an absolute,” El-Sayegh said.

Our story however, began with writing the Koran on paper. The Arabs spent 300 years writing a single text that was originally meant to be committed to memory. “If we were to sample the earliest versions of this text, we would find that the Arabs were not only writing it for people to read. They were celebrating existence through form,” he explained. That is exactly why reading the Koran is no simple matter seeing how the letters in their diverse forms are strung together reflecting a universal order. In that sense, this form of expression took on the image of this world and the artist became witness to its meaning.

This calligraphy is originally meant to spark the viewers’ curiosity rather than tell a story. Its sole purpose is meditative. So a study of the way the long, short, thick & thin lines interact, becomes imperative. “When these letters, each with their own individual characteristics intertwine, the text will breath numerous interpretations. It will also feel & look similar to the waves of an ocean, or even the flames of a fire, which steal your attention & hypnotize you to delve into your own being without knowing why,” El-Sayegh said.

That is why most westerners & western educated Arabs have difficulty understanding this art form. Simply put, Islamic art is the art of the How & not the What. The artist is not separate from the work. Rather, he is part of it. The self in this context fades into the background instead of standing out. One perfect example would be the architecture of a tree leaf. We see that this leaf has a line running right down the middle & dividing it into two halves with sidelines running away from the center. This architecture extends farther to form a branch, then a tree, till finally it becomes a forest. “This principle is found in humans & in all living beings. If we do not learn to see & appreciate the beauty of the design, we will be unable to understand it. That’s why this kind of art may be all around us yet we fail to see it,” El-Sayegh says.

This drastic shift is mainly due to the non-existent relationship with nature & the elements. “In this modern day & age, not only have we lost connection with nature, we are in constant battle with the elements,” El-Sayegh explains. When someone looses the relationship with the natural elements, that same person stops knowing how to see, that individual loses his connection with existence.

The opposite is true when it comes to western art. “Individualism came from Western philosophy when man placed himself at the center of the universe,” el-Sayegh elaborated. The East, Islam, & the old civilizations like the Chinese, refrained from doing that. The eastern artist was at best, a master. He was closer to a Sufist monk, a visionary, a messenger of God.

In principal, this individual or the “I”, is not an expression of the world. Here, the artist is a witness. He simply is like any living being. That is why he expresses principles rather than emotions. “Islamic art,” El-Sayegh said, “is an art form without artists.” In this case, the artist as a separate entity, does not exist. If, on the other hand, we study Western art, starting with Leonardo da Vinci to Picasso, we will be able to read the history of art during that era. In turn, we will also have some idea of European history from a social, political & religious perspective. Not so in the East because this art is not expressing the thoughts & emotions related to the lives of the artists, for such details in the grand scheme of things pale in comparison to the work itself.

That may be one reason why, if we were to ask what an artist is in the Arab world to a Moroccan, a Turk, a Yemeni, an Iranian, Indonesian, Malaysian & Indian native, possible answers would be Michael Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci, & Picasso. It would be highly unlikely to hear of an artist by the name of Ibn Muqla, Ibn el-Bawab, or even Bahzad.
Ironic enough, the definition to that question came from the West. The Arabs went there & were influenced by Western modern art. When they saw the works of Paul Klee, when they heard Kandinsky talking about the art of writing, did they start taking Islamic art seriously. That was also when Arabs started seeing this kind of Islamic art the way a westerner interpreted it.

“It’s like we travel to the West to enter the East. This is totally unacceptable,” El-Sayegh said passionately. For him, the way is clear, namely that of going back to the source.

This aesthetical construct from which a philosophy of the universe was conceived gave birth to Islamic art which in turn gave little meaning to inanimate objects because at its core, only God is permanent. Over the decades however, Arab societies shifted to a more materialistic view of the world because man’s relationship with nature had finally seized. A schism came to be.

Having said that, it would only be fair to conclude by adding that, a universal construct such as this lives on to adorn monuments built by blind visionaries celebrating the majesty of creation through being. Though expressing that being in art has taken on numerous forms, it however has remained a noble endeavor of the highest proportions.
Published: 2009-03-03
Author: Jad Haidar

About the author or the publisher
Jad is 34 year-old native of Lebanon currently residing in Beirut. He's German educated (school level) & an English Literature graduate of the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

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