The Wheatley Institution

Islam: Truth and Beauty

Seyyed Nasr
September 6, 2012

Related Videos

Abdul Aziz Said

Islamic-Western Peacemaking: Partnerships for a Better World
Abdul Aziz Said

February 8, 2011


Amaney Jamal

Successes & Failures Since the Arab Spring
Amaney Jamal

February 25, 2015


Cas Mudde

Why Should We Study Populism?
Cas Mudde

January 29, 2016


Click here to view the transcript
Click here to hide the transcript

I want to thank all the authorities of this university who brought me here. To be frank with you, I have never visited Provo before. While having visited your sister or brother (or maybe distant cousin) university in Salt Lake City many times, I always associated Utah with Salt Lake City and was always astounded that, in the middle of the desert, you had one of the best programs in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in the United States. Thanks, essentially, to two men who did a lot for the state of Utah and fields of study pertaining to what I am going to say tonight—Aziz Suriyal Atiya, who was a Christian Arab, and Khosrow Mostofi, who was a Persian Muslim scholar from Iran. Both of them have died, and God bless their souls. Together they created one of the major libraries in this country concerning the Middle East—Arabic and Persian, Iranian, and subjects pertaining thereto.

From the 1960s, I used to come here as a lecturer. When I was vice chancellor of Tehran University, we established a program of exchange with the University of Utah, sending students and faculty and receiving them, and also exchanging books. There are over 30,000 books at a distance of a forty-five minute drive from you which I sent personally to the University of Utah library. I was responsible. We got 30,000 books. We sent them people who could teach people the poetry of Hafiz; they would send us people who know how to cure cows. We had a special interest in all of the medicine and dealing with agriculture, for which the state is so well known. You cannot imagine what it means for me to come to this state. 

I also must state this little anecdote before I begin. I owe a lot. When the Iranian revolution took place, I was in London. For years and years, Harvard, Princeton, and these places had been trying to get me, so I wrote to these places saying that I had come out of Iran. It was in the middle of the year, and it was not possible for them with political things going on, so I would not go. The president of the University of Utah was David Gardner. As soon as he heard that, he took a special bill to the university senate and asked me to come on a distinguished visit to profess at the University of Utah, so I left London for Salt Lake City.

I came on a plane. Four men from the FBI with big hats were standing over the plane to protect me as guards because of what had happened. I thought that if I didn't go home, I would like nothing better than to be buried in the land of Utah. Unfortunately, nobody shot me, so thirty years later, I am still lecturing, talking, and preparing students. Now, this is my first intellectual relationship with this university. One of my books will appear in the next volume of the series of this university's bilingual editions, coming out under the direction of Daniel Peterson. Of all places, Brigham Young University in Utah is the best in the Western world for bilingual series, which many universities, including Harvard, tried to do and did not really succeed. Now you are doing it, and I feel proud. I am sorry he is not here now to be part of this very important academic endeavor.

Now, let's get to the subject for which I have come here and of which I shall speak—Islam: Truth and Beauty. Let me congratulate this university for being able to create an exhibition of this order to start with, an exhibition of Islamic art of the highest quality, both as far as individual objects and as the flow of forms and ideas are concerned, as one goes from one room to another. I had the privilege of seeing it this morning. What I shall do tonight for you is to try to bring out some of the deeper meaning of Islamic art now that you have this remarkable exhibition here, which is one of the best I have seen in this country.

Let me begin with a universal principle: no authentic expression of the truth is ever separated from beauty. A famous saying of Plato, that "beauty is a splendor of the truth," is one of the most profound statements ever made. Everything that is true is beautiful, including the human soul, the highest form of a work of art from God. When it is truthful, there is beauty in the soul. That is the highest form of beauty.

In Arabic it is quite interesting that the word for goodness, virtue, and beauty are the same. So from the highest level, which is a creature which God has created to speak to, who can address God (that is, human beings), down to the little mollusks that are in the sea or the little bugs that walk in the forest, the truth of anything that is real is always related to beauty. Ugliness is our invention. The possibility of making it the truth in the human order is the origin of the creation of ugliness. You don't think of it in these terms, but look at it in the world of nature. Wherever you go is beautiful. The forest has one form of beauty, the desert another form of beauty, the majestic mountains you have here are one form of beauty, and the much lower rolling hills of Virginia, near where I live, have their own beauty. Flowers have their own beauty, and the sea has its own beauty. Have you ever seen ugliness in nature? Don't say, "Oh yes, I saw a shark eating a smaller fish," or something like that. That is not really ugliness. That is another facet of the cycle of life, but the shark itself—how beautiful is its form! To the extent that we make cars that try to look like sharks and try to sell them.

Ugliness is a human invention. We have the choice of making that which is ugly and that which is beautiful, starting with ourselves. We have the choice of making our souls beautiful or our souls ugly. From that issues what we say. We have this choice of saying things which are beautiful or things which are ugly, and making things which are beautiful or things which are ugly. This is a very important truth to realize. Even across the boundaries of Islam, there is no religion in which the expression of authentic truth is not combined with beauty. You might not be used to its language, but from the sand painting of the American Indian of the Navajos and the Hopis just south of here one thousand miles, to the Ise temple in Japan, which is the center of Shintoism—look how beautiful they are. Two very, very different religions. From there to the great churches and cathedrals that various forms Christianity has created to the beautiful Torahs that the Jews have created, to the Buddhist statuary. This remarkable wedding between the sacred and beauty is universal. Throughout history, religious truth has spoken to human beings more through the language of beauty than through the language of abstract thought—of theology and of philosophy. I happen to be a philosopher, but how many people read my books? If I write a beautiful Persian poem in nice calligraphy, everybody doesn't understand what the poem means, but everybody appreciates the beauty of it. The language of beauty is a universal language. It is very important to understand this in a universal sense, but I am not here to give a universal lecture but to speak about Islam. I shall whittle down my comments tonight to the case of Islamic tradition.

First of all, in Islam you can ask the question, "What is the truth?" Maa al-haqiiqah; the question that has been asked throughout Islamic history going back to the time of the Prophet. What is the truth? The Qur'an, the sacred scripture of Islam, is essentially a document that is concerned with the truth—what is true? What is false? What is good? What is evil? What is ugly? What is beautiful? The criteria which enable us to distinguish between these categories of opposites which govern our life are what the Qur'an is concerned with.

Here at the fountainhead of Islam is the truth—that is, a revelation from heaven—again you have this wedding between truth and beauty. There are a billion and a half Muslims in the world today who have never experienced the Qur'an outside of either beautiful sound or beautiful form. You either see beautiful calligraphy on buildings, at home, or in books; they read it themselves or they hear it. You never hear ugly recitations of the Qur'an. The highest form of oral art, the highest form of music (although it is not called music in Arabic) is the chanting of the Qur'an. So in the Islamic experience, truth, which is associated with the Qur'an, always appears in the dress of beauty. This is very important and is an experience which underlies the most profound aspects of Islamic living.

One of the most devastating and terrible things that has occurred in the last 200 years in the Islamic world is, on the one hand, the modernism coming from the West, which is opposed to beauty and Islamic art and which has destroyed so much of the Islamic civilization. So many of the great Islamic cities have been turned into slums by modernists, by people who have studied modern architecture of France and Germany and the United States and other places and they are not traditional Islamic architects. Or by fundamentalists, who are the other side of the coin of modernism. A more recent phenomenon in the Islamic world is that people are totally indifferent to beauty. For them, the destruction of its thousand-year-old mosque that just happened in Mali two weeks ago is as if you took the waste basket and threw your dirty handkerchief into it. So it is a great tragedy, and it is time for the Islamic world itself to wake up to this reality.

If you look at Islam, it is impossible for Islam to survive as a religion without beauty.  Beauty is and has been the hallmark of everything Islamic throughout history. Look at the literature, look at the art, look at the poetry, look at the ground on which people sat (that is, on Persian carpets or Anatolian carpets), masterpieces of world art, the rooms in which they lived, the sound which they heard, and so on. The Islamic experience is not what you read in the newspapers: "Islam is just a set of rules and laws, and do's and don'ts, with very harsh punishments." Yes, God is just and punishes. They have that in the Old Testament even more than we have in the Qur'an. If Islam is a religion with God as the judge, so is Judaism, and so is Christianity, which accepts the Old Testament as part of its sacred scripture. So does Mormonism, so does every other religion.

That doesn't mean that other aspect, of beauty, is to be neglected, especially in the Islamic context. If you talk about visibly, theologically, what does it mean to talk about the truth? Truth means that first of all, there is a God. God is transcendent, He is one, He is beyond all qualities, He is beyond all quantities, and He is beyond all that can be said of . . . it, him, her—God is beyond all pronouns. At the same time, He is a God who has created, who speaks to us, who although beyond everything, is our interlocutor. It is a God who is "it" and, at the same time, "thou"—to whom we can speak. This truth, this divine reality, while beyond all qualities, has manifested itself through its names and attributes which are in the Qur'an, the hadiths of the Prophet, and acts which he has performed. This is the heart of the truth of Islam, and all of this is contained in a single sentence—"laa ilaaha illa allah"—there is no reality, or there is no divinity, but the divine reality, which is a formula of oneness but also a formula of returning everything back to God.

Now, I don't want to talk about an aspect except to emphasize that according to this truth which is foundational to Islam, this truth (although beyond this world and beyond the human persona and even the divine persona, beyond all that you can conceive of him, beyond—persona in Latin is mask—beyond the mask of persona) nevertheless has a will that works in history and in our lives and has a wisdom which is manifested in what that will has brought into being. [This is] a sphere where the relation between truth and beauty becomes manifest.

One of the names of God is One, Allah. One of the names of God is All Powerful. I could go through all the names. Another name of God that is central is The Beautiful, Jameel. God is beautiful, and, according to the famous saying of the proverb of Islam, God is beautiful and He loves beauty. In the same way that God is good and He loves goodness. In the same way that God, being good, wants us to perform good acts; God being beautiful, wants us both to be beautiful and to make beautifully. This is really the foundation, the spiritual foundation, of Islamic art.

Islamic art is the manifestation of the inner dimension of the Islamic revelation. Here I have to part ways from almost all western scholars of Islamic art. Islamic art, like any other form of art, developed as an academic discipline in nineteenth-century Germany. It was called kunstgeschichte in German.  That is art history—a beginning form of history when you study who influenced whom. Gradually it spread from Germany to France and England and then into the United States. Universities began to have a department in the history of art, and then gradually began to study what we call Islamic art today. At first, even this category was not accepted. It took Ananda Coomaraswamy a great deal of doing to establish the category of Hindu art that began in the beginning of the twentieth century to show that there is not simply an art of India. There is a Hindu art, there is a Buddhist art that is related to these traditions.

In the case of Islam, there was much more resistance. Big museums would show Persian art, Andalusian art, some Egyptian art, certainly Mogul and Northern Indian-Islamic art, but not Islamic art per se. You will be very surprised to realize that the first exhibition in the West of Islamic art was in 1977—as late as that—in the Hayward Gallery in London when the late Titus Burkhardt, God bless his soul, and myself put on the exhibition of Islamic art (I called it Islamic art), which was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth. This exhibition, in a sense, baptized it officially as Islamic art with all the posters in the London subway. Very soon thereafter, Victoria and Albert Museum put all of its collections of Persian art, Indian art, Egyptian art, and Islamic art together. The British Museum followed suit, and in 1978, two years later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has the largest collection of Islamic art in the United States, most of which was in the basement, had a curator called Richard Ettinghausen, the famous German art historian, who was a good friend of mine. He wrote to me in Tehran and said, "Can you give us some money to put on the first exhibition of Islamic art? I have been a part of the Museum of Art and promise most of the galleries will be Persian art." At that time, it was unlike now; with one telephone call I could get a few million dollars. So I picked up the telephone, and within five minutes I got a few million dollars for him. I can't do that anymore, unfortunately. I can't even get a few tens of thousands of dollars for anybody. In those days, I could do anything in Iran. So I got the money for him, and the exhibition was inaugurated. The first museum in the United States to have a section of Islamic art was the Metropolitan Museum.  It was very soon followed by the Cleveland Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—the greatest museums in this country—and the San Francisco Museum. In Washington in the Sackler Gallery, a whole new section was built for Islamic art. So it is a very recent phenomenon. The very acceptance of the category of Islamic art is a recent phenomenon.

Even though we can accept it, in most places where Islamic art is taught (like the University of Michigan and Harvard, the two oldest universities in the country that teach Islamic art as a discipline), it is always considered in a historical way as some kind of an art that developed in a strange way in the Middle East, based on influences of Sassanid, Byzantine and other artistic influences and suddenly appear like that. I believe this is a total disregard for the truth.  All sacred art is like a descent from heaven. What is the origin of gothic art picture? Who can explain incredible masterpieces that suddenly appear in Europe called Gothic architecture from any kind of influence? Yes, the buttresses were influenced by the Mosque of Córdoba, and this was influenced by that, but this total form is kind of a descent from heaven, so it is an inspiration. Every civilization is like this, and Islam is no exception.

Islamic art is not only a result of Sassanid and Byzantine influence on architecture, techniques, and so forth. Of course they use some Sassanid techniques of bricklaying in Iran and Byzantine techniques of stone laying in Syria, which was a Byzantine province. The art itself comes from something else—the sacred art is always divinely inspired art. In the case of Islam, it comes not from the actual words of the Qur'an but from its inner meaning, because from the Qur'an also flows Islamic law. That is based on the meaning of certain verses. Let's say we, like the Jews, do not eat pork, or derivatives of the animal. It is written there. Or it is written, "Do not drink wine," "do not steal," "do not accept interest"—different things that you have as a religious law. There is no sentence in the Qur'an that says, "Now, do art in such and such a way." There is no chapter on art. It is much more subtle than that.

It is really the great genius of Titus Burkhardt, a European Muslim Sufi artist, art historian, and incredible genius who brought this out for the first time in his book, The Art of Islam. May God bless his soul. One of the greatest men I have met in my life in the field of art, an unbelievable person. Unbelievable. I have met so many traditional masters in Iran, India, and other places, but nobody had his vision, could look at something and see the inner intention of that form of art. He has brought that art quite well. What Islamic art comes from is what they call the Haqiiqah—the inner truth of the Qur'an.

Yes, the injunctions of the Qur'an set certain social conditions for the involvement of the Qur'an. I will give you one example. According to Islamic law, going back to the Qur'an, private spaces for private living should be private. That is, you should not have a house with a garden and then an apartment looking right into the garden, where you and your wife and children do not have the freedom to go about in any way that you want. You see how we have destroyed Islamic art in Muslim cities where that is exactly what is happening. In traditional Islamic cities, this was always observed.  That is, the space of the garden, or a courtyard, was always private. The condition for that was set by the Qur'an. But now, how you make a beautiful courtyard in Morocco—a tile work or a little fountain with one or two little trees which symbolize the whole of creation. Incredible works of art, which were created in gardening, and the art of gardening, not to talk about the architecture itself. All of that comes from the inner meaning of the Qur'an. It is a very subtle thing that was handed down through generations and flowered in the various forms of Islamic art.

Alas, in an introductory lecture like this, I don't have time to go over the metaphysics and cosmology of this Haqiiqah, about this inner meaning of truth that relates to art forms and the significance in the human mind. It is a whole science unto itself. I cannot go into it, but at least I can point out the nexus that exists in Islam between the Haqiiqah, the inner meaning of the Qur'an, and Islamic art. What is written in the Qur'an is outward meaning or even the sounds, necessarily. When we talk about the sounds of the Qur'an, they are in a subtle way related to spaces created in Islamic architecture, to which I am going to turn in a moment.

Now, this Haqiiqah, this truth which is central to the Islamic message, of course involves many things. It involved ethics, human life, social life, political life, economic life, scientific life. In a sense, everything in Islam is a comment from the Qur'an. From books and mathematics of Khayyaam to the poetry of Khayyaam or  'Arabi or everything. As far as it pertains particularly to art, I want to point out some of the ways in which Islamic understanding of the truth in its application is related to a particular art form that Islam creates. In a universal sense, truth has no boundary. It is true that I am now speaking in English and I used the word "true," which comes from an Anglo-Saxon root, or you could use the word veritas coming from the Latin. If I were speaking Arabic or Persian, I would be making another sound system coming out of my mouth, which would say, "Haqq" or "Haqiiqaha"—all kinds of things. There are many different words. The boundaries are linguistic whereas the concepts are universal. When you get to the domain of art, the form itself becomes much more particularized, like the form of language. It is the inner meaning that is universal and is universalized. It is much more difficult to grasp.

For example, Westerners in the middle ages could not read the language of Hindu art. After colonization of India by Great Britain, it has become much more popular. Now every educated English man can look at a beautiful Hindu statue and appreciate it, as he gradually learns the language. Same with Seiji Ozawa who conducted to Boston Symphony. A Japanese, who should know nothing about Western music, is the conductor of the premier orchestra of the United States. (After I studied in Boston I may be prejudiced.) That can happen, and paradoxically, Western people have today a more global taste for art than Eastern people. Someone from Nepal has never seen any Persian or French art. Someone from France has probably seen both Persian and Nepalese art. The opening up in the West, which also destroyed much of the Christian art, nevertheless has made an opening towards other forms of art.

In the Islamic world itself, with other traditional worlds, the opening is not that great. You must nevertheless understand, get into it and understand why there are these particularities. Why is it that whenever a Christian studies the art of another civilization, the first thing that comes into his mind is painting? Why is it that when a Muslim studies the art of another civilization, the last thing that comes into his mind is painting? Who is right and who is wrong? Of course, they are both right for a very profound reason. Each expression of the truth below God (who is the absolute truth) is an expression of truth in the form of various revelations and various religions, which also brings with it a particular understanding of the hierarchy of art. What is universal in the hierarchy of art of all religions, all traditions from Taoism to Judaism, is that the highest form of the art is the art that deals with God—that is, sacred, the Tao, the absolute reality, or however you want to name it. Again, we get into the difference in name, but the concept is in the ultimate.

Now, once we understand that, it gradually becomes clearer. In Christianity, the view of the hierarchy of art is based exactly on this. In Christianity, what is the highest? It is a depiction of the word of God. For Christianity, that is Christ. The highest art is the icon. The sculpture of the icon that is either two dimensional or three dimensional, you might say. In Islam, the highest expression of the truth is not a person; it is the word of the Qur'an. So what is the highest art? The clothing of the divine word, which now would no longer be the painting of the God-man (as in Greek Orthodox tradition, which still goes on, or the Russian Orthodox beautiful icons, which they have been created for 2,000 years) but calligraphy. Calligraphy was the response of the Muslim soul to the beauty of the Qur'anic revelation.

The Arabs, before the rise of Islam, spoke Arabic. They were Arabs before the coming of Islam.  A very refined poetic sense and a very refined poetry—which in Arabic is called al-jaahiliyyah, the poetry of the age of ignorance—was a model in its eloquence, and the Qur'an had to outdo eloquence in eloquence. That is why the greatest miracle of Islam for Muslims is the balaagha of the Qur'an, the miracle of the eloquence of the Qur'an. The Muslims, they don't write beautifully. They just learn the alphabet from the Nabateans. Nabatea is a town in southern Lebanon. They created an alphabet that was adopted just centuries before the coming of Islam into Arabia itself. We have some documents. Irfan Shahid, a famous Christian professor of Georgetown, has assembled some of them, and others, with a few lines here, and they are very ugly. They are not beautiful calligraphy. The descent of the Qur'an was followed (as a response of the Muslim soul to the art of the sound of the Qur'an, which the Muslims did not invent, that comes from heaven) by beautiful calligraphy.

So the first great sacred art of Islam, at the top of the hierarchy of the arts, correspondent to the icon, is calligraphy. Painting with a Christian eye is calligraphy for the Muslim eye. Don't forget, all secular painting in the West issues from sacred painters who studied the history of Christian art from the very beginning. It goes step by step before we get to Cubism and modern paintings (a few lines on the wall and things like that). It is a long distance, but first of all was the gradual secularization of human form instead of the consolidation in classicism, and finally this break up in impressionism and expressionism, in which form is denied. That is another very long process, which has nothing to do with Islamic art..

As Christians or non-Christian Westerners who try to understand Islamic art, try not to use the same categories. It just happens that in the Christian West, calligraphy is a very minor art. If you take four great civilizations next to each other—China, India, Islam and the West—in Islam and China, calligraphy is the highest form of art. Taoism also—Taoist calligraphy. If you write the Tao Te Ching, you just cannot throw it in the waste basket. That earns sacred burning in Middle Asia and China, as well as any painting that might have a character from the Tao Te Ching or Confucius in it. It was burned ritually like that. Whereas the other two, India and the West, of course have Devanagari, Sanskrit, and Latin lettering, and some of it is very beautiful, but it doesn't play the same role.

When you go to see this exhibition upstairs or downstairs, do not try to look for a painting as if you are going to the national art gallery and looking where Rembrandt is and see a painting of Christ or the Virgin, a very gentle virgin that he painted. Don't look for that. That is not the center of art. It is based on another hierarchy.  The hierarchy of Islamic art is determined by the understanding of truth in its Islamic context which is based on absolute transcendence, opposition to all anthropomorphic images of the divine but based on God speaking to man through a sacred language, therefore concentrates on an art of the language which is calligraphy.

The second great art in Islamic civilization is related very much to the first in our mind today. That is the deepest sense, architecture. It says in the hadith of the prophet where God addresses a part of Islam. He says, "Verily, I make for thee the whole of the earth thy mosque."  ("ja'alnaa al-arD masjadan.") where we use the word masjad for mosque. The word 'mosque' comes from mezquita, which comes from the Arabic masjad. It is the place of prostration, one of the forms of prayers that we use daily as Muslims and we bow down and put our head on the ground before God. That is called sujuud, that is the lowest form of the moment of the body and the highest form of humility before God. The mosque is where you do it. The very word "mosque" is not an Anglo-Saxon word. It is an origin Arabic word—masjid.

Now, it says in this hadith that I have made the whole of the earth masjid. What does that mean? That means that I am here at Provo. If I have the permission of the president or somebody who was in charge, I can go in the grass and pray. I can do all the things that a Catholic can only do before an altar in the church. That is, conduct a Eucharist with a priest right on the grass outside of here. That is how Islam is made. Therefore, I say this because in a sense, Islam did not need architecture until they came out of nature into the cities. Otherwise, nature is God's architecture. The nomads had no architecture. They are very pious people. They had no mosques. They prayed when they were going back and forth between the high place and low places with summer and winter and like the Indians, the nomads in the old days left no architecture behind.

Architecture came to Islam when there was a need of creating a sacred space in a space that had lost its sacrality because of human habitat. Once we began to build, we destroyed the sacred quality of natural space. We created our own human spaces. Within that, it was therefore necessary to create a sacred space. That is how the mosque architecture began.

Obviously, I don't have time to go over how it developed from the simple mosque of the prophet to essentially what was later the most perfect buildings in the world: the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which has no historical precedence. Nobody can explain how this thing suddenly appeared. They have written thousands of books which try to explain it away, but it is really like a sudden descent. Even ordinary works of human art cannot be reduced to their influences. Any of you who is a lover of Western music, if you hear the Sanctus from the D minor Mass of Bach, you cannot reduce that to any work of Bach's Schultz, or anybody else. It is almost inspiration from heaven that has come right back down. So much more so a major work of sacred art which still stands.

So all of this suddenly appears like this. Without really historical precedence, when it is necessary to create these sacred spaces. From then on, wherever the Muslims go, they build a mosque. They vary from very simple mud structures in Mali or Chad or other places in Africa to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul or the Shah Mosque in Isfahan the great mosques that you have seen pictures of among the great masterpieces of world art.

These two remain within the classic arts as the peak of the hierarchy of Islamic arts. They have remained at the peak because of the particular expression of the truth in its Islamic form. MuHii al-diin ibn 'Arabii, the great Andalucian sage, writes in one of his books, "For Muslims, it is forbidden to depict the image of the divinity.  Let us not criticize Christians for whom these depictions were allowed by another dispensation from God." It is very interesting that traditional Muslims do not understand these people running and destroying churches in Iraq because being angry for all the bombs that the American armies threw on their heads. Unfortunately, the Christian community in Iraq is always completely destroyed thanks to the invasion of Iraq or course. They have been there for 1400 years.

Putting these horrible acts aside that is going on now which are due to very immediate conditions and causes, the Muslims are always very appreciative of Christian painters of the icons. When Shah Abbas, the great powerful Persian king, establishes Mahan as his capitol, he brought a number of Armenians, who are very good craftsmen, and settled them across the river in Iran in Isfahan one day. The Armenians are still there. He not only allowed them to build churches, he told them to invite icon painters from Armenia and Russia to come and paint for them and they are still there. They are some of the most beautiful Christian churches. It looks very strange to Muslim eyes with all of these paintings on the walls and so on and so forth. But the Muslims understood that and did not oppose it. They did not oppose it. The fact that even the Hagia Sophia, which was a mosque for such a long time, still has a tremendous painting of Christ on the ceiling. They didn't tear it down. That place was until Ataturk agreed as part of the agreement not to be deposed, to convert that from a mosque into general museum or something like that for 600 years before that, that was a mosque where people would pray every day and it was against Islamic law to have human paintings. Ulema held this as an exception with the painting of Christ up there and there it remained.

You must remember that the Islamic understanding of the hierarchy of the arts based on the particular truth as manifested in Islam, that truth itself ordered the Muslims to also respect other expressions of truth which are not Islamic, at least to the Sages who understood it. There was a poem which my father oftentimes said was his favorite poem of the Persian language. My father was a very good scholar and one of the greatest scholars of his day and the poem is like this: "Mulusman gar bidanasti keh bat chist, bidanasti keh din dar bat parastist. An unbelievable verse of one of the greatest of Sufi masters, Mahmud Shabastari the author of Galshani Raz said, "If a Muslim were only to understand what is an idol, he would realize that true religion is idol worship." How daring. Bin Laden would have shot this verse and immediately found him but authentic Islam over the centuries understood what this man was saying. Even the Hindu idols that appear as polytheism outside and both Muslim and Christian missionaries are against them and so forth over the centuries, looked at more profoundly represent another hierarchy of the arts, another way in which God speaks to humanity.

Anyway, in the sonoral arts, the peak of the artistic hierarchy of Islam is if course the solemnity of the Qur'an, the chanting of the Qur'an. I should have asked somebody here to perhaps start the session here tonight with three or four minutes of Qur'anic chanting, but I am sure most of you have heard it. This is an art that Muslims claim—listen to me very carefully—claim is ultimately derived from an art which God taught to the prophet David. There is a book in French where a Frenchman claims that the Gregorian chant, plain chant—all of you now know what Gregorian chant is. When I was a student at Harvard, no one in the West knew what the Gregorian chant was except for a few Catholics. We discovered one tape and listened to six or seven aesthetes at Harvard and everyone was wondering what the sound was at the beginning. Thank God after many years, you all know what the Gregorian chant is. That is really the treasure house of all Western music which was for a thousand years, was heard in Europe more than anything else except for folk songs.

It is claimed that the Gregorian chant, a method of chanting of the Qur'an, ultimately go back to the same source as music. I am not a person to judge about that. God knows. But as Muslims, because of what is said in our traditional Islamic sources, we believe that the Prophet taught that Muslims how to chant the Qur'an. We didn't invent it. There are modulations of course. The Egyptian chanters carry out some notes more intense than the others. Especially, it was a joke that after Verdi's Aida was inaugurated in Cairo and some of the qaari's in Egypt tried to emulate Italian opera singing and they were holding onto notes while they were bloating out like a fish like that and over exaggerating, but the basis of the Qur'anic traditional singing is based on a science. It is not just anybody mixed up anything. It is very carefully directed like a Gregorian chant in the Christian tradition, which has lasted 1800-1900 years, 2,000 years, God knows how long, but it doesn't change every two years like rock and roll. It is a permanent form of art.

The Gregorian chanting is like a Qur'anic chanting in many ways. For the Muslim ear, that is the highest form of music. Although it is not called music. Music in Arabic uses either the Greek word musica, which in Arab is muusiiqaa, or ghinaa', an Arabic word which is used less. An everyday word is muusiiqaa, and in Persian musighi. That is a very tall order and the arts that were based on especially esoteric, mystical arts and Sufism and sacred dancing and things like that with which I will not even deal today. 

Because I have just a few minutes left I want to talk about these forms of art which in the West, you do not usually associate with in most important art, high art, with painting itself—the art of painting. The art of painting quite rightly, was named by Western historians of art as miniatures which are small. Like the prefix mini, which you fashion many things in English and in Latin is small. Small miniature. It was always small until it went to India. We Persians have a joke as if a very slender cucumbers that are about this big and very tasty. Once they went to India they grew to be this big and so we said anything from Persia that goes to India suddenly grows in size. This is exactly what happened with the miniatures. So we do have big miniatures of the Mogul period. Especially individual portraits of Johan Geer and Akbarah, the great emperors. It is not all miniature small. The Turks, the Ottoman Turks, also in certain miniatures of battles—Sultan Suleiman in the 17th century against Vienna and so forth, that is battles, which were fairly big.

The miniature began as an illustration for books and the first examples that we have are scientific books. Books from 1,000 years ago, the fourth Islamic century of mineralogy in which there are small paintings of, let's say, a piece of cobalt or quartz or something like that A kind of a mineralogical textbook illustrated, and then gradually plants. The translation of Dioscorides famous book or pharmacopeia—Dioscorides was a famous Greek pharmacist who collected herbs and wrote about the medical effect. Very important in the history of science. It was translated into Arabic and the Arabic versions have beautiful drawings of the plants. They are also very practical. They help the pharmacist to identify various plants.

From that gradually grew up illustration of the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, the epic book of Kings. It was called the Homer of the Persian language, the greatest poet of the Persian language or any Islamic language. There is nobody like him. His heroes are even our Arab names—a people called Rostom in Algeria who are not even Persians but they have taken from the Shahnameh who was a great hero of the Shahnameh there and they are very famous also in India. An illustration of Kaliila wa-Dimna and other poetical works and then when the Mongols came and took over Asia and for a while two cousins, one was ruling over China and the other one over Western Asia, and Hulagu Khan and Kublai Khan—it was unbelievable. They exchanged scientists and painters. They were not at all what we think of a blood thirsty people just cutting off heads. They were very much interested in the arts and sciences.

So they exchanged and there was a lot of Persians sent to Beijing and a lot of Chinese painters were sent to Tabriz. There gradually developed in Tabriz was also the capital Persian Azerbaijan, a new phase of Persia miniature developed. The great miniatures of the Mohanad and Timurid periods which I think are the greatest masterpieces of the Islamic art of painting. During the Safavid period there are some very fine examples in this exhibition that attracted a great deal of attention of Western art historians and connoisseurs who are interested in art as painting and unfortunately, for us Persians, they were too good of connoisseurs. The English took about 90% of all the major paintings of Iran to England. I use the word 'took' with a grain of salt, of course. There is another verb that should have been used. Today, from London, I always say to my students to take a protractor and draw a circle of fifty miles with a center protracted in the British Museum, Russell Square. About 90% of all the important Persian miniatures in the world are in that area. The other 10% survive in Iran. I guess the donkeys thought it was heavy and they couldn't carry the rest of the load.

That miniature tradition became very well known in the West as one of the great schools of painting, but it is not the central, sacred art of Islam. Certain parts of the Islamic world, like the Arab world, never develop any notable painting tradition. There is folk painting in Syria and some in Egypt, but not the high art. There is nothing in Arabic art that corresponds to painting like this. Of course Richard Ettinghausen wrote a book called Arabic painting that was about painting in Iraq. It was about almost all Persian painters in Iraq which was being ruled by the Abbasids at that time and they were Arabs. Anyway, the little Arab community we have does not have the quality of the three great schools of painting. First of all, Persian, which was the mother, and then Ottomon and Mogul, India. The Mogul even influenced Rajput Hindu painting, a beautiful school of late Hindu painting in India.

Now, my time is coming to an end and I want to say a few words about the relation between truth and beauty, as far as the language of Islamic art is concerned, and conclude. To those who have said there is no symbolism in Islamic art, I disagree completely with this thesis. Every traditional art is symbolic. If you are a bit puzzled by what I mean, "symbol" originally in Greek comes from the word symbolon, which means to tie and to bind. A symbol is what binds a lower order of reality to a higher order of reality. How curious that its opposite is the diabol, the diabolic, which separates the two states, the two realities, from each other. It is very very telling. Now, Islamic art, by definition either reminds you of God or it is not Islamic art. It reminds you of something sacred and reminds you of some divine command, it reminds you of some sacred history.

What is Islamic art? Muslims make Islamic art. There are things that some Muslims draw to put in the sun and will start crawling and go back into the grass. Just because they have the name Achmad or Parvin doesn't mean everything they do is Islamic art. I am talking about authentic Islamic art. Islamic art is symbolic in the deepest sense, but you have to understand its language. It is not symbolic in the same way that a Hindu statue is symbolic. Once you learn the Dance of Shiva in a form like that of God with many hands and dancing on one leg on Parvati and you see the circle of fire and so you explain what this means and you understand the symbolism. This is not an iconic art. It is aniconic art.

Islamic art is an aniconic art and therefore its symbolism is not to be sought in this way. Symbolism with Islamic art comes through other ways. First of all with nothing—through the void. I once wrote many years ago, an essay on the significance of the void of Islamic art to translate into Italian, Japanese, French, many languages. It made a lot of noise at that time because I claimed that in order to understand Islamic art, you have to look at not only what is, but what is not.  The emptiness, the void. Islamic architecture is defined by emptiness. When you go inside the church, it is the alter or this cross or some image or a Hindu temple, the statue of divinity, Ganesh, or something in the middle who defines the space. When you go into a mosque, there is nothing. The immediate experience of the sacred space of the mosque is emptiness.

Now, this has a very profound metaphysical significance. You can say the following and this metaphysical state that I do not expect us all to understand it immediately, but I will say it nevertheless. If this world is something, God is nothing. No thing. If God is something, this world is nothing. That is what "laa ilaaha illa allah" says. That is one of the meanings of Yin-yang of the Far East. It is a very important thing that if you look at thingyness, the world, things, objects, materials, then surely God is not one of those. You have to put a 'non' in front of that. That is why I said no thing. Nothing means no thing.

In reverse, God is everything. God is absolute reality, and the world is nothing. The genius of Islamic art is in the second choice, of bringing out something of the evanescence, of the nothingness and the brutalness of the world before God. Throughout centuries, Muslims (except for houses of worship) always build not to last. They always build so each generation will build for itself. Not to think that one lives in this world forever. When steel and things like that came to Tehran to build private houses, many older people would advise their son, "Why are you using all these steel beams? Do you think I am going to live forever?" They couldn't understand it.  Build something that will last you 40 or 50 years, you die, the house falls down and the son builds something. Every Afghan village has been rebuilt 500 times over history or in Pakistan, or God knows where.

This is a very important point, the question of the void. The void to the Muslim is not simply lack. It is presence, where absence of this world is the presence of God. I can hardly overemphasize the significance of the void and understanding of Islamic art. You can even see it actually in the empty parts of the page where there is calligraphy and empty spaces. Those empty spaces play a role in the Muslim consciousness. The definition of space in Islamic art is very much related to this.

Then we come to what we call positive forms in Islamic art. I shall only talk about two of them. One is geometric patterns. Of course, all sacred arts uses geometry. Even the beautiful arts columns of the Byzantine are painted--you don't see it outside, but it has geometric form beneath some that have been analyzed. There is no art in the world, no sacred art in the world which is openly as geometrical as Islamic art. Everybody has noted that. Anybody who has visited the great portal of the Shah Mosque, or the Imam Mosque of Islam is astounded at every single polygon prism there.

I remember this episode, I told this to my dear friend Dr. Moore once, the great German mathematician who was there at Princeton University, Von Neumann, had come to Iran. He was one of the greatest mathematician of the 20th century. We took him to Islam and he was a fairly short man standing in front of the portal and he wouldn't move. I said, "Professor Von Neumann, let's go in." He said, "No." After about 10 minutes, he said, "This is the first time I have seen the world of mathematics." He was completely immersed. For the Muslim mind, the geometric forms are the world of intelligibility, not abstract ideas that we learn in school today, but intelligibility like platonic ideas, the principles of this world that govern over this world. So geometric patterns are absolutely essential to Islamic thought.

Symmetries, the relationships, the forms, the symbolism of the sides, you could spend the rest of your life. My dear friend Keith Critchlow, when I was a student, I got him to write about Islamic patterns when he didn't even know what Islamic patterns were, but the book is a classical book and a life's work on sacred geometry from the Greeks all the way through Western civilization and now fortunately it is an established field and he and many others have worked on that. I want to point out the significance of that.

Then the arabesque. The arabesque of course, is an English word or comes from French. It means Arab-like. You don't use that in Arabic itself. The word used in Arabic becomes al-TarH al-isliimii. Most Muslims do not know it. That is the technical name for it. Now, this is an abstraction of life forms geometrized, but living life forms, feminine. The geometry, geometric forms in the arabesque are like a wedding of the masculine and feminine by unity through which God has created the world. As the Qur'an says, "Verily, we created you in pairs," azwaajan. This is zawj and they always go together.

Finally, my time is up and I will conclude with this: Much of Islamic art makes use of vivid colors. Some have no color at all. You have completely white washed walls of mosque. No color whatsoever inside the mosques. They have the mosques of Samarkand and Isfahan which are the most colorful buildings in the history of art. There is no civilization that has produced buildings outside of which are so colorful. You must have some pictures of these things. Now, it is a very elaborate science, the symbolism of colors. These are not accidental. They have been very rarely treated in Western art. I remember once, Oleg Grabar, who just died, God bless his soul, he was a professor of the history of art in Harvard and an old friend of mine from the old days when we were classmates together when I left here and went to Harvard in 1979 and they asked me to do a series of lectures on Islamic art to his class. I gave three series of lectures on just the symbolism of color on Islamic art and he who was the greatest Western scholar on Islamic art said, "You know, I never paid attention to this, I never studied this. This is something that really needs to be studied."

Same as in Christianity, color symbolism in medieval art is very important. Just to give you one small example. The color green. The color green is the color of Islam. The flag of the prophet and the dome of the prophet's tomb in Medina are green. It has been used in a symbolic way many other ways. Then in the Persian miniature, you have pink mountains, blue trees and what do they symbolize? They symbolize the intermediate world, the world beyond this world. Is that not simply natural trees and mountains. They are the landscape of the world beyond. That is what this symbolizes. A wonderful and very vast world which you can only understand by taking recourse to a vast Islamic literature in various languages and practices of the still living art tradition.

In conclusion, and I will come to an end with these few words. Islamic art is, in a sense, like a non-polemical theology of metaphysics. It is silent theology. There is no more important than the language in the world today for the expression of what is deep in Islam than the silence. It speaks much more eloquently than polemical discourses. It is not accidental. In a country like France, where Islamophobia is at its peak and there are attacks against Muslims almost every day in the suburbs of Nancy or Paris or Lyon in the south but when there is a concert of authentic Persian or Arabic music, you could not get a ticket. It is always full. The concert of sacred art in Fez that is held every festival of sacred art is attended by thousands of Frenchman and Germans who don't want to read at all about that Islam and this Islam and opposition and so forth and so on. I am not belittling the importance of religious discourse, theological discussions. I have been at the forefront of this for 50 years, but as a humble student of Islamic art, I think an exhibition like this essentially speaks more eloquently than ten speakers could about the subject. Except that we have to learn to attune our ears to the voice of silence. We can only do that when we also become better human beings—not only vis-à-vis Islamic tradition, but vis-à-vis our own.  Thank you.

Question and Answer

Question: You started saying that if something was true, truly true, then it would also be beautiful. Does it then follow that it is possible for something to be beautiful without being true? A two way street.

Nasr: Beauty, as I said, is a double edged sword because it can ensnare and entice as well as deliver us. Its ambiguity has the mark for many moral philosophers in both east and west. There is no doubt about that. In the deepest sense, that which is beautiful, to the extent that it is beautiful, it is also true. If it is beautiful and false, it is because there are other aspects of it which are not beautiful. That is the answer I would provide you.

Question: With regards to the environment, what do you think is the greatest thing that humans can do to reclaim the beauty of the void?

Nasr: In a sense, to appreciate any kind of beauty needs an education on our behalf. We have to educate ourselves. It is not a mental education, but also a spiritual education. Some people are given to one kind of beauty more unto others. Some are more musically inclined, some are more visually inclined and so forth and so on. As for your question, "How do we appreciate the beauty of the void" the answer to that is very simple and very difficult. We have to empty ourselves of ourselves. We have to experience the void within. Not as an emptiness, which some of us do in depression, but an emptiness from the negative aspects of our soul and the fullness of the presence of the spiritual within us. That is how we experience the void in a positive aspect.

Click here to hide the transcript