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The absence of a body of written aesthetic theory in Islam before the nineteenth century may be attributed in part to the traditional Islamic disapproval of visual arts and music, but primarily to the lack in Islam of a parallel to the artist’s role as it emerged in Europe at the time of the Renaissance. With the exception of great calligraphers, traditional Islamic artists were for the most part anonymous, or their reputations existed within very limited circles of the court or local bazaar. Treatises on music, calligraphy, and painting do exist, but these are mainly technical and pedagogical works. Although there exists in many epochs of Islamic art an implied and widely accepted aesthetic standard, it is very rarely expressed in theoretical writings. Without a theater tradition and with its own distinctive poetic forms, classical Islam ignored Aristotle’s Poetics and other pre-Islamic formulations of aesthetic theory.

In the nineteenth century this situation gradually changed, primarily in response to contacts with the West and under the impact of European colonialism, but this impact was uneven across the Islamic world. The primary spokesmen for the arts of Islam were at first the colonizers themselves, or, in the case of the Ottoman Empire, Western specialists working for Ottoman patrons. The early works by Europeans dealing with the art of Islamic lands were largely descriptive and often lavishly illustrated with engravings. Some stressed the exotic or picturesque aspects of Islamic art, and expressed the European view that aspects of Islamic art were primitive-primarily its lack of a tradition of sculpture and easel painting, and its use of ahigh pointof view in preference to linear perspective. At the same time, the serious collecting of Islamic art by Europeans began at a time when Europe was granting new status to art forms traditionally among the foremost in Islamic society-the so-called “decorative arts”-through the foundation of the Union des Arts Decoratifs in France and the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain and through the establishment of new museums devoted to such art forms.

Both new and old European art theories influenced the Islamic world profoundly. From the Ottoman Empire artists were sent to Europe to learn Western techniques of painting and means of depicting pictorial space, primarily as an adjunct to military training; at the same time, the establishment of European museums of decorative arts where Islamic works figured prominently caused Islamic artists and writers to look at their own early traditions with new respect. By the turn of the twentieth century various movements to renew or “purify” Islamic art began to emerge in various parts of the Islamic world. In the Ottoman Empireth is movement grew out of a nationalist ideology, especially inarchitecture, and resulted in a body of writing that sought the establishment of a true national style in architecture by rejecting the europeanized taste of the nineteenth century and returning to the classical Ottoman style of the fifteenth and sixteenth. In Irana somewhat similar movement, incorporating historicism and a revival of past glories and applied to many artistic media, arose under the Qajars. Nationalist writers in the Arab world and to a lesser extent inIndiadecried the artistic influence of the colonial masters, but the structure of colonial educational systems and patronage meant that few artists or architects were able to express the new theories. Between the two World Wars, little changed in the Islamic world; in the meantime, however, European Orientalists had taken a fresh look at early texts, and a more comprehensive view of Islamic aesthetic practice, if not theory, began to emerge in the works of such scholars as Thomas Arnold and Ernst Kuehnel.

Following World War II, with the emerging independence of many Islamic nations, a revolution in aesthetic theory has occurred all over the Islamic world. European converts to Islam and scholars from the Islamic world have sought a new centrality and universality of meaning in Islamic art under the concept of tawhid or unity, while wrestling with the traditional Islamic proscription against figural images. The emergence of the printing press, television, the cinema, and political democracy with its attendant political imagery have prompted tentative attempts to tackle the theological issues around taswir (representational painting). Some have proposed that representation of the human form is not necessarily anti-Islamic, but in fact an important and vital part of Islamic cultural traditions. Islamic religious art has been viewed in new perspectives by European Muslims such as James Dickie, Martin Lings, and Titus Burckhardt, and in the Islamic world by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Iran and Tharwat `Ukashah inEgypt. State-supported “reislamization” of artistic traditions has been attempted with varying degrees of success across the Islamic world, most notably in Morocco, where with the strong backing of King Hasan II, laws supporting traditional arts and crafts and even a national movement toward the wearing of traditional clothing have become fundamental pillars of national policy as well as of artistic theory . By contrast, secular Islamic regimes such as Turkey or Ba`thist Iraq have seen the broad development of responses to international artistic styles such as abstract expressionism; Ataturk promoted the study of Western art theory and public art, and today’s Turkish students can read Wolfflin, Panofsky, and Umberto Eco in Turkish translation.

The varieties of contemporary aesthetic theory in the Islamic world are enormous, ranging from traditional interpretations of Islamic values on one hand to contemporary international literary theory on the other, and from reinterpretations of traditional Islamic calligraphy, paper marbling, and arabesque to the study of lifedrawing with nude models . The resulting conflicts profoundly reflect the deeper dialectic of modern Islamic society and culture. In one area, however, something like consensus may be emerging. Under the aegis of programs established by the Aga Khan Foundation, architects and architectural historians from all over the Islamic world are beginning to communicate with each other and share ideas on what constitutes an Islamic architecture, both as a phenomenon of style and technology and as a response within a unique cultural framework to basic human needs.

[See also Aga Khan Foundation; Architecture; Carpets; Painting; Tawhid.]


Arnold, Thomas. Painting in Islam.Oxford, 1928. The first major study of the religious environment of Islamic pictorial art.

Beg, Muhammad Abdul Jabbar, ed. The Fine Arts in Islamic Civilization. 2d ed.Kuala Lumpur, 1981. Collection of essays on various aspects of art theory and practice in Islam.

Burckhardt, Titus. Art of Islam: Language and Meaning.London, 1976. Examines the theoretical and aesthetic principles of Islamic art.

Nast, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Art and Spirituality.Albany,N.Y., 1987. Discussion of the aesthetics and spirituality of Islamic visual art, music, and literature.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture.New YorkandLondon, 1984. Aesthetics and symbolism of the most important Islamic art form in the context of the Islamic mystical tradition.

`Ukashah, Tharwat. The Muslim Painter and the Divine.London, 1981. Deals with the phenomenon of figural representation of religious themes in Islamic art.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/aesthetic-theory/

  • writerPosted On: October 6, 2012
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