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Art in Diaspora

Growing up across the East and West, I always felt intuitively that distinct cultures exhibit different aspects of the transcendent Sacred. The emotions evoked by Arabic music, in its rich modal system of maqāmāt (stations), vary tremendously from the subtle harmony of Western music. Likewise, the vivid display of passion in Eastern drama contrasts with the illusive narrative tension that pierces through the skin of an actor in the Western moving arts.

Of course, underlying these various forms of cultural expressions lies the spring of language. It is the distinction in languages that highlights the kaleidoscopic vortices at which heavens touches our souls and infinite rivers from which creative inspiration flows. Thus, the metaphorical prowess of English thrives on a Named that remains hidden between the alcoves of powerful descriptors that, in turn, bring the desired beloved alive in clear absence and freedom of any noun.

Meanwhile, Arabic dances to an altogether different choreography. The named here does not hide behind metaphorical forms, but rather lingers behind the name itself. Appellations in this case do not delimit the named but rather set it free in a fortress of perplexity erected by intricate etymological connections. If that is the brick and mortar of this uttered fortress, then its blueprint is the sacrality of a sound so universal that it remains beyond the metamorphosis of language.

This art of languages’ varying spirits can only be truly appreciated beyond the mere rational understanding of grammar; which to the spirit of language is what the chemical description of color is to painting. Without the unbridled and primordial awareness of the Sacred hand, the paintbrush cannot stroke nor can language’s spirit be felt.

In other words, the ocean of language, its branching river of arts and fertile banks of culture are intimately married to a society’s experiences and collective memories. What the Arabic language and music conjures upon being released into the spiritual bloodstream of a local audience is an avalanche of vivid recollections of a time long gone. This al-zaman al-jamīl (e.g. golden age) returns instantly through an instrument like the Oud or Qanun to reminisce about the past through its ṭarab (musical ecstasy) and saltana (overwhelming state).

Similarly, yet differently, the agonizing birth and redemptive subsistence of Jazz, spiritual movement of Gospel music and its socially precipitating country flavor, or hip hop and rap music that decry in their bluntness our benign unawareness of being human … all these send a different set of winds upon the listener’s ears. Only an ardent memoir in the heart of the listener corresponding to the suffering out of which these genres were born can yield to a complete melding with the redemptive art produced therein.

In lieu of this serene marriage between art and the ardent memoirs of a people, I have found in my experience as a Muslim artist in America a dreadful incognizance of this subtle intimacy in the burgeoning American Muslim cultural movement. The attempt to mutate original Arabic art forms into their English alter-egos through literalistic, or semi-literalistic, translations has been a grievous disservice to both languages and cultures.

The underlying assumption behind this attempt to simply translate the form of the Arabic qasida (religious ode) into English is that the Sacred name present in the original will carry over to the newly dressed rendition. While such a perspective acknowledges the tanzīh (transcendence) of the Sacred and its independence from any manifested form, it neglects the tashbīh (immanence) of this divine essence and its emanative delimitation through and within the variegated images of creation.

As the Sufi mystic Ibn al-ʿArabi tells us: “there is no repetition in creation” and no manifestation appears twice for one person nor once the same for two people, precisely because repetition implies a limited creation and spring of forms. However, one essential attribute of the Sacred is its infinitude and ability to adapt to all forms. Like water that takes the shape and color of the cup, as mystics tell us, the divine essence is also necessarily the spirit moving behind all cultural forms at their highest artistic peak.

Thus, we are left with this important conclusion: landscapes (cultures, societies, countries and lands in general) and art-scapes (the contours of any art form) both have distinct memories associated with them. When the memories ignited by an art-scape in the being of a human being harmonizes with the memoirs of their landscape, a unique energy is activated through which benefit may be gleamed from the artistic experience. Without this, the journey is at best partially appreciated.

Now there are two crucial questions that may arise from this reflection: 1) does this mean that it is impossible for a westerner to appreciate eastern music and vice versa? And 2) does this mean that eastern and western artistic forms should not be fused together? As for the first query, certainly there can be appreciation of a culture that is not native to one’s upbringing. However, in this case, there should be an avid attempt by the one who wishes to indulge in such art forms to also taste the social and cultural memoirs that sustain these artistic expressions.

As for the second question, unique creative attempts to fuse eastern and western music, for instance, can certainly be witnessed in our contemporary globalized age. However, what remains missing is a serious attempt to converse each unique artistic form with another. For example, instead of an oud and guitar playing simultaneously, polyphonically, why not engage them in a dialogue where one instrument laments in its own tone and pitch while the other responds in a distinct melody and harmony, each in its own time?

Moreover, and more importantly, instead of attempting to convert artistic forms to one’s religion or culture, such as trying to create Muslim superheroes based on the asmāʾ al-husna (divine names); there needs to be a serious effort to release our obsession with the body of a form and cross over instead to the spirit animating all forms. Therefore, instead of creating a Muslim alternative to Batman, find the divine manifestation within the caped knight of Gotham.

The underlying spirit behind this entire conversation is that of art and its power to reveal the state of a people’s spiritual intelligence. The ability to converse across cultures via art is like gazing at a mountain peak that so overwhelms the observer with attraction, whence they find no escape save to undertake the arduous journey of digesting the ardent memoirs of that mountain’s cultural experiences in order to reach the culmination in artistic redemption.

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