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Clipboard Islam: Modern Religiosity and the Aesthetic Thirst

My dear friend Ismail Alattas, a recent doctoral graduate in history/anthropology of Islam and professor of Islamic studies at New York University, shared pictures some time ago from his visit to the tomb of the famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, Germany. With excitement, Ismail commented that Bach is “one of the lustrous signs of God!”

Compare this transaction with another that took place some years ago at a prominent annual Islamic conference in America. I was standing in the bazar with my friend to advertise a youth retreat we were holding at the time for teaching the western humanities (art, history and literature) to high school and college level Muslim students.

Suddenly, a skeptical middle-aged Muslim man passed by, dressed in a business suit and carrying a clipboard. He certainly seemed in a hurry as he bluntly and anxiously asked: “What is this?” Upon giving him a pamphlet and explaining the event’s activities, he replied unabashedly: “This is a waste of time, none of these speakers are scientists or published authors in the New York Times best sellers list!”

Now certainly a viable response to the important question: “Why did the people in these two anecdotes behave so differently?” might be that prof. Alattas is an open minded academic and, therefore, less religiously conservative than a Muslim man at a religious conference. Unfortunately, this position is betrayed by the fact that prof. Alattas also happens to be a prominent speaker from the saintly Sufi family of Ba Alawy, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad from Yemen who migrated to Indonesia, where prof. Alattas was born.

Therefore, for all intents and purposes, Ismail is much more knowledgeable when it comes to religious knowledge and Islamic history than that businessman. And yet, both my friend and his counterpart represent disparate trends in the American Muslim community. On the one hand, people like Ismail who are aesthetically sensitive, artistically literate and embedded in the culture of their society have become increasingly distant from a communal involvement in the conferences, seminaries and gatherings of American Muslims.

On the other hand, that American Muslim community, in all its various colors and denominations, seems to linger – of course with exceptions – on questions that appear incredibly primitive to the others on the margins, such as: “is music haram (forbidden) or halal (lawful)?” Even many mainstream Muslims who consider themselves ‘artists’, find themselves forced to sing only religious hymns in Arabic and English without accompanying musical instruments and certainly would not go out of their way to visit Bach’s mausoleum, much less consider him a 'lustrous sign of God'.

This is indeed a deep and crucial issue and part of the key to decipher its contours has to do with the fact that Muslims who happen to be more aesthetically and artistically inclined also feel more distant from any regular communal involvement with their coreligionists, especially in America. I would venture to guess that the root cause of this dichotomy is the altogether different understanding of one’s relationship with God that these two groups have. A divergence that manifests in the preoccupation with contrasting texts and social practice of the same faith.

For its not only Muslim professors like Alattas who, due to their academic lifestyle, are sophisticated connoisseurs of the humanities, but also saints of God who have chosen to open the hearts of their disciples to such an expansive understanding of Islam. The prominent Sufi master Shaykh Hisham Kabbani commented on the importance of art once during a conversation, that “it does not have to do with a human being’s animal instinct, but rather their spirit and can elevate them closer to God!”

Naturally, one would think that a Muslim saint such as Shaykh Hisham is referring specifically to religious art. However, during a recent conversation with him about the celebrated Lebanese Christian author Gibran Khalil Gibran, Shaykh Hisham stated that: “Gibran was a divinely-inspired scholar”, while his wife Hajja Naziha, also a saint, further commented that “Khalil Gibran is khalil Allah (the close friend of God)," creatively deducing a mystical connotation through a linguistic pun on his name.

Therefore, we are met with two understandings of Islam, both of which resort to the Quran and life of the Prophet Muhammad as pivotal foundations of the religion. This certainly problematizes any attempt to root any extreme violence by Muslims in these catechisms. Rather, it is a deeper issue that has less to do with what texts or figures a religious person follows and more to do with the type of intellectual and spiritual intelligence that evokes and directs one’s interactions with such texts.

In reality, I would regard Shaykh Hisham’s and prof. Alattas’ aesthetic sensitivity as the primordial and original form of practicing Islam. One that certainly predates modern/modernist extremist strands, such as Wahhabism and Reformism. Indeed, these recent formulations belie an almost obsessive and allergic reaction against the Other: the Western world. This corrosive and misplaced appropriation of postcolonialism contrasts drastically with a premodern understanding of Islam where geopolitical borders were as fuzzy and ambiguous as one’s own identity.

And this is precisely why the aesthetic religious sensibility was crucial for premodern Muslims and its marginalization in the modern adoptions of this faith has led to an overtly rationalist and binary positing of one’s relationship with creation and creator. The perplexing nature of a world without borders encouraged a subjective introspection and artistic appreciation for one’s relationship with the unbounded truth of God, that surpasses the limits of logic. Meanwhile, the clipboard of hard scientific facts has crept into the modern Muslim mind that perceives God’s will on earth to be as easy as compiling a lab report or solving an engineering problem.

After all, measuring success by being on the New York’s Best Sellers list is itself a test of fame through numbers. Meanwhile, the poetic expressions of a medieval Sufi saint like Ibn Arabi who adhered to “the religion of love wherever it’s caravan goes!” or Rumi who called upon every “worshipper, wanderer or lover of leaving to come forth” is deemed as a sentimental utterance that has little practicality to one’s religious duties in the world.

Unfortunately, this latter position that attempts to dismiss the aesthetic and sentimental is betrayed by perhaps the most crucial prophetic narration in Islam, where God reveals Himself as the original artist: “I was a Hidden Treasure and loved to be known. Thus, I created the creation to be known by them”: The human creative process, which imitates divine creativity, is that highest form of flattery, love and worship.

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