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Clipboard Islam: Modern Religiosity and the Aesthetic Thirst

My dear friend Ismail Alatas, a recent graduate from the doctoral program in history/anthropology of Islam and professor of Islamic studies at New York University shared pictures from his current 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 two years ago at a prominent annual Islamic conference in America. I was standing in the meeting hall’s 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 Muslim youth at the high school and college level.

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!”

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

Therefore, for all intents and purposes, our professor is much more knowledgeable when it comes to religious knowledge and Islamic history than this businessman. And yet, both my friend and his counterpart represent rising dichotomous trends in the Muslim community in America. On the one hand, people like Alatas who have an aesthetic sensitivity and are artistically literate 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 other side, such as: “is music haram (forbidden) or halal (lawful)?” Even those communally involved Muslims who consider themselves ‘artists’, mostly sing only religious hymns in Arabic and English (sg. qasida) without musical instruments and most probably would not go out of their way to visit Bach’s mausoleum, much less consider him a lustrous sign of God.

This is a deep and crucial issue intimately related with the above mentioned fact that the more aesthetically and artistically inclined Muslims seem to feel more and more distant from any regular communal involvement with their coreligionists, especially in America. Intertwined with this phenomenon, and I would venture is its root cause, is the altogether different understanding of one’s relationship with God that these two groups exhibit. A divergence that manifests in the preoccupation with contrasting texts and social practices within the same faith.

It is not only Muslim professors like Alatas 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. Once during a conversation, the prominent Sufi master Shaykh Hisham Kabbani commented on the importance of art, that “it does not have to do with a human being’s animal instinct, but rather their spirit. It 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, in another conversation with him about the celebrated Lebanese Christian author Gibran Khalil Gibran, Shaykh Hisham revealed the full extent of his vast witnessing act. He stated that: “Gibran was a divinely-inspired scholar”, while another lady saint in the same group 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.

We are met here with two understandings of Islam, both of which resort to the Qurʾan and life of the Prophet Muhammad as pivotal foundations of the religion. This certainly problematizes any attempt to explain away any extreme violence committed by Muslims as stemming from these fundamental texts. Rather, it is a deeper issue that has less to do with which 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 the sources of religious knowledge.

I would regard Shaykh Hisham’s and prof. Alatas’ aesthetic sensitivity as the primordial and original form of practicing Islam. One that predates modern/modernist extremist strands, such as Wahhabism and Reformist Islam. Indeed, these recent formulations belie an almost obsessive and allergic reaction against the threatening Other, in this case the Western world. This corrosive and misplaced appropriation of post-colonialism contrasts drastically with a pre-modern understanding of Islam where geopolitical borders were as fuzzy and ambiguous as one’s own identity.

And this is precisely why the aesthetic literacy and sensibility was crucial for pre-modern 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 comprehensible as compiling a lab report or solving an engineering problem.

After all, measuring success by being on the New York’s Best Seller’s is itself a test of fame through numbers. Meanwhile, the poetic expressions of a medieval Sufi saint like Ibn al-ʿArabi 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!” … He let us know, that the creative process which imitates creation is that highest form of flattery, love and worship!

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