2:115 And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah. Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.
By Michael Chuang
Stylized Supplications for Ramadhan
اَللَّهُمَّ أَجِرْنِي مِنَ النَّارِ
سُبْحَانَ اللّهِ وَ بِحَمْدِهِ
[Sahih al-Bukhari; #7:168]
Architecture is one of the most respected and well-known features of Islam. As with any religion, the importance of sacred spaces that evoke the remembrance and worship of God are essential in Islam as well. During the golden ages of the Muslim Empire, an immense amount of time, effort and wealth was spent on building beautiful mosques that have lasted for centuries and contributed to the rich history of our cultures. From towering minarets to expansive courtyards, there are characteristics of the architecture in the Islamic world that make it a timeless and classic inspiration for modern spectacles around the world.
One of the most beautiful mosques in the world is the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan. It was constructed between 1671 and 1673, and upon its completion, it elevated the economic and cultural status of Lahore as a major city in the Mughal Empire. Unfortunately, its sanctity as a place of worship was soon compromised as the Sikh and subsequently the British Empires took control of Lahore and used the spacious courtyards and open prayer areas of the mosque as a military garrison until it was restored as a Muslim mosque in the late 1800s. The Badshahi Mosque is probably best known for its simple but beautiful marble and sandstone structure. Its majestic domes create a magnificent and classic silhouette of a traditional mosque. With only two inscriptions, it has relatively little calligraphy compared to many other grand mosques and buildings in the Islamic world. However, its emphasis on bold structure, expansive courtyards, and spacious prayer areas create an awe-inspiring atmosphere that adds to the spiritual experience of being in a House of God.
In somewhat of a contrast with this, there are also many mosques with decorations that rely heavily on calligraphy, mosaic patterns, and intricate carvings. For example, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran is absolutely covered with elaborate art on the inside as well as the outside. An abstract Arabesque design paints over the mosque’s very prominent dome. The insides of the mosque are adorned with intricate tile work too. The amount of intense work put into building and decorating this mosque is somewhat of a testament to the dedication those who worked on it had to God.
Both of these beautiful mosques, as well as many others, are registered UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While many of the mosques we are used to here in the U.S. range from decent buildings to rented out office spaces, we should aim to channel at least half as much of the time, money and energy into our places of worship as we did hundreds of years ago. The potential for beautiful architecture is all there, and spending time in beautiful places can provide exactly the kind of inspiration we need to restore our community to what it can and needs to be.
The rich culture and traditions of pre-Islamic Arabia were not by any means superseded by the spread of Islam. One of the most important forms of art in Islamic history is poetry, the origins of which date back centuries before the revelation of the Qur’an. The structure, grammar, and vocabulary of classical Arabic were developed through the intense and elaborate construction of poems. Arab culture revolved around spoken word: it was the main form of entertainment, it was a major tool of communication between tribes, and skilled poets earned fame, respect, and status for their work.
Poetry “battles” (like the rap game today) were very popular, and the prestige and standing of a tribe in a certain area were largely based on presentation – how well the tribe’s poets praised their own and how well they mocked others. Even the earliest poets ran a serious business. They hired apprentices to memorize their poems and recite them to ensure they were essentially immortalized in the oral tradition and transmitted for generations. This practice was then implemented by huffadh, which literally means “protectors” of the Qur’an. Because of the established culture of poetry, the revelation of the Qur’an in its poetic form played an important role in the spread and acceptance of Islam throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
The beautiful form and prose of the Qur’an also inspired poets around the world to write their own works in praise of God and the Prophet ﷺ. One of the most well known of these is al-Busiri’s Qasida al-Burda (“The Poem of the Mantle”). Most Muslims are familiar with its refrain:
مولاي صلي و سلم داءمن ابدا على حبيبك خير الخلق كلهم
“My Master, descend peace and blessings continuously and eternally on Your Beloved, the Best of All Creation.”
The Burda is often recited or sung at Muslim gatherings, and it has been translated into Chinese, French, Urdu, Turkish, and almost every other major language. It has been taught, studied and memorized by some of the most influential scholars in Islam, and is regarded as the best model of praise of the Prophet’s character ﷺ. It is particularly celebrated in the Sufi tradition, as al-Busiri himself was greatly influenced by the spiritual teachings of Sufism. The poem is made up of 10 chapters and 160 verses, and each chapter discusses a different topic.
Here is an excerpt from the Burda:
akrim bi khalqi nabiyyin zanahu khuluqun / bi al-husni mushtamilin bi al-bishri muttasimi
How noble was the form of this Prophet ﷺ adorned with a high character that encompassed beauty and was marked with cheerful countenance!
ka al-zahri fi tarafin wa al-badri fi sharafin / wa al-bahri fi karamin wa al-dahri fi himami
A form like the soft lilies and the full moon in splendor, a character like the ocean in generosity and Time in endeavors,
ka’annuhu wa huwa fardun fi jalalatihi / fi `askarin hina talqahu wa fi hashami
Seeming, due to his majesty, even when you met him alone, to head an army or a large company,
ka’annama al-lu’lu’u al-maknunu fi sadafin / min ma`dinay mantiqin minhu wa mubtasimi
As if the very pearl concealed inside the shell were formed in the two molds of his speech and his smile.
la tiba ya`dilu turban damma a`zumahu / tuba li muntashiqin minhu wa multathimi
There is no fragrance equal to the earth that encloses his bones. Blessed is he that breathes its scent and kisses it.
Another great Muslim poet was Jalaluddin Rumi. Because of the general and apparently nonreligious themes of many of the messages in Rumi’s poetry, he is often thought of as more of a spiritual figure with no inclination towards a particular denomination of faith. This is a common view among Rumi’s huge Western audience (Rumi is considered the most popular poet in America); however, Rumi actually drew many of his poems directly from the Qur’an and Hadith. One poet even said of his work, “It is the Qur’an in the Persian tongue.” Rumi was an influential Sufi and believed that music, dance, and poetry were part of the path for reaching God. The Sufi tradition of whirling dervishes, for example, came from Rumi’s idea that in order to reach God one must completely and intensely focus one’s entire self on the Divine. However, the beauty of many of his poems simply comes from their universality. The reason they are still so popular here and now is because regardless of what you believe or don’t believe about God, Rumi’s poems speak to everyone about such general themes as truth, love, and harmony.
“The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.
The nation of Love has a different religion of all religions — For lovers, God alone is their religion.”
Shahram Shiva is a current poet and scholar of Rumi, and accurately explains the legacy of Rumi’s work:
“Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal growth and development in a very clear and direct fashion. He does not offend anyone, and he includes everyone…Today Rumi’s poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art, performance, and music scene.”
From pre-Islamic culture to today, poetry has played an important role in the development and practice of our religion. Dhikr, the remembrance of God, is an act of worship and a type of poetry. The verses of Qur’an we recite everyday are in poetic form. And the poets inspired by this history continue to influence Islam today. Reading and reflecting on this kind of poetry is just as beautiful as any other type of worship in helping us develop our spirituality and connection to God.
Being Muslim in America today is supposed to be about finding our identities, figuring out a way to balance our cultures and religion, etc., etc. How difficult is that, though, when these days (or months, or years, or your entire life) Islam is only brought up on the news in a negative light?
Photos of Pakistan and Afghanistan show the aftermath of a suicide bomb in the middle of a debris-strewn street. All anyone apparently seems to know about any African country is that it’s home to loads of poor, starving children. Who can even remember how beautiful Iraq and Egypt and Syria are when all we ever see of them are their cities completely war torn and destroyed?
This is why it’s so important to educate ourselves about our history, and to remember that the Islam we are often exposed to is not what Islam is meant to be (and also to remember that we have a responsibility to get our act together as a collective ummah and stop the current media portrayal of Islam from becoming the norm! But that’s probably a topic for another column). And one of the simplest but most powerful ways to do all this is by appreciating the history of Islamic art.
The problem is, art is severely underrated in our own Muslim communities. In this society, when we talk about people being “cultured,” it usually involves a taste for art and music – but these are things that are either ignored or actually looked down upon by many people in our religion. Maybe Muslims have this hyper-iconoclastic attitude about art because we identify Islam as the complete antithesis of idol worship. Or maybe it’s because many Muslims, for whatever reason, don’t find art important at all in the grander scheme of things. This is a terrible attitude that needs to change.
I went to an Islamic school, and a prominent scholar came to our fundraiser one year to speak. Before the event we were talking about the school and I mentioned that we didn’t have an art program, and he was pretty shocked – like, “I don’t know if I even want to speak at this fundraiser anymore” upset about it. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty,” so why wouldn’t an Islamic school place an emphasis on making beautiful art? But this isn’t about me ragging on my old school – which, for the record, I actually liked – the point is, the collective opinion of art in the Muslim community needs to be a lot higher, especially considering its significance in our history.
Our religion is a flexible one that is compatible with cultures across the globe. From the architecture of mosques in Spain to intricate carpet weaving in Persia, Islamic art encompasses a variety of forms, and in its diversity it offers something for everyone.
Doris Duke, an American heiress and the richest woman in the world at her time, spent a huge part of her wealth building a foundation for Islamic art at her own private home (a room from which is pictured above) in Hawaii. She collected artwork during her extensive travels across the Middle East (which was part of her honeymoon around the entire world!), commissioned pieces from India and Morocco, and even had entire works of architecture shipped piece by piece from places like Turkey and Iran and reconstructed in her home. The amount of effort, care, and money she put into thoughtfully preserving these authentic works of art and arranging for them to be beautifully displayed in her home after her death for the public is absolutely amazing.
The universality of this art is what makes it so accessible to everyone and so vital to the task of building bridges across cultures and faiths. More importantly though, it can serve as an inspiration for Muslims everywhere, as it is a beautiful part of our heritage and a part of that Muslim-American identity that can often be difficult to embrace.