SUFISM AND FINE ARTS

The essential ingredients of human arts are kneaded by Sufism; they represent reflections of human refinement, sensitivity and profundity in various formats. As is visible in history, human arts have decisive effect upon building civilizations.

Artworks are reflections of human spiritual depth and sensitivity onto concrete entities. In the final analysis, every single human art is a certain reflection of thoughts and feelings existent in the human spirit. Artistic refinement and elegance always goes in parallel with spiritual profundity.

The essential ingredients of human arts are kneaded by Sufism in the sense that they represent reflections of human refinement, sensitivity, and profundity in various formats. As seen in history, human arts have decisive effect upon building civilizations. In effect, nations that reached an advanced level of civilizational progress in the past, accomplished this feat not only with respect to politics, economics, and military, but also with respect to sciences and arts. Muslim history is full of examples of such development. Here, we cannot give a detailed exposition of the spiritual patterns reflected onto many kinds of fine arts. Instead, we will rest content with presenting a brief account of the spiritual motifs observable in certain art forms.

Music

Islam does not disallow the flourishing of characteristics innate to human nature; instead, it regulates them to a harmonic order. Like many other aesthetic forms of art, music is one form through which certain characteristics innate to human predisposition find expression. Thus, as is the case with other forms of art, neither can one unconditionally accept music nor reject it.

Sufis acknowledge the undeniable influence of music on man and make use of this art for praiseworthy ends, as outlined by the basic moral and religious principles of Islam. They lead music towards a heavenly objective and make its content and command address the human spirit, rather than the ego. Accordingly, Sufis approve and practice the types of music that are in agreement with these general principles, and disapprove and disallow the types of music that incite and mislead the ego.

Indeed, when directed towards a good end, whether in the form of harmonious instrumental music or accompanied by the lyric poems of gazel, kaside and ilahi patterns, music plays an essential role in elevating the spiritual level of human beings, as it inspires heavenly thoughts and tastes. In this context, music provides many positive benefits. For example, it increases the listener’s desire for devotion, reminds him of the Almighty, makes him mindful of sins, imparts onto his heart pure thoughts and blessings, and so on. Especially when music is played at the proper time, as one is overcome by a state of spirituality it exercises an even further positive influence on the human spirit. Owing to its constructive effects on also on the human psyche, Sufis have made use of music for ages, along with their use of other positive means. Coming to existence as a result of the religious and aesthetic interest Sufis took in music was a distinct branch of Islamic music, referred to, broadly, as ‘Sufi music’.

We need to mention, however, that there is not a unanimously positive or negative Sufi attitude towards music. While there are some Sufis who absolutely disallow the use of music as a means for spiritual training, there are others who argue that music can be employed for this purpose, so long as certain requirements are followed. They disallow, for instance, the use of stringed musical instruments, but allow the use of percussion, the legitimacy of which they draw from the historical fact that the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- allowed his Companions to play the said instruments on certain occasions like battle, in order to spur the Muslim soldiers.

For the sake of refraining from endless debates on this issue, it will suffice to conclude that the use of the melodious human voice is permissible within the religious border lines of legitimacy. It might even be said that endorsing music of the kind is even recommendable within general Muslim circles. It is a natural fact that a call to prayer by muadhdhin with a beautiful voice has a greater impact on the listeners. The Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- course of action in selecting the person to call the faithful to prayer implies further instructions in this regard. While Muslims were discussing the proper means to call the believers to ritual prayer, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- saw a truthful dream in which he was dictated the words of the adhan. Though he first informed Abdullah ibn Zayd and Omar ibn Khattab -may Allah be well-pleased with them- of the adhan, he did not, however, entrust the duty of reciting it with the two great Companions. It was rather Bilal –may Allah be well-pleased with him- who was entrusted with the duty, from which one may gather that his strong and beautiful voice would have played a major role in his selection; a duty he upheld so long as he remained alive.

With that said, it certainly cannot be argued that music exercises only a positive influence on human beings. Nonetheless, it would not be correct to reject music altogether, simply based on the fact that it is overwhelmingly used, in our times, as a means to incite and provoke the ego.

The following anecdote gives us a general Islamic strategy with respect to the healthy approach to take with regard to music. Khoja Misafir, a disciple of Bahauddin Naqshbandi says, “I was in the service of the respected Bahauddin and but also fond of music in the meantime. On one occasion, together with a number of his other disciples, we came together and with some musical instruments in our hands, we decided to play music in the presence of our venerated master so that we could learn his position in this regard. So, we put our plan into action in his presence. The master did not prevent us from doing so, but simply said, ‘We do not do this…yet we do not disallow it either.’”

The perceptive strategy of Naqshbandi implies that believers should be mindful and precautious with music; for it might be misused by way of inciting human sensual desires. As far as Sufism in a more specific context is concerned, we need to underline that there should be a balanced and reasonable approach to music, particularly in our modern times. As is unfortunately observable in the practices of some so-called Sufi groups, the content of Sufism should not be reduced simply to chanting and singing.

Architecture

One of the most widely observable works of fine art which stand testimony to the influence of Sufism is indeed architecture. Architecture comes into existence through the combination of mathematical, geometrical and spiritual talents human beings have which is then melted in a harmonious pot. In other words, architecture represents intellectual and spiritual abilities of man reflected onto and embodied in material things, like stone and wood.

Sufism has had a decisive influence on Islamic architecture in more ways than one. We can, for instance, observe this influence vividly in Suleymaniye Mosque and the complementary buildings that surround it. Peering into this architectural masterpiece through a Sufi eye reveals that the spirit of Islam is deep impressed thereon. Its eye-catching magnificence is combined with a profound spirituality, symbolized with many spiritual facets peeking through every inch of the mosque. So skillfully designed are the central dome of the mosque and its surroundings that starting from its foundations up to the dome we can see a gradual symbolic progression multiplicity to unity, to the One (Wahid); the dome which seals the building. The harmony of the central dome with the other domes is quite extraordinary, signifying the Sufi principle ‘unity within multiplicity, multiplicity within unity’. The Suleymaniye Mosque thus attractively embodies a series of elegant marks of spirituality, remarkably epitomizing the transition from the multiple to the majestic ‘One’, and vice versa. In echoing the recitations of the Holy Quran and prayers performed in the mosque, the same dome also symbolizes the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- and his function of delivering the Divine message to his followers.

This unique mosque is virtually the meeting point of astonishing human genius and capacity. Tranquility kneaded into majesty in the most consummate fashion has brought a superbly harmonious monument of architectural beauty into existence. With its graceful minarets moving up to the sky, the mosque is like a devout servant who has submissively raised his hands aloft to pray to the Lord.

The internal atmosphere of the Suleymaniye Mosque also casts a profound influence on the human psyche. Many visitors of different religious backgrounds admiringly express the spiritual attraction they feel inside the ambiance of this colossal temple and the comforting inner peace and tranquility that comes over them. It is narrated that the mosque was built on the basis of an order received, in a dream, from the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-.

In contrast to mosques of the caliber of Suleymaniye which were built to last until the Final Hour, various types of Sufi institutions such as dervish convents, lodges, and public kitchens served to spiritually enrich the scene of Muslim towns in a different manner. Great and small, many buildings of this type inspire a sense of perishability, simplicity, nothingness, and modesty. They were built in accordance with their function, which means they were spacious enough to facilitate Sufi training; yet they have always been far from giving a sense of majesty, having been built with the intention of inspiring the sense of perishability, instead. Nevertheless, all these buildings offer a display of the manifestations of Islamic spirituality embedded architecture.

Calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy or husn-i hat is the art of handwriting the letters of the Holy Quran in accordance with the set aesthetic criteria and in the most beautiful manner imaginable. To put it in another way, Islamic calligraphy represents an exceptional form of art which was born out of the genuine efforts to handwrite the Holy Quran in the most appropriate manner. Throughout Islamic history, Sufi lodges and convents have played a significant role in developing calligraphy. Sufi circles always supported this form of art and have sponsored many prominent calligraphers, who were able to find an ideal environment in Sufi institutions for both perfecting their skills and receiving further education in the art. Meantime, they would also undergo some kind of spiritual training; for a pure and refined heart has always been considered imperative for calligrapher, to enable him to reflect his talent onto letters with a natural, inborn flow that could find its way into the hearts of admiring eyes. Furthermore, the spiritual maturation of a calligrapher, necessary to obtain expertise in the art, required him to go through a difficult apprenticeship to prove his level of patience and submission. For that, he needed a spiritually matured calligrapher to emulate. Thus, On the basis of such common peculiarities, the art of calligraphy is intimately related to Sufism.

The shared ground between calligraphy and Sufism transpires in the handwriting of a rude and irritable person; it looks skewed and broken, which is a symptom of the spiritual anguish he suffers from deep down. The goal of Sufism is to train and refine the ego and thereby save the human spirit from its tyranny through instilling therein peace and sensitivity. Calligraphers, too, need such peace and sensitivity, as the art of calligraphy is not simply about fine handwriting. Much rather, it is essentially a discipline aimed toward refining souls and to filling hearts with spiritual sensations.

Spiritual strengthening has, in effect, prepared the way for many a gifted artist in attaining to that desired level of maturity and expertise. It was under the spiritual training of Sufi circles that many great masters of Islamic calligraphy of the likes of Sheikh Hamdullah, Karahisari, Yesarizade and Mustafa Rakim attained to that specific maturity. The example below carries great import in reflecting the penetrating influence of Sufism on Islamic arts.

Karahisari, the eminent calligrapher, had been entrusted with the duty of writing the calligraphies of the Suleymaniye Mosque’s dome. He put in his ultimate effort to complete his work as perfectly as possible, so that the calligraphies would live up to the magnificence of the great mosque. He took his job tremendously serious; so much so that towards the end of his work, he lost his sight in both eyes. Once the construction of the mosque was complete and was ready to be opened to public service, the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent said, “The honor of opening this holy mosque to public worship must go to our chief architect Sinan, for accomplishing the feat of building this splendid and marvelous mosque.” As much as he was a master of architecture, Sinan, however, was also a master of modesty. The humble Sinan instantly remembered Karahisari’s matchless sacrifice and politely responded to the Sultan by saying, “Your Majesty, the calligrapher Karahisari sacrificed his eyes while adorning the mosque with his exquisite calligraphies. In my humble opinion, it would be best if you gave him the honor instead!” Sultan Suleyman agreed and gave the unforgettable honor of opening the mosque to Karahisari, amid the heartfelt tears of the onlookers.

In addition to its own artistic standards, the development and continuity of Islamic calligraphy owes a great deal to the spiritual criteria of beauty. From this perspective, the scribing of the Holy Quran and of the description of the personal virtues and the qualities of the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- (Hilya-i Sharifah) constitute the highest level of perfection in Islamic calligraphy. According to the tradition, only those calligraphers who have proved their unparalleled mastery in calligraphy are given the privilege of attempting to scribe the Holy Quran and the Hilya. It was this profound conduct of respect that made works of calligraphy forcefully attractive to hearts and souls, convincing them to passionately respond to the Divine command “Read!”

Being the fruit of such a sincere theoretical and practical tradition, since its beginning, the art of calligraphy has been taught with no financial charge to determined students. Every calligrapher regards his service of teaching calligraphy as the obligatory almsgiving of this art and never expects any financial return on the basis of his teaching.

In short, a believer who appreciates even a glimpse of the following hadith cannot help but take interest in beauty. The hadith says, “Indeed the Almighty is beautiful and loves beauty.” (Muslim, Iman, 147)

Man craves to express and manifest the inner beauties he nurtures in his inner world. A Muslim artist hence carries a natural desire to allow his profound abilities to transpire in accordance with the given aesthetic criteria and, of course, in a manner that is harmonious with the essence of Islam and clear of the traps of pride and arrogance. All forms of art in accord with the spirit of Islam thus find their due support and protection in Sufi circles. Many forms of fine arts which meet Sufism in the depths of the human intellectual and spiritual world, reach a higher visual and aesthetic level and visual level through the inspirational notions of the Sufi way they absorb in their motifs.