Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Evan Corey: In the Qur’an: God’s Call for Us to Create

The first way God is identified to Muhammed by Gabriel is as the ultimate creator; He need only speak “Be” and it is so.  It is natural, then, that humanity dutifully follows this example.  Humans are limited.  We can only make from what God has already given us.  However, in Islam, this is where the most beauty is found.  Islamic art, either aural or visual is distinctively driven by the Qur’anic text, known to Muslims to be the direct word of God.  Thus, the art forms in the Islamic world are recitation and calligraphy.  Recitation necessitates the presence of Qur’anic verses, and while calligraphy is not exclusively the writing of Qur’anic text, it is most often used towards that end.  These art forms developed because of the Qur’an.  The emphasis on the Pen, the emphasis on oral prayer, and the emphasis of creation in the Qur’an altogether yielded these arts.

The Pen holds a unique place of honor in the text of the Qur’an, which is especially curious considering that the Prophet Muhammed is known particularly to have been “unlettered.”  Even though Muhammed received and presented to the people the word of God orally, Gabriel is quick to mention in their first meeting that God “taught with the pen.”[1]  In a surah literally named The Pen, the first two verses are: “By the Pen, and by what they trace in lines! You are not, by the grace of your Lord, a man possessed!”[2]  Muhammed’s ability to present such a beautiful piece of literature, despite being “unlettered” parallels in Muslim texts to the birth of Jesus Christ from a virgin mother.[3]  The clear message emerges that God prizes the pen as the champion tool of creation, so much that he even traced the lines of human beings with pen to perfect us and that literature itself, from God, is a miracle.  Of course, we are limited humans and thus we cannot create perfection with the pen like God does, but thanks to this conspicuous emphasis, the art of the pen, calligraphy, dominates as the favorite artform of the Islamic world.  There is even a popular saying that “whoever writes bismillah beautifully goes to paradise,”[4] an axiom which highlights the immense power Muslims place in the art of calligraphy.   In seeing the emphasis of literature and the pen in the Qur’an and in Islamic culture, it is hard to believe anything except that the art of calligraphy was brought into such popularity and even ubiquity due primarily to the Qur’anic text.

However, reciting the Word orally retains a level of emphasis one might expect from a culture and religion which so heartily emphasizes the sacredness of communal experience, memory, and performance.  Firstly, the Qur’anic text itself, as part of God’s miracle of literature, maintains an impressive about of rhyme and meter which some might call “underlying sound vision”[5] if they felt particularly awed and humbled by its artful coordination.  The surahs of the Qur’an each tend to have their own favored sound which they repeat within those verses in a way that both conveniently groups them together and consequently makes them easier to memorize and stunning to hear read aloud.  Beyond that clever composition, the Qur’an also makes explicit the requirement to “chant the Qur’an”[6] to show dedication to God.  Chanting is meant to make the word internal as well as external to the self.[7]  In addition, recitation oftentimes takes place in a communal environment as part of the Islamic emphasis on congressional practice.[8]  Recitation doesn’t amount to blindly following the demands of scripture, however.  To recite is to “evoke an emotional as well as an intellectual response,”[9] and to recite beautifully “in a sense reproduces what God did originally when he transmitted the message to the Prophet,” as a way of “imitating God, so far as we can.”[10]  The Lord says “Be” and it is.[11]  And so humans strive to follow in God’s example, in our own way – to say in order to create beauty.

Some have pushed back at Islamic art under the argument that humanity must not attempt to match God of all people, but the Qur’an and the other texts of Islam speak insistently on the importance of living up to God’s example, even acknowledging our place so inferior to God’s.  When humans create calligraphic art out of Qur’anic verses and meld God’s word with melody and vocal talent, they are celebrating God’s word and God’s ability to create as much as they are celebrating God’s benevolent gift of inferior creation onto humanity.  Because the Qur’an is so clear about how “observable beauty refers to, or is necessarily understood in relation to, the concept of God’s beauty,” then “the visual experience of the beautiful implies, in some way a spiritual resonance.”[12]  When it comes to the beauty of humanity, God says “let them not stomp their feet to reveal what they hide of their ornaments”[13] as to discourage vanity.  However, humans are called upon in the Qur’an to glorify God’s beauty.  The Qur’an says that when God created man, “He taught him eloquence.”[14]  The text then asks, combatively, “Which of your Lord’s blessings will […] you deny?”[15] Here, God calls humans not to throw away their eloquence, their talents which God bestowed upon them.  God calls them to use their talents to create beauty.

Islam, overall, encourages in humanity a deeply sacred form of artistry.  Through His grace, humans are said to have learned the art of the Pen.  Through our words we are called to announce His sacred revelation.  In a lot of ways, the mandate of God to follow in His glorious example is like that of a parent who sets their child down into a sandbox.  The sand is not of the child’s making.  Their toys are all shaped in ways they did not orchestrate.  And yet, there is beauty in what a child can make with those toys and that sand.  A parent is proud of their child’s small sandcastle.  In this way, God is proud of what we create through His word; He calls humankind to go forth and beautify.

 

Notes

[1] Tarif Khalidi, trans. The Qur’an. New York City, NY: Penguin Books, 2008. 96:4.

[2] Ibid., 68:1-2.

[3] Mahallati, Jafar. “March 1 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Sells. Approaching the Qur’an. 2nd ed. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press 1999. 165.

[6] Tarif, 73:5.

[7] Mahallati, Jafar. “February 27 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.

[8] Mahallati, Jafar. “February 15 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.

[9] Leaman, Oliver. Islamic Aesthetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2004. 111.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Tarif, 2:217.

[12] Gonzalez, Valerie, and Institute of Ismaili Studies. Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture. London; New York: I.B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2001. 7.

[13] Tarif, 24:30.

[14] Tarif, 55:3-4.

[15] Tarif, 55:13.

 

Bibliography

Gonzalez, Valerie and Institute of Ismaili Studies. 2001. Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture. London; New York: I.B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Khalidi, Tarif, trans. The Qur’an. New York City, NY: Penguin Books, 2008.

Leaman, Oliver. 2004. Islamic Aesthetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Mahallati, Jafar. “February 15 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.

Mahallati, Jafar. “February 27 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.

Mahallati, Jafar. “March 1 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.

Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qur’an. 2nd ed. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999.

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