Imagining Paradise in Islamic Art

by Terry Allen

Solipsist Press, P.O.B. 123, Occidental, Calif., 95465

Copyright 1993, 1995 by Terry Allen

ISBN 0-944940-05-6

(back to: Palm Tree Books Home Page)

In tribute to Oleg Grabar's interest in novel things, I have chosen to distribute this essay, dedicated to him in anticipation of his sixty-fourth birthday, in electronic form. Prof. Grabar taught me much of the method of logical induction I present here, but my views should not be laid at his doorstep. [Note: Thanks to Professors Guitty Azarpay and Jerrilynn Dodds for very valuable comments on drafts of this essay.]

Here I extend earlier remarks on Islamic art and narrative [Note: Five Essays on Islamic Art, Solipsist, 1988.] by examining the issue of religious content in Islamic religious art. My point of departure is an exhibition titled "Images of Paradise in Islamic Art," which I saw in Berkeley. Along the way I offer suggestions for further research for those who agree or disagree with my argument.

The Paradise Show

The show's catalogue takes as its point of departure an Ottoman tile panel in the Iznik technique that was not included in the fragment of the show exhibited in Berkeley; it is illustrated in the frontispiece. The catalogue identifies it as the upper part of the surround of a fountain.

The panel is composed of square and specially shaped tiles painted in the general shape of a flat mihrab, with a niche topped by an ogival lunette. The catalogue interprets the arabesque enclosed within the niche as symbolizing "the heavenly garden," that is, the garden that the Qur'ân describes as comprising paradise. [Note: Images of Paradise in Islamic Art, A. Kevin Reinhart, et al., pp. 37--38, more baldly, p. 7.] By extension, the catalogue attributes the same supposed symbolic content to many other examples of vegetal decoration---and to niches---in Islamic religious buildings. This has appropriately been called a "vacuous vision of a complex art." The catalogue also repeats, without supporting evidence, elements of the received wisdom about Islamic art: the mihrab is "symbolically the gateway to Paradise," "the infinite geometric complexity of an arabesque or the repetitious beauty of the forest of columns in an early mosque may symbolize the infinity of divine being," "the great domes covering Islamic buildings may reflect either the dome of heaven or the all-encompassing divine unity (Arab. tawhid)," and "floral decorations woven into or embroidered on silk may be seen as evocations of the Koranic promise of silk in the world to come." [Note: Pp. 37, 34, 38--39.]

The catalogue offers no support for these assertions, though occasionally it cites poetry that deals with such topics as plants and heaven as proof that visual art had parallel symbolic content.

It is easy to see that this method of argument is faulty. Not every niche is a mihrab; surely not every arabesque is the foliage of paradise. When supplying a symbolic interpretation one must either justify it for the particular monument at hand or argue that symbolic significance is common in some wider group of monuments to which it belongs, and thus to be expected.

But the identification of one part of the tile panel's design as symbolic, unsupported by any evidence or wider interpretation of the panel, is capricious, whether it is correct or not. The arabesque within the niche is only one of several fields of foliate decoration: do these other foliate designs not also symbolize paradise? If not, why not? Nor can one conclude that all niches were meant to be seen as gateways to paradise on the basis of a single example. One must inquire into the example itself and ask how and under what conditions one's interpretation of it can be generalized.

The catalogue's similarly capricious identification of symbolic content in various Islamic religious buildings is similarly unsupported by evidence. No single case, such as that of the tile panel, is sufficient to warrant such an approach. "I see it here, therefore it must be everywhere" is not only bad reasoning, it is pseudoscholarship. Art historians, like others in the humanities, have better tools to use in generating and testing ideas about their subject matter.

The catalogue also drags in the received wisdom without critical analysis. This method of proceeding, which in another cultural context might be denounced as perpetuating old prejudices, leads to incorrect results, too: the catalogue remarks that the fountains of the Alhambra "allude visually to Paradise." The Alhambra is a mostly fourteenth- and fifteenth-century palace in Granada, taken from the Nasrid kings of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella five hundred years ago. [Note: Oleg Grabar, The Alhambra, 2nd ed., revised, Solipsist, 1992.] The only elaborate fountain in the Alhambra, the Lion Fountain, has been shown to refer not to paradise but to the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem; it is a reconstruction or imitation of the fountain that stood in the eleventh-century palace of the Jewish wazirs of the Zirids, which preceded the Nasrid palace on the site.

Despite the faults of the catalogue's essay, it makes a valuable observation about the tile panel, to which I shall return.

Received Wisdom and Tauhid

Generations ago, art historians repeated this sort of received wisdom because they knew no better, or more properly, because they had few high-level generalizations to put in its place. [Note: The earliest sources of these ideas are yet to be identified, but I think it could be shown that they appear not earlier than the late seventeenth century. On the idea of the arabesque and images of the Near East in German Romanticism, see Frank-Lothar Kroll, Das Ornament in der Kunsttheorie des 19. Jahrhunderts, Hildesheim, 1987; and Karl Konrad Polheim, Die Arabeske: Ansichten und Ideen aus Friedrich Schlegels Poetik, Munich, 1966.] Our scholarly tradition rightly prizes high-level generalizations: whether they are true or not they give us ideas to critique and thus help us gain further insight. Our received wisdom about Islamic art has not been critiqued much, however.

Lest one think that these are harmless generalizations that no one notices, I note that Kenneth Baker, in his review of the Paradise show in The San Francisco Chronicle, [Note: February 2, 1992, "Datebook," p. 54.] recapitulates the received wisdom of the catalogue and adds to it: it was prohibited to represent Muhammad, paradise is imagined as a garden because Islam arose in the desert, the Qur'ân is known never to have been illustrated, and Arabic script was used for all Arabic literature because the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic. Most of these ideas are false or misleading. [Note: It was not necessary to prohibit representation of Muhammad in particular, as the prohibition of images worked out by some theologians applied to animate forms in general. From the Islamic point of view, the Qur'ân is the word of god, and no imagining of paradise as a garden is involved; from the non-Islamic point of view it would be more to the point to refer to earlier, Christian visions of paradise as a garden. Qur'ân fragments illustrated with architectural scenes have been found in San`â'. Arabic script predates Muhammad, and has nothing to do with the circumstances under which the Qur'ân was revealed.]

The received wisdom is repeated these days, without supporting evidence, by writers churning out catalogues to exhibitions and by proponents of the relatively new cultural interpretation that holds tauhîd, the Islamic theological doctrine of the unity of god, to underlie all aspects of Islamic life and culture. [Note: For examples of this approach see: Nader Ardalan, The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Islamic Architecture, Chicago, 1973; S. Hosain Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality, Albany, 1986; Yasser al-Tabbaa, in a very implausible article, "Toward an interpretation of the use of water in Islamic courtyards and courtyard gardens," Journal of Garden History, v. 7, 1987, pp. 197--220 (cf. his article in Muqarnas, v. 3, 1985) cites also: Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, London, 1976; idem, other works; Jonas Lehrman, Earthly Paradise: Garden and Courtyard in Islam, Los Angeles, 1980.]

But there is no basis in the Arabic, Persian, or Turkish literary record of the premodern era for such assertions. With the partial exception of calligraphy, an art practiced by the educated religious class, no philosophical or theological view of the nature of art or architecture was ever put forward (as was also the case with Byzantine art). For example, remarks about why individual buildings are beautiful are extremely rare, even though descriptions of buildings are not. There was in fact no Islamic aesthetics of visual art, and no equivalent to Abbot Suger, the Gothic cathedral builder who wrote of the symbolism of light---and whose writings have been heavily overemphasized in the study of Western mediaeval religious architecture. Here is an entirely typical description of a building, the Mosque of the Prophet at Madînah, by the twelfth-century Spanish traveller Ibn Jubayr.

The sacred mausoleum (raudah) lies at the eastern end of the side towards the qiblah, and on the side towards the court it encroaches on two galleries and extends a distance of four spans into the third. It has five pentagonal pillars.

The shape of this mausoleum is so unique that one could not imagine it or liken it to anything else. Four sides are turned away from the qiblah in a way that is remarkable, for thus no one can face it in prayer. Abû Ibrâhîm Ishâq b. Ibrâhîm al-Tûnisî, the Shaykh, the Leader, the God-fearing, the Survivor, Dean of Scholars and the Support of Lawyers, has informed us that `Amr b. `Abd al-`Aziz [governor of Madînah in 87/706] had this in mind in designing the building, as he feared that people might pray towards it.

The mausoleum extends also through the width of two galleries on the east side. Its entrance includes the supports of six galleries. The distance the mausoleum extends on the qiblah side is twenty-four dhirâ` and the distance on the eastern side is thirty dhirâ`. The space between the eastern cornerstone to the inner [or northern] one is thirty-five dhirâ`; from the inner cornerstone to the western side is thirty-nine dhirâ`; and from the western pillar to the qiblah side is twenty-four dhirâ`. On this side there is an ebony chest, which is inlaid with sandalwood and illuminated with silver. It stands in front of the head of the Prophet and measures five dhirâ` long, three wide, and four high. On the side between the northern and the western pillars, there is a spot where the curtain is lowered, which is called the place of the descent of the angel Gabriel, peace be upon him. The sum of the distances of all the sides is two hundred seventy-two dhirâ` (sic).

Surrounding the interior of the mausoleum there is a panelling of marble, beautifully carved, and extending about one third of the height of the walls. The second third is covered with a preparation of musk and perfumes, and there is a space of about one half a span of this that still remains, in spite of time, though it is black and broken and flaking off. The last third consists of a grating of aloes wood which reaches to the ceiling, for the top of the blessed mausoleum joins the ceiling of the mosque. The panelling at the bottom is a curtain effect, colored green and ornamented with white figures, some with four and some with eight points. Within these figures are rings in circles and white spots surround them. The appearance is beautiful, as it is a striking design. Above these runs a line that is nearly white.

We were so impressed with the elaborate ornamentation in this blessed mosque, with all sorts of colors, that it would take a long time to mention or describe it all. But the place itself is more noble and the spot more exalted than all its ornamentation. [Note: Rihlah, Beirut ed., 1964, pp. 166--76; trans. Dwight M. Donaldson, "Ibn Jubayr's Visit to al-Medina," Journal of the American Oriental Society, v. 50, 1930, pp. 31--38.]

Ibn Jubayr does not even hint at symbolic meaning in the decoration he describes. Instead, he wants to convey a visual description of a place at which he had a moving religious experience, so that his audience can share that experience.

I have never found any explanation of why a mosque was thought to be beautiful, aside from the tightness of its masonry. There also seem to be few passages that describe why something (other than a human being) is beautiful, whether in the religious or secular sphere. [Note: On conventional views of human beauty and philosophical views of beauty that seem detached from ordinary life, see S. Kahwaji, "`Ilm al-Djamâl," EI2.]

One such passage comes from the Epistle on Singing-Girls of Abû `Uthmân Jâhiz (ca. 160--255/776--869), who was a leading literary figure of the most brilliant period of the `Abbâsid Caliphate. The Epistle on Singing-Girls is a work of considerable irony, sarcasm, and dissimulation. It may be doubted whether this passage, from a much longer work not otherwise concerning art, represents Jâhiz's deepest thoughts rather than a parody of scholastic example-giving. But the notion of evenness and balance has good philosophical precedent and in any event represents a view that would have been heard in Jâhiz's day.

Moderation consists in the balance of a thing---not with reference to quantity, but as in [the expression] "the balance of the earth," referring to its equilibrium. Psychologically, balance is to be found as between the quasi-parts of the soul. In the human body, balance is a just proportionableness between its various excellencies, and the absence of an excess of one over another, such as occurs when a man with a small snub nose has an enormous eye, or a tiny-eyed man has a big nose, or an insignificant chin accompanies a huge head, or a large face goes with an undernourished skinny body, or a long back with short thighs, or a short back with long thighs, or a breadth of forehead out of proportion to the lower part of the face. One can also speak of "balance" in the case of buildings, rugs, embroidery, clothes, or canals where water flows: by balance [in all these cases] we mean evenness in design and composition. [Note: Kitâb al-qiyân, trans. A. F. L. Beeston as The Epistle on Singing-Girls of Jâhiz, London, 1980, pp. 25--26.]

Or take a second example, from a passage on aesthetics in the Matâli` al-budûr fî manâzil al-surûr (The Rising of the Full Moon in the Houses of Happiness) by `Alâ' al-Dîn `Alî b. `Abd Allâh al-Bahâ'î al-Dimashqî al-Ghuzûlî, d. 815/1412, a work of adab.

According to al-Ghuzûlî, there are three sorts of spirit in man that must be satisfied, and bath painters arrange that each subject of a painting should serve to strengthen and increase one of the . . . powers. For the animal power they have depicted battles, fights, hunts on horseback and the chase of beasts. For the psychological power they have depicted love, themes of lovers and beloved, how they accuse one another or embrace, and so on. And for physical power they have depicted gardens, trees pleasant to look at, or a mass of flowers in charming colors. Such and similar pictures belong to first-class baths. [Note: Franz Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage in Islam, trans. E. and J. Marmorstein, London, 1975, p. 266; the Arabic text published in Cairo, 2 v., 1299--1300 A.H. More research in adab literature is indicated.]

Nothing in either of these passages supports the idea that Islamic art has symbolic or esoteric religious meaning, and the interpretation of bath paintings sounds distinctly post hoc.

Of course it is no counterargument to the tauhîders, as I term them, that I can find passages about aesthetics that do not refer to tauhîd. But the tauhîders do not seem to consider it necessary to cite contemporary sources supporting their view that various historical monuments have symbolic religious meaning. I venture to suggest that no significant body of such sources exists. And I conclude that the tauhîders are not continuing a traditional Islamic interpretation of art, but rather expanding a traditional, even fundamental, Islamic theological concept to cover an area of culture to which it was never applied traditionally. They merely find it convenient to use Western stereotypes of Islamic art to do so.

Such attitudes are understood for what they are when they are applied to other cultures; it is ironic that the tauhîders have adopted these ideas, which they might well denounce instead. (How can any physical representation, no matter how abstract, convey the ineffable unity of an omnipotent and omnipresent god?) Indeed, these ideas clash with the traditional rationale for the prohibition of figural imagery, which is that nothing should be made a substitute for direct prayer to god through verbal means. There is no place in the practice of the religion for visual aids to devotion: there are no mandalas in Islamic religious art.

For that matter, if tauhîd profoundly influenced Islamic art, why should it have done so in the ways the received wisdom claims? The mediaeval Muslim theologians most interested in the doctrine of tauhîd would surely have been among the first to say that art is only an earthly distraction from the true goal of religion. And the chauvinist views of the tauhîders are out of place in the interpretation of Islamic art anyway. What we call Islamic art was in reality the art of Islamic culture, in which Christians and Jews participated along with Muslims. Churches and synagogues used the same decorative media and motifs as mosques; so did secular buildings.

So what is the source of our received wisdom about Islamic art? These ideas come to us from the Romantic movement and were preserved in popular literature and the Orientalism of the previous century. It is a neat paradox that Orientalist stereotypes are reviled when it suits an anti-Western purpose but adopted in support of the tauhîders's supposedly "Islamic" interpretation of Islamic art. [Note: As in Edward Said's Orientalism, New York, 1978; for more extreme views see Orientalism, Islam, and Islamists, ed. Asaf Hussain et al., Brattleboro, 1984.]

Western stereotypes about Islamic culture go back much further than the Romantic Age, of course, but they were developed and applied more broadly during the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the prime age of Western colonialism in the Islamic world. Thus the received wisdom that Islamic art, like other aspects of Islamic culture, somehow represents or is determined by Islamic theology is simply an unexamined ethnocentric response by the West to contact with another civilization, not a traditional viewpoint of the Islamic world. The reasoning seems to have run something like this: the residents and culture of the Islamic world are fundamentally different from us (Westerners); why? because they are Muslim; therefore all differences between Islamic and Western culture must be due to Islam.

But Maybe

But maybe you think that there is something to this received wisdom anyway, or even that tauhîd underlies all of Islamic art. Perhaps you think these are reasonable hypotheses, even if no proof has been produced for them. How can you reasonably examine and defend such interpretations of art?

Logical Inference

We have a technique for constructing arguments that can be examined apart from an individual's religious or philosophical beliefs: logical inference, which is called the scientific method when it is applied to the natural world.

Briefly, one must examine the evidence, generalize about it (form a hypothesis), test the generalization against additional evidence, revise the generalization, and repeat the cycle. A valid generalization leads to further insights; in science this is called its predictive potential. [Note: "One true inference invariably suggests others." A. Conan Doyle, "Silver Blaze."]

This cycle of investigation is what good scholarship in the humanities is about even when the scholar does not realize he is using it. The point of this approach is not to claim the legitimacy of science, but to examine one's conclusions, rather than simply being satisfied that one has arrived at any conclusions; the point is to examine received wisdom rather than simply to repeat it. Historians of art are not generally taught that this is what they should be doing, but the good ones learn it by feel if not explicitly. This method of investigation makes it easy to figure out what to try next in a scholarly investigation. Once you have achieved an insight by looking at one kind of evidence, you can strengthen your case and improve your interpretation by looking at another kind of evidence. If you come to a conclusion on the basis of formal analysis you may be able to look to historical sources for confirmation; if stylistic analysis of pottery leads you to some idea you might be able to test that idea against the contents of inscriptions on that pottery.

Looking for Evidence

So if you want to show, as the catalogue and the tauhîders do, that all Islamic art has symbolic or esoteric Islamic religious content, or even, more reasonably, that at least some Islamic art has symbolic Islamic religious content, how might you go about it?

First of all, instead of just asserting what you feel to be a general truth, you need to find a set of objects or buildings in which you think you can see religious content, and that offers the possibility of examining various kinds of evidence. You need to look for cases in which you can obtain some leverage, cases in which one observation can lead to a hypothesis that can be extended to other cases for which you can also find evidence.

The catalogue essay works backwards: from a single example it draws conclusions about a wide range of monuments from other lands and historical periods, and then brings in sweeping generalizations. A better approach would be to develop the interpretation of the tile panel, test it against other kinds of evidence from the same time and place, and then broaden the argument by bringing in still more monuments.

Now, if Islamic art has symbolic religious content, and as Islamic art exhibits differences from period to period and place to place, one might expect that at least sometimes these differences have something to do with theological developments or changes in religion practices.

Some Suggestions

I can suggest some cases suited to such a method of investigation. I lay to one side several trivial cases: of course the forms of some things are unique to religious contexts: minarets, minbars, perhaps even special forms of Kufic script for writing Qur'âns. [Note: Estelle Whelan, "Writing the Word of God: Some early Qur'ân Manuscripts and their Milieux, Part I," Ars Orientalis, v. 20, pp. 113--47, though Dr. Whelan's findings are not at all trivial.] But with the exception of the latter, there is no difference in style between religious and secular art when we can find contemporary examples of both, except that pictures of people and animals do not appear in works intended for religious contexts. Also trivial is the assertion that because religious and secular art are decorated in the same fashion both are entirely religious in meaning; this assumes what is to be demonstrated.

I confess that I think all these approaches will produce results that are inconclusive at best.

My own study of Islamic art and architecture leads me to conclude that while there are cases in which religious content was worked into specific monuments, these are only overlays, additions to standard designs that themselves did not convey narrative or symbolic religious meaning, and that these cases do not reveal some fundamental aspect of Islamic art in general. Islamic art was admired in its original cultural context not for symbolizing religious ideas but for being well made and beautiful to look at. The culture did not expect to find religious content in art, any more than it expected to find human-interest stories there.

We would to better to investigate the religious contexts of Islamic art than its supposed religious content. And in any context there may be secondary, overlaid associations that are more tenuous than intentional symbolism.

Inarticulate Associations and Prototypes

Prof. Guitty Azarpay remarked to me, while we were discussing entwined dragons in Islamic art and cyclic images on Islamic metalwork, that we may find in the written record no trace of the associations connected with such images because these associations existed below the level of verbal culture.

The use of entwined dragons probably involves mostly inarticulate associations, with a few articulated facets: in the Islamic world, the dragons symbolized eclipses in some instances, but they could also be associated more flexibly with snakes, imperial power, and protection, as the context warranted. [Note: Willy Hartner, "The Pseudoplanetary Nodes of the Moon's Orbit in Hindu and Islamic Iconographies," Ars Islamica, v. 5, 1938, pp. 112--54; Guitty Azarpay, "The Eclipse Dragon on an Arabic Frontispiece-Miniature," Journal of the American Oriental Society, v. 98, 1978, pp. 363--74; and "The Snake-Man in the Art of Bronze Age Bactria," Bulletin of the Asia Institute, n.s., v. 5, 1991, pp. 1--10.]

It is harder to imagine such inarticulate associations for architectural forms than for figural representations. Still, the Umayyad age may have associated the mihrab with the place where Muhammad had stood to lead prayer in the mosque in Madînah---without ever saying as much. [Note: George C. Miles, "Mihrâb and `Anazah: A Study in Early Islamic Iconography," Archaeologia Orientalia in memoriam Ernst Herzfeld, Locust Valley, N.Y., 1952, pp. 156--71.]

But the strongest kind of inarticulate association is fuzzier: it is the visual memory of a respected or loved prototype. For example, congregational mosques in the Damascus area were built to resemble the city's Great Mosque down to the fifteenth century. In this case the prototype was known and extant; by borrowing the form of the Great Mosque the builders of other congregational mosques also borrowed all the associations that residents of the Damascus area linked to the oldest and largest mosque in the region. Alternately, such associations may traverse chains of prototypes. The original prototype may be forgotten, the original association may be changed. Either way, these invocations of the authority of a respected prototype help make a derivative building or other piece of material culture "feel right."

The cautionary conclusion that must be drawn from this sort of human behavior is that forms may be used repeatedly without conveying specific, articulate meanings: invoking of a prototype may produce only a inarticulate associations.

Islamic religious architecture is a study in the development and subsequent continuity of new customary forms. As their palaces show, the Umayyads lived in the world of Late Antiquity, rich in narrative art, and they may have tried to develop an articulate Islamic religious architecture. But the meaning of the mosaics in the Great Mosque of Damascus was soon lost, and the full rationale for the construction of the Dome of the Rock was forgotten. Subsequently the elaboration of visual forms and the intellectual elaboration of Islam were unconnected. One was mostly inarticulate, the other quite articulate.

If Not

If you are not interested in proving the tauhîders right or wrong, and whether or not you wish to search for inarticulate associations with artistic forms, you may better develop your understanding of Islamic art through actual art historical observations than through postulating the received wisdom.

For Example

What about the Ottoman tile panel that was not exhibited at Berkeley? The catalogue generalizes imprudently about the foliate filler of the niche, but in remarking that element it points to something interesting. In other Ottoman fountains, such as the larger, pavilionlike structures one sees in Istanbul and Cairo, there is also foliate decoration in similar locations, such as in the metal grilles surrounding the fountain itself. This may be simply a reference to the function of the building, or may also refer to the pious aims of the patrons in furnishing water to the thirsty. What is interesting is that pre-Ottoman fountains, such as the sabîl-maktabs of Cairo, do not share this motif: their grilles are rectangular grids.

So a reasonable generalization for you to make would be that Ottoman architects applied foliate decoration to an element that previously lacked it. This generalization in itself needs to be examined more thoroughly. But assuming it is valid, a reasonable next step for you to take would be to ask whether this was true of other elements in Ottoman art and architecture (extending the generalization). Or (and) you could look for other, similarly systematic differences between Ottoman and pre-Ottoman fountains; you could compare the contents of the inscriptions on Ottoman fountains to the inscriptions on pre-Ottoman fountains, to bring in another kind of evidence.

The cycle of investigation through logical inference allows you to look for whatever phenomenon interest you, such as the existence of symbolic religious meaning, and establish its existence firmly, rather than just assuming it is there because Orientalists have been saying so for the last two centuries.

Big Questions

The fountain tile panel has not led us very far, however. To get further we need to attach it to some high-level generalization, some larger art historical issue or question. Historians of Islamic art have not developed enough such issues, which help unify inquiry and are sorely needed in this diverse field. In the case of the fountain one might ask how the evidence of the fountain shows how Ottoman imperial art spread through Anatolia and the Arab lands.

As examples not directly relevant to the fountain, other high-level generalizations include the assertion that the arabesque and muqarnas were invented in `Abbâsid Mesopotamia and spread throughout the Islamic world because of the cultural prestige of the Caliphate; that in art and architecture the Maghrib lost touch with the central Islamic lands after the eleventh century; and that Islamic art is characterized by a "love of interlace" somehow connected with textiles. [Note: "Love of interlace" is a contribution of Lisa Golombek, "The Draped Universe of Islam," Content and Context of Visual Arts in the Islamic World, ed. Priscilla Soucek, Univ. Park, Pa., 1988, pp. 25--38.]


Yet another approach to the history of Islamic art is to examine what can be learned about the individuals who produced and commissioned it. I have in mind not the usual studies of patronage, which seldom fail to discover some connection between imperial patrons and their monuments. I am thinking rather of mining the rich seams of biography provided in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literary sources.

Arabic literature, in particular, is dominated by the biographical approach. The learned religious class, the `ulamâ', wrote biography with gusto, and this love of biography preceded even the writing of history in chronological order. [Note: A matter well handled by Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses, Cambridge, 1980, pp. 5--7, for the first centuries of the Islamic era.]

Many historians of Islamic art are familiar with Ibn Khallikân's Wafayât al-â`yân, a biographical dictionary of famous men who happened to have written at least some poetry; there are many such works. Even nonbiographical works include heavy servings of biography. A prime source for the Ayyûbid architecture of Damascus is the al-Dâris fî ta'rîkh al-madâris (Professors in the History of Madrasahs) of Abu'l-Mafâkhir Nu`aymî (d. 927/1521), in which all the city's madrasahs are discussed: it is not uncommon to find an entry that includes two or three lines about the building and who constructed it, and two to three pages or more about the professors who taught there. We need to exploit such large quantities of material, but how?

On occasion one finds biographical information about artists or architects. Sheila Blair has traced the careers of Persian makers of architecture tilework and a Persian calligrapher, Bernard O'Kane has taken the same approach with stucco, and Howard Crane has published a biography of an Ottoman architect. [Note: Blair, "A Medieval Persian Builder," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, v. 45, 1986, pp. 389--95, and "Artists and patronage in late fourteenth-century Iran in the light of two catalogues of Islamic metalwork," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, v. 48, 1985, pp. 53--59; O'Kane, "Natanz and Turbat-i Jâm: New Light on Fourteenth Century Iranian Stucco," Studia Iranica, v. 21, 1992, pp. 85--92; Crane, Risâle-i Mi`mâriyye: an Early-Seventeenth-Century Ottoman Treatise on Architecture, Leiden, 1987.] All of these studies have been highly productive of new ideas to investigate.

We may also use biography to inquire into the lives and milieux of what may be called subpatrons, such as overseers of construction mentioned in building inscriptions.

And we may use biography to inquire into the professional and intellectual world of the many educated men and women who were neither bureaucrats nor members of the `ulamâ', the two divisions of Islamic society that produced most of our literary sources. These two groups generally followed different paths in their education, though there is much overlap. [Note: Whelan, op. cit., explores this issue in connection with calligraphy, pp. 122--23.]

A third path was that taken by mathematicians, geometers, astronomers, doctors of medicine, and others interested in the sciences Islam inherited from the Greeks. We hear relatively little of this group in our sources, but of all educated persons they were most connected professionally with the intellectual basis of such arts as architecture. In closing I give biographical notes on one such man, Mu'ayyad al-Dîn al-hârithî, a Benjamin Franklin of the sixth/twelfth century. [Note: I thank `Abd al-Razzaq Moaz for bringing to my attention this and several other Ayyûbid architects and geometers.]

He is noticed by Muwaffaq al-Dîn Abu'l-`Abbâs Ahmad Ibn Abî Usaybi`ah, author of a biography of physicians:

Abu'l-Fadl b. `Abd al-Karîm al-muhandis (engineer, geometer). He was Mu'ayyad al-Dîn Abu'l-Fadl Muhammad b. `Abd al-Karîm b. `Abd al-Rahmân al-hârithî. He was born and grew up in Damascus. He was called al-muhandis for the excellence of his knowledge of engineering (handasah) and his reputation for it before he forsook it for the medical profession. At the beginning [of his career] he was taught carpentry and stonecutting also, and was won by the profession of carpentry. He was influential in it and many people sought after his works. Most of the gates (abwâb) of the great hospital (bîmâristân) that al-Malik al-`Âdil Nûr al-Dîn b. Zangî founded are his workmanship. I was told by S[h]adîd al-Dîn b. Raqîqah:

I was told by Shams al-Dîn b. al-Mutawâ` the oculist, who was his friend, that the beginning of his interest in science (`ilm) was when he studied Euclid (Auqlîdus) to improve the excellence of his carpentry, master its [geometry's] details, and gain freedom in applying them. [Shams al-Din] continued: it was in those days that he worked in (ya`amala fî) the mosque (masjid) of the Khâtûn that is below the spring of al-Munayba` west of Damascus. [Note: This is the large, lost mosque of the Bûrid Zumurrud Khâtûn (not Sitt al-Shâm) near San`â' of Damascus, about two kilometers west of the walled city on the southern Sharaf, an important job. See Thiqat al-Dîn Abu'l-Qâsim `Alî ibn `Asâkir, Ta'rîkh madînat Dimashq, ed. Salâh al-Dîn al-Munajjid, Damascus, 1954, trans. Nikita Elisséeff as La description de Damas d'Ibn `Asâkir, Damascus, 1959, p. 168 (in n. 3, which cites sources for this Zumurrad Khâtûn, Elisséeff unaccountably turns this mosque into a madrasah); Nu`aymî, al-Dâris, v. 2, p. 358; `Abd al-Bâsit `Ilmawî-Abu'l-Mafâkhir Nu` aymî, Mukhtasar, trans. H. Sauvaire in "Description de Damas," Journal Asiatique, ser. 9, v. 6, November--December 1895, p. 463 (note also the later mosque below al-Munayba`, nearby). Abû `Abd Allâh Muhammad `Izz al-Dîn b. Shaddâd, Al-A`lâq al-khatîrah fî dhikr umarâ' al-shâm wa'l-jazirah (Damascus section), ed. Sâmî al-Dahhân, pp. 151--52, lists other buildings apparently constructed by her household.]

Every day as he travelled to the site he would memorize something from Euclid, and also unravel something of it on his way. When he was not occupied with work he studied the book of Euclid until he comprehended it perfectly and became skilled in it. Then he studied similarly the book of al-Majasatî and began reading it, and he unravelled it and turned his attention to the profession of engineering ( handasah) and discovered in it a good omen.

He also busied himself with astronomy (Sanâ`at al-nûjûm) and constructing astronomical tables ( zîjât). And at that time the eminent al-tûsî [Note: Evidently not Nasîr al-Dîn al-Tûsî, 597--672/1201--74; possibly Sharaf al-Dîn al-Muzaffar b. Muhammad b. al-Muzaffar al-Tûsî, on whom see Ibn Khallikân, trans., v. 3, p. 470.] had arrived in Damascus, and he was distinguished in geometry (handasah) and the mathematical sciences (al-`ulûm al-riyâdîyah). There was not in his age another like him, and [Mu'ayyad al-Dîn] joined him and studied under him and learned many things from his [store of] knowledge.

He also studied the profession of medicine with Abu'l-Majd Muhammad b. Abu'l-hakim, who persuaded him of the truth of remaining and abrogation [relating to Qur'ânic verses]. He wrote many books about the sciences of medicine and the profession of medicine. Among his writings are sixteen books about Jâlînûs (Galen). And he had studied it under Abu'l-Majd Muhammad b. Abu'l-hakim . . . .

It was he who rebuilt the clocks (al-sâ`ât) at the Great Mosque (al-jâmi`) of Damascus. He declined pay for this. . . . [His medical career is described.] He was greatly respected in the medical profession. . . . He had travelled to Egypt and heard [learned] some hadîths at Iskandarîyah (Alexandria) in 572 and 573 (1176--78) from Rashîd al-Dîn Abu'l-Thanâ' hammâd b. Hibbat Allâh b. hammâd b. al-Fadîl al-harrânî and from Abu'l-tâhir Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Ibrâhîm al-Silafî al-Isfahânî. He also studied secular literature (adab) and the science of grammar (`ilm al-nahw), and composed poetry; there are some fine pieces of his. He died in 599/1202--03 in Damascus, at about seventy. [Note: `Uyûn al-anbâ' fî tabaqât al-attibâ', ed. August Müller, Königsberg, 1884, repr. 1972, 2 v. in 1, v. 2, pp. 190--91. Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah was born after 590/1194, and this work dates from 640/1242, with a revision in 667/1268.]

According to the Mamlûk antiquarian Ahmad b. `Alî al-Maqrîzi, 572/1176--77 was the year Saladin decided to build a city wall and citadel at Cairo, after returning to Egypt from Syria. In the same year Saladin also decided to build a madrasah over the tomb of al-Shâfi`î in Cairo. Al-Maqrîzî further reports that Saladin and two of his sons went to Alexandria during Ramadân and there heard hadîth from the hâfiz Abu'l-tâhir Ahmad al-Silafî, and ordered the repair of the fleet (astûl) of that city, also endowing a waqf for the religious lawyers. [Note: Al-Maqrîzi, Kitâb sulûk li-mar`rifat duwal al-muluk, ed. Mustafa Ziyadah, Cairo, 1936, v. 1, pt. 1, p. 63, s.a. 572. Saladin returned to Damascus in 573/1177--78, ibid., p. 65.] Saladin is also known to have ordered the construction of a school, hospital, and hostel for the Maghribis in Iskandarîyah. [Note: EI2, s.v. "Al-Iskandariyya," p. 137.] It may be concluded that Mu'ayyad al-Dîn travelled in his entourage during these years, though in what capacity cannot be ascertained; there were certainly architectural projects to be discussed.

The same man is mention by al-Nu`aymî, citing the Mamlûk biographer al-Safadî (696--764/1296--1363):

Muhammad b. `Abd al-Karîm Mu'ayyad al-Dîn Abu'l-Fadl al-hârithî al-Dimashqî al-muhandis. He was an intelligent master (Usthâdh) in the joinery of leaves of doors and windows (al-daff). Then he excelled in the science of Auqlîdus. Subsequently he renounced carving in marble (naqsh al-rukhâm) and stoneworking. He devoted himself to work, and excelled in medicine and the mathematical sciences (`ilm al-riyâdîyah). It is he who made the clocks of the gate (bâb) of the Great Mosque. He heard [hadîths] from al-Silafî, wrote many elegant books, and abridged the Âghânî [Book of Songs of Abu'l-Faraj al-Isfahânî], and this is in his hand in the [Mashhad] `Arwah; and [he wrote] al-hurûb wa'l-siyâsât (Wars and Policies), al-Adwîyah al-mufradah (Simple Medicines), and Maqâlah fî ru'îyat al-hilâl (A Treatise on Observing the New Moon). He died in 599/1202--03. [Note: Nu`aymî, al-Dâris, v. 2, pp. 387--88.]

Note that Mu'ayyad al-Dîn is not credited with any specific buildings, and as a craftsman he is noted only for woodwork and clocks. He must have been a joiner, not an architect, despite the use of the word muhandis, which perhaps means "geometer" here. He was of humble origin, as his father is not mentioned, though his home town is; but the father could have been a carpenter or mason. If he was truly seventy lunar years old when he died, he was born in 529/1134--35. He probably was taught carpentry and stonecutting by the time he was twelve; it follows that in Damascus in the late 1140's, under the last Bûrids, the two trades were taught together, perhaps because they were Used together in the construction industry. Architects in the mediaeval West are believed to have been carpenters as well as masons; perhaps in Damascus many of the same artisans built both in stone and in timber, building ceilings, door and window frames, and the woodwork integral to the masonry (wooden beams that run through many of the walls).

Mu'ayyad al-Dîn had a choice of trade, however, and he sensibly chose the lighter job of woodworking, so a trade division by material apparently existed, at least at the high end. The woodwork he is credited with---doors decorated with joinery and brass bands---is fine, finished work, separable from the process of constructing the main mass of the building. He had left stonework behind and was master of his craft.

Nevertheless he journeyed to the mosque every day to work. Perhaps he had a workshop at the construction site. He may have had one in the city, too, and may well have worked individual pieces there and brought them to the site for assembly. In any event, his daily trips to the mosque under construction suggests that fine woodwork was assembled, if not worked, on the site.

In addition, he worked in metal, necessary for the doors of the hospital and for the clocks at the Great Mosque. This is not noted separately, as he did not practice it as a distinct trade (he did not make everyday objects of metal).

Mu'ayyad al-Dîn began his education by following the third path, that of the sciences. He first took the initiative to study geometry (he was what we would call a self-starter), then studied astronomy and also mathematics, the link between the two topics. Then he learned the science of medicine, which was technically unrelated to the mathematical topics at that time, but came his way as part of the cluster of Greek sciences inherited from Antiquity. It is only because of the career shift he made, from joiner to doctor, that we know of his existence.

Mu'ayyad al-Dîn rose far above his origins, both intellectually and surely in material wealth, and at about age forty-one (forty-three to him) he travelled from his native city to Egypt, now firmly under the control of Saladin. Ibn Abî Usaybi`ah presents this trip, which he uses to introduce his subject's education outside the Greek sciences, as having been made for pious reasons, and al-hâfiz al-Silafî was a famous man who died soon after Mu'ayyad al-Dîn's visit at a great age, further enhancing the value of his hadîths (perhaps this was the reason for citing the date). Saladin studied with him, and Ibn Khallikân mentions meeting people who heard hadîths from al-hâfiz al-Silafî, [Note: Ibn Khallikân, s.v., trans., v. 1, pp. 86--90.] so having done so was clearly worthy of mention. [Note: The hâfiz taught in a madrasah built for him by al-`Âdil b. al-Sallâr, the Fâtimid wazir who died in 548/1153.]

But significantly, no other religious affiliation or association of Mu'ayyad al-Dîn is mentioned, and we are left to conclude that he travelled with the sultan as an architect.

In any event, in midlife if not earlier Mu'ayyad al-Dîn began to round out his education by sampling the curriculum of the first two paths: the religious sciences and adab, grammar and poetry. His own writings, so far as Nu`aymî cites them, were practical and literary, not religious.

This man, and others like him, may be our best keys to understanding the inarticulate associations connected with Islamic art and architecture. We need to know more about such persons, the representatives of the third path of Islamic education, and how they thought about the world. And it would be particularly useful to understand such persons in tenth century Baghdad, where the arabesque and muqarnas were developed.

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