The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 16, 2003
Lead Article

The secular tradition of Muslim art
M.S.N. Menon

The Taj Mahal symbolises architecture that is secular
The Taj Mahal symbolises architecture that is secular.

BEAUTY is divine. It is an attribute of God. One of the names of God in Islam is al-Jamil (the beautiful). Islam has also been ill at ease with many things beautiful. For example, with paintings and sculptures, music and dances. And the beauty of women? Muslim art has grown mostly under secular impulses. Today, there is an effort in some countries to Islamise Muslim art. But you cannot Islamise a composite inheritance of Greek, Persian, Indian, Central Asian, Chinese and Roman traditions.

The Hindu traced almost everything to a divine origin. This helped the luxuriant growth of his art. And he tried to excel in everything, for all that he did was an offering to the gods. There is no parallel to it in the world. But Muslim art grew intermittently, thwarted more often by puritanical forces. The Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century and they imposed a puritanical culture. Yet by the 10th century, Persian culture reasserted itself.

During the 11th century, the Mongols under Genghis Khan destroyed the main centres of Islam. This left Islam without a radiating centre. As a result, the regional genius began to grow. For example, the Turko-Mongol arts gained ascendancy with Chinese influence. Timur’s empire, the first large state stretching from India to Volga, with Central Asia as its heart, and Samarkhand as its capital became a major factor in the artistic development of the entire region. Timur was a patron of city planning and architecture. In India, under the great Mughals (branch of the Timurids) there was a parallel development. Indian Islam created its own distinct culture.


Calligraphy is the most unique creation of Muslims. But it was not without a precedent. The Greeks had illustrated and illumined scroll writings. But the Muslims raised calligraphy into a supreme art, more because it became an act of piety and dedication. Calligraphy served to satisfy the artistic urges of Muslims. It was used extensively as a decorative art in architecture, carpets, textiles, etc. Numerous variations of the Arabic script were created in the process. In calligraphy, art and religion fused. In fact, tablets with the name of the Prophet became objects of worship.

Architecture comes second to calligraphy. It rose to great heights. With the use of ceramic tiles as a wall covering from the 12th century, it had no parallel anywhere in the world. By the 14th century, this art of glazing reached perfection. And the Mughals promptly transferred this art to India. However, in India Muslim architecture mingled with the local tradition to produce the world’s marvel — the Taj Mahal.

Islam was hostile to music and poetry. And yet the Koran is both poetry and music. And the call to the prayer is almost always "sung". And so too the Muslim funeral oration. It is for Muslim scholars to ponder over these contradictions. Islam’s reservations with regard to music was more an Arab tradition, not of Persia, where music enjoyed a high status among the people, and the Sufis raised it to mystical heights. They said that music is a bridge between Heaven and Earth.

Jalal al-Din Rumi, the greatest Sufi mystic and poet, had a powerful influence on Islam. His Mathnavi is generally sung.

There was little Arab influence in India. The influence was Persian and Central Asian. The Mughals, who were mostly unorthodox, were patrons of Persian and Central Asian cultures. But the culture of both Samarkhand and Bukhara was influenced by Buddhistic and Chinese traditions.

The Sultanates, which preceded the Mughals, were not exactly puritanical. Firishta, a Persian soldier, who took to writing, has said that princes of the Slave dynasty, founded in 1206, patronised both musicians and dancing girls. Srivara, the great historian of Kashmir, has said that Sultan Zain-ul Abidin (the most tolerant Muslim king of Kashmir) was a great patron of arts, and he had musicians and dancing girls at his court.

Abdul Hasan of the Sahi dynasty was so pleased with the performance of a band of Brahmin dancers and actors of the village of Kuchipudi that he made a land grant of the whole village to the troupe in 1675 (Kuchipudi has since become a famous Bharatanatyam dance form).

The Great Mughals (1526-1856) introduced the grand lifestyle of Samarkhand and Bukhara into India. They loved luxury and pleasure, art and literature. Their principal diversion was to witness dancing.

However, it was only during the reign of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan that arts flourished. While Akbar was a keen patron of writers and artists (the great singer Tansen flourished in his court), Shah Jahan was a great builder and calligraphist. Abul Fazal, friend of Akbar, writes in his Ain-i-Akbari (Account of Akbar’s life and rule) that there were eight forms of dances during his time. He also writes on the life of nobles. Jehangir was a perfect connoisseur of the arts, especially of paintings, and a great patron of artists. A Dutchman of the Mughal court writes that many of these dancing girls came from Persia, but were not as good as the Indian girls. Shah Jahan loved music. But his supreme love was for architecture. The Taj Mahal remains his immortal work.

With Aurangzeb, there was a throwback to fundamentalism and intolerance. He had little interest in art, he disallowed all festivals, Hindu or Muslim, banned music, painting and other arts. He compelled the dancing girls either to marry or leave his realm. But, interestingly, he allowed his queens and daughters to enjoy both music and dancing. As for himself, he was, for a time, infatuated with a dancing girl-Zinbadi.There is a lunatic fringe in all religions. But this constant throwback to fundamentalism and contradictions is peculiar to Islam. The latest was the emergence of Taliban and the Bamiyan episode. The Muslim kings and emperors patronised the Kathak form of dance, introducing many changes, particularly the dance dress, form of salute, delicacy of manners, etc. It thus became a secular art form.

The Muslims brought the Persian art of book illustration and illumination into India. But in painting pictures, they combined the Indian and Persian elements. India must be grateful to many of the Samarkhand artists who took up residence in Delhi and were responsible for the hundreds of exquisite portraitures. This was new to India, but used to flourish in Samarkhand under Chinese influence. Indian paintings were largely religious and Hindu. About this Abul Fazal had said that it "surpassed our conception of things."

We have come a long way from those tolerant days. Little do Muslims realise that they have blocked the evolution of their civilisation by restricting the freedom of the mind and the senses, the source of thoughts and forms. In curbing free enquiry, Islam has blocked the progress of philosophy and religion and in restricting freedom to the senses, it has not allowed music and dance, painting and sculpture, tastes and feelings and art and architecture to reach their perfection. Instead, they have opted for a repetitive existence on earth in search of perfection and rejected the alternative of a richer and varied civilisation.

It was the desert which shaped the civilisation of the Arabs. They had little achievement to their credit, as compared to what the Egyptians, Persians and Mesopotamians had been able to achieve. Naturally, they were hostile to anything artistic. So, Muslim artistic impulse flourished only in non-Arab countries. More often under secular impulses.