As published in the Sri Lankan Islamic monthly, The Trend. Please note that this has been written to suit a Sri Lankan society, particularly Muslim and may not necessarily be strictly applicable to others.
Art and culture has been the driving force of many an European advancement in the past few centuries, indeed it has been the driving force of many global expansionist movements – of course what may have started with art may have ended with serious consequences, political or otherwise. Art and culture can take a whole plethora of forms and can generally be morphed to encapsulate almost everything if not anything that happens around the world today. Art may span from the possibly mundane in that it considers the manner in which one cooks, eats, or drinks to the way one talks, stands or sits – of course in addition to the general understandings of art as those being akin to painting, music, drama or fashion.
Art is appreciated for its beauty as a primary human response – where humans tend to appreciate the aesthetic value of the substance of that which we call art.
This first piece that I write will serve as an introduction to this column to outline the facets of art and culture and the Islamic ramifications therein that I may wish to dwell upon in future issues. For this reason, it is important to set things aside, clear our heads and get a relatively unadulterated panorama that outlines what art and culture are. Indeed they are related but hardly the same.
Art, as an isolated term is described by the Irish Art Encyclopaedia as a “.. a global activity which encompasses a host of disciplines, as evidenced by the range of words and phrases which have been invented to describe its various forms. Examples of such phraseology include: Fine Arts, Liberal Arts, Visual Arts, Decorative Arts, Applied Arts, Design, Crafts, Performing Arts, and so on.”
Art is but one limb of culture that is a far grander body consisting of several limbs.
Art is known to have defined many cultures in a political, social and economic sense and is today a multi-billion dollar industry. The political ramifications of art are numerous and art has been the silent worker that creates a ground for political influence across many spheres. The influence of one nation on another and with it possible economic dependency cannot come if one group of people do not assimilate and are not indoctrinated by another nation’s art and culture – only when this assimilation takes place does it become convenient for another nation with imperialist (economic or otherwise) motives to control another people with or without tangible consent.
Many political revolutions around the world, peaceful or violent, needful or needless have evidence to suggest that art was a vital media through which ideas were promulgated.
Art and culture is the most fluid form of disseminating information which is so easily received by most people. One would appreciate that rap music effectively gives out messages to most societies that academics have in certain instances failed to expose. The likes of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley of yesteryear and perhaps K’naan of today are singers whose music has influenced millions of people who have in the past and now begun to question their circumstances than just taking it for granted. A number of Bob Dylan’s songs like ‘Blowing in the wind’ and ‘Times Are a-changing’ were used as anthems for US civil rights and anti-war movements. The early lyrics of his songs had embedded in them a variety of political, social and philosophical connotations and were not merely ‘music to the ears’. Just look around a bookshop or a music store and Bob Marley is all over the place or speak to a ‘brotha’.
This is why Art and Culture in an Islamic sense is extremely important and has to be cultivated if Muslims as a community are to be recognised in the glory that they once were. Islamic art begins with the 7-8th Centuries and then sharply recedes during and from 17-18th centuries. Muslims today admire the virtues of this one millennium of great art and culture which they gave to the world in the likes of Moorish Spain, Baghdad and Istanbul amongst others.
However Islamic mannerisms, as derived from the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) have not permeated into common global usage and are not held in esteem except in Muslim countries and a few scattered communities in Asia and the West.
Indeed, British gentlemanliness, French cooking, German philosophy and many other things European are what seem to be defined as the benchmark of cultural mannerisms today – surely they are the global elite and it is human to want to imitate the trendsetters of the world. But, indeed there was a time when it was the other way around and Islamic influences were the ones that were imitated by the west because Muslims were the then global elite and imitating them would have been the ‘cool’ thing to do.
In issues to come, this column will feature book and film reviews, global art trends, photography, architecture and most things ‘arty’ with an underlying Islamic theme of course. Until then, be vigilant of the arts around you and ponder how an Islamic culture can evolve from the current pillars of art we have around us.