We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Aesthetic Theory - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Aesthetic Theory

By:
Walter B. Denny
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Aesthetic Theory

The absence of a body of written systematic aesthetic theory in Islam before the nineteenth century may be attributed in part to the traditional Islamic disapproval of visual arts and music, but also to the lack in Islam of a parallel to the conception of the artistʾs role as it emerged in Europe at the time of the Renaissance. With the exception of great calligraphers, traditional Islamic artists were for the most part anonymous, or their reputations existed within very limited circles of the court or local bazaar. Treatises on music, calligraphy, and painting do exist, but these are mainly technical and pedagogical works. Although in many epochs of Islamic art there is an implied and widely accepted aesthetic standard, and after 1500 CE there was sometimes a remarkable consensus on who many of the great painters, calligraphers, and architects were, aesthetic standards were rarely expressed in a systematic way in theoretical writings. Without a theater tradition and with its own distinctive poetic forms, classical Islam largely ignored Aristotle's Poetics and other pre-Islamic formulations of aesthetic theory, but occasionally treated the concept of beauty in the context of Neoplatonism.

In the nineteenth century this situation gradually changed, primarily in response to contacts with the West, but the impact was uneven throughout the Islamic world. The primary spokesmen for the arts of Islam were at first the colonizers themselves, or, in the case of the Ottoman Empire, Western specialists such as Parvillée or Montani who worked for Ottoman patrons. The early printed works by Europeans dealing with the art of Islamic lands were largely descriptive and often lavishly illustrated. Some stressed the exotic aspects of Islamic art, and others expressed or implied the European view that the lack of a tradition of sculpture and easel painting, or the absence of linear perspective in painting meant that Islamic art was somehow undeveloped or inferior. At the same time Europe was granting new status to art forms traditionally among the foremost in Islamic society—the so-called “decorative arts”—and Europe's admiration for Islamic accomplishments in these media was both sincere and widespread.

Both new and old European art theories influenced the Islamic world profoundly. From the Ottoman Empire artists were sent to Europe (primarily as an adjunct to military training) to learn western techniques of painting and the means of depicting pictorial space; at the same time, the establishment of European museums of decorative arts where Islamic works figured prominently caused Islamic artists and writers to look at their own early traditions with new respect. By the turn of the twentieth century, various movements to renew or “purify” Islamic art began to emerge in various parts of the Islamic world.

In the Ottoman Empire this movement grew out of a nationalist ideology, especially in architecture, and resulted in a body of writing that sought the establishment of a true national style in architecture by rejecting the Europeanized taste of the nineteenth century and returning to the classical Ottoman style of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Iran a somewhat similar movement, incorporating historicism and a revival of past glories and applied to many artistic media, arose under the Qājārs. Nationalist writers in the Arab world and to a lesser extent in India decried the artistic influence weducational systems and patronage meant that few artists or architects were able to express the new theories. Between the two world wars, little changed in the Islamic world artistically; in the meantime, however, European Orientalists had taken a fresh look at early texts, and a more comprehensive view of Islamic aesthetic practice, if not theory, began to emerge in the works of such scholars as Thomas Arnold and Ernst Kühnel.

Following World War II, with the emerging independence of many Islamic nations, a revolution in aesthetic theory occurred throughout the Islamic world. European converts to Islam and scholars from the Islamic world sought a new centrality and universality of meaning in Islamic art under the concept of tawḥīd or unity, while wrestling with the traditional Islamic proscription against figural images. The emergence of the printing press, television, cinema, and political democracy, with its attendant political imagery, have prompted tentative attempts to tackle the theological issues around taṣwīr (representational painting). Some have proposed that representation of the human form is not necessarily anti-Islamic, but in fact an important and vital part of Islamic cultural traditions. Islamic religious art has been viewed in new perspectives by European Muslims such as James Dickie, Martin Lings, and Titus Burckhardt, and in the Islamic world by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Tharwat ʿUkāshah in Egypt. Two scholars, Valérie Gonzalez and Doris Behrens-Abouseif, have attempted a systematic overview of the concept of beauty in Islam, the former extrapolating elements of a contemporary theory of Islamic aesthetics from this overview.

Concrete political reflections, however crude, of an “Islamic” concept of beauty are many. State-supported “re-islamization” of artistic traditions has been attempted with varying degrees of success across the Islamic world, perhaps most notably in Morocco. By contrast, secular Islamic regimes such as Turkey or Baʿthist Iraq experienced a broad development of responses to international artistic styles. The varied approaches to visual art today are often filled with irony: the Taliban's Mullah Ibrāhīm lived in a residence whose walls were decorated with crude paintings of verdant landscapes, while Saddam Husseinʾs palaces in Iraq, with their mélange of Islamic and neo-Babylonian motifs, have been widely noted. Todayʾs conflicts to define Islamic art are a profound reflection of a deeper dialectic within modern Islamic society and culture; a broad consensus is unlikely to emerge despite the efforts of the Aga Khan Foundation and other organizations to help define “Islamic” architecture and design for the twenty-first century. See also AGA KHAN; ARCHITECTURE; CARPETS; PAINTING; and TAWḥīD.

Bibliography

  • Arnold, Thomas. Painting in Islam. Oxford, 1928. The first major study of the religious environment of Islamic pictorial art.
  • Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. Beauty in Arabic Culture. Princeton, N.J., 1999. A recent look at the notion of beauty in Arabic arts.
  • Burckhardt, Titus. Art of Islam: Language and Meaning. London, 1976. Examines the theoretical and aesthetic principles of Islamic art.
  • Gonzalez, Valérie. Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture. London, 2001. Looks to medieval Islamic Aristotelian philosophers as the source of an Islamic aesthetics, and uses contemporary aesthetics to formulate a view of Islamic art.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Art and Spirituality. Albany, N.Y., 1987. Discussion of the aesthetics and spirituality of Islamic visual art, music, and literature.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. New York and London, 1984. Aesthetics and symbolism of the most important Islamic art form in the context of the Islamic mystical tradition.
  • ʿUkāshah, Tharwat. The Muslim Painter and the Divine. London, 1981. Deals with the phenomenon of figural representation of religious themes in Islamic art.
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2018. All Rights Reserved. Privacy policy and legal notice