Monday, June 28, 2010


Dr. Samir Mahmud

Color, Symbolism, and the Mystic Quest: the Spiritual Exegesis of Color in Sufism in the Works of Henry Corbin


This paper is an attempt to elucidate one aspect of the phenomenology of color in Islam, namely that found in the works of some mystics. To achieve this it will draw on various mystical commentaries on those Quranic verses that explicitly refer to color. Particular reference will be made to the Sufi commentaries. It will then explore how some of these verses and the nature of color were discussed by Sufis like Najumddin Kubra and `Alludawlah Simnani in their phenomenology of colors. Particular attention will be paid to Henry Corbin’s groundbreaking work on these authors in his The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism and other essays where he elucidates the supra-sensory modes of perception associated with mystic perception and where he explores parallels between these Sufis and Goethe’s Farbenlehre. Some of the questions that will be asked are: What are the implications of these theories of color photisms on our scientific theories of light and color? What can they reveal about the nature of reality? Can the theories of the Sufis on color symbolism as revealing the various states of the mystic quest reveal anything about color in Islamic art? It is not our intention to resolve the problem in this paper but to contribute to the debate. The paper is intended as an introduction to the topic and will rehearse many of the arguments put forward by Henry Corbin with the intention of placing his work on color theory back in the limelight after years of neglect.
SAMIR MAHMOUD is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, where the focus of his research is aesthetics in Ibn ‘Arabi. Mr. Mahmoud has won numerous awards from the University of New South Wales and from Cambridge University. His publications include “The Space of Soul: Towards a Phenomenology of Sacred Space,” in Sacred Species and Sites: Guardians of Biocultural Diversity (2008) and “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi: An Introduction to the Thought of Henry Corbin” (2006), published on the official website of Henry Corbin, Mr. Mahmoud has worked previously as a researcher at the Australian Museum, Sydney and as a designer at CIVITAS, an urban design and architecture firm based in Sydney, and has taught courses at the Centre for Muslim-Jewish Relations in Cambridge, UK.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Topkapi: The Official Residence of the Ottoman Sultans

Topkapı Palace constructed by Fatih Sultan Mehmet, (the Conqueror) in 1478 has been the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans and center of State Administration around 380 years until the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace by Sultan Abdülmecid. The palace having around 700.000 m.² area during the foundation years has currently 80.000 m.² area. 

Topkapı Palace was evacuated by the accommodation of the Palace inhabitants in Dolmabahçe, Yıldız and in other palaces. Upon abandoning by the Sultans, Topkapı Palace where many officials resided had also never lost its importance. The palace was repaired from time to time. A special attention was taken for the annual maintenance of Mukaddes Emanetler Dairesi (Sacred Safekeeping Rooms) visited by the sultan and his family during Ramadan. 

At the time of his conquest, Sultan Mehmed encountered an impoverished city with a population of a mere forty thousand souls who lived scattered about in isolated residential sections set amidst cultivated fields. The site he chose for his palace was typical: a hill covered with an olive grove, presumably several abandoned monastic structures, chapels, and bathhouses, and a small residential district by the sea.

This was the beginning of an unprecedented scheme of grandiose proportions which became synonymous with Ottoman cultural and administrative history. More than a residential complex for the royal household, the new palace was to become the pivotal institution for the planning and decision-making institutions of a far-flung empire and it remained so from the late 15th century to the middle of the l9th.

All the palaces built (or completed) during the reign of Mehmed II exhibit the same spatial order based on the principle of interconnected courtyards, each located in clearly defined public, semi-public, and private zones. These courtyards were arranged according to hierarchical considerations with their shapes being determined by topography rather than precise geometric or orthogonal principles. The number of these courtyards was flexible: there had to be at least two but could be as many as nine, as in the case of the Edirne place. Only five of them, however, were given the designation meydan (square) or taslik (courtyard) according to the particular palace's terminology.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The principle, the truth of the Nature of Reality which dominates over Islamic art and the philosophy of beauty which governs it, comes directly from the Qur’an and hadith. It is, however, much too subtle to be seen externally. One of the reasons is that you don’t have a book in Islam on the philosophy of beauty or how they did architecture? No body knows how the Badshahi Mosque or the Taj Mahal or Isphahan mosque was built. This tradition was handed over orally from generation to generation through the artistic guilds, those of chivalry, the brotherhood organisations that were ultimately connected to the Çarâqah or the esoteric path. What are these principles that have dominated over all forms of Islamic art from its beginning?

The first is tawhid, the doctrine of unity. All authentic Islamic art must reflect Divine Unity. There are consequences for that. First is that you must always have an integration of the form. There is a centre to it. Islamic art is always a centered art. It has a centre from which it speaks - whether architecture, calligraphy, miniature, carpet weaving etc.-and that is a reflection of tawhid. One can extend this principle to great lengths, as it is the most important of all principles of Islamic art. It means to exclude from Islamic art all forms of idolatry.

Theologically idolatry means to make an idol or statue and say that it is God. This is only the external understanding of idolatry. But an understanding of Islamic art is always related to Sufism which tries to transcend the external forms to reach tawhid within, to understand the unity of creation. It is not accidental that every great calligrapher of Islamic lands is related to Sufism. Anyhow the first important principle i.e. tawhid works on many levels; of integration, of lack of alienation, of lack of tension between parts, integration of the psyche of the listener instead of dispersion etc.

Second principle is that of Jamal. Up till modern times all art took beauty into consideration. Modern art has developed the cult of ugliness, considering beauty to be trivial and unnecessary and even a luxury. The modern theoreticians of art considered that art should be related to utility and not to beauty. The Islamic perspective has been summarised in an important Áhadith that defines Islamic art in the whole of Islamic civilisation. “Allahu Jamâlun yuhibu ‘l-jamal”(God is beautified and He loves beauty). Beauty is reality, ugliness is unreality. To live in ugliness is to live in illusion, in unreality. This is in contrast to much of the modern art, which tries to discover the ugly, the evil and says that it is important, the good is not important.

There is the famous saying, “In every thing there is a sign which bears witness to His Oneness.” Islamic art tries to accentuate that aspect instead of hiding it. 

 Thirdly, there is the un-iconic character of the Islamic art. In many civilisations art flows from the representation of the Divinity. Examples of the Christian or Hindu art could be cited in this regard. All Christian art is dominated by the image of Christ. On the other hand, un-iconic art means an art that refuses to depict the divine in a direct from. It excludes a statue or an image that represents divinity. The reason for it is the emphasis of Islam upon tawhid on the highest level. It is not a religion based upon the manifestation of divinity like the Hindu avatars or Christ who, in a sense, is the Abrahamic avatar since for the Christians he represents the descent, the incarnation of the Divinity. Islam places itself on the position of the Divinity Itself, the pure Divinity, the Absolute Reality which cannot descent in the world of forms or it would no longer be the Absolute. That is why Islamic art is characterised by an attempt to bring the Sacred into the world without representing the Divinity directly.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Whether produced in a courtly or an urban setting or for a religious context, Islamic art is generally the work of anonymous artists. Given the great number of extant examples, comparatively few signatures are found on metalwork, pottery, carved wood and stone, and textiles.

Those signatures that do occur, combined with rare evidence from contemporary textual sources, suggest that families of artists, often over several generations, specialized in a particular medium or technique. Often time the artist was an artisan whose stock of patterns and technical skills were handed down from generation to generation within specialised families. Learning the techniques, the firing or glazing of the pottery, the weaving of the cloth etc., and learning the particular shapes and designs to be used, formed a single process in training the young.

The least artisanal work, such as woodwork, pottery, weaving, and so forth includes, beyond its material technique, a certain transmitted science, sometimes reduced to some very simple rules but always bearing an aspect of wisdom, which the artisan will more or less penetrate, according to the degree of his contemplative intelligence and his experience.

It has been said that work with ones hands allows one to know oneself. In this way, manual art can be a means through which man is better able to contemplate on his Lord. Not only by recognising the bounty of materials that God has provided him/her with, but also, more importantly through recognition of ones own capabilities and limitations as an artisan, when comparing his work to the Greatest of Crafters.

In contrast to Western art, in which painting and sculpture are pre-eminent, it is in the so-called decorative arts that Islamic art found its primary means of expression.

Through the diversity of the Islamic Empire, which linked together, for the first time in history, such varied and distant peoples as Spaniards, Africans, Persians, Turks, Egyptians and Indians, a quick dissemination of knowledge and artistic merging arose.

During Parthian and Sasanian times, the ceramic arts had been little patronised by the wealthy, especially east of Iraq. Even in villages, the pottery remained undistinguished as compared with that of earlier centuries. But for the first time, under Islamic Abbasid rule, porcelains imported from China (in its expansive Tang period) inspired a distinct revival of ceramic art.

The porcelain imports could not be duplicated, but ways were found to imitate its whiteness. They succeeded in developing many original decorative techniques including lustre ware and a method of polychrome painted ware called Minai.

These same decorative techniques were utilized in tile making, in which Muslims were unsurpassed. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


From an Islamic perspective art consists in fashioning objects in a manner conformable to their nature, for that nature has a virtual content of beauty, since it comes from God; all one has to do is release that beauty in order to make it apparent.

According to the most general Islamic conception, art is no more than a method of ennobling matter.

And since there is no better action than the remembrance of God, according to the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh), a craft can be good only to the degree to which it aids in this remembrance, directly or indirectly.

Just as knowledge of Qur'an and hadith, according to traditional Islamic teaching, needs to be passed down through an unbroken golden chain from teacher to student leading back to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Similarly this wisdom and baraka (spiritual blessing) is recognised and permeates many aspects of the conscientious Muslim's life even in the domain of craftsmanship.

The following account is found in Titus Burckhardt's book "Fez: City of Islam"

"I knew a comb-maker who worked in the street of his guild, called Abd al-Aziz (slave of the Almighty).

One day he complained to me that the importation of plastic combs was diminishing his business: 'It is not only a pity that today, solely on account of price, poor quality combs from a factory are being preferred to much more durable horn combs,' he said; 'it is also senseless that people should stand by a machine and mindlessly repeat the same movement, while an old craft like mine falls into oblivion.

My work may seem crude to you; but it harbours a subtle meaning which cannot be explained in words. I myself acquired it only after many long years, and even if I wanted to, I could not automatically pass it on to my son, if he himself did not wish to acquire it - and I think he would rather take up another occupation.

This craft can be traced back from apprentice to master until one reaches our Lord Seth, the son of Adam. It was he who first taught it to man, and what a Prophet brings-for Seth was a Prophet-must clearly have a special purpose-both outwardly and inwardly. I gradually came to understand that there is nothing fortuitous about this craft, that each movement and each procedure is a bearer of an element of wisdom. But not everyone can understand this. But even if one does not know this, it is still stupid and reprehensible to rob men of the inheritance of Prophets, and to put them in front of a machine where, day in and day out, they must perform a meaningless task."