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Art and architecture in The Islamic tradition pdf

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 Art And Architecture In The Islamic Tradition
  • Book Author:
Mohammed Hamdouni Alami
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Art and architecture in The Islamic tradition – Aesthetics, politics and desire in early Islam Mohammed Hamdouni Alami


The aims of this book

By asking different questions, drawing new parallels, and using available literary sources not yet exploited, my contribution to the debates about the architecture of the Islamic world seeks to show that an interpretation of the central features of its early production need not make recourse to either purely sociological or, conversely, mystical views.

 This book presents the argument that Umayyad and ʿAbbasid architectures rely on a modus operandi in which the poetic function is dominant.

 Denotative, symbolic and other functions coexist in architectural works but are rendered ambiguous by the primacy of the poetic function.

 In contrast to the prevalent view that considers ambiguity an obstacle to understanding the artistic meaning of the architecture of the Islamic world, my work stresses the foundational role of ambiguity in the poetics of architecture in general, and of that architecture in particular.

 Hence, my argument develops parallels between Arabic poetics and theories of language from the eighth to the early tenth century, and the architecture of the same period.

In contrast to mainstream views in the field, I seek to demonstrate that early Islamic authors developed a theory of visual perception through different theoretical and theological works.

My discussion will concentrate on five major issues, each leading down a specific path and involving a different set of questions related to the history of art and architecture of the early Islamic centuries. For theoretical reasons, I pursue each of these paths in a separate chapter.

The first four chapters of this book unfold each on their own, as if they were independent parts; yet, as he or she reads along, the reader realizes that they develop and describe the same theme from different angles before converging in the last chapter.

 It is in Chapter 6 that all the strands developed in the previous chapters are woven together to articulate the complex problematic of artistic production in the formative period of the architecture of the Islamic world.

As I argue in my conclusion it is ‘common sense’ to expect a book to unfold as a well-structured narrative, with woven chapters leading from a clearly stated set of queries, hypothesis and method- ological tools to their mise en oeuvre in the successive parts or chapters, and an arty orchestrated presentation of the expected results.

 But, as I show in the conclusion of this book, this kind of staging is misleading at both the level of the lived experience of research and the structure and genesis of the subject matter itself.

Furthermore, it often tends to create the illusion of possessing a theoretical framework that allows a totalizing grasp of the subject matter, and therefore excludes queries that do not seem to fit in this intellectual framework.

This totalizing pitfall is to be avoided if we are to take on the challenge of advancing the study of the art and architecture of Islamic societies to the theoretical level of art his- tory, and to do so requires an open structured approach that draws different and converging paths to the analysis.

One needs to keep in mind that the paths proposed here are only some of the possible ones.

I am convinced that an open theoretical approach that does not lead to the illusion of a totalizing and complete intellectual grasp of the subject matter is necessary to keep alive the sense of curiosity, the awareness that more research and investigation are needed, and the much needed corollary of an open mind.

Chapter 2: Architecture and Meaning in the Theory of al-Jāḥiẓ

Following the introduction, the book examines al-Jāḥiẓ’s theory of al-bayān as developed in Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (The Book of Animals) and Al-Bayān wa al-Tabyīn (roughly translatable as ‘Expression and Persuasion’), in which architecture is presented as a core medium similar to speech and poetry.

This idea supports the notion of the primordial importance of architecture as a component of al-bayān in both Muslim aesthetics and, more fundamentally, in the existence of social life itself.

In this chapter I give a systematic account of al- Jāḥiẓ’s theory of al-bayān as it is presented in his work.

I then seek to point to the connections between architecture and decoration on the one hand, and language and poetry on the other, as suggested by al-Jāḥiẓ.

 I finally show how the mechanisms of al-bayān operate in the perception of architecture, and how architecture produces meaning within this epistemic configuration.

Chapter 3: Architecture and Poetics

In this chapter, building upon the conclusions of the previous one, and on the similarity of the functions of architecture and singing, I develop parallels between song, poetry and architecture as manifestations of similar processes of artistic creation. I argue that the design principles of the early architecture of the Islamic world (geometricism and ambiguity) are structurally connected to the basic principles of the Arabic theory of language as developed by al- Khalil in Kitāb al-ʿAin, and of poetics as developed by the same author in Kitāb al-ʿArūd, the latter book being lost.

Inspired by Erwin Panofsky, I argue that comparable styles of thinking and doing (or modus operandi) are at work in the architecture and Arabic poetics of the early centuries of Islam.

The chapter thus first presents the Arabic view of poetics during the eighth and ninth centuries, and pinpoints the formal rules it inaugurated.

It then endeavours to show how the principles of design of architecture were based upon similar rules.

I thus show how the primacy of form over meaning, demonstrated in the particular trend in Arabic poetics best rep- resented by al-Khalil, finds echoes in the ambiguity of architectural form and decoration.

Similarly, I compare the organization of the qaṣīda, the Arabic ode, to the spatial programming of the beholder’s experience in the architecture of its time.68

Chapter 4: Architecture and Myth

In the fourth chapter I analyse the Arabic myth of grandiose architecture (as embodied in the work of al-Hamadhāni and others) to demonstrate the foundational character of ambiguity in the Islamic conception of architecture and art.

My hypothesis is that the question of Muslim attitudes toward pre-Islamic architecture may be better answered through the study of literary sources con- cerning grandiose Arabian architecture than by relying exclusively on the condemnation of al-jāhiliyya (or pre-Islamic Arab culture) by the pious, as has often been the case.

The legends must be considered in their different versions, for they evolved over time, and their different versions enable us to understand better the evolution of the representation of architecture in that society.

 In this mythology, which is central not only to Arab but to all Islamic cultural forms, architecture is paradoxically considered both a divine gift and an ill that misleads human beings (and civilizations) into an ultimately confusing state – one in which the awareness of death and the other world (central to Islamic theology) is thrown into oblivion.

 I thus argue that ambiguity is found not solely in the actual artistic forms, but also in the discourse, theology, myth- ology and language of collective memory.

Chapter 5: Al-Jāḥiẓ in the Mosque at Damascus: Social Critique and Debate in the History of Umayyad Architecture

The formation of the art of the Islamic world has been compared with the formation of European Renaissance art and architecture following the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek remains.

 Yet, a serious question should be raised in both cases about the nature of the continuity invoked.

As Erwin Panofsky has pointed out, the ‘discovery’ and use of ancient ruins by artists of the Renaissance were indeed prob- lematic.69

The ruins had been there for centuries, but only with the Renaissance did they suddenly become meaningful.

 Their rediscovery had to do with a cultural change of attitude at the end of the Middle Ages.

 In a similar sense, we should consider the possibility that a reflexive attitude towards the arts might have developed in the early Islamic period.70

In this chapter I explore the implications of that early debate on architecture.

Taking the lead from an account by al-Jāḥiẓ, I attempt to follow the line of interpretation it suggests in terms of a ‘double’ attitude towards architectural decoration.

I discuss its implications for the history of Umayyad architecture, with particular emphasis on the social dimension of architecture, considered as an expression of the complex social reception of royal architectural works, and as a tool for understanding the social dynamics that made possible the flourishing of architectural works at certain times and their virtual preclusion at other times.

 In other words, I reflect on architecture as a complex strategy of public expenditures, labour policy, and spatial semiotics, rather than viewing it as a univocal expression of power.

Chapter 6: Architecture and Desire

Here I discuss the dialectic of desires that surrounds the architecture of early Islam (the desires of the designer, the patron and the viewers) and its consequent effects of creation, consumption, delight, ruins and death.

I then try to demonstrate how, despite the faith in the inescapable fate of architectural works, at least according to Islamic scholarship and tradition, that dialectic of desires leads societies constantly to create new works and initiate new cycles of ruins and destruction.

A story about Ziyād and his masons reported by Tabari sets the stage for this discussion, as this story illustrates the relationship between masons (or architectural planners) and patrons in terms of their power dynamics. It also introduces two crucial features that are at stake in architectural planning – desire and its expression.

 Reflecting on the relationship of architects and clients raises the fundamental theoretical question of the dialectic of desires in architectural production: can an architectural work be read as the shared object of people’s desires?

 How is it possible for one person, the architect, to express the desire of another? And how does the architect’s desire intervene in that process?

To answer these questions in the context of the production and reception of the architecture of the early Islamic world, I try (1) to define the creative agents (the designers or architects), (2) to describe how these agents performed their creative works, and the principles upon which they constructed them, and finally, (3) to discuss how they communicated with their patrons and the actual workers on the building sites.

On the basis of architectural evidence and literary sources of the time, such as al-Khalil’s definition al-takhṭīṭ ka al-tasṭīr, I show that the notion of al-tasṭīr, the key of any decorative pattern and composition, implies a hidden order of architecture that is foreign to any mystical view.

On the contrary, this hidden order of architecture can be related to al-Jāḥiẓ’s theory of al-bayān.

An account by al-Thaʿālibi about the relationship between Caliph al-Mutawakkil and the poet Ibn al-Jahm, and a poem by the latter about a palace of the caliph, introduce a series of new questions about the perception and the function of architecture.

The account introduces the notion of desire for architecture, and compares it with the desire for women and wine.

The analysis of the poem by Ibn al-Jahm reveals the existence of a sophisticated view of architecture based on the notions of desire and the gaze.

Moreover, other literary sources (such as Tabari and Masūdi) indicate that architecture is but a piece of a complex system of representation used by al-Mutawakkil as a semiotic system for control and social segregation.

The central role of the gaze in this system indicates the exis- tence of a complex view in which visibility and control are just the visible tip of the iceberg.

I suggest that a close examination of the works of intellectuals, such as al-Shāfiʿī and Ḥunain ibn Isḥāq, reveals that Arab authors were more interested in the phe- nomenon of vision than was believed by most scholars of Islamic culture, and that their view was based on an elaborate under- standing of the relationship of desire and the gaze.

Book contents

  • Arabic Characters
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Architecture and Poetics
  • The Aims of this Book
  • Architecture and Meaning in the Theory of al-Jāḥiẓ
  • Architecture and Meaning: Al-Jāḥiẓ’s View
  • Aesthetic, Variety and Emotion
  • Voice, Body and Emotion
  • Al-Bayān, Architecture and Commemoration
  • Architecture and Poetics
  • Modus Operandi
  • Al-Khalil’s Theory of Language
  • Arabic Poetics
  • The Palace and the Qaṣīda
  • Architecture and Myth
  • Ḥadīthu Sinimmār
  • Al-Jāḥiẓ in the Mosque at Damascus: Social Critique and Debate in the History of Umayyad Architecture
  • Yaqubi’s Account
  • Muqaddasi’s Account
  • Architecture and Hospitality
  • ʿUmar II: Architecture and Piety
  • Architecture and Desire
  • ‘Architects’ or Architectural Planners
  • The Desire for Architecture
  • Architecture and Misrecognition
  • The Travelling Gaze: Ibn al-Jahm’s Eulogy of the Palace al-Haruni
  • Building, Reflection and Emptiness
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Architecture and poetics

It should be known that both poetry and prose work with words, and not with ideas. The ideas are secondary to the (words). The (words) are basic. (Ibn Khaldun)36

It is therefore necessary that in a poem, meaning does not overpower its form and destroy it without return; on the contrary, it is the return, the preserved form, or more precisely its reproduction as a unique and necessary expression of the state, or the thought that it creates in the reader that is the strength of the poetic power. (Paul Valéry)37

In his Formation of Islamic Art, Oleg Grabar states that one of the primary features of the art of the Islamic world is its ambivalence and ambiguity in the use of the signifier.38 Grabar suggests that early architectural elements seem to have no specific signification in their architectural context.

What imbues an architec- tural element with meaning is its human use. Grabar accordingly posits the primacy of human/social life in unravelling the meaning of art in Islamic societies.

Yet, would it not be more appropriate to read this semiotic ambiguity as a poetic indeter- mination of sense in R. Jakobson’s terms?

I will argue that emphasizing the poetic side of architectural language is more apt than Grabar’s conception, if we are to understand the geometricism, ornamentalism, and flexibility of that art, as well as its inclination toward what Bataille has called ‘la part maudite’ – the prodigal and sensuous production of form through the annihilation of sense.39

The definition of the poetic function is indeed of primary

importance here. To the question ‘What is the empirical linguistic criterion of poetic function?’ Jakobson answers:

We must recall the two basic modes of arrangement used in and combination. If ‘child’ is the topic of the message, the speaker selects one among the extant, more or less similar, nouns like child, kid, youngster, tot, all of them equivalent in a certain respect, and then, to comment on this topic, he may select one of the semantically cognate verbs – sleeps, dozes, nods, naps.

Both chosen words combine in the speech chain.

The selection is produced on the base of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build up of the sequence, is based on contiguity.

The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence.40

Jakobson later asserts that poetic metre, or verse design, ‘underlies the structure’ of any single verse instance. Is it not remarkable that architectural concepts are thus used in the analysis of poetry? Does not architectural composition use the very same mechanism of projecting the principle of equivalence, that is the axis of selection, onto the axis of combination?

Are the theory of proportions and its mathematics not the concrete proof of this mechanism?

And is the architectural theory of proportion not related, in one way or another, to the same musical model of metric poetry, as seen in the example of Renaissance architecture?41

Architectural aesthetics cannot be reduced to its poetic function; as with verbal art, the poetic function is not the sole function, merely its dominant form.

 In architectural works, all functions coexist. Jakobson illustrates this theory by referring to Valéry’s view of poetry as the ‘hesitation between the sound and the sense’.42

 In Valéry’s view, ‘the supremacy of the poetic function over the referential function does not obliterate the reference but makes it ambiguous.’

And to clarify his point further, he cites Empson, who says, ‘The machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.’43

Similarly, in architecture the supremacy of poetic function does not eliminate the significance of other functions, such as usage. Its machinations merely render these functions ambiguous. This concept is clearly foreign to architectural functionalism, for which space is fundamentally heterotopic, and ambiguity suspect.

However, in most architectural traditions, space is homotopic, as Rudolph Wittkower evidenced in classical architecture, and, as Robert Venturi noted, ambiguity is productive of meanings and, hence, consciously incorporated into design.44

To assert that in the architecture of the Islamic world, social content alone is generative of meaning is to obliterate its most characteristic quality.

Therefore, only a poetic approach – one that reflects on ambiguity and the poetic dimension of architectural creation and form – could enable us to apprehend more fully the architecture of the Islamic world, and its ambiguous use of the signifier.

Architecture and Politics

… there is nothing beautiful in which the immanent moment of injustice can be eliminated. (Theodor Adorno)45

The political function of architecture in early Islamic history has always been well perceived and articulated by art historians.

It was first articulated in the presentation of its dynastic aspect, as in Georges Marçais’s work, in which he relates styles to dynasties. Later, a more subtle approach based on iconography and textual evidence led to a finer political analysis of that architecture.

Art historians analysed monuments as political statements by monarchs serving to trumpet the victory and superiority of the new faith (Grabar), and/or the victory of a dynasty (Rabbat).

More recently, analysts have drawn a parallel between the stylistic elements of the architecture of the Islamic world, and the political system of empire.

 The successful synthesis and combination of different techniques, material and styles in the Umayyad period were linked to labour conscription, and to the political organization of the empire, which allowed caliphs to divert huge amounts of money to realize their building programmes (Hillenbrand).46

The understanding of the relation of politics to architecture has thus become progressively more nuanced.

Yet, analyses always reduce architecture to a mere reflection of political power, a pyramidal system in which the head dominates and directs the lower parts.

 This conception of power is, by its very nature, static and can explain neither political change nor how and why power maintains itself as a structure.47

A more accurate conception of power as a dynamic system with different agents interacting both to maintain and to change it, is not only more apt to explain the evolution and revolutions of power, but also to take into account the social criticism, the injustice it implies, and the struggles that surround royal building activities.

Indeed, a relatively significant body of literature, which includes hijāʾ (a critical genre of poetry), and critical reports, in particular about Umayyad architecture – exists; but in that scholarship such material is generally dismissed as negative propaganda.

However, this literature should instead be considered as the expression of a more complex social reception of royal architectural works.

Beyond the discursive polarization of ‘proclamation versus propaganda’, this literature is an entryway into understanding the social dynamics that make possible the flourishing of architectural works at certain times, and that preclude them at others.

 Perhaps, we should consider architecture as a means for exercising power – that is, as a complex strategy of public expenditures, labour policy and spatial semiology – rather than viewing it as a univocal expression of power.48 As the French Renaissance architect Philibert de l’Orme said in the introduction to his treatise:

For, I beg of you, what greater good can one find, and what greater charity and piety can one exercise, than to provide sustenance for the myriad of poor people, who would otherwise beg for their bread, by way of building?

What profit might be greater in a kingdom, a province or a town, than to employ, to provide work and occupation for a multitude of men, women, and youngsters, who would otherwise be ne’er-do-wells and possibly vagabonds and thieves, to the great detriment,

 I will not just say of cities and villages, but also of an entire country, as Aristotle develops in his beautiful argument in Politics, consistent with that with which his master Plato took issue.49

Architecture is the best way to employ large masses of workers, activate the economy, create prosperity, preserve social peace by fighting wandering and inactivity, and on top of that, leave great monuments to posterity.50

I suggest that it is only in grasping this complex nature of architecture that we can understand Adorno’s post-classical question:

what is art, and what is the relation between aesthetics, power and violence, their fundamental entanglement; what is the transformative force of art, as the possibility of imagining and creating the world anew.

Architecture and Meaning

The absence of literary works devoted to art and architecture in the early centuries of Islam has represented a challenge to art historians, who have tried to recover the aesthetic views that shaped the art and architecture of that period.

Papadopoulo, among others, has suggested that two philosophical systems may have helped shape the art and architectural aesthetics.51 Certain scholars have accordingly pointed to the influence of both Greek philosophy (and in particular, atomism), and the theology of attawḥīd.

 Louis Massignon asserts that the art of Islamic societies is based on a theory of the universe according to which forms and figures do not exist as such, because only God has permanency.

Similarly, he says that for Muslims, nature does not exist for it is simply a series of atoms and ephemeral accidents. Art in Islamic societies is thus a negation of the permanency of form and figures.

Grabar has shown how Louis Massignon’s thesis – that these changes in the representation of physical reality in ‘medieval Islamic art’ reflect a theological belief about the impermanency of the visible world – has been ‘used without consciousness of historical evolution and changes over time’.52

Indeed, the specunature of his thesis begs further examination.53 In fact,

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