Art and Architecture: Beauty in Arabic Culture

Article excerpt

Beauty in Arabic Culture, by Doris Behrens-- Abouseif. Princeton. NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999. Princeton Series on the Middle East. 185 pages. Notes to p. 196. Bibl. and Notes to p. 207. Index to p.219. 26 Black-and-white photographs. $49.95 cloth; $22.95 paper.

The topic defined by the author's title is straightforward, but the approach to her subject is oblique. For although beauty, in the pre-modern Arab world, was enjoyed and promoted almost everywhere and at all times, Islam does not possess a general theory on aesthetics (i.e., art and beauty) or a systematic theory of the arts. The author therefore had to search for her evidence in written statements from a wide variety of sources, such as the Qur'an, legal, religious and Sufi texts, chronicles, biographies, belles-lettres, literary criticism and scientific, geographic and philosophical literature. The result is a compendium of references to beauty in chapters on The Religious Approach; Secular Beauty and Love; Music and Belles Lettres; and The Visual Arts (the longest chapter, almost half the book).

This approach is informative and provocative. For the generalist, it provides general comparative material for an understanding of the early Arab cultural context. For the specialist, it raises questions of sponsorship and purpose.

The author identifies the religious and historic basis from which the poetic/musical/visual productions spring, and substantiates their identity as elitist rather than popular; legalist and juridical rather than philosophical and allegorical; cumulative, collective, and traditional rather than individual, discrete, and innovative. For all the creative arts, the evidence suggests that they were meant to stimulate the imagination rather than narrate facts or episodes, and that originality lay not in new inventions, but in the skill in varying and reinterpreting traditional themes.

The central, often contradictory paradox, and to which the others in the book are related, is the relationship of religion and beauty. Islam, noted for the surface beauty of its large-scale and small-scale decoration, an art narrowly defined as the "art of decorators and ornamentors,", has developed no aesthetic theories of beauty. Even though it was generally recognized that beauty was part of the religious experience and led to God, the author states that "Islamic art cannot be interpreted as a form of religious worship or communicating with the divine" (p. 131). Moreover, in Islam, a society and culture basically molded by its religion, the `Mama' (religious scholars) were not involved in any conceptualization of the arts. …