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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Art Gallery of NSW, Khalili exhibition of Islamic Art

Keysar Trad speech notes from this event:
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land.

"The prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him said: God is indeed beautiful and loves beauty. In this short statement, the prophet had summed up the essence of numerous verses describing how God loves those who strive for excellence and those who strive to make beautiful things or to beautify the environment around them. It is in fact an important milestone of enlightenment for a Muslim to reach the degree of beauty. This beauty is manifested in many ways by Muslims, in some cases, it is manifested in art, in many cases, it is manifested through conduct, through behaviour and mannerisms."

Two of the main words that describe beauty in classical Arabic are Jamaal and Husn. There are more than 190 occurrences of derivatives of the words Husn in the Qur`an and eight occurrences of derivatives of the word Jamaal.

Four of the eight describe a type of patience that reaches the degree of beauty. That is being beautiful in the type of patience that we display. Three relate to parting company in a beautiful way and the eighths to the beauty that is inherent in livestock.

The word Husn is more comprehensive, it encompasses beauty, kindness, perfection and proficiency, hence the 190 occurrences dealing with these manifestations of the word. In the case of this word, the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him said: God had decreed Ihsan over all things, even when you are slaughtering your food, do it beautifully and kindly, sharpen your blade and allow your food animal to be rested before hand.

To illustrate further, we find the Qur`an using this term to describe human conduct. This teaches Muslims that the highest most sublime manifestation of beauty in this world is excellence in conduct and expression, or beauty of conduct and expression. It is very touching and long lasting. An act of kindness leaves a more potent impression than any other.

There are 31 reported statements of the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, that use the word Jamaal, most refer to abstention in the face of lust for the beauty of the opposite gender. Aside from those, we have a question where the prophet's uncle asked him what makes a person beautiful? The prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him said: Their words. And in another statement where a man told him that he loved to be well presented with beautiful attire, he told him that God is beautiful and loves beauty.

Another verse of the Qur`an that uses a derivative of Husn, is a verse that says: Speak beautifully to people (2:83). Another verse states that no one can speak better than to invite people to God, does good deeds and declares His submission to God. (41:33)

The Hadith and the Qur`an confirm that beauty is in speech and in conduct and mannerisms.

One could argue that the vast majority of the world's population have been so impacted by beautiful conduct and words that they have taken on a religious path and more than half of these ascribe to the paths of Muhammad and Christ peace be upon them. This means that half of the world has been so moved by the conduct and words of two great individuals, Christ and Muhammad, peace and blessings upon them, that today, 2000 and 1400 years after these individuals, we are still celebrating them, paying homage to them and applying their teachings in our lives. These vast peoples have discovered beauty in these individuals that transcended physical presence and time and space, it is the beauty of their memories, their words and what they stood for that inspires billions of people.

The Art Gallery of NSW is manifesting this beauty in art, art, another form of conveying thoughts and feelings. During the life of the prophet, a great deal of that art was either religious or practical. It was visual as well as spoken, at that time, society took the spoken word to high levels, they took pride in and rewarded those who were eloquent and concise. Poetry in particular was celebrated as a great form of expression.

The words of God in the Qur`an came to a people who reveled in their use of the language. The Qur`an not only presented beautiful expression but also evoked in the minds of readers imagery about concepts and ideas that by nature elevate people to new platforms of awareness and consciousness. The much maligned late Sayyid Qutb in his book: Artistic Imagery in the Qur`an illustrates how the descriptions of attitudes in the Qur`an evoke these images in order to help a person understand the concept. For example, one who builds his structure on solid foundations in comparison to one who builds on shaky foundations leading to the collapse of the structure (9:109). Or the person who worships God conditionally (22:11), then there is the imagery of some of what transpires in Heaven and Hell.

These are words that draw an image in the mind of the reader or listener, the same concept but a different image that each person sees according to their own understanding and life experiences. Seeing this beauty, some artists would do no more than beautifully present the words with colourful script and backgrounds using calligraphy. Others moved into geometric shapes, others sought to present some of the imagery that came into their consciousness as they read and marveled at the words of God. The majority went into practical arts, arts on vases, crockery, decorations, carvings, stone works, an expression in my view, of love, and a means of manifesting Ihsan in their product through art.

Through promoting beauty in expression, Islam created a rich heritage, it facilitated the presentation of a collection of experiences, a culture, several cultures, meeting through the expressions and creativity of their artists. I thank the Prof. Nasser Khalili for preserving this collection and the Art Gallery of NSW for hosting it. This is a great conduit for cross cultural understanding, a means of personal enrichment and spiritual elevation through observation, it is also a chance to savour beauty that transcends time and place from the hands of artisans who clearly loved and took pride in their work.

Keysar Trad

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