The Void, Burckhardt

The Void in Islamic Art  Titus Burckhardt, Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 4, No. 2. (Spring, 1970). © World Wisdom, Inc.

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A sacred art is not necessarily composed of images, even in the widest sense of this term; it may simply be the exteriorization of a contemplative state and in this case it will not reflect particular ideas, but will qualitatively transform the ambiance, with a view to its integration in a spiritual equilibrium whose center of gravity is the invisible.  

It is easy to recognize that such is the nature of Islamic art: its object is above all the ambiance of man—whence the dominant role of architecture—and its quality is essentially contemplative. Aniconism does not lessen this quality; on the contrary, by excluding every image that could invite man to fix his mind on something outside himself and to project his soul in an "individualizing" form, it creates a void. In this respect the function of Islamic art is analogous to that of virgin nature, of the desert especially, which likewise favors contemplation, although from another point of view the order created by art is opposed to the chaos inherent in the nature of the desert.

Let it be said at once that ornamentation with abstract forms, so richly developed in the art of Islam, does not exist to fill this void, as some seem to think; in reality it corroborates it by its continuous rhythm and its character of an endless piece of weaving: instead of ensnaring the mind and dragging it into some imaginary world, it dissolves mental "coagulations", just as the contemplation of a stream of water, of a flame or of leaves trembling in the wind can detach the consciousness from its inward "idols".

Islamic ornamentation knows two principal modes, that of the arabesque in the strict sense of the term, made up of sinuous and spiral forms more or less related to vegetable motifs, and that of geometrical interlacing. The first is all rhythm and fluidity and continuous melody, whereas the second is crystalline in nature: the radiating of lines from multiple geometrical foci recalls snowflakes or ice; it gives the impression of calm and freshness. It is in Maghribi art in particular that these two ornamental modes appear in all their purity.  However rich it may be, ornamentation never destroys the simplicity, not to say the sobriety of the architectural whole.

The interior of a mosque does not comprise any dynamic element; whatever be its type of construction, from the primitive mosques with a horizontal roof on pillars to the Turkish mosques with cupolas, space is ordered in such a way that it reposes entirely in itself; it is not an expanse which waits to be traversed; its void is like the mould or womb of a motionless and undifferentiated plenitude. 

The aniconism of Islamic art comprises fundamentally two aspects; on the one hand, it preserves the primordial dignity of man, whose form, "made in the image of God",[5] is neither imitated nor usurped by a work of art that is inevitably limited and one-sided; on the other hand, nothing that could possibly be an idol, even in a relative and wholly provisional manner, may interpose itself between man and the invisible presence of God. What comes before all, is the witnessing that there is "No divinity but God": this dissolves every objectivization of the Divine even before it can occur.


The Void excerpts from 
Perennial Values in Islamic Art  
by Titus Burckhardt  
Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 1, No.3. © World Wisdom, Inc.

What is the nature of the "Unity" of Islamic art?  It is not by chance that the unity and regularity of Islamic art reminds us of the law working in crystals: there is something that evidently surpasses the mere power of emotion, which is necessarily vague and always fluctuating. We shall call it the "intellectual vision" inherent in Islamic art, taking "intellect" in its original meaning as a faculty far more comprehensive than reason or thought, a faculty involving the intuition of timeless realities. This is also the meaning of al-`aql in Islamic tradition: faith is not complete unless it be illuminated by al-'aql which alone grasps the implications of at-tawhīd, the doctrine of divine Unity. In a similar way, Islamic art derives its beauty from wisdom.

Sacred art like that of Islam always contains a timeless element.  A form, though limited and consequently subject to time, may convey something timeless.  It is with regard to their timeless meaning that certain forms have been preserved [in the history of art] in spite of and against all material and psychic revolutions of an epoch; tradition means just that.  From an Islamic point of view, beauty is essentially an expression of universal Truth.

Instead of "Islamic iconoclasm" we prefer to say "Islamic aniconism," for the absence of icons in Islam has not merely a negative but a positive role. In excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within religious precincts, Islamic art aids man to be entirely himself; instead of projecting his soul outside of himself, he will rest in his ontological centre where he is at once the viceregent (khalīfah) and the slave ('abd) of God. Islamic art as a whole aims at creating an ambi­ance which helps man to realize his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an "idol," even in quite a relative and provisional degree; nothing shall stand between man and the invisible Presence of God.

The Void
Thus Islamic art creates a void; in fact, it eliminates all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world and builds in their stead an order expressing equilibrium, serenity and peace. From this, one will immediately understand how central the position of architecture is in Islam. Although the Prophet said that God favored his community by giving it the whole surface of the earth as a place of prayer, it is architecture which, in populated regions, has to re-establish the condi­tions of purity and calm elsewhere granted by nature. As for the beauty of virgin nature, which is like the imprint of the Creator's hand, it is realized by architecture on another level, nearer to human intel­ligence and therefore more limited, in a way, but none the less free from the arbitrary rule of individual passions. 

In a mosque, the believer is never a mere visitor; he is so to say at home, though not in the ordinary sense of the word: when he has purified himself by ritual ablution, being thereby freed from accidental alterations, and then recites the revealed words of the Koran, he symbolically returns to the "station" of Adam, which is in the centre of the world.  

The mosque has no liturgical centre; its mihrāb merely indicates the direction of Mecca, while its whole order of space is made to suggest a Presence which en-compasses the believer on all sides.

Unity of life manifests itself by the homo­geneousness of its frame: whether it be the interior of a mosque or that of a private house, its law is equilibrium, calm and purity. Its decoration must never contradict the idea of poverty. In fact, ornament in Islamic architecture, in its rhythm and regularity, helps to create a void by dissolving the raw body of wall and pillars and thus enhancing the effect of the great white surfaces so characteristic of Muslim interiors.

Islam manifests itself as the last of religions, one which takes heed of the weakness of actual man, and reveals itself as a return to primordial religion. The criticized "immobility" of Islamic art is simply the absence in it of all subjective motives; it is an art which is unconcerned with psychological problems and retains only those elements which are valuable at all times.

There are two typical forms of the arabesque; one of them is geometrical interlacing made up of a multitude of geometrical stars, the rays of which join into an intricate and endless pattern. It is a most striking symbol of that contemplative state of mind which conceives "unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity" (al-wahdatu fil-kathrati wa-l-kathratu fil-wahdah).

This is the reason for the extraordinary development of geometrical ornament in Islamic art. Attempts have been made to explain this development by the fact that the prohibition of images created a void to be filled by another kind of art. But this is not conclusive; the arabesque is no compensation for images, it is rather their opposite and the very negation of figurative art. By transforming a surface into a tissue of colours or into a vibration of light and shadows, the ornament hinders the mind from fixing itself on any particular form saying "I," as an image says "I".  The centre of an arabesque is everywhere and nowhere, each "affirmation" is followed by its "nega­tion" and vice versa.

The arabesque, commonly so called, is made up of vegetable motives, stylized to the point of losing all resemblance with nature and obeying only the laws of rhythm. It is a real graphic of rhythms, each line undulating in complementary phases, and each surface having its inverse counterpart. The arabesque is at the same time logical and rhythmic, mathematical and melodious, and this is most significant for the spirit of Islam in its equilibrium of love and intellectual sobriety.

In such an art, the individuality of the artist necessarily disappears, without his creative joy being abated; it is simply less passionate and more contemplative. Suppression of all creative joy is the privilege of modern industry alone. As for traditional art, be it even at the level of mere handicraft, its beauty proves the profound pleasure involved in it.

In traditional architecture, for example geometry is not limited to its more or less quantitative aspects. . . The laws of proportion are traditionally based on the division of the circle by inscribed regular figures. Thus all measures of a building are ultimately derived from the circle, which is an evident symbol of the Unity of Being containing in itself all possibilities of existence.

Moreover, the universal character of geometrical ornament—the fundamental elements of which are essentially the same, whether they appear in a bedouin rug or in a refined urban decoration—corresponds perfectly to the universal nature of Islam, uniting the nomads of the desert to the scholars of the city and this late epoque of ours to the times of Abraham.

Islamic Art (fann) in its specific meaning partakes of both craft and science. The latter moreover has to be not only a rational instruction but also the expression of a wisdom (ḥikmah) which links things to their uni­versal principles.

The Prophet said: "God prescribed that every thing should be accomplished to perfection"—we might also translate: "in beauty" (inna-Llaha kataba-l-iḥsana `ala kulli shay). The perfection or the beauty of a thing lies in its praising God; in other words, it is perfect or beautiful in so far as it reflects a divine quality. Now we cannot realise perfection in anything unless we know how that thing can be a mirror of God.

The frequency of Koranic inscriptions on the walls of mosques and other buildings reminds us of the fact that the whole of Islamic life is interwoven with quotations from the Koran and spiritually supported by its recitation as well as by prayers, litanies and invocations drawn from it. If we are allowed to call the influence emanating from the Koran a spiritual vibration—and we find no better word for it, since that influence is at the same time of a spiritual and of an auditive nature—we may well say that all Islamic art must needs bear the imprint of that vibration. Thus visual Islamic art is but the visual 'reflection of the Koranic word.

On the other hand, it is in vain to search in the Koran for something like a principle of composition which might be transposed into any art. The Koran is of a startling discontinuity; it shows no logical order nor any interior architecture; even its rhythm, powerful as it is, obeys no constant rule, whereas Islamic art is all made of order, clarity, hierarchy, crystalline form. In fact the vital link between the Koranic word and visual Islamic art must be not sought for on the level of formal expression. The Koran is no work of art but something entirely different.

Islamic art is fundamentally derived from tawhīd, that is, from an assent to or contemplation of Divine Unity. The essence of at-tawhīd is beyond words; it reveals itself in the Koran by sudden and discontinuous flashes. Striking the plane of visual imagination, these flashes congeal into crystalline forms, and it is these forms in their turn which constitute the essence of Islamic art.


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