Preface to the Islamic Sacred Art Inspired Projects

Preface to "An Imaginary Book"

   "The Heart" Symmetrical photograph from the project: Celestial Gardens
    Click on the image to enlarge

Preface to The Complete Collection of  Photography Projects 
 inspired by the  Sacred Art and Sacred Knowledge Traditions of  Islam
"An Imaginary Book"        

"An Imaginary Book" is a visual and textual meditation on the sacred art and sacred knowledge traditions of Islam with an emphasis on the Prophetic, Qur'anic and Sufic traditions.  

The "book" was initiated by several experiences of the Sacred which I encountered while traveling in Turkey in the spring of 2011.  As the process of creating the book unfolded I became aware that the book had also become a meditation on the relationship of the Sacred to my creative process.

A complete listing of the individual projects for "An Imaginary Book" is provided above.  Each title is hyperlinked and will take you to the online project which consists of photographs, text excerpts from the writings of Islamic scholars and saints, and my own contemplations, stories and introductory comments.   Please visit A Brief Introduction to see a brief illustrated summarization of each of the projects.

The Imaginal World  ~  Creative Imagination 
The title "An Imaginary Book" and its origins requires some explanation.  To begin with, and most obviously, the larger part of the book consists of photographic images which, together as whole, manifests its own imaginal world.  

The book does not exist in a physical form, but rather as millions of luminous pixels on your computer screen as you click on each of the project's hyperlinked titles.  The book, one could say, exists "in the Cloud."  The digital or virtual Cloud coincidentally is an interesting contemporary metaphor for the project's title; the great Islamic mystic saint and scholar Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240) wrote in 1220 about the pre-eternal Cloudwhich is an imaginal world from which everything in the created world is perpetually, recurrently manifested by the Divine Creative Imagination.  

"An Imaginary Book" is inseparably bound up for me in memories of several extraordinary experiences of the Sacred I encountered in Turkey.  My first project Prayer Stones provides a detailed account of each of the experiences.  As I remembered those experiences throughout the creation of book, I would enter into the Imaginal World which, according to the modern Islamic scholar Henry Corbin and Ibn 'Arabi, exists in an intermediate realm between the physical and spiritual worlds.  In this sense, then, I would say the "An Imaginary Book" is a product of both my experiences of the Sacred and my return to those experiences through my active imagination.  

     As I was looking at some magnificent Qur'an illuminations in a museum in Turkey the  
     images spontaneously became alive in my vision, that is to say the books and their 
     images were breathing, and pulsating with their own internal, radiant light!  The 
     double-page illuminations were in some subtle way carrying on a silent conversation 
     with each other; then the two images facing each other merged into One.  There was a 
     palpable sense of the Sacred that pervaded the entire experience; the double-page 
     illuminations seemed to embody a divine presence. 

This experience initiated an intense creative process.  At first it manifested as an obsessive fantasy about making a "book" of my own modeled after those Qur'ans I had seen and experienced in Turkey.  Then the fantasy turned into a desire, and the desire turned into an undeniable feeling of inner necessity.  The book I imagined would be filled with photographs radiant with the same mysterious light and divine presence that had been haunting my memories.  

I didn't really understand what sacred art was, or if it would even be possible for me to make sacred art.  But I soon discovered there were hidden treasures within me that needed to be unveiled; I simply had to allow the book's dynamic creative process to unfold, with me serving merely as it's facilitator.

"An Imaginary Book" began to take visual form after I intuitively discovered the idea and the means to create Four-fold symmetrical photographs.  The image below was one of the very first images made, and remarkably it corresponded in many ways to the double-page Qur'an illuminations I had experienced in Turkey: it radiates a similar kind of internal light, and it's alive with the pulsations of divine presence.   

from the project: Prayer Stones
click on the image to enlarge

After the spontaneous making of the initial Four-fold symmetrical photographs I felt compelled to learn all I could about the sacred art traditions of Islam.  As my research progressed I would be graced with new ideas for additional projects.  As the projects unfolded, one by one, I began to see a coherency in the collection of projects, and the sequence of their occurrence, that suggested a whole greater than its individual parts. 

"An Imaginary Book" had been forming itself spontaneously, with a creative will of its own.  I eventually understood that in the purely personal sense, the book was not mine.  I had unwittingly become its servant, or facilitator; I provided the means to give visual form to the intuitive impulses that became The Book.  I had learned to remain receptive and stay out of the way so the process could proceed as purely as possible.  I learned to became a witness to  a dynamic process which I believe to be the true origin of sacred art.  As such, I was gifted with being the initial contemplator of the Book's unfolding manifestations.  My introductory comments in each project or chapter tend to focus on the process of the making, and my contemplations of the work.  

My studies of the Prophetic, Qur'anic and Sufic traditions of Islam, and especially the writings of the Sufi saint Ibn 'Arabi, and his modern interpreters (Henry Corbin and the other scholars acknowledged below) led me to the concept of the divine Creative Imagination which I believe to be the true Origin of "An Imaginary Book" and its title.

The Hidden Tablet  ~  The World As A Book
The Hidden or Eternal Tablet, which is mentioned only briefly in the Qur'an, is the Cosmic Book in which God is said to have "written" all of creation before He manifested it in physical, earthly form.  The created world, says Ibn 'Arabi, was first formed spontaneously through the divine Creative Imagination; then that which was imagined was written upon the  Tablet; finally that which was written was manifested physically.  In every moment thereafter, says Ibn 'Arabi, the physical world perpetually, recurrently creates itself.  The entire created world is the Imaginal World:   

"Know that you are an imagination," [writes Ibn 'Arabi] "and everything that you perceive, and of which you would say "this is not me," is also an imagination.  So the whole being is an imagination within an imagination."

In the Islamic esoteric traditions, everything on the earthly plane is considered a mirror reflection of the archetypal, paradisal world, that is to say the world as written by God on the Hidden Tablet.  Related to this concept is the fascinating idea that the world is a vast and holy Book.   The Qur'an says that every thing in this world contains God's presence: "Whithersoever ye turn, there is the Face of God" (11:115).  As such, every thing in this creation is sacred, everything is a living symbol of the Divine Creative Imagination.  

Nonetheless, the human problem persists: "The Face of God" is hidden from most of us for we do not have the eyes, the right understanding, the mode of perception that allows us to see the divine, the Sacred in ordinary worldly existence.  The Sufis say that our perception is clouded by layers upon layers of mystic (psychological) veils; in other words our egos separate us from the sacred nature of all things. 

Martin Lings, one of my favorite Islamic scholars, says the function of sacred art is to serve humans as a vehicle for divine presence.  Through sacred art we are given a visible form in which the invisible, the hidden, the divine is unveiled, that is to say made accessible and thus experienceable as presence.   

For art to be truly sacred, for it to serve us as a living vehicle for divine presence, it must function as a living symbol.  True, living symbols are manifestations of the divine Creative Imagination.  The saints tell us that every human being is endowed with Creative Imagination, thus we are capable of both creating and interpreting or unveiling the transcendent meaning within living symbols.  

The Symbol ~ The Unity of Being ~ Ta'wil
When visual art achieves a high enough order of sacred symbolic functioning the images serve as a dynamic intermediary between the physical world and the Hidden archetypal world of the Divine.  True symbols conjoin images of the physical world with their archetypal counterparts.  The images mirror each other, contain each other, and reveal each other within the true symbol's visual unity.  The Four-fold symmetrical photographs in "An Imaginary Book" are, I like to think, symbolic embodiments of the primary Islamic doctrine: the Unity of Being.

Ibn 'Arabi has written that symbolic images have the power to unveil "the Face of God" and return us to our Creative Origin.  The Arabic word Ta'wil embodies the esoteric meaning of this idea of "return."  Though each of us possess the power of Creative Imagination we have to learn how to respectfully access and experience this innate power.   The practice of ta'wil often involves the interpretation of a sacred text or other  symbols.  Ta'wil requires our full engagement and active participation in the sacred functioning of a symbolic image.  When we enter into the sacred space of a visual symbol, our minds will likely become stilled, and our hearts will open.  The experience will transform our state of being, our mode of perception, and thus the veils hiding the Face of God, both within ourselves and within the image, become transparent:

Henry Corbin,  Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi
Imaginative vision becomes vision of the heart . . . the heart being the organ, the "eye" by which God sees Himself: the contemplant is the contemplated (my vision of Him is His vision of me).  

[This] demonstrates the extraordinary role of the Image in the spirituality of Ibn 'Arabi.  In its ultimate degree, the Image will be a vision of the "Form of God" corresponding to the innermost being of the mystic, who experiences himself as the microcosm of the Divine Being; a limited Form, like every form, but a Form which as such . . . emanates an aura, a "field" which is always open to "recurrent creations."  This presupposes of course a basic visionary Imagination, a "presence of the heart" in the intermediate world . . . an intermediate world which is the encounter (the conjunction, the "conspiration") of the spiritual and the physical . . . 

The Four-fold Symmetrical Photograph     
The very act of constructing the Four-fold symmetrical photograph, the visual heart of "An Imaginary Book," is for me a ritual act, a form of visual meditation, what depth psychologist C.G. Jung termed active imaginationand what Ibn 'Arabi had termed Creative Imagination.  Following is a detailed but necessarily simplified and abbreviated step-by-step description of the ritual making of the Four-fold symmetrical photographs

I begin with a single photograph which I call the "source image"; I duplicate that image, vertically flip the duplicated image over and place it under its source image.  Then I seamlessly conjoin the source image and it's flipped duplicated image together such that they appear to reflect each other as if in a pool of perfectly still water.  

Next I duplicate that pair of conjoined vertically reflected images, horizontally flip the duplicate conjoined pair of images and place that duplicate beside the original conjoined pair.  Then I seamlessly conjoin those two image-pairs such that they look as if they are mirroring each other across facing pages of an opened book.  Now we have before us four identical images, each reflecting the other both vertically and horizontally, forming a perfectly symmetrical and essentially "circular" image.  (A simple illustration of what I have just written can be seen in the project:  Celestial Gardens.)

The four-fold images are quite literally a visualization of the primary Islamic doctrine, Oneness; the Unity of Being.  At the pure center or true heart of the symmetrical image, where the four mirroring images have crystallized into one, there is the imaginary Point, that primordial mystery, the Origin from which all created things emerge:

Keith Critchlow: Islamic Patterns
The circle is the archetypal governing basis for all the geometric shapes that unfold within it . . . reflecting the unity of its original source, the point, the simple, self-evident origin of geometry and a subject grounded in mystery.  The circle has always been regarded as a symbol of eternity, without beginning and without end, just being.

Ritual Transformation  ~  Sanctified Space
Remarkably, as the source image goes through its various stages of the Four-fold transformation, in some subtle sense I too become transformed.   This spontaneous interiorization of the creative process is an important aspect of a true ritual act. Even if I start with what may at first appear to be a relatively uninteresting source image, by the time that image has become transformed into an articulate four-fold symmetrical photograph, a new and sanctified pictorial space has emerged.  

Once the image is created, as a viewer I can become a fully engaged participant in the ritual space of the image.   As I consciously, intentionally interiorize the sanctified pictorial space within myself I once again undergo a subtle form of transformation.   It is something that is felt, and known, though often the experience is not-sayable.  Traditionally, this is the mysterious, extraordinary power of ritual acts and their fruits: true symbols.

Once a true symbol has been manifested, anyone who sincerely and actively engages the symbol through the process of contemplation can imaginatively enters into the sanctified space of the image.  This interiorization of the image can be a transforming experience for those who have given themselves to the image.  "An Imaginary Book" has indeed been an interior imaginative journey for me, and I invite you travel along with me.

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Sacred Art, Sacred Knowledge
When I traveled to Turkey I knew practically nothing about the religious traditions of Islam or its sacred art.  The experiences I describe in Prayer Stones surprised me and then initiated a dynamic spontaneous creative process that produced "An Imaginary Book."  Part of that creative process included the acquisition and concentrated study of some wonderful books authored by many of the very best Islamic scholars in the world.  I have collected particularly meaningful text excerpts from these important sources and placed them on a webpage entitled Sacred Art, Sacred Knowledge.  You will find there a list of  books I have read and recommend, definitions of words and phrases I have often used in the projects, and much more.   The five text excerpts which follow below were taken from the webpage.  ~  I am especially grateful to the following authors for their published writings which have been so important to me throughout the production of "An Imaginary Book" :  Samer Akkach, Laleh Bakhtiar, Titus Burckhardt, Tom Cheetham, Emma Clark, Henry Corbin, Keith Critchlow, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Frithjof Schuon.  ~  Please visit Sacred Art, Sacred Knowledge.

Five Textual Excerpts
Sacred Art~The Heart~The Void~Revelation
Sacred Space~Sacred Center~Sacred Gate~Sacred Knowledge

Sacred Art  Sacred Space
How does any space transform itself into sacred space?  Simply because a sacrality is manifested there.  The manifestation of the Sacred in any space whatsoever implies for one who believes in the authenticity of this hierophany the presence of transcendent reality.  The Sacred does not belong to the profane world, it comes from somewhere else, it transcends this world.  A manifestation of the Sacred is always a revelation of being.
Mircea Eliade,  Symbolism, the Sacred, the Arts ed. by Apostolos-Cappadona

The Heart  The Sacred Centre
The Heart corresponds to the centre of the Garden, the point where grows the Tree of Life and where flows the Fountain of Life.  The Heart is in fact nothing other than this Fountain. . . The extreme significance of this penultimate degree in the hierarchy of centres is that it marks the threshold of the Beyond, the point at which the natural ends and the supernatural or transcendent begins.  The Heart is the 'isthmus' which is so often mentioned in the Qur'an as separating 'the two seas' which represent Heaven and earth. . .   Moses says: 'I will not cease until I reach the meeting-place of the two seas.'   He is formulating the initial vow that every mystic must make, implicitly if not explicitly, to reach the lost Centre which alone gives access to transcendent knowledge.  In the Sufi's turning away from the world in the direction of the Heart . . . there lies a powerful discipline of consecration.
Martin Lings,  What is Sufism?

The Void   The Sacred Gate
The void symbolizes the sacred and the gate through which the Divine Presence enters into the material order which encompasses man in his terrestrial journey.  The void is the symbol of both the transcendence of God and His presence in all things. . . Whenever and wherever the veil of matter is removed, the Divine Light of Unity shines through. . .  Hence "Whithersoever ye turn, there is the Face of God" (Qur'an, 11:115).  ~  The use of the void in Islamic art became, along with the use of geometric and other forms of abstract symbolism, is the only way to indicate the Unity which is at once everywhere and beyond all things.  Emptiness in Islamic art becomes synonymous with the manifestation of the sacred.  
Seyyed Hossein Nasr  Islamic Art and Spirituality 

Revelation   Sacred Art ~ Sacred Knowledge 
Like the words of sacred scripture and the forms of nature, works of sacred or traditional art ultimately are a revelation from that Reality which is the source of both tradition and the cosmos . . .  Traditional art is at once based upon and is a channel for both knowledge and grace or that 'sciential sacra' which is knowledge of a sacred character.  Sacred art is at once truth and presence. . . Art reflects the truth to the extent that it is sacred, and it emanates the presence of the sacred to the extent that it is true.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr   Knowledge and the Sacred

Creative Imagination
The intense and imaginative reading of a text, of the world, or of the soul will be a writing as much as a reading, and the perception of the images that arise and the places where they have their being is as much creation as discovery.  Ta'wil [Arabic word which means "return"] is the exercise of the Creative Imagination.  
Tom Cheetham: All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings

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The Return 
"An Imaginary Book" has been for me a return (ta'wil) to Traditional Wisdom.  In the mid to late 1960s, when as a young man I began in earnest my creative process in photography, I read the highly respected traditionalist and philosopher of Hindu sacred art, Ananda Coomaraswamy.  Then in 1972, in my preparations for an MFA written thesis requirement, I went back to Coomaraswamy and conjoined many of his ideas about sacred art, archetypes, symbols and the Self with the ideas of depth psychologist CG Jung.  I was especially interested in Jung's studies of medieval alchemy and his theories of synchronicity both of which provided me a direct correlation to what I was experiencing in the act of making and contemplating photographs.  The 110 page MFA paper was entitled The Symbolic Photograph: The Means to Self-Knowledge.  Click here for a summaraization of its ideas. 

Then my research on the sacred art and sacred knowledge traditions of Islam brought me to the writings of the great Islamic scholar Henry Corbin.   His earlier work included a discussion and critique of Jung's ideas which provided new insights for me regarding Jung's ideas.  It has been wonderful to return to Jung once again, this time in the context of Islamic mysticism.

The Traditional Wisdom of Islam is close in many ways to Hindu teachings.  I have been studying Siddha Yoga Meditation since 1987 under the guidance of a living meditation master Thus, though I am not an Islamist, I have been able to comfortably embrace the archetypal truths of the Prophetic and esoteric traditions of Islam, especially since they support my creative process as an artist, and deepen my understanding and practices of yoga in very powerful ways.  In the eighth project of "An Imaginary Book," entitled The Light of CreationI have juxtaposed two related theories of manifestation: one is from a Hindu saint, the other is from a Sufi saint.  The two theories correspond and resonate together quite luminously.  Also, in my Epilogue I share several personal stories about my encounters with the sacred through my yoga practice.


Over the two years I worked on "An Imaginary Book" I became quite disheartened by the media reports I heard regarding Islamic Extremism and Islamophobia.  Despite the outward play of dissonance, the way of the dualistic world, I have come to appreciate and respect the high ideals of the Islamic Tradition as reflected in its sacred art and its sacred knowledge.   The Qur'an, the hadiths or teachings of the Prophet, some of the esoteric traditions of Islam such as Sufism, and the art associated with this sacred knowledge together affirm in elegant and profoundly deep and poetic ways for me the archetypal doctrine of Oneness.   The work you will see in "An Imaginary Book" is the spontaneous fruit of my having intuitively followed my creative process which had been enlivened by my experiences of Islamic sacred art, the study of its sacred knowledge, and allowing the process to take me where it needed to go.

Through my own personal experience I have come to understand that visual art, when functioning at its highest imaginal, symbolic order - that is to say, as true sacred art - can transcend personal and cultural limitations; it can still and silence the contemplative mind; it can open the heart; it can help one see in new ways, and understand new things from different perspectives.  The experiences I have had and the work associated with "An Imaginary Book" have been a great gift to me; I feel grateful to be able to share the fruits of my creative process with you here.  

I hope you will enjoy each of the Book's individual projects or chapters, and I encourage you to experience the nine core projects in the sequential order in which they were created as listed above and below.  May this body of work which for me visually affirms and celebrates the Unity of Being bring you fruits of the very highest order.

Steven D Foster
"Preface" was first posted October 24, 2012 
 and most recently revised July, 2013.

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Also please visit:

This web page provides one select image from each of the projects and a brief introduction to the content and concepts addressed in each project.  The hyperlinked project titles will take you directly to the entire online project 

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.

Steven D. Foster  
Resume,  Biographical materials, and more 

Sacred Art, Sacred Knowledge  a collection of quotes by Islamic 
Scholars on the traditions of Islamic sacred in art and sacred knowledge.