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Chapter I

I. Spiritual content in modern (contemporary) outfit a. Islamic art: tradition (and innovation) b. Specificity of British Muslim artistic creation c. Hybridization of cultural references

I. The Islamic artistic conception is characterized by geometry and absence of figurative representation. Even if Islam is not as strict as Judaism towards iconism and there are only few references as to the painting, the Hebraic religion and its inflexible monotheism influenced Islamic perception vis--vis of the arts. The interdiction concerning make image human or any animate object is deeply rooted in the Judaism and is clearly written in the Torah: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven imager or any likeness of anything that is in heaven or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20.4) There is no such commandment in the Quran, however the hadiths, a part of Sunni tradition, denounce painters: [h]e who creates pictures in this world will be ordered to breathe life into them on the Day of Judgment, but he will be unable to do so.Hadith, Sahih Muslim (818-875). That is for say only God can create and gives life; consequently person who imitates Gods work commits sin regarding Sunni tradition. The fear of idolatry has shaped the countenance of the Islamic art and its form. However the opinions diverge on the subject. According to the Muhammed Abduh, mufti in Al-Azhar at the end of the 19th century, the ban on images applied to an earlier period in Islam when the danger of idol worship was much more imminent.(K. H. Ramadan, 2007, p. 50). The scholars so interpret in different way corpus of Islamic tradition, that is say Quran and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet). Consequently the Islamic art develop its quintessence in the abstraction. The absence of animal of human figures does not diminish the aesthetic quality of the creations of Islamic art. The change of emptiness and forms provokes rather amazing aesthetic experience moreover the element of interlacement incites the eye follows of intertwining and compensating forces (Buckhardt, p. 44). This continuity and meditative nature is in certain sense the expression of unity and spiritual message, the principle of the tawhid (so called divine unity) which plays central role when the nature of Islamic arts are concerned. This unity reflects strict 1

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monotheism and ban to associate anyone or anything to God, because association (shikr) is considered as the gravest sin in Islamic belief. All force of the Islamic arts consists consequently in abundance of abstract or plant motives and its imaginative aspect therefore the Islamic art has been considered simply as decorative art and not as fullbodied form of fine arts1. This reading is typically Western one where the image and figurative representation play very important role as well in the profane as sacred sphere.

The traditional Islamic arts are based on the geometry and calligraphy; these forms are taught in the programme VITA (Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts) at the Royal College, founded by Prince Charles foundation in 1984. The goal of the institution is to preserve traditional arts and so perpetuate the traditional knowledge of the craft industry. And it was actually Victorian Craft and Art movement which was influenced by decorative Islamic art, first of all William Morris. Indeed there is same rationale that is to say no distinction between fine arts and craft industry and valuation of hand-made work. Traditional artisan is not only about technique but it includes also the spiritual aspect. The know-how is passed on along with cultural heritage and values, the complex knowledge filled with deep religious sense, called also adab in the classical Arabic tradition. In spite of aesthetic aspect and its importance, the Islamic art is not art for arts sake as it was a case in the Aesthetic Movement in the 19th century. The beauty celebrates divine, because according to the Sufi mystic, but also poet, jurist and theologian Rumi all things reflect divine beauty. Each piece of art is so glorification of God and his creation. This principle echoes in the statement of Ruh Al-Alam, appeared in the Guardian: [t]he concept of al-fan al-hadif ("art with purpose") is what defines myself, [Sami] Yusuf and the others." http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/documentaries/2009/08/090807_wiilam_and _the_muslims.shtml

Knowledge and writing is highly esteemed. The first order which the Prophet Muhammad received was Read! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful. He, who bestowed knowledge through pen. (Surah 96, Al-Alaq) Thus, knowledge lies in the Quran, and

Vronique Rieffel, Islamania, de lAlhambra la burqa, histoire dune fascination artistique, Beaux Arts Editions, 2011, p. 46

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know-how of calligraphy allows communicating and spreading this knowledge as a light in regard of Islamic belief, even more if the revealed character of the Quran is taken in account. Indeed the symbolic of the light is greatly important in the Islam. God is often compared with light as in the surah of Light (An-Nur) Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lampthe lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering starlit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern nor western, whose oil almost lights up, though fire should not touch it. Light upon light. Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes. Allah draws parables for mankind, and Allah has knowledge of all things. The light plays important role in the architecture, Burckhardt refers to the alchemy of Light, evoking transcendental feature of architectural elements combined with technical devices achieved thanks to the mathematical knowledge. The geometric elements as for example moucharabieh or muqarnas creates light effects and impression of lightness. The light holds clue place in the artistic creation of all three artists, they connect often the motion of light with Prophet Mohammed like in the Mohammed Alis Dubai Collection, where luminosity of his graffiti is striking. Moreover the light effect is highlighted by inscription arranged in way to produce like flash effect.

The architecture being one of the most visible and studied form of Islamic art, it is quite inseparable from calligraphy where genius of Islamic art and power of Islamic faith is plainly expressed and which can be designed like its standard and whose magnitude is expressed in the statement uttered by James W. Allan For to me, as a western Christian curator of Islamic art collections, it is above all in Arabic calligraphy that Islamic identity belongs. And it is my belief that it is the ability of contemporary artists to express that calligraphic tradition in a contemporary way that will bring Islamic art once again into the forefront of artistic expression worldwide. The statement expresses a constancy of calligraphy and universality of it throughout the Muslim community, regardless nationality. Calligraphy requires patience and skills and according to professional calligrapher Taha Al-Hiti it is long process to create a letter of calligraphy, which is so arts of itself. It is not only a means to rewrite a speech it has also a spiritual dimension moreover due to the intricate tie with Quran and so privileged statute in the Islamic arts. However letters in the Arabic alphabet have not a similar numerical value as it is a case in Jewish alphabet and is consequently interpreted and commented by Jewish mystics, the 3

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letters [have] personality of its own and symbolize in visual form a particular Divine quality since the letters of the sacred alphabet correspond to features and qualities of God as the Divine scribe.2 Over the centuries the art of calligraphy had developed different styles like kufi, thuluth, nasqhki, riqa or diwani, due to the geographic extent of Islamic influence. More strict or more flowing, clearly readable or interlacing in way where very word is hardly recognizable due to the proliferation of running on from single letters. Especially in the case of Kufic writing, which was not ruled by proportional criteria like the cursive naskhi, but obeyed the calligraphers own aesthetics, the letters were transformed into ornament. They were foliated or floriated, twisted and plaited, knotted, intersected, intertwined in endless geometrics, and even animated with figures. 3 Moreover the letters in Arabic can be also composed in order to create zoomorphic figures, a way to make human or animal figures in a certain respect of tradition. It shows an artistic and aesthetic dimension which is rather independent from the primary function of writing down and demonstrates imaginative power of calligraphy and its possibilities.

2 3

Seyeed Hossein Nasr, Islamic art and spirituality, State University of New York Press, 1987, p.30 Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Beauty in Arabic Culture, 1999, Markus Wiener Publishers, p. 140

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The artists Mohammed Vaseem, Ruh Al-Alam and Mohammed Ali made deliberate choice to not represent human or animal figures and conform to the orthodox Sunni interpretation concerning painting as Mohammed Vaseem declared in the interview for the Islamic Art magazine: I made a conscious decision when embarking on this career to abstain from using animate images in this work in accordance with this tradition. They take calligraphy as a starting point in their creation, however their creation may be on edge of the figurative art as it is can see in the Mohammed Alis graffiti where appears veiled female figures. At the same time the figures are design vaguely without concrete features which are only roughly sketched and so it does not compete with Gods creation, in theological mean of word. They take up the Muslim heritage as calligraphy and reuse it in contemporary way in order to bridge the western and Muslim world. Hence the using of inscriptions in Arabic, evoking spiritual and cultural character of their creation and application of more western techniques of painting like collage or layering of paint, reveal degree of appropriation of contemporary modes of the arts and integration in the mainstream culture. The innovation and modern approach to the tradition challenge the prejudices against the Muslim and Islam, which is also one of the concerns of this secondborn generation of Muslim British artists and who is also often committed to the both civil British society and causes implying universal Muslim community, designed frequently as ummah.

The quite sculptural approach may be seen in the work of Mohammed. Circle form, a base of all geometric forms is also a form of full moon. The Islamic calendar is, on contrary to the Georgian one, lunar like Hebraic one. Moon also rhythm the religious feasts such as Ramadan, one of the pillars of Islam. If we consider the unity of circle and fact that there is no beginning and no end, it can stand for eternity of God and its perfection, indeed the painting (p. 8) is called As Samad (The Eternal), making clear allusion to the God and his principal attribute. The work dates from 2009s collection Familiar and Unfamiliar Territories. The form of moon is quite omnipresent in his work as well as incorporated in the paintings or as independent painting, like piece As Samad, which is alternate through colours, inscriptions or changes of the surface. But 6

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Mohammed is not only who uses the motive of moon, one of Ruh Al-Alams work is entitled Muhammad (Qamar / Moon), did in black and white.

How Vaseem Mohammed states himself, he was influenced as well by his fourmonths trip to the Pakistan, the country of his ancestors, as by his growing up in the East London. It can be seen in the rough texture of his works. He so translates the scruffy character of the East London of his childhood. Those memories inspire me; dilapidation, paint peeling off and things like that. In my parents house, which was over a hundred years old I used to peel at the wall paper, as children do, and there was decades of wallpaper there, layers and layers and subconsciously I started using that in my work. The likeness of distinct layers of wall paper can be seen partially in the golden strips which like protrude from the painting. The juxtaposition and torn parts of canvas appear frequently in his work. The plasticity is accentuated by reliefs resembling to the craters, he actually works his paintings in quite experimental way using chemicals to blend paint or cutters to give more depth to his works.

Moreover he graduated from Art & Design, Graphics and Creative Computing & Illustration at Tower Hamlet College, the area is nicknamed Banglatown due to the strong concentration of the Bangladeshi community in the area. But it was actually Pakistan which influenced the aesthetic of his works and provided new theme for his painting. As in the Unity (p. 9) he paints the cities which he saw there, especially by medinas, the old parties of towns, inspired by walled deserted city of Multan. The minarets, domes and flat roofs are spread throughout the Islamic world; consequently the painting could be taken as illustration of any city in the North Africa with its minarets, terraces and domes of zaouias (tombs of saints)4. It shows the universality of the Islamic architecture and patterns and so common heritage of Arabic influence. But if there is a set of collective features, the variety of styles due to the ethnic diversity, what Burckhardt calls diversity in unity, or () unity in diversity.5

Art With a Conscience, Emel Magazine, May / June 2004 <http://vaseemmohammed.com/#/emelmagazine/4534099519> 5 Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976, p. 117

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As Samad (The Eternal), 2009

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The Unity (Ibrahim), 2008

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The graphic designer Ruh AlAlam of Bangladeshi descent, was born and grown up in East London, graduated at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in illustration and graphic design. Alongside the technical skills concerning design he completed his artistic formation in Egypt where he studied calligraphy for two years. He coined the term Visual Dhikr (Remembrance) which became the trading mark in 2003. He collaborates closely with Islamic Design House, Emel, Radical Middle Way or Islamic Relief within his own design agency that he founded in 2001.

But the calligraphy is not his only source of inspiration, how he states [l]ike many Muslim calligraphers, architects and artists throughout Muslim history, we also take good inspiration from other cultures, including western and eastern concepts.6 There is so clearly impact of Islamic heritage but also the new technique of creating, whatever calligraphy is at the root of his work. Al-Alam so produces as well oil or acrylic canvas, posters as the range of t-shirts or eco-bags signed Keep It Halal. The Islam and its aesthetic and ethics are omnipresent in his work, even if his design is written in Latin letters the inspiration from form of Arabic letters and arabesques is visible.

Similar modern approach can be seen in the creation of street artist Mohammed Ali, who is originated from Birmingham where resides one of the largest Pakistani and Kashmiri communities in the UK. He graduated from Multimedia Design, and even if he did graffiti since his was ten, he did not become artist immediately. How he acknowledges personality which influenced him was American photographer Henry Chalfant whose book Subway Art is like a Bible for anyone who is interested in graffiti. Ali launched his mark Aerosol Arabic, defining as urban spiritual art and nowadays he become around the globe, his works being exhibited in the United States, Canada, Australia or Dubai. Originality of Alis work lies in combination of graffiti and Islamic message and so reverses the egoism of the graffiti to message of share, tolerance and opening, according to his own word a mixture of sacred script of God and selfish script of man. However, the street art and art more generally can be a medium to bring people together, to achieve an understanding of each other. (Mohammed Ali) It is no longer about to tag

The Muslim Council of Britain, 24 October 2003 <http://www.mcb.org.uk/features/features.php?ann_id=154>


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his name on the wall, as it was a case before his rediscovery of Islam. The spiritual awakening gave to his graffiti pieces deeper sense and means to make people think when seeing his work in the street. 7 His rediscovery with Islam also change his way of making the graffiti. Nowadays he paints exclusively on the legal grounds. He co-founded The Hubb Arts Centre in Birmingham in order to transmit his art in the spirit of openmindedness and tolerance, mainly to the young generation. The liberal atmosphere and diverse ethnic composition of population play its role in liberation of second or third generation in questioning the tradition and ancestral values that encourage going beyond ones own community, and respecting others beliefs.8 That is shared value by all three artists, they advocate the exchange between the communities and the arts seem to be more than adequate means of communication. That was a case of exhibition Light of Hope organized by Vaseem Mohammed with the cooperation of Revd. Dr. Brian Lee, in July 2005, at St. Botolphs Church Aldegate in London. Lee considered the exhibition as symbol of learning, tolerance and solidarity, in the atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion towards Muslim community which reigned after 7/7 attacks in London. The goal was so show that Islam can bring something positive through artistic creation.

7 8

Independent, 26 April 2009 Humayun Ansari, The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800, London, C. Hurst&Co Publishers, 2004, p. 393


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The fusion of modern western painting or techniques and classical Islamic heritage like calligraphy or traditional Arabic motives make create unique style where both worlds meet to give original aesthetic result. Moreover the rich creation proves that Islam is not a barrier to the artistic creation but on the contrary one of the major source of inspiration which brings richness and diversity into mainstream British artistic scene. The piece Eid (feast) can server of example poses phonetic representation of word eid stylized in the Arabic style and word in the Arabic. The style is rather Kufic one, which is characterized by angular forms and is one of the oldest forms of calligraphy. The written element is combined with abstract graphic components. The result gives modern graphic visual effect, characterized by simplicity, but also by the harmony of whole. Moreover, all three artists take full advantage of internet platform which become not only tool of communication or work, but also a space for discussion and larger interaction between the communities and the artists themselves. It helps also to promote on larger scale their projects, for that all three artists run their internet pages which represent their e-gallery but also the links on another artistic web pages or events. The cyberspace gives also opportunity to denounce injustice and express political opinions. However the question of political commitment of artists is highly controversial. The debate if artist scene should be free from any political influence is on-going. The British Muslim artists do not hesitate take position in case of the Gaza, and IsraeliPalestine conflict. The point is very delicate, if we consider British commitment in Iraq. Moreover the opinion on the British presence in Iraq was rather divided, and the British Muslims have experienced strong vague of discrimination and suspicion since 2001. The arts can actually play important role to fight against the prejudices and to promote interaction between distinct ethnic and religious entities. This power of arts was expressed by Isabel Carlisle (director of Festival of Muslim Cultures) [t]he art is the last freedom, it is open and fluid, it is a world in which we can all connect.


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