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12 - 18 October 2000
Issue No. 503
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

For art's sake

Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies

Beauty in Arabic Culture, Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Princeton, New Jersey:Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000. pp.220

In the final paragraph of her introduction to this most interesting book, Doris Behrens-Abouseif sums up her general thesis concerning the concept of beauty in classical and in post-classical Arabic culture. She informs us that she was prompted to write the book because of her realisation that there was one major difference between mediaeval European thought and the Islamic philosophical approach to the subject of beauty. In Islamic culture she was impressed by an attitude to beauty that was not linked to religious criteria, being one that appreciated beauty for its own sake and anticipated modern attitudes. This was in sharp contrast to the general view of the beautiful in mediaeval Europe.

Nevertheless, the first part of Behrens-Abouseif's book deals with "the religious approach" to the beautiful. In a short chapter entitled "The Image of the World," she points out that, unlike in the Christian West, the Muslims did not look back nostalgically on Greek culture but sought instead to learn from it and to incorporate it meaningfully into their own knowledge. Looking back on classical antiquity as a golden age, from which the present has fallen, inevitably led to an attitude that saw moral decay and decline in the present and led to a lack of flexibility. The Muslim attitude, on the other hand, regarded knowledge as essential to the perception of God, and in support of this argument Behrens-Abouseif quotes the famous hadith "God is beautiful and loves all beauty." While many scholars may doubt the authenticity of this particular hadith, it nevertheless remains significant for Islamic culture, being an integral part of both intellectual and popular belief. Behrens-Abouseif thus quotes the theologian Al-Ghazali on aesthetic beauty:

"The beautiful horse is the one which combines everything that is characteristic of a horse with regard to appearance, body color, beautiful movement and tractability... The beauty of each object lies just in its characteristic perfection."

It was from the Greeks that the Arabs inherited the doctrine that proportion was the basis of beauty. This was particularly so in arts such as calligraphy and music, but it was also the case where the beauty of the human body was concerned.

Psychology however also played an important role in theorisations of the beautiful, as is remarked by the critic Al-Jurjani in the following perceptive passage:

"Human nature is so created... that when something appears from where it is not usually expected to appear, and when it emerges from a source which is not its normal one, the soul feels a deeper fondness of, and greater affection for it. It is as exciting and amazing to reveal the existence of something in a place in which it is not known to belong, as it is to create something which does not exist at all..."


La Danse de l'abeille dans le harem, Vincenzo Marinelli, 1862

Behrens-Abouseif goes on to give an instance from the writer of Al-Aghani of what she terms "the emotional factor" in perceptions of the beautiful. An Arab traveler hears a voice singing an Arabic song on a visit to Constantinople and asks himself whether his pleasure in hearing the song comes not so much from the singing as from the fact that he is hearing an Arabic song outside its normal context.

A short chapter entitled "Fauna" deals with animals in Arabic literature. No fewer than 80 different species are mentioned in odes by the pre-Islamic poets. The classic volume Kalila wa Dimna, translated into Arabic during the Abbasid period, was one of the most frequently illustrated books, and no less a writer than Al-Jahiz devoted seven volumes of his Al-Hayawan (Animals) to describing every sort of animal, seeing in them aspects of human character. A further chapter discusses Islamic attitudes to human beauty, a hadith being quoted to the effect that a good-looking believer is an instance of the utmost perfection, while an ugly unbeliever exemplifies the utmost ugliness. Al-Ghazali is quoted to the effect that physical beauty is likely to be the reflection of goodness. On the other hand, Abu Hayyan Al-Tawhidi wrote that while all that is good is beautiful, not all that is beautiful is good.

In her chapter on "Love," Behrens-Abouseif reminds us of a basic difference between Christianity and Islam on this subject. While Christianity recommended celibacy, Islam favoured marriage and sexual relations within a lawful framework. "The acceptance of sexuality as a healthy aspect of life," Behrens-Abouseif concludes this chapter by saying, "is a decisive cultural difference between Arabic and western religious thinking, also reflected in their different versions of paradise."

In this many-faceted book one is continually confronted by succinctly expressed views on a variety of matters pertaining to Arab culture. Thus, in an interesting discussion of music, Behrens-Abouseif quotes from such Arab authors as Mas'udi, Farabi and, of course, the Ikhwan Al-Safa, pointing out that in the contemporary Arab world it is the performer, or the interpreter, who is regarded as more important than the composer. She naturally gives Umm Kulthoum as the prime exemplar of this rule.

In one of the longest chapters in the book, that devoted to "Belles Lettres," Behrens-Abouseif underlines the fact that such giants of Arabic poetry as Al-Mutanabbi, Abu Nuwas and Al-Ma'arri were by no means rebels against the norms of society. In an argument that is relevant to the controversial issues that seek to divide society today, the poet in the heyday of Arab civilisation operated within the liberal rules of a society that respected the profane arts and gave them freedom. The hostility of the ultra-orthodox could not prevent the practice of these arts and in fact contributed to their non-religious orientation. It is, for instance, significant that the Maqamat by Al-Hariri were in their time best-sellers, though their hero was a person of dubious morals.

The visual arts and architecture naturally also come in for full treatment, the author showing that in Arab culture a distinction was drawn between arts such as music and calligraphy that were based on theoretical disciplines and arts that were more practical in aim, a distinction thus being drawn between the scholar and the craftsman. Although the jeweller's art was highly regarded, therefore, no jewellers' names appear in historical or biographical sources. The same can be said even for architects, who would also have been regarded primarily as craftsmen.

Doris Behrens-Abouseif makes the important observation that, with the exception of pre-Islamic poetry which necessarily revolved round life in the desert, the art of the Arabs was primarily an urban one and that Islam itself saw man as existing within an organised community. Thus Ibn Khaldun, described here as "the last great and original thinker before pre-modern times," drew a connection between cultural activities and their political and social surroundings.

In her entertaining and relatively short book Behrens-Abouseif has covered a lot of ground and raised questions of importance to the contemporary world.

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