The blending of art and spirit is fundamental to traditional cultures, in their highest expression. For that reason, unless one understands the world view that dominates major civilizations, one cannot appreciate the various art forms which are their chief glory. As Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote in Persia: Bridge of Turquoise:

Traditional Iranian cities exist in harmony with their environment. As you approach from the desert, the mud roofs of the city blend comfortably with the surrounding mountains and desert floor. The elaborate tiled dome and minarets of a mosque punctuate the horizon and reflect the shimmering blue sky, pointing heavenward as if to remind man of his divine origin. The town itself, instead of gazing outwards, is introspective in nature. Its covered roadways and bazaars shield man from the heat, dust and sun. Shafts of sunlight create alternate patterns of light and shadow, illuminating the recesses of the bazaar and reflecting in the calm surface of a courtyard pool of water. Everywhere he turns, the individual is reminded of the divine order and presence of God.

Mughal shamsa (sunburst), a prominent motif in Persian and Indo-Islamic art, which symbolizes creation emerging from the transcendent Ground of Being

The R20 Summit in Bali was followed by a 3-day informal consultation held in Yogyakarta, the heartland of Javanese civilization. Participants gathered to discuss how to build on the achievements of the Bali Summit while experiencing the cultural and artistic environment that gave birth to Nahdlatul Ulama and the G20 Religion Forum (R20).

Working Group 6 focuses on reviving the traditional role of art and culture as “windows to the transcendent” that serve to elevate the human spirit and inculcate ethical and spiritual values within society.

Longtime Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman (1984 – ’99) and Indonesia’s first democratically-elected president, H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, described the intimate relationship between art, culture, religion, science and philosophy in his renowned essay, “God Needs No Defense,” which was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

In this essay, President Wahid reflected upon the role of art, culture, and spirituality in producing civilizational greatness. Analyzing “the various factors which have contributed to the long decline of Arab and Muslim civilizations in general, and greatly hindered their participation in the development of the modern world,” President Wahid emphasized the need “to prevent Islamic law from becoming out of date, rigid and non-correlative — not only with Muslims’ contemporary lives and conditions, but also with the underlying perennial values of shari’a itself.”

In the view of President Wahid, art, culture, and spirituality — as well as the recontextualization of obsolete and problematic tenets of religious orthodoxy — are essential to ensure that religion functions as a genuine and dynamic source of solutions, rather than problems.

God Needs No Defense

By H.E. KH. Abdurrahman Wahid

The renowned Qur’anic injunction, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256), anticipated Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1] by over 13 centuries, and should serve as an inspiration to Muslim societies today, guiding them on the path to religious freedom and tolerance.

In its original Qur’anic sense, the word shari’a refers to “the way,” the path to God, and not to formally codified Islamic law, which only emerged in the centuries following Muhammad’s death. In examining the issue of blasphemy and apostasy laws, it is thus vital that we differentiate between the Qur’an — from which much of the raw material for producing Islamic law is derived — and the law itself. For while its revelatory inspiration is divine, Islamic law is man-made and thus subject to human interpretation and revision.

For example, punishment for apostasy is merely the legacy of historical circumstances and political calculations stretching back to the early days of Islam, when apostasy generally coincided with desertion from the Caliph’s army and/or rejection of his authority, and thus constituted treason or rebellion. The embedding (i.e., codification) of harsh punishments for apostasy into Islamic law must be recognized as an historical and political by-product of these circumstances framed in accordance with human calculations and expediency, rather than assuming that Islam, and shari’a, must forever dictate punishment for changing one’s religion.

The historical development and use of the term shari’a to refer to Islamic law often leads those unfamiliar with this history to conflate man-made law with its revelatory inspiration, and to thereby elevate the products of human understanding — which are necessarily conditioned by space and time — to the status of Divine.

Shari’a, properly understood, expresses and embodies perennial values. Islamic law, on the other hand, is the product of ijtihad (interpretation) which depends on circumstances (al-hukm yadur ma‘a al-‘illah wujudan wa ‘adaman) and needs to be continuously reviewed in accordance with ever-changing circumstances, to prevent Islamic law from becoming out of date, rigid and non-correlative — not only with Muslims’ contemporary lives and conditions, but also with the underlying perennial values of shari’a itself.

Throughout Islamic history, many of the greatest fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) scholars have also been deeply grounded in the traditions of tassawuf, or Islamic mysticism, and recognized the need to balance the letter with the spirit of the law. The profoundly humanistic and spiritual nature of Sufi Islam facilitated the accommodation of different social and cultural practices as Islam spread from its birthplace in the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant, North Africa, the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, Persia, Central and South Asia, and the East Indies archipelago. By many estimates, a majority of the Muslim population in most of these regions still practice a form of religious piety either directly or indirectly derived from Sufism. And the greatness of traditional Islamic art and architecture — from the wonders of Fes and Grenada, to Istanbul, Isfahan, Samarkand and Agra — bears testimony to the long line of Sufi masters, guilds and individual artists who strove to ennoble matter, so as to transform our man-made environment into “the veritable counterpart of nature, a mosaic of ‘Divine portents’ revealing everywhere the handiwork of man as God’s vice-regent.”[2]

Indeed, the greatness of classical Islamic civilization — which incorporated a humane and cosmopolitan universalism — stemmed largely from the intellectual and spiritual maturity that grew from the amalgamation of Arab, Greek, Jewish, Christian and Persian influences. That is why I wept upon seeing Ibn Rushd’s commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics lovingly preserved and displayed, during a visit some years ago to Fes, Morocco. For if not for Aristotle and his great treatise, I might have become a Muslim fundamentalist myself.

Among the various factors which have contributed to the long decline of Arab and Muslim civilizations in general, and greatly hindered their participation in the development of the modern world, was the triumph of normative religious constraints, which ultimately defeated the classical tradition of Islamic humanism. Absorption of “alien” influences — particularly in the realm of speculative thought, and the creation of individual, rational and independent sciences not constrained by religious scholasticism — was defeated by internal control mechanisms exercised by religious and governmental authorities, thus paralyzing Muslim societies.

These same tendencies are still on display in our contemporary world, not least in the form of severe blasphemy and apostasy laws that narrow the bounds of acceptable discourse in the Islamic world, and prevent most Muslims from thinking “outside the box” not only about religion, but about vast spheres of life, literature, science and culture in general.

[1] “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

[2] Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Persia, Bridge of Turquoise, 1975, New York Graphic Society.

“GP Ansor invites public intellectuals to help lay the foundation, and artists to express, the vision of Humanitarian Islam, which is inextricably linked to the emergence of a new reality in which people of every faith and nation renounce the use of religion as a means to justify hatred and violence towards those who adhere to a different faith.”

~ Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam, point 109 (2017)

Dey.sandip, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons