11/19/2010 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Part 5: Colonizing the Mosque (Slideshow)


This is the fifth installment in a series of posts on mosques as seen through the eyes of some of the great novelists, poets, journalists, and critics of the last three centuries. See the fourth installment.

It's no surprise that Western interest in Islam and the sacred architecture of mosques flowered at the same time that secularism began to take hold of the mind of the 18th-century European intellectual. Neither is it a coincidence that European nations fixated on the culture of Islam precisely as the Islamic world began its decline. In Medieval times, the material prosperity and military might of Muslim nations was the envy and fear of the Western world. But with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, after Europeans discovered Islamic achievements far in advance of their own, they became inspired by a vision of cultural greatness they would strive to match and exceed.

As Islamic governments began to give way to Western dominance and colonization in the 18th century, mosques become anything but fearful to the Europeans colonizing or dominating them. After Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, Western scholars and governments adopted an attitude toward Islam that we today call Orientalism--a process by which Western institutions expressed their authority over Islam by studying and redefining Muslim culture in Western terms. It was through the screen of Orientalism that Europeans, and later Americans, could finally look upon the sublime beauty of mosques as if they possessed them. On the positive side, in their new acquaintance with mosques, Western artists and architects learned that the culture of Islam had salvaged, utilized, and improved upon the scholarship and technological know-how of pre-Christian Greek and Roman sciences, philosophy, mathematics, and art. For the first time in a millennia, the West learned what had been denied them since the fourth century under Christian censorship. But rather than celebrate Islamic civilization for rescuing and improving on this vast store of ancient wisdom, the Western Orientalist chauvinistically claimed it as a distinct and superior Western tradition.

Despite the disparagement of Islam by Orientalism, one of the central principles that the mosques helped Europeans discover is a uniquely Islamic geometric system of design and construction that proved to be more complex and multifaceted in its formal unity than even that used in the building of Europe's great cathedrals. Unity is the glue of most the world's aesthetic productions. But Islamic unity is particularly exalted in the belief that unity emanates from, and is, Allah; that unity is the presence of Allah manifested in visual and material patterns, and as such can never be exhausted in its infinite variation.

Unlike the cosmologies of the West and Far East, the logos of Islam is not predominantly unveiled through pictures rendered in perspective, nor with painted chiaroscuro, nor even in sculpture of wood, stone, or metal. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and most of the classical and tribal civilizations of the world utilized pictures and statues representing human figures to embody the divine relationship between God and man. Orthodox Islamic doctrine, however, modeled as it is by Mohammed after Judaism, proscribes images of the godhead, and thereby also proscribes representations of the human form thought to mirror divinity on earth. As a result, Islam strove to embody the absolute nature of God through an art comprised of abstract patterns. And once the wealth of its conquests poured in, nowhere were these patterns composed with more visual force and grandeur than in the construction of the great mosques.

It's in the formal principles of the mosques that Europeans learned that Islam drew from and modernized the cosmology of the Greek mathematician and mystic Pythagoras to elaborate a system of design and construction based entirely on the principle that all things proceeded from number. In short, Mosques informed Europeans of the Islamic metaphysic accounting for the diversity of forms found in the world. In terms of the physical construction of the mosques, the relationship between numbers didn't just build up into a two-dimensional geometry or three-dimensional trigonometry that could be applied to making patterns within visual systems and material objects. In Islam, numbers compound in units that issue and maintain the entire material-spiritual continuum.

As any mathematician can attest, immersion in the art of numbers and their application in space can be an exhilarating journey. The intellectual art of Islam converted this exhilaration into mesmerizing contemplations of the divine by starting with the single and abstract point and interpreting it as the symbol of the source, unity, and center of all things imagined, and thereby created in the Godhead. From this point extends the lines and paths that proceed to form the plane figures (rectangles, triangles, circles, polygrams), and further unfold into volumes (cubes, pyramids, globes, polyhedra), which then evolve into animate bodies (atoms, molecules, compounds, networks), until building up to comprise the All that is Allah.

In aspiring to invoke divine infinity, the greatest of mosques supply a dazzling array of mathematically derived beauty with few man-made equivalents. The mosque embodies what Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr describes in Islamic Art and Spirituality as "the soul and mind of the traditional Muslim," which "was woven--and continues to be woven--first of all in attitudes drawn from the verses of the Quran and secondly of proverbs and poems, visual images and forms all of which reflect the ethos of Islam in its most profound aspects."

It is a beautiful sentiment, and it enthralled the Europeans and Americans who studied it. But Palestinian-American author Edward Said famously takes the West to task in his book Orientalism for misidentifying living Mulims with Islamic histories and books. Said cautions us against fixating solely on the values of the Muslim past should we become incapable of understanding the realities shaping and informing Muslims today. With regard to the great mosques, he would have us acquaint ourselves with more than the mathematical patterns and harmony that enthrall us. We should as well enlighten ourselves with what really goes on inside the mosque for the majority of Muslims: prayer; contemplation; centering; a few moments of tranquility; being human before an image of oneself made God.

The Western mis-identification of Islam with its history and books continues today, though now hideously transformed by 9/11 into a stereotype the likes of which has not been known in the West since the medieval crusades. But while Americans and Europeans have again come to fear the mosque as breeding ground for terror, it's also true that the history, mosques, and books of Islam fuel the anachronistic values driving the very real extremists of Islam to acts of terror. In fact, the history of conflict in the Middle East over the last century may be contextualized as a succession of battles between peoples in love with their own different, yet colliding, histories and religious teachings.

Yes, fighting against colonialism, occupation, and foreign domination have motivated Muslims to rise up on the street with the help of modern weaponry. But in looking back on the spread of pan-Arabism, the successive Arab-Israeli wars, the Iranian revolution and American hostage crisis, the civil war in Lebanon, the Iraq-Iran War, the first Gulf War, the transnational proliferation of suicide bombers and Al-Qaeda culminating in 9/11; and the insurgencies of Afghanistan and Iraq -- all these events have been driven forward by the combatants on all sides immersing themselves in histories and sacred texts written millennia before at the expense of the real contingencies of life in the present. And with mosques functioning as the local centers of Islamic faith on one front, and the object of renewed Western suspicion on another, it is undeniable that mosques, tragically, help keep alive the memory of the divide of civilizations that once rent the world irreparably in two.

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Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.

The Sacred Geometry of Mosques