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How Can Turkish Islamic Fine Arts Help Us Understand Higher Spirituality?

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In the Muslim world, fine arts are related to Islamic spirituality. While fine arts can be found all over the Muslim world, Turkey certainly has major contributions to Islamic art, both historically and still today. With the recent expansion of interest in the more open practice of Islam in Turkey, understanding how the arts are important and relevant to Turkish society and the individual Muslim can give more perspective on the Turkish approach to Islam. In their societal context and in their reception, it is worth noting that there is much more to these Turkish fine arts than initially meets the eye.*

It could be argued that these fine Islamic arts are more advantaged nowadays in Turkey, blossoming along with the recent spiritual revival in the country. Anyone visiting or living in Turkey nowadays is certain to encounter the different genres of these fine arts of Islam. This is clear from many examples of Turkish architecture in the form of mosques and former palaces, great poetry (Rumi, Yunus Emre, etc.), a vibrant and splendiferous spiritual musical tradition dating back hundreds of years, and more humble but delightful crafts such as ebru (Turkish marbling) and fine handcrafted bookbinding.

All of these arts have an important purpose, as experts inform. Ismail R. Al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya' al-Faruqi (The Cultural Atlas of Islam, Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1986, pp. 162-181) described the arts as expressing the Qur'an at various levels. Faruqi and Faruqi also noted that, "an acceptable theory of Islamic art is one that assigns its premises to factors internal to the religion and culture rather than to those imposed by an alien tradition" (I.R. Faruqi and L.L. Faruqi, 1986, p.180). Laleh Bakhtiar described in her book, Sufi Expressions of the Mystical Quest (Thames and Hudson, Great Britain, 1976, 1991), in a very detailed way that Islamic art is intimately tied with and expresses the Islamic spiritual experience. Concerning Islamic art, Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Islamic Art and Spirituality, SUNY Press, Albany, New York, 1987, p.7) opined that "Without the two fountains and sources of the Quran and the Prophetic barakah there would be no Islamic art...the art of Islam is Islamic art not only because it was created by Muslims but because it issues forth from the Islamic revelation..." The Faruqis', Bakhtiar's, and S.H. Nasr's explanations appear to describe an Islamic spirituality, expressed in art, that emanates from within the orthodox Islamic tradition and invites to rising above or transcending certain limitations of rigidity, and narrow-mindedness.

These explanations by Ismail and Lois Faruqi, Laleh Bakhtiar and Seyyed Hossein Nasr prove themselves to be true when appreciating the great artwork of Turkey, both from the Ottoman period and more modern creations. Turkish Islamic architecture is a major modality of devotional expression for the Turkish Muslim community. These are magnificently beautiful and awe-inspiring from the outside. Their minarets point upward towards the heavens yet these are, together with their magnificent domes and balanced windows, part of a unified architectural beauty. The inside of mosques are smoothly decorated with fine tiles and a disciplined and beautiful Islamic calligraphy.** Here one meets a geometry that suggests an infinity of expression of the Divine. Anyone possibly feeling artificially limited need only walk into one of these mosques, kneel down humbly on the carpet and look upward to the dome and its expansiveness to receive an immediate invitation of openness to expanding greatness and beauty. (For more on symbolism in Turkish architecture, see Dr. Ahmet Çaycı, Anadolu Selçuklu Sanatı'nda Gezegen ve Burç Tasvirleri," T.C. Kültür Bakanlığı Sanat Eserleri, Ankara, 2002.)

The classical poetry of Turkey is also an important fine art. Of several classical poets in Turkey (Rumi, Yunus Emre, etc.) Rumi's poetry is world renowned. Rumi's wider impact is described by Franklin D. Lewis in Rumi Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi, Oneworld, Oxford, UK, 2001, 2005.** About poetry, S.H. Nasr opines, "this remarkable Sufi poetry was written by men who were seeking God and the inner dimension of their religion, and who therefore presented an essential, and at the same time universal, message in their poetic art." (Seyyed Hossein Nasr with Ramin Jahanbegloo, In Search of the Sacred, Praeger/ ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO, Oxford, UK, 2010, p. 264.)

One need only type in a search for "Rumi" on amazon.com to see an example and one indicator of how popular Rumi is in North America and the West, that is to say, universal beyond Turkey's borders. Seeing the availability of a myriad of available books about Rumi and a simple visit to Konya and its famous Mevlana Museum presents convincing evidence that the Turks know well the spiritual and cultural relevance and importance of this poet. Indeed these Muslim poets in Turkey have much to tell us about our humanity and about love.

From where I presently sit, in a very modern academic building at Necmettin Erbakan University in Konya, all this fine Turkish artistic expression would appear to lend weight to an argument that Turkish society and its approach to Islam is not fostering fundamentalism or extremism but rather encouraging a balanced and spiritually mature Islam. Indeed, when talking about fine art in Turkey, consistent with the Faruqis', Seyyed Hossein Nasr's, and Laleh Bakhtiar's perspectives, we should not neglect to include the fine artwork of the Turkish Sufi orders, not merely describing outer expressions of art but including also the inner artwork, the development and refinement of the personality and soul. Anne-Marie Schimmel, in her book, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1975, pp.98-186), describes the path of spiritual refinement which Sufis undergo as part of their discipline. Bakhtiar (1976, 1991) gives more information about how Islamic art, in its creation and appreciation, can often be a associated with a process of spiritual development.

As Bhaktiar (1976, 1991, p.15) describes, "the mystic aspires to become a reflective mirror." It can be said that Turkish Sufis in general, with their education and spiritual refinement, make a fine art form of being very nice and achieving higher spirituality, God willing. They often approach this with admirable sincerity and discipline. These are not only Turkish Sufis but also Muslim artists more generally who create these many fine artistic works of beauty. Sometimes obviously or sometimes not so obviously, these fine artists themselves may come to reflect spiritual beauty at various levels.

*For more on Islamic fine arts and aesthetics, see Doç. Dr. Mustafa Yildirim, İslam Sanatı ve Estetiğinin Temelleri, Palet Yayinlari, Konya, Turkey, 2011.

**For more on the importance and beauty of Islamic calligraphy, see Annemarie Schimmel's book, Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, I.B. Tauris, London, 1984.

***For a Turkish academic exploration of some of Rumi's importance and relevance, see Mevlana Ocağı, Prof. Dr. Mehmet Bayyiğit, editor, Kombassan Vakfı, Konya, Turkey, 2007.