After the Israelites miraculously crossed the Red Sea and escaped from Pharaoh’s pursuing army, they did something that leaps out of the Bible as altogether new — they sing to God.* Moses leads the people in The Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18). Then his sister Miriam, “the prophetess,” “took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels” (Exodus 15: 20). In the most poignant moments — at times of joy, gratitude, awe or sadness — words are not enough. The soul cries out for music to requite a full heart, to open a path to God.
Music opens a path to the divine because it evokes God’s hand in creation, revelation and redemption.* When God created the various elements of the world, God called each of them good. But when creation had been finished, “God saw all that He had made and found it very good” (Genesis 2:31). The parts were good; the whole, very good. Music celebrates the integrity of the parts, but blends them into a transcendent whole. Music also embodies revelation. Music is an invisible voice that calls forth deeply private emotions and elicits the conviction that the composer must have known those very feelings. That sense of being completely known — that is the sense of standing before God. Finally, music embodies the world redeemed. Discord resolves to harmony, fragmentation to unity. Our songs unveil the vision of the hidden world we seek. From the power of our joined voices we draw strength to build it.
As the soul cries out for music to find and express itself, it does the same with respect to all the other arts. After crossing the Red Sea, Miriam and the Israelite women don’t just sing, they dance — another first in the Bible. They step forth from Egypt, the narrow space, into open the spaces of freedom and unrestrained movement. As one writer on dance in Judaism observed, “Dance breaks down the apparent dichotomy between body and soul. The body, no longer an obstacle to the soul, becomes its chariot.”*
As for the visual arts, let’s think for a moment about the Tabernacle the Israelites built in the desert. Its splendor mirrored its holiness. Here’s a list of some of the materials employed: “gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood . . . (Exodus 36:5-7). Although God specified the design of the Tabernacle, the implementation was left to the Israelites’ most talented artists. God provides the inspiration, but human artistry brings the work to fruition. Ancient sources note the many parallels between God’s creation of the world and the Israelites’ building of the tabernacle.* In the first God acts alone; in the second — the model for all subsequent works of creation — God and humanity are partners.
The artist in charge of building the Tabernacle was Bezalel, whom God endowed “with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft” (Exodus 35:31). Founded in 1906, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design is Israel’s national school of art.
In a world of incessant noise and relentless activity, music and the arts invite us into another realm. They are embodied theology;
Music is not simply the language of the soul but also of the body; it is, “life’s language embodied.”* To sing is “to pray twice,” in the adage of St. Augustine; John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, termed hymnody “a body of practical divinity.” Worship without music is virtually inconceivable. The “ordinary” parts of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) in the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions have given rise to incredibly rich and diverse musical renditions, from the simplicity of the plainsong of Gregorian chant to the more elaborate renditions of polyphony and orchestral settings to the more dissonant harmonies of the modern age. The Requiem Mass, offered in memory of the dead, has inspired many composers, including Mozart, Fauré, Verdi, Britten, and Webber. Various renditions of a “Jazz Mass” are available, as is the recent “Welcome Table: A Mass of Spirituals” composed by two Union Theological Seminary students Kim Harris and Roger Holland in 2010.
The visual arts also provide an opening into the transcendent. Walk into a magnificent cathedral, such as the Gothic-Romanesque St. John the Divine (Episcopal) in New York City or the more modern Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles or Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon, both Catholic. There is a long tradition of illuminating editions of the Bible—think of the miniature illuminations in the ninth-century Book of Kells or of the contemporary illuminations in the St. John’s Bible, hand-lettered in calligraphy ( www.saintjohnsbible.org ). Throughout the world and throughout the centuries, Christians have created sculptures, mosaics and paintings to bear witness to their faith—and artists beyond Christianity have drawn upon the myths, symbols, figures and events of the Christian life as the subject of their work.
Literary works give expression to Christian convictions, whether in the George Bernanos’ novel Diary of a Country Priest—“All is grace”—or in Flannery O’Connor’s conviction that “The action of grace changes a character…. Therefore in a story all you can do with grace is to show that it is changing the character…. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not willing to support it…”* The non-fiction of Kathleen Norris reveals serious wrestling with God questions; novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon narrates her experience of reflecting on the gospels in her Reading Jesus. From the canticles of Luke’s Gospel to the contemporary poetry of Czesław Miłoscz and Denise Levertov, poets over the ages have given voice to the ineffable; among many others: Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Merton, and Anna Kamieńska. I end with Kamieńska’s poem, “A Path in the Woods”:
I don’t trust the truth of memories
because what leaves us
There’s only one current of this sacred river
but I still want to remain faithful
to my first astonishments
to recognize as wisdom the child’s wonder
and to carry in myself until the end a path
in the woods of my childhood
dappled with patches of sunlight
to search for it everywhere
in museums in the shade of churches
this path on which I ran unaware
a six-year old
toward my primary mysterious aloneness.*
Most scholars agree it is permissible to sing without instruments and where the content is not prohibited. Besides the recitation of the Qur’an with Tajweed, which is very inspirational, poetry praising God or the Prophets including Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon all of them) is allowed in mosques. Other sorts of singing – during weddings, celebrating religious or other feasts, welcoming a traveler or other occasions of joy – are allowed in community gatherings outside of mosques. They may be accompanied with light musical instruments, according to some scholars. `A’isha reported from the Prophet: “Abu Bakr came to my house while two small Ansari girls were singing beside me the stories of the Ansar concerning the Day of Buath. And they were not singers. Abu Bakr protested, “Musical instruments of Satan in the house of Allah’s Apostle!” It happened on the Eid day and Allah’s Apostle said, “O Abu Bakr! There is an Eid for every nation and this is our Eid.”*
While religiously it is still debated whether music is sinful and prohibited in Islam, it is played in almost all Muslim countries. However, practicing Muslims agree that music leading to sinful acts such as drug abuse, illicit sex, violence, etc, is certainly forbidden in Islam.
The reason for this debate over music is to keep the focus on chanting of the Qur’an, the voice of the heart, the pure and the amazing voice uplifting human spirits and connecting them to the abode of eternity where all pain ceases and peace prevails. This is why the Qur’an is called Kalam Allah (a discourse with God through the Words of God).
Islam to Muslims is not only a religion but also a way of life. From its very beginning it developed a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language of Towhidi (Oneness of God), a paradigm that is reflected in art and architecture in the Muslim world. But the development of Muslim art did not come in a vacuum. It certainly benefited from earlier models of art and styles. Even the earlier religious monuments in Islamic art like the Dome of the Rock are mixtures of Greco-Roman, Byzantine and Sasanian elements of art and architecture.
Muslims gradually developed a unique style of Islamic art and architecture. They developed painting, calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns, ceramics and many others types of arts in the medieval period of Islam. The calligraphy and decoration of the mosques with Qur’anic verses, the woodwork, carpets, mosque lamps decorated with religious symbols are some important developments in Muslim arts, speaking of God and His Omnipresence.
Depiction of living figures, especially of humans, is avoided religiously for fear of idolatry. This is a major reason behind Muslim protests over depictions of God, Muhammad or even other Prophets (peace be upon them).
State support has also played a key role in the development of Islamic art, especially in the construction of mosques and religious building even to recent times. The Saudi Government’s announcement of millions of dollars of aid to build a huge mosque along with a university campus in Kabul, Afghanistan, will be monumental project of Islamic architecture. It may be even better and more decorative than the Saudi-funded Faisal Mosque and its campus at Islamabad, Pakistan.
Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from Islamicity.com; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from ahadith.co.uk.