Saturday, 19 January 2013

Gracious Islam

In today's world it's easy to see Islam as a backward looking superstition, an irrational fundamentalism, a narrow-minded puritanism that has no relation to reality. Look back a few hundred years, though, and Islam holds out a promise of modernity, of reason, of grace.

(I can't help being reminded of the way certain Christians have hijacked the forgiving, gracious religion of Jesus – preferring their own righteousness to his admonition, 'judge not that ye be not judged'.)

One of the things I always notice in early Islamic art in India is how often the Tree of Life figures in it. In a little mosque in Ahmedabad, for instance, each filigree screen of the mihrab wall has a fine curving slender tree, its branches alive and waving as if in the wind.  Even the stepwells in Ahmedabad are decorated with these lovely trees. I found them again in the mosque of the Taj Mahal, painted on the spandrels of the great central arch.
These are the gardens of paradise; the Taj Mahal's char bagh, the fine gardens of Sikandra where Akbar has his tomb, the trees and flowers of the mosques. It's a gentle vision; without angels, without a figure of God, simply a garden of rest. Serenity is at the heart of it; the serenity of life without fear.

These are also geometrical gardens, and the architecture – after Akbar's initial use of Hindu styles from Gujarat, at least – is an architecture of geometry, an architecture of reason. The writhing, bulging organic forms of earlier work have been banished; instead,  precision and reason underlie the arts of building, painting, and calligraphy. Each of the flowers on Mumtaz Mahal's tomb is a geometrical work; the fuchsias, if they are fuchsias, hang down in exact curves, leaves are designed on the segments of a circle. This is a world in which God's creation is seen as rational; it's a world where perfection is to be sought, and to be found.
(It's that pursuit of perfection which sometimes makes Mughal work intensely boring. Any damn fool, after all, can take a pair of compasses and a ruler and start drawing octagons. Just as any damn fool can make a concrete box. It takes a genius like Le Corbusier or Shahjahan – or possibly Shahjahan's architect – to make a work of art.)
Am I reading too much into the delights of Mughal architecture? No doubt Akbar, interesting though he is, was not a modern liberal in either his attitude to women (he appears to have collected them as keenly as he did books) or his methods of waging war. But it does seem to me that there's an aspiration behind this architecture which is intensely sympathetic; the desire to make life perfect, calm, and full of ease -  the hope that a life lived in a godly way will be a life lived well and fully.

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