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Islamic Art: More than Aesthetics, a Path to the Divine, Omid Safi

Islamic art and literature can—and do—deepen and awaken our experience of a vibrant and robust faith tradition, even the most fundamental of familiar rituals such as prayer. Islamic art and literature are not simply the illustration or ornamentation of mundane material, nor even a way of sacralizing and beautifying a medium with Islamic aesthetic. In their highest form, they can be a portal that open up subtle mysteries from the heart of the Islamic tradition.

There is probably no better known and more often memorized chapter of the Qur’an than the Fatiha. As I like to translate it, the Fatiha is not simply “the Opening”, it is “She that opens.” It serves as the opening of the Qur’an, the opening of the Salat (or Namaz, the daily prayers), and ultimately the opening of the heart. The commentary tradition is filled with beautiful insights about how the Fatiha is the human plea to God, which in turn brings about the rest of the Qur’anic revelation. For Rumi and other sages, it is reminiscent of how thirst leads us to water, and if we wish to find the water of life, we have to pray for our thirst to be increased.

Every facet of Fatiha has been subject to extensive commentary, and often the illumination of the Fatiha in Qur’an manuscripts features some of the most sublime pages of the Qur’an. I have also offered a whole course a series of lectures on the “Heart of the Qur’an”, using traditional sources such as Rumi, Ibn ‘Arabi, and other sages.

I want to focus on one brief phrase in the Fatiha, the commonly known passage that is ihdina al-sirat al-mustaqim. Here is when humanity beseeches God to guide us to and keep us on the path that is straight and harmonious. The English translations are fairly consistent:

Guide us along the Straight Path (Mustafa Khattab)

Guide us to the Straight Way (Muhammad Muhsin Khan)

Guide us to the straight path (Abdul Haleem)

Show us the straight path (Pickthall)

Show us the straight way (Abdullah Yusuf Ali)

Commentators have excavated an ocean of meaning in this short phrase, with some choosing to focus on the notion of the path being “straight and narrow.” For those inclined towards a more rigid or exclusive understanding of faith, the straight path is be defined as narrow, and straying from it might lead to plunging headfirst into the fire of an infernal abyss.

There are always those who interpret the “straight path” more inwardly, such as the 11th century sage Abu ’l-Hasan Kharaqani, state that the straight path is actually what goes from our toes to the tips of the hair on our head. For Kharaqani, to go through the straight path is to go through one’s whole self, and rise above our ego-centered self. In other words, it is not a path “out there” that has to traverse, but the very being of our creatureliness in order to recover what it is to be truly human as a theomorphic being imbued with Divine spirit.

Here is where Islamic art and literature can enter in to enrich and deepen our understanding and practice of the faith. One of the most common prayer manuals in Islam is the Dala’il al-Khayrat, written by the 15th century Moroccan sage Imam Jazuli. On the journeys that we take to Morocco, we are blessed to see devout worshippers in Marrakech paying their respects to the Beloved of God, the Prophet, in Jazuli’s shrine. A few times every week there are those who gather to chant the Dala’il in unison, often committed to heart and not read from a book.

The Dala’il is among the frequently distributed prayer manuals across the world[1], and many Muslims base their devotional life on the daily recitation of the Dala’il, which offers rhythmic and poetic offerings asking God to bless the Prophet Muhammad. Here is a sample of some of the exquisite lines of this devotional text:

O God, bless Muhammad and the family of Muhammad as you blessed Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim O God, have mercy on Muhammad and the family of Muhammad as you have mercy on Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim. O God, shower with love Muhammad and the family of Muhammad as you have showered with love Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim.

O God, bless Muhammad as many as there are grains of sand

O God, bless Muhammad as many as there are leaves on trees

O God, bless Muhammad as many as there are drops of rain falling from the sky

O God, bless Muhammad until there is no blessing left unsent

O God, I came to have faith in Muhammad, though I never was blessed to see him in person in this world; so in the Garden do not leave me deprived from the blessing of beholding Muhammad, and sustain me through fellowship with him.

The Dala’il also contains a section called “Asma’ Sayyidina wa Mawlana Muhammad, Salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), “the names of our Master Muhammad, may the blessings of God and peace be upon him.” The list of names starts out conventionally enough with Muhammad, Ahmad, Hamid, Mahmud, and so on. Some of the names point to his function as rasul, nabi, though even here there is a move towards the beatific qualities of the Prophet, such as Nabi al-rahma (the Prophet of Mercy) in ways that elaborate on the Qur’anic description of the Prophet as a mercy sent to all the universes (rahmatun li ‘l-‘alamin; Qur’an 21:107).

He is also described as the Nur (“light”), Wali (“friend of God”, saint), Bushra (“Good news”), and more. These bring us to the sudden jewel of wisdom and beauty dropped on the reader and the reciter, revealing the being of the Chosen One, the blessed Prophet as:

Sirat Allah

Sirat mustaqim

Muhammad, peace and blessings of God be upon him, is “God’s path.” His very being is the sirat al-mustaqim, “straight path.”

Read in this simple way, these illuminated copies of the common prayer manual can profoundly deepen our understanding of passages of the Qur’an that we may have become all too comfortable with. We may have become numb to their luminosity, and these works of devotion, particularly in their beautiful illuminated forms, can and do restore the mystery and awe to the too familiar.

In the opening of the prayer, we are not asking God merely to guide us to a straight path in the abstract sense. We are pleading with God to us to God’s path, to the very being of the Prophet. If we are guided to the Prophet, the Prophet guides us to God.

These simple observations remind us that in the prayer we begin by asking to be led to the Prophet, and we end by offering salutations on the prophet, who is mysteriously—here and now---present:

al-salamu ‘alaykum ayyuha ‘l-nabi wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuhu…. “Peace be upon you, o Prophet, and God’s mercy, and Divine blessings.”

The fact that the Prophet is addressed in the “you” pronoun (2nd person, present; not 3rd person, absent) is a reminder that when performed with the presence of the heart, the Prophet is presence with the faithful in, with, and through the prayers.

The prayers, read through the lens of art and devotion, become far more than a mere ritualistic act of daily gymnastics. They become a fellowship with the Prophet, to the Prophet, and through the Prophet, to God. The beauty of these devotional manuals, in the illuminated versions of Dala’il al-khayrat or the illuminated copies of the Qur’an, affirm a God who is beautiful, and loves beauty. Together, the reading or recitation of the Qur’an in light of beautiful versions of devotional and mystical literature not only adds beauty to one’s life, it deepens and invigorate the very fundamental practices of our faith.

Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. He leads online courses on Islam through, and offers spiritually oriented tours to Turkey and Morocco.

His most recent book is Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition (Yale University Press), and his forthcoming books are on the various receptions of Rumi (Princeton University Press) and another volume on the Persian Sufi Abu ’l-Hasan Kharaqani (Yale University Press)


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