The Origins of Visual Culture in the Islamic World: Aesthetics, Art and Architecture in Early Islam 9781350989009, 9780857726506

In tenth-century Iraq, a group of Arab intellectuals and scholars known as the Ikhwan al-Safa began to make their intell

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The Origins of Visual Culture in the Islamic World: Aesthetics, Art and Architecture in Early Islam
 9781350989009, 9780857726506

Table of contents :
Front cover
Arabic Characters
1. Introduction
2. An Aesthetic Revolution: From Trance to Meaning—a Metamorphosis of Islamic Aesthetics
3. The Ethics of Arts and Crafts
4. Painting in a World of Images
5. Stone Metaphors and Architecture’s Whispers
Back cover

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Mohammed Hamdouni Alami is Associate Researcher in the Archaeological Research Facility at the University of California, Berkeley. He was formerly Professor of Architecture and Art History at the Ecole Nationale D’Architecture in Rabat and holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition: Aesthetics, Politics and Desire in Early Islam (I.B.Tauris, 2010, 2013).

THE ORIGINS OF VISUAL CULTURE IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD Aesthetics, Art and Architecture in Early Islam


Published in hardback in 2015 by I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd London • New York Copyright q 2015 Mohammed Hamdouni Alami The right of Mohammed Hamdouni Alami to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by the author in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in a review, this book, or any part thereof, may not be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Every attempt has been made to gain permission for the use of the images in this book. Any omissions will be rectified in future editions. References to websites were correct at the time of writing. Library of Middle East History 55 ISBN: 978 1 78453 040 2 eISBN: 978 0 85773 886 8 ePDF: 978 0 85772 650 6 A full CIP record for this book is available from the British Library A full CIP record is available from the Library of Congress Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: available Typeset in Garamond Three by OKS Prepress Services, Chennai, India Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

In memory of my father, and for my mother


Illustrations Arabic Characters Acknowledgments

viii xi xii

1. Introduction 2. An Aesthetic Revolution: From Trance to Meaning— a Metamorphosis of Islamic Aesthetics 3. The Ethics of Arts and Crafts 4. Painting in a World of Images 5. Stone Metaphors and Architecture’s Whispers

1 19 40 67 100

Notes Bibliography Index

161 175 180


Figure 1. Tin-glazed ware, monochrome, 18.5 cm, tenth century, from Fustat. Museum of Islamic Art (Photo: Arthur Lane, Early Islamic Pottery, 1965: Pl. 13a)


Figure 2. Fatimid ware, painted in lustre, from Cairo, early eleventh century. Museum of Islamic Art (Photo: Arthur Lane, Early Islamic Pottery, 1965: Pl. 23b)


Figure 3. Ceramic Bowl with metallic lustre, 40 cm. From the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, Inv. #14923 (by permission of the American University in Cairo Press)


Figure 4. Youth in a bathhouse. Frescoed architectural fragment from a bathhouse, height: 24.5 cm, width: 60 cm, provenance: Fustat. Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, Inv.#12880 (by permission of the American University in Cairo Press) 88 Figure 5. Fragment of luster pottery held at the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (Richard Ettinghausen, ‘Painting in the Early Islamic Period: a Reconstruction’, 1942)


Figure 6. Pottery fragment held at the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (Richard Ettinghausen, ‘Painting in the Early Islamic Period: a Reconstruction’, 1942) 89



Figure 7. Ewer of Al-Aziz billah, rock crystal, European gold mount, height: 18 cm, diameter: 12.5 cm; Tresor of San Marco, Venice, cat. #124 (by permission of the Procuratoria of the Basilic of San Marco, Venice) 91 Figure 8. Lion Statuette, cast brass, height: 21 cm, length: 20 cm. Held at the Musuem of Islamic Art, Cairo, Inv. #4305 (by permission of the American University in Cairo Press) 92 Figure 9. Ivory Frame, Fatimid Egypt, eleventh to twelfth century. Museum fu¨r Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museum, Berlin. 30.3 £ 36.5 cm; frame width 5.8 cm; Inv. #I 6375 (Photo: Georg Niedermeiser; by permission of Art Resource, New York) 94 Figure 10. Wooden Panel with a luth musician and two birds, 40 £ 21 cm; Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, #14601 (Photo: Alessandro Vannini) 95 Figure 11. Falcon attacking a hare, marquetry, 22 £ 41 cm; Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo #3180 (by permission of the American University in Cairo Press)


Figure 12. Mosque of al-Mahdiyya: plan after A. Lezine


Figure 13. Mosque of Qayrawan: plan after Creswell


Figure 14. Mosque of Ibn Tulun: plan after Creswell


Figure 15. Great Mosque of Samarra: plan after Creswell


Figure 16. Mosque of ibn Tulun. View of the North Eastern ziyada and minaret


Figure 17. General plan of al-Mahdiyya (After A. Lezine)


Figure 18. Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, North Eastern fac ade


Figure 19. Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, detail of the North Eastern fac ade, monumental portal




Figure 20. Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, Sahn ˙ ˙ Figure 21. Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, central aisle


Figure 22. Triumphal arch of Pheradi Majus


Figure 23. Detail of the triumphal arch of Pheradi Majus


Figure 24. Al-Mahdiyya harbour


Figure 25. Mosque of Qayrawan, North Eastern fac ade


Figure 26. Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: monumental portal ˙ of North Eastern fac ade


Figure 27. Mosque of al-Ha¯kim, Sahn and Minaret ˙ ˙ ˙ Figure 28. Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: plan after Creswell ˙ Figure 29. Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: perspective after Creswell ˙ Figure 30. Mosque of al-Azhar: plan after Creswell Figure 31. Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: view of the prayer hall ˙ from Sahn ˙ ˙ Figure 32. Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: central aisle and qibla niche ˙ Figure 33. Mosque of al-Azhar: view of the prayer hall from Sahn ˙ ˙ Figure 34. Mosque of al-Azhar: central aisle and qibla niche


147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154

Figure 35. Mosque of al-Azhar: qibla niche


Figure 36. Al-Aqmar mosque: plan after Creswell


Figure 37. Al-Aqmar mosque: fac ade with portal


Figure 38. Coptic Museum, fac ade



‫’ﺀ‬ ‫ﺏ‬b ‫ﺕ‬t ‫ ﺙ‬th ‫ﺝ‬j ‫ﺡ‬h ˙ ‫ ﺥ‬kh ‫ﺩ‬d ‫ ﺫ‬dh ‫ﺭ‬r ‫ﺯ‬z ‫ﺱ‬s ‫ ﺵ‬sh ‫ﺹ‬s ˙ ‫( ﺍ‬at in contract state)

‫ﺽ‬d ˙ ‫ﻁ‬t ˙ ‫ﻅ‬z ˙ ‫ﻉ‬، ‫ ﻍ‬gh ‫ﻑ‬f ‫ﻕ‬q ‫ﻙ‬k ‫ﻝ‬l ‫ﻡ‬m ‫ﻥ‬n ‫ﻩ‬h ‫ﻭ‬w ‫ﻱ‬y

‫( ﺍﻝ‬article) al- and lLong vowels ‫ ﺍﻯ‬a¯ ‫ ﻭ‬u¯ ‫¯ ﻱ‬ı

Short vowels o´ a ỏu oi ˙


This book benefitted from the help, support and suggestions of many friends and colleagues. I would like to thank in particular: Jocelyne Dakhlia, and Beshara Doumani for their friendship, support, reading and enriching comments on the manuscript. Sergio Ferro, and Randolph Starn for reading my manuscript and providing me with enriching and insightful comments and suggestions. Luca D’Isanto and Saleem Al-Bahloly, who read chapters of the book and gave me their valuable feedback. Finbarr Barry Flood, who read and commented on my initial research proposal. Chris Cochran, who edited the first version of the book. Cleo Cantone for editing the final version, her friendship, encouraging remarks and suggestions. Iman Abdulfattah, Patricia Kubala, Anneka Lenssen and Khalid Mosalam for helping me get the digital images from the Museum of Islamic Art of Cairo. Alami D. Jaouad, Benlamlih Aziz, Beate Fricke, Yazid H. Alami, Kadiri Jaouad, Laura Nader, Christofer Polk, Sebti Abdelahad and Soraya Tlatli for their friendly encouragement.



Stefania Pandolfo and Yassine, my son, for their unwavering support and critical intellectual engagement. My editor Maria Marsh for her constant support. This work benefitted, at its initial stage, of a seed grant from the Al-Falah Program of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley.


Know that differences in opinion and method among scholars bear many benefits that remain hidden [even] to most of the wise people. . . That is why it is said: difference amongst scholars is a Mercy.1

From La Dolce Vita to Intellectual Delectation Know, oh brother, may God support you and us with a spirit from Him, that when a sperm drop escapes from all harms in the uterus. . . the new born will be healthy, and his body structure will be perfect (ta¯mmatu al-su¯ra). His height is ˙ eight of his own handspans: two handspans from the top of the knee to the sole of the foot; two handspans from the top of the knee to the top of the waist; two handspans from the top of the waist to the top of the heart; and two handspans from the top of the heart to the top of the head. If the baby opens his hands and extends his arms to the right, and to the left, as birds open their wings, the distance from his right fingertips to the left ones is eight handspans: the midpoint of that is the top of the sternum, and the ‘fourthpoint’ is the elbow. When he extends his arms upward and the sharp edge of a compass is put on his belly button and the compass is



open up to his fingertips and rotated towards his toenails the total length from his fingertips to his toenails is ten handspans, which is a quarter more than his height.2 This quote would seem to echo Leonardo da Vinci’s theory of human proportions, but it predates Leonardo by some five centuries. Indeed, it is an excerpt from the work of a tenth century AD group of Arab scholars from Iraq known as the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. It inscribes the ˙ human body that reaches perfection within a square and a circle. It would be very tempting to suggest that the theory of proportions of the Ikhwa¯n remained unknown only because it lacks beautiful drawings. For despite the fame of these authors, and the wide circulation throughout history of their work, their observations and notes on human proportions and their role in the arts (with the exception of music), have remained unexplored. There is a general agreement on an almost compulsive use of specific and precise proportions in all art works of the Islamic world, yet scholars generally believe that there are no literary documents that could explain the highly elaborate use of proportions in the arts of the Islamic world. Here, I propose that there exists an Islamic general theory of proportions based on Pythagorean and Neoplatonic views that helped shape the evolution of the arts in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD , in particular in Egypt under the Fatimid rulers, and probably in other regions. My hypothesis is that the theory of proportions, summarized in the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, is the paradigm of contempora˙ neous authors including Ibn al-Haytham, and ibn-Miskawyh. I also analyze a historic shift that took place in the art of the Islamic world during the tenth century from an aesthetic view based on ecstatic enjoyment of artistic works (music, song, poetry, etc.)—as evidenced in early Arabic literary works—to another view based on abstract and nonetheless pious delectation, most visible in the cosmological network of affinities and similarities as described in the encyclopedic work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. From an art devoted to supporting ˙ what Robert Hillenbrand called La Dolce Vita of Umayyad caliphs,3 and the celebrated pleasure-driven opulence of the ‘Abbasids, we



witness the emergence of a new tendency that would put more emphasis on reason and spirituality. My hypothesis is based on the valorization of ethical values and reformation of morals that became important intellectual preoccupations, and more particularly on the ethical-pedagogical role of arithmetic and geometry in the new worldview, and its effects on artistic production. This is demonstrated by many authors, among which the Ikhwa¯n stand as remarkable representatives of their time. Here is how a contemporary historian of science describes this issue: ‘the Ikhwa¯n believed that arithmetic and geometry, along with their related measured proportions, (theoretically) may all contribute to the constructive cultivation of the soul and the reformation of its ethics (tahdhib al-nafs wa isla¯h, al-akhla¯q)’.4 In this respect I should ˙ ˙ mention that the history of the intertwined influences of art and knowledge (science, philosophy. . .) within Islamic tradition remains uninvestigated. The study of Islamic theoretical views of art is in fact at odds with the existing academic approach to the art of Islam. Indeed, the widespread view that the art of Islam developed without serious theoretical debates and ‘crystallized’ around the thirteenth century is more than a reductive approach. It is a rejection and negation of the historical interconnections of the intellectual and artistic realms within the Islamic world, and a teleological view that denies the complexities and disparate tendencies of their development.5 Furthermore this teleological view would imply that the first four or five centuries of the cultural history of the Islamic world represent but a series of failed attempts to achieve the particular goal of creating a predefined style. Viewing European art through the same lenses would seem if not absurd, ridiculously ignorant. Indeed, would anyone be willing to posit European art within a similar intellectual framework? What would be the reaction of academia to the eccentric idea that Romanesque and Gothic arts are but failed attempts aiming at creating Renaissance art? In contrast, it is quite common to consider that the art of the Islamic world went through a formative period— which started in the middle of the seventh century, and was characterized by, on the one hand, an almost complete lack of artistic



tradition on the part of the Arab founders of the Islamic Empire, and, on the other, the ban on the representation of human figures. This ended with ‘the breakdown of the centralized authority, and the emergence of regional artistic centers in the tenth century’6 with the development of regional styles and the predominance of ornament (arabesque as well as calligraphy) and the corollary reduction of mural figurative painting, for although the archaeological evidence shows a gap from the tenth until the thirteenth century, existing literary evidence shows that the Fatimid period witnessed an expansion of this form of artistic expression, and archaeological evidence also shows that later on mural painting flourished in the Eastern and Western parts of the Islamic World, and under the Ottomans as well.7 It goes without saying that in this canonized narrative of the history of the art of Islam, the first three or four centuries—almost the sum of the historic duration of both Romanesque and Gothic periods—are viewed simply as an elaborate gestation of the more ‘abstract’ forms that were to come in later regional production. In my book Art and Architecture In the Islamic Tradition: Aesthetics, Politics and Desire8 I explored an Islamic vision of art and architecture as a cultural practice based on principles of design that are best understood in relation to poetics, literature and other cultural forms. Based on close readings of early Islamic texts—theological, medical, linguistic, poetic, and philosophical—my book uncovers a singular view of architecture that emphasizes poetic practice, politics, cosmology, and desire. Specifically, I traced the effects of decoration and architectural planning on the human soul as well as the centrality of the gaze—in Arabic nazar—in this poetic view while examining ˙ its surprising similarity to the Lacanian concept of the gaze. One aim of this novel theoretical frame is to challenge the seclusion of Islamic visual culture and art from the larger discipline of art history or its relegation to a minor art. This seclusion, I argue in my book, relies heavily on the topos of the interdiction of representation of the human body in Islam. Rather than querying the prohibition, my work questions the very idea of art predicated on the anthropocentric prejudice of classical art, and the corollary exclusion of the arts of Islam from the status of art. Here I address a central



question in post-classical aesthetic theory, in as much as the advent of modern abstract and constructivist painting (e.g., Mondrian, Malevich, and Kandinsky) have shown that art can be other than the representation of the human body, that art is not neutral aesthetic contemplation but is fraught with power and violence, and that the presupposition of classical art was not a universal truth but the assumption of a specific cultural and historical set of practices and vocabularies. My hermeneutical starting point is that of Adorno’s post-classical question: what is Islamic art, as it pertains to a fundamental relation between aesthetics, power and violence? What is the transformative force of art, as the possibility of imagining and creating the world anew? Drawing upon classical Arabic literature, linguistics, poetry, medicine, theology, and mythology, my book aims to reveal an Islamic view of architecture embedded in a complex hermeneutics of desire, the gaze and its capture. Beyond its substantive focus on architecture or even aesthetics, my previous book also seeks to reconstruct and analyze a distinct mode of thought and sensation particular (and perhaps unique) to early Islamic civilization. Building upon that work, the present book describes the structures that developed after the early Islamic period came to an end, and endeavours to explain the shifting epistemological configurations of art and philosophy in the new historical period. During the tenth century, the distinct mode of thought of the early period and the related artistic sensibility witnessed not only the emergence of a new philosophical syncretism of Islamic thought with Greek, Persian, and Indian heritages, but also a novel approach to the arts, or, in the words of the Ikhwa¯n, al-sana¯’i‘, the arts and crafts. Both ˙ the epistemic break and the new philosophical syncretism of tenth century Islam are well known. They produced an Islamic Humanism that Orientalist authors have labeled a ‘Renaissance of Islam’, arguing it is comparable to Italian Renaissance. But despite the revival of Greek philosophy in the ninth and tenth centuries in the Islamic World, it is inadequate to call this epistemic break a renaissance of antiquity. In contrast to Italy’s renaissance, the Islamic authors and thinkers of the tenth century never laid claim to a rebirth of ancient



civilization, nor did they think of ancient Greece as the height of human history.9 It is not so surprising that the first explicit evidence of this epistemic break, as far as I know, manifested itself in the realm of poetic theory with the work of Muhammad ibn Taba¯taba¯’s ‘Iya¯r al˙ ˙ Shi‘i. This work breaks away from previous texts on poetics by giving more agency to the listener and by bringing the idea of truth to the heart of poetics, through the notion of al-Ma‘na¯, or meaning. Whereas previous poetic thinking viewed the musicality of the Arabic language as the preeminent agency behind the poetic effect and aesthetic enjoyment, the new poetic theory promotes a new vision of poetic effects based on the right blend of meaning and versification.

Ethics, Aesthetics and Theory of Proportions In this new aesthetic view, the approach to visual arts was equally renewed. I suggest that the theory of proportions of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ represents the best existing evidence to analyze that change. ˙ Proportion theory and its effects on the arts in general and not only in music, contrary to a widely circulated idea, are greatly illustrated in that work. The Ikhwa¯n states: It is on this basis [the proportions of the perfect human body of the new born], and in this manner, that talented craftsmen (alsunna¯‘ al-hudda¯q) make their products, be these shapes (ashka¯l), ˙ ˙ statues or images, well proportioned and harmonized with each other in [their] construction/structure (tarkı¯b), composition, and clothing. All this is done as an imitation of the art of the Creator, sublime is His omnipotence, and following His wisdom, as it is said that philosophy is how humans follow God’s example within the limits of human power.10 Hence, in this work, I endeavour to investigate the advent of this novel epistemic configuration that emphasizes cosmological similarities and affinities between the arts, al-sana¯’i‘, and the ˙ universe, and inscribes human creativity and works in a desirable



imitation and emulation of God’s creatures. The book focuses on both the formation of the discourse symbolized by the encyclopedic work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ and works by other authors—the Humanism ˙ that consists in a syncretism of Islamic thought, Greek philosophy, and other Eastern legacies—and the new artistic sensibility with its novel symbolic approach (at the level of design), as well as the intended spiritual effects of the arts as a means of tahdhib al-nafs wa isla¯h, al-akhla¯q. In sum, this research attempts to trace and analyze ˙ the connections between this new epistemic construct and contemporary art, more specifically the arts of the Fatimids, with a focus on painting and architectural works. This book is at once based on the study of texts, and on direct observation of monuments. A systematic reading and analysis of all available relevant literature supports an in-depth analysis of the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ with a focus on the theory of proportions, ˙ arithmetic and geometric harmony and their role in shaping the visual arts, the al-sana¯’i‘, or crafts of the visual. The idea of an ˙ influence of the work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ on Fatimid art stems ˙ from the observation that in both architecture and figurative arts one can note a direct and visible influence of Classical art. Fatimid painting shows both the development of a Hellenistic trend and a realistic one. And it is, I think, significant that the first known Fatimid architectural monument, the mosque of al-Mahdiyya, Tunisia, founded in 912, uses en guise of a gate a triumphal arch, a classical architectural feature, and breaks away from the ‘Abbasid mosque type developed in Samarra. The conception of a classically conceived fac ade opposite the qibla wall, and the absence of a Ziyyda and a minaret in front of the entrance in a period in which the ‘Abbasid mosque type was still in vogue, as proven by the addition of a minaret next to the gate opposed to the qibla in the mosques of Cordoba, and Damascus, indicates a design choice and a clear intent on the part of the Fatimid rulers to distinguish themselves from their ‘Abbasid foes. The hypothesis of an influence of the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, a ˙ work by a group of Iraqi scholars on Fatimid art, can be justified by many facts. First is the fact that this work was widely disseminated at



the time, and particularly that many copies of the work were found in Egypt. Besides, we know that Fatimid rulers encouraged scholarship, and supported reproduction of books and their dissemination. We also know, for instance, that al-Ha¯kim, the Fatimid ruler, invited ibn ˙ al-Haytham, the famous Iraqi scholar, known in the West as alHazen, to work for him in Egypt. The presence in Cairo of scholars from other countries at the ceremonies of the festival of the Riding Forth to Open the Canal is documented by a credible eyewitness, the traveler Nasir-i Khusraw, who reports: There is also a contingent of princes from all over the world— the Maghreb, the Yemen, Byzantium, Slavia, Nubia, and Abyssinia—who have come here but who are not reckoned in the regular army. The sons of the Chosroes of Daylam and their mother have also come here, and the sons of the Georgian kings, Daylamite princes, the sons of the khaqan of Turkistan, and people of other ranks and stations, such as scholars, literati, poets, and jurisprudents, all of whom have fixed stipends. The only function they have to perform is to make a salaam to the grand vizier when he mounts his horse, and after that they can withdraw to their places.11 Thus, it should not be surprising that a group of Iraqi scholars may have had a great influence on Fatimid art. Moreover, it should be recalled that the Fatimid themselves had their roots in Iraq, whence they had initiated their political journey. Moreover, the work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ is, as I mentioned earlier, encyclopedic, and ˙ represents an excellent synthesis of the knowledge of its time and the summa of the intellectual development that was initiated by the translation of Greek works under the ‘Abbasid dynasty in the early ninth century AD .12 In many ways Fatimid thinking was comparable to that of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. Indeed, both Fatimid discourse and that of the Ikhwa¯n ˙ al-Safa¯’ participate in the episteme of cosmological correspondence ˙ characteristic of their time. I will describe that episteme later on in Chapter 1. It suffices now to mention that the main features of this



episteme are well substantiated in Fatimid literature. The work of the famous Qadi al-Nu‘man, principal judge and head of the Fatimid Da‘wa, or mission, under four Caliphs illustrates this assertion in a remarkable way. In his book Da‘a¯’im al-Islam wa ta’wiluha, or The Pillars of Islam and their Interpretation he asserts many times that correspondence is a basic principle in the organization of the universe, and that, as a rule, correspondences between different levels of existing beings should be sought for the interpretation of the Qur’an, and in general for understanding the world. Thus, for instance, he writes: Every species of animals resembles a type of people, and is symbolically used in the esoteric way to connote these people and refer to them in the Qur’an, and in theology, (Kalam), as in Gods words: ‘And there is no creature on the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing.’13 In the words of another Fatimid Da¯‘ı¯, the missionary Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r al-Yaman, cosmological correspondence becomes the source ˙ of a symbolic relationship between the universe and the Isma‘ili Imamate. So now, (the Master says to his disciple), if your heart has opened up to these questions, to examining the (outer, created) symbols and the correspondence of each of them with its counterpart among the ‘pairs’ of the inner dimension, then ask about whatever you consider appropriate. ‘Then what is symbolized by the heaven’, asked the young man, ‘with its towering above the things and the vast extent of its regions, such that it contains the totality of things?’ ‘Its symbol is the likeness of the na¯tiq’, replied the Knower, ˙ ‘who is towering above all creatures by virtue of his excellence and the lofty elevation of his ranks, and he contains all the (divine) wise precepts—the precepts of the revealed path— because of the vast extent of his knowledge.’



‘Then what is symbolized by the mansions (of the zodiac) and the rest of their stars?’ the young man inquired. ‘They are the symbols of the twelve naqı¯bs,’ the Knower explained, ‘the chiefs of the na¯tiq, and the stars are their ˙ da¯‘ı¯s who are calling (people) to the good, with permission of their Lord.’ ‘Then what is symbolized by the earth and its great extent,’ asked the young man, ‘since it has been made a restingplace for these creatures and their refuge?’ ‘It is a symbol of the ba¯b of the na¯tiq during his ˙ lifetime. . .’14 The list of ‘pairs’ goes on from the 12 regions of the earth, to the rivers, to the seven seas, to the salty water which symbolizes the knowledge of the outward aspect of things, and to the sweet fresh water that represents the symbol of the inner nature of things. Because water is ‘life for every living thing’ it becomes the symbol of knowledge, which in turn is life for those who seek knowledge. The principle of cosmological correspondence has interesting consequences on the thinking of both the Fatimids and the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. The first consequence is the fact that true knowledge is ˙ not that of the exoteric (apparent) nature of things, but that of their inner (hidden) nature, which makes access to knowledge and truth particularly difficult. Knowledge and access to truth will therefore be based on ta’wil, or interpretation, a complex and sophisticated investigation technique that can be taught only to those who are prepared to submit to a lengthy and difficult training programme. These hardships of learning and accessing the truth bring about a hierarchy in the levels of learning, and consequently of people. Learning, we are told, produces a human hierarchy that the words of God clearly support: ‘Allah raises those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees.’15 This verse is frequently quoted by the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, is also quoted ˙ by Qadi al-Nu‘man, and is used to openly justify hierarchy in general. More particularly, hierarchy within the Isma‘ili community by the Qadi, and amongst the brethren by the Ikhwa¯n. The same view



is explicitly stated by the Fatimid Da¯‘ı¯ Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r al-Yaman ˙ who writes: For surely among the obligations (haqq) flowing from thinking is ˙ the preparatory purification of (our) hearts through the proper modes of behaviour (a¯da¯b); and among the obligations of that proper behaviour is the seeking of (spiritual) knowledge (talab ˙ al-‘ilm); and among the obligations of that knowledge is acting in accordance with it; and among the obligations of right action in accordance with that knowledge is its purifying through willing obedience to the masters of (true) authority (’u¯lu¯ al-’amr). . .16 This is indeed a view that fits very well the political needs of the hierarchical Islamic society of that time, and especially those of the theocratic Fatimid state. On another level, the need of learning, and its complex nature, necessitate and legitimize proselytism, in particular that of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ and the Fatimids. They also explain the secretive and ˙ elitist characteristics of the organization of the Fatimid mission and the Ikhwa¯n’s brotherhood. One consequence of the cosmological correspondence worldview is that the search of truth and knowledge, because of its complexity and its usefulness in enabling humans to understand the world and act in it, acquires a prominent moral and social status, and incites the learned and the powerful to cooperate with each other. Finally, cosmological correspondence between the heavens and the earth is seen as the cause of the influence of celestial beings on their corresponding earthly beings. This cosmological influence of the heavens on the life of beings on earth can be studied, predetermined and used wisely in directing human actions and behaviour, be it for founding cities, building homes, conceiving children, making and prescribing drugs, or initiating a journey, a business, or a love affair. With the right knowledge one can adroitly avoid all undesirable effects, and benefit from the good ones. The science of astronomy, which was at the time indistinguishable from astrology, is thus considered central to knowledge. The universe is itself built on the basis of proportions—that is on the basis of



geometry and the science of numbers—and all celestial effects are predictable if one uses the right calculation techniques. It is only by keeping in mind this cosmological construct with its complex implications on the way humans find their place and act in the world that we can understand the magical facets of the intellectual, social and artistic life of the tenth to twelfth centuries of Islamic history. In this respect it is no accident that the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ devoted their last and longest Risa¯la to magic and the evil eye,17 or that Fatimid rulers used the service of astrologers to start their conquests, and to found their cities. Everything had to be done in harmony with the stars. Fortunate is he who is under happy astral influence, as the Fatimid poet ibn-Hani says about the Prince Ja‘far ibn ‘Ali al-Andalusi: The commander of the faithful is lead by lucky stars By a rising moon preceded by good Fortune18 Intellectual production and artistic creation are intertwined throughout the history of Islamic civilization. The architectural texts by sixteenth-century Ottoman authors are not the first evidence for a correlation between the intellectual and artistic realms, as is commonly believed. For example, Valerie Gonzalez’s account of Islamic aesthetics19 acknowledges the interconnection of Islamic and Christian philosophies in the Middle Ages, and suggests the existence of a shared aesthetic thought. However, she does not fully grasp the aesthetic views of Islamic authors and their relation to art works, because she analyzes concepts as if their meaning were constant throughout history rather than analyzing an epoch by submerging herself in the historical epistemology of that time. Furthermore, she does not seem to recognize the epistemic break occasioned by the assimilation of Neoplatonic views in Islamic thinking. Her quest to apply modern aesthetic phenomenology to the ‘reading’ of art works of the Islamic past, as fruitful as it may be, does not seem to be the appropriate approach to uncovering the way people perceived and solved aesthetic problems at the time. Instead, Gonzalez projects modern perception and aesthetic sensibility onto the past.



In the tenth century, Islamic civilization underwent a transition from what I call the al-Baya¯n episteme to a Neoplatonic episteme. The al-Baya¯n episteme is based on a semiotic approach to the world, built on a passion for the Arabic language and poetry. The Neoplatonic episteme was constructed on the basis of a harmonious correspondence between the diverse components of the universe.20 Cosmological correspondence is also known as an epistemic feature of Medieval Europe, and some critics might object that I am projecting a European construct on the history of the Islamic world. However, the Muslim world was the first to rediscover Greek philosophy and science, which is at the root of the Neoplatonic view, and that it was only later and through Islamic authors that Europe rediscovered Greek philosophy and science. It goes without saying that before transmitting the Greek intellectual heritage to Europe, Islamic authors had already adopted their own view of cosmological correspondence that was a synthesis and development of all intellectual sources at their disposal. It is also useful to highlight that this endeavour was not only the work of Muslims, but the common achievement of authors from all faiths, particularly Christians. Indeed, the translation of books from Greek or Syriac to Arabic was mostly the work of Christian scholars, such as the school of Hunayn ibn Isha¯q. Intellectual exchange and debate among ˙ ˙ scholars of different faiths was, as we will see in the next chapter, more in vogue and intense than the appellation ‘Islamic authors’ tends to suggest. It is also particularly striking to realize that the aesthetic values of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ are in many ways similar to those of the ˙ Renaissance, as described in Rudolph Wittkover’s remarkable book Architectural principles in the Age of Humanism. The aesthetics developed by Italian Renaissance theoreticians and architects are indeed very similar to those I describe in the work of the Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯’. Commenting on the aesthetic principles of Leon Battista ˙ Alberti, Wittkover writes: Before explaining the three types of means, Alberti discussed the correspondence of musical intervals and architectural



proportions. With reference to Pythagoras he stated that ‘the numbers by means of which the agreement of sounds affects our ears with delight, are the very same which please our eyes and our minds,’ and this doctrine remains fundamental to the whole Renaissance conception of proportion.21 This view is shared by others, including Francesco Giorgi. ‘The proportions of the voices,’ [Giorgi] said, ‘are harmonies for the ears; those of the measurements are harmonies for the eyes. Such harmonies usually please very much, without anyone knowing why, excepting the student of the causality of things.’22 Wittkover adds: ‘To the mind of the men of the Renaissance musical consonances were the audible tests of a universal harmony which had a binding force for all the arts.’23 Wittkover shows how the aesthetic view of the Renaissance was a synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian doctrines, which, I argue, is reminiscent of the intellectual syncretism and blending of Islamic thought and Greek philosophy that accompanies the aesthetic theory developed in the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. It would be ˙ exciting to explore how artistic exchanges between Europe and the Islamic world were affected by their similar intellectual heritage. It is tempting to build explanations of such exchanges in terms that reach beyond metaphors such as hybridization and examine how exchanges between the two traditions were shaped by a common intellectual partially convergent and partially divergent intellectual history. Is it possible to consider Mudejar art, Islamic influences on Southern France Romanesque art and Medieval Sicily, the infusion of Venice’s townscape by Islamic ‘architectural ideas’24, or the ‘Christianization of Islamic art works’25 as more meaningful exchanges than simple borrowings or accidental hybridization phenomena? In the historical and uninterrupted exchange of artefacts and art works between Europe and the Islamic world the rededication in 1141 of the Dome of the Rock as a church stands as a singular and



meaningful fact. Interestingly, as Nagel and Wood write: ‘During the Crusader occupation of Jerusalem, which lasted until 1187, the Dome of the Rock became a destination and was advertised as the site of Christ presentation in the Temple, the Circumcision, the Dispute among the Doctors. . .’26 The authors explain that: To call the Dome of the Rock the ‘temple’ was not altogether to misunderstand the building. For by building his own structure—not a temple but a shelter for the sacred rock—on the foundational platform of the Jewish temple, on the elevated sacred precinct built by Herod, the Muslim conqueror was acknowledging the regimes that preceded him.27 Curiously enough, at the same time many Christians did know and some travelers reported that the Dome of the Rock was a Muslim building, but that knowledge did not prevent the labeling of the Dome of the Rock as a temple to endure. And when Muslims recovered Jerusalem in 1187, the building became again Islamic by a simple symbolic act as Necipog˘lu tells us, the site of the Dome of the Rock, ‘the Haram complex was “purified” with rosewater and resanctified with new layers of meaning’.28 Nagel and Wood explain that the switching between mosque and temple was made possible by the architectural principle of substitution—a process of building and rebuilding that creates and connects new structures to remote origins—that allowed the mosque to somehow transmit the temple. Whatever the interpretation we chose to give to the switching from mosque to temple and the coexistence of contradictory labeling, and despite the uniqueness of the Dome of the Rock among the Christianized artworks we should also reckon that these facts must have required that Crusaders and Muslims share enough features of architectural culture and reception of buildings. A similar explanation, based precisely on a common interest in the ancient Roman building tradition, may be given to the reciprocal interest Ottoman and Italian architects of the Renaissance had in each other’s works and to their common interest in centrally planned structures.29



To date, the intellectual exchanges between Islam and Christian Europe have been scrutinized at the level of knowledge, medicine, sciences, techniques and philosophy. For some, to argue that there was (and is) willful historical artistic and cultural exchange between Islam and Christianity represents a threat to the cultural identities of Christian Europe and an Islamic East, which are assumed to be radically different, if not antagonistic. Highlighting differences has been a productive method of understanding historical development of these two cultural worlds, but we tend to neglect the common and shared cultural and spiritual features that make cultural and artistic exchange possible. This issue is beyond the scope of this book, but it is an important issue to address in the future. Here I should mention the interesting and provocative work of Hans Belting Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science,30 in which the eleventh century Ibn al-Haytham’s theory of Optics (965–1040/AH 354– 430) is presented as the scientific foundation of artistic perspective that Italian Renaissance was to develop a few centuries later. The book’s argument looks trenchant, yet it seems to me that the binary opposition of an Arab scientific mindset to an Italian artistic one that it implies does not do justice to the complexity of the cultural context in which scientific works flourish and to their intertwinement with contemporary artistic production. As I will show in this book Ibn al-Haytham’s theory participates in a larger epistemic construct, and is consequently related to artistic evolution and change, among which a resurgence of realism in figural representation invalidating Belting’s argument about the purely geometric nature of an Arab approach to vision. Thus, one can assert that by decontextualizing ibn al-Haytham’s work from the larger cultural and intellectual context and opposing it to the art of the Renaissance Belting’s approach to the artistic and intellectual exchange between Europe and the Islamic world is clearly methodologically questionable. Following the introduction, this book is divided into four chapters. In Chapter 1, ‘An Aesthetic Revolution: From Trance to Meaning’, I introduce the aesthetic views presented by the Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯’ and the contiguous epistemic break that placed cosmological ˙



correspondence at the heart of the way humans looked at and understood the world. I will discuss the main epistemic novelties that are relevant to the study of the arts, and show how this new epistemic construct develops a visual perception theory and an aesthetic view based on the notion of visual meaning. Through the analysis of works such as that of ibn al-Haytham, I will show that the gaze and its powers are no longer evoked to explain or define visual aesthetic and perception. The notion of visual meaning replaced the theory of the gaze and becomes central to the study of vision and visual aesthetic. Moreover, the centrality of the visual realm is crucial to understanding the notion of meaning within the new cosmological construct. In Chapter 2, ‘The Ethics of Art’, I discuss the foundational role the theory of proportions, numbers and geometry play in the philosophical theory developed in the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. I will ˙ first show that the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa’s theory of music pertains not only ˙ to music, but encompasses all the arts. In fact, the authors tell us that the science of proportions was called music ‘because it [music] allows for more demonstrative [aesthetic and emotional] illustrations’.31 Therefore, proportion and harmony are understood to be at the heart of all aesthetic production. The authors also teach us that respect of good proportion is an ethical requirement that leads to spiritual purification. Interestingly, the perfect proportions they tell us are those of the human body, just as they were for Renaissance artists. I will then show that these theoretical and aesthetic views are not exclusive to these authors, but are also held by many of their contemporaries, such as ibn Miskawayh (d. c.421AH–1030), and ibn al-Haytham (354 –430 AH/965– 1040). Chapter 3, ‘Painting in a World of Images’, is a discussion of the stylistic tendency of Fatimid art labeled ‘realism’ and the possibility of connecting it with the new aesthetic views discussed in the previous chapters. It starts by asking the question on how to make paintings in a world defined through the notions of al-Ma‘na¯ and alSu¯ra or a world made of images. I discuss the aesthetic views of the ˙ Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, and their theory of imitation of Nature and divine ˙ creations and their possible impacts on the work of painters and other



craftsmen who deal with figurative arts in Fatimid Egypt. Then, I try to present their views of art and its aims, artistic creation, painting and its effects on the soul. Finally, I will try to show how these views can help us understand the qualities of Fatimid art. In Chapter 4, ‘Stone Metaphors: Architecture’s Whispers’, I address the controversial issue of symbolism in Fatimid art. I first review the debates and opposing arguments on the subject. Then, I show how a poem by the Chief Poet of the Caliph al-Mu‘izz can help us grasp the Fatimid view of architecture, and how this view relates to the larger cosmological view of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. Then, ˙ building up on the works of P. Sanders and I. Bierman, I show how Fatimid city planning and design are imbued with symbolic thinking. Further, I argue that the departure from the Samarra mosque typology in the construction of the first Fatimid mosque in al-Mahdiyya and the use of a triumphal arch in its fac ade, confronted its designers with a problem of discrepancy between the proportions of the architectural model and those of their project similar to that faced by Italian Renaissance architect Alberti when he decided to use the same architectural feature in the fac ade of a church. It is a problem of proportion of height to width, though a reverse one: when a triumphal arch is adopted in the design of the facade of a mosque the width is too great compared to the height. This similarity in design problems faced by Italian Renaissance and Fatimid architecture is, I argue, even more striking when we realize that in both cases these problems are faced and solved within very similar theoretical Neoplatonic views.


Oh brother, think and meditate about what we described as the nature of the movements, and the moving things that exist in the universe, and you will know and ascertain that the rule governing the universe with all its parts and its ways is like that of a single city, or a single animal, or a single human being that cannot be separated from movement and stillness, either as a whole or as parts.1 Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ The order on the basis of which we think today does not have the same mode of being as that of the classical thinkers.2 Michel Foucault To emulate Foucault’s statement, I suggest that Islamic scholars of the tenth and eleventh centuries do not think within the same order of words and things as their early Islamic period predecessors. Early Islamic authors teach us that the universe is an open book available to read for those who have enough wisdom and patience, and that the most beautiful creature is as meaningful as the ugliest, for all



creatures bear witness to the Wisdom of God. All divine creatures speak to us using a set of semiotic principles described as al-Baya¯n. It is the semiotic system of al-Baya¯n that allows for the production of meaning. In contrast, later authors, especially those who were influenced by Greek philosophy, viewed the world on the basis of similitude and affinities, a system of mirroring parts, wherein the earthen world is but an imperfect mirror of the heavens. In the mirroring universe, meaning consists of pre-existing Ma‘na¯ that human beings strive to rediscover. Very remarkably, the foundational principles of the mirroring universe are based on the Greek theory of numbers and proportion. Perhaps the best illustration of this epistemic break is at the level of poetic views. Indeed, a new attitude towards poetry, brilliantly presented in the work of ibn Tabataba, emerged by the end of the ˙ ˙ ninth century. By breaking away from a view that posits the primacy of the sound and the musicality of Arabic language to be at the heart of poetics, a new way of organizing words and things emerged to make possible a new poetic theory that entails an aesthetics of reason. In opposition to the earlier poetic theory that attributes poetic perfection and its emotional effects to sound and melody alone, the new theory views poetic perfection as a necessary conjunction between form and truth. Simultaneously, a new approach to visual perception was developed on the same epistemic basis. This new way of understanding the relation between vision and its objects laid the ground for new developments in the visual arts. At the heart of this development of visual arts lies the theory of proportion that is the core of the foundational principles of the new epistemic construct. Here, I should mention with Foucault that an epistemic break should not be expected to show neat and clear-cut boundaries, be it in time or in geography, that epistemic breaks occur unexpectedly, do not propagate in regular and predictable ways, and that different epistemic constructs can coexist for some time before the new brushes off the old. Similar modes of development and propagation can be observed for the arts, as demonstrated also by the complex history of European Renaissance arts. In their book Anachronic Renaissance Wood and Nagel emphasize the importance for art historians to



reflect on ‘the multiplicity of time frames’ that characterizes the Renaissance. They show how the multiplicity of timeframes can be registered in particular art works (such as in a Copenhagen woodcut they analyze in Chapter 2 of their book), as well as in a temporality of art history described as ‘structured by the real interrelations among images and artifacts’.3 They also demonstrate how different parts of Europe achieved similar artistic results each in a particular way. For instance, they tell us: Whereas in Italy the recovery of pre-Gothic building manners was driven by drawing of Roman (and Romanesque) buildings made on site by artists and protoarcheologists, in the north this role was assumed almost exclusively by the circulation of panel paintings and prints. North and South found their way back to the ancients along different paths. Interestingly this recovery of pre-Gothic manner went hand in hand with ‘a reasserted or reinvented Gothic that in many ways dominated the architecture of Northern Europe throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century’.4 I believe that it is only by keeping in mind this complex temporality and multiplicity of timeframes that we can build a correct approach to the history of the arts of the Islamic world and the intertwinement of art and thought; images, artefacts and texts in the Islamic tradition. The great early Arab litterateur al-Ja¯hiz (d. 869) describes a story ˙ ˙ of a man who is moved to tears while listening to the recitation of the Qur’an, despite the fact that he does not believe in God or the sacred book. The tearful man explains that it is the melody and rhythm of the recitation (al-shaja¯) that moves him. For al-Ja¯hiz, as for al-Khalil, ˙ ˙ a contemporaneous linguist, it is the musicality of the Arabic language that impacts the listener. This is, I argued in my book Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition, a theoretical view that puts emphasis on the materiality of the signifier in the study of language. Even when the listener does not agree or believe in the content of a speech he would be moved if only that speech is molded with rhythm and melody. As with thunder, the effect of uttered words can go as far



as to literally kill the listener. Around the end of the third century of the Islamic era (beginning of the tenth century) this theoretical view falls out of fashion and is replaced by a new theory, when the notion of meaning, or Ma‘na¯ (plural Ma‘a¯nı¯), becomes central to poetic theory. Until then the listener was viewed like a passive site where poetry could be effective, and as Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih says the uttered words (sawt) of the melodious voice were seen as able of entering the body of ˙ the listener where they circulated through the veins, purified the body, and gave delight to the soul.5 In al-Ja¯hiz’s view the human body is above all a site of expression, ˙ ˙ or al-Baya¯n. For him, among the most telling illustrations of this condition are the physical consequences of castration on the body of the eunuch: voice change and loss of body hair and the beard. In the same vein are faltering and speaking difficulties, as illustrated by Moses’s troubles to speak and the knot of the tongue he experienced. These are proofs of the unity of the body and the mind. In this view humans, like all existing creatures, are sites of al-Bayan, and it is this condition that makes the human being, with its drives, body, sexuality and mind both unique and united. For al-Ja¯hiz the unity of ˙ ˙ the human mind, body, and drives also connects human behaviour with his social condition, and is presented even as defining social structure itself.6 In contrast to earlier scholars such as al-Ja¯hiz (d. 869), who is ˙ ˙ considered the greatest Arab litterateur, Muhammad Ibn Taba¯taba¯ ˙ ˙ (d. 934), a poet and theorist, argues that meaning is crucial to the effects of prose and poetry on the mind, for ‘prose that has no meaning is like a body without a soul. This is why some sages said: “speech has a body, and a soul. The body of speech is its utterance (nutquhu), and its soul is its meaning or Ma‘na¯.”’7 Muhammad Ibn ˙ Taba¯taba¯ views language in a radically different way than al-Khalil ˙ ˙ and al-Ja¯hiz that highlight structure, rhythm and musicality in ˙ ˙ their approach. For him language is above all a vehicle of transmission of meaning, or the Ma‘a¯nı¯, which may be expressed in words that befit them, or in others that render them inappropriately. Like beautiful slave girls, they appear more beautiful when dressed in appropriate clothes, and may lose their shining beauty when



wearing unfitting clothes. In this novel poetic view the primacy of the Ma‘a¯nı¯ and their universal nature make both the uttered words and the alphabet auxiliary. A good poet, and even a prose writer, should be careful when using a Ma‘na¯ and ‘clothe it with fitting words that make it appear in its best dress, and most beautiful form’.8 A poet should choose the most fitting words and compose the most pleasant poems for his Ma‘a¯nı¯, and work his poems and rhymes like the weaver who weaves his fabrics with the best threads and in a way that makes it shine; he should work like ‘the smart sculptor who puts the colours in the most fitting places of his sculpture, and fills them with enough paint to make his sculptures the most beautiful’.9 Ibn Taba¯taba¯ ˙ ˙ breaks away from previous theoretical views on poetry and prose by giving more agency to the listener. With Ibn Taba¯taba¯ the alchemic ˙ ˙ nature of language that materializes in the voice and the correlative passivity of the listener discussed above disappear. Instead the listener becomes a truly effective agent in the process of communication. Now, the criterion of enjoyment of poetry is not of a purely aesthetic nature, it is based on truth, and the Ma‘na¯ that it communicates. Here is how Dominique Urvoy describes this new poetic theory: The idea of ‘criterion’ expressed in the title [of the book of Ibn Taba¯taba¯], refers to the process that makes the listener, on the ˙ ˙ basis of a sensory perception, and on proofing an understanding ( fahm) under the control of a sound reason (kama¯l al-‘aql)—we recognize here the epistemology of theologians who assert a correspondence between sensory perception and immediate knowledge on the part of Intellect—receptive to the poem, or reject it. Accordingly the criteria of assessment of poetry is not of aesthetic order, it is rather of the order of truth: art must correspond to reality, meaning to established models.10 In the theoretical poetic view of Ibn Taba¯taba¯ poetry is the right ˙ ˙ blend of meaning and versification. Moreover, his view is not only a poetic theory but a general aesthetic theory that explains how beauty



operates in the mind of the beholder. It is worth noting that the author uses the word al-Husn, beauty, in talking of poems, material ˙ objects, sculptures, and textiles as well and contradicts the common belief that Ibn Miskawayh was the first Islamic author to use that word and refer to an aesthetic theory. He states: The criterion of poetry is that when it is presented to the sharp mind, what this accepts is good, and what it does not and rejects is bad. What causes the critical mind to accept beautiful poetry which is presented to it, and makes it reject the bad kind, and its being moved by what it accepts and hating what it rejects, is that each of the senses of the body accepts [enjoys] all that comes to it according to its own nature, and if it is presented to it gently, moderately and without excess, and in accordance with its [nature] and not in antagonizing ways. Thus the eye enjoys (ta’lifu) beautiful sights, and it is annoyed by ugly sights. The nose enjoys good odours, and is pained by bad and stinky odours. The mouth enjoys sweet savours, and hates bad and bitter ones. And the ear longs for the soft and serene voice, and is hurt by the loud and strident one. The hand is pleased by touching the smooth and silky, and is harmed by the rough and painful. And the mind enjoys talks that are moderate, reasonable and truthful, usual and acknowledged truths, and longs to hear them, and is raised by them; and it is shocked by impudent, wrong, ignorant and unrealistic talk, and despises it.11 This long quote sums up Ibn Taba¯taba¯’s aesthetic view. Poetry in ˙ ˙ his view, as for the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, is above all a craft (sina¯‘a) that the ˙ ˙ poet must learn. Because poems are of different quality, they can be of great beauty, or al-Husn, or blameworthy. Therefore, a poet should ˙ first choose the intellectual content, or Ma‘na¯, he desires to build his poem on, and ‘churn it’ in prose in his mind (makhada al-Ma‘na¯). ˙ Then he chooses and prepares the words he wants to clothe it with, the appropriate rhymes, and meters. He then proceeds by writing one verse after the other, and checks every verse with the previous one, and make sure they harmonize with each other. When a verse matches



up with the Ma‘na¯ he wants, he starts another until he gathers verses that cover all the Ma‘a¯nı¯ he wants to express. At this point the poet has to make a choice of a rhyme for each verse on the basis of its being appropriate to its Ma‘na¯, and then weave the whole with new verses that assemble the disparate verses and unite them. Because poetry conveys both explicit and implicit meanings that meditation helps uncover, he should then meditate the whole, and check all the rhymes, and replace any inappropriate word with a more fitting one. Ibn Tabataba describes the mind’s reaction to stimuli in the same ˙ ˙ way he describes all sensory reactions to stimuli. This suggests that he conceives of mind as a sensory organ. The fact that ‘talks’, Kala¯m, to use the author’s word, are first of all uttered words is not pointed out even though the author states that the mind ‘longs to hear’ sensible talk. In contrast to al-Ja¯hiz’s position, which emphasizes the ˙ ˙ action of speech in persuading the listener, Ibn Tabataba gives ˙ ˙ primacy to a natural reconnaissance by the mind of a truth that has been previously known to him. For this author, the world is above all based on cosmic correspondence in which meaning or Ma‘na¯ match up with precise vocal expression (singular lafz, plural alfa¯z), so that ˙ ˙ even the most profound wisdom can go unnoticed when clothed in the wrongly uttered words, or alfa¯z (the Arabic word alfa¯z ˙ ˙ emphasizes the vocal nature of language). The craft of the poet consists in finding the right alfa¯z for his message, and to organize it ˙ through versification in the most harmonious way possible. The poet does not address the senses of the listener, but rather his capacity for understanding and discernment ( fahm). Ibn Taba¯taba¯ writes: ˙ ˙ Versified poetry has a rhythm that delights the faculty of discernment for its correctness, and comes from the beauty of its composition, and the balanced relationship of it parts. When the right poetic meter blends with the right Ma‘na¯ and delightful uttered words—which purifies what is heard and its rational content from defect—the poem thus composed is accepted in its totality by the faculty of discernment. But if there is a defect in any of its parts, which are: moderation of its meter, rightness of its Ma‘na¯, beauty of expression (alfa¯z), then ˙



the faculty of discernment will reject it in proportion with its defects. . . Beautiful poems in their diversity have charming and unlimited effects on the faculty of discernment. It is like the effects of composed dishes that are light in composition and taste delightfully, and the perfumes that smell different scents and fragrances, and like the sculptures of coloured and painted parts, and like the pleasant rhythm composed of different harmonies, and like smooth clothes that are pleasant to touch. They please the mind when they are recited to it—I mean poems that the faculty of discernment finds beautiful—it enjoys them and welcomes them; it sucks them up like a very thirsty person sucks up fresh and pure water, for wisdom is the nourishment of the soul, and the more useful foods are the mildest of them.12 By its very nature poetry will always look like beautiful brocade even when it lacks a creative and singular message, but it is verily enchanting only when it has a beautiful and singular one. The ability to compose beautiful poems consists in rightly selecting a great Ma‘na¯, untangling it—as Ma‘na¯’s nature is to be secret and elusive— and clothing it in words that fit the poetic genre. Again, we should notice that meaning, Ma‘na¯ is conceived of as nourishment for the faculty of discernment, and its relationship to the mind is viewed in comparison to the five senses and their sensory objects. I should reiterate that this is not just a metaphoric reference, rather it is an epistemic construct based on cosmological correspondences. Senses and the faculty of discernment long for what please them. Ibn Taba¯taba¯’s views are comparable with the theory of similitude and ˙ ˙ affinities developed by his contemporaries, such as the Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯. Ibn Tabataba asserts that poems always convey meanings that ˙ ˙ ˙ exist in the souls and minds, and that the listener enjoys hearing their beautiful expression, because by his very nature the listener recognizes what he knows. He writes: Poems always tell tales that exist in the souls and minds. These are expressed beautifully, and disclosed as much as possible to



the conscious minds—which pleases the listener because his nature recognizes them, and his faculty of discernment accepts them. It also reveals what was buried [in the mind], and exposes what was secret. The faculty of discernment uncovers them, and achieves passionate excitement after a painful pursuit.13 Poetry is therefore a creative process that aims above all to uncover the Ma‘na¯ that is buried in the soul, and that is therefore already known to the soul. The soul rediscovers what is familiar, what it somehow already knows. Yet this knowledge will remain unrealized until something—an event, a word, a poem, an image—brings it back to the soul. Poetry is the tool that brings that unrealized knowledge into existence, and in so doing stimulates a passionate excitement in the listener. The nature of this excitement, however, is new. Unlike the ecstatic enjoyment of poetry in the poetic theory of al-Ja¯hiz, which was seen as induced by the sheer musicality of ˙ ˙ the Arabic language, the passionate excitement of poetry in Ibn Taba¯taba¯’s theory is produced by the rediscovery of a knowledge that ˙ ˙ was already there. While in al-Ja¯hiz, and more generally in the ˙ ˙ previous episteme, aesthetic enjoyment was understood as a bodily alchemy, in the new configuration aesthetics is above all intellectual in nature, and aesthetic enjoyment is linked to the rediscovery of truth.

A Mirroring Universe vs. a Talking World The best way to analyze the epistemic difference between the early Islamic period of al-Ja¯hiz and the Neoplatonic period of Ibn Tabataba ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙ and the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ is to analyze the way each time period ˙ understands the production of meaning in the world. In al-Ja¯hiz’s ˙ ˙ world everything, be it a tree or a rock, talks and is full of teachings for mankind. Monuments and ruins teach us of past societies, says the poet Abu al-‘ata¯hiyya: Ask the passing days about bygone nations You’ll get answers from monuments and ruins14



The universe is an open book available to be read by those with enough wisdom and patience. The most beautiful creature is as meaningful as the ugliest; a rock is as telling as a mountain, an ant as much as an elephant. All creatures are testimony to the Wisdom of God. Even a corpse tells tales and teaches lessons that no living person can. As the poet Abu al-‘ata¯hiyya says while mourning Ali: I cried, O Ali, with my eyes’ tears But crying did not lighten my loss of you From you living I had great lessons But, you are more telling today than when you were alive15 Even when an individual abstains from speaking out and expressing his feelings and mind his body will talk for him. Thus the poet Abu Nuwas says: I am dying; don’t you know you killed me? I do not talk of it, and you remain unaware! My tongue and my heart hide my love of you But my tears speak out of that ardent passion If my tears did not admit my concealed love My body would have translated it into slimness16 Every existing thing has something to teach to mankind; it suffices that human beings are ready to watch with attention and have the will to meditate. The talking world, as we may call it, relies on what al-Ja¯hiz calls al-Baya¯n, which I translate as communication, ˙ ˙ signification, information, and persuasion.17 Al-Baya¯n relies on five key elements to produce meaning. These are: al-lafz, speech; al˙ Khatt, writing; al-‘aqd, calculation; al-’isha¯ra, the sign; and finally al˙˙ Ha¯l, the state. In my book Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition ˙ I have shown how these elements operate in the production of meaning, and which ones might be considered relevant for architectural historians. In this epistemic view meaning is read or enacted by the beholder, but the perception of meaning is somehow dependent on his capabilities. The elite and literate have an



advantage on the ignorant and illiterate in understanding and dealing with al-Baya¯n. But everyone finds his or her own way in the world with al-Baya¯n. This is literally the case for the Bedouin who need the stars to guide them in their peregrinations in the desert. In contrast to the episteme of ‘the speaking world’ where meaning is acquired through a process of reading based on al-Baya¯n, the new epistemic construct of similitude and affinities is built upon a system of mirroring parts—where the earthly world is but an imperfect mirror of the heavens—and meaning consists of a preexisting Ma‘na¯ which has to be rediscovered. In this epistemic construct all things are created as material images of celestial beings and long to return to their heavenly condition. The meaning of human existence lies in the rediscovery of the hidden forms embedded in earthly things. This is exactly the phrasing that the Ikhwa¯n use in their epistle on astronomy. The Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ reads: ˙ Know, O pious and compassionate Brother, may God support you and us with a spirit of His, that when a reasonable and smart [person] contemplates astronomy (‘Ilm al-nuju¯m), and thinks of the vastness of the celestial spheres and the speed of their revolutions, the greatness of the stars and their amazing movements, and the constellations and their mysterious attributes as we described them earlier, the soul of the beholder longs to rise to the celestial spheres to watch by itself what exists there.18 Yet, the soul cannot do so until it is freed from its imprisonment in the body. However, if the soul is not impeached by sin it will be there in a wink of the eye. The pure and sinless soul has a passion for the celestial spheres and therefore must be with the object of its love, as every lover wants to be with his or her beloved. The impure, sensual, and worldly minded soul, as we will see below, does not long for the heavens, and will never reach them. Instead such a person will eternally remain embedded within the corrupt body under the sphere of the moon.



The newer Neoplatonic view is best illustrated by the new conception of the human being as found in the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. Whereas al-Ja¯hiz presents the human being as both an ˙ ˙ ˙ intellectual and a physical body, the Ikhwa¯n view the human being as an unequivocal duality. For the Ikhwa¯n, the human condition is characterized by duality, ambivalence and contradiction. Know, oh brother, may God support you and us with a spirit of His, that the human is a whole composed of a physical body and a spiritual soul. These are of two essences different in their qualities, opposed in their conditions, and associated in their contingent actions and ephemeral qualities. This is why the human, for the sake of his physical body, wants to remain in the world, and hoping it would be eternal, and for his spiritual soul [he] is looking for the other world, hoping to get there. This is why most of human matters and behaviors are dual, and opposed as are life and death, sleep and wake, knowledge and ignorance, reason and madness, avarice and generosity, cowardice and courage, suffering and pleasure.19 For the Ikhwa¯n, the human condition is described as an antagonistic duality. The Ikhwa¯n go so far as to warn us against the mistaken view that connects body parts with the soul. Indeed they denounce those who consider that reason is located in the brains, knowledge in the heart, or the desire in the liver, for they assert that all qualities and their opposites reside in the soul.20 Dichotomy implies that human’s search for acquisitions and property will be for two kinds of goods: ‘the first is physical such as money and worldly things, (mata¯‘ al-dduniya¯), and the second spiritual such as knowledge and religion’.21 Money is a means for procurement of pleasure of food and drinks, whereas knowledge is the best path toward the other world. This dual condition of the human is a truly unsurpassable dichotomy where the body is viewed as a burden for those who seek the right path to the other world. The body is seen merely as ‘unstable, corrupt, and perishable’.22



Thus, the body is viewed as degrading for humans. The body imprisons in a world of ephemeral existence and corruption, whereas the soul longs for the heavens where it shall achieve eternal bliss.23 This view seems to echo Plato’s view of love, which claims that: ‘A disreputable lover is that vulgar one, the one who is in love with the body more than with the soul; for he is not a lasting lover either, insofar as he loves something that itself does not last.’24 In contrast to the positive view of bodily desire expressed by al-Ja¯hiz the Ikhwa¯n al˙ ˙ Safa¯’ see the body as constantly threatening to drive humans off the ˙ right path. It is no accident that the reformation of the soul becomes a moral imperative for a great number of authors in this time period. Thus, when the Christian author Yahya¯ ibn ‘Adi writes his The ˙ Reformation of Morals in the tenth century, he does not present an approach that is uniquely Christian, but one that he shared with his Muslim contemporaries. Hence the same title will be used by other writers including the famed Muslim historian ibn Miskawyh whose own Tahdhı¯b was also renowned. More meaningful is the fact that Yahya¯ ibn ‘Adi’s work has been attributed to many Muslim authors ˙ including Ibn al-Haytham and ibn al-‘Arabi.25 The condemnation of the body as corrupt and perishable does not preclude it from the capacity of beauty because beauty is not an intrinsic quality of the body. Rather beauty is an attribute of the form the body materializes. In this respect it is worth recalling al-Ja¯hiz’s ˙ ˙ vivacious descriptions of the human body and the variety of its beautiful forms, in particular in the description of women in relation to their ethnic origin.26 In his view, depending on their ethnic group, women have different mental and physical capabilities and qualities: they can be unsurpassable as entertainers, singers, or dancers. They can be more suitable for fornication or spiritual company, or to bear and educate children. The intellectual focus of al-Ja¯hiz is to minutely ˙ ˙ describe and define these qualities. In al-Ja¯hiz’s view the beauty of the ˙ ˙ body is considered mainly as a source of enjoyment, both carnal and visual. In contrast, in the Ikhwa¯n the focus is on the underlying corrupt and perishable quality of the body and eternal, heavenly quality of the soul. For the Ikhwa¯n the beauty of the body is an indication of a spiritual form, and should remind us of the beauty of



the heavens and the perfection of its creatures. It is also remarkable that the notion of variety—within every species—which for al-Ja¯hiz ˙ ˙ represents a positive differentiation resulting from Divine intention is reduced to accidental effects of mixing of elements and astral impacts. Let’s now consider the way language is understood to produce meaning in each of these epistemic formations. The theory of language developed by al-Khalil ibn Ahmad is based on a combinatory approach that understands and organizes the sounds of the alphabet letters (huruf) according to their phonologic ˙ characteristics. This view allows for a particular emphasis on the musicality of language—it is the same epistemological construct on which al-Ja¯hiz’s theory is built. Al-Khalil’s versification theory places ˙ ˙ the Arabic language on a pedestal, as the poetic language par excellence, and the language chosen by God to reveal the last divine religion. It is not accidental that foreign words that were introduced into Arabic had to be ‘arabicized’ using a method of applying the phonetic rules peculiar to Arabic. The first known Arabic dictionary, created by al-Khalili, was organized on the basis of the phonetic nature of the huruf. Incidentally, the dictionary was ˙ particularly difficult to use because it was based on this combinatory theory that defined words according to their roots. The desire to preserve the purity of the Arabic language was accompanied by an open war on al-talhı¯n, or the non-respect of Arabic syntax and ˙ grammar, which was part of the larger war on al-shu¯‘u¯biyya, or the claim by non-Arabs, and in particular the Persian subjects, to have an equal or even a superior cultural status and history.27 In contrast to al-Khalil’s approach, the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ view ˙ language within the Neoplatonic philosophical context in which language cannot be studied by itself as is done in al-Khalil’s approach. For the Ikhwan al-Safa¯’ language is part of a greater ˙ category called Speech, or al-Mantiq. The Ikhwa¯n view the huruf as a ˙ ˙ set of symbolic elements continuous with the correspondence relation that comprise the rest of the universe. The classification of the alphabet is not seen from the phonological point of view but from symbols corresponding to images of the Divine Creation. This view



is not exclusive to the Ikhwa¯n.28 This symbolic approach to the alphabet is basic, and has crucial consequences on the way the practice of language is viewed. The phonetic nature of speech has become a minor facet of language, for speech becomes above all a spiritual object, whence: Speech, al-Mantiq comes from nataqa [to speak], yantiqu, ˙ ˙ ˙ nutqan, and speech is an action accomplished by the human ˙ soul. This action is of two kinds: mental, and vocal. Vocal speech is bodily, and is sensory related, whereas the mental speech is intellectual and spiritual. That is because vocal speech is composed of voices that can be heard, have an order, and that come from the tongue which is a bodily organ, and pass on to the ears, which are other organs. The study of this [genre of] al-mantiq, and the analysis and discussion of its ˙ rules, ways and its meanings is called the science of al-mantiq ˙ al-lughawi. As for mental speech, which is of a spiritual and intellectual nature, it is the imagination by the soul of the meaning of things per se, the visualization of the forms of the sensed things (rusu¯m al-mahsu¯sa¯t) in their essence, and their ˙ differentiations in its ideas. It is this al-nutq that defines the ˙ human being as a living and dying speaker, na¯tiqun. Thus the ˙ speech of the human and his life are due to the soul, and his death is caused by his body, for the name ‘human’ is for both the soul and the body.29 In this passage of the Ikhwa¯n, there is a hierarchy of linguistic components in which mental speech is the essence and the cause of vocal speech. Mental speech, like the soul, has the quality of essence and is therefore eternal. In contrast with vocal speech, it is not transformed into the variety of worldly languages people use to express the meanings (Ma‘a¯nı¯) they have formed in their souls. Meanings, Ma‘a¯nı¯ are universal, and are the same for all souls, but their expression needs to borrow different vocal forms as different languages have different words for the same meanings. To express the Ma‘a¯nı¯ humans need words, or al-alfa¯z which are composed of letters ˙



(huru¯f). These in turn are of three kinds: mental ( fikriya), vocal ˙ (lafziya), and scriptural (Khattiya). The scriptural letters were created ˙˙ ˙ to represent the vocal letters, which in turn represent the mental letters. When the huruf are combined they produce al-alfa¯z, and ˙ ˙ when these are matched with meanings (Ma‘a¯nı¯) they become names (asma¯’). The succession of names, the asma¯’, produces sentences, kala¯m. The collection of sentences (kalima¯t) makes speech (aqa¯wı¯l), which is of two kinds: prose and poetry. And following Neoaristotelian views, prose speech itself is divided into argumentative speech, and eloquence/entertainment. The argumentative speech can be legal/ worldly, or theological, both of which deal with different kinds of evidence. This theoretical view of language might appear more sophisticated than al-Khalil’s, but I should underscore that its main novelty is that it looks at language from a different perspective. For whereas alKhalil’s main preoccupation is to create a dictionary with the aim of protecting Arabic from foreign influence and distortion by concentrating on the vocal aspect of language the Ikhwa¯n focus is on meaning. In their view the phonetic aspect of language is subsidiary, because it is auxiliary to the Ma‘a¯nı¯, and the diversity of languages is seen as the strongest supporting evidence of that argument. It comes then as no surprise that instead of fighting the influence of foreign languages on Arabic, as al-Khalil and al-Ja¯hiz ˙ ˙ did, they often quote Persian poetry without even bothering to translate their quotes into Arabic.30 It is also worth noting that whereas previous authors used to marvel at the fact that the limited number of the huruf, the alphabet, ˙ could express an infinite number of meanings, or Ma‘a¯nı¯, the Ikhwa¯n do not seem to be impressed by that; instead their main concern is to underline the primacy of the Ma‘a¯nı¯ and the auxiliary function of the alphabet, that is the universal primacy of meaning, and the diversity of spoken language. Furthermore, the focus on the huruf as sounds ˙ was central in the making of a poetical view based on the voice, versification and the musicality of language. As such it was crucial in linking poetry and song, and in doing so it also highlighted the role of the body in poetry.



Adonis, the celebrated modernist Arab poet, insists that the physical recitation of poetic verse was viewed as a form of song and dance in pre-Islamic Arabia and early Islam.31 As the exact opposite of this performative view of poetry that posits the performer, that is the subject and his/her body, as essential in any understanding and enjoyment of poems—al-Khansa¯’ (575– 645) the poetess used, we are told, to perform true trance dance while singing her poems—the new discourse views poetry surely as versified speech, but essentially as rendering of particular meanings, to use Ibn Taba¯taba¯ phrase, in ˙ ˙ brocaded words, verses.32 Here I should mention another noticeable fact related to translatability: as remarked earlier, in al-Ja¯hiz’s view the primacy ˙ ˙ of the huruf and the rhythmic nature of their combination make the ˙ musicality of Arabic unique and translation of Arabic poetry to another language necessarily a cause of loss of Arabs’ wisdom. In the novel epistemic formation, translation is exactly what any language is about, for the function of all languages is to articulate mental speech, or to translate it into a spoken language. In parallel to this linguistic revolution it is worth mentioning that the tendency observable in the dictionary by al-Khalil—not to mention that that dictionary was never finished—and the tradition that consisted in trying to define the perfect Arabic language and words will be replaced by a more pragmatic approach of acknowledging and documenting regional linguistic differences. The Ikhwa¯n explicitly state: And if you consider and think about the languages of the Arabs, you will see in them charming marvels, and noble wisdom. See how they differ in many of their words, and in the names they need for their food and drinks whereas they are united by a single language, and one law. They went so far as to differ in their reading [of the same text], and their stories.33 It will not be much before the phonetically based structure of the dictionary created by al-Khalil will be abandoned for a more practical one based on the alphabetical order.34



The notion of beauty has two Arabic expressions (al-Husn or al˙ Jama¯l). They are both used by al-Ja¯hiz to express the same notion. ˙ ˙ Whereas in al-Ja¯hiz’s text it is mainly called upon to highlight ˙ ˙ dazzling effects and ecstatic enjoyment of song, recitation or ornament, in Ibn Taba¯taba¯’s work and the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, or ˙ ˙ ˙ in that of Ibn Miskawyh, the notion of al-Husn is summoned almost ˙ always as a definable quality that mirrors meaning and the perfection of celestial beings. As in al-Ja¯hiz’s chronicles,35 the bewildering effects of beauty are ˙ ˙ presented in the Qur’anic story of Yusuf (Arabic for Joseph). Zulikha becomes enamored with Yusuf after Yusuf becomes an accomplished young man. Zulikha is the wife of Yusuf’s master and benefactor and her name is known only from Hebraic tradition. Alone with Yusuf in her palace, Zulikha tries to seduce Yusuf. However, Yusuf refused her advances. Zulikha then tried to force herself upon Yusuf, obliging him to flee away from her. Then she ran after him, and caught him from behind by his shirt. Yusuf did not stop running away, and Zulikha ripped his shirt off. At that moment, Zulikha’s husband happened to come by. When Zulikha saw her husband, she accused Yusuf of attempted rape. Yusuf of course denied the accusation. When the husband consulted with his counselors he was told that if the shirt was ripped off from the front side, it was surely a rape attempt, but if it was ripped from behind it means that the defendant was just trying to free himself from his accuser. Yusuf was set free. The women of the city started gossiping about Zulikha’s misbehaviour and her attempt to seduce the young man. But when Zulikha heard about the gossip, she invited all the gossiping ladies of the city for dinner, gave each of them a knife, and she then called Yusuf into the dining room. When the ladies saw Yusuf they were in such awe of his beauty that they cut their hands in amazement. Beauty is simply bewildering. Zulikha, who had lost her mind as a result of Yusuf’s celestial beauty, was thus avenged.36 When al-Ja¯hiz visits the mosque in Damascus, he described the ˙ ˙ beauty of the mosque in the same way as described in the story of Yusuf: beauty is bewildering and provides an overwhelming pleasure. What interests al-Ja¯hiz is the effect of beauty to lead the mind astray. ˙ ˙



He does not have any interest in trying to explain the mechanism of the effect; he only enjoys reporting on the incident.37 Of course it is possible to read this Sura in other ways. It is possible to interpret the power of beauty and its effect on the soul as a divine project to provoke love. In the theory of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, as I will show in ˙ Chapter 3, the provocation of love is a path toward spirituality. Curiously, the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ do not mention that Sura, and do not ˙ make use of it to illustrate their theory of love. Now, as I mentioned earlier, the notion of al-Husn, or beauty, is ˙ understood in a very different way in the new epistemic order. In the words of the Ikhwa¯n, beauty is an outcome of proportions. The Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ reads: ˙ Since the essence of the soul is related to, and is of the same nature as harmonious proportions, if the melodies of the musician are made with harmonious notes, and percussions and silences are harmonized in their tempo [the music] will please the minds, (al-Tiba¯‘), delight the spirits, and thrill the souls. ˙ That is because of the relationship, matching, and similarity of the essences of music and soul. It is for the same reason that the soul will find beauty in human faces, and ornate natural objects, (zı¯nati al-ttabı¯‘iyya). Indeed, the beauty, maha¯sin of natural ˙˙ ˙ things comes from the harmony of their construction and the 38 beauty of the proportions of their parts. Beauty is a delight, and provides the soul and mind with great pleasure, but no overwhelming ecstasy is ever invoked. More importantly, and in contrast to al-Ja¯hiz’s text, the Ikhwa¯n provide ˙ ˙ us with an explanation of the operation of beauty on the mind of the beholder. The secret of beauty, we are told, is harmonious proportions. It is worth noting that the aesthetic views of the Ikhwa¯n are similar to those of other fourth century Islamic era authors such as Ibn Miskawyh, for whom beauty is a form based on proportions. ‘Beauty, al-Husn, he says, is a form, a Su¯ra that respects the [right] ˙ ˙ proportions of the physical constitution, and suitability of the parts



in the shape, color and all aspects.’39 Remarkably, Ibn Miskawayh asserts that such a goal is nearly impossible to achieve; even nature does not present us with such perfect states of proportion within matter. I will show in the next chapter how the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ address the same problem, and how the issue of perfection is viewed by these authors. More remarkably, Ibn Miskawayh views the world in a very similar way to the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. Thus, he asserts that all natural objects ˙ share a few general features but differ in forms, the Suwar (plural of ˙ Sura) that appear and materialize in them. The forms are of different ˙ qualities and levels of nobleness: a piece of clay will become noble if it takes a shape that people value, and it will become even nobler if it reaches the shape of a vegetal. Nobleness of natural things and beings increases according to a hierarchy of the Suwar that goes from the ˙ inanimate to the animate, and which is topped by the human being. On the other hand, one has to keep in mind that perception is often mistaken, and it is impossible to judge the veracity of perception without recourse to reason. For, the vision is wrong in respect of the movement of the moon, the clouds, boats, and seacoast. . . It is equally wrong in respect of objects that move in a circular way in that it sees them as circles and collars. It is also wrong in respect of things that are under water, as it sees some as longer than they are, some as broken when they are not, and some as curved when they are straight. . .40 Perception is too often wrong, and cannot be relied upon by itself to reach truth. Remarkably the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ make the same ˙ observation on the deceptive nature of visual perception. Thus, they assert: Know that the sense of vision is the noblest and most precise of the senses. . . But despite its nobleness and precision it makes many mistakes, and errors. Thus the human can perceive a great object as small, a small one as great, a far located one as close, or



the close thing as far, as when he sees a coin, in deep water, close and large. Likewise behind vapour he sees objects larger than they are. Likewise he can see a moving object as still and a still one as moving as it happens when one looks at the shore from a moving boat and sees still people moving and himself and his companions as still. Likewise he may see a curved thing straight and a straight one curved as when he watches a baton emerged in water.41 For both the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ and ibn Miskawayh, it is reason that ˙ allows us to decide when perception is correct, and when it is wrong. In the end it is reason that allows us to fully grasp the attributes and meaning of existing objects. Not unlike the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, Ibn ˙ Miskayah states that the science of numbers and engineering, (‘adad and handasa) are models of good reasoning. For both authors, the forms, or Suwar, make existing things meaningful, give them their ˙ place in the hierarchy of the world, and bestow beauty on them.42 Like the function of the Ma‘na¯ in Ibn Taba¯taba¯’s poetic theory, the ˙ ˙ function of the Suwar shows that truth, and not perception, is the ˙ basic criterion of aesthetics. It is truthfulness to right proportions— which is judged by mathematical reasoning, not by failing perception—that bestows beauty on created objects. It seems reasonable to assert that all these authors share a common approach that emphasizes truth, be it Ma‘na¯ or Su¯ra, as the criterion of ˙ aesthetics. In the next chapter I will try to show how the notion of proportion stands in connection to the notion of Su¯ra at the heart ˙ of the new aesthetic view, and how this view is constructed.


It is demonstrated by what we mentioned that the best crafts products, the most perfect components, and the most beautiful compositions are those whose structure and harmony of the parts are based on the most perfect proportion.1 Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ In this chapter I shall discuss the foundational role the theory of proportions plays in the aesthetic and philosophic views of the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. I will show that, contrary to received knowledge, the ˙ aesthetic theory of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ exposed in the Risa¯la on music ˙ cannot be limited to a theory of music rather it encompasses all the arts. The authors themselves tell us that the science of proportions was called music just ‘because it [music] allows for more demonstrative [aesthetic and emotional] illustrations’,2 and that proportion and harmony are at the heart of all aesthetic production. Moreover, proportion is learned from existing things, and human beings learn the right proportions from God’s creatures. Thus, by researching and respecting the rules of proportion craftsmen and artists are emulating God’s creation. Furthermore, the respect of good or right proportion is a requirement posited as moral and ethical duty leading to spiritual purification. Interestingly, the perfect proportions are, as for Renaissance artists, those of the human body. This would imply an obligation to imitate



existing living beings, and may help explain the development around the end of the tenth century of what Ettinghausen called a ‘realistic’ artistic trend I will discuss this in Chapter 3. I will argue that the theoretical view that posits the theory of proportions at the heart of aesthetics is not exclusive to these authors, but is a common view held by many of their contemporaries, such as ibn Miskawayh (d. c.421H/1030), and ibn al-Haytham (965–1040). I will show that ibn Miskawayh presents us with a definition of beauty based on proportion comparable to that of Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. I will also discuss ibn ˙ al-Haytham’s view of visual perception, in which he argues that perception implies an active subject through the recognition of Ma‘a¯ni (meanings), inference, and judgment. Therefore, this author understands the effect of beauty on the soul to be a process in which the viewer is both passive in receiving the sensation and active in building its meaning. The mind uncovers the Ma‘na¯ in visible things in a way that is similar to ibn Tabataba’s explanation of how the mind enjoys the Ma‘na¯ that it ˙ ˙ recognizes in poems. I will also show that for this author visually perceived meaning, Ma‘na¯ is what constitutes the Su¯ra (form, image) and ˙ that this view is comparable to that of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ according to ˙ which man learns from nature by uncovering forms, Su¯ra. This will lead ˙ us to the conclusion that the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ and ibn al-Haytham share ˙ the same reasoning based on the theory of proportion of their time. Before getting to the core of that question I would like to address the issue of the use of the work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ as a reference text for ˙ the kinds of reflections and problems I am endeavouring to tackle. There still is no conclusive justification for the fact that their work could be a reference text for any discussion of the symbolism of Fatimid art. To give such a justification is an urgent and serious task because it involves the possibility of investigating connections between art and Islamic intellectual history in the early Middle period. The possibility of using the work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ in discussions ˙ related to art and architecture arouses some controversy. For instance, in a brilliant discussion of the Risa¯la on music, Owen Wright states: It may be noted that abstract design is never mentioned in connection with the arts and the criteria deemed pertinent to



them. Just as the mineral world is ignored in nature, so, too, there is no reference here to architecture or to repetitive geometric patterns. Such silence should not be surprising, for it is a cultural constant. Yet, were such forms of creative activity to reflect, as has been insistently claimed, a theological vision of oneness perceived to lie at the heart of Islamic artistic expression, one might have hoped to find, in this of all texts, some reference to the manifestation of ‘perfect proportions’ in, say, mosque architecture, thereby pointing to the realization, and recognition, of the potential to symbolize in sacred space, indeed, to make tangible on earth, the fundamental arithmetic, and geometric attributes of the divine order.3 Despite the authoritative tone of this quote this statement is inaccurate and confused. As I mentioned in the introduction to this book, according to the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, all craftsmen should emulate the ˙ perfect proportions of the newborn. This mandate includes builders, painters, ironsmiths, carpenters; that is to say all craftsmen who intervene in the building industry. The Risa¯la 4 on Proportions reads: . . .and we wanted to mention examples of all existing beings to show the noble quality of the science of proportions, which is known as music; and this knowledge is necessary to all crafts. This knowledge [the science of proportions] was called music which is the harmony of melodies and rhythms, because it allows for more demonstrative illustrations [of the science of proportions].4 Thus, it is clear that to the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ the science of proportions is ˙ not a specific feature of music, and its applications necessarily extend to other domains. The science of proportions applies to all existing things and beings. Moreover, it is the basic foundation of perfection in all domains. After discussing the usefulness of the science of proportions for calculating the prices of commodities, the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ state: ˙ This example shows that the science of proportion is noble and wonderful, sharı¯f wa jalı¯l, and all the wise knowledge the sages



wrote was founded and built on this base. And they [the sages] consider this science the noblest and most wonderful (ajalluha) of all sciences which are based on it, and without which no work or craft could be established, and none of the existing things can remain in its best state.5 Crafts are of different kinds, as some are based on primary need, and others are of a more luxurious nature. Know, O brother, that the primary purpose of some of these crafts is imposed by need, while other crafts follow and serve the first ones. Other crafts complement and complete them. And among the crafts some are meant for beauty and adornment. There are three crafts of the first kind [imposed by need]: agriculture, weaving, and building. All other crafts follow, serve, and complete those three, and that is because the human being was created with thin skin, nude of hair, wool, and feathers, etc.6 Humans were forced to practise agriculture and the craft of building due to their most basic needs of protection, nourishment and shelter. Building requires the crafts of carpentry and blacksmithing, and these crafts require others including mining, tool production, quarry work, stone-cutting, etc. The crafts of decoration and embellishment are, among others, silk weaving, silk brocade, and perfumery. ‘And in all crafts mastery and perfection consist in setting forms, (Suwar) in matter, and in completing and finishing ˙ them to make them useful for living. . .’7 Moreover all these crafts and professions are related to reason and common sense (‘aql wa lma‘qu¯l). Human beings practise their crafts using reason, judgment, reflection, and ideas, all of which are spiritual and intellectual powers. Nevertheless, the different crafts have different social values; some receive more favour and honourability than others. In some instances the higher worth is due to the material used in the craft, in other cases higher valuation is due to the product because of the basic need that the product satisfies.8 In some cases it is because



the particular craft responds to the public good, and in some others it is because of the nature of the craft itself.9 Thus, building, agriculture, and weaving are crafts that receive their worth and nobleness because of the imperative need they help to satisfy. On the other hand, crafts that receive their nobleness from their own nature are magic arts, painting, music, and the like. It is interesting to note that builders and painters do not belong together in the same category in spite of the fact that, at the time of the Ikhwa¯n, painting was done almost entirely upon walls. Perhaps, this indicates that painting was considered a luxury reserved for the wealthy and the powerful. It is also worth noting how painting and music are equated with magic arts: in fact, the magical nature of both painting and music are clearly alluded to in the work of the Ikhwa¯n. Painting is even considered more magical than the jugglery of tricksters: The art of the painters is nothing but the imitation of the images of existing things be it natural, human made, or mental to the point that they succeed in making people prefer watching the painted things than the things themselves: that is caused by the astonishing beauty, and splendour of their appearance. In this craft differences between craftsmen can be quite wide. It is said that in a certain place a man made images and statues painted with pure paints, and beautiful and brilliant colours. People used to watch them, and express astonishment of their beauty and splendour, but something was missing in those works. Once, a smart and adroit painter saw those works. He looked at them, meditated and mocked them; then he took a piece of charcoal that was on the ground, and painted next to them the picture of a black man who looked as if he was indicating the viewers by his hand. From then on the gaze of all onlookers left those pictures and paintings, and instead went on to contemplating the picture of the black man, because they were astonished by the magic of its craftsmanship, the beauty of its gesture, and the elegance of its movement.10



By opposing charcoal to pure paints this story recalls the distinction between material and skill as developed in the early European Renaissance. Michael Baxandall tells us: It is a distinction that is not alien to us, is indeed fully comprehensible, though it is not usually central to our thinking about pictures. In the early Renaissance, however, it was the centre. The difference between quality of material and quality of skill was the most consistently and prominently recurring motif in everybody’s distinction of painting and sculpture, and this is true whether the discussion is ascetic, deploring public enjoyment of works of art, or affirmative, as in texts of art history.11 According to the Ikhwa¯n the nobleness of a particular craft comes from the nature of the craft itself and from the effects of the craft upon the soul. It is a combination of these elements that makes a craft or art noble. The Ikhwa¯n assert that: ‘The noble character of the craft of music comes from two factors [min wijhayn]: one is from the craft itself and the other from its effects on the souls; and also from disparities between craftsmen.’12 This explains why magic arts are not noble, and why, despite their talent and agility, tricksters are not considered as noble as musicians. On the other hand, artisans and craftsmen are of varying levels of talent; they may be great or mediocre. We can ask what makes a craftsman great, and on what basis is his greatness founded. The answer the Ikhwa¯n give us is Neoplatonic in both its tone and substance: ‘Know, O brother that in all crafts perfection is the imitation of the Wise Artisan, who is the Creator, Sublime be his Praise.’13 Moreover, the authors remind us that God likes the good craftsman even quoting a ‘weak’, or likely fabricated Hadith that ˙ confirms this statement. Going further, they assert that the more an artisan advances in the perfection of his craft, the closer he gets to God. On another level the practice of any craft requires teachers, apprenticeship and learning. Because all teachers were once taught, learning is conceived of as a chain of teachers, each relying on a previous link. This chain must end somewhere in the past, however. At the origin of the chain, there is a first teacher who is connected to a



non-human teacher. This allows, according to the Ikhwa¯n, for two hypotheses. The philosophizers hypothesize that intellectual or spiritual invention gives rise to a first teacher. On the other hand, the prophets assert that the original teacher is not a human being.14 Interestingly the Fatimid Da¯‘ı¯ Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r al-Yaman develops a ˙ comparable theory of knowledge that is initiated by God and is transmitted to his creatures. For al-Yaman the transmission of knowledge is a moral and religious duty. The position of the Ikhwa¯n is a unique compromise of the two explanations. According to them, invention is possible, but it is so only as long as humans can watch natural creatures, learn from Nature, and imitate what they have learned through the creation of knowledge, arts and crafts. Besides, Nature itself, we are told, is capable of creation only because it is supported, and oriented by al-nafs al-kullyia, that is, by God. To sum up, human beings are able to develop knowledge, arts and crafts only in so far as they imitate the Great Creator. Thus, we can understand why practising arts and crafts with talent and excellence can bring a practitioner closer to God. Indeed, if crafts are inspired by God’s creatures, then they are also an imitation of God’s ways. The more the craftsman perfects his work through imitation of ‘natural’ models, the better the craftsman comes to understand the ways of God. This leads to the question of how to reach perfection in craftsmanship and artwork. The Ikhwa¯n assert that: It is demonstrated by what we mentioned that the best craft products, the most perfect components, and the most beautiful compositions are those whose structure’s composition, and harmony of parts are based on the most perfect proportion. And the noble proportion is 1:1; 1:2; 1:3; 1:4; 1:8, as we demonstrated earlier. An example of that is the image of the human being, its structure, and shape for the Creator, Sublime be his Loftiness, made his height proportioned with the width of his body, and the width of his body proportioned with that of his neck, the length of his arms, proportioned with that of his legs . . . And following this example if you consider, and meditate on any organ of the human body [including internal ones] you will



find it proportioned with the whole of the body in a certain proportion, and proportioned with any other organ in another proportion, whose secret only God knows, Sublime be His Praise, He who created and designed them, as He wished when he said, Sublime be His Praise: ‘We created the human being in the best frame [laqad khalaqna¯ al-’insa¯na fı¯ ahsani taqwı¯m ].’15 ˙ Noble proportions are basic to the structure of the human body with respect to its shape and appearance, as well as its hidden organs and bones. The systematic and structural use of proportions is a divine secret only known to God. However, human beings can partially uncover the secret of noble proportions through observation and study. The practice of crafts is an endeavour of reason and common sense (‘aql wa l-ma‘qu¯l). Crafts are practised with the spiritual and intellectual powers of reason, judgment, reflection, and ideas. Those who claim, say the Ikhwa¯n, that the crafts are accomplishments and actions of the body are mistaken, for ‘all the knowledgeable crafts and mastered actions that are accomplished in the works by the hands of craftsmen’,16 are the accomplishments of human spiritual powers, and not simply exploits of his physical body. Accordingly, works of arts and crafts exhibit knowledge and mastery, which means that human works are reflections of man’s spiritual attributes and powers. Before moving further in the analysis of the role of the meaning of proportion in arts and crafts and the role of noble proportions in the cultivation of the self, I should mention that the work of the Ikhwa¯n does not provide us with enough information about any particular craft. Owen Wright explains: For those whose primary interest lies in trying to discover the musical grammar of the day, or in learning about the modalities of performance, it is bafflingly uncommunicative, but if one wishes to learn how, in the culture of the early ‘Abbasid period, music could be intellectually apprehended as an integral element of cosmology, how it could be conceptualized as a reflection of, and a means of access to, a higher spiritual realm, no text is more rewarding.17



If Wright’s statement about the Risa¯la on music of the Ikhwa¯n is valid with regard to music it is certainly more valid for the other arts and crafts about which the Ikhwa¯n did not write particular essays. Therefore, we should not expect to find specific information on architectural composition, or the equivalent of a treatise on painting. But we can, as is the case of music, find in the Ikhwa¯n the means to understand how arts and crafts were ‘intellectually apprehended as integral elements’ of the cosmos, and how they were viewed as a ‘reflection of, and a means of access to, a higher spiritual realm’. We should also underline that the correlation of beauty (Husn) and ˙ proportion is more widespread than previously believed by historians of the arts of Islam,18 despite the fact that by the turn of the first millennium the Ikhwa¯n’s genre of cosmological speculation, was neglected by most scientific authorities. Wright’s remarks are concordant with what modern authorities on the work of the Ikhwa¯n teach us: the Rasa¯’il are not the scientific avant-garde of their time, rather they represent an encyclopedic endeavour to overview the knowledge of the period. As an encyclopedia the text represents a great achievement, and a true precursor to works like the Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot, or the Encyclopedia Britannica.19 In this respect, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that the intellectual framework of the Ikhwa¯n was representative of their epoch.20 Indeed, as indicated in Chapter 1, a close reading of the work of ibn Miskawayh, an author who has previously been noticed for being among the earliest Islamic authors to give a definition of beauty, Husn, shows complete similarity of ˙ aesthetic thought with the authors of the Rasa¯’il. His Tahdhı¯b alakhla¯q clearly expresses this similarity, and refers to the main notions upon which the work of the Ikhwa¯n is built, from the notion of proportion, to that of Su¯ra, and imagination. ˙ A brief summary of ibn Miskawayh’s aesthetic view will help illustrate his intellectual closeness to the Ikhwa¯n. Let us recall his definition of the notion of the al-Husn. ˙ Beauty, al-Husn, he says, is a form, a Su¯ra that respects the [right] ˙ ˙ proportions of the physical constitution, and suitability of the



parts in the shape, color and all aspects. This condition cannot exist in all its aspects. That is why even Nature cannot present it in a perfect way in matter, because the grounds do not support that.21 This precise definition does not come directly from the Tahdhı¯b alakhla¯q. It is given by Abi Hayyan al-Tawhidi in his Questions to ibn Miskawayh. The book Tahdhı¯b al-akhla¯q itself agrees with that definition, and gives complementary and useful material to build its general implications. It also illustrates the same theoretical framework than the Questions to ibn Miskawayh. In his Tahdhı¯b al-akhla¯q, ibn Miskawayh presents us with a view similar to that found in the Ikhwa¯n’s. Ibn Miskawayh argues that training in Arithmetic and Geometry, al-Hisa¯b wa al-Handasa, are ˙ the best ways to learn astute reasoning skills necessary to search for truth ‘yata‘awwada sidqa al-qawli wa sihhata al-burha¯n’.22 This is, as I ˙ ˙ ˙˙ will show below, the very same function the Ikhwa¯n assign to mathematic training. For him too, the notion of Su¯ra carries out a ˙ similarly crucial function in the making of the universe. It is the Su¯ra ˙ that gives matter its shapes and makes possible the existence of things. Moreover, the structure of the universe is a reflection of the hierarchy of the Su¯war, plural of Su¯ra. All existing things participate ˙ ˙ in this hierarchy that goes from inanimate matter up to vegetal, then to animals, and is topped by man who represents the most noble of creatures. In ibn Miskawayh’ view, man surpasses animal capabilities and dispositions because the Human horizon (one is tempted to say human existential horizon) is defined by access to ‘reason, discernment, speech, nutq, the tools he uses, and the Su¯war that ˙ ˙ match them’.23 The highest and noblest position to which man is destined can be reached only through knowledge and science. The focus of the Tahdhı¯b al-akhla¯q is longing for ways to cultivate knowledge and science and the notion of proportion plays an important role in this process. Ibn Miskawayh gives a brief definition of the three kinds of proportion: arithmetic, geometric, misa¯hiyya, ˙ and harmonic. He mentions that he composed a short treatise on the 24 subject. Proportions have a twofold effect. On the one hand the existence of proportion and its absence make attraction and rejection



between existing things on the basis of elementary components. On the other hand, proportion creates beauty. It is the attraction between substances and essences that allows for their harmonization and leads to perfect unity. It is the longing for each other that makes perfect unity out of different essences. The reformation of the soul is the search for perfection, a process only accessible by learning and science. The first level of perfection is theoretical perfection, which translates into sharp reasoning, straight conscience, right convictions and belief in truth. This theoretical perfection needs to be implemented in practice at the level of morals. The author uses the architectural metaphor to define the articulation of reason and morality. He says: That is the condition of everything, for when the builder has a representation of the building, and knows its parts, and the shapes of all its aspects the building is yet a design, a goal, [gharad ]. If the builder actually builds it and finishes it, then it becomes [an illustration of] perfection.25 Human agency is indeed twofold; first it is a search for knowledge, then it is an action on oneself to conform to the moral ideal thus learned. Ibn Miskawayh assures us this action on the self is in fact a source of happiness and pleasure. This pleasure of agency is that of giving away, whereas the pleasure of that which is submitted to agency is always in receiving. Agency is considered nobler and an indication of greater wisdom. It provides satisfaction and pleasure, as can be seen in the condition of great builders, or musicians: ‘In a word, he says, any smart craftsman who is virtuous in his art is pleased to show his virtues [in his work] and have it brought to those who deserve it.’26 Thus, crafts are illustration of nobleness; they are virtues, fada¯’il says ibn ˙ Miskawayh. It is interesting to meet here a notion already present in the Ikhwa¯n’s views: the notion that arts and crafts are means to access to a higher spiritual realm. It is important to underline that the nobleness of crafts does not mean that all labour receive the same esteem. As it is the case for the Ikhwa¯n, it is the talent of the craftsman, and the nature of the craft that defines its level of nobleness.



In discussing the aesthetic views of the time one should not forget Ibn al-Haytham (b. Basra, 965, d. in Cairo c.1040), also known in Western scholarship as Alhacen, or Alhazen. Ibn al-Haytham was the famous author of the Optics, a text that provides an elaborate definition of the notion of al-Husn, perhaps the most elaborate of his time. Likewise, ˙ he also developed an elaborate theory of visual perception. Ibn alHaytham’s book had a great influence on artists and scholars in Europe, particularly during the Italian Renaissance. He also wrote on physics, mathematics, and conceived of engineering projects not unlike those realized by Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan.27 It is reported that he proposed a way to regulate the floods of the Nile for the Fatimid Caliph al-Ha¯kim, who invited Ibn al-Haytham to work for him in Cairo. He ˙ even planned to build a dam near Aswan, the place where stands the modern dam built in the twentieth century for the same purpose. In a small subchapter of his Optics entitled ‘The Perception of Beauty’, Ibn al-Haytham introduces a very elaborate definition of beauty. But before moving further in the presentation of his work, I should mention that when I started my research I relied on the translation of that book by A.I. Sabra, as I wanted to avoid the always very demanding task of translation of citations. It is only later on that, while re-reading the book of Vale´rie Gonzalez, my attention was attracted by some serious issues of translation in that work. In discussing the eminent role ibn al-Haytham took in the development of aesthetic theory, Gonzalez remarks en passant that ‘ibn al-Haytham recognizes beauty and ugliness as objective and visible facts which all objects or corporeal beings (ajsa¯m) display in varying degrees, among other objective facts that define them generically and that he calls in Arabic “al-Ma‘a¯ni al-mubsara”, ˙ “perceptual meanings”.’28 She then explains that the word Ma‘na¯, ‘meaning’, is translated as ‘property’ by A.I. Sabra. It is remarkable that ibn al-Haytham uses the very notion that is central to his contemporary poetics, and to the work of the Ikhwa¯n. Was there more than accidental use of the same words, and vocabulary? Or is it possible to argue ibn alHaytham, seemingly of a purely scientific mind, shared the mindset of poetic theorists and even the worldview of proselytizers like the Ikhwa¯n? Reading the Arabic text proved to be gratifying for it allowed me to discover that, indeed, all these authors shared more than just vocabulary.



Beauty, says ibn al-Haytham, is perceptible to the sense of sight according to different modalities. It can be produced by a particular Ma‘na¯ (plural; Ma‘a¯nı¯) among those composing a Su¯ra, or by a group of them, or by ˙ their combination and not by the Ma‘a¯nı¯ themselves, or by both the Ma‘a¯nı¯ and their harmony, for sight perceives each of the Ma‘a¯nı¯ that are in figures individually; it perceives their combination, and their composition and harmony. Thus sight perceives beauty in different manners, and all these manners through which sight perceives beauty are based on the perception of partial [individual] Ma‘a¯nı¯.29 It is important to notice how this definition of beauty links the notions of Ma‘na¯ (meaning) and Su¯ra (figure, image): a Su¯ra is composed of a ˙ ˙ Ma‘na¯ (meaning). I should emphasize the fact that although this is a visual Ma‘na¯ it is in no way reducible to a visual phenomenon. ‘By producing beauty’, the author says, ‘I mean that they produce in the soul an effect such that the form will appear beautiful.’30 The Ma‘a¯nı¯ that produce beauty are numerous: light, darkness, colour, distance, position, solidity, shape, size, continuity, number, motion, rest, roughness, smoothness, transparency, opacity, shadow, similarity, dissimilarity. Interestingly, many of these properties are opposites, indicating that the perception of beauty can be produced by one thing and the opposite. Furthermore, a close reading of Book III of the Kita¯b al- Mana¯zir, which is devoted to ‘The exposition of ˙ the Ma‘a¯nı¯ that the sight perceives, their explanation, and their perception’, clearly indicates that the Ma‘a¯nı¯ are not simple visual phenomena. Rather they belong to the soul, and reside in it. A.I. Sabra summarizes ibn al-Haytham’s theory of perception as follows: ‘There are two modes of perception, the one immediate (idra¯k bi al-badı¯ha, comprehensio superficialis), the other contemplative (idrak bi al-ta’ammul, comprehensio per intuittionem).’31 In other words, a person can look quickly at an object, and obtain a superficial perception of it, or the person can scrutinize the object and reach a more accurate perception. This implies that ‘contemplative perception, an operation



involving the inspection of all parts of the objects, is a condition for obtaining an ascertained form’.32 The ascertained form is what ibn alHaytham calls Su¯ra muhaqqaqa. This notion is based on a broad view of ˙ ˙ visual perception which asserts the perception of the Ma‘a¯nı¯ of a Su¯ra ˙ (form) is not uniform and does not rely exclusively on the sense of sight. To illustrate this rule, ibn al-Haytham gives the example of the perception of two human beings who look alike. If the sense of sight perceives two persons who look alike, it will recognize the two of them and the fact that they look alike. The perception of the fact that they look alike is not reducible to the perceived images of each of them, nor is it a third form or image. The similarity of the two Su¯ras (images) ˙ derives from the fact that both contain and share one of their Ma‘a¯nı¯ (meanings), and this conclusion is reached only through comparison. Thus visual similarity and dissimilarity of images, acquired by the sense of vision, are attainable only through comparison and discernment. The same analysis applies to the perception of colours and their gradations. Now, says ibn al-Haytham, vision does not have the power of discernment (al-tamyı¯z), but it is the faculty of discernment that differentiates these Ma‘a¯nı¯ (meanings), except that the faculty of discernment cannot distinguish among the Ma‘a¯nı¯ al-mubsara (visually perceived meanings, or visual meanings) ˙ without the mediation of the sense of sight.33 On the other hand, visual perception identifies numerous Ma‘a¯nı¯ by previous knowledge and learning: this is how humans know that they are human beings, and know that a horse is a horse, and know all other common Ma‘a¯nı¯ (meanings). When the vision perceives a person for a second time, the author continues, it will recognize him only if it ‘remembers’ his image. Thus it will perceive the person on the basis of recognition, which, of course, depends on memory. According to this view, ‘no sensible object, whatever the sense faculty, is perceived to be what it is (ma¯hiyya) except by recognition’.34 Since recognition is a type of reasoning (inference), perception is therefore based on reasoning.



Recognition may be recognition of an individual or of a species, as when the beholder can recognize the form of a person called Paul either as a representative of the human species, or as Paul himself. The recognition of a species is based on comparison and similarities. Perception is based on recognition and inference and therefore requires a thorough reading (istiqra¯’) of the Ma‘a¯nı¯ (meanings) of the perceived object. A thorough reading of the Ma‘a¯nı¯ (meanings) will be fast if a memory of the object exists, and less so if the object is seen for the first time. Thus, when the sight sees a word for the first time, it must distinguish its letters before it can read the word and find its meaning. Once it knows that meaning it will remember it, and the perception of that word will be faster. Also, says ibn al-Haytham, when someone hears that a given individual is a writer, he will infer that that individual is a human being. This is because he knows that only human beings write, and his perception relies on that knowledge. But, as A.I. Sabra notes, the perception of a visible Ma‘na¯, or of an inference about a perceived object, should ‘be distinguished from ‘perception’ of the manner in which it is achieved’.35 Moreover, it is important to notice that correct perception does not require the perceiver to be aware of perception’s mechanisms. Visual meaning (al-Ma‘a¯nı¯ al-mubsara) cannot be reduced to ˙ purely visual phenomena as we would define them today because no sensible object can be perceived without recognition, inference and memory. The examples used by ibn al-Haytham to explain visual perception suggest the same conclusion. A good example of this is the perception of man that the viewer perceives through his previous knowledge of the idea of man. A second example is reading, which he uses to illustrate the analytical nature of perception, which clearly engages non-visual meaning. A third example is that of Ma‘na¯ discussed by ibn al-Haytham in paragraphs 32 – 3 about the rule of perception that asserts that ‘the whole is greater than each of its parts’. The author argues, we tend to think of the rule of the whole as greater than the sum of its parts as an innate rule because Ma‘na¯ is perceived almost spontaneously. However, the rule is in fact based on inference and learning. This discussion indicates that in ibn



al-Haytham’s view, Ma‘na¯, or the meaning of visual perception, is not limited to simple visual facts. Human beings acquire Ma‘na¯ beginning in infancy using the faculties of inference, and discernment. The Ma‘a¯ni ‘repeatedly presented in visible objects and perceived by discernment and inference become established in the soul without one’s being aware of their establishment, or of when they are first established’.36 Once established in the soul, the Ma‘a¯ni will enable the viewer to recognize them in what he or she perceives. Over time the person will faster comprehend the particular Ma‘a¯ni of the Suwar (singular, Su¯ra), ˙ ˙ images that he or she is watching. A similar view of the development of perception is found in the work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. In the twenty-seventh Risa¯la, the ˙ authors assert that if the human fetus develops safely and is born without any defect, the perceptual powers will come into direct contact with the perceived bodies and know their forms. Then, they will transmit their impressions to the imagining powers (al-quwwa almutakhayyila) in the front of the brains, which will transmit them to the thinking [powers]. Next, the perceived [bodies] will disappear from the reach of the senses, and the traces of their impression will remain represented in the idea in the soul (musuwara fi fikrat al-nafs). The soul will then be independent, ˙ will not need by its nature the senses, and will operate on them [these traces] without the interference of anything foreign to itself. . . If the soul thinks and meditates about them, it will only find the forms (Suwar) of the perceived things extracted from ˙ their matter, and represented in the essence of the soul. . .37 The authors go on to explain that the mechanism is the same for both visual perception and intellectual forms constructed by language (Suwar al-ma‘qu¯la¯t). The latter are brought to the soul by words ˙ moving through the air, and the former are transported by light. The soul accepts forms of knowledge (Suwar al-ma‘lu¯ma¯t) from both ˙ senses and reason (al-ma‘qu¯la¯t).



For the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, knowledge builds up from the senses to ˙ the intellect, ‘Aql, and can then be completed on the basis of demonstration, al-Burha¯n. It is the senses, and not the proven or the reasonable, which make knowledge possible. And the proof of the validity of what we assert is that all what the senses do not perceive, one way or the other, cannot be imagined by the faculty of imagination, la¯ tatakhayuluhu al’awha¯mu, and what cannot be imagined by the faculty of imagination cannot be translated into forms by the intellect, la¯ tatasawuruhu al-‘uqu¯l.38 ˙ Thus, the Suwar—‘Know, say the Ikhwa¯n, that knowledge is just the ˙ form, Su¯ra of the known [thing] in the soul of the person who ˙ knows’39— are in fact Ma‘a¯ni built by the intellect, or reason. Further, the elaboration of the Suwar is made possible by the ˙ existence of the senses. On this point too all our authors agree. We can now go back to the discussion of ibn al-Haytham’s notion of beauty. Ibn al-Haytham asserts that each one of the Ma‘a¯ni that make beauty can produce beauty on its own. This will occur only under certain conditions. Also, when grouped, the Ma‘a¯ni produce beauty, and most certainly a kind of beauty not found in any single one of them. In addition to these kinds of beauty—produced by single Ma‘a¯ni, meanings, and their combination—another kind of beauty may be obtained by proportionality and harmony. Ibn al-Haytham states: Proportionality alone may produce beauty, provided that the organs are not in themselves ugly—though not perfect in their beauty. Thus when a form combines the beauty of the shapes of all its parts and the beauty of their magnitudes and their composition and the proportionality of parts in regard to shape, size, position and all the other properties [Arabic Ma‘a¯ni, meanings] required by proportionality, and moreover, when the organs are proportionate to the shape and size of the face as a whole—that is perfect beauty.40



In ibn al-Haytham’s view, the key conditions to producing beauty are proportionality and harmony of the parts of an object. Furthermore, perfect beauty can be produced only by proportion. This is a view similar to that of the Ikhwa¯n, and of ibn Miskawayh, except that ibn al-Haytham presents us with a very detailed definition of the notion of Husn, beauty. The definition al-Haytham gives is seven pages long. ˙ Twenty two of its 36 paragraphs are each devoted to a particular Ma‘na¯ while the other paragraphs are dedicated to a combination of Ma‘a¯ni, that is, to proportion and harmony. Further, when sight perceives an object whose beauty consists in the conjunction of properties [Ma‘a¯ni, meanings] and in their proportionality, and it contemplates the object thus distinguishing and perceiving the properties [Ma‘a¯ni, meanings] that produce beauty by being conjoined or by being proportionate to one another, and this proportion occurs in the sentient, and the faculty of judgment compares those properties [Ma‘a¯ni, meanings] with one another, then the faculty will perceive the beauty of the object that consists in the conjunction of the harmoniously combined properties [Ma‘a¯ni, meanings] in it.41 In his commentary on the Optics Sabra insightfully notes that ibn alHaytham’s ‘preferred word for “beautiful” is not the usual hasan ˙ (which he uses only twice), but the passive mustahsan, which ˙ emphasizes the subjective aspect of the aesthetic judgment.’42 In fact, in ibn al-Haytham’s view the perception of beauty is based on comparison. Thus, he says, if a child who is not extremely young nor of perfectly [developed] judgment is shown two things of the same kind, say two rare fruits or garments or such things as children like, and is made to choose between them, assuming that one of them is beautiful in appearance and the other ugly, he will choose the beautiful and refuse the ugly one, provided that he has reached awareness and is not extremely young.43



Similarly if the child is presented with two objects, of which one is more beautiful than the other, he will choose the more beautiful. The child’s perception of beauty and his choice are made on the premise that ‘what is more beautiful is better and what is better is more worthy of choice’.44 The child uses this premise, which is universal, without being aware of doing so. Perception of beauty is thus based on the recognition of particular Ma‘a¯ni (meanings), and on the sometimes unconscious use of universal premises. To sum up, one can conclude that in ibn al-Haytham’s view of visual perception the subject is active through recognition of Ma‘a¯ni (meanings), inference, and judgment. The effect of beauty on the soul is therefore a process in which the viewer is both passive in receiving the sensation and active in building its meaning. The mind does not passively receive a sensation of beauty from the outside. It recognizes, or rather uncovers, the beautiful in the sensation presented. It is remarkable that the process of perception of beauty, as viewed by ibn al-Haytham, is similar to that of ibn Tabataba’s poetic theory of a mind able to enjoy the ˙ ˙ Ma‘na¯ it recognizes in poems. Moreover, because the visually perceived Ma‘na¯ is what constitutes the Su¯ra (form, image), one cannot help but see ˙ the parallel between this view and that of the Ikhwa¯n according to which man learns from nature by uncovering forms, Su¯ra. It seems therefore ˙ quite reasonable to assert that ibn al-Haytham shares the main basis for reasoning that shapes the aesthetic views of his contemporaries.

The Theory of Proportions of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ The theory of proportions lies at the heart of the philosophic and theological views of the Ikhwa¯n, and although it is presented in Risa¯la 6, ‘On the Arithmetic and Geometric Proportions with respect to the Refinement of the Soul and Reformation of Morals’, the subject is introduced and discussed in the first Risa¯la that deals with numbers. The first two epistles of the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ are devoted to ˙ Arithmetic and Geometry. The proclaimed aim of these first epistles is to create the intellectual foundations that would allow the proper training in philosophy and theology.45 The core of the Ikhwa¯n’s theory of proportions is clearly inherited from Greek philosophy and



mathematics, a fact that the authors acknowledge.46 Thus, for example, as El-Bizri has shown, ‘following the Hellenistic tradition, “the science of number” (arithmeˆke´ tekhneˆ;‘ilm al-‘adad) was distinguished from the “science of reckoning” (logistikeˆ techneˆ; ‘ilm al-hisa¯b) in view of highlighting the pragmatic and quotidian use of ˙ calculation’.47 The science of numbers, assert the Ikhwa¯n, comes first and before all mathematical sciences because it is ‘strongly inserted in every soul, and because [in Arithmetic] the human being needs only to meditate with his intellectual power without taking examples from other sciences; rather it is from it that examples are taken for all knowledge’.48 Moreover, the science of numbers gives indications about the nature of the soul, for all numbers and their qualities are accidents (a‘ra¯d, plural of ‘arad) that exist only in the soul. ˙ ˙ To grasp more easily the Ikhwa¯n’s thought about the importance of numbers in the structure of the world, it will be useful to summarize their narrative of the creation of the universe, which is closer to Greek philosophy than to the Judeo-Christian genesis that Islam reclaims. The Ikhwa¯n assert that: The first thing God created from the Light of his Oneness was a simple Essence which is the Agent Intellect (al-‘aql al-fa‘‘a¯l). He also created the number two by repetition of the one. Then, he created the Universal Astral Soul from the light of the Intellect. Likewise he created the number three by adding one to two. Then, he created the Primordial Matter (hyle`) from the movement of the Soul. Likewise he created the number four by adding one to three. Then he created all creatures from the primordial matter and organized them through the Intellect and the Soul. Likewise he created all other numbers from the number four by adding the smaller numbers [already created], as we have shown earlier.49 All numbers are thus obtained through simple additions. More importantly, due to the process of creation, in which numbers, Soul, and Intellect are interconnected, numbers appear to bear great symbolism. By the same token, each and every number has a particular symbolic status. Furthermore, ‘Arithmetic, say the Ikhwa¯n, is the knowledge of



the attributes of numbers and of the corresponding meaning (Ma‘a¯ni) in the existing things as mentioned by Pythagoras, and Nicomachus’.50 It is worth noting that, in their definition of Arithmetic, the Ikhwa¯n use the word Ma‘a¯ni, plural of Ma‘na¯, the very same word that is key to the new poetic theory of Muhammad Ibn Taba¯taba¯ discussed in the previous ˙ ˙ chapter. The Ma‘a¯ni are found in every existing thing, and it is the task of the mathematician-philosopher to uncover them in the world and learn the numbers that correspond to them. On the one hand, numbers are symbolic because they symbolize something, as when we say that the number 1 is the symbol of the Oneness of God, or the number 4 is symbolic of the four elements, the four climates, and so on. On the other hand, numbers are by themselves symbolic of the creation as a whole: that is because He made all existing species according to peculiar numbers corresponding to each other, in quantity or form, kimiyya aw kayfiyya, so that that can be a proof for the scholars and the wise who will investigate their apparent testimony and search its concealed being, gha¯’ibiha¯ al-khafiy. They will then understand and know that all [those species] are the work of the Wise Creator. That will strengthen their discernment and conviction, as well as their passion to join God, High be His praise; and they will pray Him day and night.51 Moreover, the generation of numbers is a divine gift to humans because numbers allow an easy comprehension of the creation of the universe from nothingness. The Ikhwa¯n assert that we are so accustomed to thinking matter is basic to the production of any object that we cannot understand how the universe could have been created from nothing. But God, High be His praise, knew how intelligent people will be faced with such doubts and uncertainty... and created an easy and closer way [to them], and inscribed it in their souls. . . which is the nature of the form of the numbers, and its creation from the [number] one that is before the [number] two. . .52



Numbers have their own qualities: the number 1 is considered a unit rather than a number because numbers are by their definition a combination of units. The number 2 is thus the first number and also the first even number; the number 3 is the first odd number; the number 4 is the first square number (‘adad majdhu¯r, because 4 ¼ 2 £ 2). These are the foundational numbers on the basis of which all other numbers are obtained by simple additions. The number 5 ¼ 1 þ 4; the number 6 ¼ 2 þ 4; the number 7 ¼ 3 þ 4; the number 8 ¼ 1 þ 3 þ 4; the number 9 ¼ 2 þ 3 þ 4; the number 10 ¼ 1 þ 2 þ 3 þ 4. The number ten is the first of the series of al-‘ashara¯t, or the tens. The number 8 is the first cubic number (‘adad mujassam, 8 ¼ 2 £ 2 £ 2). The number 9 is the first perfect odd square ( fard majdhu¯r, 9 ¼ 3 £ 3)53. The number 11 is “deaf”, asamm, because it does not ˙ have a fraction that has its own name, but we say ‘one out of eleven’. The number 12 is ‘exceeding’, or ‘abundant’, in Arabic za¯’id, because the sum of its factors exceeds it. When added together, the numbers 7, 9, and 12 give a perfect number, ‘adad ta¯mm: 28, (7 þ 9 þ 12 ¼ 28). As mentioned above all these numbers have strong symbolism, and are related to the universe and the Creator. The number 1 is symbolic of God, the number 2 of the Intellect, the number 3 of the Soul, and the number 4 of Matter.54 The number 7 represents the 7 moving planets, the 7 days of the week. The number 9 represents the 9 celestial spheres. The number 12 represents the 12 divisions of the Zodiac. The number 28 represents the 28 planets and lunar mansions. It is worth noting that the symbolism of these numbers is shared by many contemporary authors including Fatimid Da¯‘ı¯s like Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r al-Yaman.55 ˙ In the Ikhwa¯n’s classification of knowledge “The Science of Numbers” is one part of “The Mathematical Sciences” presented in a group of 14 epistles. These 14 epistles represent the first of the four groups that constitute their classification. This first group of sciences is devoted to Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music. The Ikhwa¯n present us with a definition of Music very different from what an ordinary reader would expect in our time. For these authors: ‘[the science of Music] is the knowledge of harmonies and proportions of different things and essences of opposed powers’.56 It is important to



recall and highlight the fact that in the Ikhwa¯n’s view the Science of Music is not limited to the art of music. Rather, it is pertinent to the study of all existing things. Proportion and harmony are crucial for all crafts and existing things. Their study is called Music because music presents us with the best demonstration of the effects of proportion and harmony upon the mind. In Arithmetic, the generation of numbers starts with the number 1 as shown above. Likewise in Geometry, the generation of figures altogether with their three dimensions is based on the point.57 Also, as with the science of ‘adad in which Arithmetic is distinguished from the practical science of reckoning, ‘ilm al-hisa¯b, in the science of ˙ Geometry a distinction exists between Theoretical Geometry, alHandasa al-‘aqliyya, and Sensory Geometry, al-Handasa al-hissiyya. ˙ The sensory Geometry, al-Handasa al-hissiyya is the knowledge ˙ of quantities and of meanings that occur in them when they are added to each other. It is what can be seen by the sense of vision, and can be grasped by the touch. The theoretical Geometry, alHandasa al-‘aqliyya, on the contrary, is what can be known and understood. What can be seen by the vision are the lines, the planes, and the volumes with dimensions and that which develops out of them. . . The measurements are of three kinds: lines, planes, and volumes; and this geometry is necessary to all crafts, because the fact that the craftsman defines measurements before the work is a kind of theoretical Geometry, and a knowledge of the [three] dimensions and the meaning of their combinations which are imagined in the Soul by thinking. These are three: length, width, and depth, and are attributes of the sensory measurements.58 Indeed, the Ikhwa¯n indicate that the lines have one dimension called length. The plane has two dimensions called length and width, while volumes have three: length, width and depth. The study of these dimensions is not concerned with the physical volumes per se. Although the Ikhwa¯n make a clear distinction between Sensory and Theoretical geometry, they cannot present some theoretical



notions, such as the point, the generation of the line and the plane, without illustrations from Sensory geometry, that is, by using figures that are necessarily visual. One may conclude that despite its higher theoretical status, to be intellectually accessible, Theoretical Geometry needs Sensory, visual illustrations. Notions such as the point, the line, or the plane are indeed more easily understood with the help of drawings, and the Risa¯la on Geometry makes ample recourse to drawn figures. Remarkably, the authors do not acknowledge the pedagogical need of Sensory Geometry for their presentation of the Theoretical Geometry, but they emphasize the need of that geometry for craftsmen. This fact provides us with information about the Ikhwa¯n’s view of the relation of geometry and the crafts. The origin of Sensory Geometry is, the Ikhwa¯n assert: the estimation before doing the work, because every craftsman who builds and combines volumes needs to estimate beforehand the place where to make the work, when to make it and when to start. He must consider if he can do it, and reckon with which tools he might make it. He also needs to imagine how to combine its parts and make them match each other. This is the Sensory al-Handasa that is used in most crafts which is the matching of diverse volumes with each other.59 More remarkably the authors do not credit animals that build geometric figures, such as bees and spiders, as having obtained the same knowledge as humans. They acknowledge that bees wisely use the hexagon in building their beehives, and spiders wisely weave their nets using circles and diagonals, but the authors point out that both bees and spiders do this naturally. Animals possess a natural craft; they cannot and do not use estimation before doing their work. More remarkably, the authors assert that even though the majority of humans learn their crafts from teachers, some do invent their crafts thanks to the ‘will, and the intelligence of their soul’. Invention is what distinguishes humans from other animals.60 Moreover, the Ikhwa¯n emphasize that learning Sensory Geometry allows for greater



understanding and mastery of all crafts, just as Theoretical Geometry allows for a better understanding of all intellectual crafts.

The Universal Nature of Proportions Sensory Geometry, al-Handasa al-hissiyya, consists in the craftsman’s ˙ imagination of the parts of any object he wants to make, their proportions and harmonization, and their combination. The knowledge of numbers is necessary to design and combine parts, make tools and calculate timing. Numbers are useful for the calculation of quantities and time, for the definition of the good proportions of the parts, and the harmonization of the whole. Numbers, as we have seen, have symbolic freight. In addition, they are related to each other in particular ways called proportions. This gives the science of numbers a prominent role in the sciences. Proportions are of three kinds: they are based on quantity, kimmiyya, or on quality, kayfiyya, or on both.61 The first type is called arithmetic proportion, the second is called geometric. The combination of arithmetic and geometric proportion is called musical, or harmonic proportion. The role of proportion is limited to harmonious music and other aesthetic creations. It is indeed fundamental to the structure and the equilibrium of the universe. As the Ikhwa¯n explain, the elements are of various strengths; they are antagonistic in their natures, different in their images; they dwell in different places, are conflicting enemies, and do not combine without their composition by the Creator. And their composition cannot combine and unite [them] when it is not based on proportion.62 Thus proportion is not only necessary to music and poetry. It is required for the very existence of all created things. Without proportion things would simply not be able to withstand the conflicting natures of the elements of which they are composed. This understanding applies to natural things and human creations as well. Moreover, it is only when the elements or components are used in



the right proportion that natural and humanly created things are in their best aspect. A good illustration of this rule is found in painting: The paints of image makers [painters] are diverse in color, and opposed in shine, as are black, white, red, green and yellow, and all other colors. So whenever some of these paints are composed together in the [right] proportion the resulting paintings are shining and beautiful, and whenever they are composed without proportion the [resulting] paintings are dark, dull, and without beauty [ugly]. Likewise, elements and parts of [painted] figures are different in shape, at variance in size, so whenever their quantity is chosen in the [right] proportion, and they are composed in the [good] proportion the [resulting] figure is correct, justly built and attractive, and whenever it differs from our description, it is shamijatun, disturbed, mudtaribatun, and unattractive to the soul.63 ˙ This is equally true for the composition of medicines, which requires the right proportion of ingredients. The rule of proportion is not limited to musical composition, pharmaceutical trade, or painting craft, it applies to every existing thing. It is the very nature of elements to require the respect of proportionality. Therefore a result will be the best whenever the composition of substances follows the best proportion possible. The more the composition deviates from the perfect proportion, the more the result will deviate from the best state. Thus, for instance, a human body composed of the right proportion of elements will be strong and healthy. Likewise, a human body will be beautiful in aspect and good in manners when the organs and members are built according to the right proportions. Thus we can see that the proportion theory is not simply about aesthetics. Rather, proportions intervene in the nature and aesthetic appearance of everything. Respect for proportion is required to insure the combination of the elements and its stability. Further, the conflicting nature of the elements renders all combinations of the elements and consequently all existing things necessarily ephemeral. Very often the



composition of elements deviates from the perfect proportion, and likewise all existing objects, created by man or by nature, deviate from perfection. On another level one might wonder, since the universe is structured through a given hierarchy, whether there exists something close to perfect proportion and, if so, how it can be found. The Ikhwa¯n tell us that the answer is found in the human form. This answer follows the Greek philosophical tradition and conforms to Islamic views. When God decided to make the Earth a hospitable world for man, He first created man from clay and gave him the most perfect form. He made him superior to all animals by giving him the most beautiful shape. Then, ‘to make him able of motion, sensitive, able to understand and learn, savant, worker, and act willingly.’64 He blew in him the noblest Spirit, and empowered him with spiritual powers from all heavenly planets. Thus, man was created with the ability to learn all sciences, literature, mathematics, knowledge, and politics, and thanks to his body and organs man is able to practise all crafts and other activities. ‘The purpose of all of this’, say the Ikhwa¯n, ‘is to give to man the means and the opportunity to emulate his God and Creator.’65 Thus, in all his works man should imitate the Creator. This creative imitation accompanies a longing for heavenly existence because man is endowed with heavenly spiritual powers. This is why perfection in any work is a way to getting closer to the Creator. Finally, I should note that although the Ikhwa¯n do not seem to advertise mystical experience there is a similarity in the goal towards which both the Ikhwa¯n and the Su¯fi strove, and which Netton defined ˙ as follows: ‘All yearned for union of one kind or another with the deity, and saw the interior life of the soul as a haven of security and dependability in periods of turmoil, stress and change.’66 This similarity, adds Netton, is made more meaningful when considered in the light of the similarity of many aspects of their respective cosmological views. Perhaps we should consider these similarities as a basis for the investigation of the later development of Su¯fi aesthetic ˙ views, which then could very well be explained as an original interpretation of the Ikhwa¯n’s aesthetic theory.


In all crafts perfection is the imitation of the Wise Artisan. For the image of the human body, Su¯rat al-’insa¯n is the greatest ˙ evidence of God [addressed] to His creatures, because it is the closest to them, its proofs are the clearest and its arguments the strongest. It is the book He wrote with his hand, and the shape, al-haykal He built with His wisdom. . . It is the summa of the images of all the worlds, and the synthesis of the sciences of the preserved book (al-luh al-mahfu¯dh).1 ˙ ˙ ˙ Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ According to the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, all existing things are images or ˙ Suwar (singular al-su¯ra)—an Arabic word that also means form and ˙ ˙ picture—presented in matter. In other words, one can say that the universe is made of images. One interesting question that this view provokes is how to make paintings in a world of images. In this third chapter I discuss the aesthetic views of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, in ˙ particular their theory of the imitation of nature. I should mention again that I think of their work as encyclopedic, and therefore representative of a widely spread vision and approach to the world, especially among the learned and the elite. I also discuss the possible impact the Ikhwa¯n had on the work of painters and other craftsmen



who were engaged in figurative arts in Fatimid Egypt. First, I will discuss, in general terms, how theoretical views might impact the arts. Then I will briefly describe what has been called the emergence of a realistic trend in Fatimid art and the debates that notion initiated among art historians. I will then try to articulate the views of the time on art. This will lead to a consideration of the process of artistic creation found in the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, its explanation of the goals of ˙ art and the effects of painting on the soul. Finally, I will try to show how these views can help us understand the qualities of Fatimid art. The idea that theoretical views can impact the arts is well established in the History of Art, especially in the case of Christian art, be it Medieval or Renaissance. In the case of European religious art, the Church was able to intervene in artistic production by the ability to commission certain artistic subjects and censuring others. For today’s art historians, censorship often serves as basic proof of Church impact. As for the art of the Islamic world, discussion on this issue has always been biased by a view, partly justified, that concentrates heavily on the ban on representation of living beings. This narrow perspective often augments the belief that Islamic culture and its thinkers never produced anything close to a theory of art that could have demonstrably impacted the arts. Nevertheless the issue has been raised and discussed in different ways by different authors. For instance, Seyyed Nasr suggests that Qur’anic texts had determining effects on Islamic visual culture, and calligraphic art in particular.2 On the other hand Papadopoulo, building upon Massignon’s approach, views Islamic aesthetics as the construction of an abstract model based on religious prohibitions which constitutes a radical departure from the realistic Hellenistic model inherited from the past.3 Alternately, Oleg Grabar rejects Massignon’s thesis and asserts that there is no evidence that early Islamic thought could have been expressed in its contemporary art. Grabar also rejects a parallelism between art and early Islamic mystic thought and denies any impact of scientific or proto-scientific theory on art.4 Material evidence contradicts Papadopoulo’ claim for a radical departure from Hellenistic art and the representation of reality.



Contrary to Papadopoulo, the art of the early middle period of Islam, to use Hodgson’s terminology, in particular that of the Fatimids, witnessed the creation of a realistic artistic style and the resurgence of a Hellenistic one.5 Richard Ettinghausen, one of the greatest historians of the arts of the Islamic world, asserts that the appearance of realism in the arts of Fatimid Egypt is without doubt visible in the material evidence. Motifs of the repertory of the art of Islam, he says, witnessed a transformation attesting to the emergence of a realistic attitude. He asserts: The naturalistic transformation of such traditional motifs like dancers, lute players and hunter shows, however, that the deeper reason for this change was a new mental attitude.6 . . . There still remains the task for a historian to see how this realistic development—a kind of revival of the realism current in ancient Egyptian and Hellenistic art—can be explained and be placed in an historical context. A more specific task would be for a literary historian to see whether this new tendency in the figural arts can be correlated with similar features in Arabic literature, especially in Egypt. This will also help solve the question of how much the Shı¯‘a beliefs of the Fatimids helped in the development in the figural style of Egypt. Some scholars see in it the clue for this startling evolution, while others deny it. Be that as it may be, it is probably of certain significance in this connection that the Fatimid period produced also some outstanding scientists whose achievements were based on observation. Ibn al-Haitham (d. 1039), particularly well known for his studies in optics, has been called ‘the greatest physicist of medieval times’ and ‘the best embodiment of the experimental spirit in the Middle Ages’; his contemporary compatriot ‘Amma¯r has been thought to be ‘the most original oculist of Islam’, while Ibn Yu¯nu¯s (d.1009) is regarded as ‘perhaps the greatest Muslim astronomer’ having been given excellent opportunities by the Fatimid rulers, especially by means of a well-equipped observatory in Cairo.7



It is worth noting that literary evidence about artistic competition between Egyptians and Iraqis indicates that the art of Iraq of the same period also witnessed the same realistic attitude (more on this below).8 This should be viewed as an ordinary result of the extraordinary circulation of intellectual and artistic ideas and people within the Islamic world at the time, in spite of political antagonism and conflicts. This fact has been noted by many authors. For instance, Margaret Van Berchem considers Baghdad’s cultural dominance in exchange as the main reason behind the export of ‘Abbasid Stucco designs to their enemies in Sadrata, a Kharijit town in Southern Algeria. Other authors have explained the traveling of the ‘Abbasid musician Ziryab from Baghdad to Umayyad Spain in the same terms. The export of ‘Abbasid fashion and music to their worst foes was made possible by cultural domination. The circulation of artistic and intellectual innovation in the vast territory of the Islamic world seems indeed to have been particularly vigorous during the Classical and the Middle periods. Before developing my argument further, I should add that the notion of a ‘realistic’ Fatimid art is not the object of general approval. For instance, referring to Maqrizi’s report on the painting contest quoted by Ettinghausen, and to another one about some mosque paintings, Oleg Grabar asserts: I find it difficult to accept either the term ‘realism’ or even the preferable one of ‘illusionism’ for the images of ceramics or for the closest parallel known to me for the paintings described by Maqrizi, namely the paintings in the drum of the main dome of the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem datable around AD 1035.9 Oleg Grabar grounds his argument on the premise that the Aqsa Mosque should be considered as the best place to illustrate the Fatimid style, and that actually its paintings are not realistic in style. His argument could be conclusive if Fatimid art were defined by a single style, which clearly is not the case. Perhaps, as Freedberg would say, ‘that assessment only reveals the limits of our standards. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the conception of resemblance



[to nature] possessed by the makers or consumers of those images’.10 In any case, we will never be able to appreciate a work of art as people did in the past, or to use Freedberg words again, ‘we cannot see with old eyes’.11 In his ‘Reconstruction’ of Fatimid art Ettinghausen has enumerated four stylistic trends (see below). Moreover, the very notion of ‘realism’ should be understood in a relativistic way. There are different ways of expressing ‘realism’. Even the painting of nudes, as Kenneth Clark has demonstrated, is a historical construct defined by changing figurative methods and modes of representation of the human body. In the very naturalist Renaissance, painting the human body was more of an imaginative construction than a simple reproduction of reality. For instance, in Michelangelo’s work the representation of female bodies was based on male models with the addition of breasts.12 Furthermore, modern conceptions of art have moved far away from the Albertian window theory and the view of painting as a mirror image of the world. Today, we consider Cezanne’s ‘still life’ paintings with their coloured and assembled volumes realistic. We also have come to see in Pablo Picasso’s portraits much resemblance to the individuals they represent, and consider his ‘Guernica’ a more expressive portrait of war and devastation than allegedly more ‘realistic’ paintings of war, such as the battle of Lepanto by Giorgio Vasari. Thus, the notion of a Fatimid realistic stylistic trend should be viewed in the context of historical stylistic change. When compared to earlier representations of humans and animals (as in Fig. 1) Fatimid depictions appear indeed remarkably realistic (as in Figs. 2 and 3). In this respect, Arthur Lane’s book Early Islamic Pottery is quite enlightening. It reads: ‘When living forms reappear on the monochrome lustre-ware, about the turn of the ninth-tenth century, they are childish incunabula, the mental symbols rather than the recorded observations of life.’13 Moreover, Lane notices the same stylistic features of living forms in the pottery of tenth-century Persia.14 In view of the historical context the use of the term ‘realistic’ to qualify Fatimid pottery seems indeed reasonably justified. I should add, as Oleg Grabar noted in the same text, that the iconographic and stylistic concerns found in ceramics should be considered typical of all the Fatimid arts.15



Figure 1 Tin-glazed ware, monochrome, 18.5 cm, tenth century, from Fustat. Museum of Islamic Art (Photo: Arthur Lane, Early Islamic Pottery, 1965: Pl. 13a)

In his Arts of the City Victorious, Jonathan M. Bloom has an original take on this issue. First, he recapitulates Grabar’s attempt to explain the popularity of figural art in Fatimid Egypt by giving it a social dimension, ascribing it to the sudden impact of upper-class royal imagery on the urban art of the bourgeoisie following the dispersal of the Fatimid treasuries.16 He then indicates that the event in question took place in 1067 and is well recorded. J.M. Bloom argues figural art was present in Egypt long before the plundering and dispersal of Fatimid treasuries or even before the arrival of Mesopotamian artists under Fatimid rule.



Figure 2 Fatimid ware, painted in lustre, from Cairo, early eleventh century. Museum of Islamic Art (Photo: Arthur Lane, Early Islamic Pottery, 1965: Pl. 23b)

Furthermore scientific analysis shows that Fatimid-era luster-wares underwent technical changes that fall into four groups. This indicates a spread of figurative themes in the early period and their relative rarity in the last group.17 Thus one can conclude that the appearance of ‘realism’ in Fatimid art was accompanied in the early periods by an intensification of the use of figural themes and its spread to all sorts of media. The analysis presented in the previous chapters indicates that the work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ develops a sophisticated view of the arts ˙ and their effects on the soul. Now did the views of the Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯’—according to which human destiny and its greatest aim are the ˙



Figure 3 Ceramic Bowl with metallic lustre, 40 cm. From the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, Inv. #14923 (by permission of the American University in Cairo Press)

reformation of the soul by learning, acquisition of morals and devotion to arts and crafts as part of that reformation and search for perfection—have any real impact on the culture of their time? And if so, how did this new vision of the human condition impact the practice of the arts and crafts? If it is reasonable to imagine such an impact theoretically, it certainly is more difficult to articulate and trace the causal effects of this new vision of the human condition on the arts. Moreover, although these philosophical views contain explicit statements about the arts and their practice, their authors are not practising artists, or even connected to artists and craftsmen by any evidence known to us. Yet it seems reasonable to assume that their views and their way of thinking were very influential. The



distribution of the Rasa¯’il was widespread and important enough for a thirteenth-century author as renowned as ibn Taymiya to compose a refutation of their work.18 Indeed, the intellectual framework of the Ikhwa¯n was shared by most philosophers of the time. On the other hand we should recall that in the Islamic world, as in medieval Europe, painters worked for the wealthy and powerful, and often received clearly defined commissions, as many anecdotes below demonstrate. This fact alone, as in the case of Christian art, should be admitted as a proof of an effective role of clients in defining painting and its subjects. Therefore, although it appears quite difficult, at this point, to conclusively demonstrate the existence of precise and definable connections between observable artistic changes and the new theoretical views, it is reasonable to assume that these views did impact artistic production. My conclusion will therefore remain hypothetical, in the sense that any theoretical reflection consists in venturing speculative correlations between different series of facts that may prove to stand critical enquiry and be adopted as acceptable hypothesis until it is shown to be wrong. This discussion is made even more complex by reckoning with the stylistic variety that characterizes the figurative arts of the time (painting, woodwork, pottery, glasswork and ivory objects to cite a few). Indeed, from the tenth to the twelfth centuries the evidence shows that several figurative styles are present in painting and other figurative crafts of the Islamic world. The case of Fatimid arts, to which I limit my discussion in this book, is the most exemplary in this respect. As Ettinghausen writes, In summing up, one can say that several styles of painting can be assumed for Fatimid Egypt. The main school is a derivative of the Iraqi one as it is known to us from Samarra. It still follows the Sasanian tradition very closely, though certain transformations could be traced. Comparatively little can be said about other styles at this present moment. The ‘Hellenistic’ school shows connections with well-known manuscripts. Supplementing these official types of paintings are what could so far only be vaguely described and labeled as



the ‘realistic’ and ‘popular’ trends. The old and indigenous art of Coptic Egypt does not seem to have played an important role, at least in the art of the court or higher Islamic society.19 I should recall that complex temporality and multiplicity of timeframes are basic to the development of the arts and to a correct approach to the intertwinement of art (images, artefacts) with ideas and thought. This complex temporality implies that innovations do not propagate in regular and predictable ways, that different creative manners can coexist and that the new does not necessarily brush off the old. To venture a hypothesis and open a discussion about both the new trends and the return to an Hellenistic style, I would like to suggest, first, that this new turn in figurative art was caused by the new aesthetic vision that the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ and others developed. Second, I argue ˙ the new realistic trends and the resurgence of the Hellenistic school are intimately related, for both spring from the same aesthetic view. A more general note about the remarkable stylistic diversity of Fatimid painting ought to be made here. Diversity, the Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯’ tell us, is a mercy, for it is fundamental to the search of truth. ˙ Indeed, differences in opinion among scholars are crucial in creating a critical attitude for those who are learning. By indicating that these different and respectable authoritative opinions cannot all be true, differences in opinion incite further investigation and search for truth. Diversity is a shield against obtuse ignorance because it encourages the learner not to accept one opinion but rather to admit differences in opinion. Humans, by nature, are unable to attain truth in its entirety.20 Besides, as Ja‘far al-Yaman asserts, ignorance is the original condition of (human) creatures, so there’s no fault in that [condition] for those who seek knowledge, when they are aware of their ignorance. But denial [of the truth] is ‘the worst trade of all.’21 One must note that it is no wonder that such views were held in a multi-confessional society, where Muslims of diverse schools and traditions coexisted with Jewish and Christian communities.



Therefore it is not surprising that a diversity of artistic styles and trends could exist.

Creation/Origination ‘All creatures are created by His saying: kun! be!’22 Crafts are based on learning the forms al-Suwar (singular, Su¯ra), ˙ ˙ which were created by God to give shape to matter. Fatimid thinkers like the Da¯‘ı¯ Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r al-Yaman developed a ˙ similar notion, which points to a connection between the Fatimid Da¯‘ı¯ and the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. The Da¯‘ı¯ states: ‘God is the originator ˙ of things and the Giver of their existence. He created them and He initiated them, without any preceding source of creation that he might have referred to [as a model] for what he created. . .’23 In contrast, humans need to follow models in their work. Therefore they learn forms, al-Suwar from existing objects, God’s creatures. ˙ Thus, the practice of the arts and crafts is a de facto emulation of the Divine Creation because such practices require the use of al-Suwar. ˙ Likewise, the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ state that ‘in all crafts perfection is the ˙ imitation of the Wise Artisan’. If we accept that this notion is shared by the Fatimid Da‘wa and the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ then it ˙ becomes necessary to ask how this notion impacts the arts of the period. The answer requires keeping in mind the general view of the nature of creation and of its results. Like the Fatimid Da¯‘ı¯ Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r al-Yaman, the Ikhwa¯n ˙ al-Safa¯’ use different words to describe the two aspects of Divine ˙ Creation. These words differentiate what today we call human creative work, or artistic creation, and Divine Creation. For the latter they use in particular, but not exclusively, the words al-khalq, and alibda¯‘. Thus they state: And know that al-khalq, creation, is to bring into being a thing from another thing as God, High be his praise, says: ‘He created you from earth,’ but al-ibda¯‘, Origination is to bring into being a thing from nothing, and the words of God are the source through which He created all creatures, as He said: ‘It is our



speaking to a thing if We wanted it—meaning We created it— and saying: be, and it comes into being, kun fa yakun.’ Thus all creatures are created by His saying: kun! be!24 Interestingly, nowadays, the word al-khalq is used exclusively in connection with God’s Creation, whereas the word al-ibda¯‘, which in the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ refers exclusively to creation from nothing, is ˙ used to signify artistic creation. In the sense of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ artisans or artists are not capable of al-ibda¯‘, or creation ex nihilo. Humans always make things from something else. Humans first learn from God’s creatures, from which they pick up some Su¯ra. Then ˙ using some matter they make something that materializes that Su¯ra. ˙ This can be a painting, a shoe, or a piece of cake. Humans are thus always emulating God’s creation. Naturally, as we will see below, they can make up new Suwar by trying non-existent combinations of ˙ Suwar, but, according to the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, humans, strictly ˙ ˙ speaking, are not capable of creating from nothing, they are not capable of practising the al-ibda¯‘, they are always limited to combining existing Suwar and matter. ˙

Su¯ra and Matter ˙ The relationship of Su¯ra and matter is of two kinds. This relationship ˙ can be essential to the existence of a thing, or just accidental. The Ikhwa¯n explain: Know, Oh brother that each of these forms, Suwar is a formative ˙ [component] of something. It is either essential to it and completes another thing, or accidental. The difference between them is that the essential Su¯ra that is formative of a thing is that ˙ whose disappearance from the matter causes that of the thing itself. The accidental Su¯ra that completes a thing is that whose ˙ disappearance from the matter does not cause that of the matter. An example of that is that sewing is a Su¯ra formative of the ˙ body of a shirt. It is essential to it, because it is by it that a fabric becomes a shirt. But to the fabric it is accidental and



supplemental. The proof of that is that when sewing is taken away from the fabric the shirt does not exist anymore, but the fabric still exists.25 This constitutive relationship between matter and Su¯ra is more ˙ complex than it first appears. Fabric, which is the matter of the shirt, is also made of Su¯ra (weaving) and matter (cotton thread), which in ˙ turn is made of a matter, cotton, and a Su¯ra, al-Ghazl, spinning ˙ thread. Thus matter may be made out of an elaborate multilayer of matter–Su¯ra relationships. In this minute and elaborate construc˙ tion, matter appears always as the physical entity and Su¯ra as the ˙ abstract and spiritual addition to it. The spiritual component of shape makes possible the creation of the complexity and infinite number of objects. Therefore, the Su¯ra and not the material body is ˙ essential to its existence. Suwar are like angels who have no bodies yet ˙ nevertheless can be seen. To those who doubt this, the authors reply: If questioned: how can a human being see the persons of the angels in spite of the fact that they are not bodies? Answer: the same way he can see the shapes of objects and their figures in a mirror, despite [the fact] that those figures [in the mirror] are not bodies.26

The soul, the Su¯ra and the imagining power ˙ The spiritual nature of the Su¯ra is crucial to any understanding of the ˙ status of painting and figurative arts in the Islamic society of the period. It is paradoxically the very notion of Su¯ra that gives the soul ˙ its superior status to other existing things. Indeed the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ assert: The proof that the essence of the soul is more refined than that of the Light is that it accepts the designs, al-rusu¯m, of all the perceived things and thoughts. That is why a human being is able, thanks to his imaginative power, to imagine and phantasm things which he cannot with the power of his senses,



because the latter is physical and gets all its perceived [Suwar ] ˙ from physical essences outside, and the former is spiritual and it imagines and draws them [within itself]. The proof of that is in the actions of human makers. That is, every craftsman starts by thinking, imagining and building in his mind an image, a Su¯ra ˙ made without recourse to anything from outside of himself. If he wants to show what is in his mind he will have recourse to some matter, in some place, at some time, and he will represent it with what he had in mind with some tools and movements.27 The superior qualities of the Su¯ra and the corollary superiority of ˙ the soul are attested by human activity, more precisely by the ability of the soul to create a Su¯ra of anything without the use of matter. It is ˙ this immaterial creative ability that testifies to the superiority of the soul. This view appears more justified if we recall that ‘divine creations are Suwar, figures bare of matter that are created by the ˙ Originator of all creatures’.28 The Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ call the creative ability ‘al-quwwa ˙ al-mutakhayyila’ the faculty of imagination, or the imagining power. It is a faculty that can both learn from the world and recreate it within the human soul. It can pick up from the world the existent forms, but it can also create forms that do not exist in the world. The Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ state: ˙ This power has extraordinary qualities, and nice effects, among which is the extraction of the forms of all perceived [things] and their imagination after these are no longer accessible to the senses. They also can imagine and fancy that which has reality, and that which has no reality after its elementary parts are known through the senses. For it [the imaginative power] has the ability to transform at will the forms, Suwar that the sense ˙ brought to it within their matter, and because it can find them stripped of the matter that envelops and hides them separately. When it takes them denuded and free from any envelope, it can combine them and compose them at will. It connects them in ways that did not exist in matter. An example of that is that a



human being can imagine, thanks to this power, a camel on top of a palm tree, or a palm tree affixed to the back of a camel, or a bird with four legs, or a horse with two wings, or a donkey with a human head, and likewise all that painters and sculptors make as inventions of the Jinn and the spirits, and as wonders of the sea, of things that have reality or no reality.29 The faculty of imagination can thus not only extract the forms, memorize, and conserve them, it can also create new forms and consequently new things. Moreover, it can create forms that can be related to reality or unrelated to reality. Interestingly, the authors credit painters and sculptors with wondrous inventions comparable to those of the Jinn and the spirits. The marvelous is basic to the human condition because the same faculty of imagination composes both the marvelous and the prosaic. Love, magic and the ethics of the arts When painters and sculptors make pictures and sculptures from the Su¯ra created in their imagination, they are not only conveying the ˙ work of their imagination and their own talent; they are emulating God’s creation. They are striving to acquire through their crafts, or al-Sana¯’i‘, a closer and deeper understanding of God and their own ˙ spiritual nature. This is indeed the moral facet of all arts and crafts. The arts and crafts are not only means of making a living, for these practices are done with the spiritual intention of learning from God’s creation, and emulating it. In this respect they resemble the action of love, for, assert the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, love too is ultimately a means of ˙ ascent to the spiritual realm. They state: And know that the ultimate cause of the existence of love, al-‘ishq, as a natural disposition of the soul and its liking of bodies, and its appreciation of the body and its embellishment, and its longing for the al-ma‘shu¯qa¯t al-muftanna, the masterfully beloved things, is just a warning from carelessness and numbness of ignorance, an exercise and



ascent and promotion from the sensitive physical affairs to the spiritual and intellectual affairs.30 Love, like arts and crafts, helps humans search for the spiritual existence and allows humans to achieve the escape from bodily imprisonment. Both love and art are necessary for the accomplishment of this most rewarding and desirable ascent. The Fatimid poet Abu Hani al-Andalusi beautifully defines this need to wake up from the dangers of ignorance. He asserts: Wake up! For there are only two paths That of the right way or blindness31 Afı¯qu¯ fama¯ hiyya illa¯ ithna¯ ni imma¯ al-rasha¯du wa imma¯ al-‘ama¯ On another level, the arts are connected to the magic of the alSu¯ra, or pictures painters create. To understand this connection and ˙ the magic of pictures one need just to listen to the story of the son of Isaac. The Ikhwa¯n al- Safa¯’ tell us: ˙ ‘aysu, the son of Isaac, (Arabic Isha¯q), was a master hunter. Every ˙ ˙ time he went hunting he was accosted by the son of Nimrud, son of Canaan who told him: fight me and if I win I get all your game. The son of Nimrud wore the shirt that Adam brought with him from the paradise. On that shirt were pictures of all beasts, birds and sea animals that God created, and whenever Adam wanted to hunt a beast or anything else he put his hand on its picture on the shirt. The animal became then hesitant, immobile and blind until Adam came and took it.32 Every time the hero agreed to fight, the son of Nimrud would win, and take away the game of the vanquished son of Isaac. When Isaac’s son became too unhappy with his losses, he complained to his father. Isaac informed his son that the shirt of Nimrud’s son was in fact Adam’s shirt, which makes whoever wears it invincible. The only way



to win, Isaac explained to his son, was to tell Nimrud’s son that he would fight him on the condition that he took off his shirt. Eventually Isaac’s son should appropriate the shirt and keep it for himself. The son followed his father’s advice, winning the fight and the shirt. He then ran away with his bounty, and from that time on he used the shirt and its pictures to hunt at will and without the usual exhaustion of hunting. This account evokes the notion of the magical powers of pictures as articulated by Gombrich when he describes the absurd feeling we have if we imagine ourselves harming a cherished person’s photograph. ‘Suppose’, he writes, ‘we take a picture of our favorite champion—would we enjoy taking a needle a needle and poking out the eyes?’33 Somehow, the story is more akin to the stories of miracles performed by cult images, particularly those about the use of images in witchcraft that Freedberg analyzes in his book The Power of Images.34 In the Ikhwa¯n’s story the plot touches on another theme: the notion of the invincibility of someone who wears images. Remarkably, the original owner of the shirt, Nimrud’s son, is unaware of the power conferred on him by his dress. The master of the image is also the victor on the battlefield. More importantly, perhaps, the awareness of the attributes of images is crucial for their owner to benefit from and keep the power they confer: a lack of this awareness makes people susceptible to their loss. The image and the self: aphrodisiac pictures The power of images is not limited to the overcoming of animals and enemies. Images can also be used to act on the self. This is the case with erotic images used to arouse sexual desire as in the following story reported by the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’: ˙ It is said that there was a man dedicated to his passions, a pleasure seeker. He was a big eater and drinker, and lustful. [After some time] his stomach burned and his digestive ability weakened because of the excesses of food and drink. His organ softened because of a glut of sexual intercourse. His desires were still alive, but the organs of his body and equipment to perform



could not respond anymore. Nevertheless the power of the desiring soul did not allow him to renounce his desires. He started looking for tricks and remedies. . . and among these tricks and remedies to have erections he commissioned pictures depicting sexual intercourse to be painted on the walls and roofs of his private room. He also had written between those pictures annotations and descriptions of women’s intimacy and state during sexual intercourse. Then he used to stay in that room with his boy and girl slaves to drink, play, have fun and watch those pictures to have his organ excited.35 The story goes on to describing how the erotic pictures helped the desperate man have erections, and how after a while his organ failed again leading the story to a tragic– comic conclusion. We are thus led to conclude that pictures not only have the power to vanquish enemies but also allow acting on the self and overcome one’s own bodily weaknesses. However, we are told that the latter capability is transient. It momentarily helps to overcome a bodily weakness, but its effects cannot last forever. More important to our concern is the connection implied between pictures and desire. The effect of pictures on the body and its organs is visual, because it is through visual perception that pictures are sensed. But, we should remember that, as ibn al-Haytham affirms, the aim of visual perception is the realization of visual meaning. It is no accident that, in this story, the power of images is enhanced by the addition of ‘annotations and descriptions of women’s intimacy’. This superposition of visual and verbal meanings makes erotic images more effective in provoking erections. This explicit statement of the connection between erotic pictures and desire should not be surprising for it is nothing new. In early Islamic monuments, the undeniably erotic nature of the pictures of nude women in the Baths at Qusair ‘Amra spring to mind. I also cannot help but recall the erotic pictures in the Brothel of Pompeii, despite the fact that those pictures were certainly unknown to the authors of the story, for they had been buried centuries before that story was composed. On the other hand, despite clear differences in the proportions of the body, the paintings



of nude women at Qusair ‘Amra are stylistically linked to classical painting.36 Thus, it is tempting to suggest that a tradition of erotic pictures, going back to the Romans, existed in the Mediterranean up until Islamic times. Furthermore the same tradition continues in Europe and is also alive in the Renaissance. In his book Freedberg tells us of similar views on the effects of lascivious pictures in the Italian Renaissance. He quotes Giulio Mancini’s Considerazioni sulla pittura: Lascivious things are to be placed in private rooms, and the father of the family is to keep them covered, and only uncover them when he goes there with his wife, or an intimate who is not fastidious. And similar lascivious pictures are appropriate for the rooms where one has to do with one’s spouse. . .37 Images have the potential to arouse human desire which endows them with particular powers. For these reasons, authority is granted to image-makers or painters. The Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ describe the magic ˙ of the craftsmanship of painters, or sina¯‘at al-musawwiru¯n as follows: ˙ ˙ ‘The art of painters, they assert, is nothing but the imitation of the images of existing things. . .’ Their astonishing art consists ‘in making people prefer watching the painted things rather than the things themselves’.38 This attitude raises two issues: the magic of images per se and the question of the difference of talent between painters. Craftsmanship itself may be magical, say the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’as in the case of the coloured painting superseded by a ˙ charcoal work which was discussed in Chapter 2. Painters are of unequal talent. Some of them are good or great while others who make art that is simply magical. Although the magical quality of craftsmanship is the personal achievement of only some painters, the magic of pictures per se is an attribute of the pictures themselves. Talent can only contribute to this aspect of the image. In our story the magic of the painting is described by the authors as being composed of two different features: the beauty of the gesture of the figure (here a black man), and the elegance of the figure’s movement. These cannot exist without the talent of the craftsman. Unfortunately, the issue of individual talent



does not seem to particularly interest the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, for beyond ˙ the assertion that differences between painters can be great, we do not find more investigation on the subject in their work. They are more concerned with understanding and investigating al-sana¯’i‘: the arts ˙ and crafts in general and music in particular. Here I should recall the fact that for the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ the harmony of melodies and ˙ rhythms was called music ‘because it [music] allows for more demonstrative illustrations [of the science of proportions]’39 and because proportions are the basis of all arts and crafts. The magic of art is based on the use of best proportions. It is worth noting that the same principle that governs the arts of the Renaissance is operating here for the Ikhwa¯n. As Wittkower indicates, there is a tradition unbroken from classical times—music and geometry are fundamentally one and the same; that music is geometry translated into sound, and that in music the very same harmonies are audible which inform the building.40 In this view the science of harmonious proportions is central to the work of artists and craftsmen, for it is the basis of beauty. The human figure takes prominence in what the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ and their ˙ contemporaries call image-making (sina¯‘at al-musawwiru¯n) or ˙ ˙ painting because man stands as the most perfect Divine Creation. This follows from the fact that artists and craftsmen learn of the proportions from God’s creatures, including the human figure, one logical conclusion would be that: As the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ say, the image of the human body, Su¯ra ˙ ˙ al-’insa¯n is the greatest evidence of God [addressed] to his creatures, because it is the closest to them, its proofs are the clearest and its arguments the strongest.41 Yet, do the arts of the time demonstrate any evidence in favour of this conclusion? In practice this would imply that the arts of the period should demonstrate a clear inclination to realism. This is exactly what historic evidence shows through Fatimid painting and other



figurative arts. Remarkably enough, the Fatimid period seems to have witnessed a great development of figurative works with a very salient inclination to realism. The evidence supporting this remarkable development is twofold, literary and material. On the literary level, first I should recall what I mentioned in Chapter 2. The Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ indicate ˙ that the human body represents the most perfect proportion, and that perfect proportion should be respected in all crafts. Next they give different literary sources describing figurative representation in crafts as diverse as painting, woodwork, and bakery. The Persian traveler Nasir-I Khusraw provides us with a good example of figuration in bakery. In Khusraw’s description of the ceremonies of the Festival of the Riding Forth to Open the Canal of Cairo under the Fatimids, in the eleventh century, he reports: They said that fifty thousand maunds of sugar were appropriated for this day for the sultan’s feast. For decoration on the banquet table I saw a confection like an orange tree, every branch and leaf executed in sugar, and thousands of images and statuettes in sugar.42 This is one example of how images and representations of nature are used widely and in a variety of ways. The tone of appreciative admiration that transpires from the chronicle by Nasir-I Khusraw indicates that the use of natural figures in this kind of decoration is considered morally acceptable. Interestingly, it is with the same tone that the author describes the great care the clergy gives to the paintings of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.43 These examples show that figurative painting and naturalist representation proliferated in Fatimid material culture, and that both Muslims and Christians held a favourable attitude towards the realistic approach to painting. The material evidence that came down to us from Fatimid times clearly supports this conclusion. Figurative representation is documented in objects ranging from frescoes, glass vessels, wood carving, ivory objects, to pottery. Besides the diversity of mediums,



Figure 4 Youth in a bathhouse. Frescoed architectural fragment from a bathhouse, height: 24.5 cm, width: 60 cm, provenance: Fustat. Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, Inv. #12880 (by permission of the American University in Cairo Press)

different styles are present in the artistic production of the time. These include, first: the Perso-Iraqian, or post-Samarra type, which more or less follows the heraldic scheme of Samarra’s painting. This style frequently uses one or a few figures separated by arcades. According to Ettinghausen, the Perso-Iraqian style was predominant at the time (Fig. 3, Ceramic bowl with metallic lustre, and Fig. 4 Youth in a bath house). The second style can be described as ‘Hellenistic’ miniature style. This style used Byzantine and Hellenistic prototypes and was characterized by the frequent use of groups of figures in a smaller scale than the Perso-Iraqian style (Fig. 5, Fragment of luster pottery). Third, the so-called ‘realistic’ style is characterized by a relative freedom from artistic constraints (Fig. 6, Pottery fragments). Finally, a ‘popular’ style of painting is characterized by an almost complete freedom from traditional schools constraints as in a Battle Scene, London, British Museum described by Ettinghausen in his ‘Reconstruction’.44



Figure 5 Fragment of luster pottery held at the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (Richard Ettinghausen, ‘Painting in the Early Islamic Period: a Reconstruction’, 1942)

Figure 6 Pottery fragment held at the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (Richard Ettinghausen, ‘Painting in the Early Islamic Period: a Reconstruction’, 1942)



The description of Fatimid painting quoted above is valid, for our knowledge of Fatimid art has changed very little since the quote was written. I argue stylistic diversity can be understood as a consequence of the epistemic features described in Chapter 2. In the Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯’s view, intellectual diversity is desirable: it is even a Mercy of ˙ God. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that the emergence of a ‘realistic’ style based on recourse to Byzantine and Hellenistic features is an effect of the demand on the artist to emulate God’s creation. Recall that according to the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’: ‘In all crafts ˙ perfection is the imitation of the Wise Artisan.’45 In the 1930s archaeological investigation uncovered paintings from a Hammam, a public bath south of Cairo and near the sanctuary of Abu ’al-Su‘u¯d. The figure of a youth represented in a three-quarter view is the best preserved of these finds (Fig. 4). The face of the young man is portrayed in the Samarra style but shows less monumentality than usual. Furthermore the youth, perhaps a eunuch, exhibits a face with effeminate features which announce future development in book painting. The Iraqi style of the fresco can be deduced from the compact form of the body, the pearl frame and the curved bands. There is also an arcade in the bath house that exhibits another drinking figure perhaps meant as a companion for the first. As already noted, this balancing duplication of figures is a Samarran characteristic. Other stylistic changes indicating the emergence of a realistic attitude are substantiated in pottery, wooden works, and other mediums. These changes took place gradually and seem to have first appeared in rock crystal, a rare and costly material. Ettinghausen and Grabar assert that objects carved in rock crystal contain the first artistic changes to have occurred in Fatimid art. More interestingly, these objects bear inscriptions that allow for precise dating: they indicate that the high artistic achievements in Fatimid arts occurred around the year 1000. Pieces of rock crystal like the ewer of al-Aziz Billah (975– 6) now in the Treasury of San Marco, Venice (Fig. 7), and the ewer dated to 1000 – 8 at the Museo degli Argenti of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence beautifully illustrate this stylistic change. Their design clearly differs from the rather stiff Samarra motifs and



Figure 7 Ewer of Al-Aziz billah, rock crystal, European gold mount, height: 18 cm, diameter: 12.5 cm; Tresor of San Marco, Venice, cat. #124 (by permission of the Procuratoria of the Basilic of San Marco, Venice)



Figure 8 Lion Statuette, cast brass, height: 21 cm, length: 20 cm. Held at the Musuem of Islamic Art, Cairo, Inv. #4305 (by permission of the American University in Cairo Press)



features natural elements represented with a realistic attitude. The linear rendering of these figures is rather delicate and realistic. The use of stylistic dots to cover the bodies of the animals contributes to the realistic impression of the whole. A group of Egyptian cut-glass objects called ‘Hedwig Glasses’ feature more stylized designs. Certain Hedwig Glasses display purely abstract decoration derived from Samarra, while others are decorated by animal figures stylized with hatchings and cross-hatchings. The Hedwig Glass features forceful stylized birds reminiscent of art deco motifs. Bronze objects from the Fatimid period also show forms and motifs related to early Islamic and Sasanian art works, yet they exhibit a peculiar ‘look’ that seems to characterize Fatimid art.46 Like most Fatimid bronze objects, the Hare of the Harvard University Art Museum, and a bronze representing a Goat of the H. Keir collection feature both ‘realistic’ forms and all-over decoration. These animal figures appear naturalistic despite the decoration covering all their bodies. If we were to believe that art objects take their full meaning only when compared to their direct predecessors and successors, we should acknowledge the realistic nature of the art of the early Fatimid period. Indeed when compared to later works such as the lion statuette of the Islamic Museum of Cairo (Fig. 8) these animal figures show a clear realistic artistic attitude. Moreover, as Ettinghausen and Grabar assert, works of the later Fatimid period show an affirmed tendency towards total formalization of both bodily forms and decoration.47 The same realistic attitude is displayed in wood and ivory works. An ivory frame, now in the Berlin Staatliche Museum, but originally part of a piece of furniture, displays a wealth of hunting motifs and banqueting scenes (Fig. 9). These princely scenes, carved with delicacy and finesse, display work of the highest quality. Ettinghausen and Grabar assert: The naturalism of all the figures is heightened by the refined technique. Although there are two levels of relief, as on the wooden boards, here the frames and figures are so delicately



Figure 9 Ivory Frame, Fatimid Egypt, eleventh to twelfth century. Museum fu¨r Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museum, Berlin. 30.3 £ 36.5 cm; frame width 5.8 cm; Inv. #I 6375 (Photo: Georg Niedermeiser; by permission of Art Resource, New York)

modeled that they appear fully rounded, as if they were actually emerging from the vegetal scrolls that constitute the background.48 The impression of volume is highlighted by the use of projecting scrolls, which seem to connect the background and foreground.



Figure 10 Wooden Panel with a luth musician and two birds, 40 £ 21 cm; Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, #14601 (Photo: Alessandro Vannini)



Figure 11 Falcon attacking a hare, marquetry, 22 £ 41 cm; Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo #3180 (by permission of the American University in Cairo Press)

Empty space is carved between body parts. For example, there is space between the limbs of the lion attacking a bull, between the lion’s tail and legs, as well as between its forelegs and head. As noted by Ettinghausen and Grabar, the same device is used to create roundness in the case of the flautist. The finesse and gracefulness of the figures in this piece indicate the high standards of work applied to valuable materials. Realistic artistic trends are also decipherable on wood works. The Fatimid artists left a great variety of works with different stylistic origins. Some are still in the ‘Abbasid Samarra style C, but most works that have come down to us show more complex designs than the original models they emulate. Moreover, even works in the ‘Abbasid style C present us with novel design complexity. First, with more easily distinguishable design patterns, as in a carved tie-beam from the al-Ha¯kim Mosque of about 1003 made in the Samarra style ˙ C. Then, later on, as noted on a wooden panel now in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, the bevelled elements are reduced and the background is carved deeper. The stems and vegetal motifs have an arabesque quality (Fig. 10). As a result, as Ettinghausen and Grabar



observe, ‘instead of starkly abstract, static, and purely sculptural qualities, there is now a dramatic interplay between abstract and more realistic parts, between elements conceived three-dimensionally and purely linear ones, and between light and shadow’.49 The overall impression of the composition is more dynamic and unveils a new sense of movement. It is also worth noting that the interplay between abstract and realistic forms recalls the marvelous creations attributed to painters by the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. ˙ Wooden friezes from the Fatimid Western Palace in Cairo, often commented on, reveal high quality work reminiscent of the ivory masterpieces mentioned above. These wooden friezes date to the second half of the eleventh century, and were reused in the Sultan Qala‘un Complex (end of the thirteenth century). The friezes are covered with princely life scenes of hunting, dancing, banqueting, and travelling. The decoration also includes depictions of animals both real and fantastic. The carving is made on two levels such that the principal figures, mainly humans and animals, project into the foreground, whereas the secondary vegetal motif makes up the background. As in the ivory works, this carving technique allows the main figures to appear fully rounded. The fine quality of these panels not only supports their attribution to the Caliphal palace, but also indicates that the artists of the Caliph shared artistic themes and design techniques. A beautiful piece of Fatimid marquetry (Fig. 11) depicts a falcon attacking a hare. The entire piece is decorated with abstract motifs, including both the hare and falcon. The falcon stands above the back of the hare with its neck rounded and beak touching the head of its prey just above the nose. The hare is running, but caught in mid air as if it were frozen. Yet despite the abstract decoration, and the relatively rigid geometric quality of the posture of the falcon, the scene conveys a sense of movement and naturalism. According to the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ geometric figures cannot be opposed to nature ˙ for geometric forms are basic to all existing things, and therefore their use cannot disqualify art works from being naturalist. Interestingly, in this particular image, the falcon does not seem to be very preoccupied with his prey, for his gaze is clearly directed at



the viewer. It looks as if our falcon is more interested in engaging the viewer than in finishing the hare. The gaze the falcon harbours is, of course, that of the maker of the image, and seems to assert that gazing is not the exclusive privilege of the viewer, but it is also a prerogative of the object seen. It thus asserts that the artwork is not a simple object to gaze at, but rather a lieu of gaze exchange between the viewer and the image maker, al-musawwir who is the ˙ true master of the game, because it is he who imposes his own gaze on the viewer and engages him in meditating on the Ma‘na¯ of the image he makes. Pottery also provides us with useful information about the stylistic evolution of artistic representation under the Fatimid rule. Ettinghausen has brilliantly shown that comparative analysis of pottery facial types indicates a stylistic development exhibiting the ‘appearance of life’. Although fragmentary, pottery provides enough material to define the development of facial types. In a remarkable figure comparison based on faces of Samarra, post-Sasanian and Fatimid pottery, Ettinghausen describes the development as follows. There the round, heavy-chinned, fleshy-cheeked face with the glaring dark eyes is still portrayed, but the scale is definitely reduced and more closely approaches the miniature style towards the end of the series. The features become less masklike; they are more mobile and have the appearance of life—in short, they become applicable to book painting.50 The appearance of life in the so-called Perso-Iraqian style is just one of the many ways realism and naturalism manifest in the art of the Fatimid period. Of the four styles of Fatimid pottery studied by Ettinghausen, the ‘Hellenistic’ miniature style and the popular style indicate the same tendency towards realism and naturalism. According to Ettinghausen, the concern with realism is documented not only in pottery. Literary evidence shows that realism was also a concern of painters. Ettinghausen reports a story of a painting contest between a painter from Iraq and another from Egypt. Each depicted a dancing girl. One of the girls appeared to be



going into the wall whereas the other appeared to be coming out of the wall. Interestingly, this story, which Ettinghausen borrows from Maqrizi, resembles the story narrated by the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ in which ˙ a painter depicted with a simple piece of charcoal a black man indicating the viewers with his hand. This depiction of a black man was so great that it overshadowed the beautiful fresco to which it was added. Both stories suggest that movement and gesture are the most important criteria of realism in painting, due in part to their power to fascinate the viewer. Indeed, movement remains a salient feature even in the stylized Fatimid artworks such as the ‘Falcon attacking a Hare’ in Fig. 11. The movement of animal figures is a sign of life, and therefore should be considered a sort of realism, even if the figure is also stylized. In fact, we should consider artistic stylization as a rational mode of representation based on the use of geometric forms because they are the essence of the Su¯ra (the forms of things). In this ˙ sense, stylization protects against accidents, such as the disturbances of the movements of the stars in the heavens. This was considered an important task because such disturbances can interfere with the natural processes of birth and growth and cause deviation from perfect proportions (see Chapter 2). Accordingly, classical notions such as resemblance, verisimilitude or likeness to nature cannot be relevant in the assessment of the realism of Fatimid art. Resemblance and accuracy of representation of reality, as those required in classical portrait painting, or in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Italian pittura infamante or immagini infamanti for which the individual represented in the painting had to be recognized by the public, should not be invoked to judge the realistic character of Fatimid figurative arts.51 Moreover, stylization conforms to the theory of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ and perhaps allows for a better understanding of how ˙ their contemporaries perceived artworks. Stylization and concern with realism are best understood as applications of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’s admonition ‘In all crafts perfection is the imitation of the ˙ Wise Artisan.’


Among scholars of Islamic civilization, symbolism in Fatimid art has become a popular point of contention. On the basis of iconographic analysis of objects such as coinage, textiles, and buildings, proponents of symbolism, scholars like Oleg Grabar, Irene Bierman and Caroline Williams, argue that the Isma‘ili Da‘wa felt the need to deploy visual symbolic messages on material culture. On the other hand, their critics point out that there is no textual evidence to conclusively prove that such symbolism exists. In this chapter I will first discuss the main arguments of both proponents and opponents of the thesis of symbolism in Fatimid art. Then, I will show how a poem by the Chief Poet of the Caliph al-Mu‘izz can help us understand the Fatimid view of architecture in the context of the larger cosmological view comparable to the one found in the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. Then, ˙ building on the works of Sanders and Bierman, I will try to show how Fatimid city planning and design are imbued with symbolic thinking. Further, I will argue that the use of a triumphal arch in the fac ade of the first Fatimid mosque in al-Mahdiyya was a departure from the Samarra mosque typology. The triumphal arch confronted its designers with a problem similar to the problem faced by Italian Renaissance architect Alberti when he decided to use the same theme for the fac ade of a church. The similarity of design problems faced by Italian Renaissance and Fatimid architecture is even more striking



when we realize that both designers solve the problems using similar Neo-platonic views. The use of the triumphal arch in church architecture by Alberti, as Wittkover has shown, determined church architecture in the Renaissance and beyond.1 In a similar way, I will argue that the use of a triumphal arch in the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya determined the future of mosque architecture. In his book Art of the City Victorious, Jonathan Bloom asserts, As they sat in their palaces or paraded around the city in elaborate processions, Fatimid rulers—like the contemporary rulers everywhere—probably thought more about the material wealth their art represented rather than about any stylistic or symbolic meaning it might have.2 This claim is based on an alleged lack of literary evidence that would show a connection between art and (theoretical) meaning at the time. But the relative scarcity of early Islamic literary documents about the subject cannot be a conclusive argument. As I have shown in my previous book, and contrary to received knowledge, there exists a theoretical aesthetic view of architecture expressed and archived in Arabic poetry and other literary sources. In the Fatimid case, as Irene Bierman has shown in her book Writing Signs: The Fatimid Public Text, the display of calligraphic art in public space, both in buildings and textiles, was used by Fatimid rulers to convey meaning in a sophisticated way.3 This suggests that symbolic meaning was important to the Fatimid rulers’ vision of architecture, city planning, and ceremonial processions. They were not, therefore, interested only in material wealth. The story of the foundation of Cairo, as reported by Arab historians, shows that great attention was paid to the symbolic nature of the act of building. The choice of a site and a date had to be selected with the consultation of astrologers and other scholars. It is therefore reductive to believe that ‘Fatimid rulers—like contemporary rulers everywhere—probably thought more about the material wealth their art represented rather than about any stylistic or symbolic meaning it might have.’4 I would suggest that this


statement is one example of a widespread attitude of denial concerning the intertwinement of Islamic intellectual history and the arts: the arts of Islam are viewed exclusively through the lenses of pleasure and wealth exhibition. But even ancient rulers of the Near East, be it in Mesopotamia, Persia or Egypt, were very attentive to the symbolic aspect of their art and architectural works from cylinder seals, to mural painting, sculpture, and architectural composition. The sculptures at Persepolis, as well as the Neoassyrian paintings and sculptures are examples of evidence that defies such a simplistic argument. In my Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition I quote a number of Arabic poems from the Islamic period that indicate a clear awareness of symbolic meaning in artwork. For example, the fourth-century collection of poems by al-Hamadha¯ni known as al-Iklı¯l indicates how architectural works were loaded with symbolic meaning.5 For some art historians, even the notion of a Fatimid dynastic style seems problematic. Bloom, argues that the Fatimids lacked ‘the means to ensure the consistency of artistic expression from one medium to another, for the idea of doing preliminary drawings on a relatively inexpensive medium like paper was just beginning to take root at that time.’6 The argument cannot stand if we consider that early Fatimid rulers had huge financial means and could afford high expenses. Arab historians report, for instance, that al-Ha¯kim ˙ generously endowed mosques and one Dar al-‘ilm, or House of Knowledge. P. E. Walker, a specialist of Fatimid history tells us: All agree that al-Hakim set up the Dar al-‘ilm in Cairo, that he supplied it with books from his own palace treasury on a wide variety of subjects, that he paid stipends to a number of scholars who were to teach there, and that he also provided support staff and furnishings. Whoever wanted could go there and read the books in its new library, could also copy them using the ink, paper and pens provided, or they could study with the masters who taught the various disciplines in its curriculum.7 (Emphasis is mine.)



It would appear paradoxical, to say the least, that a ruler who could make such endowments could not afford paying for paper to ensure that royal art works have a consistent artistic expression. More importantly, what was truly needed to achieve such an enterprise was not large quantities of medium for drawings, but rather a ‘practical geometry’ that allows for the reconstruction of similar designs. The thirteenth-century French architect Villard de Honnecourt substantiates this claim, as well as the observation of contemporary craftsmen who preserved ancient traditions.8 Historical evidence shows that in Fatimid times Euclidian geometric knowledge was widespread, and its use in arts and crafts was known to scholars. An entire epistle of the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯’, which most scholars believe were written just a little after 950, ˙ contains clear evidence of mastery of geometry. More particularly it seems that some Fatimid Caliphs were personally involved in the design of artworks and even objects. Jonathan Bloom reports on the design achievements of Caliph al-Mu‘izz who is said to have come up with the idea of a fountain pen which the court goldsmith made for him. ‘We wish, he once said, to construct a pen with which one may write without dipping it into the inkwell. The ink must be inside. . .9 The Caliph gave precise instructions to a craftsman who came out with a perfectly working solution after two attempts. This kind of cooperation in the design of an object or artwork between a Caliph and a craftsman suggests that the frequent references found in the text of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ to craftsmen and crafts might be indicative ˙ of the familiarity of scholars with crafting techniques and is also possible evidence of exchange and cooperation between scholars and artisans. This suggestion is indeed consistent with the often reported gatherings of learned men and builders for the planning of architectural works and plans for the foundation of cities ordered by Islamic rulers.


Urban Space and Power Display Fatimid Caliphs’ interest in architectural planning has been noted by many authors. For instance, Caliph al-Mu‘izz is said to have drawn the plan for his own palace.10 Drawing plans of palaces not only requires some geometric knowledge, but indicates the existence of a will to implement a particular architectural concept, or design. This is certainly true when the plan is modeled after preexisting structures known to the author of the new project. Therefore it seems to me that any assertion about the lack of symbolic or dynastic meaning of Fatimid art is simply groundless. From the very beginning, Fatimid rulers chose to convey particular meanings through their buildings and cities, starting at the level of what today we call city planning. We know that Caliph al-Mu‘izz provided his general Jawhar with specific instructions and perhaps a plan for the foundation of Cairo, which in some respects follows the precedent of the Fatimid cities in Tunisia (al-Mahdiyya and alMansu¯riyya). Not unlike its Tunisian predecessor al-Mahdiyya, Cairo ˙ had to have a large palatial complex built at its centre, but unlike previous cities founded by Islamic rulers, the mosque was not related to the palace complex. Instead, it was located close to the city walls. Such a feature could not have been accidental, but was rather a conscious planning decision repeated in both Fatimid cities. Moreover, the new Fatimid city of Cairo also followed the precedent of al-Mansu¯riyya, the ˙ other Fatimid capital city in Tunisia. As, Paula Sanders notes: Two of the city’s gates, Ba¯b Zuwayla (Zuwayla Gate) and Ba¯b al-Futu¯h (Conquest Gate), bore the same name as the city gates of al-Mansu¯riyya and stood in the same relation to each other as ˙ in the North African city, leading directly into the city’s major thoroughfare and widening in the centre to form a parade ground, the bayn al-qasrayn (lit., ‘between the two palaces,’ i.e., ˙ the parade ground between the Eastern and Western Palaces).11 These planning decisions find their meaning when considered in terms of the use of urban space in Fatimid ceremonials, or of what



Paula Sanders calls the Fatimid ritual city. In her incisive book, Sanders sheds light on the importance of Fatimid ceremonial processions in shaping the city of Cairo and the progressive integration of pre-existing urban centres to the imperial city. The Caliph would parade with his retinue in a minute sequence of walks and halts, starting from his palace towards the mosque, the Musalla, or the Nile river banks and rest at precise symbolic sites. These processions were important factors in the formation of Cairo’s cityscape and played an important role in the visual symbolic deployment of the Caliph’s power. In light of the importance of ritual ceremonial processions in the political programme of Fatimid rulers, it seems reasonable to assume that the Fatimid choice of separating palatial complex and mosque, and the design of a long ‘urban thoroughfare’ was motivated by the conscious need to design convenient itineraries for the Caliph’ ritual parades.12 From the very beginning, Cairo was conceived as a city of ostensible display and communication and this idea seems to have been understood and implemented by successive rulers to include preexistent urban centres and integrate them into a greater capital city.13 There is an old trope of Arabic poetry about royal palatial projects. The poem says: Our monuments bear witness to ourselves, Therefore, after we are gone, look at our works.14 A poem by an anonymous author about the architecture of alMahdiyya, quoted by Bloom,15 and another poem by ‘Ali ibn Muhammad al-‘Iyadi about al-Mansu¯riyya, glorify Fatimid archi˙ tectural deeds in the Arabic poetic tradition of ‘Ali ibn al-Jahm. They reveal an awareness of the prestige related to architectural achievements. Bloom has rightly noticed the parallels between Fatimid alMansu¯riyya, and Umayyad Madinat al-Zahra’: both are suburban ˙ residences for the Caliph and his courtesans, with mosque, workshops and the mint, all set within gorgeous landscaped gardens and water displays. Bloom also notices the differences in the display of wealth


and meaning between the first Fatimid foundation at al-Mahdiyya, and the later al-Mansu¯riyya (the latter was designed as the luxurious ˙ setting of the pleasure of a prince, and the former mainly as a princely fortified retreat). Both al-Mahdiyya and al-Mansu¯riyya are dynastic ˙ statements of power display, independently of the level of wealth. Nevertheless, their semiotic function cannot be limited to the display of power and the ostentation of wealth. Both participate in what Muhammad Ibn Hani al-Andalusi calls the magic of buildings in a Qasida dedicated to Jaafar and Yahya sons of Ali. The poem reads: Oh! Send my greetings to the great palace About which all knights speak with admiration (Five mores verses, then) If you had not been rightly guided to build it Time and fate would have decreed it built Even when I leave it and my eye falls asleep, My mind remains therein present and wakeful After wearing down my admiration I said As if I had spent the night therein staring Who built above the stars this marvelous sight When above the heavens nothing should be seen? You made sure nothing in it was missing And built a monument outshining all monuments Nothing resembles it but the depiction of perfection Whispering to you, as if perfection could be depicted Question it as you will, his beauty will reply on his behalf It is indeed a speaker unaware [of its talking skills]



You can very well use it to lead mortals astray And let it, as Ha¯ru¯t, spell magic (One more verse, then) If its prestige imposes deference and awe Its builder certainly has more prestige and greatness It is the spacious al-Haram where sublimity ˙ And the tumultuous days of glorious deeds settled

Aliknı¯ ila l-qasri al-mashı¯di tahiyyatan ˙ ˙ Faqad haddata al-rukba¯nu ‘anhu fa-’aktharu¯ ˙ (Five mores verses, then) Wa-innaka law lam tahtadi libina¯’ihi Banat-hu al-laya¯li wa al-qada¯’u al-muqaddaru ˙ La’in ghibtu ‘anhu innanı¯ ha¯dirun lahu ˙ ˙ Bifikrin tana¯mu al-‘aynu ‘anhu wa yas-haru Wa qultu wa qad afnaytu fı¯hi ta‘ajjubı¯ Wa bittu ka’annı¯ qa¯’imun fı¯hi anzuru ˙ Mani al-mubtani fawqa al-kawa¯kibi mazharan ˙ Wa ma¯ fawqa a‘na¯ni al-kawa¯kibi mazharu? ˙ Wama¯ ka¯na fı¯hi naqsu shay’in tutimmuhu ˙ Walam yubqi ma¯ ath-tharta shay’an yu’ath-tharu Wama¯ mithluhu illa al-kama¯lu musawwaran ˙ Yuna¯ghika law anna al-kama¯la yusawwaru ˙ Wasalhu idha¯ ma¯ shi’ta yuntiquhu husnuhu ˙ ˙ Wama¯ huwwa illa na¯tiqun laysa yash‘uru ˙


Wa lam yabqa¯ illa an tudilla bihi al-wara¯ ˙ Watatrukahu min ba‘di Ha¯ru¯ta yasharu16 ˙ (One more verse then) la’in ka¯na ikba¯ran yu‘azzamu sha’nuhu ˙˙ fa’a‘zamu sha’nan man bana¯hu wa akbaru ˙ Huwa al-Haramu al-rahbu al-ladhı¯ awati al-‘ula¯ ˙ ˙ Ilayhi wa ayya¯mu al-wagha¯ wa hiyya tu’tharu Ibn Ha¯ni, the author of this poem, was the poet of the Caliph alMu‘izz. Al-Mu‘izz was the planner of the new capital city of Fatimid Egypt, and the master of Jawhar, the general who supervised the city’s foundation. Born to a Tunisian father in Andalusia c.936, he was assassinated at the age of 36 on his way to Cairo while trying to join his royal protector. He is credited with deep knowledge of Ismaili thought and his Diwan is composed mainly of eulogies in honour of the Fatimid Caliph, the general Jawhar and North African governors. As a poet of the Caliph during the rise of the Fatimid dynasty, and the invasion of Egypt, he can instruct us in a singular way on Fatimid views of architecture during the formative period of Fatimid arts. This is because poetry is a means of glorification and communication; furthermore, it represents the best contemporary literary evidence on the subject available to us. The editor of the Diwan describes the poet as arduous and at times esoteric. His poetry is gorged with mysterious allusions and symbolic references. Nonetheless, a good part of his work, such as the verses reported above, is accessible and insightful. Like other Arab poets, Ibn Ha¯ni conveys the notion that buildings are glorious deeds, and great manifestations of power and prestige. By his time this is almost a cliche´. More important to our concern is his description of the princely palace. The building is called the spacious al-Haram. It is ˙ original and meaningful for the princely residence to be compared to a sacred place and not a palace. What does this tell us about the author’s architectural view? In most cases, princely residences are



compared to mythical palaces, or Sasanian and Byzantine palaces. Yet ibn Ha¯ni renounces the traditional rhetorical device and raises the building he is praising to the level of sacredness. According to Islamic tradition, al-Haram is the first historical house of worship ˙ and the most sacred place of Islam. Furthermore, it has explicit connections with Abraham and his son Ismail who are credited with its reconstruction. Linking a princely residence to al-Haram may be ˙ understood as insinuating a hidden connection to Ismaili thought, and communicating ‘subliminal’ messages about Fatimid superior symbolic status. The comparison of the princely residence to Harut, the angel of magic mentioned in the Sura al-Baqara, ‘And let it, as Ha¯ru¯t, spell magic’, (Qur’an, 2: 102), is a similar comparison. In the time of Solomon, the angels Harut and Marut were sent by God to Babylon to test mankind by magic. Interestingly, the Qur’an states that before teaching anybody their magical knowledge, Harut and Marut would warn him or her by saying: ‘we are a fitna, [seduction and discord] so no disbelief’. The poem certainly suggests that the princely residence, like Harut, whispers magic messages to test the belief of the onlooker. We can therefore assume that the magical quality of the palace explains the narrator’s sleeplessness when thinking about its architectural beauty. When the poet asserts that even when he falls asleep his mind remains busily contemplating the palace (second verse in quote), we should read this literally. I would argue the poet is developing a philosophical argument rather than using rhetoric. The verses that follow give us some clues about his reasoning. First, he further develops the theme of astonishment caused by the sight of the palace, which is now said to be standing above the heavens. Then, in the following verse, the poet tells us that the builder did not allow for any imperfection in the building. Finally, he asserts that nothing can match up with the princely edifice but the depiction of perfection whispering magical words to the viewer. The Arabic words used by the poet ‘al-Kama¯lu Musawwar’ are reminiscent of the terms used by ˙ the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ to develop their theory of love. ˙ According to this theory the ultimate goal of love is to allow for the ascent from the sensible and corporal affairs to the spiritual world



(see Chapter 3). Love of beautiful things or attractive persons is but the passion for the rusu¯sm, asba¯gh, and nuqu¯sh that the Primordial ˙ Soul imprinted, sawwarat on matter. When humans desire and search ˙ for these Su¯ra they begin thinking, reflecting, and meditating in ways ˙ that may lead them to understanding their spiritual nature, renounce their corrupt material manifestations, and start a search for spiritual life. The proof of this, assert the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, is that ˙ when those [beloved] material bodies are away from the senses, the beloved rusu¯sm, traces, and Suwar (plural of Su¯ra) remain ˙ ˙ drawn, Musawwara in the individual soul as pure spiritual Su¯ra. ˙ ˙ They will stay with their lovers, united and without risk of 17 separation. Further, when someone is separated from a lover for many years, and meets the lover again when the lovers are older and less beautiful, it is still possible to recall the original Su¯ra of the beloved in memory.18 ˙ The theory of love as passion for the Su¯ra developed by the ˙ Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ equates to all kinds of love: love of objects and love ˙ for human beings. Perhaps this view may help us better understand the feverous enchantment that our poet develops when contemplating the palace of his protector. The poet seems to be besieged by a Su¯ra of the princely residence that acts continuously upon his ˙ sleepless mind: Even when I leave it and my eye falls asleep, My mind remains therein present and wakeful As I discussed in Chapter 2, ibn al-Haytham and the Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯’ contain comparable theories of the Su¯ra. In both theories, the ˙ ˙ Su¯ra is constructed by the imagining powers out of the impressions of ˙ perception, and is kept in the soul. ‘The soul thinks and meditates about’ the Su¯ra it made, for sight is not a purely sensual matter. ˙ Although the viewer may be unaware of it, sight relies recognition, judgment and inference, each of which transcends the domain of pure perception. That is why ibn al-Haytham refers to the object of



perception as ‘seen meanings’, or ‘visual meanings’, in Arabic alMa‘a¯ni al-Mubsara. The active nature of sight in creating visual ˙ meanings makes the effect of beauty on the soul a process in which the viewer thinks and meditates what he perceives. When a building becomes, to use the words of ibn Miskawayh, ‘perfection’, or an illustration of perfection, we should expect its effects on the onlooker to be rather moving. That is why the sleepless poet can weave a dialogue with the palace, or rather with the Su¯ra of the building he ˙ kept in his soul: Question it as you will, his beauty will reply on his behalf It is indeed a speaker unaware [of its talking skills] Like the angel Harut that Su¯ra is capable of testing all its viewers by ˙ whispering magical messages in their ears. The use of inscriptions, with Shi‘i and also general connotations, to ornate buildings would suggest that the object of that magical dialogue could be related to the content of those inscriptions.19 However, in our approach, we should always give primacy to the production of meaning, rather than to any particular message. We also need to keep in mind the poetic nature of architecture, the ambiguity of our perception of architectural works, and the polysemic nature of all inscriptions as well as decorative motifs. Now, one may wonder if Fatimid rulers were interested in architecture only for insertion of inscriptions in buildings and as a theme of panegyric poetry such as that of ibn Ha¯ni’s Qasida or if they were also concerned with architectural composition and space. Two architectural elements may help answer this question: first, the well-documented interest of Fatimid Caliphs in city planning in connection with ritual processions mentioned above, and second the introduction of peculiar architectural elements. The foundation of three capital cities illustrates Fatimid interest in urban planning. Additionally accounts of their foundation, in particular those concerning Cairo, indicate that Fatimid spatial views were rather elaborate. On the level of architecture, the archaeological evidence available to us is limited to mosques, mausoleums,



Mashhads, and city walls. Fatimid Cairo’s palaces have totally disappeared and the little we know about them comes from literary sources. Ideas about palatial architecture can be sought through the palaces of North Africa’s governors and vassals of the Fatimids, and in Norman Sicily. But what we can learn about Fatimid architecture from these other monuments remains limited, speculative and inconclusive. We are thus constrained to limit our analysis of Fatimid architecture to religious buildings and city planning. Fatimid city planning is an historically interesting case study because Arab authors often discussed the foundation of Cairo as a remarkable historic event. So many authors have committed great books on Cairo’s history that it is difficult to find anything new to add on the subject. However my goal is not to write a new general commentary about the foundation and history of Cairo, but simply to highlight the symbolic philosophy inherent in its design. The accounts about the foundation of Cairo revolve around the limits of human power illustrated by the opposition of the notion of astrological calculation versus fate. It is first necessary to recall that Islamic rulers used to commission builders to make plans for their projects and represent them in some way, and sometimes, as was reportedly the case with Caliph al-Mu‘izz, participate in their design. For instance, Maqrizi reports that when ibn Tulun decided to build a new mosque, he estimated it to necessitate three hundred columns. So he was told that he would not find all that amount of columns unless he takes them from churches from ruined villages and the countryside, and transport them. But he hated that [solution] and rejected it. He was in pain by thinking about that problem. The Christian who supervised for him the building of al-‘ayn, and was in disgrace, and put in jail after being beaten heard of that, and wrote to him offering to build the mosque as he wanted it without columns, except for those of the Qibla. He [ibn Tulun] ordered then that the Christian have leather skins [to draw], which he received. He drew it [the mosque], which pleased and delighted him [ibn Tulun].20



This account, if we can lend it any credibility, would suggest that rulers could be deeply involved in designing their projects and also that some means of representation were available to express what their projects would look like once realized. More particularly, this passage indicates that a ruler could design a building, at least in his mind, and express verbally that design.21 In this case the builder has supervised previous projects for the ruler and had to come up with a construction solution that made that design work. In early Islam, architectural planning is indeed a cooperative process involving different participants; however the patron usually had the last word. Considered in the context of this tradition, the account about alMu‘izz plans for Cairo appears quite credible. The report on the foundation of Cairo should also be considered against the same background. In his Khitat, Maqrizi reports that General Jawhar ‘built the palace ˙ ˙ according to a layout ordered to him by al-Mu‘izz’.22 The Arabic text reads ‘ammara al-qasr bitartı¯b alqa¯hu lahu al-Mu‘izz.’ The word al˙ qasr can be translated as ‘palace’, or ‘castle’, but certainly not as ‘city’, ˙ which supports K.A.C. Creswell assertion that there is no evidence to support the idea that Jawhar or his master meant to found a new city.23 The text also tells us that the layout of the palace was made by the Caliph al-Mu‘izz, but we can equally assume that the layout of the whole fortress was drawn by the Caliph. This is because of the similarities between Cairo and two Tunisian Fatimid precedent foundations, as well as the fact that it was first named al-Mansu¯riyya, ˙ The Victorious, as one of its Tunisian predecessors. Maqrizi’s report on the foundation of Cairo presents us with another interesting feature, which was often commented on: the choice made by astrologers summoned by General Jawhar of a propitious moment to begin to build. It is said, reports Maqrizi, that the reason behind the choice of its name is that when General Jawhar wanted to build it he summoned astrologers/astronomers and told them that he wanted to build a fortress in the outskirts of Misr for his ˙ soldiers, and ordered them to choose a lucky star for [the



starting time] of its foundation to insure that it will remain under the control of the [Fatimid] family forever. Then they [the astrologers/astronomers] chose a lucky star for [the starting time of the digging of] its foundation, and another for the construction of the wall. They fixed wooden posts all around [the trenches of] the wall, to which ropes running all around were fixed, and bells hung between every two posts. They told the workers to throw the earthen mortar and the stones they had at their disposal [in the trenches] when the bells tinkle. They stood by waiting for the right moment. It thus happened that a crow landed on one of the ropes to which bells were hung and all bells tinkled. The workmen who thought the astrologers/astronomers shook them threw [in the trenches] the earthen [mortar] and stones at their disposal and started building. The astrologers/astronomers shouted ‘the Victor of the Planets is in the ascendant’, (al-Qa¯hir fı¯ al-ta¯li‘), but they ˙ had already missed their goal. It is also said that because Mars was in the ascendant when the foundation works started, and Mars being Qa¯hir al-Falak, the ruler of the stars, they called it [the fortress] al-Qa¯hira, The Subjugator.24 Maqrizi’s style is not particularly eloquent and his account of the Fatimids is disjointed and disseminated throughout different parts of his text.25 The account of the foundation of Cairo is however very informative. Although the account may be interpreted fundamentally as a statement that ‘what happens is what fate decides, not what humans or rulers order’, it nevertheless gives us interesting information about the Fatimids. It clearly shows the importance of astrological calculation in the construction activity of the Fatimids. Here I should emphasize the fact that at the time there was no difference between astronomy and astrology. Astrological calculations were done by learned astronomers and philosophers who considered astrology to be a legitimate part of their science. In the Risa¯la 52 of the epistles of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, magic and spells ˙ derive from science and astronomy, giving us a good example of the intellectual unity of what nowadays we call astronomy and astrology.



According to the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, making astrological calculations ˙ is not a question of mysticism or superstition, rather it is an ethical issue that may be compared to today’s questions concerning genetic manipulation and biotechnology.26 Here, I would like to recall an anecdote reported by Sa¯wı¯rus ibn al-Muqaffa‘, Bishop of Ushmunayn, known also as Severus of Ushmunayn about the killing by the Caliph al-Ha¯kim of one of his close collaborators: ˙ Likewise a great amı¯r called Al-Qa¯yid Fadl—a great and sincere ˙ intimacy existed between them—entered one day the palace, as (was) his custom, and he found the aforementioned king seated, and before him there was a comely child whom he had bought for a hundred dina¯rs, and in his hand there was a knife with which he had slaughtered him, and he had extracted his liver and his intestines, and was cutting them up. He (the Amı¯r) went out and terror-stricken to his residence, and he informed his relatives and he wrote his will. After an hour, he (al-Ha¯kim) ˙ sent to him one who cut off his head.27 The story was interpreted as proof of the practice of black magic by the Fatimid Caliph. Creswell uses this story as a proof of Fatimid mysticism and compares the Caliph’s doings with medieval European sorcery. But perhaps the Bishop’s account simply indicates a bias against the Fatimid Caliph, for one should keep in mind that alHa¯kim imposed some very harsh and arbitrary policies on Christians. ˙ Al-Ha¯kim decreed many eccentric and harsh, if not cruel, edicts ˙ against minorities and women. One such edict was the interdiction for shoemakers to make shoes for women, a decision supposed to prevent them from going out to the streets. The Bishop of Ushumunayn reports that after decreeing one such cruel edict against the Christians, the Caliph granted audience to the head of the Church of Egypt, who happened to be a frail old man. Struck by the old clergyman’s frailty and the respect showed to him by his community, al-Ha¯kim awarded the old man and rescinded his ˙ harsh decree. Then the Caliph supposedly said:



In truth, there is not (such a) stable religion in the world as the religion of the Christians (Nasa¯ra¯). Lo, we shed blood and spend ˙ money and send out armies, and yet we are not obeyed, but this elder (Shaykh) of humble appearance and ugly by nature, the inhabitants of all these lands obey at a single word.28 If this story has any truth to it we might infer that the Caliph was also capable of being sensitive and wise at times and did not always value bloodshed and useless violence. Perhaps one could also read the story of the sacrifice of the child in other ways. Here, I would suggest that it would not be unreasonable to read the story in light of what the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ tell us about the anatomy of children. As I ˙ mentioned in Chapter 2, the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ assert that: ˙ if you consider, and meditate on any organ of the human body [including internal ones] you will find it proportioned with the whole of the body in a certain proportion, and proportioned with any other organ in another proportion, whose secret only God knows, Sublime be His Praise.29 Would it be possible to imagine that the Fatimid Caliph was looking for some ‘scientific’ secret, rather than trying to make black magic? There is in the work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ at least one other passage, ˙ I quoted in the epigraph of chap.3, that would support my hypothesis: For the image of the human body, Su¯ra al-’insa¯n is the greatest ˙ evidence of God [addressed] to his creatures. . . It is the summa of the images of all the worlds, and the synthesis of the sciences of the preserved book (al-luh al-mahfu¯dh).30 ˙ ˙ ˙ Whatever the answer might be, we should keep in mind that according to contemporary authors like the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, magical ˙ thinking was an integral part of the natural and spiritual sciences, although magic needed to be constrained by ethics.



Evidently, making calculations to determine a propitious moment to conceive a baby and give birth, or to build a house, or to found a city is not unethical as in the case of making harmful spells. Yet, as Maqrizi tells us, it is always fate and the will of God that have the last word. In commenting on Maqrizi’s account, Creswell notes that an almost identical story about the astrologers and a crow was already in circulation before the foundation of Cairo, which was reported by the Arab historian Mas‘u¯dı¯ in his history of the foundation of Alexandria. He logically concludes that the story is no more than a legend. We should however bear in mind that legends convey implicit statements and that the reuse of narrative themes is consistent with the function of legends, especially when they circulate similar statements, as is the case here with asserting the supremacy of the Divine Will over human projects. Whatever attitude we adopt in defining and interpreting legends, historians consider the habit of summoning astrologers to decide for a propitious time to build a building to be a historical fact. Now, a more intriguing and interesting question would be: was the recourse to astrological calculations to determine a propitious time for the foundation of a town or the construction of a palace the only instance in which symbolic thought manifested itself in the building process, or did symbolic thought equally fill the design of the projected buildings? This question is legitimate, especially when considering the works of a dynasty renowned for its mysticism. After analyzing the transformation of Fatimid coinage under Caliph al-Mu‘izz, Jonathan Bloom rejects the parallel drawn by Irene Bierman between coinage and the city of al-Mansu¯riyya founded by ˙ the same Caliph. He asserts: Irene Bierman has conflated this gradual and somewhat inconsistent transformation of Fatimid coinage into a single event during the reign of al-Mu‘izz and mistakenly concluded that the introduction of a concentric design on coins was intended to ‘emblematize’ rule and ideology. She likened the concentric circles of the coins to the concentric district of a city or the concentric circles of power around the ruler, but such an



extreme interpretation is unfounded in the facts. Although it is conceivable that some contemporary might have drawn such a parallel, it is equally possible that someone else could have interpreted the concentric rings as symbolizing the succession to the Mahdi. . . Furthermore, such a graphic interpretation implies that a three-dimensional entity such as a city could have been conceptualized as a two-dimensional representation (i.e. a plan), yet there is little if any, evidence for such visual sophistication at this time and place.31 While Bloom’s remark about the multiplicity of interpretations of any symbolic form is undeniably correct, it does not exclude the very symbolism of the concentric circles design adopted by the Fatimid Caliph for his coinage. Symbolic forms, indeed, are by nature polysemic in the sense that they allow for free interpretation. Each and every symbolic form conveys different messages, or rather enables the readers to interpret the meaning of their choice. This is why, as anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss tells us, we should study how symbolic systems work, rather than focus on specific symbols, or group of symbols. In his interpretation of dreams, Sigmund Freud too insists that it is not the archetypal symbol that provides us with the meaning of the dream, but the analysis of the systemic work of the dream that leads us to understanding the content of the dream. This is why I would suggest that the symbolic nature of Fatimid art should not be sought in particular symbols but through the symbolic system on which it is based, namely the cosmological system of the time as elaborated and presented by the encyclopedic work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. This is the cosmological system built on the theory ˙ of numbers and geometry I have described in Chapter 2. The large circulation of the work of the Ikhwa¯n, and the very nature of that work described as an encyclopedic synthesis of the knowledge of the time indicate that the cosmological system it entails were shared by most people even if competing interpretations of its functioning and meaning did coexist. The same structure of the cosmos and its geometric construction could indeed be read in different ways by the Fatimids, who were Isma’ili Shi‘i, and Sunni philosophers.



In this symbolic structure, numbers and geometry are of crucial importance. Some numbers as well as some forms are symbolically loaded. For instance, ‘the sphere is the most perfect shape’, (alshakl al-kurriyyu al-ladhi huwa afdalu al-ashka¯l. . .),32 and thus ˙ carries a particular symbolic value: the nine spheres of the cosmos are a demonstration of that perfection. Of course, in this geometric construction the sphere is generated by a circle and therefore both share the same quality of perfection and symbolism. When Fatimid rulers use the circle, the symbolic nature of that shape is grasped by all viewers. Hence, circles are found in coinage, in the circular layout of a city, or in architectural decoration despite the possibility of attributing different significance in each case. Thus, an Isma‘ili onlooker may liken the concentric circles of the coinage with the Caliph and circles of power around him, or imagine the Caliph as being at the centre of the world, and other viewers can see it as a cosmological image without any reference to the Fatimid Caliphate. The fact that design of Fatimid coinage went through different phases, starting with a change in the legends, then in calligraphy, before adopting the concentric circles motif, a process labeled inconsistent by Bloom, does not preclude the resulting design from having a symbolic nature. Most often the historical development of design forms is not a straight path but a complex process of trial and error. It seems reasonable to assume with Irene Bierman that from the very beginning the Fatimids had a symbolic view of their art. Perhaps the best argument supporting this view is to be found in their architectural activities rather than in their coinage or city planning. The circular plan of al-Mansu¯riyya, the palace founded by ˙ al-Mu‘izz, has precedent in the ‘Abbasid Madinat al-Salam, Baghdad. This makes for a shaky illustration of a new vision of city planning. It is, I suggest, in mosque architecture that the Fatimids achieved a clear breakaway from the past and created a new style based on the rise of fac ade architecture. In what follows I will try to show how a few new features—avoidance of a minaret, use of the triumphal arch motif in the main gate, and the application of a symmetric fac ade— first introduced in the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya broke away from the


Figure 12

Mosque of al-Mahdiyya: plan after A. Lezine

Samarra Mosque style structured as a poetic ode starting from the minaret and ending in the qibla niche, and created a new style based on the need for a monumental symmetrical fac ade. The layout of the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya departs from the Samarra Mosque style exemplified by the Great Mosque of Qayrawan (Figs 12 and 13) and fashion attested to by the adoption of the same layout in the Mosque of ibn Tulun in Cairo (Fig. 14). The addition of


Figure 13

Mosque of Qayrawan: plan after Creswell



a minaret in the qibla axis in all great mosques, even in Umayyad Andalusia, is another indication of the widespread willingness to conform to the new stylistic fashion. The departure is quite remarkable if we consider it in conjunction with the adoption of the classical triumphal arch motif for its monumental entrance. The adoption of an architectural element such as a triumphal arch can be of consequence on an architectural typology. Wittkover discusses the adoption of a triumphal arch in the composition of the fac ade of the Church of S. Francesco at Rimini designed by the Italian Renaissance artist Leon Batista Alberti: Alberti’s recourse to a classical system for an entirely new task led to difficulties which, at this stage of his development, he could only resolve with a compromise. The Roman triumphal arch consists of one storey: the church fac ade, by contrast, requires two storeys when it has to screen a high nave between two aisles or chapels.33 The fact that Renaissance architects, such as Alberti and Brunelleschi, were in fact using early Medieval and Romanesque architecture in their ‘recovery’ of the ancient manner of building does not change the nature of their quest. For, as Nagel and Wood suggest, a process of substitution allowed reconstructed buildings to stand for their original ‘models’, and as they write: ‘The identity of a building was its meaning, not its physical being, which distented in complex ways across time and was for any practical reason unreconstructible.’34 The Fatimid builders who used the Roman triumphal arch to adorn the main fac ade of the Mosque in al-Mahdiyya were faced with a problem comparable to that faced by Alberti in the design of the Church of S. Francesco at Rimini: the Roman triumphal arch was based on a particular proportion of height to width very different from that of the elongated fac ade of a mosque. They provisionally solved the problem by using the triumphal arch in the form of a monumental portal to the mosque, renouncing the use of a minaret, and framing the fac ade by two square towers, one on each side.



Nevertheless they succeeded, through this solution, to create an organized fac ade. This effect will prove to have a lasting effect on Fatimid mosque architecture. To Alberti, the solution to the problem encountered by the use of a triumphal arch in the design of the fac ade of the Church of San Francesco in Rimini was not satisfactory enough. In his next projects he looked for better solutions. Thus in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence the fac ade is circumscribed by a square and organized in a rigorous geometric composition. Here the triumphal arch has an attic, above which there is a second storey composed of a square central bay with a scroll on each side and a frontispiece atop.35 Although this solution, which is based on Romanesque buildings rather than ancient ones, is clearly more satisfactory and elegant Alberti kept experimenting and looking for new solutions. Moreover the research started by Alberti inspired generations of other architects including Palladio and determined the path of Church architecture during the whole Renaissance and beyond. In light of Wittkover’s discussion of the lasting consequences Alberti’s use of the triumphal arch on Renaissance architecture, we should ask what consequences its adoption by Fatimid builders in the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya brought about in Fatimid architecture. In Samarra under ‘Abbasid rule mosque architecture achieved a new typology based on the poetic form of the Arabic Ode, called the Qası¯da. In my book Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition I ˙ defined the Samarra Mosque type as follows: a visitor approaching the building realizes upon his entrance into the ziya¯da that here is a whole building, isolated from the outside. . . From the north side he can also perceive the relation of continuity between the minaret and the sanctuary, and the beginning of a symmetry axis. He can then move on, and enter the riwa¯q from which he will have an open view on the sahn. If ˙ ˙ he continues to move, from the latter he will be able to contemplate the entire directional organization of the ensemble, viewing both the minaret and the wider central



Figure 14

Mosque of Ibn Tulun: plan after Creswell

nave of the prayer hall. The central nave will guide his eye toward the mihrab, which marks the axis of the movement on ˙ the Qibla wall. Then, viewing the minaret from the inside, its spiraling thrusts his eye energetically upwards into the sky. The great architectural composition of the ‘Abbasid Mosque, whose type was first fully accomplished in the Mosque of Abu Dulaf, Samarra, must be considered as an achievement motivated by a search for a formal order. The fact that its first impetus was given by the religious need to indicate the Qibla does not alter the centrality of the search for a formal order. But, as al-Ja¯hiz ˙ ˙


Figure 15

Great Mosque of Samarra: plan after Creswell



would suggest, the search for formal order should not be interpreted as a goal in itself. For, like the Arabic ode, the Qası¯da which is composed of four parts (dikr, nası¯b, rahı¯l, madı¯h) ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙ organized with the goal of producing a perceptible movement, the ‘Abbasid Mosque is composed of distinct parts organized with a strong direction conveying the sense of movement. And like the reader who is explicitly addressed in the book, and invited to move from one part of the book to another, the beholder of the mosque is invited to move about, to walk through and around the structure, and thereby discover it. Furthermore, there must be a good equilibrium between the parts of the Arabic ode. . . Similarly, there is a sense of proportion in the contemporary mosque. Finally, as in the Qası¯da where the movement is aimed ˙ at a patron to whom the poet is addressing a request, the movement in the mosque leads the faithful literally towards the Qibla, but symbolically towards God, for the prayer is always addressed to Him, and it is towards His face that the faithful turn during that ritual, which is equally a request for grace and mercy.36 The Samarra-type Mosque, as I described in my book, is in many aspects different from the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya (Figs 12 and 15). First, the new mosque does not include a Ziyada, the free space surrounding the main body building that is crucial to the visual unity of the Samarra Mosque type.37 Instead, the west side of the building sides with the city wall, and the space next to the south wall is used for another purpose. In another contrast to the Samarra style, Lezine’s reconstitution indicates that the two main thoroughfares of the city merge together at the place on the north side of the mosque: one thoroughfare starting from the city gate, and the other from the palace of the Caliph. Both ways guide the visitor towards the north fac ade of the building, which is the site of a completely new architectural statement in mosque architecture: a truly symmetrically organized facade.


Figure 16 minaret


Mosque of ibn Tulun. View of the North Eastern ziyada and


Figure 17

General plan of al-Mahdiyya (After A. Lezine)


Figure 18


Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, North Eastern fac ade

The Ziyada of the Samarra Mosque type was characterized by a minaret in freestanding position. This feature is also present in the Mosque of ibn Tulun in Cairo. The freestanding minaret prevents the ‘reading’ of the minaret side of the building as a fac ade, for the impression imposed on the beholder is that of the relationship between the soaring spiral of the minaret with the horizontal parallelogram building. . . However thoughtful they may be, the decorative effects of the bastions, towers, arches and other motifs that clothe the wall of the minaret in Samarra do not provide the building with a fac ade meant to be seen from a particular point of view.38 Figure 16 in contrast, the empty space, or open place in front of the north wall, of the Mosque at al-Mahdiyya allowed for the conception of a fully designed fac ade. As Lezine notes, the location of the palace was chosen first. Therefore, the need to connect the palace with the space in front of the north wall of the mosque determined the


location of the mosque, which appears to be the only available location in the isthmus. Consequently an artificial platform claimed from seawater had to be built.39 Furthermore, adds Lezine, this choice was made despite the resulting exaggerated erroneous orientation of the qibla, a fact, although to a lesser degree, quite common to many mosques (Fig. 17). The Mosque of al-Mahdiyya presents us with the first instance of a fully conceived fac ade. Framed by two towers, the fac ade is symmetrically composed. At its axis a triumphal arch forms a monumental entrance. Two additional smaller doors are positioned symmetrically at each side of the main entrance (Figs 12 and 18). The towers framing the facade, which are of the same height as the wall, were first believed to be remains of ruined minarets, but archaeological investigation has demonstrated that they were water cisterns; the mosque was initially conceived without minarets. The monumental portal was modeled on the third-century Roman triumphal arch of Pheradi Majus located 46 kms north of Sousse (Pls 19, 22 and 23). Lezine indicates that the two structures share two features that can help explain the imitation of the Roman triumphal arch: first, a horizontal molding divides both structures in two at the base of the arch. There are also no engaged columns at the angles of the doorway in either structure. The two features are absent in all later similar structures. It is also noticeable that in both structures the arches share the same proportion of 1:2.

Sculpting the Fac ade When reporting on al-Mahdiyya, the Arab geographer Al-Bakri mentions that it was built of cut stones, a fact that must have been remarkable enough to be noticed. Cut stone will characterize Fatimid and all later Egyptian architecture. Al-Bakri writes: All its buildings are of stone. The city has two doors of iron with no wood. The weight of each door is one thousand qantar ˙ [or 50 tons, which is evidently exaggerated], and its length is thirty hand spans (shibr). There are animal figures in the gate.40



Figure 19 Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, detail of the North Eastern fac ade, monumental portal

Concerning the two iron doors, Creswell suggests reading the passage as ‘two halves of an iron door of one gateway’, and he adds that, according to Marmol Caravajal, ‘on each door there was a lion in relief facing the other’.41 We should notice en passant that the symbolism



Figure 20

Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, Sahn ˙ ˙

of the sculptures of two lions on the city gate is consistent with the use of the triumphal arch theme for the main gate to the Caliph’s mosque. The availability of materials, especially stone and marble for columns, was a serious issue at the time. Above, I explained that ibn Tulun was desperate to find 300 marble columns to support the roof of his planned mosque without reusing old materials from churches, and how the problem was solved by his Christian master builder by the recourse to piers instead of columns. In the Mosque of alMahdiyya it seems that the reuse of ancient materials was not excluded, but the fac ade was built from new materials. Stone was brought from a nearby quarry, 5 km from al-Mahdiyya, and cut in parallelepiped blocks varying from 8 to 23 cm in height and from 85 to 98 cm in length. The stones were set in regular horizontal courses with a very white mortar. Interestingly, the portal or monumental entrance was built with stones with the outer face grossly cut; it is only later that these stones


Figure 21


Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, central aisle

were cut to ensure the verticality of the wall. More remarkably, it is only when verticality was ensured that the niches were carved, and mouldings and the cornice were sculpted in the mass of the wall (Figs 19). To us, this construction technique might look extraordinary, for it is more akin to sculpture than to building. However it is less surprising if we recall that at the time architectural designers drew the main features of their projects, and left the design of most details to be worked out during construction of the site. This way of organizing the process of design and actual construction also explains most of the geometric irregularities and inaccuracies of the proportions that we find in these buildings. The attention given to the construction of the portal and its ornamentation was thus closer to sculpting than to ordinary building technique. This fact points to the particular value of that part of the fac ade to the eye of the builders and underlines the importance of the fac ade as a whole. It therefore can be ascertained that the first Fatimid mosque was designed so as to differ from the Samarra typology in two features: the absence of a minaret and the introduction of a fac ade based on classical


Figure 22

Triumphal arch of Pheradi Majus

design principles, with a triumphal arch at its symmetry axis. When compared to its predecessors the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya exhibits yet another classical feature in its plan. Indeed while ‘Abbasid mosques are inscribed within elongated rectangles (the Great Mosques at Samarra and Abu Dulaf) or irregular rectangles (the Mosque of Qayrawan) or a


Figure 23


Detail of the triumphal arch of Pheradi Majus

rectangle close to a square (the Mosque of ibn Tulun) the Mosque of alMahdiyya is circumscribed in a golden rectangle. When added to the symmetrical fac ade and its triumphal arch entrance, the choice of a golden rectangle for the plan is particularly suggestive of a conscious reference to classical architectural elements and design.



Figure 24

Al-Mahdiyya harbour

Although my argument for a conscious reference to classical architectural principles and elements might appear too speculative, I argue that it is a serious hypothesis. The assumption of a classical design influence on this early Fatimid structure stems from a holistic view of the city of al-Mahdiyya. In his reconstitution of the layout and uses of the gateway to the city, Lezine indicates that the customs building, which was destroyed by the Spaniards in 1554, was located just after the elongated vestibule of the gate at about 60 cubits from the rampart, which conforms with the prescriptions of the Treaties of Fortifications by Philo of Byzantium.42 This remark is very shrewd, and points to the fact that the city of al-Mahdiyya exhibits great hydraulic works (a 5 km aqueduct, and a harbour carved in the seashore (Fig. 24)) whose construction required sophisticated hydraulic engineering techniques that could not have been isolated from a larger body of knowledge. Islamic hydraulic engineering had developed the Greek and Sasanian hydraulic engineering legacies to revitalize and expand the agricultural irrigation system and had


Figure 25


Mosque of Qayrawan, North Eastern fac ade

already spread westward to Andalusia.43 Hydraulic engineering techniques were already available to the ninth century North African predecessors of the Fatimid dynasty, the Aghlabids, as attested to by their hydraulic works in Qayrawan. We also know, as Prager describes, the works of ancient Alexandrian masters were popular in late antiquity: Handbooks—quite unaffected by the metaphysical debates of the times—were copied and recopied to preserve the traditions of agriculture, dye-works, and miniature painting, as those of surgeons and surveyors; some of those have been published in modern times. Similar handbooks preserved traditions of architecture, carpentry, masonry, and well-digging.44 It is also well known that many Greek scientific and technical works were translated into Arabic in the ninth century. Versions of Philo of Byzantium works are believed to have existed relatively early.



Moreover, the conquest of Sicily and parts of southern Italy in the ninth century had also provided the Fatimids with Greek speaking literates who could very well help with the translation of similar works. Further, Islamic works on pneumatics were written in the ninth century. One of these works, by Ahmed Ibn Musa, exists in copies from the twelfth century.45 The fact that no translations of masonry, carpentry or architecture handbooks have come down to us should not exclude the possibility that such handbooks were available to builders working for Fatimid and earlier Islamic rulers. For how can we reconcile the actual and evidenced transmission and translation to Arabic of Greek philosophical, scientific and medical works, and yet exclude the transmission of technical knowledge, such as masonry, carpentry, and architecture? Moreover this hypothesis of the availability of building masters with different technical expertise and knowledge remains unavoidable because, without such knowledge, cities such as alMahdiyya could not have been built. If we can assume that this hypothesis is well grounded, it would also be reasonable to assume that the Fatimid builders of al-Mahdiyya had a quite clear idea of the meaning of the architectural features they were using. This presupposition would allow for an intelligible interpretation of the structure of the mosque. We can then reasonably assume that the Fatimid builders knew the ancient meaning of a triumphal arch. Some knowledge of classical architecture, as limited and altered as it may be, likely guided their decision to design a composed fac ade, break away from the Samarra style, and renounce the use of a minaret. A triumphal arch structure could not be hidden behind a freestanding minaret as in the Mosque of ibn Tulun, or be completely dominated by a minaret as is the case in the Mosque of Qayrawan (Fig. 25). On the contrary it had to be fully exposed in a fac ade whose view was unobstructed, and wherein it would be the dominant feature. Indeed the portal of the triumphal arch stands as the central and dominant feature in the composition of the fac ade of the al-Mahdiyya Mosque while two smaller doors underline the sense of axial symmetry, the two tower cisterns frame the fac ade inconspicuously. The open space in front of the fac ade



allows for an onlooker to fully grasp the fac ade and its structure. I should note that the theme of victory, al-Nasr, was evidently ˙ appreciated by Fatimid Caliphs. For example, the city of Sabra was also called al-Mansu¯riyya, the Victorious, and Cairo was also first ˙ named al-Mansu¯riyya before it took its current name. ˙ The elimination of the minaret and the creation of a symmetrical fac ade did not impact the classical directionality developed in mosque architecture beyond the entrance to the building. Moreover, the directionality of the building is enhanced by the addition of a triumphal arch at its starting point. Triumphal arches translate a momentous event, usually a victory, into a processional shaping of space. They ensure the commemoration of the event by creating an artificial threshold, a passageway that repeats in ceremonial terms the movement from before to the after.46 When used in a building portal, especially in religious structures such as mosques, triumphal arches acquire a supplemental quality for here the threshold is no more artificial, and the ceremonial quality of the passageway they create adds complementary meaning to the ordinary movement of walking into the religious sanctuary. Henceforth, at each prayer time before entering the mosque, the beholder will be reminded of the victory of God, and perhaps also of his Caliph. More importantly for the Fatimid builder, perhaps, the location of the mosque in respect the palace and the open place in front of the north wall of the mosque not only allowed for the conception of a fully designed fac ade with a triumphal arch but also allowed for the organization of a ceremonial parade whenever the Caliph visited the mosque. Indeed, nothing less than a triumphal arch could be more appropriate to Fatimid ceremonial processions, for ‘the ancient triumph’, as assert Starn and Partridge, ‘celebrated the conjunction of good fortune, charismatic power, divine favor, and leadership, the auspicium, imperium, felicitas, and ductus of a victorious commander.’ The Caliph’s procession, which in Fatimid ceremonials was so important as to determine Cairo’s planning as indicated above,


was still at its initial stage in al-Mahdiyya. Nonetheless, one can easily comprehend that the ceremonial procession of the Caliph from the palace to the mosque would attain its symbolic peak at the entry to the mosque, a fact symbolically highlighted by a triumphal arch.47 The traditional directionality as ordained in the sequence from the doorway to the qibla niche remains undisturbed in the Mosque of alMahdiyya (Figs 12 and 15), but we witness the introduction of a few new features. Upon entering the portal one sees the open space of the Sahn and its columned porticos, or riwarqs. Moving forward one ˙ ˙ discovers the covered northern riwaq has columns distributed around the symmetry axis. This symmetrical distribution is emphasized by the contrast between the double columns supporting the central arch directly in front of the doorway and the single columns supporting the other arches (Fig. 20). Now if the visitor moves further and enters the open space of the Sahn, he will see the arcades of the riwaqs of the ˙ ˙ portico to his left and his right and of the prayer hall. All the riwaqs are arcaded, but the visitor should not fail to notice that to his right and left the arches are supported by single columns, as is the case in the northern riwaq (with the exception of the central arch). In the riwaq in front of him, the arches are larger and supported by double columns except at the extremities, where single columns are set next to large piers (indeed walls that extend to the lateral walls). This architectural device is meant to inscribe the directionality of the building in the plan, and convey the enhanced symbolic nature of the prayer hall. Moreover, the directionality of the building is further underlined in the southern fac ade of the Sahn by the fact ˙ ˙ that the central arch is larger than the others, and its roof probably higher (Fig. 12). If the visitor enters the southern riwaq through the central arch, he will discover the prayer hall and, straight in front of him, far and piercing the wall, the qibla niche (Fig. 21). He will start seeing a concerto of columns beyond the piers separating the riwaq and the prayer hall proper: double columns support the arches of the aisles perpendicular to the qibla wall, but the central aisle presents the viewer with a series of four column supports, and then two polylobed piers, equivalent to eight columns that support the arches



underneath a dome. He can look upward and contemplate the dome, or look forward and see the qibla niche, which is framed by two groups of three engaged columns designed to recall the polylobed piers behind him. Since the original dome and roof have disappeared, one can only speculate about its shape, how light was captured in this area of the mosque and what impression it had on the visitor. But, one need not think too hard to catch the arithmetic progression in the distribution of the columns within the mosque, which moves from one column to two, then to four, and finally to eight. This progression cannot be accidental, and cannot be explained by technical considerations. In fact, the distribution of columns in the riwaqs includes single column supports on the east, west and north and double column supports in the south and in the central arch in the north, all of which are supposed to support the same loads. Therefore, the number of column supports cannot be attributed to technical reasons.48 Instead, they are used as signifiers of the idea of bearing loads, but also of connotations that can be related to them. As signifiers they are in a changing relationship with what they signify, their ‘signifieds’ that varies with both the historic and architectural context, and the culture of the onlooker. Columns and all other architectural elements in the building are indeed used as the elements of a language in the sense of John Summerson.49 Since the use of the progression 1, 2, 4, 8 in the distribution of the columns is not motivated by technical reasons, but is the result of a poetic-semiotic choice, it would be interesting to reflect on this choice and consider whether it carries symbolic meaning. It certainly is no accident that these numbers make the geometric series 1, 1 £ 2, 1 £ 2 £ 2... and convey the proportion 1:2. As shown in Chapter 2, the proportion 1:2 is one of the noble proportions given by the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. Here, recall that the work of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ should be ˙ ˙ considered as an encyclopedia of their time, and that most of the knowledge and views they assembled in their work must have been more or less widely shared by scholars. Therefore we can assume that the discourse on proportions of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ was developed ˙ earlier with the discovery and the translation of Greek Geometry,


Arithmetic, and philosophic works and was therefore a view familiar to their contemporaries. Thus it is legitimate to draw on their work to understand the use of proportions in the arts of the tenth and eleventh centuries. The geometric series 1, 2, 4, 8 used in the distribution of the columns in the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya refers to what the Ikhwa¯n alSafa¯’ call a proportion based on kayfiyya, or quality. This series has ˙ the particular qualities of defining pairs: the multiplication of the numbers at each end of the series yields a product equal to the multiplication of the second number of the series with the second to last number, and so on, until the middle number of the series is reached. The square of the middle number also yields the same product as the product of the first and last numbers. For instance in the series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, the multiplication of the first with the last number, 1 £ 16, equals the product of the second with the second to last, 2 £ 8, as well as the square of the number in the middle, 4.50 The series also represents the proportion 1:2 for every number in the series is one half of the following one, which is a noble proportion. According to Lezine the proportion 1:2 is used in the arch of the porch. Lezine indicates that the layout of the prayer hall is designed on a T shape crossing of two aisles to produce a square in front of the qibla niche. This niche is designed in the form of an elongated semicircle, and decorated with five flat niches, each topped by a semicircle. It should be noted that number 5 is a circular number in the terminology of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’. The base of the dome in front ˙ of the niche is likewise circular. Both are thus based on a noble shape, for the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ assert that ‘the sphere is the noblest shape’.51 ˙ All these numbers and shapes clearly fit with the symbolically geared work of these authors, except for the general layout of the mosque whose form is a golden rectangle. This may be explained in two ways: it is possible that the designers of the mosque used the golden rectangle figure without any symbolic intention, symbolic preoccupations being already taken into account in the design of the fac ade, distribution of the columns, and design of the prayer hall. On the other hand, it might be that the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ did not know ˙ about the important symbolism of the golden rectangle in the Greek



tradition, or that they did not bother to mention it for reasons unknown to us. Whatever the reason, it should be noted that the particular rectangular shape of the building, and the design of the prayer hall, resulted in a shape of the sahn that is close to a square. As ˙ ˙ Lezine has shown, the location of the mosque has caused geometric irregularities in the shape of the building. How should we understand the acceptance of these irregularities by the builders? Are they simply signs of carelessness, or can they be explained otherwise? In buildings, as in all crafts, the use of noble or perfect proportions is meant to ensure perfection of the artistic creation. It provides the building with a beauty that provides pleasure to the viewer. As explained in Chapter 2, the harmonious proportions used in buildings, as in music or painting, please the viewer because harmonious rhythms and melodies echo those of the heavens. Indeed, heavenly melodies, also called music, are based on numbers and perfect proportion. In perceiving such beauty, the human soul is able to reach a higher spiritual realm. More precisely the soul, whose essence, Arabic jawhar, is of the same composition and structure as the harmonious proportions—jawhar al-nafs musha¯kil wa muja¯nis al-a‘da¯d al-ta’lı¯fiya—delights upon hearing or seeing perfect proportions and heavenly melodies.52 The Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ teach us ˙ that this mechanism, based on good proportions, operates in the same way when perceiving all forms of beauty, including human and natural beauty. Moreover, one should know that all the pleasures that the human soul enjoys is of two kinds: those that it gets by itself, and those it gets through the mediation of the body which are seven: one of them is attained through the gaze from the beauty of colors, shapes, sculptures, images, and paintings both natural and man made. . .53 In order of importance, visual pleasure is mentioned first, then music and eulogy, food and drink, touch, smell, sex, and, lastly, acts of revenge. The high ranking of visual pleasure indicates the importance of visual arts, good craftsmanship, and the care for quality and


perfection. Yet unlike in the heavens, worldly natural objects more than often deviate from perfection because their composition deviates from perfect proportions. The same is true of human crafts. Furthermore, as explained above in Chapters 1 and 2, the eye is not totally reliable: to grasp the truth the soul must rely on the intellect. The Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ explain that what we see can differ enormously ˙ from the truth: Al-shamsu tastasghiru al-ajsa¯mu juth-thatuha¯ ˙ Fa- al-dhanbu li – al-‘ayni la¯ lish-shamsi fi al-sughri ˙ The sun’s body is belittled by the viewers It is not the sun’s guilt but the eye’s54 Perhaps we should consider that it is the inescapable imperfection of natural things, and the distorting nature of visual perception that explain geometric irregularities in the buildings of al-Mahdiyya and elsewhere. Besides, most often, these irregularities do not really disturb the perception of the harmony of the buildings. I should mention that discrepancies between mathematical proportions, and their implementation in actual buildings, is not an exclusive feature of Islamic architectural history. As was recently demonstrated, even buildings by the great Renaissance architect Palladio did not follow the rules he describes in his book the Quattro libri. Commenting on his own observation of these divergences in the master’s villas at Vicenza, Witold Rybczynski writes: Since it is difficult for the human eye—even Palladio’s expert eye—to appreciate such small differences, and since all these rooms are presumably equally beautiful, the inescapable conclusion is that while their general proportions are important, their precise dimensions don’t really matter.55 Let’s now resume our visit to the mosque. Upon his arrival at the open space in front of the mosque, the visitor is greeted by a symmetrical fac ade, a feature foreign to earlier mosques. The


Figure 26 fac ade


Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: monumental portal of North Eastern ˙

building is accessible through a monumental portal in the form of a classical triumphal arch located at its symmetry axis, and two symmetrically positioned doors. The fac ade is soberly ornamented, and in its current state does not display any inscription. The austere decoration of the monumental portal comprises a simple moulding located at mid-height, a cornice, a vertical pair of niches on each side of the main arch, and another pair on each lateral side. It also displays a medallion in the spandrels of the main arch. The left medallion was reconstructed during the restoration works of the 1960s (see Fig. 19). It should be noted that the rest of the fac ade is even more austere; its other adornments are limited to a half-rectangle-shaped moulding that crowns each door to the left and right of the porch. Against this austere background, the porch appears as the focus of ornamental attention, and a connoisseur will not fail to notice its architectural connotations. If the visitor enters the mosque through the monumental portal, he will discover the north riwaq, the sahn and the other riwaqs. He ˙ ˙ will then notice the arcades and the series of columns around the open


court, their particular distribution and the main nave in front of him. He will thus fully catch the directionality inscribed the building. If he moves forward and enters the prayer hall through the main arch of the south riwaq, he will notice the rhythmic multiplication of the number of columns supporting the arches. Here the connoisseur will not fail to realize the symbolism of the message generated by the geometric series of columns 1, 2, 4, 8. At this point he is standing in front of the mihrab, an elongated semicircular niche, and above him ˙ hovers a dome of semi-spherical structure. Both the mihrab and the ˙ dome are related to the circle and have symbolic connotations quite accessible to most visitors. Moreover, the mihrab is decorated with ˙ five flat niches probably chosen to reiterate the idea of circularity (recall that 5 is a circular number). This redundancy is not out of place; it is a rather effective way of assuring the symbolic message is well grasped. At this point, under the dome, someone with a sensitive ear like Pythagoras could hear the ‘inaudible music of the sphere’. For, according to the Ikha¯n al-Safa¯’ ‘It is said that the wise ˙ Pythagoras, thanks to the purity of the essence of his soul and the intelligence of his heart, could hear the melodies of the movements of the spheres and planets.’56 Interestingly when compared to the Samarra Mosque, the organization of the al-Mahdiyya maintains the poetic structure of the ‘Abbasid Mosque typology except for the initial sequence: here the minaret has disappeared and is replaced by a fac ade. But the directionality of the structure of the mosque from the doorway to the qibla niche has remained unchanged. Consequently new connotations have been integrated into the structure, starting with the theme of victory conveyed by the triumphal arch of the monumental portal, and the geometric series of numbers. Moreover, the introduction of these two new themes in the structure of the mosque creates a new semantic context in which older architectural elements such as a mihrab and a dome gain new meanings. Indeed, architecture is a ˙ language, and context is crucial to determining the meaning of its elements, as in any other language. In his discussion of the architectural origins of the Mosque of alHa¯kim (Fig. 26), Creswell states: ˙


Figure 27


Mosque of al-Ha¯kim, Sahn and Minaret ˙ ˙ ˙

The great salient in which the entrance is set, with two panels on each flank, one on each side under the vault, and probably one on each half of the outer face, is obviously a development of the first monumental entrance in Islam, that of the Great Mosque of Mahdiyya, the first capital of the Fa¯timids.57 ˙ The author weaves a direct lineage between the Mosque of al-Ha¯kim ˙ and that of al-Mahdiyya because his reconstruction of the Mosque of al-Azhar, the first Fatimid mosque in Cairo, did not include a monumental portal. Jonathan Bloom argues that Creswell was mistaken and that the al-Azhar Mosque had a monumental portal too. Whatever the case may be, one could assert that the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya had set a precedent in this regard, direct or indirect, for the al-Ha¯kim’s. Moreover, the whole of the fac ade of the ˙ Mosque of al-Ha¯kim is modeled on that precedent. Creswell who ˙ believed that the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya had two minarets—that was before Lezine demonstrated that indeed the supposed minarets


Figure 28

Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: plan after Creswell ˙

of the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya were cisterns not higher than the wall—wrote: The position of the minarets, which are placed so as to form salients at the end of the fac ade, a feature not found in any other mosque in Egypt, must have been derived, like the monumental entrance, from the Great Mosque of Mahdiyya. . .58 In comparing the two facades one notices: 1) both had a monumental portal set at the symmetry axis of the north western


Figure 29


Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: perspective after Creswell ˙

fac ade. The monumental portal of al-Ha¯kim Mosque was almost ˙ double of that of al-Mahdiyya and had two panels or flat niches instead of one on each half on its outer face and on each flank. 2) In both mosques there are at the edges of the north western fac ade salient towers, low ‘cubic’ cisterns at al-Mahdiyya’s and square socles supporting minarets at al-Ha¯kim’s. 3) Both have secondary doors ˙ between the monumental portal and the corner salients. Again, the al-Ha¯kim Mosque had two doors on each side instead of one in al˙ Mahdiyya’s. The minarets of the Mosque of al-Ha¯kim have an ˙ amazing story: they were first built as free and visible architectural features, with particularly rich and beautiful ornamentation. Within a few years they were encased in cubical masonry towers up to the height of the wall of the mosque and hidden from the public. There are different explanations given to this mysterious decision of the Caliph al-Ha¯kim. Some have suggested the technical need to brace ˙ them against earthquakes. From this view, the precaution proved to be a rational decision because the minarets’ upper parts have been rebuilt following their destruction in the AH 702/1303 earthquake.


Figure 30

Mosque of al-Azhar: plan after Creswell

Others have claimed that the minarets were built as symbolic references to the mosques of the holy cities of Arabia. Yet none of the explanations so far developed are totally convincing, and it seems that the Caliph’s decision, as many other of his deeds, will remain a mystery. It is as if the Caliph decided to hide the superb inscriptions of the minarets from the ordinary viewer to create a sense of mystery. Moreover, looking at these structures one cannot help but marvel at


Figure 31


Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: view of the prayer hall from Sahn ˙ ˙ ˙

the contrast between the simple geometry and coarse aspect of the encasements that hide the lower halves of the minarets and the refined, smooth, ornate and yet inaccessible minaret shafts, which emerge from the encasements (Fig. 27). There is a feeling of a mystery unveiling before us reminiscent of the mystery provoked by the unfinished sculptures of Renaissance artist Michelangelo, in particular his Slaves. Perhaps we should consider the visual effect of mystery as the main goal of these minarets. The two Mosques of al-Ha¯kim and al-Mahdiyya share traits other ˙ than those related to their facades (Figs 12, and 28 and 29). First, there is the proportion 1:2 that we have seen in the arch of the Great Portal of the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, and that, according to Creswell, is used in all the entrances of the Mosque of al-Ha¯kim.59 Second, as ˙ we should expect, the plan of the Mosque of al-Ha¯kim constitutes a ˙ logical development of the al-Mahdiyya’s plan. Creswell describes the plan as bearing a resemblance to the Mosque of ibn Tulun (Fig. 14), but borrows two new features from the al-Azhar Mosque: the transept



Figure 32

Mosque of al-Ha¯kim: central aisle and qibla niche ˙

and two domes in the back corner of the prayer hall. . . If we take into account the difference in size and general shape between the Mosques of al-Ha¯kim (c.120m £ 113m) (Fig. 28) and al-Azhar ˙ (c.85m £ 69m) (Fig. 30) on the one hand and that of al-Mahdiyya (c.54m £ 70m) (Fig. 12), on the other, we should note that the plan of the former represents a logical development of the latter’s. Comparing the plan of the Mosque of al-Ha¯kim to the Mosque of ˙ al-Azhar, Creswell asserts that instead of the riwaqs consisting of 5, 2, 2, and 2 arcades the composition here [in al-Ha¯kim] is 5, 3, 3, and 2. The number ˙ of bays from left to right is seventeen in both cases, but there are fewer arches in the lateral arcades—nine only instead of thirteen.60 In limiting his observation to the number of riwaqs, the author forgets to highlight the importance the logic of the plans held for the


Figure 33


Mosque of al-Azhar: view of the prayer hall from Sahn ˙ ˙

designers of the buildings. When looking closely at the logic of the plans of these mosques, one cannot avoid recognizing that both mosques present the same spatial directionality as the Mosque of alMahdiyya. Each runs from the monumental entrance towards the qibla niche. The main difference is that in both Cairene mosques the north western fac ade, which contains the monumental entrance, is the longer side of the rectangle. If the plan of al-Mahdiyya’s had been applied without adaptation, this would have necessitated the construction of a sahn with a rather elongated rectangular shape. In ˙ ˙ contrast, the Cairene mosques’ Tunisian counterpart has a north western fac ade on the small side of the rectangle, which allows for a nearly square sahn with a portico of just one aisle on each side. Thus ˙ ˙ we should interpret the multiplication of the aisles in the riwaqs of the porticoes of the Cairene mosques—3, 2, and 2 in the Mosque of al-Ha¯kim, and 3, 2, and none in the northern side in the al-Azhar ˙ Mosque, at least in its reconstitution by Creswell—as a means to have a sahn closer to a square shape than to an elongated rectangle. ˙ ˙


Figure 34

Mosque of al-Azhar: central aisle and qibla niche

The hypothesis of a similarity in the logic of the plan in the Mosques of al-Mahdiyya and al-Ha¯kim is also attested to by the ˙ similarity in the distribution of the columns in the central aisle or transept of the mosque. The arcades in the Mosque of al-Ha¯kim are ˙ supported by piers that were described as bad copies of the arcades of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. But the transept of the al-Ha¯kim Mosque ˙ displays columns that distinguish it from the other parts of the building (Figs 31 and 32). The piers of this transept are T-shaped in the plan, but as Creswell tells us, The two piers flanking the central arch of the fac ade are L-shaped, as also are the two which carry the dome. Attached to each of the latter are two pairs of two pairs of engaged columns, with clock-formed (or lotus) capitals, which carry the domesupporting arches. Two pairs of similar columns, set against the qibla wall, carry the return of the lateral arches. There were, therefore, six pairs of columns under the dome. To these must


Figure 35


Mosque of al-Azhar: qibla niche

be added the two pairs flanking the entrance to the transept, making eight pairs in all.61 Here, I should indicate that the author discusses only the marble columns; his counts do not include the brick-engaged columns that are at each angle of the piers. In fact each pier has four engaged brick columns, which makes the total number of columns higher. More interestingly, the plan and section of the building as given by the author indicates that the central arch of the fac ade is supported by a pair of engaged (marble) columns on each side. Moving towards the qibla wall, each pier exhibits four engaged (brick) columns. The piers supporting the dome have two engaged brick columns and three pairs of marble columns making a total of eight for each pier. Finally, under the dome-supporting arch against the qibla wall, there is a pair of engaged columns on each side as well as one on each side of the qibla niche, which visually echoes the preceding group of eight columns of piers. Thus we have a distribution of 2, 4, and 8 columns, exactly as is the case in the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya.



Figure 36

Al-Aqmar mosque: plan after Creswell


Figure 37


Al-Aqmar mosque: fac ade with portal

It should be noted that the rhythm of columns of the prayer hall of the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya is reproduced in the al-Azhar Mosque (Figs 33, 34 and 35). Once more, remember that the rhythm expressed by the distribution of columns cannot be accidental or meaningless, because the column is not used only as a load-bearing feature. To use



Figure 38

Coptic Museum, fac ade

Wittkover’s vocabulary, the column is not only ‘a residue of the wall’ but also an ‘ornament’,62 or an architectural linguistic element. In this perspective, the use of particular numbers of columns in a specific distribution necessarily produces a rhythm and implies the connotations of a linguistic decision. We cannot recover the particular connotations produced, but this does not matter because as a poetic production, architecture always implies ambiguity and a floating relationship between the signifier and the signified. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the design of the Mosque of alMahdiyya on later Fatimid architecture, and Egyptian architecture in general, is the introduction of the notion of fac ade in mosque typology. We have seen how the configuration and orientation of the Mosque of al-Ha¯kim, and al-Azhar, have caused a multiplication of ˙ the aisles of the portico. But it is only in the third Fatimid congregational mosque built in Cairo, called the Aqmar Mosque, that this feature is developed to its full logical extent (Fig. 36). The builders of the Aqmar Mosque were faced with the new architectural problem of designing a mosque on a plot overlooking a street and the corresponding need to adjust the building fac ade to the street.



Neither of its predecessors, al-Azhar or al-Hakim, required such an adjustment. Al-Azhar was built at the same time than the rest of the city, off the main avenue and overlooking a square. The Hakim mosque was built extra-muros. . . Neither mosque overlooked a preexisting street, and neither therefore could have been subject to any of the urban constraints that would have required an adaptation of the fac ade’s alignment.63 The Aqmar Mosque is built in the vicinity of the Caliph’s palace on a small plot (c.24 m £ 38 m), which was previously the site of a royal pavilion. Its plan constitutes the first instance of an exterior fac ade that is oriented to the adjacent street, rather than to the interior of the mosque (Fig. 36). Its internal spatial organization reproduces the main features of its Fatimid predecessors on a reduced scale, with a three-aisle prayer hall, and a sqaure sahn surrounded by a ˙ ˙ one-aisle portico. Remarkably, although the first two aisles of the prayer hall are composed of square bays and are thus of the same dimension, the fac ade of the prayer hall presents us with an arcade with three arches, the central arch of which is visibly larger than the other two. This is possible because columns support the central arch and piers, necessarily larger, at the edge of the fac ade. The result is a three-arch facade reminiscent of a triumphal arch structure. The same theme of a triumphal arch is used in the main fac ade overlooking the city’s principal thoroughfare (Fig. 37). The Aqmar fac ade, considered the most beautiful of Fatimid Cairo, is built of cut stone. It has a salient entrance about 7 m wide, and an offset of 70 cm. Above the main door is an arched hood with radiating ribs springing from a superbly ornate medallion bearing the names of ‘Ali and Muhammad at its centre. On each side of this door are superposed sculpted niches, and on each side of the salient entrance there is a medallion above each niche. The salient entrance is clearly reminiscent of the salient entrance of the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya, and it is also divided in height by an inscription at the level of the springing of the arch of the doorway. The Aqmar fac ade exhibits another superb Kufic inscription just below the cornice, which is the only Fatimid foundation inscription that mentions the name of a


Caliph.64 Beside these long inscriptions the fac ade shows a wealth of inscriptions and motifs that encourage symbolic speculation. For example, the names Ali and Muhammad are inscribed in the fac ade. There is also a depiction of a closed door on the right panel of the left side of the door and a star-shaped grille with a hanging lamp on the left panel of the left side of the door. A vase with plants appears just below the panel with the lamp, as well as diverse medallions, muqarnas and arched hoods. It is not accidental that the fac ade has been the subject of a diversity of symbolic interpretations: first as an expression of Isma‘ili thought with each decorative element having an esoteric meaning (Caroline Williams), then in the context of Fatimid religious processions as an expression of ‘the return of splendor to the city and its palace under Caliph al-Amir’.65 But, as Jonathan Bloom has pointed out ‘nothing in the building requires the primacy of one explanation over another’.66 ‘It [the fac ade] may have been designed with some specific meaning in mind, but we have been left free to read into it as muchor as little- as we like’,67 says Bloom. Interestingly, he is both right and wrong. He is right in the sense that we indeed are free to read into the fac ade whatever we will, yet he fails to understand that it is not because we have lost the keys to the precise message of the fac ade that we can read multiple meanings into it. Rather, it is the poetic nature of architectural works to allow the onlooker to freely read into them. In other words: the fac ade, as a poetic architectural work, is not a site for the display of a peculiar and precise message that can be restituted, as Behrens-Abouseif claims, but a poetic stage and a locus of semiotic indetermination where the onlooker is invited to freely enjoy multiple and reverberating layers of meaning. It is for this reason that the fac ade of the Mosque of al-Aqmar could be appropriated and reused to compose the fac ade of a Christian building, namely the Coptic Museum in Cairo (Fig. 38).


Introduction 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

6. 7. 8. 9.

10. 11. 12.

13. 14. 15. 16.

Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ (1957) vol. 3, Risa¯la 42, pp. 490– 1. ˙ Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 5, pp. 223 –4. Robert Hillenbrand, 1982. Nader El-Bizri, 2008, p. 212. Moreover, the concept of art is extremely difficult to define. As Adorno states: ‘The concept of art balks at being defined, for it is a historically changing constellation of moments.’ Adorno, Theodor, 1984, p. 3. Finbarr Barry Flood, 2007, p. 37. See Finnbarr Barry Flood, 2006. Published in November 2010 by I.B.Tauris Publishers, London. The notion of an Islamic Renaissance was first introduced by Adam Mez in his Die Renaissance des Islams, 1922, which was later translated as Renaissance of Islam, English trans. by S.K. Bakhsh and D.S. Margoliouth in 1937. That notion was championed again recently by J.L. Kraemer in his Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam, Leiden: Brill, 1992. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 5, p. 225. ˙ Nasir-I Khusraw, 2001, p. 63 – 4. Most specialists agree on this issue. For instance Godefroy de Callatay¨ asserts: ‘But, reading the Rasa¯’il shows, above all, that the Ikhwa¯n’s view of astrology and astronomy is a faithful reflection of their general development since the first Abbasid Caliphs.’ In Les re´volutions et les cycles, 1996, p. 32 (my translation). Qadi al-Nu‘man, 2007, Da‘a’im, p. 26. Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r al-Yaman, 2001, Kita¯b al-‘a¯lim wa L-ghula¯m, pp. 88– 9. ˙ Qur’an 58:11. Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r al-Yaman, 2001, Kita¯b al-‘a¯lim wa L-ghula¯m, p. 118. ˙



17. The Risala 52, the last one, is indeed titled: ‘In the nature of magic, spells, and [bad] eye’ and is about 180 pages long, by far the longest of the epistles, some of which are just ten pages long. See Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa’, vol. 4, Risa¯la 52, ˙ pp. 283– 463. 18. Ibn Hani, Diwan, p. 112. 19. See Gonzalez Valerie, 2001. 20. On what I call the epistemic view of al-Bayan and how it relates to the arts see my Art and Architecture, chaps 2 and 3. 21. Ibid., p. 110. 22. Ibid., p. 113. 23. Wittkover, 1971, p. 126. 24. On this issue see Deborah Howard, Venice and the East, The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture (2000). One interesting illustration of this infusion of Venice’s townscape by Islamic architectural ideas is the use of mosaics in the fac ade of San Marco described by the author as follows: ‘The profusion of mosaics on the outside of San Marco, spilling out from the interior from the thirteenth century onwards lifts the building right out of its Byzantine heritage into Islamic tradition. In Byzantium, even the most splendid churches such as Hagia Sophia had plain brick exteriors. By bringing color into the open arena of the piazza, the fac ade mosaics extend the realm of the sacred forcefully into the forecourt, just as the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem project a sacred aura of glittering colour, fragmenting and dispersing the sunlight on to their precincts.’ p. 11. 25. Which, for instance, in the case of ‘the Throne of St Peter’ in San Pietro di Castello, Venice, amounts clearly to ‘a deliberate robbing of a devotional object from the Moslem world.’ (Howard, 2000, p. 98). On this issue see also Avinoam Shalem, ‘L’art Fatimide Christianise´’, in Tre´sors Fatimides du Caire, pp. 225– 8, and Anna Contadini, ‘Artistic Contacts: Current Scholarship and future Tasks’, in Islam and the Italian Renaissance, Warburg Institute Colloquia #5, ed. Charles Burnett and Anna Contadini, London: The Warburg Institute, 1999. 26. Nagel and Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (2010), p. 66; see also Howard (2000), pp. 197– 205. 27. Ibid., pp. 66 –7. 28. Gu¨lru Necipog˘lu (2008), the author also notes that the meanings attached to the monument had changed after its recovery. She writes: ‘The association of the Dome of the Rock with caliphal authority was no longer a central theme. . .’ p. 56. 29. Nagel and Wood argue ‘The sultans understood Justinian’s tremendous multidomed temple, Hagia Sophia (532– 537), completely reasonably, as the culmination of the ancient Roman building tradition.’ (Anachronic Renaissance, p. 140). Accordingly, Ottoman architects mosques were somehow interpretations of Hagia Sophia that converged with Italian Renaissance architects project of a rebirth of Roman antique architecture. 30. Hans Belting, 2011. 31. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 6, p. 255. ˙



Chapter 2 An Aesthetic Revolution: From Trance to Meaning—A Metamorphosis of Islamic Aesthetics 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18.

19. 20.

21. 22.



Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 39, p. 328. ˙ Michel Foucault, 1970, p. xxii. Nagel and Wood, 2010. Ibid., p. 158. My Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition, pp. 50 – 1. For a detailed discussion of these views see my Art and Architecture, Chap. 2. Muhammad Ibn Taba¯taba¯, 1980, ‘Iya¯r al-Shi‘r, p. 25. ˙ ˙ Ibid., p. 18. Ibid., p. 19. Dominique Urvoy, 2006, p. 244. Ibn Taba¯taba¯, 1980, p. 27 – 8. ˙ ˙ Ibid., pp. 28 –9. Ibid., p. 142. Al-Aghani, vol. 4, p. 307. Ibid., vol .4, p. 289. This is a trope, or Ma‘na¯ that was widely used at the time. Abu Nuwas, 1962, Diwan, p. 574. See my Art and Architecture, pp. 38– 47. The text continues: ‘If the passion of [the soul] is to be with this body, and the object of its passion is these sensory, burning and harmful pleasures, and its desires the adornment of the body, then it will not depart from it and does not long to rise to the celestial spheres. The gates of the heavens will not open for it, and it will not be allowed into the paradise in company of the angels. But it will remain astray under the sphere of the moon deep in these contradictory hopeless elements, shifting from being to corruption.’ Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, ˙ Risa¯la 3, p. 137. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 7, p. 259. It is worth noting that the Ikhwa¯n do not give any indication on the location of the soul within the human body. See the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 7, ˙ pp. 264– 5. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 7, p. 261. The Rasa¯’il read: ‘Because of this, social gatherings are of two kinds too: gatherings for the enjoyment of food, drinks, entertainment, fun, and physical pleasure, with foods from different meats, and vegetables. All of this to the benefit of this instable, corrupt, and perishable body.’ Ibid., v. 1, p. 261. Condemnation of the body as corrupt is repeatedly stated in the Rasa¯’il, as in the epistles 2, 3, and 8, vol. 1, respectively pp. 104, 137, and 286. Moreover ‘matter’, the hayu¯la¯, itself is presented as a prison of corruption and unhappiness. Plato, 1998, Symposium, p. 39.



25. On this point, see The Reformation of Morals of Yahya¯ ibn ‘Adi, Translation and ˙ Introduction by Sidney H. Griffith, Introduction. Provo, Utah: Brigham University Press, 2002. 26. On this subject see Amin Ahmad, 1974, Duha¯ al-Islam, vol. 1, pp. 79 – 100. ˙ ˙ 27. On these issues see my Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition, chap. 3. 28. The Ikhwa¯n develop a lengthy theory of the alphabet and its creation. They indicate that the number of the existing huru¯f corresponds to the existing ˙ originating things, which the number 28 corresponding to the 28 lunar mansions, half of which are above the earth and the other are underneath it, or north and south. That is why the huru¯f are two times 14. Moreover, ‘likewise the ˙ human body contains [a number of] elements corresponding to this number, for the perfect language is the language of the Arabs, and the eloquent speech is the speech of the Arabs, and any other [language or speech] is imperfect. Therefore Arabic language is to languages what mankind is to animals.’ Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 14, p. 144. ˙ 29. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 10, pp. 391–2. 30. See, for instance, Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol.1, Risa¯la 5, p. 209. ˙ 31. See Adonis, 1990, An Introduction to Arabic Poetics pp. 15 –16. 32. In this respect Al-Jorja¯ni’s work presents another illustration of the same view. See for instance Margaret Larkin, 1995. 33. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 14, p. 152. Because the Arabic script did ˙ not use diacritic marks and vowels at the time even the Qur’an was read in different manners. 34. Ahmad Amine asserts that al-Jawhari was the creator of a new way of organizing dictionaries that was to be adopted in the famous Lisa¯n al-‘Arab and other works. See Ahmad Amine, 1974, vol. 1, pp. 273– 4. 35. As in the expression ‘fı¯ Husn Yusuf wa kama¯l Hawwa’, in al-Ja¯hiz, 2003, ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙ al-Maha¯sin wa al-Zda¯d, p. 249. ˙ ˙ 36. Sura Yusuf reads: [12.22] ‘And when he had attained his maturity, We gave him wisdom and knowledge: and thus do We reward those who do good. [12.23] And she in whose house he was sought to make himself yield (to her), and she made fast the doors and said: Come forward. He said: I seek Allah’s refuge, surely my Lord made good my abode: Surely the unjust do not prosper. [12.24] And certainly she made for him, and he would have made for her, were it not that he had seen the manifest evidence of his Lord; thus (it was) that We might turn away from him evil and indecency, surely he was one of Our sincere servants. [12.25] And they both hastened to the door, and she rent his shirt from behind and they met her husband at the door. She said: What is the punishment of him who intends evil to your wife except imprisonment or a painful chastisement? [12.26] He said: She sought to make me yield (to her); and a witness of her own family bore witness: If his shirt is rent from front, she speaks the truth and he is one of the liars:



38. 39.

40. 41. 42.


[12.27] And if his shirt is rent from behind, she tells a lie and he is one of the truthful. [12.28] So when he saw his shirt rent from behind, he said: Surely it is a guile of you women; surely your guile is great: [12.29] O Yusuf! turn aside from this; and (O my wife)! Ask forgiveness for your fault, surely you are one of the wrong-doers. [12.30] And women in the city said: The chiefs wife seeks her slave to yield himself (to her), surely he has affected her deeply with (his) love; most surely we see her in manifest error. [12.31] So when she heard of their sly talk she sent for them and prepared for them a repast, and gave each of them a knife, and said (to Yusuf): Come forth to them. So when they saw him, they deemed him great, and cut their hands (in amazement), and said: Remote is Allah (from imperfection); this is not a mortal; this is but a noble angel’. It is worth noting that in this Sura the confusion caused by beauty is in a structural parallelism to confusion caused by dreams. But Yusuf can through God’s help make read dreams. Also, the confusion caused by the contemplation of beauty can cause great harm (here cutting one’s hands, in al-Jahiz’s accounts falling dangerously on the ground) whereas the confusion of the dreams creates curiosity and unrest that only God guided interpretation can soothe. If indeed, as Adorno asserts, pleasure can be ‘an emancipatory force’ it is understandable that after the appearance of Islam, and the ascetic way of life imposed by the warrior mindset of conquest under the first Caliphates such an aesthetic of pleasure was adopted by their immediate successors. Adorno asserts: ‘In periods following an age of asceticism, pleasure became an emancipator force. This is true of the Renaissance in its relation to the Middle Ages. It is also true of impressionism in its relation to the Victorian age.’ Adorno, 1984, p. 21. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 5, p. 237. ˙ The Arabic text reads: ‘Inna al-Husn huwa su¯ra ta¯bi‘atun li-’i‘tida¯l al-miza¯j ˙ ˙ wa sihatu muna¯saba¯t al-a‘da¯d...’ Ibn Miskawayh, 2001, Al-Hawa¯mil wa ˙ ˙ al-Shawa¯mil, p. 278. Ibn Miskawayh (2001), Tahdhı¯b, p. 14. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 42, p. 410. ˙ I should add that the poetics of Ibn Taba¯taba¯ works in the same way if we ˙ ˙ consider that the Suwar and the Ma‘a¯nı¯ are one and the same thing. ˙

Chapter 3 The Ethics of Arts and Crafts 1. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 5, p. 222. ˙ 2. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 6, p. 255.

166 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.


10. 11. 12. 13. 14.

15. 16. 17. 18.

NOTES TO PAGES 42 –48 Owen Wright, 2008, p. 242. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 6, p. 255. ˙ Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 6, p. 257. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 284. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 285. In his Muqaddima Ibn Khaldun seems to borrow many of the Ikhwa¯n’s ideas on crafts—his chap. 5, sections 15 to 19, and chap. 6, sections 4, 6, and 7—and elaborates them within his own notion of civilization. It would be of great interest to trace how he appropriates these philosophical notions—upon which the Ikhwa¯n build a spiritualist view of crafts—and uses them in a different way to build a theory of civilization. It is interesting to note that the Ikhwa¯n’s classification of the arts and crafts does not seem to be congruent with the one Plato makes in the Symposium: ‘“You’re aware that poeˆsis includes a large range of things: after all, what causes a thing whatever to pass from not being into being in all [.] poeˆsis, so that the productive activities that belong to all the different kinds of expertise are in fact kinds of poeˆsis, an their practitioners are all po[i]ets.” ‘True.” “Nevertheless,” she replied, “you’re aware that they are not called poet [c5] but have other names; one part has been divided off from poeˆsis as a whole, the part concerned with music and verse, and given the name of the whole. This alone is called poeˆsis. . .”’ Plato, 1998, pp. 86 – 7. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 289. ˙ Michael Baxandall, 1998, p. 16. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 289. ˙ Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 290. He asserts, by the voice of the young disciple upon realizing what the nature of knowledge is: ‘For the beginning of this affair is from God, and it only reached me through its many intermediaries (asba¯b), the first passing it to the second, the second to the third, (and so on). . . Thus he thought to himself, and he knew that, because of this, his obligation (to pass on his spiritual understanding to others) was now like the duty (of his own master) toward him, and that his duty in the end was like it had been in the beginning.’ al-Yaman, 2001, Kita¯b al‘a¯lim wa-Lghula¯m, p. 64. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 5, p. 222. ˙ Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 287. ˙ Owen Wright, 2008, pp. 246– 7. Here is how Wright describes that shift: ‘After the exploratory and eclectic mid-ninth century treatise of al-Kindi, we find in the mid-tenth century writings of al-Fara¯bı¯ (d. 950) and al-Khawa¯rizmı¯ (d. c. 980) a major shift of emphasis: cosmological schemes and concerns are neglected in favour of a more coherent emphasis on the descriptive, scientific, and analytical.’ He adds in a note that ‘And by Ibn Sı¯na¯’s time (d. 1037), cosmological speculation was to be summarily rejected from the very beginning.’ Owen Wright, idem, p. 245.



19. On the encyclopedic character of the Rasa¯’il see Ian Richard Netton, 2008, ‘The Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ in the History of Ideas in Islam.’ ˙ 20. Nevertheless one should recall that the discussion of the chronology of the Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ is not yet a settled issue. Moreover, it is believed that the theoretical ˙ teachings of the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ were opposed by the ‘Abbasids, and that therefore ˙ their activities were conducted in relative secrecy if not totally underground. Their precise madhhab also remains an unsettled matter. It is however clear that their work shows convincing indications of their Shı¯‘i character. Nader El-Bizri states: ‘Concerning the more widely accepted indications of the Shı¯‘i ancestry of the compilers of the Rasa¯’il, it is clear that the Ikhwa¯n venerated the persona of the Imam ‘Alı¯ ibn Abı¯ Ta¯lib (r.656–61), and that they also heeded the progeny of the ˙ Prophet as “guided Imams” (al-a’imma al-muhtadı¯n). Moreover, in the final epistle of the compendium, on the essence of magic (Fı¯ ma¯hiyyat al-sihr; Epistle 52), the ˙ Ikhwa¯n appeal to the prophetic oral tradition, by metaphorically stating that the Prophet Muhammad was the city of Knowledge (madı¯nat al-‘ilm) and that the Imam ‘Alı¯ was its gateway. . .’ Nader El-Bizri, 2008, p. 7. 21. ibn Miskawayh, 2001, Al-Hawa¯mil wa al-Shawa¯mil, p. 278. 22. Ibn Miskawayh, 2001, Tahdhı¯b al-akhla¯q, p. 56. 23. Ibid., p. 75. 24. Ibid., p. 118. 25. ibn Miskawayh, 2001, Tahdhı¯b al-akhla¯q, p. 48. The same metaphorical reference to building representation is used in Al-Hawa¯mil wa al-Shawa¯mil, p. 257 which may be interpreted as a strong indication of the existence of architectural representation at the time. 26. ibn Miskawayh, 2001, Tahdhı¯b al-akhla¯q, p. 106. 27. A. I. Sabra tells us about ibn al-Haytham’s definition of the perception of beauty: ‘It is known to have made an impression on European readers of the Optics, one of them was the Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti, who copied parts of these paragraphs in his Commentarii from a fourteen century translation of the book’, Ibn al-Haytham, vol. 2, p. 97. 28. Gonzalez, Vale´rie, Beauty and Islam, p. 20. 29. Ibn al-Haytham, 1983, Kita¯b al- Mana¯zir, ed. A.I. Sabra, Kuwait: The National ˙ Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters, 1983, p. 308. Whenever given as Kita¯b al- Mana¯zir citations of ibn al-Haytham are my translation, otherwise they are ˙ translated by A.I Sabra and given as Ibn al-Haytham, 1989, tr. A. I. Sabra. 30. Ibn al-Haytham, 1989, tr. A. I. Sabra, vol. 1, p. 200. 31. A.I. Sabra, 1994, Optics, Astronomy and Logic: Studies in Arabic Science and Philosophy, p. 170. 32. Ibid., p. 170. 33. ibn al-Haytham, 1983, Kita¯b al- Mana¯zir, p. 219. ˙ 34. A.I. Sabra, 1994, p. 175. 35. Ibid., p. 177. 36. Ibn al-Haytham, 1989, tr. A. I. Sabra, vol.1, p. 137. 37. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 27, p. 10. ˙



38. Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 42, p. 424. 39. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 10, p. 399. 40. Ibn al-Haytham, 1989, tr. A.I. Sabra, p. 205. [their Ma‘a¯ni, meanings] is my own addition to Sabra’s translation. I did so because I think that property does not give justice to ibn al-Haytham’s notion of Ma‘na¯, meaning. 41. Ibn al-Haytham, 1989, tr. A.I. Sabra, p. 206. [Ma‘a¯ni, meanings] is my own addition to Sabra’s translation. 42. Ibn al-Haytham, 1989, tr. A.I. Sabra, Commentary, vol. 2, p. 97. 43. Ibn al-Haytham, 1989, tr. A.I. Sabra, p. 136. 44. Ibid., p.136. 45. See El-Bizri, 2008, pp. 181– 2. 46. Here is how Nader El-Bizri tells us about this: ‘The Ikhwa¯n were explicit about their indebtedness to Pythagoras and Nicomachus in arithmetic, to Euclid’s Elements (Stoikheia; Kita¯b Uqlı¯dis fı¯ al-usu¯l), and to the Almagest of Claudius Ptolemy ˙ (d. 165) in Astronomy. And yet, although the influence of Nicomachus is evident throughout the Ikhwa¯n’s epistle on arithmetic, the subdivisions and their contents do not entirely overlap with those of Nicomachus’ tract.’ El-Bizri, 2008, p. 185. 47. El-Bizri, idem, p. 183. 48. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 1, p. 75. ˙ 49. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 1, p. 54. 50. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 1, p. 49. 51. Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 40, p. 377. 52. Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 40, p. 346. 53. For an exhaustive and brief description of the attributes of numbers see Nader El-Bizri, 2008, pp. 190– 2. 54. Here is how Seyyed Hossein Nasr interprets the generation of numbers and the creation of the world in the work of The Ikhwa¯n: ‘1. Creator—who is one, simple, eternal, permanent. 2. Intellect (‘aql)—which is of two kinds: innate and acquired. 3. Soul (nafs)—which has three species: vegetative, animal, and reasonable. 4. Matter (hayu¯la¯’)—which is of four kinds: matter of artifacts, physical matter, universal matter, and original matter. 5. Nature (tabı¯‘ah)—which is of five kinds: celestial nature, and the ˙ four elemental natures. 6. Body ( jism)—which has six directions: above, below, front, back, left, and right. 7. The sphere which has its seven planets. 8. The elements—which have eight qualities, these being in reality the qualities combined two by two: Earth—cold and dry Water—cold and wet Air—warm and wet Fire—warm and dry



9. Beings of this world—which are the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms, each having three parts.’ Nasr, 1993, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, pp. 51 – 2. 55. For this author God is the first of every first (#1). He initiated the creation by three words (#3): His will, His command, and His saying ‘Kun’. ‘Now from the three words there came “Be!,” which is two letters and “so it came to be”, which is five more letters. Hence those seven letters were the root-principles from which were derived seven things. . .’ al-Yaman, 2001, Kita¯b al-‘a¯lim wa-Lghula¯m, pp. 79–80. 56. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 2, p. 79. ˙ 57. Risa¯la 2 reads: ‘And we want to demonstrate and mention in this Risala the origin of geometry which is the origin of the three dimensions, the number of its figures and their attributes, how they are created from the point which is the tip of the line, and that in the making of geometry, sina¯‘at al-handasa, the point is comparable to ˙ the number 1 in the making numbers, sina¯‘at al-‘adad.’ Ibid., vol.1, p. 79. ˙ 58. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 2, pp. 79 – 80. 59. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 2, pp. 95 – 6. 60. We should recall that the theme of the bee and the architect is quite common in architectural literature, and among philosophers. 61. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 6, p. 245. ˙ 62. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 6, p. 252. 63. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 6, pp. 252 –3. 64. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 9, p. 297. ˙ 65. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 9, p. 298. 66. I.R. Netton, 1982, p. 49.

Chapter 4 Painting in a World of Images 1. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, respectively: vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 290, and vol. 4, Risa¯la ˙ 43, p. 12. 2. Seyyed Hossein Nasr Islamic Art and Siriptuality (1987). 3. Alexandre Papadopoulo, L’Islam et l’Art Musulman (1979), and Louis Massignon, ‘Les moyens de realization artistique de l’Islam (1963)’, pp. 9 – 24. 4. Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art (1973), pp. 180– 92. I discuss with more details Grabar’s view in my Art and Architecture, pp. 7 – 10 and 66 –7. 5. I am using Hodgson’s terminology to avoid a Eurocentric approach that applies terms such as ‘Medieval’ to Islamic history without consideration for Islam’s proper history and periods. See Hodgson, The Venture of Islam (1974), vol. 1, pp. 45–51. 6. Ettinghausen, ‘Realism in Islamic Art’ (1956), p. 273. 7. Ettinghausen, 1956, pp. 271– 2. 8. Ettinghausen asserts: ‘Thence, what counts in these realistic representations is not so much the iconographic origin, but rather the new stylistic tendency which



10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17.

18. 19. 20.

21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34.

NOTES TO PAGES 70 –83 transformed an old motif [dancing girl, from the royal repertory, Persian origin]. It seems also significant that the styles of Egypt and Iraq in the mid-eleventh century were about equal in their realism (with Egypt possibly holding the edge in the above-mentioned competition, although the decision in her favor may have been due to local partiality); in this respect Maqrı¯zı¯ supplies information, which is otherwise unknown, since no Iraqian paintings of that period have survived to allow us to draw any direct conclusion.’ Ettinghausen, 1956, p. 268. Grabar, 2005, vol. 1, p. 231. He adds: ‘I would prefer to consider this second stylistic tendency neither as a realist one nor as an illusionist one, but. . . as a spatial one, that is a tendency to use a selected number of conventions in order to compel the viewer to notice details of texture, movement, action or space.’ Freedberg, 1989, p. 203. Ibid., p. 431. On the story of the representation of the nude see Kenneth Clark, 1972. Arthur Lane, Early Islamic Pottery, p. 16. Ibid., p. 19 and his plate, Fig. 20. Grabar, 2005, vol. 1, p. 234. J. M. Bloom, 2007, p. 115. He states: ‘Petrographic analysis, in which very thin slices of ceramic are examined under high-powered microscopes, of Fatimid-era lustrewares has shown instead that they fall roughly into four groups, each of which flourished for approximately fifty-year periods between c.975 and c.1175. . .’ Bloom, 2007, pp. 168– 70. See ‘Ibn Taymiya’s views on the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ in Nader El-Bizri, 2008. ˙ Ettinghausen, ‘Painting in the Fatimid Period: A Reconstruction’ (1942), p. 123. It is worth noting that for al-Ja¯hiz, who belongs to a different epistemic ˙ ˙ structure, intellectual diversity is a desirable stylistic device that helps prevent boredom, and has nothing to do with the production of truth. al-Yaman, 2001, Kita¯b al-‘a¯lim wa-Lghula¯m, pp. 134– 5. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 42, p. 517. ˙ al-Yaman, 2001, Kitab al-‘a¯lim wa-Lghula¯m, respectively pp. 79 and 150– 1. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 42, p. 517. ˙ Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 35, p. 235. ˙ Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 4, Risa¯la 47, p. 119. ˙ Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 31, p. 108. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 278 Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 42, p. 416 Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 37, pp. 291–2. Ibn Hani, 1994, Diwan, p. 28. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 37, pp. 291– 2. ˙ E.H. Gombrich, 1978, p. 20. For an in-depth and documented discussion of the issue of the magic of images see Freedberg, 1989, especially chap. 1, pp. 1 –26 and chap. 10, pp. 246– 82.

NOTES ON PAGES 84 –101 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43.


Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 4, Risa¯la 46, pp. 114– 15. ˙ See Ettinghausen, Arab Painting, chap. 1, and David Talbot Rice, 1971, pp. 21–4. David Freedberg, 1989, p. 3. See the story reported in chap. 2. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol.1, Risa¯la 6, p. 255. ˙ R. Wittkower, 1971, p. 9. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 4, Risa¯la 43, p. 12. ˙ Nasir-i Khusraw, 2001, p. 74. A Description of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is large enough to hold eight thousand people inside and is extremely ornate, with colored marble and designs and pictures. It is painted and arrayed with Byzantine brocades. Much gold has been used, and in several places there are pictures of Jesus riding on an ass and also pictures of other prophets such as Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob and his sons. The paintings are varnished in oil of sandarac and covered with fine, transparent glass that does not block any of the paintings. This they have done so that dust and dirt cannot harm the pictures, and every day the workers clean the glass. Nasir-i Khusraw, 2001, p. 48.

44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51.

See R. Ettinghausen, 1942, p. 122. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 8, p. 290. ˙ See Grabar and Ettinghausen, 1991, pp. 197– 9. Ibid., p. 198. Ibid., p. 204. Ibid., p. 188. Ettinghausen, 1942, p. 119. On the role of these notions in painting in general see for instance Freedberg (1987); in particular see pp. 246– 57 for pittura infamante. On the need of resemblance for this type of painting the author explains: ‘Some reasons are obvious. If the criminal had fled, then he had to be made present for odium to be actively visited upon him; his return had to be prevented by ensuring that he would be recognized if he did come back; and the full force of disgrace depended on his memory and the memory of his deed being kept vivid. If the miscreant was still within the community then he would nowhere escape recognition, he would not be able to hide his shame as long as the accurate image remained.’ Freedberg, 1987, p. 254.

Chapter 5 Stone Metaphors and Architecture’s Whispers 1. R. Wittkover, 1971. 2. J. Bloom, 2007, p. 7.

172 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

9. 10.

11. 12. 13.

14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.

20. 21.

22. 23.


NOTES TO PAGES 101 –114 I. Bierman, 1998. J. Bloom, 2007, p. 7. Al-Hamadha¯ni, 1940, al-Iklı¯l. (Al-Juz’ al-Tha¯min). J. Bloom, 2007, p. 7. P.E. Walker, 2009, p. 152. Practical geometry is a translation of the Medieval French architect Villard de Honnecourt notion of ‘ge´ome´trie pratique’. In his Islamic Art and architecture, The System of Geometric Design (2001) Issam El-Said shows how a comparable geometry is at the heart of Islamic geometric ornament motifs. J. Bloom, 2007, p. 47. ‘We do know that al-Mu‘izz drew the plan of the palace [in Cairo] himself and that the palace city was modeled on the existing North African capital of al-Mansu¯riyya.’ Paula Sanders, 1994, p. 42. ˙ Paula Sanders, 1994, p. 42. On this issue see the description of Fatimid festival ceremonials by the eleventhcentury traveler Nasir i-Khusraw, Travels (2001), and Paula Sanders, 1994. Paula Sanders rightly asserts: ‘The ritual city had been firmly established in Cairo, but it was only under al-Ha¯kim that Fustat was fully integrated. ˙ Where al-‘Azı¯z had laid out banquets to incorporate ritual practices into an Isma‘ili context, al-Ha¯kim began a building program that integrated Fustat ˙ topographically into the ritual city. In 393/1002 – 3, he built a new mosque at Ra¯shida, on the outskirts of Fustat.’ Sanders, 1994, p. 54. Al-Tha‘a¯libi, 1990, a¯da¯b al-Mulu¯k, p. 113. Bloom, 2007, The Arts of the City Victorious, pp. 31 –2. Ibn Ha¯ni al-Andalusi, 1994, Diwan, p. 174. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 37, p. 283. ˙ Ibid., pp. 282– 83. As Bloom explains: ‘After Sunnis regained control of Ifriqiya, many Fatimid-era inscriptions were effaced to remove offending Shi‘ı¯ phrases, such as the one recording the renovation of the congregational mosque at Sfax in 988.’ Bloom, 2007, p. 30. Al-Maqrizi, 2002, vol. 2, p. 265. I have discussed the issue of the process of design in early Islam in my book Art, and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition, pp. 192– 201, where I explain why it is perhaps preferable not to use the word architect when we refer to the architectural planners of that time. Al-Maqrizi, 2002, vol. 1, p. 377. K.A.C. Creswell states: ‘As Kay has pointed out, there is nothing to show that either Gawhar or his Master intended to found a new city in the ordinary sense of the word, or foresaw what afterwards happened, viz. that the population of the triple city Fusta¯t-al-‘Askar-al-Qata¯’i‘ would gradually move to the same ˙ ˙ ˙ immediate vicinity of the Imperial stronghold. . .’ and eventually all merge into one city. Muslim Architecture of Egypt (1952), vol. 1, p. 21 Al-Maqrizi, 2002, vol. 1, p. 377.



25. K.A.C. Creswell attributes this trait of Maqrizi’s writing style and ‘lack of logical sequence’ to his ‘scissors and paste’ method.’ Muslim Architecture of Egypt, (1952), vol. 1, p. 22, note 3. 26. In the Risa¯la on Magic the Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ explain that there is licit and illicit ˙ magic, the first is based on truth and prayers, and the second on falsehood, ill faith and evil. See Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 4, Risa¯la 5, pp. 314– 5. ˙ 27. Sa¯wı¯rus ibn al-Muqaffa‘, 1943, vol. 2, pp. 183– 4. 28. Sa¯wı¯rus ibn al-Muqaffa‘,1943, vol. 2, p. 207. 29. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, Risa¯la 5, vol. 1, p. 222. ˙ 30. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 4, Risa¯la 43, p. 12. ˙ 31. J. Bloom, 2007, p. 37. 32. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 3, Risa¯la 18, p. 187. ˙ 33. R. Wittkower, 1971, p. 39. 34. Nagel and Wood, 2010, p. 142. 35. It should be noticed that, in spite of the architect’s proclaimed attempt at recovering the ancient Roman building manners, Alberti ‘modeled the squares on the attic of his addition to the fac ade of Santa Maria Novella (begun ca. 1458) on those of the Baptistery attic, while the basic articulation of his second story strongly resembles the fac ade of the twelfth-century basilica of San Miniato al Monte.’ Nagel and Wood, 2010, p. 141. 36. My Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition, p. 117– 20. 37. I should recall that Lezine’s reconstitution of the plan of the Mosque of al-Mahdiyya is entirely based on archaeological evidence, except for the qibla wall, which was swept off by the sea water. Thus Lezine’s plan can be considered certain except for the position of the wall of the qibla, which will remain necessarily hypothetical. 38. My Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition, pp. 118– 19. 39. A. Lezine, 1965, pp. 120– 1. 40. Abou-Obeid-al-Bakri (d. AH 487), 1993, p. 29. 41. K.A.C. Creswell, 1952, vol. 1, p. 4. 42. A. Lezine, 1965, p. 37. 43. Scientific development in the field is documented by the work of Ahmed Ibn Musa of which copies from the twelfth century are preserved. See Introduction to F.D. Prager, Philo of Byzantium, Pneumatica: The first Treatise on Experimental Physics (1974), pp. 24 – 25. 44. In Introduction to Philo of Byzantium, 1974, p. 22. 45. Ibid., pp. 24 –5. 46. Nagel and Wood, 2010, p. 301. 47. Starn and Partridge, 1992, p. 157; for more details on the use of triumphal arches in processions see pp. 162– 78. 48. Again I should reiterate that it is well known that the Fatimids had a strong predilection for numbers, and astronomical calculations. Even their calendar was determined by calculations and not with sighting the moon as orthodox Sunni theology prescribes. However, they did not try to impose their beliefs on


49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55. 56.


58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67.

NOTES TO PAGES 141 –160 Sunni Egyptians. Paula Sanders notes that after the conquest of Egypt: ‘Jawhar [the general of al-Mu‘izz] did, however, proscribe some Sunni practices upon his arrival. He suppressed the recitation of sura 87 as well as the pronouncing of the formula “God is most great” (takbı¯r) after prayer. But he did not impose the Isma‘ili calendar on the local population. He and his troops celebrated the Festival of Fast Breaking (‘ı¯d al-fitr) that year at the musalla¯ (open prayer ˙ ˙ ground) without sighting the new moon, while the population of Fustat said the festival prayer the next day at the Mosque of ‘Amr.’ Paula Sanders, 1994, p. 45. On this subject see John Summerson, 1963. Rasa¯’il Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, vol. 1, Risa¯la 1, p. 26. ˙ Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 32, p. 187. Ibid., vol. 1, Risa¯la 5, p. 237. Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 16, p. 69. Ibid., vol. 3, Risa¯la 17, p. 124. W. Rybczynski, 2002, p. 211. The Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ add: ‘He then, thanks to the excellence of his natural ˙ disposition, fitra discovered the principles of music and notes of melodies. . .’ ˙ vol. 1, Risa¯la 5, p. 208. As noted above the Italian Renaissance Aesthetic developed the same notion of celestial music that could be echoed in architecture. R. Wittkover (1971) writes: ‘Under a Renaissance dome a Barbaro could experience a faint echo of the inaudible music of the spheres.’ p. 142. K.C.A.K. Creswell, 1952, vol. 1, p. 101. In fact, contrary to Creswell’s hypothesis, each half of the outer face also had two panels, not just one. However, everybody agrees on the architectural origins of the mosque, and its legacy in later ones. Jonathan Bloom rightly writes: ‘On a strictly formal level this fac ade can be understood as the continuation and refinement of a decorative tradition established in the first Fatimid mosque at al-Mahdiyya and continued in al-Azhar and Hakim Mosques in Cairo, in which a more-or-less decorated portal, itself ultimately derived from a Roman triumphal arch, projects from the mosque principal fac ade.’ Bloom, 2007, p. 143. K.A.K. Creswell, idem, vol. 1, p. 102. Ibid., p. 100. Ibid., p. 101. Ibid., p. 78. On the consequences of the use of columns as ornament in the Italian Renaissance see R. Wittkover, 1971, pp. 34 – 6. Doris Behrens-Abouseif, 1992, p. 30. For a detailed description of the fac ade see Caroline Williams, 1983, p. 43. D. Behrens-Abouseif, 1992, p. 37. J. Bloom, 2007, p. 143– 4. Ibid., p. 144.


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ʿAbbasids, 2, 7, 8, 70, 96, 119, 123, 124, 126, 134, 146, 161, 167 Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, 22 al-ʿadad, 39, 59, 61, 62, 143, 169 Ibn ‘addi, Yahya, 31 Adonis, 35, 164 Adorno, Theodor, 5, 161, 165 Abu Dulaf, Mosque of, 134 Aesthetics, 4, 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20, 27, 39, 41, 65, 68, 163 Al-akhla¯q, 3, 7 Alberti, Leon Batista, 13, 18, 71, 100, 101, 122, 123, 173 Alexandria, 117; Alexandrian, 137 Ali, Caliph, 28, 159, 160, 167 al-Amir, Caliph, 160 Andalusia, 108, 122, 137 Abu Nuwas, 28, 163 al-‘aql, 23, 43, 47, 56, 59, 168; al-Handasa al-‘aqliyya, 62 Aqsa Mosque, 70 Ibn al-‘Arabi, 31 Astrological 112, 114, 115, 117 Astrology, 11, 116, Astronomers, 69, 113, 114 Astronomy, 11, 29, 61, 114, 161, 167 al-‘ata¯hiyya, Abu, 27, 28 Baghdad, 16, 70, 119

al-Bakri, 130, 173 Basra, 51 Baxandall, Michael, 45, 166 al-baya¯n, 20, 22, 28, 29, 162 Beauty, 22 – 25, 31, 36, 37, 39, 41, 43, 44, 48, 50 – 52, 56 – 58, 65, 85, 85, 106, 109, 111, 143, 165, 167, 176 Behrens-Abouseif, Doris, 160, 174 Belting, Hans, 16, 162 Bierman, Irene, 18, 100, 101, 117, 119, 172 Bloom, Jonathan M., 72, 101–103, 105, 117–119, 147, 160, 171, 172, 173, 174 Burnett, Charles, 162 Byzantine, 88, 90, 109, 162, 171 Byzantium, 8, 162 Cairo, 8, 51, 69, 73, 74, 87 – 90, 92, 93, 95 – 97,101, 102, 104, 105, 108, 111 – 114, 117, 120, 129, 139, 147, 157 – 160, 172 Calculations, 12, 58, 59, 64, (Astrological calculations), 112, 114, 115, 117, 173 Caliph, 2, 9, 97, 103, 105, 111, 113, 115–119, 126, 132, 139, 140,

INDEX 150, 159– 162; see also al-Mu‘izz, al-Ha¯kim, and al-Amir Ce´zanne, Paul, 71 Christianity, 16 Christians, 13, 15, 87, 115, 116 Clark, Kenneth, 71, 170 Contadini, Anna, 162 Coptic, 76, 158, 160 Cordoba, 7 Cosmological, 2, 6, 8 – 18, 26, 48, 66, 100, 118, 166, 169 Cosmology, 4, 47 Cosmos, 48, 118, 119 Creswell, K. A. C., 113, 115, 117, 121, 124, 125, 131, 146–154, 156, 172–174 Damascus, 7, 36, 162 Da¯‘ı¯, (Fatimid), 9 – 11, 46, 61, 77 Da‘wa, Isma‘ili, 9, 77, 100 Dome of the Rock, 14, 15, 162 Egypt, 2, 8, 18, 68, 69, 72, 75, 76, 93, 94, 98, 102, 108, 115, 130, 148, 158, 170, 173, 174 Egyptian, 70, 130, 158, 174 El-Bizri, Nader, 59, 161, 167, 168, 170 El-Said, Issam, 172 Ettinghausen, Richard, 41, 69, 70, 71, 75, 88, 89, 90, 93, 96, 98, 99, 169, 170, 171 Fatimid, 2, 4, 7 – 12, 17, 18, 41, 46, 51, 61, 62, 69 – 73, 75 – 77, 82, 86, 87, 90, 94, 96–106, 108, 109, 111–119, 122, 123, 130, 133, 137–139, 147, 158–160, 162, 170, 172 Flood, Finbarr Barry, xii, 161 Foucault, Michel, 19, 20, 163 Freedberg, David, 70, 71, 83, 85, 170, 171 Gaze, 4, 5, 17, 44, 97, 98, 143


Geometry, 3, 12, 17, 49, 58, 61– 64, 86, 103, 118, 119, 141, 151, 169, 172 Godefroy de Callatay, 161 Gombrich, E. H., 83, 170 Gonzalez, Vale´rie, 12, 51, 162, 167 Gothic, 3, 4, 21 Grabar, Oleg, 68, 70, 71, 72, 90, 93, 96, 100, 169, 170, 171 Hadith, 45 ˙ Hagia Sophia, 162 al-Ha¯l, 28 ˙ al-Ha¯kim, Caliph, 51, 96, 102, 115, ˙ 145, 147– 149, 151, 152, 159 al-Handasa, 39, 49, 62 – 64, 169, see Geometry al-Handasa al-‘aqliyya, 62; see also Geometry al-Handasa al-hissiyya, 62 – 64; see also ˙ Geometry Ibn Hani al-Andalusi, Muhammad, 12, 106, 108, 111, 162, 170, 172 al-Haram, 107, 108, 109 ˙ al-haykal, 7, 59, 68 – 70, 76, 89, 90, 98 Ibn al-Haytham, 2, 8, 16, 17, 31, 41, 51 –54, 56– 58, 84, 110, 167, 168 Hellenistic, 7, 59, 68 – 70, 76, 89, 90, 98 Hillenbrand, Robert, 2, 161 al-Hisa¯b, 49, 59, 62; see also calculations ˙ Hodgson, Marshall G.S., 69, 169 Holy Sepulcher, Church of, 171 Howard, Deborah, 162 al-huru¯f, 32, 34, 35 ˙ al-Husn, 24, 36, 37, 48, 51, 57, 107; ˙ see also Beauty al-ibda¯‘, 77, 78 al-‘ilm, 11, 29, 59, 62, 102 Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’, 2, 5–8, 10–14, 16–19, ˙ 24, 29–39, 40–46, 48, 50, 51,



56–64, 66, 67, 68, 73, 75–83, 85–87, 90, 97, 99, 100, 103, 109, 110, 114–118, 141–146, 161–169, 171, 174 Iraq, 2, 70, 90; Iraqi, 7, 8, 70, 75, 90; Iraqian, 88, 98, 170 Isha¯q, Hunain ibn, 13 ˙ ˙ al-Isha¯ra, 28 al-‘ishq, 81 Isma‘ili, 9, 10, 100, 119, 160, 172, 174 al-‘Iyadi, ‘Ali ibn Muhammad, 105 al-Ja¯hiz, 21, 22, 25, 27, 8, 30 – 37, 124, ˙ ˙ 164, 165, 170 Ibn al-Jahm Ali, 105 Jerusalem, 15, 70, 87, 162 Jewish, 15, 76 al-Kama¯l, 107, 109 Ibn Khaldun, 166 al-Khalil, Ibn Ahmad, 21, 22, 33 – 35 al-khalq, 77, 78 al-Khansa¯’, 35 al-Khatt, 28 ˙˙ Khusraw, Nasir-i, 8, 87, 161, 171, 172 Kita¯b al-ʿa¯lim wa-lghula¯m, 170 al-lafz, 25, 28, 33, 34 ˙ Lane, Arthur, 71, 72, 73, 170 Leonardo da Vinci, 2, 51 Larkin, Margaret, 164 Lezine, Alexandre, 120, 126, 128– 130, 136, 142, 143, 147, 173 Lisa¯n al-ʿArab, 164 Madinat al-Salam, 119 Madı¯nat-al-Zahra, 105 al- Mahdiyya, 7, 18, 100, 101, 104– 106, 119, 120, 122, 123, 126, 126– 136, 138, 140, 142, 144, 145, 146– 149, 151– 155, 157– 159, 173, 174 al-Mana¯zir (Kita¯b), 52, 167 ˙

Ma‘na¯ (and Ma‘a¯ni), 6, 22 – 27, 29, 33, 34, 39, 41, 51 – 58, 60, 111, 168 al-Ma‘a¯ni al-mubasara, (see also Visual ˙ Meaning), 52, 53, 54, 111 maha¯sin, 37 ˙ al-Mansu¯riyya, 104–106, 113, 117, ˙ 119, 139, 172 al-Mantiq, 22, 32, 33 ˙ Maqrizi, 70, 99, 112–114, 117, 172, 173 Massignon, Louis, 68, 169 Medina, 57, 121 Mediterranean, 85 Mez, Adam, 161 Michelangelo, 71, 151 Middle Ages, 12, 69, 165 Ibn Miskawayh, 17, 24, 38, 41, 48 – 50, 57, 111, 165, 167 Muhammad, Prophet, 159, 160, 167 al-Mu‘izz, Caliph, 18, 100, 104, 108, 112, 113, 117 musawwir/musawwar, (sina¯‘at ˙ ˙ al-musawwiru¯n), 85, 86, 98, 107, ˙ 109, 110 Music, 2, 6, 17, 37, 40 – 42, 44, 45, 47, 48, 61, 62, 64, 70, 86, 143, 146, 166, 174 Musical, 13, 14, 47, 64, 65, Musicality, 6, 20, 21, 22, 27, 32, 34, 35 al-nafs, 3, 7, 46, 55, 143 Nagel, Alexander, 15, 20, 122, 162, 163, 173, 198 Nasr, Seyyed, 68, 168, 169 Nazar, 4 ˙ Near East, 10 Necipog˘lu, Gu¨lru, 15, 162 Neoplatonic, 2, 12, 13, 18, 27, 30, 32, 45, 101 Netton, Ian Richard, 66, 167, 169 Nimrud, 82, 83 Nubia, 8

INDEX Number, theory/science of, (see also al-‘adad), 12, 14, 17, 20, 31, 34, 39, 52, 58–62, 64, 79, 118, 119, 141–143, 156, 158, 1168, 169, 173 Nuwa¯s, Abu, 28, 163 Ottomans, 4, 12, 15, 162 Papadopoulo, Alexandre, 68, 69, 169 Partridge, Loren, 139, 173 Persia, 71, 102 Persian, 5, 32, 34, 87, 170 Philo of Byzantium, 136, 137, 173 Plato, 31, 163, 166; see also Neoplatonic Proportion, 2, 3, 6, 7, 11, 14, 17, 18, 20, 26, 37 – 42, 46 – 50, 57, 58, 61, 62, 64 – 66, 84, 86, 87, 99, 116, 122, 126, 130, 133, 141– 144, 151 Proportionality, 56, 57, 65 Pythagoras, 14, 60, 146, 168 Pythagorean, 2 Qadi al-Nu‘man, 9, 10, 161 al-Qa¯yid Fadl, 115 ˙ Qayrawa¯n, 120, 134, 137, 138 qibla, 7, 111, 120, 122, 124, 126, 130, 140– 142, 146, 152– 155, 173 Qur’an, 9, 21, 109, 161, 164 Qur’anic, 36, 38 al-quwwa al-mutakhayyila (the imagining power), 35, 80 Rasa¯’il and Risa¯la, see Ikhwa¯n al-Safa¯’ ˙ Renaissance, 3, 5, 13 – 18, 20, 21, 40, 45, 51, 68, 71, 85, 86, 100, 101, 122, 123, 144, 151, 161, 162, 165, 167, 174 Rice, David Talbot, 171 Roman, 15, 21, 85, 122, 130, 162, 173, 174 Romanesque, 3, 4, 14, 21, 122, 123 rusu¯m, 33, 79, 110


Rybczynski, Witold, 144 Samarra, 7, 18, 75, 88, 90, 93, 96, 98, 100, 120, 123– 126, 129, 133, 134, 138, 146 Sanders, Paula A., 18, 100, 104, 105, 172, 174 Sasanian, 75, 93, 98, 109, 136 Saudi Arabia, 35, 150 Sa¯wirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘, Bishop of Ushmunayn, 115 shakl (and plural, ashka¯l) 6, 119 Shı¯‘a/Shi‘i, 6, 69, 111, 118, 163, 167, 172 Sicily, 14, 112, 138 sina¯‘a, (or sina¯‘at, or sana¯i‘) 5 – 7, 24, ˙ ˙ ˙ 81, 85, 86 Spain, 70 Starn, Randolph, 139, 173 Summerson, John, 141, 174 Su¯ra, (or Suwar), 1, 37 – 39, 41, 43, 48, ˙ ˙ 49, 52, 53, 55, 58, 67, 77 – 80, 86, 110, 111 Syriac, 13 al-Tha‘a¯libi, 172 Ibn Taba¯taba¯, Muhammad, 6, 20, 22–27, ˙ ˙ 60, 163, 165 Triumphal arch, 7, 18, 100, 101, 119, 122, 123, 130, 132, 134, 135, 139, 140, 145, 146, 159, 173, 174 Ibn Tulun, 112, 120, 124, 127, 129, 132, 135, 138, 151, 154 Tunisia, 7, 104 Tunisian, 108, 113, 153 Umayyad, 2, 70, 105, 122, 162 Umayyad Mosque, 162 Urvoy, Dominique, 23, 163 Van Berchem, Margaret, 70 Vasari, Giorgio, 71

184 ORIGINS OF VISUAL CULTURE IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD Visual Meaning, (see also al-Ma‘a¯ni al-mubasara), 17, 53, 54, 84, 111 ˙ Walker, Paul E., 102, 172 Williams, Caroline, 100,160, 174 Wittkower, Rudolph, 13, 14, 101, 122, 123, 158, 162, 171, 174 Wood, Christopher, 15, 20, 122, 162, 163, 173, 198

Wright Owen, 41, 47, 48, 166 al-Yaman, Ja‘far ibn Mansu¯r 9, 11, ˙ 46, 61, 76, 77, 161, 166, 169, 170 Yemen, 8 Yusuf, Prophet, 36, 164, 165 Ziryab, 70 Zulikha, 36