There are two tendencies within Islam that have never appealed to me: mysticism and what I will call neokharijism. Mysticism just doesn’t do it for me, never has, it’s too weird, not to mention questionable shar’i-wise. As for neokharijism, I have a theory.
In sociology there is something known as ontological security. It describes a state when you feel that the world and your place in it make sense, where you trust in the overall coherence of human existence as it manifests itself around you. I believe that even though the world around me proved increasingly absurd as I entered my teenage years shortly after 9/11; my childhood had, as it were, been secure ontologically, to such a degree as to render me immune to neokharijism with its anarchy, nihilism and overall incoherence. The explanation for this is, firstly and obviously, the blessing of God, for which I am grateful to Him; and secondly it is, I believe, due to two factors – first, there is the family patriarch, after whom I was named. Like any family, mine has its fair share of family politics. But all of us loved my grandfather; we rallied around him, may God have mercy upon him. I think the fact that we could argue (and did argue) about everything except this one point further strengthened my sense of being rooted in something unshakable. The second factor is an extension of the first – what my grandfather was to our family, the president of Bosnia was to my people, Alija Izetbegovic. We believed in him, we rallied around him; he was the father of the nation. Stability, authority, ontological security. Why would I ever turn to neokharijism? I simply couldn’t.
It is Alija Izetbegovic I want to discuss. Now, Izetbegovic wasn’t only a statesman; before Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia he had been imprisoned by the Communists for writings that some would label Islamist. Izetbegovic had belonged to a Brotherhood-style Islamic movement, and the man had been a great philosophical thinker (may God have mercy upon him). Reading his Islam between East and West turned out to be an eye opener for me. It made me realize why art and creative expression mean so much to human beings, and why today in the West it serves as a substitute for religion. If you will, what the zahid or renunciant is to believers, the bohemian is to those into art.
My favorite artist is Vladimir Nabokov, the major Russian-American writer.
“Ada came back just before dinnertime. Worries? He met her as she climbed rather wearily the grand staircase, trailing her vanity bag by its strap up the steps behind her. Worries? She smelled of tobacco, either because (as she said) she had spent an hour in a compartment for smokers, or had smoked (she added) a cigarette or two herself in the doctor’s waiting room, or else because (and this she did not say) her unknown lover was a heavy smoker, his open red mouth full of rolling blue fog.”
“The attic. This is the attic. Welcome to the attic. It stored a great number of trunks and cartons, and two brown couches one on top of the other like copulating beetles, and lots of pictures standing in corners or on shelves with their faces against the wall like humiliated children.”
One of the most interesting things about Nabokov is his view on art. Without admitting it (there are a lot of things he wouldn’t admit, such as the fact that he spoke German, which he refused to acknowledge due to his dislike of the Teutons and their supposed philistinism), he was a child of the art for art’s sake’ movement. L’art pour l’art was the idea that attempts at social reform, moral lessons, philosophical ideas, have no place in art except perhaps as artistic devices. Sure, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a necessary book, but it isn’t literature, as Nabokov put it. This puritanical approach to art famously made him denounce writers such as Dostoevsky, Mann, and Hemingway. Nabokov was an eccentric man, how could the author of Lolita not be?
As a Muslim, can I accept this perspective on art? Didn’t Hassan b. Thabit and Abdullah b. Rawahah use poetry in the service of Islam, encouraged by the Prophet, peace be upon him? Well, Izetbegovic argued that art itself is a form of religious expression. Art and religion belong to the same category. Science and reason encompass neither of these fundamental human articulations. This is why the new atheist movement is so misguided; it attempts to force scientific method on spirituality, empiricism on the otherworldly. It is as futile as using a thermometer to measure the aesthetic value of a poem.
Now, if we accept the premises formulated above, we start to understand the well-known and established theological prohibition of musical instruments. The non-believer cannot fathom this, the prohibition sounds grotesque. It is because music nourishes his soul, it fulfills his spiritual needs. In the absence of religion, the absence of music would be unbearable. But since music does have the effect of numbing the soul, Islam doesn’t allow it. The problem with art, in other words, is that it can overrun true spirituality and substitute it. Art is too much like religion for the two of them to really get along. But just as the artist tends to forego religion, the religious Muslim tends to abandon art, having no need for it, seeing no value in it, since he has God. “The love of music and the love of Qur’an cannot combine in the heart of a believer.”
Infatuation means that the interests of the beloved become interesting. The touch of a hand, even though it isn’t much different from another’s, acquires meaning. Anything associated with the beloved becomes loaded. This is why humans pursue art. Creativity is the quintessential divine attribute. We idolise the artist – we elevate art because we thereby, intentionally or otherwise, celebrate an attribute of God. It reminds us of Him and so we are drawn to it. Inexplicably, l’art pour l’art becomes one of the purest expressions of love for God.
Nabokov has been vindicated.
Hamdija Begovic is a 24 year old published novelist of Bosnian-Swedish descent with a background in Sociology. He currently resides in Berlin.