Saturday, April 21, 2007

Islam, beauty, and dialogue

In the most recent edition of Image, Gregory Wolfe's essay "East and West in Miniature" addresses the novel My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Thematically, the essay is about the tradition of beauty in Islam and the opportunity it provides for dialogue between the Islamic world and the West. Here are some excerpts:

“The recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture – which touched on the nature of human reason, but which also questioned, in passing, the relationship between faith and reason in Islam – may turn out to be more productive than was at first thought. Among other things, it generated a substantive open letter to the pope signed by thirty-eight respected Muslim clerics – a document that itself is carefully reasoned and gracious. At a time when the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is being met by increasing fear and stereotyping in the West, any form of dialogue is cause for hope.

“In his insightful essay ‘The Dialogue with Islam,’ Stratford Caldecott points out that the classic western concern about Islam is that it seems to stress the absolute will of Allah without a corresponding emphasis on how that will manifests a reasonable, ordered universe. A religion founded on mere will, of course, would make dialogue irrelevant and provide endless fuel supply for violent conflict. What makes Caldecott’s essay so fresh and provocative is not the evidence he provides for an Islamic tradition of reason (though he does believe it exists), but the suggestion that a more fruitful avenue for dialogue with Islam would be the investigation not of reason but of beauty.

“Over the centuries, as Caldecott notes, one of the central strands of Islam has been what is known as the ‘ihsani tradition.’ The Arabic word ihsan derives from the noun hasana, which means to be beautiful, good, lovely. As a verb, ihsani means to ‘make beautiful or good.’ According to scholar Joseph Lumbard, God himself is the first to make beautiful…. Lumbard argues that the process by which one becomes beautiful is less a rationalistic or legalistic thing that it is the cultivation of a craft or art form. The great Sufi scholars, poets, and mystics stressed that ihsan involved the cultivation of inner discipline.

“….In times of conflict, pragmatism and Puritanism, however opposed to one another, combine to put an end to art….

“In the Koran, God is known under ninety-nine names, one of which is Beauty. That may be the best place for dialogue between cultures and religions to begin.”

Info about Image is availabe at www.imagejournal.org .

-Colin Burch

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