Channeling Divine Creative Power through Art

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The spectrum of human experience entails different modes of examination to gain an understanding of what makes us human and how to lead and live a life worth living. Appreciating this point sheds light on the essential futility of the debate between science and religion, which assumes a fundamental incommensurability between them. However, rather than an either/or dichotomy, recognizing what type of questions these fields address is indispensable for a balanced worldview that seeks Truth rather than correctness. In his book Islam between East and West ‘Alija ‘Ali Izetbegović,  explored this issue in the chapter The Phenomenon of Art, where he began by contrasting the order of technology with the order of human expression:

There is an order to an engine and an order to a melody. These two orders cannot, even in the final analysis, be reduced to a common source. The first is a spatial or quantitative combination of relations and parts in accordance with nature, logic, and mathematics. The second maintains a combination of tones or words in a melody or in a poem. These two orders belong to two different categories: science and religion, or from this point of view, science and art.

Izetbegović’s use of art here in place of religion is to affirm that despite the formalism that religion seems to impose outwardly as opposed to the apparent freedom of expression that art allows for, they are both rooted in the same metaphysical foundation. He observes that:

The existence of another world (another order) in addition to the natural one is the basic premise of every religion and art. If only one world existed, art would be impossible. In fact, every work of art is an impression of a world in which we do not belong and from which we have not arisen, into which we have been cast. Art is a nostalgia or memory.

The significance of art as a uniquely human phenomenon for Izetbegović gains more force when he makes it a necessary condition for humans to be recognized as such rather than as mere animals produced through a Darwinian evolutionary process:

Somebody once said that art is a call for the creation of man, and every science must finally conclude that man does not exist. Art is therefore in natural opposition to the world, to all of its science, its psychology, its biology, and its Darwin. Essentially, this is a religious opposition. Religion, morality, and art are on the same genealogical branch that springs from the act of creation. That is why the Darwinian negation of creation – because it renounces this act – is the most radical negation not only of religions but of ethics, art, and law as well. If man is really “made according to Darwin,” if that is not solely a support, a frame for his spirit and for his “self,” then art has nothing to do, and the poets and tragedians delude us and write nonsense.

Izetbegović elaborates further on this in a passage that appears to echo Stephen Jay Gould‘s controversial concept of Non-overlapping Magisteria where he writes:

Science and art: here lies the difference between Newton, a prophet of the mechanical universe, and Shakespeare, “a poet who knew everything about man.” Newton and Shakespeare, or Einstein and Dostoevski [sic], these embody two vets facing opposite directions or two completely separate and independent kinds of knowledge which neither succeed nor depend on each other. The question of human destiny, loneliness, ephemerality, death, and the way out of these dilemmas can never be the subject matter of a science. Art, even if it tried, could not evade these questions. Poetry is the “knowledge of man,” as science is the knowledge of nature. These two kinds of knowledge are parallel, simultaneous, and independent in the same way as their two respective worlds are parallel, simultaneous, and independent. The first approach, by means of intelligence, analysis, and observation, conducts experiments in the material world, which is “the sum of things and processes connected by casual relations.” The other looks into the inner man, his hidden corners, his secrets. Here, we understand or perhaps only guess through excitement, love, and suffering. Knowledge is not acquired here in a rational, scientific fashion.

It is important to point out that Izetbegović was not necessarily promoting a version of non-overlapping magisteria where science addresses material facts about the world and religion addresses ethics and values. Rather, he was setting the ground for a deeper analysis on what science and art are essentially about as opposed to what they deal with:

Where science appears, it discovers the identical, the congruous, the immobile, and the consistent. Art is a “continuous new arising”[…] Science discovers. Art creates. The light of a distant star that science discovered had existed before its “discovery.” The light that art suddenly casts on us is created by art itself at the very moment. Without it, that light would never have been born. Science deals with the existing; art is creation itself, the arising of the new.

An artistic creation is a unique event. It mirrors the Divine Act of Kun, i.e., Be!, in it producing something without precedent. Scientists deal with what already exists, whereas artists bring something anew. Scientists amaze us with the external, while artists bewilder us with the internal. Scientists are distracted by the material world, and artists channel the spiritual realm. Far from being in conflict with science, herein lies the reason why religion has been more associated with art than it has with science.

Though it may seem here that Izetbegović is pitting art against science in an adversarial relationship, what he is really attacking is the superstitious belief that the world can only be understood through science or that science is attaining Truth in the absolute sense. He attacks the equivocation that posits a utilitarian description of the outward is the same as an understanding of the essence of the inward. What makes art and science different from each other is in their aims:

Science wants to discover laws and use them. On the contrary, a work of art “reflects the cosmic order without questioning it.” Francis bacon, the father of European science, stresses clearly the functional or utilitarian character of science: “True knowledge is the only one that increases man’s power in the world,” while Kant talks about the “aimless usefulness” of the beautiful.

In addition to having different aims, Izetbegović also notes that questions that can be answered by art, and by extension religion, are conceptually impossible to address through science, which have to do with the perceiving subject as opposed to the known object:

No two men can be identical nor two stones alike. What makes two molecules of water different? Their position in space? However, if we assume that space is infinite, the differentiation loses its sense. Natural science is possible because there is no quality in nature. A science of quality or a conception of quality is impossible. Nature can be beautiful or terrible, purposeful or chaotic, meaningful or meaningless – it can have a quality only in relation to a subject, and so, in relation to man. Otherwise, objectively, such qualities do not exist since nature is homogenous and indifferent.

The significance of this argument on the nature of quality as a subjective evaluation of an objective observation is made concrete with an example on the difference between original paintings and their copies:

In a poem, melody, or picture, we are faced with a mystery: quality in the metaphysical sense of the word. How could the difference between an original painting and its copy be explained by means of quantity? The original possesses the quality of beauty and every copy is ugly. The difference does not arise from the fact that something has been added or taken away from the copy in the quantitative sense of the word; it lies in the personal touch between the artist and the work of art. Quality can only be “in touch” with a personality.

Given the differences in aims and definitional limitations that restrict how questions about quantity and quality can be answered (a subject touched on in a past vignette highlighting how religion and science can become gateways to two kinds of superstitions), Izetbegović makes a distinction that allows him to declare how science can be correct but false at the same time:

Science is exact; art is truthful. […] All biological or psychological analyses are more or less correct and with enough time and financial resources, will turn out quite correct. Nonetheless, they are not truthful because the phenomena of capital importance – life and soul – are missing. From this point of view, these exact sciences are false sciences.


For in-depth discussions with Dr. Mohamed Ghilan on books and articles such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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