• Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture

    I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London 2001, pp. 160.

    Gallery of Images from this publication, with additional photographs by the author and from the Aga Khaninfo-icon Trust for Culture
    ISBN HardBack:
    1 86064 691 3
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    Based on a series of lectures given at The Institute of Ismaili Studies in May 1999, Beauty and Islam explores the aesthetic dimension of art within the context of Islamic civilisation, with an emphasis on its experience and interpretation. Concentrating on the field of aesthetic phenomenology and artistic production, Gonzalez examines aesthetic theory as well as its application. The work, hailed as an “emblem of a new era in the field of Islamic art”, breaks earlier dichotomies of separating “Western” methodologies with “Islamic” data and synthesizes the thinking of a wide range of philosophers from Ibn Sina and Ibn Hazm to Wittgenstein, Husserl and Derrida, amongst others.
    Until the recent publication by the Spanish scholar José Miguel Puerta Vilchez (Historia del pensamiento estético árabe, al–Andalus y la estética árabe clásica. Madrid: Akal, 1997), many assumed that aesthetics as a branch of philosophical thought did not exist in Islam. Through a series of five essays, Valérie Gonzalez, building upon Vilchez’s research, demonstrates how Islamic art, traditionally studied from historical, sociological and descriptive points of view, can be enriched by the application of aesthetic theory and phenomenological discourse.

    Gonzalez’s first chapter examines several aspects of the concept of beauty and its polar opposite, ugliness, in classical Arabic thought. By juxtaposing and analysing the writings of Ibn Hazm (d. AH 456 / 1064 CE) who epitomises the zahiri or literalist interpretation of sacred text, Ibn Sina (b. AH 370 / 980 CE), one of the most important exponents of Neoplatonic metaphysics in the Muslim world, and two “rationalist” philosophers: Ibn Rushd (d. AH 595 / 1198 CE) and Ibn al–Haytham (d. AH 430 / 1039 CE), the author asserts that aesthetics as a branch of philosophy has a basis in the mediaeval thought of the Muslim world.

    “The Aesthetics of the Solomonic Parable in the Qur’aninfo-icon”, a summary of Gonzalez’s book Le Piège de Salomon, Le Pensée de l’art dans le Coran, explores Surainfo-icon al–Naml (Qur’an 27:15–44) and its description of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to the court of the prophet–king Solomon, who, when invited to enter his palace confuses the glass or crystal (sarh) floor for water. Arguing for a Qur’anic notion of aesthetic consciousness through the metaphor of the optical illusion experienced by Bilqis, she raises the artistic challenge of mimesis and its conception in terms of a value–system and its paradigmatic influence on Islamic art and architecture.



    Court of the Lions, Alhambra (photo: Peter Sanders) from Beauty and Islam

    The two essays that follow examine aspects of the Nasrid palace–complex of the Alhambra. The first of these two chapters explores the aesthetic of the Comares Hall or “Hall of the Ambassadors” in the light of phenomenology and particularly its notions of representation and application as a visual metaphor, followed by a chapter dedicated to geometry as an artistic theme in Islamic culture in general and the Alhambra in particular.

    Detail from the Court of the Myrtles, Alhambra (photo: Peter Sanders) from Beauty and Islam


    The final chapter of Beauty and Islam is devoted to the study of inscriptions from the perspective of the overall aesthetic question of meaning in the artistic creation of Islamic civilisation, examining the signification of inscriptions as visual media, rather than solely as calligraphic, symbolic and pedagogic decorations divorced from their surroundings. A welcome addition to the field of Islamic art and architecture, this work will appeal to artists, scholars and students of intellectual history and philosophy as well as those interested in artistic production, experience and meaning in the Muslim world.

  • List of Illustrations

    Foreword by S. Nomanul Haq



    1. Beauty and the Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Thought

    2. The Aesthetics of the Solomonic Parable in the Qur’aninfo-icon

    3. Understanding the Comares Hall in the Light of Phenomenology

    4. Abstraction, Kinetics and Metaphor: the ‘Geometries’ of the Alhambra

    5. The Signifying Aesthetic System of Inscriptions in Islamic Art




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  • Valérie Gonzalez

    Valérie Gonzalez received her doctorate in the Humanities, specialising in the Arab world, from l’Université d’Aix–en–Provence and holds a diploma in painting from l’Ecole des Beaux–Arts de Marseille–Luminy. Formerly a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, she is currently a Research Associate at l’Ecole d’Architecture de Marselle–Luminy where she lectures on the history of architecture and Islamic town planning. Dr Gonzalez is the author of Le Piège de Salomon, La Pensée de l’art dans le Coran (Albin Michel, 2002), Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art (I.B. Tauris in...Read more