Forgotten Enlightments: Unknown stories about Islam in contemporary art
April 27 to August 4, 2019
Today, »Islam« and »enlightenment« seem to be in the greatest possible contradiction with one another. However, to demand that Islam must – as the Christian lands of the 18th century did – undertake a process of enlightenment, is to ignore history. However, to demand that Islam must – as the Christian lands of the 18th century did – undertake a process of enlightenment, is to ignore history. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, while witch burnings, heretics’ trials, book bannings and religious wars were taking place in Europe, the arts and sciences were flourishing in the Islamic world. In the 9th century, philosopher Abu Yusuf al-Kindi called for studying the ideas of other peoples. Polymaths like Abu Raihan al-Biruni and Ibn Sina (Latinised: Avicenna) spearheaded an »eastern Renaissance« in Central Asia 1000 years after Christ, established the principles of trigonometry and algebra, developed algorithms and astrolabes as well as the basis for modern medicine.
The rediscovery of the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle in Europe would have been unthinkable without Islamic libraries and scholars. Thus Raphael’s fresco »The School of Athens« pictures the Andalusian lawyer, doctor and influential commentator on Aristotle Ibn Rushd (Latinised: Averroes). According to Muhammad Sameer Murtaza, the West is indebted to Muslims not only for learning about the »Ancients« but also for the experimental spirit, which was still a foreign concept to the Greeks. The Quran itself calls for increasing knowledge through the observation of nature. Western modernity has benefited from the scientific achievements of these Aristotelian-rationalist currents of thought from Islam. It’s extent can hardly be overestimated, but over the centuries they became devalued, denied and invisible.
The Quran also calls for tolerance to society’s diversity. The basis of the pre-modern Muslim society was a »culture of ambiguity« (Thomas Bauer) that allowed Middle Eastern, Persian and Indian influences to combine. Legal theory made it possible for multiple settlements and legal principles to stand in parallel with each other. Commentators on the Quran and philosophers could present a multiplicity of interpretations and arguments without having to privilege one reading. Socially there were also several, more multifaceted role models available: »It was a society in which there was no mainstream, but rather niches, [...] in which Sufis could turn in their circles undisturbed while astronomers tried out new theories about the movements of the planets [...]«. (Frank Griffel)
In the wake of European imperialism and colonialism, Islamic societies have made considerable efforts to adapt to the European model of progress, modernization, industrialization and education – sometimes to the point of self-abnegation. Some Countries have cut themselves off from their own intellectual tradition and literature through the introduction of the Latin alphabet. In this sense, fundamentalist Islam is a child of modernity, rejecting the ambiguity of pre-modern Muslim societies just as it does Western modernization.
During times in which Islamism, populism and nationalism threaten equality and diversity, a new, 21st century project for an »exit from self-incurred immaturity« is not only urgent, but also vital. The goal is to map out the cultural connections between East and West in a millennia-long project of human enlightenment. What significance does the rich Islamic heritage have for artists from Muslim-majority countries or for artists with a Muslim background? Can classical forms such as ornament, mosaic, shadow theatre or miniature be interpreted in a contemporary way and expanded with new technologies such as video, computer and sound art? How do spiritualties such as those of Sufism connect with current aesthetic, societal and social issues? How do young artists defend themselves against despotism and the rhetoric of war, as well as against stereotypical role models of gender, origin and faith?
Curators: Elham Khattab (Out of the Circle, Cairo) & Michael Arzt