On the Subject of Hedonism in the Art of Central Asia
Part II. Hedonism in Islamic art
Life is a feast, where one
Helps himself to it, enjoying it,
Another is poor and humiliated...
Ibn Abd Rabbihi
Nothing pleases our Lord as much as suffering
And mortification of the flesh for His sake,
And nothing draws His divine kindness more than tears.
St. Johanna Lestvichnik
In the historical opposition of hedonism and asceticism Islam plays a special role: like Christianity and Buddhism, it considered pleasure a source of suffering and annihilation of moral values. In Islam and Christianity alike, the interpretation of the "hedonism - asceticism" formula often led to semantic paradoxes. For instance, Christianity, when setting hedonism off against asceticism, found a kind of pleasure in suffering, i.e. fell into hedonism that was denied by it. A similar situation can be observed in Sufism, the principles of which include a renunciation of worldly goods (al-zuhd), while preaching about the mystical love for God (mahabba) as the ultimate pleasure. The ecstatic ritual dance "zikr" as one of the ways to become one with God also reflects this dualistic nature of Sufism.
Descriptions of love (mahabba) to the Almighty found in Sufistic literature and poetry are strikingly sensual and emotional, and if not for the theological context, they would appear as parts of some erotic text. "Love (for God) overwhelmed me so that I had nothing left in me to love anyone else but Him", wrote Rabia al-Adavia, one of the early Arab Sufi woman-poets of the 8th century (1). Sufistic oriental poetry of later date by Rumi, Saadi, Attar, Jami and up until Navoi's time is even more colourful in its sensual metaphors and narrations. It may well be that many poets took advantage of this ambiguity to conceal earthly emotions and anguish of love behind Sufistic metaphors. Koranic concepts do not deny hedonism as an idea, but transfer it to the other world as pictures of Paradise filled with sensual pleasures. This transcendental hedonism reflected rather earthly utopias and dreams caused by barren desert landscape of Bedouin habitat. Muslim paradise embodies this utopia: green oases, gurgling streams, fruit-bearing orchards, forever virgin beautiful gurias pleasing the righteous man. But all this is gained in the next world, only after the earthly boons have been rejected.
From the very beginning, the process of formation and propagation of Islam was accompanied by a kind of confrontation between hedonism and asceticism. Prophet's modesty became a benchmark for many Muslims. During the reign of Muhammad, as in the years of his first two "deputies" Abu Bakr and Omar, secular power basically did not exist and any directive was considered as commandment of God. The nature of power began to change only under Osman, the third Caliph. Muslims resented his desire for luxury and wealth. At the end of the 7th century the power of the Umayyad dynasty caliphs lost its religious quality and became secular. Umayyads tried to buy supporters and allies with generous gifts. This resulted in increased looting of the occupied areas, and former relatively democratic principles were trampled upon when it came to dividing military trophies. Poverty gap was getting wider. Subsequently, luxury enjoyed by caliphs caused social and religious protests, ideological slogan of which was a call to restrain desires and appetites for material things.
Thus, the ascetic views which were most pronounced in Sufistic philosophy originated from socio-economic causes. The Sufi movement that emerged already under the Umayyads originally took ascetic forms in manifestation of social protest against sharp differentiation of the Muslim community and luxurious and idle life of the ruling elite. Later on, Sufism was transformed into a movement oriented toward mystical cognition of God. In Central Asia Sufis created orders (tarikat), of which the leading one was Naqshbandiya Order. In the meantime, the early Sufistic principles grounded in asceticism were often ignored by high-ranking Sufis in Central Asia, in whose hands great wealth was concentrated in the 14th - 19th centuries. Nevertheless, asceticism remained the dominant principle of Sufistic ideology. Thus, during Islamic period asceticism largely belonged to the domain of religion, whereas hedonistic philosophy and lifestyle were moving into the realm of palaces and royal apartments.
Religious strictures and taboos of Islam transformed the domain of aesthetics and arts, which is responsible for the most delicate matter - emotions and the psychophysics of human behaviour. From the middle of the 7th century aesthetics of Islamic art starts to evolve - the art that was to propagate on a large part of the Eurasian and northern part of the African continents. A distinctive feature of Islamic art is the ornamental style associated with ideological taboos on figurative images. The Arab conquest of Central Asia and the propagation of Islam happen at the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries, but these events find their reflection in the region's culture and art only in the 9th-10th centuries. In the 8th century monumental painting and sculpture of the preceding centuries starts to gradually disappear. One illustrative example is from Samarqand where Arab conquerors burned a Zoroastrian temple with its huge wooden idols knocked up with gold and silver nails.
By the end of the 8th and in the beginning of the 9th centuries there evolves a theological concept of a strong negative attitude of a devout Muslim to the picturing of animate beings. Pictorial culture gives way to ornamental art that becomes dominant in Islamic aesthetics. Despite the prohibition, in the early centuries of Islam up until the 12th-13th centuries one could still find pictorial images on the items of applied arts and inside architectural structures of Maverannahr (Sogdiana). This can be explained by rather strong traditions of pre-Islamic heritage in the conquered countries and by the formation of new ruling dynasties in the countries of Middle Asia. The latter circumstance contributed to the development of hedonistic court culture that often ignored Islamic restrictions, if not overtly, then in the form of secret disobedience. This is exemplified by a widespread violation of a ban on wine drinking in the courts of Muslim rulers. A classic example of art of hedonistic orientation, which demonstrates the gradual replacement of image with pattern, is a 10th century silver bowl from Sogdiana. It features a woman with a bird's body holding a vine in her hands; on the rim there is a poetic inscription in "flowering kufi" writing - a glorification to wine. The bowl's ornament seems to be a cross between traditions of Sogdian style and new pan-caliphate aesthetics (2, Table 29).
At the same time, the establishment of local ruling dynasties in Maverannahr and neighbouring Khorasan, desiring to imitate the hedonistic culture of ancient oriental kings, presented a serious challenge for Islamic asceticism in the region. Such were the aspirations of the Samanid dynasty from Bukhara, tracing their ancestry to the kings of the Sassanid Empire. In the 11th century, following the fall of the Samanids, the political arena saw the arrival of the powerful Turkic dynasties: Ghaznavids Karakhanides, Khorezm-shahs, Seljukids and eventually Temurids, whose culture and art were even stronger manifestation of hedonistic court culture traditions.
In the 9th-11th centuries there still existed a hedonistic tradition of decorating the interiors of bath-houses with paintings; according to philosopher-healers of the time (Ar-Razi, Ibn Sina), paintings produced beneficial effect on a person during bathing. Ibn Sina believed that a true bath-house should have "...paintings of good workmanship, of real beauty, something like a male lover and a female lover, like parks, gardens, horse riders and animals" (3, pp. 142-156). It is indicative that the very selection of themes speaks of their abstract and entertaining quality, free of any historical or literary plot. At the end of the 11th century leading orthodox Islamic clergy stood in resolute opposition to the picturing of living beings in public places (4, p. 281).
Nevertheless, in the 10th-12th centuries pictorial motifs were still used in the decoration of a number of palace buildings, which shows the attitude of the ruling elite and nobility to the ban on images. For instance, in the 11th-12th centuries, wall paintings and sculpture still existed in different cities of Maverannahr, although these were sporadic occurrences. Wonderful specimens of 11th-12th cc. carved stucco in the palace of Termez rulers showing flat relief images of fabulous creatures - lions with human heads - testify to the continued traditions of early medieval hedonistic culture. Murals were also used by the rulers of Ghaznavid dynasty. According to Beyhaqi, emir Massoud spent the time of his youth in Heart where he built a palace with a room for relaxation and entertainment. He ordered to decorate the room from floor to ceiling with erotic images of nude men and women. Massoud's Father, Mahmoud Gaznevid, when the word reached him, sent a messenger to check, but Massoud proved smarter: having learned of the messenger's arrival well in advance, he ordered to erase the paintings (5, pp. 191-195). A unique discovery was finding the remains of a mural dating to Qarakhanid time in Afrasiab, featuring animals and humans, which also presents us with the examples of court hedonism.
However, the unquestionable fact is that all attempts to revive the traditions of pre-Islamic subject painting did not come from the requirements of time. They were often made in spite of these requirements and had more to do with individual tastes of a ruler biased towards worldly pleasures and romanticism of olden times, disregarding the calls of theologians for religious asceticism and restrain on luxury. In the 11th-13th centuries we find this desire for embellishment and aesthetic pleasure in the ornamentation of artistic craft items from Maverannahr, which is expressed in a kind of "ornamental hedonism". Earlier motifs continue to exist, but ornamental origin prevails in their interpretation. Anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, epigraphic and vegetal motifs are transformed into an ornamental pattern that covers the surface of ceramic and metal items, rugs and textiles.
Unfortunately, only rare specimens of precious gold and silver items used by rulers and nobles have survived. Art historians and archaeologists are compelled to operate with applied art items intended mostly for middle-class urban population when it comes to glazed ceramics, bronze or glass. Most likely, these costly items of artistic craft were unaffordable to more general urban and rural population. The call of Al-Ghazali to restrict oneself to the use of ceramic bowls instead of gold and silver ware was hardly heeded by the ruling dynasties striving to keep up the traditions of court etiquette and imitate the greatness of pre-Islamic Asian kings.
Historical chronicles and poetry of that time contain descriptions of jewellery, arms and luxury items of silver and gold, striking in the abundance of inlaid gems, which characterize the imperial lifestyle of Muslim rulers. Such descriptions, for example, are given in the historical chronicle of Abul Fazl Beyhaqi, dating to the early 11th century. The list of items contain gold and silver vases, platters, bowls, and a gold chalice weighing more than four kilograms, which is adorned with pearls, rubies and Badakhshan lals; silver and gold belts decorated with gem-stones; and necklaces with particularly precious pearls (5, pp. 93, 115, 124, 302, 309, 354, 388, 483).
Wealth was often a symbol of might and grandeur of a nation and its ruler. Monumental shape and magnificent designs of architectural monuments created during the reign of Amir Temur and the Temurids were intended to express this very idea. The same imperial idea underlies the creation of unique toreutics specimens for a majestic Khoja Ahmad Yassavi mausoleum in Turkestan, which was built on the orders of Amir Temur. Once in the mausoleum one could also find unique items of metalwork created following his order: a huge bronze cauldron and a series of artfully ornamented candlesticks, now kept in the Louvre and the Hermitage.
From Amir Temur came the tradition of steppe empires, but Temurids developed the principles of a new court culture that was based on the standards of ancient eastern kingdoms with their inherent hedonistic aesthetics and court etiquette. Favourite themes in the Temurid court-based art were a ruler sitting on his throne, hunting episodes and battle scenes. These themes were especially popular in miniature painting: along with historic subjects, miniatures were commonly used to illustrate the works of oriental poets telling many romantic and lyrical stories. Scenes depicting anguishing or happy lovers, feasts and hunting, and rulers and court aristocracy being entertained account for the lion's share of themes in miniature painting and indicate the presence of a well-developed stratum of hedonistic culture. These miniature paintings maintain the principle of poetic symbolism and oriental metaphor in the characters and motifs, which originates from the traditions of Sufistic allegorical poetry.
Luxury, diverse entertainment activities (hunting, feasts with wine drinking that was forbidden by Islam, playing polo game, etc.) and the enjoyment of wealth were characteristic of the court culture of all Muslim dynasties of Central Asia. This evidences their deliberate neglect or a concealed disregard of the calls of Muslim clergy for abstinence and asceticism. Even in the times of overall economic stagnation or decline, as it was during the period of Uzbek khanates, the life of the rulers and nobility was filled with luxury and riches. Items of applied art and decoration of architectural monuments eloquently confirm this observation.
Thus, during the Islamic period there existed and evolved a kind of hedonistic culture of court life, which was also followed by the courtiers. However, in spite of the covert disobedience on the part of the court elite and wealthier population, Islamic taboos and rules were generally recognized and accepted, and their influence ultimately determined the overall development of artistic culture of the epoch.
1. Цит по: Бертельс Е.Э. Избранные труды. Суфизм и суфийская литература. Раздел "Происхождение суфизма и зарождение суфийской литературы". М., 1965. http://farhang-alshia.narod.ru/karbin/suf0.html.
2. Даркевич В. П. Художественный металл Востока VII - начало XIII вв. М., 1976.
3. Большаков О. Г. Ислам и изобразительное искусство // Труды Государственного Эрмитажа. Культура и искусство народов Востока. Т.7. Л.,1969.
4. Беленицкий А. М., Бентович И. Б., Большаков О. Г. Средневековый город Средней Азии. Л.,1973.
5. История Масуда Бейхаки (1030 - 1041). М.,1969.