Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Reviews > New Light on the Art of Islam

New Light on the Art of Islam

H. Talat Halman

Norman O. Brown, The Challenge of Islam: The Prophetic Tradition—Lectures, 1981. Santa Cruz, CA: New Pacific Press, 2009, 127 pp. 978-1-55643-802-8.

The Challenge of Islam is a recent posthumously-published set of seven transcribed lectures originally delivered at Tufts in 1981, and one essay written as a conference paper. In it, Norman O. Brown (1913-2002) poses three vital and interconnected challenges. First, Islam presents the challenge of the prophet opposing the institutions of the priesthood, the kingdom, the temple and the city. Second, Islam challenges Church Christianity. And third, Islam poses the challenge that Brown then carries to the reader—to make one’s life a work of art.

Throughout the work Brown reframes and reinforces the esoteric traditions of Ruzbihan, Suhrawardi, and Ibn ‘Arabi, and their rich testimonies of epiphany and beauty. Trained as a classicist Brown’s earlier syntheses of symbol, myth and ritual, especially Life Against Death (1959) and Love’s Body (1966), stand as landmarks of visionary and psychoanalytic approaches to history and literature. Late in his career Brown began studying Islam. His classical training enriches his representation of Henri Corbin’s signature The Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi as a central theme in this book. It is this creative imagination of the artist that Brown advocates: “Man is the vicegerent of God on Earth. … His work is to make the invisible reality of God visible. To make … to be an artist. That is what art is” (p. 36). This is one of the major themes of the book, as well as to show how Muhammad is the “Great Erotic,” the exemplar of “the amourous ardor of ‘ishq … creative love” (p. 102), and as such truly an artist. Brown declares: “And Muhammad is the bridge between Christ and Dante and Blake”(p. 44).

One of Brown’s goals in this book is to provide access to the challenge of Islam that calls us all to be spiritual artists. Brown relies on William Blake to provide a parallel, referring frequently to Blake’s image and calligraphy of the Laocoön (e.g., p. 36-37), which serves as the frontispiece to this volume. Brown follows Blake in quoting Moses’ wish, in the sense of a sunna (prophetic example) to be followed: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Num. 11:29, p. 26). This is the art that, as Brown observes, the Prophet Muhammad especially perfected. It is by integrating Blake and Sufism that Brown proposes a vision of the artist at the heart of the spiritual life.

But Brown’s lectures also trace the historical framework of Islam, both in its development and its flowering. It is part of the brilliance of Brown’s treatment that he links art and history: he discusses the nature of the Qur’anic Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad’s relationship with Gabriel as starting points for his discussion of the visionary life of the spiritual artist. Brown opens his first lecture “Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent” by describing Islam as “a wager that Christianity has gone wrong” (p. 3). He proceeds in his second lecture “Islam and Judaism” to suggest that Islam represents “the first Protestant Reformation”(p. 13). Citing Harnack’s definition of Islam as “a transformation on Arab soil of Jewish religion that had itself been transformed by Gnostic Judeo-Christianity” (p. 16), Brown unfolds the history of Islam. This transforming Gnosticism was a form of “Jewish Christianity” called Ebionism, one of many Christian movements that were known to the people of Muhammad’s world. The Ebionites accepted the Torah as reformed by Jesus, the Prophet (although Ebionites believed that Jesus was adopted during his baptism as the son of God). The Ebionites also abolished expiatory sacrifice, thus also challenging the institution of the priesthood. Except for its adoptionism, Ebionism accords closely with Islam. This is a very useful discussion, although Ebionism represented only one Christian movement known to Muhammad and his community. Brown overlooks the Monophysites, Nestorians, and Elkesites.

In his third lecture, “Islam and Christianity,” Brown sets the stage for his view of the spiritual aspirant as artist. Here Brown explores the Gnostic tradition of Docetism, a sect that believed (as the Qur’an says [4.157]) that Jesus only “appeared” to have been crucified. Brown emphasizes that the meaning of the term implies that Jesus was an epiphany, a being of light, rather than an incarnation (p. 33-34).

Quoting from Blake’s Laocoön, Brown emphasizes the relationship of art and spirituality: “Prayer is the Study of Art. Praise is the Practise of Art. Fasting &c., all relate to Art” (p. 37). Here Brown relishes in the summary meaning of Corbin’s title, Creative Imagination. Fruitfully, Brown cites the Gnostic “Acts of Peter” and “Acts of John” which both present light mysticism. What we call transfiguration, Brown reclaims as “metamorphosis” and “epiphany.” Based on the two Gnostic texts, Brown writes: “Finally the world of transfiguration, metamorphoses, where Christ, the angel Christos, where Christ is a Body of Light, apparitions, is a world of angels, and that’s the final meaning of Docetism.” And Brown effectively underscores this Islamicised tradition of Docetism as a basis for a creative relationship with epiphanous beings.

In lecture four, “The Book,” Brown celebrates the Qur’an by comparing it to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Both books, Brown asserts, engage deeply in the interplay of orality and writing, and both present rich plays of phonemes. Summarizing one of the Qur’an’s dynamics, Brown writes: “The universe is a book. … The book of the universe is ultimately inscrutable, a notion more modern than Dante, more modern than Blake even” (p. 52). Brown quotes the story of Moses’ journey with al-Khidr and acknowledges it as “a key text in Shi‘ite esotericism,” another theme of these lectures, Shi‘ism as the Spirit of Gnosis.

Lecture five outlines the Sunni- Shi‘a succession in a relatively straightforward way, although Brown tantalizingly asserts the irony of creating a corpus of Shari‘a, claiming that “… they were inventing nothing” (p. 67). Brown very adroitly quotes Ayatollah Tabataba’i, who asks how it could be that in the life of the Prophet, who thought out and addressed so many intricate details of life, including prophecies of the future, that he would have remained silent as to his successor. Brown rallies behind the Shi‘a paradigm of “living leadership that is divinely inspired” (p. 71) in the imam, and the open gate of ijtihad (interpretation) (pp. 71-73).

Lecture six on “Revolutionary Islam” examines the first challenges to the community, the fitna. This leads Brown to an extended discussion of the Nizari Isma’ilis (the Assassins) in which he describes their secret as “both occultism and conspiracy” (p. 85), a “Gnostic impulse” of both esotericism and politics. Brown’s attention to both the mysticism and politics of esotericism is most helpful.

In lecture seven on “Mystic Islam,” Brown explores the world of Sufism based on his premise that epiphany and light mysticism provide the basis for a creative, artistic, spiritual relationship. Brown emphasizes that Islam is based on epiphany, not incarnation. The three themes he stresses in this lecture include: relationship with an angel; beauty as hierophany (p. 100); and the power of creative erotic divine love (‘ishq) as a mutually shared yearning between God and humanity (pp. 101-104). Brown reminds us that it is God’s yearning and God’s sigh that bring the creation into being as an act of love. Brown sees especially in Sufism and Shi’ism, esoteric Gnostic traditions that focus on living teachers and spiritual relationships, making for a living spirituality. Brown recognizes that “Sufi mysticism transforms the whole Qur’an into the Song of Songs. The entire Qur’an is a symbolic, allusive story between the lover and the beloved” (p. 103).

In the eighth chapter, an essay on “Shi‘ite Islam: The Politics of Gnosticism,” Brown revisits the themes of the Prophet vs. the Kingship (one might think of Imam Husayn vs. the Umayyads) and the “living leadership” of the Shi‘ite tradition. Brown asserts that al-Khidr, the Green Man (Qur’an 18.60-82), is the symbolic basis for the Imamate (p. 113). Here Brown spells out the relationships between the Prophet and the Spirit of Gnosis: Abraham and Melchizedek; Moses and Elijah; and Muhammad and ‘Ali (p. 124). Finally, Brown delves more deeply into the Nizari-Isma’ili tradition as an example of fulfilling the challenge of Islam to make Islam one’s own work of art.

Brown’s book should be especially useful and inspiring to students participating in the Seven Pillars House of Wisdom as he models how one may access the esoteric Shi’a and Sufi traditions in order to make of one’s life art, especially in the spiritual sense. I began this review by suggesting that Brown recognized three challenges in Islam. But in fact, Brown also models a fourth challenge: how to mine the riches of Islam as one’s own heritage, even if one is not Muslim. Of course, as Brown emphasizes throughout, Islam has always participated in the Western traditions, as both the “first Protestant Reformation,” the channel between the ancient world and the European renaissance, and “the bridge between Christ and Dante and Blake.” Now Brown posthumously calls us to an engaged and epiphanous relationship to the realities of Islam, the work of the artist to make the invisible visible.

H. Talat Halman is Assistant Professor of Religion at Central Michigan University where he teaches courses in Islamic Studies and World Religions. His book on the Green Man, al-Khidr, is to be published by Fons Vitae as Where Two Seas Meet: The Story of al-Khidr and Spiritual Guidance. Talat holds initiations in the Ruhaniat, the Sufi Order, and Sherif Baba’s Rifa’i-Marufi lineages of Sufism.

Read more about H. Talat Halman, Ph.D.

Comments (1)
  • I first met Norman O. Brown
    in 1981 when he addressed a plenary session of the American Academy of Religion annual meeting. He explained the depth of his feeling for Islam as a world transforming civilization. This book, published posthumously and reviewed deftly by Talat Halman, continues his quest beyond the grave: to make of one’s life, as the best exemplars from Islam and other traditions have done, a work of art.

    — Bruce B. Lawrence on September 13, 2011

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27 April 2010

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