Aesthetics in Islamic philosophy

The major Islamic philosophers produced no works dedicated to aesthetics, although their writings do address issues that contemporary philosophers might study under that heading. The nature of beauty was addressed by Islamic philosophers in the course of discussions about God and his attributes in relation to his creation, under the inspiration of Neoplatonic sources such as the pseudo-Aristotelian Theology of Aristotle, a compilation based upon the Enneads of Plotinus. Considerations of artistic beauty and creativity were also addressed in works inspired by Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics, and Islamic philosophers also adapted some of Plato's views on literature and imitation, particularly those expressed in the Republic.

On the whole, Islamic philosophers did not view artistic and literary creativity as ends in themselves. Rather, their interest was in explaining the relations of these activities to purely intellectual ends. In the case of poetics and rhetoric in particular, the emphasis in Islamic philosophy was pragmatic and political: poetics and rhetoric were viewed as instruments for communicating the demonstrated truths of philosophy to the populace, whose intellectual abilities were presumed to be limited. The medium of such communication was usually, although not necessarily, that of religious discourse. Islamic philosophers also devoted considerable attention to explaining the psychological and cognitive foundations of aesthetic judgment and artistic production within the spectrum of human knowledge. They argued that rhetoric and poetics were in some important respects non-intellectual arts, and that poetics in particular was distinctive in so far as it addressed the imaginative faculties of its audience rather than their intellects.

  1. Beauty
  2. Rhetoric and poetics
  3. Imitation and imagination

1. Beauty

Plotinus' Ennead V.8, 'On Intelligible Beauty', was the basis for the fourth chapter of the Arabic compilation known as the Theology of Aristotle (see Plotinus §§1, 7). Against the background of the discussion of beauty in this text, Islamic philosophers developed the theme of the differences between sensible and intelligible beauty; and the love and pleasure associated with each.

The notion of intelligible beauty is included in the discussion of the names and attributes of God contained in al-Farabi's al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City) (see al-Farabi §2). Among the divine names al-Farabi lists 'beauty' (al-jamal), 'brilliance' (al-baha'), and 'splendour' (al-zina). Although the connotations of these terms are principally visual and hence sensible, al-Farabi argues that beauty in all things is primarily ontological: the more any being attains its final perfection, the more beautiful it is. From this he reasons that God, whose existence is most excellent, is the most beautiful of beings. Moreover, God's beauty surpasses all other beauty because it is essential, not accidental: the source of God's beauty is his own substance as defined by his self-contemplation, whereas created beauty derives from accidental and corporeal qualities that are not one with their own substances. Finally, al-Farabi argues that pleasure and beauty are intimately related, and that consequently God's pleasure, like his beauty, is beyond our comprehension. Pleasure is attendant upon the perception or apprehension (idrak) of beauty, and it increases in proportion to the beauty of what is perceived. Since God is the most beautiful of beings, and since his proper activity consists in an act of self-contemplation in which knower and known are completely one, the intensity and certitude of God's perception of his own beauty, al-Farabi reasons, must yield a pleasure of equal intensity. Moreover, since God's perception of his own beauty is the function of an eternal and uninterrupted act of contemplation, his pleasure, unlike ours, is continual rather than intermittent.

While al-Farabi's treatment of beauty in this context is principally an extension of his general account of divine transcendence and perfection along standard Neoplatonic lines, the development of the connection between beauty, perception and pleasure introduces a more properly aesthetic element into his account. Beauty in God, like beauty in the sublunar world, is found principally in things in so far as they achieve their proper perfection; when that beauty, be it sensible or intelligible, becomes an object of contemplation, it becomes in turn a source of pleasure for the one beholding it.

The contrast between sensible and intelligible beauty and the affective pleasures proper to each is developed in more detail in the Risala fi al-'ishq (Treatise on Love) by Ibn Sina. In the fifth chapter of this work, Ibn Sina discusses the youthful love of external, bodily beauty. He opens his discussion of the love of beauty with a consideration of four principles, three of which pertain to the psychology of the human soul. The first is based upon Ibn Sina's characteristic view of the soul as a single substantial unity comprising a hierarchy of distinct powers. Either these powers can work together in harmony, in which case the lower will be ennobled by their cooperation with the highest faculty, that of reason, or the lower powers can rebel. These two possibilities are especially evident in the relations between reason and imagination (al-takhayyul) and the desires attendant upon them. The second principle is an elaboration upon the first: there are some human actions which pertain only to the bodily, 'animal' faculties within this hierarchy, including sensation, imagination, sexual intercourse, desire and aggression. Either these actions can be pursued in a purely animal fashion, or they can be transformed into something uniquely human under the guidance of reason.

Ibn Sina's third principle is that everything ordained by God has its own proper goodness and hence is the object of some legitimate desire; nonetheless, the lower desires can interfere with the higher, and thus their unlimited pursuit is to be avoided. Finally, Ibn Sina's fourth principle presents his definition of beauty in so far as it is the object of love for both the rational and animal souls: beauty (al-husn) consists in order (al-nazm), composition, (al-ta'lif) and symmetry (al-i'tidal). In the animal soul, this love of beauty is purely natural, arising either from instinct or from the simple pleasure of sensible perceptions. In the rational soul, however, love of beauty is more reflective, ultimately resting upon the recognition of the proximity of the beloved object to God, the First Beloved.

In applying these principles, Ibn Sina argues that there is what we might call an innate aesthetic sense implanted in every intellectual being (al-'aqil) which kindles in it a passionate desire for what is beautiful to behold (al-manzar al-husn). Despite the overall orientation of his discussion to the desire for the supra-sensible and purely intelligible beauty of God, Ibn Sina's remark here clearly pertains to the realm of sensible judgments. In fact, Ibn Sina even argues that such a desire for sensible beauty on the part of an intellectual being can be a noble thing, so long as the purely animal aspects of the desire are subordinated and the intelligible allowed to influence the sensible: such a purified aesthetic desire, according to Ibn Sina, results in a partnership (al-shirka) between the animal and rational souls. As evidence of this more general claim, Ibn Sina notes that even the most wise of humans can be preoccupied by a 'beautiful human form', and he implies that such a preoccupation is justified not only by the intrinsic aesthetic principles he has outlined, but also on the assumption that internal and external beauty and harmony mirror one another, unless the external beauty has been accidentally harmed or the internal character has been altered (for better or worse) by habituation. Finally, Ibn Sina also defends the desire for some sort of physical union with such a beloved, through kissing and caressing, although the expression of such an aesthetic impulse through sexual union is considered inappropriate except for the purpose of procreation, and where sanctioned by religious law.

2. Rhetoric and poetics

Most discussions of aesthetic themes by Islamic philosophers occur in the context of their considerations of the arts or rhetoric and poetics and the Aristotelian treatises devoted to these topics (see Aristotle §29). Following a practice established by the sixth-century Greek commentators on Aristotle, these treatises were classified by the Islamic philosophers as parts of Aristotle's logical corpus, the Organon (see Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy). Thus the approach to these arts was not primarily aesthetic, but was focused on linguistic issues and the cognitive functions of rhetorical and poetic language. Rhetoric and poetics were classified as popular methods of instruction which produced less than certain states of belief in their audiences, who were assumed to be incapable of grasping the finer points of truly philosophical demonstration.

The Islamic philosophers did not explicitly limit the use of rhetoric and poetics to the spheres of religious discourse and political communication, however, and in their commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics some effort was spent on explaining the linguistic mechanisms whereby speech becomes figurative and metaphorical. Ibn Rushd in particular attempted to apply his understanding of Aristotle's views on poetics to the interpretation and criticism of Arabic poetry, and his Talkhis kitab al-shi'r (Middle Commentary on the Poetics) is full of citations of the works of well-known Arabic poets. Nonetheless, most of the interest taken by the Islamic philosophers in the arts of rhetoric and poetics stemmed from the foundations provided by these arts for explaining the relationship between philosophy and religion. The central books of al-Farabi's Kitab al-huruf (The Book of Letters), along with Ibn Rushd's Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise), are devoted to this theme, which is nicely summed up in the following passage from al-Farabi:

And since religion only teaches theoretical things by evoking imaginings and by persuasion, and its followers are acquainted with these two modes of instruction alone, it is clear that the art of theology which follows religion is not aware of anything that is not persuasive, and it does not verify anything at all except by persuasive methods and statements.

(Kitab al-huruf: 132)

The use of the language of 'imaginings' and 'persuasions' indicates a reference to the cognitive aims that the Islamic philosophers traditionally ascribed to the arts of rhetoric and poetics. Religion is a reflection of and handmaiden to philosophy, dependent upon philosophy as a copy is dependent upon its original. In understanding religion as an imitation of philosophy, the Islamic philosophers were consciously evoking the background of Aristotle's Poetics and Plato's Republic and the aesthetic theories which they developed through a creative blending of the respective views of their two ancient sources on the nature of imitation.

3. Imitation and imagination

Ibn Sina's Risala fi al-'ishq, discussed in §1, contains elements of a theory of aesthetic judgment that is also developed, from a somewhat different perspective, in his discussions of the psychological underpinnings of the art of poetics. In these discussions, aesthetic judgments are attributed to the faculty of imagination (al-mutakhayyila) and the related internal sense faculties that formed a part of the Islamic Aristotelians' development of the concept of imagination (phantasia) found in Aristotle's On the Soul and Parva naturalia. In turn the notion of imitation or mimsis, as found in Plato's Republic as well as in Aristotle's Poetics, was interpreted in terms of the functions of the imaginative faculty.

Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd all identify the imagination as the faculty by which poets produce the figurative discourses proper to their art, and to which they appeal in their audience. These authors all contrast this use of and appeal to the imagination with the strictly intellectual and rational aim proper to all other modes of discourse and forms of reasoning. Al-Farabi's Ihsa' al-'ulum (The Book of the Enumeration of the Sciences) provides one of the most extensive descriptions of the character of poetic imagination. Two aspects of poetic statements are emphasized by al-Farabi: their representation of their subjects in terms 'more noble or more debased' than they actually are, and their ability to bring about an appetitive, as well as a cognitive, movement in the audience. That is, by depicting a subject in terms of images that evoke a loathsome object, the poet is able to make the hearers feel aversion to the thing depicted, 'even if we are certain that it is not in fact as we imagine it to be' (Ihsa' al-'ulum: 84). The reason for this aversion is directly linked to the poet's appeal to the imaginative faculty: 'for the actions of a human being frequently follow his imagination, more than they follow his opinion and his knowledge, because often his opinion or his knowledge are contrary to his imagination, whereas his doing of something is proportional to his imagining of it, and not to his knowledge or his opinion about it' (Ihsa' al-'ulum: 85).

A similar point is made by Ibn Sina in a number of texts. Ibn Sina frequently contrasts poetics with other modes of discourse by distinguishing the poet's attempt to produce an act of imagination (takhyil) in the audience with the more intellectual goal of seeking to produce an act of assent (tasdiq) to the truth or falsity of some claim. Ibn Sina, like al-Farabi, emphasizes the fact that such acts of imagination may often be contrary to what we know or believe to be the case, and he has a favourite example to illustrate this point: if someone tells us that 'honey is vomited bile', we are likely to lose our appetite for the honey before us, even if we are quite certain that the metaphor is literally false. Ibn Sina also echoes al-Farabi's claim that this ability of the imagination to affect our action is owing to the close link between the imaginative faculty and the appetitive motions of the soul.

The emphasis upon the imagination's ability to intervene in the soul's intellectual assent appears to have been directly linked by the Islamic philosophers to the theme of imitation. Al-Farabi, for example, appears to have made this connection in his Ihsa' al-'ulum, since he concludes his remarks on the poetic statement's ability to influence behaviour with the observation that this is 'what happens when we see likenesses imitative of the thing, or things resembling something else'. By the same token, throughout his Talkhis kitab al-shi'r, Ibn Rushd consistently interprets the Arabic term for mimsis (muhaka) as equivalent to takhyil, the evoking of an image. And in several passages, Ibn Sina contrasts imaginative utterances which 'imitate one thing by another' with imaginative utterances that happen to be literally true as well. Generally, then, for the Islamic philosophers 'imitation' appears to refer to those specific acts of imaginative representation in which the object is depicted in terms not proper to it, or more specifically, which portray it as better or worse than its actual state. In this way, imitation is linked not only or even principally to Aristotelian mimsis, but rather to Plato's notion of imitation as it relates to the theory of the Forms found in the Republic (see Mimsis; Plato §14).

This emerges clearly from a discussion in a little treatise by al-Farabi known simply as the Kitab al-shi'r (Book on Poetics). In this treatise, al-Farabi identifies imitation, along with metric composition, as constitutive of the very substance of poetry, with imitation the most crucial of the two elements. In order to explain the nature of poetic imitation, which occurs through language, al-Farabi draws heavily upon its similarities to imitation through action, for example, in the making of statues or in performative imitations. Here too imitation is said to have as its end to 'cause an imagining' of the imitated object, either directly or indirectly. The difference between direct and indirect imitation refers to the distance that separates the representation of the object from the reality itself, as illustrated in the example of a statue. For if an artist wished to imitate a person named Zayd:

... he might make a statue which resembles him, and along with this make a mirror in which he sees the statue of Zayd. And it might be that we would not see the statue itself, but rather the form of his statue in the mirror. And then we would know him through what imitates an imitation of him, and thus be two degrees removed from him in reality.

(Kitab al-shi'r: 94-95)

The possibility of degrees of removal from the original is highly evocative of Plato's description of the possible states of removal from the Forms in the myth of the cave. Al-Farabi believes this possibility holds not only for artistic imitation, but also for linguistic imitation in poetry. While these associations are sometimes viewed pejoratively by the Islamic philosophers, as one might expect in the light of their Platonic resonances, this attitude is not universal. Al-Farabi himself reports noncommittally that many people consider the more remote imitation to be the more perfect and artistic, and here as in his other works he admits the power of imitative utterances for inciting humans to actions to which intellectual opinion or knowledge fail to move them.

It is Ibn Sina (§8), however, who goes furthest in eliminating the negative overtones of these descriptions of poetic speech. In all but his most youthful writings, Ibn Sina emphasizes that the poet's concern with the imagination requires that his work be judged on its own terms and not on the level of intellectual judgments. Strictly speaking, poetic imaginings are neither true nor false; but in so far as poetic statements may imply corresponding intelligible propositions, they may possess a truth-value incidentally and secondarily. For this reason, although many will remain literally false, this need not be universally the case:

And in general poetic [syllogisms] are composed of premises which evoke images... be they true or false. Generally they are composed of premises to the extent that they possess a figure and a composition which the soul receives by means of what is in them of imitation and even of truth; for nothing prevents this [that is, their being true].

(al-Isharat wa-'l-tanbihat: 80-1)

By the same token, Ibn Sina also allows for the use of poetic and imaginative discourse that is ethically neutral, seeking neither to ennoble nor to debase what is imitated, but rather merely aiming to 'provoke wonder through the beauty of the comparison' and thus to fulfil what could be termed a purely aesthetic end.

See also: Aesthetics; Aristotle §29; Beauty; al-Farabi; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Sina; Imagination; Mimsis; Plato §14; Platonism in Islamic philosophy; Poetry; Rhetoric

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Black, D.L. (1990) Logic and Aristotle's 'Rhetoric' and 'Poetics' in Medieval Arabic Philosophy, Leiden: Brill. (Discusses the interpretation of these Aristotelian texts as works of logic; includes considerations of the themes of imagination and imitation.)

* al-Farabi (c.870-950) al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), ed. and trans. R. Walzer, Al-Farabi on the Perfect State, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. (Text with facing translation of al-Madina al-fadila; includes detailed notes regarding al-Farabi's Greek sources and antecedents.)

* al-Farabi (c.870-950) Kitab al-shi'r (Book on Poetics), ed. and trans. A.J. Arberry, 'Farabi's Canons of Poetry', Rivista degli Studi Orientale 17 (1938): 267-78; ed. M. Mahdi, Shi'r 3 (1959): 91-6. (A curious little text presenting al-Farabi's understanding of Greek poetics.)

* al-Farabi (c.870-950) Ihsa' al-'ulum (The Book of the Enumeration of the Sciences), ed. U. Amin, Cairo: Librairie Anglo-Égyptienne, 3rd edn, 1968. (Al-Farabi's discussion of different kinds of knowledge.)

* al-Farabi (c.870-950) Kitab al-huruf (The Book of Letters), ed. M. Mahdi, Beirut: Dar el-Mashreq, 1969. (Al-Farabi's account of the nature of logic and languages.)

Heath, P. (1992) Allegory and Philosophy in Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Ibn Sina's theories on allegory in the context of his philosophy as a whole; aimed at the non-specialist in philosophy and useful for audiences with primarily literary interests.)

* Ibn Rushd (c.1174) Talkhis kitab al-shi'r (Middle Commentary on the Poetics), trans. C.E. Butterworth, Averroes' Middle Commentary on Aristotle's 'Poetics', Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. (A translation of Ibn Rushd's major work on this topic, with a helpful introduction.)

* Ibn Rushd (c.1179-80) Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise), trans. G.F. Hourani, Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, London: Luzac, 1961. (Translation of Ibn Rushd's analysis of the links between religion and philosophy.)

* Ibn Sina (980-1037) al-Isharat wa-'l-tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions), ed. J. Forget, Leiden: Brill, 1892; part translated by S.C. Inati, Remarks and Admonitions, Part One: Logic, Toronto, Ont.: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984. (The sixth and ninth 'methods' of this text discuss rhetoric and poetics.)

Ibn Sina (980-1037) al-Shifa' (Healing), Kitab al-shi'r, trans. I.M. Dahiyat, Avicenna's Commentary on the 'Poetics' of Aristotle, Leiden: Brill, 1974. (Translation of the Poetics section of Ibn Sina's encyclopedic work, al-Shifa', with excellent introductory essays; aimed at students of literary theory.)

* Ibn Sina (980-1037) Risala fi al-'ishq (Treatise on Love), trans. E. Fackenheim, 'A Treatise on Love by Ibn Sina', Mediaeval Studies 7 (1945): 211-28. (A translation of the Risala fi al-'ishq.)

Kemal, S. (1991) The Poetics of Alfarabi and Avicenna, Leiden: Brill. (Various aspects of these two philosophers' views on poetics.)

Kemal, S. (1996) 'Aesthetics', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds), History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 56, 969-78. (Account of some of the main concepts of aesthetics, along with the leading controversies of the classical period.)

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