Day 22 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife through Asia and beyond. Join us as we explore history and culture. And after thirty years in Asia, we are now back in the UK. What next?

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 22 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

We end this road trip with a visit to the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur and I feel like waxing lyrical about Islamic aesthetics.

Today I thought I would talk a little about Islamic aesthetics because in the video we visit the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps it is not one to amuse the children but for those interested in art, design and architecture, it is a must see.

The museum of Islamic art is not only an excellent museum, but a unique one. One rarely comes across any museum or institute devoted to Islamic art, and this is the only one as far as I am aware of in Malaysia. Maybe the expense of such an enterprise is the deterrent. Maybe it has something to do with so much of the art having direct quotations of the Koran involved so it seems more the preserve of Religion than Art! Or maybe it is considered vulgar to provide spaces for the tourist to gawp at it. But there is a quotation in the Alhambra Palace in Granada that says, "I am the garden appearing every morning with adorned beauty; contemplate my beauty and you will be penetrated with understanding." Which does indicate that this stuff was created to make a statement.

The museum demonstrates that there have been many trends over time, places and peoples. Even the most obvious distinction, the preference for abstraction over figurative arts, appears to have been more a fashion than a given. Back in the 15th Century we find the equivalent of a modern day blogger, a man called Ibn Arabshah, waxing lyrical about an impressive tapestry that was "
decorated with various pictures of herbs, buildings and leaves, also of reptiles and with figures of birds, wild beast and forms of old men, young men, women and children and painted inscriptions and rarities of distant countries and honour instruments of music and rare animals exactly portrayed with different hues of perfect beauty with limbs firmly jointed: with their mobile faces they seemed to hold secret converse with you and the fruits seemed to approach as though bending to be plucked."

Islamic art is not as alien as one might think. We find its origins in Greek philosophy and the whole Judeo-Christian continuum. At the most obvious level, domes and spires are common to both the West and the East. And it is always worth remembering that the entire Western Renaissance owes its existence to Arab scholars and their universities. Maths and astronomy, medicine and map making, all take their leads from the islamic golden age. We might also add that much of the interplay of Chinese culture and the West was moderated by those inveterate Arab traders.

Even that most obvious departure from the world of the Islamic artist;
perspective, is a product of Islamic scholars. Ibn al Haytham's Book of Optics became a text book that brought about the single point perspective of the Renaissance artist. A rather controversial concept that even Leonardo DaVinci had misgivings about because one rarely looks at anything from one immovable point of view. Motion blur though was only going to become an obsession of video makers trying to get the all too perfect look of their videos to become more like the slightly misty evocations of a celluloid film. For that matter Ibn al Haytham's medieval treatise was probably the beginnings of the camera!

Multi point perspective is more or less synonymous with Asian figurative art, in particularly those great Chinese and Japanese scrolls of parades and cityscapes. And one can even make a case for the alien lines of Islamic calligraphy playing self-conscious games with perspective. How one reads it, from right to left, can also lead one back to the beginning. The circularity of the designs, also draws our eyes to the centres as well as pointing us out to the edges.

One does not need to be an expert to appreciate any of this. There maybe be an assumption of recognition behind the much quoted verses that leaves one a little mystified, but symmetries and imagery approaching musical annotations can be read and appreciated by the outsider as an attempt at dealing with the infinite, the profound, the mysterious, without knowledge of the language.

In the museum we find other points of recognition. The grand illuminated manuscripts that may be in Arabic, are not unlike those of the great swirling designs of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon calligraphy. Which is hardly surprising because the scribes of the European churches were not creating in isolation from Islamic influence, and nor were the products of Islam isolated from the West. Great establishments like the Islamic University of Cordoba in Spain were a magnet for western scholars.

As one moves through the Museum, looking at some of the more mundane arts and crafts, if one looks at popular designs found on plates and other ceramics, one can find parallels among designs popular among English seafarers of the 17th and 18th century.


One does not want to overstate the idea that we are all just folks! For there are differences. Some have thought of the recurring motifs and the geometrical symmetry as in essence a symbol of timelessness and eternity, in contrast to Western art having more a sense of the historical moment. But then one walks the aisles of the Islamic Arts Museum and comes across Modern Islamic Art, and immediately one finds one delving into the aesthetics of a Jackson Pollock or a Mark Rothko.


And where some find nothing but chaos in such modernity, others have found a contemplative spiritual plane.


Many of the exhibitions of Rothko's art have been in arenas with deliberately low lighting to convey a sense of religiosity. And Pollocks tangle of dripped paint, on closer look is not so accidental, and if anything begins to inhabit a similar zone to the calligraphic outbursts of Islam.

Islamic artistry has had a very long tradition of abstraction. Though one should not dismiss the figurative. We can find much of that outside of the directly religious artistry. Delving into the catalogues of Mughal artistry, we find all manner of scenes captured and much that is of a humorous nature. People, are funny!

Oh, and the above is a picture of James Kirkpatrick, an Englishman living in India. Which does emphasise my point that the West and the East are bound together in all manner of surprising ways and it is a good idea to remind ourselves of our commonalities.

The modern western artist may not put man at the centre of the Universe as the self-consciously muslim artist might, he does put man and the way he looks, at the centre of our interest! The Islamic artist perhaps looks more at what the tradition thinks that the man should think, where the secular artists of the West are inclined to look at what they actually think. The idea of a secular art is far harder to conceive of within cultures influenced by Islam for Islam claims that everything comes within its remit from politics to painting. But difficulty does not mean impossibility.

Where western art fills its frame with objects, social commentary, criticism as well as praise, the Islamic art strives to present a single idea that if truly understood, illuminates everything.

And then one comes across the gaudy jewellery, decorative betel boxes, crude miniatures, not to mention erotica, and an obsession with knife collections that perhaps are the products of a world a long way from that inhabited by loftier ideas.

So, just to be pretentious, I shall quote the Ottoman poet Gubari of Larende who wrote, "Gaze with the soul's eye to comprehend the cosmos, because it is a storehouse of wisdom, manifesting knowledge of the divine mysteries with symbols and signs." In short, the museum is worth a look!

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