By Aya Al-Hakim
In the wake of climate change, a question that has intellectually and spiritually challenged our ancestors in every era around the globe presses itself. What is the relationship of humanity with nature?
In the modern era, the relationship has been that of exploitation. Humanity is seen to be independent from nature, even above it. This has been the Western vision of the world.
In poisoning the earth, we were led on a self-destructive path. But I try to invoke here an alternative vision, expressed by Islamic (Sufi) arts, which finds that the way humanity relates and depends on nature can be renewed once the creative life is reclaimed.
According to Jale Erzen, a professor of Ottoman architecture and aesthetics at Middle East Technical University, the scientific discoveries and empirical approaches of the West has created a limited, practical and measurable experience of space and time. It is the creation of a spatial and aesthetic order that tries to manipulate nature for the sole benefit of human consumption.
As the Islamic world began to adopt the Western worldview in the modern era, Islamic aesthetics, such as architecture or painting, have lost their significance. But these arts can still offer useful insights in trying to mend our relationship with each other, the environment and ourselves.
In Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, humanity and the natural world are believed to be the manifestation of God. In that sense, everything that we see, touch, smell or hear is sacred. Even our cities, which we think are cut off from nature, with its malls, roads and skyscrapers, are recognized to still bear the soul of the earth, since they are made from the earth's natural resources.
From a Western point of view our cities are soulless because our popular view of the world is a disenchanted one. What is most important today is not the well-being of nature, but technological and industrial progress. Our modern lives are mechanic, our senses hungry.
For the Sufis, all five senses need to be stimulated as a first step in the process of creation. It stirs the movement of thoughts and feelings towards the realization of truth. This movement parallels that of the cosmos, believed to follow a spiral movement, which makes it one of the most important forms in Islamic art.
The spiral, as described by Erzen, "has introverted and extraverted movement; it is both concentric and eccentric. It represents the inner being and the outer world; it signifies constant change upon permanence." An example of that movement can be found in the Alhambra Palace, Spain. The palace has garden courts with small water ponds and water sprays, which signify the presence of illusions (water reflections). It shows that humans are living in both illusion and reality. It also points towards the need to constantly question human perception. In this way, Islamic architecture tries to unite opposites, reality and illusion; dark and light; inner and outer in imitation of the natural world.
It has become difficult for today's humanity to strive for a unity of opposites. This shows strongly in how there is no balance between the material and spiritual. Everything is steeped towards the material, being the ultimate goal in life with nature as conquest, while the spiritual is seen as dangerous or backwards. But Sufi thought tries to challenge that.
The Sufis are known not only as spiritual seekers, but also as great artists. Some of the most famous Sufi artists are the Persian poets Hafez and Rumi. For them, the spiritual and inner process of making art is ultimately what matters. And this process of creation, which fills oneself, is best described in dance, specifically that of the whirling dervishes.
The dervishes are part of the Mevlevi order, a traditional Islamic Sufi way (Tariqa), which follows the spiritual teachings of Jalaluddin Rumi. Through dance, they use their body as an instrument of contemplation, striving towards the knowledge of Absolute Reality (God) -- the goal of Sufism. This might sound strange, especially in a world where our most important instruments for seeking knowledge are the mobile phone and laptop. The Sufis even cast aside logic and books in preference of ecstasy.
With one hand up to the heaven and the other down to earth, the dervishes begin to whirl in a trance, dissolving the ego and becoming part of the cosmic spiral dance -- an ecstatic ritual of divine love. As Erzen explains, "in Islam, existence as a whole is possible because of Love." Since it is believed that God created humankind to admire and love him, the whirling dervish is like a Lover who gets to join the Beloved (God) in all his manifestations, physical and spiritual. Because only by realizing we are part of this world can our creations embody the passion and knowledge of nature and not stand in opposition to it.
The creative fire
As one starts to pay attention to what's happening in the world, reading about wars, violence and oil spills, feelings of restlessness and powerlessness start to possess the heart. But artistic expression allows the soul to find peace. In Sufi: Expression of the Mystic Quest, Laleh Bakhtiar says it is through artistic expression, such as in dance or poetry that "the resistance of the restless is gradually worn down." In that sense, communities can strive towards peace through living and encouraging a creative life, which has the power to loosen the toxic knots of our psyche and behavior.
From a Sufi perspective, creativity is the key to love, a fire that can only be found and kindled within oneself. It is a raw energy that cannot be ignited for us in some factory or establishment, an energy that can transform and inspire new ways of living in more harmony within and without.