Once, I was in a discussion with an ‘alim (Islamic scholar) who claimed that true art cannot be ugly, and that this is written in the Qur’an. I was puzzled. What I heard was Plato, not the Qur’an. I never really grasped his ‘tafsir’ (exegesis), and he probably thought I was way off mark. Plato claimed, or maybe more correctly, others have claimed that Plato thought that only the beautiful, the morally perfected, is of true value, contrasting it with the ugly and vulgar that has no value, and may even be considered destructive to society. This is not a mere judgement of taste. Rather, the conviction is entwined with concepts such as perfection, the good, the essence of an idea, while the opposite is associated with flaws, sins, deception, corruption of ideas and a contempt for the pleasures of the people. Becoming well-versed in Islamic thinking and then engaging with Plato must be a remarkable experience for anyone. As is well-known, many intellectual rationalisations and responses to the foundational texts in Islam throughout history contain elements of Platonic and neo-Platonic thinking. Thus, the position of this ‘alim is not unusual and can be found both in history and in our day and age. Indeed, Platonic conceptions of beauty have become an integral part of the discussions about al-fann al-hadif, art with a purpose, over the last three to four decades.
My discussion with the alim happened in 2013 in Oxford, England, at a closed meeting about art and Islamic ethics. I was invited because of my work on Islam and music and the invitation probably came because I had become acquainted with Sharif Banna, CEO of Awakening, a thriving media company specialising in Islamic products, particularly music. Banna, at the time pursuing a PhD at al-Azhar University in Cairo and simultaneously running an expanding world-wide company, had a key role in finding the participants for the discussion. Apart from the ‘ulama’ (the scholars of Islam) and me, he had managed to engage Ruh al-Alam, the London-based designer and artist, and Zarqa Nawaz, the witty writer of the Canadian comedy show Little Mosque on the Prairie. The atmosphere was relaxed but discussions were lively, with much disagreement in the room.
The recent appropriation of modern art expressions by Islamic intellectuals, in contrast to the condemnation of them during most of the twentieth century – such as the genre of popular music – is a remarkable and noteworthy development. It parallels, not least, Christian and Jewish art discussions – and oddly enough also Marxist ones – but has its own internal, discursive logic, a logic that can be explored by looking into the relation between Islamic pop music, ethics and aesthetics. But how do you create and market pop music that has the explicit aim to come across as Islamic?