Politics is born out of constraint as economics is born out of scarcity. Constraint can be understood as a limit to freedom. The irony of constraint is that, while it limits freedom, great human creativity and achievement arises from it. A good example is a jazz band. In this example, rhythm is the element of constraint. The musicians have freedom to express themselves and their instruments on top of the rhythm, but that freedom is not absolute if they want to maintain the format and structure of the groove. An exception to this would be ‘free jazz’, but generally people agree that the greatest jazz comes from a band keeping (or constrained by) time. The masters of jazz such as Coltrane demonstrate how much freedom and creativity is possible even when constrained. This is also true of politics. Humans are political animals as Aristotle said and our great achievements occur in a political context. Sometimes, unfortunately, the constraints are so harsh that they constitute oppression. In this case we could say that human achievements born from oppression occur despite politics, and we could also justifiably say that oppression stifles human achievement and creativity. This is of course the challenge of the politician, to bring about a just state of affairs that allows human flourishing. The just politician will attempt to remove a number of ‘artificial’ constraints e.g. inadequate infrastructure and medical care, however (s)he will seek to educate people to work within a ‘natural’ set of constraints such as the ecosystem and human social and cultural patterns. The human spirit itself is placed within a constrained set of circumstances – the body. The challenge of human life is spiritual freedom and expression within the body. It is only when we die that this challenge no longer applies.
Islam places creativity and art at the centre of human existence. Everything humans produce has an aesthetic quality, even the way we drive or speak. Art is the ability to generate beauty and we can all be artists in whatever we do, by doing it beautifully. This is ihsan. For example, our relationships need the quality of ihsan. Sound relationships are creative, and are based on the recognition of others’ souls. Human beings are the summit of creation, not to exploit others but to help the rest of creation to flourish. The Muslim as khalifa is a gardener, an artist, a carer of ophans. If we behave in these beautiful ways we will naturally embue our surroundings with beauty, just as the “classical mosques were built in the form of peoples’ souls” (1) as natural expressions of beauty rather than deliberate artistic creations.
Human beings have a special ability to distill and recycle beauty, meaning that we take the beauty of the natural world in through our senses, receive inspiration from the spirit (ruh), and then +add+ to the beauty of the natural world through our artistic creations. This cycle of creativity is the true source of sustainability.
Al-Ghazali said that “True art is in hearth and earth” (1). Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) comments that ‘earth’ represents the natural realm and ‘hearth’ represents the human realm. The natural world, particularly its mineral and vegetal forms, provides inspiration for Muslim art. The human form is not a basis for Muslim art and AHM criticises Michelangelo as a “pagan restoration” – not monotheistic. AHM said there is something ‘theophanic’ about the human face which naturally draws our attention and changes the nature of a space, therefore human images are not suitable in a place of worship. However, even with regard to the mineral and vegetal, Muslims go beyond the outward forms and observe the underlying archetypes. In mosques we rarely see actual pictures of flowers or trees, but instead we see patterns of sacred geometry which abstract the underlying archetypes from the natural world and create serenity in our hearts.
(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012
(2) ‘Contentions’, 17th set, number 2