The recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture—which touched on the nature of human reason, but which also questioned, in passing, the relationship between faith and reason in Islam—may turn out to be more productive than was at first thought. Among other things, it generated a substantive open letter to the pope signed by thirty-eight respected Muslim clerics—a document that itself is carefully reasoned and gracious. At a time when the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is being met by increasing fear and stereotyping in the West, any form of dialogue is cause for hope.
In his insightful essay “The Dialogue with Islam,” Stratford Caldecott points out that a classic western concern about Islam is that it seems to stress the absolute will of Allah without a corresponding emphasis on how that will manifests a reasonable, ordered universe. A religion founded on mere will, of course, would make dialogue irrelevant and provide an endless fuel supply for violent conflict. What makes Caldecott’s essay so fresh and provocative is not the evidence he provides for an Islamic tradition of reason (though he does believe it exists), but the suggestion that a more fruitful avenue for dialogue with Islam would be the investigation not of reason but of beauty.
Over the centuries, as Caldecott notes, one of the central strands of Islam has been what is known as the “ihsani tradition.” The Arabic word ihsan derives from the noun hasana, which means to be beautiful, good, lovely. As a verb, ihsan means to “make beautiful or good.” According to scholar Joseph Lumbard, God himself is the first to make beautiful. Thus the Prophet Muhammad prays: “O God, you have made beautiful my creation (khalq), make beautiful my character (khuluq).” Lumbard argues that the process by which one becomes beautiful is less a rationalistic or legalistic thing than it is the cultivation of a craft or art form. The great Sufi scholars, poets, and mystics stressed that ihsan involved the cultivation of inner discipline.
Nowhere are the issues of Islam, beauty, and cultural/religious conflict more meaningfully explored than in the novel My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. Written prior to 9/11, this novel explores another time and place dominated by a volatile clash of civilizations: late sixteenth-century Istanbul, where the Ottoman Empire was engaged in incessant conflict both within and without.
Pamuk’s attraction to this “distant mirror” stems directly from his own personal history. Born into a well-to-do family, Pamuk grew up in a westernized neighborhood of Istanbul. He studied art, architecture, and journalism—as well as creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—but never pursued them professionally. After completing his education, he decided to devote himself entirely to writing, something his family’s financial position enabled him to do.
One of the overriding themes of Pamuk’s novels is the ambiguity of Turkish identity, the fate of a country situated at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. For centuries Turks have struggled with the self-consciousness of a people who believe they are imitators. The anguished search for authenticity leads some to seek a lost purity, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism.
My Name Is Red is a sprawling, intricately plotted, multiply-narrated tale, centering around a workshop boasting the Empire’s greatest manuscript illuminators. The tradition of illuminated “miniatures,” already ancient by the time the novel takes place, had reached its apex in the great Persian masters of the medieval era. But the tradition was fed by many contributing streams, including those from as far east as China and Mongolia. In the wisdom of the religious authorities, the Islamic prohibition against representational art was not applied to illuminations because they were considered extensions and embellishments of the manuscripts they enhanced. The texts might include works of literature—those by Nizami and Ferdowsi haunt the narrative—or elaborate memorial books created especially for shahs and sultans.
The plot of Pamuk’s novel is set into motion by two events: the brutal murder of one of the most famous illuminators, known by his nickname “Elegant,” and the return to Istanbul after twelve years of a man called “Black.” As it happens, Black was a member of the same workshop as Elegant, but had left when his suit for his beautiful cousin Shekure was rejected by his uncle Enishte, himself a master artist. Black’s investigation into the murder and his renewed pursuit of Shekure drive the story forward.
In all, twelve narrators render various aspects of the story, including Elegant (from the afterlife); Esther, the Jewish cloth-seller (a yenta and go-between); the three greatest illuminators—Olive, Butterfly, and Stork; and the unnamed murderer himself. Another running feature of the novel involves monologues by things depicted in miniatures. The performance of these monologues is undertaken by a storyteller in a coffee-shop frequented by illuminators; he sets up pictures and speaks as: a dog, a gold coin, two dervishes, a horse, death, Satan, and even the color red.
Like the greatest miniatures, My Name Is Red is a combination of motion and stasis, of intricate ornamentation and frenetic activity. But above all it is a profound meditation on the meaning of art and religion. Before long it becomes clear that a motive for the killing of Elegant is a project initiated by the sultan and entrusted to Enishte: the creation of a secret book, one that adopts the “Frankish” style of painting that has been brought to Istanbul by Venetian diplomats and merchants. The ostensible purpose of the volume is to demonstrate that the Ottoman Empire can outdo its western rivals, but the project requires the artists to break a series of powerful taboos: rendering an individual portrait of the sultan, employing perspectival technique that might make a tree look bigger than a mosque, and the more elusive but nonetheless forbidden pursuit of a personal artistic style.
One might imagine that Pamuk the sophisticated contemporary novelist would, at this point in the narrative, tip the scales toward a modern, individualistic conception of art. But this he does not do. Throughout the course of the novel, the traditional view is portrayed with sympathy. To be sure, he does give us a sense of the puritanical strain when the murderer says to Enishte Effendi:
On the Day of Judgment, the idol-makers will be asked to bring the images they created to life. Since they will be unable to bring anything to life, their lot will be to suffer the torments of Hell. Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, “creator” is one of the attributes of God. It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do as He does, who claim to be as creative as He.
But alongside this heavily moralistic argument—the one we’re all familiar with—Pamuk sees the beauty and the mysticism behind the ancient vision. The artist who serves Allah seeks the humble path of self-effacement and strives to render the timeless, eternal truth of creation. As an apophatic religion, Islam refrains from making analogies between Allah and the created order. And so it should come as no surprise that the crowning achievement of a lifetime’s work for the Persian masters was blindness—the ultimate union with the uncreated creator. “Blindness is a realm of bliss from which the Devil and guilt are barred,” the miniaturist called Olive says.
The intrusion of western consciousness into this realm is truly shocking; it appears to be nothing less than blasphemy and pride. And yet there are those who share a glimmer of understanding. No less a figure than the sultan himself says to Enishte:
If I believed, heaven forbid, the way these infidels do, that the Prophet Jesus was also the Lord God Himself, then I’d also hold that God could be observed in this world, and even, that he could manifest in human form; only then might I accept the depiction of mankind in full detail and exhibit such images.
Enishte represents the possibility of a cosmopolitan attitude. In response to the idea that the influence of western art will contaminate the purity of miniature painting, Enishte replies that the entire tradition rests upon the mingling of Arabic illustrating sensibility and Mongol-Chinese painting. “Nothing is pure,” he concludes. “To God belongs the East and the West.”
Of course, My Name Is Red is itself an example of art as a hybrid of disparate visions. But merely to conclude that Pamuk has achieved a postmodern rendering of all points of view would be faint praise. John Updike has written that “Pamuk’s ingenuity is yoked to a profound sense of enigma and doubleness.” The capacity for doubleness allows him to render the alienation of those caught between religious and cultural traditions, but it can also do justice to the virtues of each tradition. The overwhelming conviction on finishing My Name Is Red is precisely how art can represent the ihsani vision of “making beautiful.”
The tradition of miniature painting came to an end soon after the events narrated in My Name Is Red, in part because of large-scale cultural and political forces that dried up the sources of its creativity. In times of conflict, pragmatism and puritanism, however opposed to one another, combine to put an end to art.
But this novel does not suggest that artists are mere victims. Pamuk believes that the making of art has moral implications. Art is not a privileged realm: the painstaking disciplines that lead to mastery may also lead to vanity and pride. By the end of My Name Is Red it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that artists themselves can be partly responsible for the end of art. The same thought could be applied to both the artists and the political leaders of the West, where individualism has led to the ills that many in the Islamic world want no part of.
While Pamuk is not a religious man, the integrity of his “doubleness” enables him to honor the moral concerns that religion evokes. He is a unquestionably a master, but he knows that “making beautiful” also requires “doing beautiful.” For this reason, it should be clear that beauty is opposed to mere will, that it reflects an awareness of the intricacy and order of creation.
In the Koran, God is known under ninety-nine names, one of which is Beauty. That may be the best place for dialogue between cultures and religions to begin.