Articles of faith

Art 1 byZiauddin Sardar

In Islam, the idea of beauty is firmly tied to the practice of praise, or invocation of God. Nature in all its glorious diversity is one vast song of praise. A radiant woman, a good-looking man, a loving family, a harmonious neighbourhood, a just society - all are things of beauty and everlasting testimony to the Most Beautiful. Islam seeks aesthetic proof of God, and Islamic art is essentially the art of praise. All art in Islam is sacred art, an echo of the written word, the revelation. Its goal is to attest, through the multiplicity and plurality of the world, the permanence of God.

Traditional Islamic art has tried to achieve this end by dematerialising the visible world and substituting synthetic principles of composition for natural forms. It seeks to demonstrate that everything can be made beautiful and exciting; and that almost infinite number of transformations can be attached to any one motif. In seeking to transform everyday objects - prayer mats, plates, bowls, tiles, lamps - into objects of real beauty, traditional Islamic art infused egalitarian ideals with civic values. The aim was not just to integrate life and art but to bring beauty into ordinary lives; there is a deeply democratic spirit to creativity in Islamic art.

The "Traditional Islamic Art" exhibition at the Soni Gallery amply displays this spirit. The accent at this small but judiciously curated show is on both the variety and forms of Islamic art as well as its aesthetic essence, emphasising the "beauty of the permanent through the world of the transient". There are two underlying themes of Islamic art that bring an unconscious measure of coherence and unity to the exhibition. Geometric patterns are a major presence in Islamic art - both classical Muslim scientists and artists have been fascinated by numbers and proportions and have sometimes interpreted geometry in mystical terms. All the artists exhibiting carry a strong aura of the "sacred geometry" school of Islamic mysticism. The other unifying factor is the skill and ability, vividly on show, to transfer readily techniques and patterns from one medium to another.

The influence of mystical geometry is quite evident in Farid Ali Turki's woodwork, David Apthorp's tiles, Helen Whittaker's stained glass and Andrew Sutton's sculptures. Ali Turki weaves geometric patterns that transform craft into a higher, contemplative level of beauty. He has freely adopted the visual geometry that one finds in the painted ceilings of the Alhambra in Granada.

Apthorp's art is inspired by the work of the great Turkish architect Sinan, who built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. He uses geometry to explore the principles of harmony and proportions, with an accent on the rhythm of Muslim prayer and the meditation on the infinite that is the essence of worship in a mosque. Whittaker's stained-glass designs are inspired by geometric patterns of Islamic monuments in Andalusia and attempt to combine meaning and material to extend the possibilities of colour and design. And Sutton's sculptures, as well as calligraphic paintings, resonate the mystical tendencies of "sacred geometry" by stressing the unity inherent in diversity, and the diversity that flows from unity.

In contrast, Khairat Al-Saleh uses arabesque, the favourite motif in Islamic art, in her ceramics, etchings and paintings to stunning effect. Arabesque designs can be analysed and described more easily in abstract terms - dark or light, full or void, symmetrical or repetitive - than in terms of their concrete details. In Al-Saleh's work, they become a vehicle for light and colour. Her etching Emanations combines calligraphy with the techniques of gilding to produce a stained-glass effect in blue and lustre. Her ceramics are neat little essays in synthesis and convergence, the classical quest of arabesque.

Finally, there are the exquisite embroideries of Nighat Yusuf. Her hand-woven prayer mats, in subtle and earthy Punjabi colours, are illuminated with geometric patterns, calligraphy and highly stylised vegetal forms. Yusuf uses traditional Indian embroidery techniques to demonstrate that the process of creating art can itself be a form of meditation and worship.

The images of beauty on display here openly invite the viewer to seek the symbolic meaning inherent within the art and sing the praise of the ultimate creator. In its own modest way, the exhibition demonstrates that Islamic art, with all its multiple traditional techniques and skills, is alive and reinventing itself for a whole new generation.

"Traditional Islamic Art" continues until 6 February at the Soni Gallery, 25 Connaught Street, London W2 (0171-262 9101)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis