The period between the dawn of the 16th century and the first half of the 19th century is the most vibrant time of “divan literature,” the classical Ottoman poetic tradition. This long period has a traditionalist structure based on its own principles. The Ottoman poets benefited from available traditional elements and materials like mazmuns, stereotyped words or expressions, or Arabic prosody. Rather than pushing poets into a vicious cycle of repetition, these consistent materials gave the poets a deep ability to express themselves. They also provided authenticity in the structure of the poem.
The rules of this material limitation were set up by the aesthetic principles that form the basis of poetry. The same principles applied to other branches of art as well. So, what were the aesthetic measures of the Ottoman Empire, or rather Islamic art?
The term aesthetics is derived from the ancient Greek word “aisthesis,” meaning sensation or perception. The non-conceptualized word of aesthetics is quite ancient. While it dates back to the Athenian philosopher Plato’s era, it was more commonly mentioned until the 18th century. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762), a student of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, was the one who turned aesthetics into a discipline in his work “Aesthetica.” It was translated into Turkish in the process of Westernization of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century.
The word aesthetics, formed by a worldview that emerged from Greco-Latin culture, was insufficient to explain the understanding of art and beauty in non-Western cultures. In particular, explaining Islamic arts around this concept, which completely revolved around Western arts and philosophy, led to bad results.
The word “jamal,” which means “beauty” in Arabic, is used as an equivalent word for aesthetics in the Ottoman understanding of art, despite not exactly meaning it. It usually refers to features that are felt in objects and cases, forming positive feelings in the human soul such as liking and enjoying something.
“Ilm al-Jamal” means “science of beauty” and is the equivalent of the word “aesthetics” in contemporary Arabic, which explores topics such as the nature and principles of beauty, artistic value patterns and beauty theories.
Ottoman intellectuals of the Westernization period considered naming aesthetics “ilm al-husn,” referring to it being the science of beauty. They then concluded that aesthetics is the philosophy of fine arts and therefore called it “hikmet-i bedayi.” After 1912, the word bediiyyat, derived from the Quranic word “bedi” referring to the uniqueness in God’s creation, came into use and replaced “hikmet-i bedayi.” Eventually, the word “aesthetic” finally settled in Turkish as well.
Renowned early Islamic philosopher Al-Farabi says that complete beauty belongs to God, and that while his beauty belongs to his essence, the beauty in other beings is merely a sign. Persian polymath Ibn Sina, often known in the West as Avicenna, says that true beauty belongs to God and spreads to the universe from him.
Considering these basic ideas in general, the issue of aesthetics has not been focused on as much as other philosophical issues in the history of Islamic thought. The very first and the most expanded explanation in this regard, as in every other subject, belongs to Persian philosopher Al-Ghazali. In his “Ihya Ulum al-Din” (“The Revival of the Religious Knowledge”), one of the most famous works of the Islamic world, he devotes wide coverage to the subject of beauty under the title of “Book of Love, Longing, Intimacy and Contentment.”
He argues that every beauty is loved by those who perceive it just because it is beauty. And beauty gives pleasure, which is something enjoyed. Al-Ghazali emphasizes that the interest in beauty does not come from bodily or sexual pleasure alone; on the contrary, the pleasure that beauty gives is something different. Noting that beauty is loved by itself, he gives examples of pleasures such as watching the beauties of nature and the splash of water. Al-Ghazali embraces the common view that sees beauty in harmony and proportion.
This understanding gained varying amounts of Sufi aspects in later periods. For instance, Sufis like Ibn Arabi and Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi propounded many views on beauty in this direction. All of these interpretations bear the traces of various cultures but primarily refer to the Islamic faith, thought and worldview. Thus, aesthetics in the arts was formed within the framework of Al-Ghazali’s explanations.
Although there are interregional differences, Islamic principles are applied in all products of Islamic art in varying dimensions. The fact that various aesthetic theories did not emerge in academic terms, unlike in the West, is a result of the approaches of Muslim artists and thinkers to art.
The restriction of the concept of reality to express a world that can only be perceived by the senses is the result of the simple understanding of aesthetics established in antiquity. In Christianity, this understanding continued to develop, remaining unchanged.
In fact, no religion confines reality to the world that can be perceived by the senses. Today, this understanding of aesthetics, which depicts and imagines the world understood by the senses as the sole reality, dominates many areas of art.
However, Muslim artists have not adhered to a trend that is fundamentally psychological, such as portraying the likeness of the outside world. For them, there has been always a dominant understanding that tends to explore the inner realm of objects. Thinkers such as Louis Massignon argue that Muslim artists consciously turn to the surreal. In Islamic aesthetics, there is no claim of creation ex nihilo, and art is to explore and express already existing quality and beauty. That is, the artist is not the one who creates beauty, but the one who discovers it. After all, the whole being is painted with the dye of Allah. “... And who is better at dyeing than Allah?” reads Al-Baqarah, the second and longest chapter of the Quran, in the 138th verse.
In Islamic geography, the framework of the concept of art defined as “fine art” is very recent. The branches of art were considered separate sciences, such as the science of music and the science of poetry, until recently. In addition, art and craft are not categorically separated. For this reason, when it comes to Islamic art, a very wide area of activity emerges.
Muslim artists who turned to abstraction also found a bright response to their will of abstraction through the idea of the “wahdat al-wujud,” which means unity of existence. Ultimately, the inner goal of Islamic art is to reach the invisible behind the visible and the outer goal is to beautify the world. Despite all its metaphysical background, Islamic art has always been in life. From this art perspective, what matters is not to watch, but to experience.