You haven’t really realized your place in life until you’ve tried to describe a sunset in words. I realized this as I sat on a large rock near a creek on the University of Maryland campus and tried to describe the breathtaking view with pen and paper. I worked at it for several minutes and when I thought my list was perfect, I set my pen down and skimmed through the descriptions. At the end of my reading, I felt proud that my descriptions seemed so complete.
Then I studied the sky again.
Not even close.
The artist within each of us has an intense drive to describe what we see and feel; writers through words, painters through pigments, musicians through lyrics, poets through prose, and so on. We do not create anything new in the process; nature, emotions, and experiences already exist. We only try to capture a fraction of their magnitude. And still, no matter how many hours someone spends describing a sunset, it’s not the same as seeing the actual sunset in person. No matter how I describe my experience walking down a dirt road towards a sparkling lake to the sound of chirping birds, you have to be there to really feel it.
And that speaks to our human limitations.
Our minds are not capable of functioning outside the paradigm we were born within. We cannot think in 4D, for instance, and we cannot make up a new primary color or a new texture. Every concept, no matter how brilliantly expressed, is an expansion of something we’ve already witnessed or understood. Even the impressionist artist, who puts a unique spin on real concepts, is constrained by his psyche.
When we produce art, we are only reflecting the artistry of the Divine, the greater Creator behind everything in the material and immaterial world. Treating our genius in the arts as proof that we are superior to the Divine or somehow self-sufficient is ridiculously backwards. Think about it: Could Monet’s famous paintings of sunsets, for example, have existed without the sunset itself?
Like science and logic, art is one of the vehicles that can help us understand our existence and the nature of God. It can lead us towards Him, or it can lead us away from Him, depending on how we approach it. When art is approached as a goal and the means is ignored, it can also represent all that is wrong with humanity. When it breeds arrogance, or causes self-destruction or attachment to fleeting thrills, then it goes from being a useful tool to a dangerous weapon.
It’s extremely important for institutions to encourage North American Muslims to express their thoughts, ideas, struggles, and experiences creatively, authentically, and within the Islamic spirit. The Islamic spirit is not an imposition of a list of halal (permissible) and haram (prohibited). It is a worldview that understands that our very existence is to serve the Creator and spread positive messages. The emphasis should be on higher-purpose art; art that goes beyond carnal representations and actually stirs the depths of our hearts and souls—art that acknowledges that every brilliant idea that has ever crossed the human mind is owned by God.
And it is this acknowledgement that is one of the deepest forms of worship.