“The Arabesque (…) transfigures the object of nature it decorates (…) into a weightless, transparent, floating pattern extending infinitely in all directions (…) the object of nature has become under the Arabesque treatment a window onto the infinite.”
During my work on this blog, while researching, reading and writing about Islamic philosophy and arts I have come of course very early unto the Arabesque. The Arabesque pattern – sometimes foliate but commonly geometrically structured patterns of different shapes and coloring, known from Islamic decorative arts but also from music – has captured my interest.
The Arabesque is such a well-known feature of Islamic art, that it has come to define Islamic art like an icon (together with calligraphy). It puzzles me somewhat because are we not supposed to avoid icons? However, the following question arose: What are we understanding about the deeper meaning of the Arabesque? For me, as an artist who loves the forests, plants, animals and nature, who is inspired by patterns, natural networks and natural communication-systems, the meaning of the Arabesque is vast and intriguing. A multitude of subtle meanings and secrets are hidden under these surfaces of infinitately stretched out patterns, that seem to be always the exactly the same.
During my studies of mathematical patterns I stumbled soon into the obvious question: HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO IMAGINE MATHEMATICS AND STRUCTURES ONE CAN NOT SEE WITH THE BARE EYE? It is possible, because mathematics and the language of the infinite is embedded within our own mind. Nature itself is a reflection of our minds, just like our minds are a reflections of nature. Language – and mathematics is also nothing else but a language – is a navigational tool to help us to use our minds and map out our inner and outer nature and reality. However, the notion that the infinite is of always the exact mathematical order is wrong. We need variety and disorder – including irrationality – in order to develop and survive and for things to evolve.
Rima Ajlouni, a scientist in the US wrote an extensive paper on the amazing ingenuity in Islamic art and mathematics to describe both order and disorder.
Ms Ajlouni talks about the striking characteristics of Quasi-Crystal (sub-atomic) formations, who only appear to be always exactly the same, but are ever so slightly different. These differences allow changes and evolutionary growth. Islamic scientists and artists were able to reflect this in their work from very early on. And were not only able to think in terms of order about the infinite but also in contradictions and complexities, deriving from the need to envision and solve problems and “to stretch” the imagination.
With the invention of vast computer driven network technologies and the newly invented use of computer generated algorithms to control “user experiences” it seems worthwhile to re-visit the original meaning of mathematics as a language of the infinite.
Algorithms & Dictatorship
Algorithms as they are used (and abused) these days are computer generated responses to “behavorial structures and patterns”. In contemporary mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a self-contained sequence of actions to be performed. Because an algorithm is a precise list of precise steps, the order of computation is always crucial to the functioning of the algorithm, An algorithm does however not understand ambiguity and really out of order, unexpected behaviors. Instructions are usually assumed to be listed explicitly, and are described as starting “from the top” and going “down to the bottom”, an idea that is described more formally by flow of control.
Trump apparently won his campaign also thanks to businesses that designed algorithms that targeted users on facebook and twitter with personalised “experiences” – this means a user is feed a certain set of stories to encourage a certain mood within the user. The Trump campaign has harvested the data of 30 Million users contracting companies like facebook and Amazon for this task. This interview with the CEO from the key tech firm responsible for the Trump data campaign is further very revealing. It is likely that these data were used and will be further used to detect opposition and to employ troll armies wherever resistance shows up. Computer generated algorithms and the manipulators behind them, thrive on us behaving “always the same” while also calculating some unforeseen events and problem scenarios – every new pattern of resistance will be responded with by a new set of algorithms. However, our inherit nature is to be rather unpredictable creatures and to resist attempts to uniform us. The more we get controlled the more we will eventually rebel. The trick of dictatorshop and mind control has always been to tell us we are free while at the same oppressing us. Computer generated algorithms as they are used in Social Media perform exactly that trick. People who believe that Social Media are the way to break out of our present dawn of a new era of global oppression, must be told, that Social Media are also the problem, as all attempts to break free are monitored by machines and responded to by machines. Even slight algorithm changes in the Newsfeed stimulate different mood responses in users. Those of you who may wonder why I am on & off twitter and facebook – this is the reason. The only way out is to pull the plug. *
Algorithm & Al-Khwārizm
Now we venture back into Islamic thought, as the concept of algorithm as a planning and mapping tool is much older and has existed for centuries and has an Islamic root.
Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi may God be pleased with him, a 9th-century Persian geographer and mathematician, is considered one of the primary fathers of algebra and as the key-inventing mind of the algorithm. His work the Calculation with Hindu Numerals, written about 825 AD, was principally responsible for spreading the Hindu–Arabic numeral system throughout the Middle East and Europe. It was translated into Latin as Algoritmi de numero Indorum. Al-Khwārizmī, rendered as (Latin) Algoritmi, led to the term “algorithm”. Al-Khwarzimi was also a geographer and as such aquainted with the problem of geographical maps and mapping out space and objects. He worked with Mathematics in order to solve problems, and developed a set of equations that not only dealt with mathematical problems when they arise but also to detect and predict potential problems. I wonder what Al-Khwārizmī would have to say about the abuse of his great mathematical invention by contemporary greedy businesses and irresponsible power-hungry politicans. My guess is the issues would not be entirely new to him.
This blog is too limited in size and kept very broad in the subjects I talk about, but I feel very strongely that there is much in our Islamic heritage that is worthwhile to look at, to discuss and experiment with. It is a worthwhile endevour to find responses to our manyfold pressing problems. I personally hope that through and within Islam we will find also tools and maps to take us away from machine driven white male priviledge systems. I for myself know that it can do that. Islamic spiritual practise after all has the ability to make us understand the seemingly contradicting and enables the mind to think in greater complexities.
To finalise I am quoting from the website “Muslim Heritage” where I found recently a couple of remarkable and beautiful articles on the subject of Art in Islam:
“The Muslim artists invented the art of decoration and transformed it into the arabesque, a non-developmental design that extents in all directions as infinitum (…) In the embellishment of Islamic life all the arts mingled like the interlaces of a decorative theme, and as result, the patterns of illumination and calligraphy were woven into textiles, burned into pottery, and mounted on portals and mihrabs . In all their designs—on walls, on leather, and on cloth—they liked patterns that were not centrally organised but that went on, in all directions, without either a beginning or an end. The arabesque (…) transfigures the object of nature it decorates (…) into a weightless, transparent, floating pattern extending infinitely in all directions. The object of nature is not itself but is trans-substantiated, and has become only a field of vision; aesthetically, the object of nature has become under the arabesque treatment a window onto the infinite.”
- PS – While still in London (I lived there for 10+ years, now I am in Berlin), I was working on many projects as Senior User Experience expert and saw the possibilities and dangers of personalized user experience and predictable user pedagogy first-hand. Additionally I was cyber stalked for years and found nothing but compliance and corruption when turning for help to the police and authorities. To describe my experiences as “Kafaesk” puts it too mildly. All of these things had of course a profound impact on me and taught me many things about technology and authoritarian abuse. I can report, that the only way out of all this, was to become “unpredictable”. Authentic Islamic spritual practise helped me to find a way out from this abuse. Allah knows best.