From Touched edited by Paul Domela, Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, Liverpool, 2011

Ziauddin Sardar

The ability to experience and appreciate wonder is a distinctive human trait. Both art and religion are informed, shaped by and answer to this inherently human faculty. Both are touched by wonder and help us access this essential characteristic of our nature. Therefore, religion and art are entwined as necessary, indeed, vital elements that must be represented, celebrated and active in the public space if we are to be fully human.

Implicit in religion and art is the capacity to stimulate our sense and feeling of wonder. It is, I would suggest, this faculty of wonder which generates the inquisitive, creative, imaginative, constructive character of humanity. It produces our drive to question, to know and understand, to harness and comprehend the physical world in which we exist as well as ourselves as human beings within this physical existence. The consciousness and capabilities of human beings are driven by wonder at the complexity, majesty, power as well as the contradictions and perversity we find in all that exists. Driven by wonder, this faculty not only makes us human but inspires us to refine, to civilise in the fullest meaning of the term, our aptitudes. It encourages us to become more than we presently are. It lifts our aspirations above the mundane and intimates the possibilities of all that is humane. It is this capacity to be touched and moulded by wonder represented in both religion and art that locks them in a mutual embrace. Far from merely jostling for a place in the public space it is religion and art as representations of wonder that have constructed and contrived the public space in which we live. To deny either of these spheres of expression in the domain of public life is to deform and unbalance who and what we are and how we have come to be ourselves.

It would be wonderful indeed to be able to argue that religion and art therefore inevitably and invariably produce all that is best, ennobling, uplifting and liberating in human potential. It would be wonderful – but patently untrue. Religion has generated wars, dissension, hatred, division and oppression; it has been used to rationalise and justify everything from slavery and mutilation to terrorism and indiscriminate mass murder. Art, on the other hand, has been used to serve hierarchy: it is the servant of the patronage of the powerful, rich and famous. Serving the interests of the powerful it works to breed division in society that can manifest itself in contempt for those not adept in its codes, signs and symbols: the uncouth, uneducated lesser orders who do not visit art galleries, museums or theatres. It has been used to celebrate and serve oppression, publish the ethos of all that is most inhumane and brutal, and glorify the worst in human nature. It has become the agent of obscene commercial forces, a preserve of megalomaniac collectors, the monopoly money hedge fund of choice for bankers and businessmen, or simply serves as an opiate for the masses numbing and desensitising intelligence with all that is banal and mindless. In all this, the positive and the negative, religion and art are us: commentaries on what we make of the human condition.

Whatever we consider to be the ultimate source of the wonder that lays its imprint on human consciousness and feeling, what we see represented by religion and art are interpretations, functions of human thought and action in the public space. Therefore, we are always in need of critical engagement with religion and art. Religion and art are forums and vehicles for the debates and discourses essential to seeking the best and appreciating what is worst in our public and private existence, our social and personal nature. One without the other is a cramped and crippled parody of the life which can and should be available and open to all.

Throughout most of human history arguing for the entanglement of religion and art, the way they are touched by each other, would have been unnecessary, because it was self evident. Social space was neither unitary nor uniform. Both the ‘ancient world’ and the non-west were far more pluralistic than the European civilisation that replaced one and dominated the other. Social space was an interconnected, negotiated, active arena expressive of the worldview and culture – the living tradition – of a people or society in which religion and art were essential creative, mutually entangled elements. The entanglement brought forth the aesthetic by which societies and peoples in their time and place were known to themselves and to others.

So far as it is possible to tell, human beings began developing their aesthetics, their diverse styles of making and doing, about as soon as we find evidence of human existence. Archaeologists use the evidence of these aesthetics to identify distinct human groups. A style of making and decorating pottery becomes for the archaeologist a reliable means to differentiate and date the record of human habitation. Changes in the aesthetic are visible evidence, silent witnesses to the successive influences and developments that affected lives lived long ago. In the patterns, the decorative motifs, the artistic conception applied to artefacts or buildings there is something far more telling. As Titus Burckhardt has observed: ‘nothing brings us into such immediate contact with the culture of a bygone age as certain works of art. Whether it is a scared image, a temple, a cathedral, or a mosque, it represents a focal point within the culture and expresses something essential. It gives us an insight which neither arguments of history nor analyses of social and economic circumstances can capture’ [1]

Through the works of art and religion we are touched by the sense of wonder that centred and stimulated an entire way of life, empathy provides a portal of insight on a way of living, thinking and knowing – qualitative intangibles beyond the reach of dry statistics or a litany of historical detail. Religion and art deploy the sense of wonder through the cultural language of a society, as it is shaped, given personality, form and application by human creativity to express their own distinctive view of their own world. This is Burckhardt’s opening argument and leads directly to his analysis of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, an architectural glory of Moorish Spain. He excavates the fabric of the building as it exists today to bring back to life its original inception and enable us to envisage the dynamics of the bustling multicultural world whose focal point it was. However, that is not all Burckhardt uncovers. The Grand Mosque today houses a vast Cathedral and this latter phase of the building provides another story, equally vibrant, which questions just how possible it is to be touched by genuine insight into the sensitivities of the religious and artistic expressions of another culture, how possible it is to understand another culture in its own terms. What quality of insight comes with overwriting one sacred building by another? What are the consequences of such a rupture? It is a statement of intent, a declaration of a stance toward what went before made in the most prominent public space. If art and religion are qualitative expressions of the soul and self of a culture they also and equally present that culture’s image of and attitude to its Other. Through this portal, expressive of the disjunctive relationship between self and Other we begin to explore another world of ideas: the sundering, the losing touch, the loosening of connective bonds, the distorting imagination which animates history and explains a great deal about the world in which we live today.

Exploring the Cordoba Mosque puts us in touch with successive layers of history. The stone columns of jasper, onyx, marble and granite used in the building were reclaimed from Roman ruins in the vicinity. They tell of the time when Hispania was one of the richest provinces of the Roman Empire, a source of metals and a proving ground for emperors and generals. Roman Spain was a diverse part of a world empire; it was populated by Celt-Iberians, Basques, Carthaginians, remnants of Greek trading colonies, Jews and Hispano-Romans. This last class were testimony to the Roman civilising mission and its attitude to its conquered people. To become a citizen it was necessary to be Romanised, fully acculturated to the accepted norms of the Roman worldview. Once Romanized even those previously deemed barbarian peoples could become citizens adding their deities and religious practises to the elastic Roman pantheon.

The first religious building known to occupy the site of Cordoba’s Grand mosque is the Church of St Vincent, raised in about 600 AD by the Visigoths. A Germanic people the Visigoths were Christianised auxiliaries, foederati, of the Roman Empire before their arrival in Spain. They were also part of the turbulent unravelling of Roman power in the face of the massive surge of westward population movement, the ‘barbarian’ migration that brought a whole swathe of peoples, such as the Visigoths themselves, flooding over the borders of the Empire. The barbarian peoples sought refuge within the Empire to escape the depredations of the even more feared Huns pushing westward from the steppes of Central Asia. Rome was faced with the unbearable strain of an intractable security problem which it attempted to resolve by co-opting the barbarians, with the collateral benefit that throwing them into the front line to fight other barbarians would result in a compound lessening in the numbers of these troublesome new peoples. What the pressure of numbers did not allow was the time old process of Romanization. This bar to acceptance made the foederati a threat from within as the Visigoths proved when under their leader Alaric they sacked Rome in 410. This danger at the centre led to the recall of the Roman legions holding the frontiers provinces, which in turn allowed more barbarians to expand into the vital entrails of the Empire and the need for more foederati to be despatched to stem the tide. It was this churning of unstable allegiances which saw the Visigoths despatched to overcome the Germanic Vandals and Alans who had overrun Hispania. Having seen off the Vandals and Alans, the Visigoths established their own kingdom, another contribution to the terminal disintegration of the western Roman Empire. The Visigoths added to the diverse population mix of the Spain. However, to administer their rule they needed to rely on the one institution that survived the demise of the Roman Empire: the Roman Church.

The first mosque in Cordoba was built as a consequence of the invasion launched, in 711, by Tariq ibn Ziyad. It was part of that great expansionary surge across much of the known world which followed the death of Muhammad and laid the foundations of the Muslim World. Tariq led his force from North Africa across the strait which still bears his name – Gibralter being a corruption of Jabil Tariq, the Mount of Tariq. Within seven years of his victory at the Battle of Guadalete, Cordoba became the centre of Muslim rule covering most of the Iberian peninsula. Another influx of new people was added to the heterogeneity of the population. Once again conquest was accretion not displacement of what went before. The first mosque was built adjoining the church of St Vincent; both operated side by side to serve a heterodox society. The Grand Mosque, the principal foundation of the building still visible today, bears evocative witness to the biography of Abd ur Rahman ibn Mu’awiya , the Falcon of the Quraysh, who arrived in Spain in 755 AD, the last surviving prince from the bloody overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty which had ruled the rapidly expanding Muslim lands from Damascus. This remarkable refugee fused the disparate elements of Spanish society into what eventually became the Umayyad Caliphate of al Andalus, a rival to the usurping Abbassids whose Caliphate now ruled the rest of the Muslim world from its new capital, Baghdad. In time Cordoba would match Baghdad itself in sophistication.

The grand design of the great monument Abd ur Rahman had built is testimony to the scope of the ambition as well as the outlook and ideas he brought with him from his homeland. In 786 the land on which the church of St Vincent stood was peaceably bought from its congregants who relocated to another site. Just as it had been in Damascus churches and synagogues would remain open. Non Muslims were ‘People of the Book’, possessors of earlier revelation from the same One God worshipped by Muslims, therefore they had a recognised legal status and place in Muslim society. They would retain their religion, their languages and continue to administer their own laws among themselves while they were free to participate in and benefit from the new social order created by Muslim rule. The mosque’s most characteristic design motif, Burckhardt argues, is infused with the nostalgia of exile. The red and white stone and brick arches surmounting the recycled Roman columns seem to recall the palm trees of the Abd ur Rahman’s homeland. To walk through the many pillared precincts of the mosque under the double tier of arches where high windows allowed the play of light and shade perhaps stirred memories of the palm groves he longed for in his poetry. This yearning for what had been lost is even enshrined in the great anomaly of the building. A mosque calls worshippers to prayer and in prayer turns them toward Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. Famously this mosque’s mihrab, prayer niche, asks its congregants to prayer as if they were in still in Damascus, rather than indicating the direction of Mecca from Cordoba.

Abd ur Rahman established more than memory in his new empire in the west. He founded educational institutions to bring the thirst for learning he had known in Damascus to his new empire. Scholars sat at the feet of the mosque’s columns dispensing education in the arts and sciences as well as religious subjects. At its height in the tenth century Cordoba was home to 700 mosques, 60 palaces and 70 libraries, the largest containing a collection of 600,000 volumes; some 60,000 treatises, poems, polemics and compilations were being published each year. Advances in agriculture, technology, medicine, sciences, philosophy and all the arts were made and Cordoba was a beacon attracting visitors from across the known world. Some of the greatest names not just in Muslim but world intellectual history were Cordobans: Ibn Rushd (Averroes), the philosopher of philosophers, ibn Tufail whose philosophic work Life of Hayy had a major influence on European thought, and Abu al-Qasim al Zahrawi (Abulcasis) known as the father of modern surgery. Nor was the flourishing of arts and sciences the work of Muslims alone, Christian and Jewish citizens shared in the intellectual and cultural life. The learning of Moorish Spain seeped through this multicultural membrane to illumine the Dark Ages of Europe where it laid the foundations for its Renaissance [2]. Not least of the conduits of ideas were the arts. The musical instruments of al Andalus are recognised as the origin of the modern European orchestra while the music and love poetry of Moorish Spain inspired the development of the troubadour tradition and conventions of courtly love which became the common heritage of medieval Europe.

The last phase in the history of the Cordoba’s mosque signals the dawn of another era. Cordoba was captured in 1236 by Ferdinand III of Castile as part of advancing frontier of Catholic Spain. The mosque was immediately rededicated as a cathedral and chapels built within its precincts. Over the centuries the rise of Most Catholic Spain is witnessed by the overwriting of the mosque, culminating in 1523 when Charles V authorised the superimposition of a great nave whose roof subsumes the fabric of what was there before. Charles V (1500-1558), thanks to judicious dynastic alliances, inherited sole claim to the crowns of Castile-Leon and of Aragon, the first King to unify these realms as a united Spain (1516-1556), as well as of the Hapsburg monarchy (1519-1556) and of the Duchy of Burgundy, which included the Netherlands, (1506-1555) which also made inevitable his election as Holy Roman Emperor (1519-56). He also became the ruler of vast new lands being conquered by Spain in the Americas and Asia. As he authorised the overwriting of Cordoba’s Mosque he was overseeing the subjugation of both the Aztec and Inca Empires in the Americas.

In each era that can be identified in the making of Cordoba’s Mosque/Cathedral religion and its aesthetic dominated this public space and is indicative of changes in the pattern of social life. The superimposition of the cathedral signals a particular radical aesthetic shift. It was accomplished by closing many of the multiple doorways that once provided access to the building and banishing the play of light within that were part of the original design. This construction signalled the triumphal culmination of the complete appropriation of this public space, not a passive witness to the accretion and succession of one social formation by another. It is the final sentence in a statement of power that rejects and denounces the past as it broadcasts a stance to the ways of knowing, thinking and being that went before. It is a disjunctive rupture, an eradication of the past whose object is the Other. The same public overwriting, the statement of power over the Other, was being made by Spain’s conquests beyond the sea. The great Cathedral of Mexico City arose over the temple precincts of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. A similar obliteration was then visited on the Inca capital of Cuzco in Peru.

The history of Cordoba cautions us that empathy, the ability to be touched by and feel connection to the Other through their expressions of wonder is as culturally constructed as any aesthetic; it is a function of and conditioned by the ideology and worldview of a society. I would argue that Europe’s construction of the Other, both inside Europe and outside in the non-west, is largely responsible for the suppression of wonder. It leads directly to the creation of separate audiences who contest the public space, and the failure of shared understanding and hence the loss of mutual wonder that it can generate. And it continues to deform the public space, fracture and fragment audiences, and impoverish social discourse by losing touch with the mutual embrace of religion and art as representations of wonder.

Public space can be used to demonise the Other, to eradicate mutual understanding, to present a litany and create a legacy of distorted imaginings. It can be used to signal and display that the Other is not only no longer part of society but also unacceptable even incomprehensible to the worldview which has achieved dominance in what is no longer a shared public space. Instead of appreciating expressions of wonder that spring from a shared human characteristic, no matter how different their form, overwriting renders the aesthetics of the Other the antithesis of the dominant order. It makes the aesthetics and worldview of the Other a complex problem of understanding with all the added complications of translation.

The cathedral of Cordoba constructed over centuries celebrates the progress of the Reconquista, the rolling back of Muslim rule and eventual expulsion of all Muslims as well as Jews who refused to convert to Christianity from the land of Spain. It is a triumphalist monument to the dismantling of plurality [3]. The Reconquista forged a militant frontier society that emphasised limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, requiring an unimpeachable ancestry free of miscegenation and orthodox conformity to the religious ethos that defined belonging and was the test for inclusion in society. The progress of the Reconquista proceeded by supplanting populations, opening the conquered land to new settlers while there was immense pressure for Jews and Muslims who remained to convert to Christianity, though they become the potentially suspect category of ‘new Christians’ which would taint their possibility of rising in Spanish society. Specific aspects of this worldview, such as the operation of the Inquisition to detect crypto Jews and Muslims, were particular to Spain and its history. However, the process we have traced in Cordoba contains in microcosm the working out of a body of ideas and a stance to the Other that is characteristic of the whole of western Europe.

The aesthetics of all forms of artistic representation communicated, broadcast and popularised an ideology of the Other forged by religion just as much as that ideology led to the development of ways of knowing and disciplines of knowledge dedicated to studying and explaining the Other. When Burckhardt innocently invites us to explore the cultural and artistic works of ‘a bygone age’ he is in fact pinpointing a theme central to the construction of the western conception of the Other. As much as his purpose is to ask the reader to appreciate the aesthetics and achievements of Moorish Spain he avoids the more salient question of how empathy is to transcend the problem of mutual understanding constructed in history by the rupture between the European self and the Other. Does the sense of wonder translate across the mutual divide that views the Other as its own antithesis? Do the aesthetics of ‘a bygone age’ speak to us of their original meaning and purpose, indeed of a common human outlook? Are they not always somehow ‘ethnic’ art, specialist minority interests, rather than recognised tributaries of the great ocean of human imagination? The fate of the public space occupied by Grand Mosque of Cordoba in this context is a harbinger of what was to follow and what still exerts its influence on the social and cultural life of the world we inhabit today.

The great irony is that the construction of the Other begins with the battle for the identity of the European self. Europe’s modern national identities and the idea of western civilization was shaped by the rejection of their own ‘barbarian’ origins. The conceptual dividing lines that were externalised as the distinction between Self and Other began within. Classical Greece and Rome had various concepts of the Other and in part they were fashioned from experience of and applied to the peoples who became the modern Europeans [4]. For the Greeks anyone who did not speak Greek was barbaroi – which is less the pejorative implication that their babbling speech sounded like ‘baa baa’ than the conclusion that they lacked the sound mind capable of reason and the political life which made people fully human. These deficiencies of mind were evident in their behaviour and ways of living. The Romans had a range of terms for the condition of barbarism: silvester, meaning inhabiting woods, from which is derived the terms sylvan, sauvage and eventually savages. It is associated with ferox, savage, clearly related to ferus, wildness, rudis, raw, incultus, untilled, indomitus, untamed, immanis, huge and cruel, saecus, ferocious, insanus, mad, lascicus, playful. Fulsome use is made of such epithets in the descriptions of the Celts, a generic term for the cultures and peoples living north of the Alps, who were a source of fear and threat to both Greeks and Romans. It was in this process that savagery and wildness became ‘a set of culturally self-authenticating devices which includes, among others, the ideas of ‘madness’ and ‘heresy’’ referring not only to a specific condition of being but also confirming the value of their dialectical antitheses ‘civilization’ ‘sanity’ and ‘orthodoxy’ [5]. Inevitably, the notions of wildness, animality and sin would be associated with paganism and idolatry which made an unenviable ancestry for the ‘barbarian’ peoples who overran the late Roman Empire and founded new kingdoms across Europe.

Medieval  thinkers, like ancient Romans, ‘conceived barbarians and wild men to be enslaved by nature, slaves to desire and unable to control their passions; as mobile, shifting, confused, chaotic; as incapable of sedentary existence, of self-discipline, and of sustained labour; as passionate, bewildered and hostile to ‘normal’ humanity.’ [6]. These are enduring elements in the portrayal of the Other which, with what Margaret Hodgen calls ‘the mind’s fidelity to the old’ [7], keep recurring and being reworked not merely into descriptions of non European peoples but theories, concepts and explanations of the nature, religions, customs, arts and aesthetics of  ‘bygone ages’, of the primitive who is Other. The providential rise of western man, the consequence of embracing Christianity, reduced all Others to the status of  barbarian who  represented a threat to society, civilization, racial purity and moral excellence.

What had been cast off, made a thing of the past, however left a fearful paranoia. There was a constant need to search out and beware of the demonic. The demonic was not merely part of the explanation for generic barbarism. It was an awful fate that could befall the individual. This fear was personified in the medieval iconography and literature on the Wild man and his mate the wild woman. The lone, dumb, brute, hairy, club wielding wild man and his mate who is adept at magic are fraught reminders of the nemesis of ‘normal’ individual human beings their ‘possible destiny, both as enemy and as representative of a condition into which an individual man, having fallen out of grace or having been driven from the city, might degenerate’ [8].The clear text of this worldview was the impossibility of accepting the Other. Given the clarity and endurance of complex of ideas associated with barbarism and wildness and their centrality to the Christian definition of self it is hardly surprising that authors as wide ranging as Norman Davies [9] and Terry Jones [10] observe conventional histories of Britain and Europe begin with the Romans and ‘real history’ concerns itself with the national identities forged through the embrace of the Roman Church and the Roman heritage.

Various phases can be traced in the reconfiguration of the Other. The medieval period focused on the Saracen, the Other who defined the boundaries of Europe while the Jew became the Other who lived as a proscribed and persecuted Other within the bounds of Europe. But the Other has a constant presence. New Others are constructed: blacks, refugees, ‘immigrants’. Old Others return with new labels: ‘Travellers’ become ‘Wildman’, ‘Muslims’ replace ‘Saracens’. This process is not simply a part of popular culture commonly seen as a product of ‘tabloid hysteria’. It is an intrinsic part of how we seek knowledge, study ourselves and non-European cultures, and how disciplines have evolved and been shaped. It works as a continuous feedback loop [11].

Behind all the development of new disciplines of knowledge there stand the ideas of what is certainly not a ‘bygone age’. The lexicon of animality, wildness/savagery, madness, heresy/sin as opposed to ‘civilization’, ‘sanity’ and ‘orthodoxy’ morph into new terminology yet fail to bear testimony to new insight. For example, the invention of the primitive, a character that emerges in the 19th century as traced by Adam Kuper [12] leads to Lucien Levy-Bruhl and his formulation of The Primitive Mentality [13] in which the non western mind is pre-logical. Animism, totemism and magic are pre-logical, pre-scienctific manifestations of incomprehension of the real world rather than aesthetics whose moral relevance relates to a contemporary world, our world, the modern dispensation. Religions too are part of the stages of human development, incommensurables beyond the providential dividing line, as in the work of Sir James Frazier (1854-1941), The Golden Bough ((1926-36). The aesthetics of the non west became familiar to Europe in the fashion for exhibitions, appropriately enough a fashion began in France as early 1798 with a series of expositions being held up until 1849 before the British caught on with the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations held in London in 1851. The late 19th and early 20th century saw a number of exhibitions across Europe which specifically showcased the cultures and aesthetics of non western nations. The styles of making and doing of colonised peoples were put on show, yet what was shown broadcast and solidified was the idea of tradition as stasis. The exhibits more firmly confined the aesthetics of the non western artist to craft traditions linked to ritual procedures certainly infused with spirituality all of which made them functions of the old familiar categories of religion, race and ethnicity and put them more securely into the pigeonholes of cultural classification Europe had prepared for them [14]. In such exhibitions what was presented was already a representation of Europe’s own cultural preconceptions of what ‘ethnic’ arts and crafts should be.

The settled visions of the Middle East created the popular mental picture not of contemporary times but the bygone age of Biblical times – and are recycled in every school nativity play to this day – every bit as much as they were used for the same purpose in his academic work of Sir William Robertson-Smith (1846-1894) such as The Religion of the Semites (1894). Long before archaeologists coined the term ethnographic parallel it was usual to use the contemporary lifestyles of non western peoples to interpret and explain the aesthetics and lifeways of archaic and prehistoric bygone ages. This continuous feedback loop of the present of the Other informing the past of humanity which is read back into understanding the present of the Other serves to deny agency to the aesthetics of the Other in the modern world. As a consequence, the Other, as observed and studied, is always customary, passive, non engaged, non participating, non reflexive, without agency, endowed with a “historical” subjectivity, and non sovereign with regard to itself.

As the ideas of a not so bygone age continue to be reconfigured in modern disciplines of knowledge, as we are taught to see the object of study, the Other, through the preconceptions of these ways of thinking, we have to question whether the ability to appreciate the aesthetics of the Other is in any different condition today than that of the first travellers of western Europe. It has never been the problem that the aesthetics of the Other were unknown to Europe rather the problem is how they were/are known, how they were/are seen. The problem is how the old familiar blinkers of the conceptual ideas of Self and Other impress themselves on the consciousness of Europeans and people who, though citizens of Europe, are yet Other by virtue of their ethnicity as well as those who are of the non west. We all mingle in the public space of a globalised world, we travel, migrate, cohabit in increasingly multicultural nation states, in the west as much as the non-west. But do we communicate, do we relate and interact through our sense of wonder in an open interconnected world of aesthetics? To ascribe identity to predetermined categories, to pre-interpret meaning according to European preconceptions about Other religions is neither to understand their meaning to the practitioners of those Other religions nor to listen to what they wish to communicate through their own aesthetics about their own cultures and historic experience.

In the twenty-first century it is necessary to argue the case that public space should guarantee a place for both religion and art. Though usually the argument has to be made separately to separate and different constituencies – which is precisely the problem. Here again we have a particular construction to think about: in the new century, religion has become the Other of secularism in its different fundamentalist varieties: liberal secularism of postmodern thought, secular humanism of the liberal humanists, secular atheism of the dogmatic rationalist, secular modernity of the acutely modern. Anyone and everyone who does not proscribe to this orthodoxy, does not accept its notion of absolute freedom of the individual, or ideas of social and moral behaviour, is systematically demonised. Simply to cover one’s head with a scarf is to violate all the tenets of secularism and to be projected as barbaric pre-modern [15]. The function of art in such a framework is not so much to critique religion but to demonise it. And all those who do not accept art as a substitute for religion – namely most non-European cultures – are at best seen as people with no interest or understanding of art, or worse as inferior folk beyond the pale of appreciating the cultural products of the west.

As a dominant, arch meta-narrative, and a tyrannical ideology, secularism insists that religion has no role in the public place. So what am I, a person deeply embedded in both religion and art, given to wonder, supposed to do? Should I, ideally, only indulge my religious aesthetics in private and preferably behind closed doors, among consenting individuals? Should my religious concerns be highly regulated and curtailed if they inadvertently impinge upon public space? Should I strip all art that speaks to me, that critiques and makes me reflect on my Self and my society, of religious concerns and aesthetics? Should I live and exist in two parallel universes? Or, to pose the question in another way, how do I extract myself from the ethnic box to exercise the equal freedom of all modern persons to express the aesthetics of my religion along with all the other facets of my identity and personal predilections? How do I get to speak for myself, of myself, as myself in the hope that I can be heard as I intend and according to what I mean to say. How do I extract myself from the web of classificatory simultaneous translation in which I have been pinioned? Can I possibly see myself as modern and part of the normal landscape of ‘art’?

The historic relationship between art and religion was radically altered by modernity. Modernity, as we know, developed in the context of the problem of plurality of Christian religion in western civilization. It developed from the horror of plurality which violated that age old concern for ‘orthodoxy’. Secularisation became the means to preserve the public space from endless contention that was bloody and brutal. Secular modernity came to see itself as a universal dispensation, a rationality that was neutral and value free in its ways of knowing [16]. Since secular modernity stood apart from the contending perspectives of intolerant religion it could liberate the individual to think, feel, and express itself as it saw fit. Art became the expression of the singular artist. Art could be for art’s sake alone. This does not mean art is without a social purpose, indeed art became a vehicle in which the human condition is interrogated, reflected without restraint; art acquired the righteous duty and freedom to affront, outrage and offend. Art became the personal discourse of the artist in communication with an audience and observer. Inherited tradition might underlie the rhetoric of art, the techniques and repertoire of forms, but its aesthetic was made flexible, the creation of the artist and the artist’s personal sensibilities.

So here we have the crux of the matter: in the dispensation of secular modernity art has acquired high purpose. It is refinement writ large as high culture: a sort of esoteric elitism. Personalised as the expression of the creative artist it has become the preserve of the few, it has embraced obscurantism that means it can be an unreflective medium of expression rather than communication. The collective experience of art in society has diminished. However, the artist has acquired an enhanced status as not merely the explorer of sensibilities and feelings but as important arbiters of meaning in the public space. Artists opine; artists are called upon as pundits and commentators because they are artists, adepts at feeling and sensibility who should be heeded on any and every topic irrespective of how few engage with or know their art. The artist as seminal opinion former also exists irrespective of any qualification or actual knowledge they have of the subject matter on which they comment. By a strange parody the modern artist has become a new kind of high priest, guardian of liberty, freedom and licence of expression authorised to say what otherwise might not or could not be said. As arbiters and opinion formers artists dedicated to secularism can become an establishment that is strident, oppressive and dismissive in its intolerance of anyone who does not share their outlook.  In other words, art now imitates the worse features of religion.

Meanwhile religion itself is marginalized, circumscribed in the public domain, and under the auspices of modernity, relegated to private personal concern of the individual. But something immensely significant happens to religion, especially non western religions, under the conditions of modernity. By definition religion is a collective as well as a personal experience. Religious values are the motor of social action. They inform the life of an individual believer as part of society as a whole because for the believer they apply to the needs and aspirations of society as a whole. Without representation in the public space the social meaning of religious values, and therefore their translation into social action, their public purpose to critique, to inspire and to mobilise degenerates into personal piety. Or, as we see all to often, in revolt against marginalisation some self proclaimed religious bigots become strident activists, at best, or determined opponents of the social order willing to maim and kill to assert their influence on a world they see as inherently hostile and inimical and well on its way to hell in a hand basket.

On both sides of the now bifurcated world of religion and art there is a need for new kinds of critique and debate. Our problem is the existence of two cultures of consciousness, the religious and the secular, increasingly incomprehensible to each other. Instead of entanglement, the coterminous interaction of tradition and modernity, public and private, religious and secular, we have isolated and alienating dichotomies that regard each other as antagonistic and mutually opposed. It is our ability to share and celebrate our various representations of wonder which suffer. This is why we have less evidence of refinement, sensibility and taste, less mutual curiosity to understand those who do not share our views and hence a more intemperate, intolerant domain of the public which, paradoxically, translates into a general malaise of apathy for social action and social engagement. Yet, both religion and art can provide critical perspectives on society as well as on and to each other. Both have equal right to recognition and respect in public space. The dominance of one at the expense of the other undermines and limits our critical faculties.

I would argue that to be fully human we need to transcend the limitations and boundaries modernity and secularism have imposed on society. But the solution does not lie in pitting the gross stereotype offered by rabid modernity and secularism – the eternal war of science and religion, religion as the opiate of the masses and denier of free thought and expression – with countervailing gross stereotypes of religion as a liberating force and solution to all our spiritual problems and romanticised notions of other cultures. It is the very existence and determined persistence of the various permutations of these stereotypes engaged in open aggression across their self re-enforcing barricades that is the impasse I believe we need to transcend. However, for an impasse to be transcended it very existence has to be acknowledged and the difficulties it places on mutual communication and mutual participation in aesthetic projects has to be admitted. And the corrosive influence it has had on all ethnics and Others, like me, needs to be visible to those who consider themselves the only Self, the only truly modern people. As my friend Rashid Araeen so succinctly put it ‘the question ‘Who Am I?’ never bothered me until I arrived in Europe’ [17].

If what can be said in the public space by the ‘ethnic’ artist is predetermined, ascribed by their ethnicity we are locked forever in our difference. The dominant order has the power to choose, to favour and advance or reject by benign neglect, malicious intent or innocent ignorance the voice and agency of the Other. The normality of Europe is the denial, the purblind destruction of plurality. It is worth noting that today the Cordoba Mosque is used as a functional cathedral. But Muslims are not even allowed to pray in its compound let alone inside the Mosque. Numerous requests by the Muslims of Cordoba to hold Friday payers in the Mosque have been denied both by the Catholic Church and the secularist Spanish government. When it comes to the Other, both European religion and secularism are united – multiculturalism notwithstanding. It amounts not only to the denial of the history of the Cordoba Mosque but also a negation of the citizenship of the Muslims of the city.

Multiculturalism, as it has arisen and in so far as it is accepted and practised is a celebration of enduring difference. Or it is the plaudits handed out for what is taken as forthright self-criticism, the Quisling trade of those who pander to the current predetermined critique of their origin that is deemed acceptable by and to European consciousness. This is not an open discourse of plurality but a cogent argument for non participation in the mainstream where there can be no celebration of the Other as Self, no validation of its modernity, its contemporary relevance, or understanding of its subtle self questioning. To strive for self expression in the certain knowledge of being misconstrued, misunderstood, and misinterpreted is an uninviting prospect. No wonder the vast majority of British Asians in Bradford and Liverpool are not interested in visiting art galleries.

Beyond the arid familiarity of this impasse we need to recapture the better angels of both religion and art to negotiate a way to restore the best potential of our capacity for wonder and thus negotiate better and more humane futures for us all. Transcending the impasse is the only way to restore the vibrant health of our public space, to genuinely open the public realm to free debate and engaged pluralistic discourses of all the talents. While these cartoon sketches of religion and secular modernity, are stereotypes, the stereotypes are all too recognisable. My point is that in so far as they exist they depress, dispirit and marginalize the majority of people everywhere by throwing down the gauntlet of odious choice. Secularism or religion? Modernity or tradition? Art or dogma?  With us or against us is the rallying cry issuing from the most ardent voices of both camps. Both ways of looking at the world – traditionalist religion and secular modernity – are dismissive of alternatives. And the break in communication, the lack of mutually intelligible representations, does harm to both parties; and diminishes our ability to wonder.

To conceive of alternatives we need a way to recover the fullness of human history as we construct visions of the futures we could inhabit. We need to uncover the possibilities of pluralism that is more than the celebration of cultural differences. Europe’s historic mission of defining its identity made ‘orthodoxy’ a keystone value, a foundation stone of identity. The trouble was these foundations were cemented with fear, the fear of falling from grace back into barbarism; the fear of being seduced from the civilised and orthodox by fascinations of Other ways which were in truth nothing more than masks for the devil. In the ubiquitous paranoia about identity and belonging that preoccupies certain disciplines (such as history of art, old fashioned anthropology and political science) as well as politicians and popular newspapers, and not forgetting national purists (such as the English Defence League) and racist extremists, these old reflexes can still to be heard clearly. The ethnic Other is not orthodox. And in difference there is a general threat to the self identity of Europe. Europe never set itself that task of learning pluralism because it never identified and valued the benefits it might offer. To create a public space where all citizens, including ethnic Others, are contributory participants we need an alternative model. There is much that could be learnt from the bygone age overwritten in the Cordoba Mosque. One can overstate the achievements of pluralism in Moorish Spain, but it is ridiculous to suggest pluralism was not fundamental to its existence. Or one could look to India where pluralism, the interpenetration and coexistence of difference, has been the norm, even if it is now under threat from rabid fundamentalists of many kinds. Again India’s pluralism is not without faults and limitations but for all of these it is a way of living together which has stood the test of time. The reality is that the non west, and the ethnic Others who are now Europeans, have by virtue of their history and experience more insight and familiarity with pluralism than Europeans. As Rashid Araeen explains, for British Asians pluralism  is not an abstract external dilemma but a a lived condition: ‘I am Asian, Indian, Pakistani, British, European, Muslim, Oriental, secular, modernist, post modernist and so on…But what do all these things mean? Can I accept all of them as part of my life, or must I choose one thing or another according to someone else’s notion about my identity? I have no problem saying that I am all these things, and perhaps none of these things at the same time’ [18].

To arrive at a genuinely plural dispensation we need to sweep away the artificial boundaries that locate art and religion in separate compartments and construct a vibrant, self critical and mutually critical as well as mutually acknowledging and affirming negotiated public space where representations of wonder generated by multiple perspectives are celebrated, published, performed and engage with one another. This plural world can only come into being based on better understanding, respect and mutual acceptance. Religion and art are crucial to making a public space which can expand and enhance our innovative and imaginative understanding of what has been, is and could yet come to be. Our sensitivities are blunted unless we can reconnect with the possibilities of wonder we have not yet realised.

We need to learn the ways and means of plurality as a living tradition. We need to acknowledge that tradition and modernity, religion and the secular, the private and the public, are not mutually exclusive categories but aspects of everyone’s experience and sensibilities. I am, for example, as religious as I am secular, as traditional as I am modern, and value spiritual experience as much as I value art. Public space has to be open to my multiple selves if I am to express my full humanity. Society has to become an open negotiation of all its citizens, their beliefs and values, religious as well as non religious. Without such participatory negotiation we can attain neither genuine freedom nor true tolerance and hence there is little chance we will make inroads in realising equity and justice for all in their fullest sense. We need to make the public space conducive to all perspectives and outlooks, a place to be shared by all who are driven by wonder in their myriad of different ways. Arriving at that transmodern condition requires investing all people with dignity and respect in order to ensure they are empowered to participate to the fullest. We cannot continue to proclaim freedom and liberty for all while we withhold equity, dignity and respect from whomsoever does not endorse the dominant orthodoxy of today. We have to transcend modernity by acknowledging the present, the contemporaneity and equality of contemporary relevance of the viewpoints of the Other. Instead of offering only a celebration of enduring difference, a wish that the Other escape the problem of modernity by stressing their pre-modernity, there must be acceptance that the Other has always lived in the present, has changed, is as modern, pre-modern and post-modern as any European. The Other is no more a function of bygone ages than is the European Self, no less influenced by history and tradition. The real insight, the bolt of illumination we really need is that they are no more influenced or entangled in the inheritance of bygone ages than are Europeans. When we demystify this most pernicious delusion we can begin to create a sound basis for a plural society, a cultural world of mutually interconnected and interactive aesthetics. We need to be touched by Others, as well as the art of the Others. We have to transcend modernity to reconnect with and revitalise our representations of wonder and be free to inquire, question and critique the wondrous possibilities of futures beyond our current imagining. 



[1] Titus Burckhardt, Moorish Culture in Spain, Allen and Unwin, London, 1972, p

[2]  Maria Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World: How Muslims Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Little Brown, Boston, 2003

[3]  Mathew Carr, Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain – 1492-1614, Hurst, London, 2010.

[4]  Francois Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, California University Press, Berkeley 1988

[5]  Hayden White, The Forms of Wildness in Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Ramanticism edited by Edward Dudley and Maximillian E. Novak, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1972,  p4.

[6] Ibid, p20.

[7]  Margaret Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 1964

[8] While, op cit., p20.

[9]  Norman Davies, The Isles: A History, Macmillian, London 1999.

 [10]  Terry Jones, Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History, BBC Books, London 2007.

[11] Ziauddin Sardar, Orientalism, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1999; Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair, Grey Seal, London, 1990; and Ziauddin Sardar, Merryl Wyn Davies and Ashis Nandy, Barbaric Others: A Manifesto on Western Racism, Pluto, London, 1993

[12]  Adam Kuper, The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion, Routledge, London, 1988.

[13]  Lucien Levy-Bruhl, The Primitive Mentality, London, 1923.

[14] See for example Johan Lagae, ‘Displaying Authenticity and Progress, Architectural Representations of the Belgian Congo at International Exhibitions in the 1930’s’ Third Text No 50, Spring 2000 pp31-32.

[15] John R Bowen, Why The French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State and Public Space, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007; and Mohja Kahf, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1999

[16]  Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press, 2003

[17]  Rashid Araeen, ‘Cultural Identity: Whose Problem?’, Third Text No 18, 1992, p90.

[18]  ibid.