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Jeremy Henzell-Thomas (author of The Cosmic Script, Epilogue)

Cosmic Script Launch
Brunei Gallery, SOAS, 21 November 2014

Let me begin with some thanks of my own. I met Ahmed 17 years ago when he was about to take an exhibition of his artworks to Rome, the first exhibition in fact by a Muslim artist within the precincts of the Vatican. That same day, he asked me to write the text for the exhibition. Astounded, I said, 'Ahmed, I am a teacher of English in rural Somerset; I know nothing about Islamic art, and virtually nothing about Islam.' 'And that', he replied, 'is precisely why I am asking you to undertake this task. You have no preconceptions.'

I want to thank Ahmed from my heart for his trust in intuition and for the window of opportunity opened by that trust. It was an encounter which changed the direction of my life, and not only mine but also that of my beloved wife Tania, on our mutual journey. And I need to thank him again and Stefan for trusting me to write an epilogue to their work and for not batting an eyelid even when it had reached the rather unusual length for an Epilogue of 34 pages.

A few weeks ago I was climbing Scafell up in the Lake District and as I reached the summit I thought 'This is the highest mountain in England, but metaphorically it is a mole hill in comparison to the climb accomplished by these two intrepid explorers.'

This is a monumental scholarly and intellectual achievement by Ahmed and Stefan, but it's also much more than that. It's a revelatory encounter, a work of the creative imagination in its deepest sense, a journey of the soul. Above all, it's a work of luminous faith and trust in the guidance, generosity and abundance of that Supreme Reality which always reveals itself to the sincere seeker whose intention is not to create a platform for himself but to find the Truth, even if that means having to retrace his steps to the foot of the mountain and start climbing it again by a different and even more arduous path.

As the hadith qudsi or Divine saying makes clear: If he draws near to Me a hand's span, I draw near to him an arm's length; and if he draws near to Me an arm's length, I draw near to him a fathom's length; and if he comes to Me walking, I go to him running.
The other day I was reading Kandinsky's book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and he writes:
'It is very important for the artist to gauge his position aright, to realize that he has a duty to his art and to himself, that he is not king of the castle but rather a servant of a nobler purpose. He must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand...mastery over form is not his goal, but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.'

That's it, 'The adapting of form to its inner meaning', or in the case of the Cosmic Script, the discovery of the objective geometric laws governing the forms of the lettershapes. This makes the letters far more than a functional or decorative writing system. It reveals the letters as worthy reflections of the sacred content of the Divine message, optimal expressions in aesthetic terms of the Divine Word. They are cosmic symbols, mirrors of the cosmic order, the isthmus between the seen and the unseen.

And this has nothing to do with artiness, artifice, artistic sentiment, or with the merely decorative or ornamental qualities of a beautiful style of handwriting. In this work, there is a hand in the glove, a horse for the saddle, water in the pitcher. It reveals the intelligible principles behind and beyond the visual harmony of signs. If the conclusion of this work was merely to associate the beauty and harmony of the Proportioned Script with a nice style of handwriting, it would be a singularly banal and vapid conclusion.

The distinction here is between two concepts of beauty: one which is subjective and ephemeral (jamal) and the other (husn) which is an emanation of the Divine, a reminder of our Origin. And this encompasses not only the aesthetic sense of beauty in its homage to the 'due measure and proportion' with which all of creation is endowed, but also the intimate equation between what is beautiful and what is good. Beauty is thus inseparable from the attributes of Divine Perfection, and from the moral virtue, spiritual refinement and excellence of character which are the human reflections of those holy attributes. This integrated and elevated conception of beauty is fundamental to a proper understanding of what is meant by aesthetics in the context of this work.

When Ahmed and Stefan asked me to write an Epilogue to their work, I first asked myself, Well what is an Epilogue supposed to be like?
It is conventionally a short concluding piece which, in the case of a story, serves to wrap up loose ends or hint at a sequel, and in the case of a work of scholarship might suggest broader implications or future directions for research. Now, Ahmed has used the expression 'endless field of exploration' in describing the window opened by the science of geometry, and as I reflected on this work it evoked an ever-expanding process of discovery reaching out to the furthest horizons. It was as if with each step I tried to take towards a greater understanding of it, new paths continually unfolded in all directions. Ibn 'Arabi describes how one's awareness of the revelation of the nature or activity of God in the world is a continually unfolding discovery of new implications, and through this one comes to realize, in his words, that 'this matter has no end at which it might stop'.

The Qur'an tells us: 'And if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea [were ink], with seven [more] seas yet added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted: for, verily, God is almighty, wise.'

Now, we might find a partial analogy to the process of 'unwrapping' in the opening of those nested Chinese caskets from the Song Dynasty, in which successively smaller caskets were placed one inside the other. The last and smallest of these caskets (the precursors of the later Japanese and more famous Russian matryoshka nested dolls) traditionally contained a single grain of rice. Now, there is of course a definite end to the unwrapping in the discovery of the smallest casket or doll which can be made to fit (given the obvious physical limitations of space and materials). But we can liken the single grain of rice in the final container to the Singularity, that is, the original dimensionless point from which the ever-expanding boxes emanate, and from which 'this matter has no end at which it might stop'.

Another analogy might be the rings of Saturn. I remember as a boy of 12 borrowing a 3" refracting telescope from my local public library and spending 6 months mapping the heavens. I was fortunate at the time to be living in a place where there were dark skies. I remember with awe when the planet Saturn swam into view. I could see clearly the three main rings with my amateur instrument, but large telescopes reveal 8 rings, and orbiting spacecraft like Cassini can now bring 30 rings and the gaps between them into view. The total number of rings is actually unknown.

Now, it is of course for each reader to discover for himself or herself the range of implications suggested by this work. But I don't want to leave you with just an exhortation or a riddle, so let me at least point to three of the major rings which spin out for me from the heart of this book.

First, as the discovery of new rings suggests, human knowledge advances and expands, and one of the most important factors in that expansion is cultural exchange. Three centuries had to elapse after the death of the Prophet of Islam before the invention of the Proportioned Script in 10th century Baghdad, because the horizon of knowledge encompassed by Islamic culture (and with it the scientific terminology of the Arabic language) had to expand sufficiently to include and absorb the advances of other, earlier civilisations.' And this process of growing awareness is suggested in the Qur'anic verse 'We will show them Our signs in the furthest horizons and within their own souls'. Here, as I understand it, the term horizons (afaq) refers both to the expanding range and maturation of human consciousness and to the varying domains of human knowledge, whatever their source may be.

The first verses of the Qur'an to be revealed urge us to Read – for thy Sustainer has taught mankind the use of the pen – taught man what he did not know!' Muhammad Asad notes that the pen is a symbol for all knowledge recorded by means of writing. He says, 'Man's unique ability to transmit, by means of written records, his thoughts, experiences, and insights from individual to individual, from generation to generation, and from one cultural environment to another endows all human knowledge with a cumulative character.'
So one of the main rings for me is the inestimable value of pluralism, cross-cultural encounter and exchange. The verses in the Qur'an which advise us on this are well known but cannot be repeated enough:

We have made you into nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another;
If God had so willed, He could surely have made you all  one single community, but He willed it otherwise in order to test you...
The variation in your tongues and colours is a sign for people of insight......  and so on.

Muhammad Asad also notes other verses which uphold that, in his words, "the unceasing differentiation in men's views and ideas is not incidental but represents a God-willed, basic factor of human existence."

It may well be that Neanderthal Man died out because of lack of engagement with other communities. Cut off and inward-looking they seem to have lacked the openness and outreach which gives rise to creative evolution and the dynamic development of civilization.
And this connects me to the second big ring which I wanted to bring into view: the theme of unity in multiplicity which in so many ways is the empirical and conceptual heart of this work.

In his great work, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, the physicist David Bohm, who was regarded by Einstein as his successor, defined explicate order as the order of the physical world and implicate order as the source of explicate order, and as an underlying whole that physical form constantly unfolds out of and enfolds back into. "There is an undivided wholeness," he says. " Every part of the universe is related to every other part." This is William Blake's holographic vision of 'seeing the world in a grain of sand' and it's not at all just a poetic fancy. The unity and interconnectedness of all things is also at the heart of the discoveries of the Irish physicist, John Stewart Bell. He showed that every particle in the Universe has a memory of every other particle because they were all originally entangled within the Singularity. The diversity of forms is infinite and ever-changing but there is an immutable essence which is the source of everything, and our own point of arising and return.

At the same time, Bohm points to the pressing problems caused by our fragmentary form of thought which fails to see that underlying unity and connectivity. This is leading to a widespread range of crises, he says, social, political, economic, ecological, psychological, in the individual and in society as a whole.

If anything, this fragmentation has only increased since his book was published in 1980. It generates unending chaotic and meaningless conflict, in which the energies of all tend to be lost by movements that are antagonistic or else at cross-purposes. And of course Bohm might also have included religious conflict, as well as the rising tide of xenophobia. We do not have to look very far in the world today to see the debilitating and even devastating outcome of exclusivism, tribalism, triumphalism, and narrow identity politics in the distortion and misappropriation of doctrines and values for cultural, ethnic, religious, national or civilisational superiority, whether in the East or the West. Unity in multiplicity is not uniformity, any more than the Absolute can be equated with the crushing absolutism which obliterates all context.

In the terminology of the Cosmic Script, there is a movement from the core, with its rigid structure determined by the strict geometry of the letters, through the transitional stage of the mould, to the pliant form assumed by the letter-shapes when traced by the pen. This is the creative process that mirrors the stages of cosmic manifestation and brings the breath and the moisture of life in all its variation and diversity through the free-flowing and natural movement of the hand of the individual scribe.

When I contemplate the illustrations in The Cosmic Script, and the all-pervasiveness of the underlying geometric grid which unites all the letters in due measure and proportion, not only does a window open to the Unseen and the Ineffable, but I see healing reminders in the form of majestic and beautiful mandalas that we were not created to live in an irreparably divided world but in a world in which we strive to know one another through active engagement in an encounter of mutual respect and love in the search for truth. This work inspires us to find ways to resolve differences, to reconcile competing polarities, to unify complementary opposites, and to transcend those entrenched dichotomies which impoverish our thinking and our lives. And that is also an individual spiritual journey towards integration - as the Qur'an tells us, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.

The third ring for me is the sacred trust of language. The Qur'an tells us that God taught Adam the Names. This is in itself a huge subject to explore, but let me suggest just one deeply moral implication. The 'names' are not simply precision tools for logical thinking, abstract conceptualisation and academic discourse. From a metaphysical Islamic perspective, the letters are the very substance of the created universe, emanating from the Divine Word which is the origin of all creation and in which all concepts find unity and reconciliation. It is therefore a sacred trust to use words which are fair, fitting, balanced, equitable and just, words which are 'in due measure and proportion'.
The Qur'an also likens the 'good word' to 'a blessed tree, firmly rooted, reaching out with its branches towards the sky'. The letter is a living entity, and the words which are formed from these letters and their accumulation in spoken and written texts have the power to diminish or enhance our humanity, and to change the lives of others and the world. The word is in fact a deed, an act in itself, which carries the same responsibility as that taken in doing and acting. In the language of Bell's theorem, everything we do and every word we utter have instant reverberations in every corner of the universe.

Let me end with the metaphor of the open window, and some words from Mevlana Rumi which describe his experience of remembrance and presence through spiritual contemplation, and which might equally describe the contemplation of the Cosmic Script.

He says:

'The window of my soul opens,
and from the purity of the unseen world,
the Divine book comes to me straight.
The book, the rain of divine grace, and the light
are falling into my house through a window
from my real and original source.
The house without a window is hell;
to make a window is the essence of true religion.'

 

 

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The presentation by Stefan Sperl, co-author of The Cosmic Script, is available to read here.

Links to the publishers' webpages - Thames & Hudson in the UK, and Inner Traditions in the US.

 

The Cosmic Script website is currently undergoing reconstruction - please return shortly.