Prof. Ali Asani

WCR PHOTO | THANDIWE KONGUAVI

Prof. Ali Asani

February 8, 2016
THANDIWE KONGUAVI
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Ask Professor Ali Asani about the Catholic faith, and his mind is instantly brought to its beauty.

Asani is not Catholic. As a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and culture at Harvard University, he is steeped in the intellectual and experiential knowledge of Islam, but he also has developed a knowledge and appreciation of Catholicism through attending Mass.

The rites, rituals and ceremonies are not what made him fall in love with the Mass. What he most vividly recalls are beautiful cathedrals, the sound of the choir and the smell of incense.

"Why would a Muslim go to a Christian Mass? For the aesthetic," said Asani. "I find that that becomes a way I can transcend."

In all religious traditions, people experience their religion through the arts, Asani said in his Jan. 22 lecture at The King's University in Edmonton, God Is Beautiful and Loves Beauty.

Experiencing the religions of other people solely as doctrines and dogmas is a sign of religious illiteracy, which can lead to stereotypes, dehumanization, and even genocide and sectarian warfare.

"Let's get beyond all of those ideological differences," he said. "We're never going to agree on those anyways so why don't we go to aesthetics, where we can appreciate each other. Aesthetics are a way in which you can cross over religious divides."

The beautiful architecture of a mosque or cathedral, the melodic recitation of the Qur'an or the music from a choir that touches the soul are examples of how the aesthetic element is integral to the religious experience, he said.

A SINGLE HAIR

Asani gave the example of the reverence shown in the calligraphy of Qur'anic words written in Arabic script on a beautiful piece of art: The art featured tiny flowers painted with a magnifying glass and the brush of a single hair taken from the chest of a kitten.

Taking the idea of aesthetics into the divine, Asani cited a poem referencing the signs of God everywhere, in the beauty of nature, which says "every leaf of a tree becomes a page of the sacred scripture once the soul has learned to read."

When we think about religion through a political or social lens, this beauty gets lost, he said.

A religiously literate person thinks about religion as something deeply embedded in all areas of human experience, including political, economic and social structures, but also in literary and artistic contexts.

HUMANIZING

In the effort to promote better understanding in cultures and engagement, the aesthetics embedded in the traditions are a powerful way of humanizing people who have been dehumanized through political discourses.

"The arts appeal to what is human," he said.

Despite the central role that aesthetics plays in the religious experience, academia is still fixated with the study of text and scripture, said Asani. The aesthetic experience of people is not taken seriously. Yet, religion ultimately is not about rites, religions and ceremonies, but about the experience.

DIVINE REALITIES

Julien Hammond, ecumenical officer for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, said the idea of sacramentality, how tangible things provide access to divine realities, resonates with his own Catholic spirit, sensitivity and understanding.

Hammond recalled the archdiocese's Nothing More Beautiful series, which used music, prayer and speakers to draw people to a closer relationship with Jesus, as an example of how aesthetics can renew appreciation of the beauty of the Catholic faith.

David Goa, director of the University of Alberta's Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life, partnered with members of the Ismaili community to arrange Asani's lecture.

Goa said Asani's lecture was important because so often, in teaching religion, it is assumed that its first way of being received is through "some kind of rational engagement." In contrast, the Hebrew Bible declares "Hear, Oh Israel" and Mohammed directs his followers to recite.

"The hearing, the beauty of the revelation, is so simple," said Goa.