Recovering Conscious Design

Dr Samir Mahmoud

Scholar & Lecturer at the Cambridge Muslim College

In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and start-up founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews Dr Samir Mahmoud; globally respected scholar, lecturer at the Cambridge Muslim College and expert on traditional spirituality and classical architecture studies.
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In recent years, Dr Samir’s teachings and guidance has been instrumental in helping me frame my own thinking around the role of design. In this conversation, we delved into the relationship between spirituality and creativity, and explored how contemporary designers might discover a deeper consciousness to their practice.

My first encounter with Dr Samir Mahmoud was an advert for his lecture entitled Islam and Pop Culture: A Muslim’s Guide to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. I was immediately drawn in by the title, but what followed was a far more profound journey of learning than I could have imagined.

Samir’s warm, highly articulate teaching style opened a new set of perspectives for my own journey into understanding the role of design and imagination from a spiritual perspective. I proceeded to enthusiastically take over the entire Q&A session, and we soon found ourselves in a series of enlightening conversations in cafes, small gatherings and his inspiring lectures.

He quickly became a good friend, guide, and mentor who has helped me to navigate various concepts and ideas within the realms of art, architecture and aesthetics; and increasingly exploring the concept of khayaal, or ‘spiritual imagination’.

A long-time student of the meaning and meeting-place of spirituality and design, the Australia-born Lebanese academic has toured the Mediterranean and Middle East on an intellectual journey rooted in existential questions about our relationship to the space around us.

During this journey he has immersed himself in the study of economics, politics, anthropology, philosophy, theology and more in his pursuit of spiritual truths and the recovery of conscious design.

During one of our recent conversations, Dr Samir discussed the design of physical spaces – buildings in particular – and why traditional designs resonate with us, no matter where in the world they were created.

“They consistently express the eternal immutable principles of beauty, which can be amazingly articulated in an infinite variety of ways – each one in its own cultural manner,” he told me.

“When you see it, you connect deeply to that immutable eternal aspect. Some of us may find the specific cultural expression not to our taste, but nonetheless, there's a serenity, a proportionality and beauty to the building that's undeniable.

“Today, you rarely go to see the latest skyscraper unless you’re an architectural student. You go to see these wonderful traditional cities, towns and villages. Why? Because they’re trying to recover something we’ve lost. Something fundamental.”

This sense of loss is something I’ve been acutely aware of on my own design journey, which has taken me from Sydney to Stanford, and across various parts of Asia and the Middle East. As energetic and creative as Silicon Valley’s colourful design studios might be, and as productive as Dubai’s innovation accelerators have proven, there is a missing richness – something absent from the conversation. Almost like the soul and purpose of our generation of designers may have forgotten something vital.

Built for blessings

Commenting further, Dr Samir highlighted what he believes is missing, and what we can still find in traditional design: Experience. An emotional connection to the space.

“You feel it,” he said. “You feel it in the rising of the columns and the fanning out of the gothic vaults of the cathedrals. You feel it in the geometric patterns that kind of move across the surface of a wall, such as in many traditional Muslim buildings.

"It is why you're able to relate to the humane and human quality of a hand-crafted object. There's something intangible about it that's transferred. You can call it the Barakah. You can call it the eternal quality”.

“It is why you’re able to relate to the humane and human quality of a hand-crafted object. There’s something intangible about it that’s transferred. You can call it the Barakah (Arabic for ‘blessings’, or ‘abundance’). You can call it the eternal quality. Whatever it is, it has many names. It’s something that machines simply cannot do. Especially with synthetic material. Wood oozes a warmth that concrete simply does not and cannot.”

But in today’s machinated world, where does that leave us? Where and how do we find that Barakah? Will we have to abandon our devices, cancel our Adobe subscriptions and return to the woodworking bench?

As designers, we have to find a way to connect to what has been lost; learn from the principles of older times, and infuse them in our modern world.

I asked Dr Samir how contemporary designers can conserve spirituality and unlock potential in today’s age, while avoiding the pitfalls of technology.

“Beauty is that which breaks down the barriers between myself and the world, enhances the quality of life within me, and draws out the quality of life in things; bridging the illusion of separation that we have with all things.”

He said: “Beauty is that which breaks down the barriers between myself and the world, enhances the quality of life within me, and draws out the quality of life in things; bridging the illusion of separation that we have with all things.”

That, then, might be our timeless design challenge. And while it’s up to each of us to decide how to respond, Dr Samir offers some guidance in how to return to a traditional mindset.

“We have to consciously recover and re-inculcate a certain set of ideas, behaviours, and habits that were implicit and almost unconsciously practiced in traditional cultures.”

“The challenging thing is we now have to consciously recover and re-inculcate a certain set of ideas, behaviours, and habits that were implicit and almost unconsciously practiced in traditional cultures."

“One of the challenges then, as a scholar, when looking back at traditional cultures, is finding where the books that talk about design are. They didn’t really produce them. Instead, they inherited thousands of years of wisdom, and that was handed down in what we now call embodied knowledge.”

This type of carried knowledge is learned, acquired, and perpetuated over time through practice rather than discourse or how-to guides. But while this makes perfect sense for a traditional mosaic craftsman in Fes or a calligrapher in Istanbul, how do contemporary designers try to reconcile their spirituality?

Dr Samir added: “I think it's a very difficult question to answer because it's not supposed to be a consciously contrived one. It ought to be a product of an implicit process that has become part and parcel of who one is."

“I used to teach at a design school for many years. They don't teach you any of this stuff. None of it. I would have no clue what the first design manual would look like for a group like this, but it's something definitely worth exploring and worth doing.”

Recovering awe

Conversations with Dr Samir always leave my soul more assured and my mind racing with an excess of new questions.  During another visit we discussed nature. More specifically, the awe and majesty of the natural world that we feel and connect with for creative inspiration. 

“Anyone who's ever perceived a beautiful landscape feels that they are connecting to something deep within themselves, not just external to themselves.”

“Anyone who's ever perceived a beautiful landscape feels that they are connecting to something deep within themselves, not just external to themselves,” he said, before explaining that we sometimes miss the point by reducing the experience to informational exchange. 

“The eucalyptus tree is a genus that includes several species of gum trees that exist in the Southeast part of Australia. Which is useful to know, right? But what am I gaining from understanding that this particular tree, with its particular roots emerging on the edge of my pathway, belongs to an abstract category called ‘eucalyptus trees’ that exists along the East Australian coast?"

“It's useful in a certain domain of existence for scientific understanding of the world, but what if we were to recover the immediacy of the Qur'anic descriptions of the natural world as perpetual blossomings of phenomenon at that particular moment? What if we were to recover the Qur'anic sense of wonder?

“When the Qur'an invites you to look at the camel or look at a mountain or look at a tree or the stars, and it talks about its creation, it's also inviting you to an immediate perception in that particular instance – the birth of that particular unique phenomenon at that particular moment as a manifestation of a divine name to you and to you only."

“And so, you can almost say that there are two ways of possibly perceiving the natural world. There's the path of Dhawq which is often called ‘tasting’. And there's the path of detached logical reasoning. Both are useful, but each one gives you something different.”

The notion of Dhawq, he explained, also relates to the removal of a veil; taking away a “conceptual approach to phenomenon” in order to allow one to immediately “plunge into the reality of things at that particular instant”.

He said that it allows us to get to the ‘here and now’ - the present moment.

“When I say Dhawq, it is in terms of cultivating a certain way of seeing the natural world, because we already have the correspondence with the natural world around us. We already have that intrinsic relationship."

“It’s about removing the obstacles that culture, society, our upbringing, and our education somehow laid upon our path and veiled this intrinsic relationship we have with them.

Deeper conversations

When I asked Dr Samir why this removal would be important for designers, he told me it was about their responsibility to the world.

“When you get to a process like design, where human beings directly intervene in the natural world around them, unless we’ve cultivated a heart-based approach to the world, in which we allow things to be what they are meant to be, our intervention in the world around us becomes a fundamental act of violence.”

It was a strong choice of words, and I wanted to understand how we would consider that in practical terms. How do we ensure we develop this harmonious connection?

Dr Samir continued: “I used to try experiments with students in architectural design. I would encourage them to engage in a dialogue with the landscape itself. You might think, okay, this is too much mystical thinking - this is a design school for crying out loud. But I did see the results in the students and their designs."

“Even today, after completing their PhDs and now working in firms, they still contact me and say ‘you gave us a valuable lesson in life and design'."

“Now there are architects who have actually developed methods centred around this concept. You talk to the landscape; only then might the landscape talk back.”

Contemplating Dr Samir’s words, I envisioned his students – wondering at their experiences and thoughts during this process, and how their interaction with the space around them might project into their minds and their hearts.

The traditional designs that were a result of these more natural, organic connections to the world would surely have elicited deeper levels of connection; aligning mental experiences of perception with a harmony of the heart. Perhaps opening access to our spiritual imagination the concept of Khayaal that Dr. Samir explained to me.

It is no wonder, then, that some talk to the landscapes. And as eccentric as it may seem, their success in modern times has precedence.

Dr Samir explained: “Louis Kahn, one of the famous architects of the 20th century, was quite mystical - deeply steeped in Jewish Kabbalah. Though I don’t think he got the design of buildings quite right, nonetheless I think his design approach was interesting. He used to say ‘Oh, brick, what do you want to be, brick?’ This is literally what he used to do for about three hours in his design studio with students - ask a brick what it wants to be.

“The idea here isn’t to have a schizophrenic dialogue with an object that you think is speaking back to you. The idea is that in the same way a plant or tree or rock emerges under the influence of several factors in the landscape, and seems to belong nowhere else but in that particular place in dialogue with its surrounds, we can engage in internalising several factors of the landscape in such a way that it speaks to us. Suggesting and hinting what the design should be, rather than what I wanted it to be."

“It comes back to the idea of allowing one to express the individuality of the building through the architect, rather than expressing the individuality of the architect through the building. The leading architects today, who are winning big awards developing the philosophy of design based on this, they talk about the heart. They talk about cultivating deep feelings. They talk about this and they're now starting to use it.”

Whatever the reasons for this loss of connection to the landscape, and to our own hearts, it was encouraging to hear Dr Samir talk about this revival of sorts – especially against the modern day backdrop of hyper-technology, design for distraction, and increase in materiality.

As designers, we would all do well to try to rekindle this connection – to foster it, let it inspire our work, and help us to recover a more conscious, heart-centered approach to design.


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