zakharif projects



Understanding Islamic Art?


by Charlotte Bank

published March 2008


The term "Islamic art" is used in an art historical context to describe art produced in countries and regions ruled by Muslim rulers. The majority of the population need not be Muslims, nor do the producers or users of the art objects have to adhere to the Muslim faith. And all Muslim countries have throughout their history had large non-Muslim minorities who participated in the cultural life and production of their country. So how "Islamic" is "Islamic art"? It is in so far a misleading term, as it presupposes a religious element, that most often is not found, contrary to the term "Christian art", that actually covers art with a religious content and message. Most examples of "Islamic" art displayed in museums and collections belong to the worldly sphere of rulers and their elegant entourage and so their imagery mainly deals with the concerns and pleasures of these classes. Hence the abundance of hunting and fighting scenes, singing and dancing young women, musicians, coutiers and enthroned rulers, often holding a wine cup in their hand. It is indeed a world far from religious piety, full of pleasures of this world.

It is exactly this liveliness and the great amount of images that many visitors to collections find surprising. We live in a time where the term "Islamic" has largely become a negative denominator, linked in popular imagination to austere, long-bearded men who spend their days praying and building bombs. The elegance of Damascene craftmanship and Persian textiles, formerly so famous and sought-after in Europe, seem very far from us today. The lagacy of colonialism with all its pseudo-scientific division of non-Western people into different, lower levels of civilizational standard is still doing its job.

The notion of an "Arab Mind" as an irrational structure, incapable of sound reasoning, is still very present in the Western public and many beleived they saw exactly this confirmed throughout the dramatic events during the so-called caricature-crisis of early 2006 after a Danish right-wing newspaper had published insulting images of the Prophet Muhammad. The events were in many ways symptomatic of all the mistakes that have been committed in the West in its dealings with the East.

However, something positive might have come out of this crisis, the surprise many felt faced with the violent reactions on both sides could have broght about a change of attitude, an awareness that some kind of dialogue is needed to help overcome the masses of prejudices and misinformation that prevail. But during my work on this article (March 2008), a number of Danish newspapers decided to reprint the infamous drawings and start the whole misery all over again. One can wonder why this was necessary. We have not come very far since the last crisis. Lack of knowledge combined with harsh prejudices about Islamic culture is still at a shocking level in Europe, so much remains to be done. One striking feature of the discussions following the first publication of the caricatures in 2006 was the often shocking lack of knowledge both critics and advocates of the drawings had of Islamic cultural and artistic practice throughout history. The advocates stated their wish to provoke "because it is strictly forbidden to depict the Prophet", and the critics were against printing the drawings "because it is strictly forbidden to depict the Prophet" or "because depicting humans is forbidden in Islam". Both sides used the same misconceptions in their arguments. And sadly enough, nobody was interested in listening to facts. That is was not so much the actual depiction that was the insult but the context, the intention to hurt and provoke and the way they were executed, was never brought up.

In fact, Islamic art is very rich in imagery and also in depictions of humans, including the Prophet. Persian, Central Asian and Ottoman miniatures show a wide range of depictions from the life of the Prophet, beautifully drawn and rich in colour and detail. In a number of them, though not in all, certain conventions are held: It is common to surround the face of prophets with a halo of flames. Muhammad is often shown with a large halo surrounding his whole body. His face is often left unseen and covered by a white veil. This is also the case for his family. However, this last convention is not always strictly kept; the face of the Prophet is often shown and of course it always shows him as a beautiful person, just like he is described in literature.

Much has been written on Islamic iconoclasm and mostly the reader gets the idea that hostility towards images is inherent in Islamic culture. This has long been the opinion of prominent scholars of Islamic art and culture, and the obvious contradiction when faced with the profusion of images was never addressed. But if the rule contradicts the empirical material, would it not be natural to review the rule? There have been moments/periods of iconoclastic or image-hostile tendencies in Islamic cultural history (just like in the history of the Christian West) but more often these have been due to political rather than theological reasons, very nicely outlined by Finbarr B. Flood (Finbarr B. Flood: Between Cult and Culture. Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum, The Art Bulletin 2002). That the destruction of an unpopular ruler's image is a powerful political statement is as old as mankind and it has lost nothing of its actuality. Most people will still rememer that some of the first televised images from Baghdad after the invasion of the US army in April 2003 showed the falling statue of Saddam Hussein.

So with the absolute "ban on images" dismantled, where does the idea of an image-hostile Islam come from? It is another of the old misconceptions of Western scholarship on Islamic artand culture, put into words by K.A.C. Cresswell: "...the inherent temperamental dislike of Semitic people for representational art". But is there such an "inherent dislike"? Unfortunately, much has been stated about the said "Semitic races" and only little has been proved. As modern-day scholars and academics, we should question these "old truths" and look beyond them. The Qur'an does not hold any prohibition against images as such, but it forbids the adoration of pagan gods and these were often represented in the form of statues. The Hadith holds a few critical statements directed at artists and their images; on the other hand, tradition also knows that Muhammad protected images of Jesus and the Virgin in churches of invaded towns. The Qur'an is clear, there is no ban on images; tradition is less clear and somewhat contradictory and should be read according to the context.

What we can say about the religion of Islam and its relation to images is that Islam with its transcendent character does not rely on images to explain its essence. There is no image needed to understand the unity of God with Creation and His uniqueness. From its beginnings, Islam was an international, "global" religion that came into contact with a large number of people and cultures, all of them having very different artistic and cultural traditions. Possibly this necessity to integrate such a large variety of traditions led to the formation of an artistic language for religious buildings that relied more on abstract forms like the arabesque and geometric patterns and that were, later in Islamic history fused into a system of esoteric meaning.

These patterns were developed from pre-Islamic patterns, the arabesque being in a way the perfection of the Hellenistic wine scroll, a motive found throughout the regions conquered by Alexander the Great and a motive that continued to be immensely popular in Roman and Late Antique time. The omnipresence of this motive meant that the Muslim conquerors, already familiar with it from Arabia, found it in all conquered lands and in rather similar forms. Possibly the reason for the great popularity of vegetal patterns, especially in religious buildings intended for the whole population lies here, in the familiarity these patterns had for all people.

Many questions in the field of Islamic art need to be re-studied and re-answered. Many "old truths" need to be revised in the light of new information and insights. But unfortunately, many old ideas seem to be very stubborn and remain rooted both in the scholarly community and in popular imagination as well.

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