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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Explaining the Misconception of Figural Representation in Islamic Art

Many people believe that the representation of figures is forbidden in Islamic religion and culture, but this is false. The Qur’an, in fact, has extraordinarily little to say about art and admonishing against the representation of figures. However, this misconception exists for a reason, and there are several circumstances that lead to it:

1) Muslims believe that God is unique and without associate, which is why He cannot be represented as a figure. However, He can be represented through His word, the Qur’an. Therefore, mosques and other religious materials are heavily decorated with calligraphy.

2) The images of saints, as in Christian art, have no place in Islamic practice and worship. The images of Abrahamic prophets and the Prophet Muhammad exist because they are not considered divine figures—it is their deeds, not their person that represent the ideal to which Muslims aspire.

3) The Qur’an is not a narrative like the Torah or the Gospels. In fact, the way it is written would be quite difficult to illustrate.

In time, the lack of motive and opportunity to illustrate figures hardened into custom, and then law, and the absence of figures became a characteristic feature of Islamic religious art. Thus, mosques and other buildings intended for religious purposes do not have representations of people in them. Palaces, bathhouses, and locales designed for secular activities, on the other hand, often have figural decoration. However, it should be mentioned that, in some later periods, aniconism of the religious milieu and beliefs of the Muslim ruling body did affect the arts of the secular realms.

According to the Hadiths, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, he was aware of the difference between the religious and secular worlds; while Muhammad ordered all idols to be removed from the Ka’ba in Mecca, it is also documented that his home was decorated with textiles with figures on them. The Hadiths also credit Muhammad for stating, “God is beautiful and loves beauty”, which has been interpreted as a positive response to art and thus used constantly as a justification for the creation of art and the representation of figures in Islamic culture and society.

Fig. 1. Rudaba Letting Down Her Hair for Zal to Climb,
 folio from the Shahnama of Firdausi, Iran, Safavid period,
 17th-18th century, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on
paper; Bequest of Alexander H. Bullock, 1962.182.1

Overtime, different attitudes developed in different regions of the Islamic world: in North Africa, for example, figural representations were rare, most likely because of the conservative Maliki School of Religious Law that is followed there, whereas Iran is known for a having a vibrant traditional of representational art.

Fig. 1 (above) is a page from an 18th-century copy of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) written by the Persian poet Firdausi around 1010. With its interplay of lore and history, the epic offers models of conduct and kingship that inspired numerous generations of rulers and prompted the production of lavishly illustrated volumes for centuries. The image shows the princess Rudaba, letting down her long hair for her lover, Zal, to climb to see her in her palace tower. Rudaba and Zal eventually marry, and produce an heir, Rustam, who is the great hero of the Shahnama. Even the borders depict animals that include monkeys and a lion.

In some instances, within the Islamic world, the avoidance of images moved a step further to the actual destruction of images, so aniconism turned into iconoclasm. There are examples of manuscripts throughout Islamic history that have fallen prey to iconoclasm, with their figures’ faces scratched or erased off. Iconoclasts did not necessarily want to destroy the figures, but they wanted to render them lifeless and impotent of any power that would be a threat to God and monotheism.

In 2006, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Goma’a, the country’s top Islamic jurist, issued a fatwa or proclamation declaring that exhibition of statues in homes is un-Islamic. He based his decision on, incidentally, an excerpt from the Hadith; according to ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ood, a friend the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet said “Those who will be most severely punished by Allah on the Day of Judgment will be the image-makers.”

So we can see how there is so much conflicting response to figural representation within the Islamic world from being accepting of it to rejecting it, and even being violent towards it, when there is conflict within the interpretations of Islam.

Even the term “Islam” with regard to the practice of the religion itself causes some issues, as it suggests that all Muslims today and in the past shared similar perspectives and interpretations; in actuality, there are and have always been many interpretations of Islam, just as artists, patrons, and viewers have approached the visual arts in many different ways in the Muslim world.

However, despite all the differences, it is undeniable that there are common subjects and themes that do unite the visual arts of the Islamic world. Over the centuries, artists from Spain to Southeast Asia have elaborated on four major subjects of decoration: calligraphy, geometry, vegetal and arabesque ornamentation, and figures. These decoration subjects will be examined in an upcoming WAM Update.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art
May 26, 2020

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