The relationship between art and the religion in Islam has been a complex one down the centuries. Such a wealthy variety of expressions and tendencies can be viewed as a harmonious interaction among different Muslim people rather than a clash of cultures or civilisations. As a matter of fact, art flourished in most Muslim societies, each one with its own unique characteristics.
However, in some Muslim circles due to extreme unorthodox views, especially in the last decades and after the spread of ideological Islamism, many forms of art have been considered with suspicion. Under the pretext of returning to a pure form of Islam, many artistic and aesthetic expressions such as the representation of human or animal images have been banned. As a reaction and retaliation, some consider this form of non-representation as non-art.
Not condemning any form of art – each one of them finds its own place within the Islamic framework – I would like to avoid underestimating the religious implications stemming from some legitimate Islamic points of view that emphasise the abstract nature of religious art.
Before the prophethood of Muhammad(s), idols and images were widespread in the Arabian Peninsula. By the advent of Islam, such representations were gradually less utilised although nowhere in the Qur’an do we find a ban on statues or images. Representation of an idol is certainly not allowed in Islam but it should be noted that many if not most of the representations in the early years were directly or indirectly of idols.
On the other hand, it is true that when Muslims entered Makkah they destroyed all the idols but the act was linked to the unity of God and the defence of Islamic creed after years of persecution by Makkan aristocrats.
On that occasion, the Prophet Muhammad(s) forbade any revenge and bloodshed, except the symbolic destruction of idols around and within the Kaaba. According to some sources the Prophet ordered Muslims not to destroy an image representing the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, leaving this as the only icon in Makkah inside and outside the Kaaba. This was because the icon did not represent an idol. It was only after a short period of time that the icon was destroyed, not by the Prophet’s order but an accidental fire.
The destruction of idols may be seen also as a defence against any anthropomorphic idea of the Divine who cannot be fairly represented by any physical shape. Muslim mystics expressed this by speaking of the duty to “destroying the idols abiding in the heart” and sought to actualise it internally.
There is no doubt about the substantial and categorical prohibition in Islam directed towards the representation of Divinity. The prohibition of representing the divinity aims also to deny any sort of associationism such as nothing relative would be considered on the same level of the absolute truth. To deny such associationism is a clear act of the affirmation of la ilaha illa Allah (there is no deity but God).
When such idea tends to generalise, it becomes natural for some to avoid also the representations of prophets, messengers and even saints and holy figures; not just because such images may become the object of worship or exaggerated devotion, but to respect their real and holy personalities which are in fact inimitable. That was the opinion expounded by the western Muslim scholar Titus Burckhart whose valuable works have introduced Islamic spirituality to a wider audience in Europe and to some new intellectual circles. He went further by claiming that holy personalities are God’s viceroys on earth created in ‘God’s image’. Something similar is found in the book of al-Kafi where it is reported that Imam Baqir was asked about this issue and said: “God’s image is a form that was originated and created. He elected it and chose it over all the other different forms and attributed it to Himself”.
This point is highly controversial for many reasons. Firstly, the expression ‘God’s image’ which is primarily found in the Bible appears in an Islamic tradition whose authenticity cannot be unanimously certified according to Islamic standards. Secondly, such an expression seems to be in direct opposition to many other established traditions affirming that God’s essence cannot be conceived as He is far greater than any conception. In fact, the above narration explains that God has no image; what may be called God’s image is a sublime creation that God attributes to Himself in the same way that He attributes Kaaba to Himself and calls it His House.
In some types of literature, the similitude of God is metaphorically described through poetry and parables, but it cannot be grasped by images or material senses as it is something beyond the boundaries of the physical. The same may go for the great dominion of prophets and saints; not surprisingly the description of the Prophet that the Qur’an provides focuses on his spiritual conduct: “And you [O Prophet] possess a high quality of moral excellence” (Qur’an 78:4).
Some Muslim circles discourage the representation of anything living (humans and animals) as an act of respect to the divine secret that is present in every creature.
In this light holy art does not necessarily necessitate images because silence, muteness and concealment may legitimately represent a contemplative state not by reflecting ‘ideas’ but changing the environment and allowing it to participate to the harmony of the spiritual realm. Accordingly, aniconism does not reduce the quality of expression but extols it by excluding any image that invites man to something outside of himself. It is an abstract adornment that naturally set the heart towards the realities of the invisible.
It may be argued that art is something subjective, or a personal experience and that we cannot generalise such views and apply them to every single individual. This is a legitimate position and certainly, it is the case in the Muslim world where a variety of artistical expressions have constantly been presented to the public. The point of this article is to try to provide an answer to the question of whether non-figurative art may be still considered a form of Islamic art, and I think we should answer positively. Some people may find that such art preserves the primordial sense of the divine that cannot be usurped by a corporeal expression which is limited by nature and more easily become an idol between man and the invisible presence of God. What is fundamental is the fact that “there is no god but God” and that such a reality dissolves any objectification of the divinity.