Working at my desk, one of my students this week walked up to me and asked: “Mr. DeCou, are you busy? I am having problems with some of my research comparing Islamic and Korean embroidery. I don’t fully understand some of these terms and ideas. So, Muslims do not depict people in art at all due to aniconism? I keep seeing this term in the art history books. But I just don’t understand. Could you explain this a little more for me?” That is the thousand-dollar question these days, isn’t it? What are the connections between Islamic art and depicting figures (especially religious figures)? And more importantly, how do I explain some of the complex nuances of this question? Is there really a sufficient answer?
In the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, we have returned to this complex discussion in the public forum. Of course, the media has tackled this question and gone to the experts. Take this interview with Christiane Gruber for instance. As one of the premier researchers on Il-Khanid illumination and currently writing a book about the history and range of figural imagery of Muhammad in Islamic artwork, Christiane Gruber helps give some perspective on the issue. As she writes, “the short and simple answer is no,” Islam does not forbid such images. The French news have also discussed this issue. For example, L’Obs news interviewed the Islamic artwork curator at the Louvre in order to dispel the belief that Muslims reject all figural imagery. However, not everyone agrees with these interpretations. This January the Economist gave a very different response. Contrary to Gruber, the author argued that Islam does in fact prohibit images of the Prophet.
So which is it? What should I tell my student? Should I just take the approach of Gruber and point out the simple response? Or am I being simplistic by not wrestling with some of the religious prohibitions? Secondly, each of these perspectives uses evidence in a very different way to make a specific political point, and by just giving a simple response, have I really explained the perspective and how that shades the interpretation of the answer? To consider this more deeply, consider the ways that each of these pieces uses evidence to form the argument whether from religious or a contextual perspective.
The Economist first argues from a religious interpretation and relies on religious evidence in order to make a statement about religious authority and individual response. In this interpretation of Islamic artwork then, the scholar will point to Islamic beliefs as the source for why these prohibitions exist, and why it is inherent in the religious tradition. To further explain, although the Koran does not prohibit painting and figural imagery, the hadith are not so clear. Among the various collections of hadith, there are numerous statements against painting humans labeling this blasphemy. For instance in the collection of Sahih the chapter states, “Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture.” The hadith is explained in terms of blasphemy because the tradition argues that portraiture and other forms of figural art besmirch God and His own creation. By attempting to “fashion” a human by artificial means, the designer is creating a simulacrum and inferior form of humanity in comparison to God’s own creation. Thus, the designer claims to be taking on a title of God (Al-Musawwir, the Fashioner, one of the names of God). Hence, to some extent the idea of figural images is prohibited, even though the hadith contain some differing perspectives on the context in which these images are shown. However, by emphasizing the religious authority of the hadith, the author in this tradition emphasizes the backwardness of “aniconism.” Hence, the authority of religion does not allow for the diversity of expression and free speech.
Focusing on more than just religious authority, the second approach tries to give a historical account based on the material evidence. In other words, while recognizing the religious tradition, this perspective uses the material evidence to shape a more complex view of “moderate” Islam that reinterprets those hadith due to social and cultural circumstances. For a very simple comparison consider the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims, the two largest categories. These “branches” of Islam vary in their understanding of caliphate authority, based on how authority passed down from the Prophet. Secondly they distinguish themselves by their received traditions of hadith. Based on their different concepts of authority, Sunnis and Shia give credence to very different oral traditions and transmissions, which create distinct epistemologies for interpreting and understanding Islamic faith. To make things even more messy, these lines break down even further as one starts to see the different schools of thought within these large “branches” of Islamic tradition, such as the Damascus vis a vis Baghdad schools and later Constantinople schools under the Ottomans.
Therefore, because of the problems in using religious authority as a broad guide, this approach focuses on the extant archaeological evidence and surviving art pieces to see the nuance of religious belief. For instance, court painting and sponsorship were major economic and political forces during both the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. The abundant and at times erotic imagery in the archaeological sites Qusyar Amra and Jawsaq al Khaqani make this more than obvious. In both cases, the artist does not shy from painting human figures. The various scenes in these imperial palaces demonstrate power and authority, and certainly no shame for depicting human figures, whether mythical or real. One particularly salacious example shows young men peering at women bathing. You might say, ok, but these are obviously not religious in purpose, and so it’s an entirely different context. Well, even within that idea, the line is not clear. While we have lost many of the earliest editions, philosophical and medical texts of the 14th and 15th century contain numerous examples of figural imagery whether in the book cover illuminations, or within as explanatory images. My personal favorite is the set of images from Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine. Written by Ibn Sina, known in European contexts as Avicenna, around 1000 AD, this massive work reported contemporary medical knowledge in Persia, providing new ideas on surgery, unguents, and other kinds of materia medica. Nestled among these pages, the copyist of this early 15th century manuscript included accompanying figures to support the text. He included sketches of the skeletal, circulatory, and digestive systems. (Arabic 155, pp 123-126) While they lack many details, these examples of figural representation were acceptable due to their scientific and explanatory purpose.
But even more on point, by the 14th and 15th centuries, manuscripts contain illuminations of the Prophet Muhammad. Due to its undisputed craft and beauty, the most cited example here is Rashid al Din’s Compendium of Chronicles or Jami’ al-Tawarikh. Completed in the early 14th century, this manuscript contains a history of the world including the history of Islam. Throughout the section on the Prophet, the manuscript includes several illuminations of the story of Muhammad from Medina to Mecca, and so forth. One particularly stunning example is the miniature of Muhammad and Gabriel. (Or. 20, f 45v) Moreover, throughout the 13th to 17th centuries, there are numerous examples of the prophet Muhammad in artwork, such as the earliest Varqa va Gulash. This text illustrated sometime in the early 13th century includes Muhammad in a white turban at the resurrection of the main characters of the poem. (Gruber) Throughout the Il-Khanid until the Safavid periods artists continued to paint religious figures in histories and other texts, to which Dust Muhammad gave a particularly fascinating reinterpretation. It is not until the 18th and 19th centuries, that a conversation returns around how appropriate these ideas should be, reacting to the new literalist Wahhabis and their offshoots.
These two interpretations then offer very different ways to try to give a simplistic response to a complex question. They reveal more about the purpose and agenda of the individual than they try to answer the question. All of these thoughts went through my head as I reflected on how to answer my student. My decision: there is no “short and simple answer.” If we attempt to generalize and compartmentalize too much, we fall into the realm of being simplistic. Instead, I tried to take the time and show her both why people can say yes and no; and how this is an issue of historiography and how we use sources to explain an argument. On the one hand, there are religious components that do speak against figural imagery in Islam; yet, these ideas are interpreted very differently depending on the historical context and values of people. As a result, there are many interpretations and ways to answer this question, and even so many conflicting views that co-existed. In order to approach this subject, we need to respect the diversity and challenge of the sources and history. Even if we are trying to reach a wider audience and trying to explain complex ideas, we should try to be simplify but not be simplistic.
Featured Image Courtesy of: Edinburgh University Special Collections, Or. 20, f 45v
Other Photographs from: Wellcome Library, Arabic 155, pp 123-126