“To no person does Allah speak unless by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a messenger to reveal, with Allah’s permission, whatever Allah wills. He is the Highest and Wisest!” (inspired by Surah 42: 51).
As a child, I was fascinated by a picture that hung over a mantle board in our old, family homestead. Before I was even born, Mama had gone to a travelling, tent revival where the picture was displayed. The congregation was told that the picture would be given to whoever had donated the most pennies by the end of the week. Mama took in ironing and other odd jobs, and she donated all her hard-earned pennies. At the end of the week-long revival, the picture was hers.
The serene picture illustrated Jesus (peace upon him) meditating on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem. Soft, muted colours seemed inspired by sullen clouds crowding competitively around the moon. The picture was always out of my reach except when Mama took it down to dust and clean, and then it seemed to me like some mysterious part of Heaven had been brought down for me to experience for a moment. Now the picture hangs in my own house, and it still draws me into it with its mysteriously numinous appeal.
I never had any mental blocks to prevent me from seeing and appreciating the beauty of the artist’s message or any re-channelling to prevent me from having the correct perspective of the illustration. When I was little, I asked my older sister if Mama’s picture was really a picture of Jesus (peace!). She said, “No; it’s just an artist’s interpretation.” So I always understood that the purpose of the picture was to give a message about Jesus – not to depict Jesus himself. Also, I grew up in a Southern Baptist church where no images were displayed – no pictures, no statues, not even a cross – in order to abide by the commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20: 4, KJV). Whether inside a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, permanent portraits or figure art should not be displayed so that a worshipper will not be distracted from contemplating his or her relationship with the awesome God (blessed and exalted is He) whose essence can never be captured or properly represented by any image. Sometimes, however, temporary graphics can be appropriate for educational purposes in a place of worship; and, outside the places of worship, respectfully done illustrations are a visual way of communicating messages about God and His prophets and other servants.
In the age contemporary to Prophet Muhammad (peace upon him), the pagan majority had caused a social mentality that prevented people from being able to see such images without associating them with idols and idol worship. According to Ibn Abbas, “All the idols that had been worshipped by the people of Noah were worshipped by the later Arabs. …. The names [of the idols] had been taken from pious men from among the people of Noah. When the pious men died, Satan inspired the people to make and place images at the places where the pious men used to sit. The images were called by the names of the men they represented. The images were not worshipped, however, until after all of those people [contemporary to Noah] had died. The origin of the images gradually became obscure, and people began worshipping them.”
Prophet Muhammad (peace!) forbade images of people and animals because the tradition of idolatry prevented the proper perspective of such art. According to some sunnahs, he would not even allow decorative arts on cloth or furniture if the art included images of living creatures. Such restrictions on art led to the inspiration for the classic, geometric and symmetrical Islamic art.
What defines Islamic art today, however, is evolving due to inadvertent opportunities of the electro-gizmo age. Although the world still has idols, they are usually in the forms of writhing rappers, sports meatheads, and strutting celebrities. The idols of the ancient pagans are relics of a time before electricity shed light on our artificial world. Islamic artists are now liberated to incorporate all images of natural creation into their art as long as the art is done with proper respect. “If someone wants to make a picture of an animate being, with no intention of competing with God as Creator or for its [the image’s] glorification or respect [beyond what is Islamically proper], there is no prohibition of doing so; there are numerous sound traditions (ahadith) in this regard” [Yusuf al-Qaradawi, The Lawful and the Prohibited (American Trust Publications: IN, 1994), p 110].
Certainly the new art forms do not get to fly without challenge and controversy by conservatives who believe that tradition should dictate what defines Islamic art. Such critics recite conventional Islamic laws forbidding representations of humans and animals.
Certainly the Prophet (peace!) would also not want to deprive Muslims of the sensitivity and beauty of Islamic artists glorifying God by reminding art appreciators of the variety of His creation. Adrienne Haywood-James pointed out, “Intent, for many, is what defines the contemporary Muslim artist’s platform. Islam defines intent [according to a hadith]: ‘Deeds are considered by intention, and everyone will be requited according to what he intends. He, whose intention is to please Allah and His messenger, will be rewarded for pleasing Allah and His messenger’ [Bukhari]” (“Contemporary Muslim Artists: Tradition, Faith, and Image,” Muslims Weekly, January 14, 2005, p 2).
Modern technologies of printing and publishing, photography, video imaging, television, and the internet have made images an important and unavoidable part of our lives. Pictures of various leaders appear on banknotes and coins and on office walls. Portraits of major figures from Shi’ite history are important elements of Shi’ite observances, and such portraits adorn both public and private areas. Reportedly, a fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Sistani (Iraq) even allows depictions of Muhammed and other prophets (peace upon them) as long as the pictures are made with the utmost respect. Certainly the Muslim community must be reminded never to fall prey to the temptation to idolise any such depictions. The purpose of such art should be for illustration rather than mere adoration.
Mama’s picture of Jesus (peace!) was not an idolatrous image; rather the painting illustrated the passionate rumination of Jesus over his beloved Jerusalem. The illustration instils in the viewer a sense of calm and peace despite the encroaching shadows of gloom, and it encourages hope to pensive souls. Such art provides a veil through which God may speak to the viewer who sincerely seeks the message the artist tries to convey.
Although anyone can become skilled in artistic techniques and use of tools and materials, the sensitive, creative aspect of art is a natural talent that cannot be learned; therefore, being an artist is a gift of nature, by God’s will, and the signs of God are imbedded in nature. Certainly natural talent can be misused, but it is the duty of a believing artist to use his or her talents to glorify God (blessed!). That does not mean that an artist cannot make a living in, for example, advertising, but it does mean that the artist must be conscientious about what product or service is being advertised. For example, advertising safe tires is in keeping with God’s glory; advertising inferior tires is not, if the artist knows or should reasonably suspect that the tires may be dangerous. A Muslim artist, then, can serve God (blessed!) while working in non-religious commercial or graphic arts as long as aspects of the specific projects are not incongruous with the divine treasure.
Religiously-inspired, Islamic artists of the visual arts include decorative designers and crafters, calligraphers, and illustrators. Of these, illustrators are the ones most often attacked. “Artists will be the first to go to Hell!” an irate Muslim announced to an artist in Washington, DC. The Muslim artist soon learned to keep his art a secret from other Muslims. A publisher of Islamic books lost money on a series of illustrated, children’s books that told stories about the lives of some of the prophets. Some of the books were returned with nasty notes about the evils of drawing pictures of the prophets, even though the pictures were simply vague, suggestive images used in illustrating events in the prophets’ lives. Many readers lacked the reasoning skills to be able to differentiate between images to be idolised and illustrations that served as veils through which God (blessed!) may remind us of the love He sent the world through the ministries of His prophets (peace!)
God is the Master Artist (blessed and exalted is He), and, in His wisdom, He has chosen human artists to illuminate His messages through visual images that have the ability to permeate souls encrusted with the glitz and debris of a chaotic world. Art inspired by God (blessed!) is a veil of energy, colour, and composition. The divine voice travels with the speed of light, from every artistic stroke to the eye of each beholder, and echoes in the chambers of minds emptied of vain thoughts and ready to be filled with the Master’s pictographic sonnets.
“O Lord, who is the all pervading glory of the world, we bless You for the power of beauty to gladden our hearts. We praise You that even the least of us may feel a thrill of Your creative joy when we give form and substance to our thoughts and, beholding our handiwork, find it good and fair. We praise You for artists, the masters of form and colour and sound, who have the power to unlock for us the vaster spaces of emotion and to lead us by their own hands into the reaches of nobler passions. We rejoice in their gifts and pray that You spare them from the temptations that may beset their talents and skills. Kindle in their hearts a passionate pity for the joyless lives of others, and make them rejoice when they are worthy to hold the cup of beauty to thirsty lips. Allow the artists to be reverent interpreters of God to humanity. Bless them for seeing Your face and hearing Your voice in all things. Help them unveil for others the natural beauties that are often passed unseen and the sadness and sweetness of humanity to which our selfishness has made us blind” [adapted from a prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch; the original version is in the book, edited by Robert Van de Weyer, HarperCollins Book of Prayers (Castle Books: NJ, 1997), p 306].
[Linda “iLham” Barto is a freelance writer and illustrator in North Carolina, USA. Islam found her in 1999.]