Human and Animal imagery in Islamic art?
September 26, 2005 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Help me teach my class! Human and animal imagery in Islam - good, bad, situationally dependent?

I am teaching a college level course on the history of non-Western ceramic art. The university I teach at has a fairly sheltered population of mostly white middle class Christian kids (not a Christian school, just demographics). As we move through the cultures, I have been trying to give the students a solid understanding of how the dominant spiritual practice in each culture affects / doesn't affect ceramic production. For example, we delved into Hinduism and the legend of Ayyanar before we looked at votive sculptures of the Tamil Nadu region in India.

I'm having lots of trouble with my segment of the Middle East, however - can anyone explain the history/continuing practice of the use of human and animal imagery in Islam? I have done a fair amount of googling and library research, but keep getting conflicting viewpoints. Is it (or was it) strictly forbidden? Only in spiritual objects? What about contemporary artists?

I know there probably isn't a clean answer, but I would like to help my students understand how what we see in the work is /isn't connected to Islam and its beliefs. Any help would be greatly appreciated - and will contribute to the enlightment of a new generation!
posted by dirtmonster to Media & Arts (11 answers total)
There are tons of animal imagery in Islamic legends and folklore; they are especially important in moral tales. I took a class on it and there are many illuminated manuscripts as well if you are limited to visual art. What I have is all in print, but if you are interested in more specific references email me, or I can also give you the contact info for the prof who taught my course.
posted by scazza at 12:07 PM on September 26, 2005

I found the course's reserves list on the library's website, and here's the prof's info page. I wish I could parse all the info the course went through, but there's just too much.
posted by scazza at 12:18 PM on September 26, 2005

The fundamentalist opinion appears to be that all images of animate objects are forbidden. This page presents a strong argument that all depictions of animate objects are strictly forbidden. Some argue that television violates this animate image rule when actual people or animals appear on the screen. (Ask the Imam, by the way, is a good resource when you want to find out what the most conservative Sunni view on any subject is). However, as with every religion, not everyone is a fundamentalist.
posted by profwhat at 12:22 PM on September 26, 2005

human and animal imagery is not absent in painting, say in persian [iranian] art and mughal [indian] art. it is also present in ottoman [turkish] art as well. however, i am hard pressed to think of any human and animal imagery in ceramic art. there, you see the geometric designs and the caligraphic ones primarily, and some floral ones.
posted by subatomiczoo at 12:25 PM on September 26, 2005

Here is a pretty decent site. Persian art is full of human imagery in painting and in tile work, their specialty. Carpets often have animal figures.

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, one of the most holy sites in Islam is incidentally tiled in representative mosaic. Most of it was begun in the Byzantine era when the mosque was a church, but the tile work was continued and occasionally replaced over the centuries always keeping the representative style.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:14 PM on September 26, 2005

There are two main problem with statues and images from the Islamic perspective.

The first is that they can easily lead to idolatry. Indeed, Muslims believe that idolatry first originated when people built statues to honor some pious people who had died among them, then started going to the statues and calling on the dead to intercede for them before God.

The second problem is that only God creates life, and to make images and sculptures of living things could represent a challenge against God's authority as the creator.

The biggest sin in Islam is called shirk, which means to worship something along with or instead of God, or to seek intermediaries between oneself and Him, or to attribute charachteristics that belong to Him alone to someone or something else. Examples of shirk are polytheism, praying to saints, and believing that your wellbeing depends on a particular human being, etc. As you can see, the problem with statues and images is that it leads to shirk. It is interesting to note the first 2 of the ten commandments, in which the Jews (and by extension the Christians) were ordered first to take no Gods apart from God, and second to make no graven images.

That said, there is a wide range of opinions about what sort of images are permissible, from allowing no statues or drawings of animate beings at all (except for in children's toys and on clothing, for which there are hadiths making specific exceptions), all the way to allowing such images as long as they are not meant to be objects of worship and the one making them is not doing so as a way to challenge God's unique role as creator.

There is also some argument about whether photographs and video count as images for these purposes, the debate stemming from whether taking a photograph constitutes creating an image or simply showing a representation of what God has already created.

But I don't know anything about art history, so I can't speak to how all this has been applied over the centuries.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:36 PM on September 26, 2005

I wrote (and received an A on) a paper about this very topic during my years in college. My thesis was that in Iran, the presence of buddhist traders along the silk road moderated Islam's influence on art along the way.
You probably WON'T find much representational art outside of the areas of the muslim world that used to be part of the persian empire. Persians, situated at the crux of the european, arab, indian, and asian civilizations, tended towards cosmopolitanism very early on.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 2:53 PM on September 26, 2005

Even representations of the Prophet himself seem to have been authorised in Persia. I once saw in an exhibition of Muslim art a series of Persian manuscripts detailing Muhammad's supernatural aventures, with his face perfectly visible, as in the picture above. Jesus appeared as a sidekick in some of the images. I guess that to have a proper understanding of what was authorised, at a certain period and in a certain region, would require a large amount of knowledge. The difficulty of Islam for outsiders (and even for insiders) is that almost everything is open to religious debate and interpretation by religious scholars whose opinions vary across time and traditions. It's different from, say, Catholicism, where there's a central authority for this.
posted by elgilito at 3:03 PM on September 26, 2005

Response by poster: Wow! Another shining example of why AskMeFi is so amazing. Thanks to everyone for their insightful and well reasoned answers. You have done me a great service.
posted by dirtmonster at 5:02 PM on September 26, 2005

A bit more info:

Shia muslims were/are generally fine with art representative of animate objects.

The sunni schools of law are generally against it, save for the Maliki school, which permits them if there is no intent of idolatory or no reasonable indication such will occur.

Photography is generally considered ok by the orthodoxy, save for some of the subcontinental Hanafis (such as Mufti Desai above) and some Saudi scholars (who don't really belong to the orthodoxy).

With respect to sculpture, there is very little leeway in this regard as it comes a bit too close to making idols. It's quite interesting as the fatwa given by Deobandi Hanafis indicate that if one has lifelike dolls, one should remove the head or similar to make it permissible.

The traditional injunctions against both art of animated objects and sculpture are interesting as they led to a greater emphasis on geometry/calligraphy/architecture as the primary source of expression for the sunni muslims in particular. Even in this, you'll find nods toward religion as in every geometric pattern, there is always one flaw, to indicate that the artist/designer did not consider that his creation was anything like that of Allah (swt).

Hence there's a bit of a difference of art dependent on what interpretive methodology has traditionally been predominant in a given area.

This is a good site for anyone who wants to learn more about Islamic art etc:
posted by Mossy at 2:57 AM on September 27, 2005

You probably WON'T find much representational art outside of the areas of the muslim world that used to be part of the persian empire. Persians, situated at the crux of the european, arab, indian, and asian civilizations, tended towards cosmopolitanism very early on.

Yes, VERY early on, as in before Siddhartha Gautama was born (the first time).

If you run a google image search for the word "Damascus" you will find pictures of representative tile work on a mosque, statuary, and saint worship taking place in a mosque. Sheraton Hotels just opened a massive luxury hotel and resort in Sednaya, Syria for wealthy Arab pilgrims to the shrines of the saints (particularly the shrine to Mary, which is guaranteed to fertilize even the most barren loins), we aren't talking about Christian pilgrims here either, who are permitted to stay in the cloisters.

Basically, the textbook answers on Islam are incomplete at best. Christians in the region never gave up representative art (except for during the Iconoclastic period of Byzantium). It is true that most of the artwork, particularly religious works in the Islamic Arab world tends not to use representative themes. Persians, like Christians, never gave up making representative art and they certainly weren't/aren't going to let some Arab tell them they have to now.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:42 AM on September 27, 2005

« Older What should I do with my life?   |   voideo courses Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.