Understanding Islamic Aesthetics

The Definition of Islamic Art

The objective of this short overview of the history of Islamic art is to clearly and precisely define Islamic aesthetics and the specific historical circumstances that led to their development. This will allow for a better understanding of the totality of works of art labeled Islamic, as well as justifying the use of the umbrella term "Islamic art." Most of all, it will shatter the myth that painting is excluded in Islamic art, and that the religion of Islam does not permit figurative representation.

Islamic art is a perplexing category that seems to encompass a monolithic body of art and architecture. It is difficult to define the features of Islamic art because this artistic tradition encompasses many styles over a long period of time, as well as a vast geographical area with multinational and multireligious inhabitants. Islamic art does not refer solely to religious art, the arts of Muslim countries, or to art executed by or for Muslims. It is comparable to such broad art historical terms as "Gothic" or "Baroque," in the sense that it is a cultural identifier which nevertheless retains local and/or regional characteristics. In fact, it might be said that the term "Islamic" corresponds to the term "Western" in the generality of its application.

So what is Islamic art? In simple terms, it is art that adheres to Muslim aesthetics, regardless of the various geographical and national influences that have bearing on it. What unites different Islamic works of art is their respect for an aesthetic directly tied to the Muslim attitude and conception of the world, brought about by the tenets of the religion of Islam. Accordingly, the key to understanding Islamic art is to grasp the formation of its aesthetics.

A Brief History

There are three phases in the development of Islamic art. The first phase is the initial period of its formation, when the notion of Islamic art started evolving in Muslim lands. Generally, the time of the first series of Islamic conquests outside of the Arabian Peninsula between 634 and 751 has been accepted as the time of preliminary development of an original system of forms that can be identified as Islamic. This was the time when the core of the land that remains Muslim today was conquered. While these dates are primarily political or military ones, they became symbolic of the region's new status. The time when an Islamic art was formed in each of the conquered regions is relative, and varied from one province to another.

The second phase, beginning in the ninth century, marks the period when Islamic aesthetics were formed and became widely accepted. During this phase, the legalistic aspect of Islam became a concern in view of the newly compiled collection of hadith, which led to more specific proscriptions against the arts.1 Hadith is a body of traditions describing the life of the Prophet: these were not collected and given a legal status until the middle of the ninth century. These traditions are stories and opinions initiated as a response to specific incidents, and are not general statements. The third phase, from the end of the seventeenth century onward, is the period when Islamic aesthetics stopped governing art produced in the Muslim lands; this art ceased to obey true Islamic aesthetics and allowed for an increasing European influence.

Early Rules of Representation

To understand Islamic aesthetics, we need to debunk the commonly held idea that there was a religious prohibition on representation. Research on this subject has found no definitive evidence of this prohibition in either the Qur'an or the Hadith. In the Qur'an, the only references found in connection with images are in passages relating to idols worshipped by pagans. In fact, the Qur'an neither specifically prohibits the making of idols, nor contains anything as strong as the condemnation of imagery found in Exodus 20:4 in the various texts of the Hebrew Bible: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images or any likenesses of anything that is in heaven or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth."

Although there was no restriction on representation during the initial phase of Islam, there was an unwritten ban against the depiction of living beings in mosques. This ban seems to have been generated in connection with the destruction of idols in the Kaaba at Mecca. Within that historical context, the Prophet declared that, "The angels will not enter a temple (bayt) where there are images (tamathil)," and, according to tradition, ordered all images to be destroyed except for an image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Moreover, no representations with any religious values were permitted or tolerated. For example, the Qur'an itself was not illustrated and there are no portraits of the prophets or saints of Islam in religious places, lest they become objects of veneration or prayer, like Christian religious icons, which would be considered both polytheistic and idolatrous. Above all, there was never, nor could there ever be, a representation of God as is found so often in Christian art. For Muslims, God eludes conception by the human mind: he is understood only as an abstract force. Therefore, it is not only sacrilegious but also truly illogical to portray him in a form borrowed from his own creation.

From the beginning, Muslims had an attitude of indifference rather than opposition toward representational art. This was not due to religious proscription, but rather to historical necessity, brought on by the impact of the arts they encountered in conquered territories like Byzantium, Iran, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. With no art tradition of their own, Muslims of Arabia had a very limited grasp of the possibilities of visually perceptible symbols and of meaning given to form. They understood representations to be identical with what they represented and thus perceived them as deception. To Islam, images were not only a major characteristic of Christianity, but also one of the most dangerous weapons Christianity possessed.

Art as Expression of Religion

A new Islamic culture was formed with identifiable habits and thoughts based on the uncompromising belief in the absoluteness and oneness of God. This was dynamically distinct from the Christian divine view. The Muslim community emphasized the totality of existence and complete integration of the secular and spiritual. They readily accepted all elements in the civilizations, cultures, and traditions of the nations they conquered, as long as they were not in direct opposition to the teachings of Islam. However, in order to preserve its unique qualities and maintain the integrity of its identity, Islamic culture consciously rejected the habits and practices of the traditions it replaced and consequently rejected representations as an expression of culture.

At the same time, this new culture understood the need for a uniquely Muslim art which could translate their identifiable habits and thought into visually perceptible forms. Early Islamic art was not the result of a creation of new forms or techniques. Instead, it employed and adapted local forms, styles, and techniques and integrated them, in varying combinations, to express Islamic values and ideas. Most elements in early Islamic artistic vocabulary were a continuation of older traditions, with a few identifiable exceptions, like Arabic writing, that became significant aspects of Islamic art and major iconographic and ornamental devices.

Ninth-century Muslim theologians developed further restrictions on and opposition to the use of images or representations in art. These theologians perceived art as mimesis in the Aristotelian sense, the most perfect possible imitation of nature. Hence an interdiction was issued on any representation of animate beings in painting or sculpture, prompting a drastic change in the aesthetics. All tangible appearances of nature had to be abandoned, including perspective, chiaroscuro, and modeling. This interdiction presented a challenge to Muslim artists, and they had to explore a new domain in order to create within the imposed framework an original universe of form and color. Muslim artists did not abandon figurative painting: instead they made sure that their work did not appear "real." By forsaking the principle of imitation of nature, the miniature was accordingly treated as a two-dimensional pictorial space with forms and colors assembled in a certain order. A similar aesthetic revolution transformed painting into an autonomous world in the more modern period, as defined for different purposes by 19th- and 20th-century artists like Henri Matisse, Maurice Denis, or Pablo Picasso.

What is important in Islamic painting is not that the subject be represented as it appears in nature, but rather that the autonomous cosmos created by the artist, with its own structure, language, and laws, be clear to the viewer. Animate beings and life were identified with individuality, not with form, rendering them an idea or concept rather than a concrete representation. For the Islamic artist, God creates life by giving form an individuality without which it cannot be alive. The artist can only reproduce the most characteristic general traits of a person without bestowing on the figure any individuality, and thus has no fear of competing with God's creative act.

Both figures and animals were painted as flat and two-dimensional, mere abstractions of the ideas they embodied. Everything is brought up to the immediate foreground. The absence of a third dimension symbolizes the reality of the surface and emphasizes the fantasy world of the painting. Instead of the linear perspective used later in the West to organize space, Muslim artists utilized what might be termed a spiritual perspective. This perspective follows spiritual rules governed by the understanding of the relationship between God's eternal existence and the transient existence of the world at large. Accordingly, Muslim artists can show the inside and outside of a building at once, and do not need to conform to any natural laws in their use of light and shadow. Islamic art is an intuitive art which aims at comprehending the eternal essence, by giving evidence that both Beauty, and God, exist. It is the art of contemplating God's glories.

1 For further details, see Papadopoulo, Islam and Muslim Art.


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Authored by

Nada Shabout
University of North Texas
Denton, Texas