When the question of religious imagery in Islamic art made newspaper headlines in 2005 as a result of the Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad, much of the accompanying discussion missed the point. While the Qur’an objects to idolatry, it does not forbid the use of figurative representations in secular settings. More than representation, what prompted the furor among some Muslims was the lack of respect in the medium of cartoon, by its nature a tool of distortion. Figurative imagery appears in the art of Sunni Turkey as well as the art of Shia Iran. The arts of the Muslim world in all media—painting, ceramics, glass, metalwork, carpets and textiles, ivory, stone, and woodcarvings—objects which throughout the centuries were part of secular spaces, are decorated with images of animal and human figures.
If Islam enforced the radical elimination of religious images, the Muslim rulers of Egypt would have destroyed the pharaonic sculptures (such as those still standing in Luxor Temple) as long ago as the seventh century. That they did not, and that these sculptures continue to stand separate from Muslim spaces of worship, speaks to the misunderstandings of Islamic art that still cloud the lines of sight in the Christian West.
I was reminded of that confusion when an old box of Islamic art books arrived from storage, having sat untouched for more than a decade in South London. Among them was a bundle of twenty multicolored notepads I’d kept during various research trips—a different hue for each journey. The purple pad was filled with notes from a trip taken to Egypt for my doctoral thesis on Fatimid imagery. The handwriting bordered on the undecipherable.
Thursday, April 2, 1987. I had struggled to keep a steady hand while writing, jolted in the back seat of a car, and as I left Cairo, heading toward the western desert, my Muslim driver had asked, “Why are you going to a Coptic monastery if you’re researching Islamic art?”
“I’m looking for comparative material.”
“Comparative material?” I caught his look in the rearview mirror.
“Yes. Coptic woodcarvings which are similar to Muslim woodcarvings.”
The driver said nothing after that. For the rest of the long drive to the monasteries of Wadi Natrun, I wrote comments on my visit to the Islamic Art Museum the day before.
“The doors from the medieval Cairo Palace of the Fatimid Princess Sitt al-Mulk
decorated with designs, filled with scenes of dancers, musicians, and seated monarchs, all carved in relief in the same style as wainscots that once ran around the reception hall.”
Friday, April 3, 1987. The entry was again written with a shaky hand, this time on the drive back from the monasteries. A monk with a majestic beard had showed me around, pointing at the carved woodwork in the churches. I was surprised by the obvious Coptic connection to the Islamic material. “Well,” the monk said, “the Copts had been good carpenters before Islam came into the region. When the Muslims came in the seventh century, the old workshops continued to produce woodwork for Muslim patrons, and the Islamic tradition built on the Coptic one. But with the coming of Islam, the carpenter was given a new briefing!” He added the last line with an enigmatic smile before leaving me to sketch the figure of St. George on horseback.
As Islam conquered Byzantine territories, which were rich in the tradition of icons, how was the new religion and its empire to express its faith and establish rule? Since portrayal of God, the saints, and the Prophet was forbidden in places of worship, representation was not a tool available to spread faith. The challenge for the Muslim artist was not simply a matter of omitting figurative imagery from the mosque, it was how to find a way to express the Divine without representation, how to create a sense of God, who is everywhere yet not visible.
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