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Figurative Art in Islam

The Qur’an it can be argued does not explicitly prohibit Muslims from using visual representation of humans and animals in an artistic form. We find that prohibition of figurative art known as aniconism, is found within many authentic hadith, these are sayings and traditions of the prophet Muhammad (saw). The following tradition shows an important link between figurative art and the danger of shirk, associating partners or equals to the Creator.

"Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created."
( Muslim vol.3, no. 5268)

In another tradition we see how the prophet Muhammad (saw) physically took steps in destroying a piece fabric which depicted images of animals.

"Narrated ‘Aiysha: The Prophet entered upon me while there was a curtain having pictures (of animals) in the house. His face got red with anger, and then he got hold of the curtain and tore it into pieces. The Prophet said, ‘Such people as paint these pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection.’"
(Bukhari vol.8, no.130)

These hadith explicitly ban the use of images of humans and animal. We find that the prohibition focuses on a general ban on all figurative art forms rather than a specific one on the depiction of important figures such as Muhammad (saw) or any other prophet of Islam.

In Islam there is a fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creation; this includes the prophets of Islam being a mere creation. The danger of creating images of the prophet such as Muhammad, Jesus or Moses (pbut) is that it may divert the worshippers attention and worship away from the true message of Islam, the message of Tawhid., As stated in Qur’an, the nations proceeding before Muhammad (saw) strayed from the path of Tawhid, (the oneness of God) and fell into the trap of associating partners with God.

“They took their rabbis and their monks to be their lords besides Allah and (also) Messiah, son of Mary, while they were commanded in the Torah and the Gospel to worship none but One God. Praise and glory be to Him, (far above is He) from having the partners they associate (with Him)."
The Noble Qur’an (At-Tawbah 9:31)

Titus Burckhardt, describes how the role of Tawhid and the forbidding of figurative art (aniconism) are fundamentally linked.

"Islam is centred on Unity, and Unity is not expressible in terms of any image. Thus, Islamic art as a whole aims to create an ambiance which helps man to realise his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an 'idol' even in a relative and provisional manner - nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God - thus eliminating all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world and in their stead creating an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace."
(Sacred Art in East & West, T Burckhardt )

This absence of figures and icons summed up by Burckhardt, preserves the notion that anything that may be represented as an ‘idol’ could lead towards a Muslim compromising their fundamental belief in Tawhid. To proclaim ‘nothing worthy of worship but Allah’, a Muslim would need to understand the supremacy of his Creator. One way of doing this would be to focus on the attributes of the Creator; these are found within the 99 names of Allah.

It is due to our limited imaginations as a creation; especially in the field of art, which force us to understand our Creator through His creations. It is the invisible presence of God that could lead someone towards the dangerous path of idolatry, or in some cases unintentionally encourage other towards it. The discouragement in figurative art has therefore allowed Muslim to look into other ways of expressing the complex nature of the Creator and the creation, the material and the spiritual. In the form of abstract art, and through the complexity of geometric patterns, many have successfully fulfilled their desire to demonstrate this.


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