As religion and the practice thereof has been an essential cultural component in societies throughout history, it comes as no surprise that aesthetics associated with spirituality have been among the most decorated and well-funded examples of a people’s art. As a result, these same religious venues often contain countless examples of prominent design elements that well reflect the contemporary culture and desires of the devout community responsible for their creation. Communities of the faithful often place great pride in the elaborate and ornate design of their sacred shrines, objects, and literature; this is evident in many religious traditions, specifically that of Islam. More important than lavish ornamentation and grandeur for the purpose of awing viewers, these structural and decorative elements also serve a greater purpose, which is to cater to the needs of the believers, while further legitimatising the views encouraged by the religion. Since the Islamic tradition, especially the Five Pillars core, is a chief concern in the everyday life of all devout Muslims, this basic ideological foundation has in turn had an enormous effect on aesthetic culture. Islamic Art has taken on a significantly different role and appearance from that of its Christian counterpart, most notably, through the revered standing given to the art of calligraphy over the pictorial arts. Calligraphy, is an elaborate portrayal of the written word which goes far beyond simply being a means of communication or record-keeping, it “plays, a very special role in the entire Islamic culture, for by the Arabic letters…the Divine Word could be preserved,” and its importance is made evident by its prominent presence in the mosque and literature of Islam.1 The religious and societal influences on visual culture at the rise of Islam led to the opposition of the depiction of living things; the cultural conditions of this same era also established calligraphy as the most praised Islamic Art.
Repression of the Pictorial Arts
From the earliest Islamic literature on, there has been much skepticism regarding the place of pictorial art in Muslim religious life. This begins with the Islamic Pillar that serves as a declaration of faith, the Shahadah, “I testify that there is no god but Allah and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” It is immediately evident that the practices of idolatry and blasphemy are chief concerns in Islam, not unlike traditions common to other religions; however, significant passages in Islamic doctrine can be used to relate idolatry to figural representation, depending on the chosen application of such literature. The Qur’an at times uses a common word for idol and representation; this is often taken as a direct correspondence between the two. As Oleg Grabar suggests, “the Qur’anic meaning is clearly that of opposing the adoration of physical idols, and not of rejecting art or representations as such.”*2 Even so, with few exceptions, the position towards pictorial art for many Muslims was not a kind one in the seventh century, and very often it remained that way even into the modern era. Aside from the Qur’anic interpretation, another major source that led followers to question the acceptability of art is through an historic event involving The Prophet himself. At the time of his arrival in Mecca, Muhammad commanded that all depictions but one in the Ka’bah be destroyed. What is often overlooked is the fact that the very image he preserved was one of the Virgin and Child. This is a testament to the fact that the Prophet did not see figural depictions as a threat to his religion’s ambitions. He allowed a scene that depicted a paramount event in Christian and Muslim history to remain,*3 while at the very same time both religions were widely practiced in the region. There are clearly ambiguities as to whether or not Muhammad intended to advocate that figural depictions lead one to idolatry, or even if those depictions distracted one from prayer; however, a multitude of Islamic and pre-Islamic influences forced anti-pictorial interpretations to prevail.
An additional religious driven objection to the representation of living things was the parallel drawn between the creative process of an artist and that of Allah, for the word painter in Arabic literally means to give form.*4 Nawawi, a specialist in Islamic law explained, “the painting of a picture of any living thing is strictly forbidden and is one of the great sins…it is forbidden to make use of any object on which a living thing is pictured…[unless] it is on a carpet trampled underfoot.”*5 This Muslim legal statement captures the lack of value that pictorial art was granted from the most widely supported viewpoint, one that supports a more conservative reading of Islamic morality traditions.
Other than the alleged anti-representation support found in Islamic law that may have been seen as inherently opposed to the practice of pictorial art, there were indeed pre-Islamic cultural forces working as well. The first and most apparent influence would be that of Judaism. The Jewish people inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula before the creation and spread of Islam were skeptical in regard to images of deities, resulting from the same inhibition towards idolatry. This outlook on artistic representation may very well have influenced those outside of Judaism in the region. Because Islam, and those who eventually came to practice it, were so influenced by the peoples who preceded them in what is present day Saudi Arabia, it would seem reasonable to assume that these prior beliefs were still prevalent when Muhammad began to amass support for his new religion. Also significant factors would be the neighboring art of Christianity and Buddhism that the Islamic people were exposed to in the years of expansion and trade. This art, most notably Byzantine art, was far superior to that of the Muslims, and this lead to widespread imitation and foreign artists being employed by the Empire, but it also lead to contempt. In 721, The Edict of Yazid secularized the hatred towards Christian art by ordering the destruction or replacement of the figural elements in all of the Christian art present in churches.*6
In addition to the religious driven negative sentiment towards art, class conflict in the Arabian peninsula, which preceded the rise of Islam, may very well have played a role in the development of malice towards art. At first, Muhammad’s support was largely from the lower classes, which vehemently opposed the middle-upper class of merchants and those in command of the existing political and economic entities. It was these elitists who were capable of being patrons to trained artists, and therefore it is in this wealthy bourgeois context where much of the art was to be found. The peasants living in the oases were without a need for art, or the means to acquire it; therefore hatred towards art likely developed as result of the already present disdain towards the caste that art was exclusively associated with, the upper classes of Mecca.*7
Byzantine Churches were characterized by excess ornamentation and depictions of the paramount characters in Christianity’s history. These images were meant to beautify the location where the congregation would celebrate, but they also served a functional purpose, to help educate the congregation. However, in Islam, it is not through images that followers are assisted in learning about their faith; it is through the words of the Qur’an themselves, which Muslims believe to be the verbatim statements from Allah to Mohammed. The culture, a predominantly Islamic one, which spread throughout the region, hindered the production of art associated with the representation of god, humans, and animals; however it embraced another type of art, that of calligraphy.
Calligraphy as Islam’s Essential Art
For an explanation of the factors that facilitated the cleavage between Muslim and Christian aesthetics one must first turn to the core elements of the respective religious traditions. The authors of the Bible were human and they essentially portrayed narratives that may at times have some historical basis, but this literature also contains distinctions, which vary according to author, intent, and his target audience. The compilation of Biblical writings has unique interpretations and even different accounts of the same events; this comes as no surprise, as different authors wrote it at different dates. For many Christians the Bible is largely taking as metaphorical, the Qur’an however is not a mere human interpretation; it is a direct communication from God. According to legend, on The Night of Power, while Muhammad was meditating in isolation, the Archangel Gabriel contacted him, and it was this night that the Word of God was dictated to the Prophet. As the Islamic religion was experiencing incredible growth, Muhammad was killed. The first caliph, Abu Bakr ordered the late Prophet’s secretary to record and collect all of the Prophets revelations; this compilation ultimately became the Qur’an.8 The Bible is distributed in many languages and the narratives are common not through a consistent form of script but through a consistent underlying moral meaning. On the contrary, The Qur’an appears only in Arabic script, certainly there are translations, but these renditions are not considered to be the actual word of God. This specific connection between god-and-follower through a divine literature is not presumed in Christianity, and therefore allows for varying accounts when one is attempting to visually represent their version of the scripture. The Qur’an on the contrary is in a sense a direct connection between Muhammad, Allah, and the Muslim populace. The reproduction of Allah’s divine message by a calligrapher is a practice held in the highest regard. The revered distinction that this artistic role receives when compared to an artist of the pictorial arts is clearly illustrated in Laurence Binyon’s words,
the painter was little esteemed, the calligrapher had high repute. His art was accounted altogether superior to that of the painter; for what more laudable act than to copy in exquisite script the Word of God?*9
To a Westerner this may comes as a surprise, especially when one considers the honor awarded to Byzantium artists who practiced the so-called High Art of painting, in the service of the Orthodox Church.
In Christian communities throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, members of the parish who could not read, or who were not familiar with a gospel story, could more easily grasp the themes by viewing simple narratives displayed on many of the architectural surfaces and in prayer books. As a learning tool, art proved to be a valuable asset in churches that had less-educated parishioners, because masses were often not conducted in the vernacular. At the time Islam did not need to be concerned with translations, because the immediate region spoke Arabic already, and there was an extremely strong oral tradition in place. This language bond on the Arabian Peninsula was established earlier with a high regard for poetry as a means of expression, through the quasidah-style prose.10 Art of the growing Islamic Empire’s was shaped by the religious and political influences on the citizenry, and as a result the favored art was ultimately calligraphy.
Religious and secular implications at the onset of Islam drove the negative sentiment towards the pictorial arts; these forces included the stigma of artists as idolaters, painters and sculptors as imitators of God, and the presumed marriage of art and the upper class elite. The prevalent reading of Islam was not one that allowed for any brand of art to flourish so long a depiction of a living entity was incorporated into its composition. As opposed to artists interpreting a message and then trying to depict it visually, the focus of art became the reproduction of the consistent source of Muslim religious doctrine, the Qur’an itself. The intensification of the use of calligraphy was of great importance to the spreading of the Islamic religion and empire; only this form of art was capable of circulating the divine word of Allah throughout the ever-expanding Muslim community.Select Bibliography
NOTES 1 Annemarie Schimmel, Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, 1994, 1. 2 Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, 1987, 79. 3 Grabar, 80 4 Sir Thomas W. Arnold, Painting in Islam, 1965, 6. 5 Arnold, 9. 6 Grabar, 85 7 Grabar 78 8 Y.H. Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy, 1978, 9. 9 Laurence Binyon, The Spirit of Man in Asian Art, 1965, 116. 10 William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 2000, 6.