The Religious Dimension

May 2022 by David Wade

You shall not make unto you any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them.

The 2nd Commandment; Exodus 20:4-6
An early depiction of the Great Mosque at Mecca with the Kaaba, the focal point of Muslim worship, at its centre.

‘There is no God but God’

From its very inception the Islamic mission was dedicated to a revival and purification of the ‘religion of Abraham’, that is to say, the Judeo-Christian tradition. It adopted the strict, monotheistic credo of the Old Testament, and was hostile to the paganism that was still flourishing in Arabia. Muhammad’s first act, following his acceptance as a religious leader by the townspeople of Mecca, was to destroy the three hundred and sixty idols around the Ka’bah. Up to this time Mecca had been an important centre of pagan pilgrimage. Like so much else in Islam, this excoriation of idolatrous practices was a clear continuation of the Biblical prophetic tradition - but Islam brought a new understanding of its basic religious principles.

The Islamic rejection of any form of idolatry is bound up with its rejection of any notion of divine intercession. The individual has a direct line to God; ultimately, redemption and damnation are individual matters. The Islamic attitudes towards images and imagery (a subject to which I shall return) have always been concerned with the purity of the human/divine relationship. The worship of idolatrous images, in this view, is therefore both delusory and useless. For other imagery, interpretations vary, but in general, representations that do not seek to create an illusion, or pretence of reality, are acceptable if kept away from any place of prayer.

The Qur’an

The Qur’an, by comparison with the Jewish Book of the Law, has very little to say about images. The Torah makes numerous and quite explicit prohibitions against figurative imagery of any kind. By contrast, the few references to idolatry in the Qur’an are not directed to figuration as such. The Jewish horror of divine representation extends even to the accidental creation of images, and the inadvertent bowing before false gods. This extreme image-phobia led to a culture in which art had a greatly reduced role. This is very obviously not the case in Islam. Islamic concepts, whilst regarding pagan idolatry as an abomination, rarely expressed the same abhorrence of non-religious imagery. In fact, prohibition of iconography was almost unnecessary in this cultural setting - the confession of Muslim faith includes the declaration that ‘There is none like unto Him’, reflecting the Islamic concept of an absolute and eternal Creator who is, by implication, utterly beyond representation. In other words, iconoclasm is bred into the very bones of Islam. Non-Muslims have always made much of the supposed Islamic ban on images as a prime determining factor of Islamic art. In reality, representational art was never suppressed, except in the strictly religious field – in any case such a purely negative influence could not in itself account for the many positive aspects of Islamic aestheticism.

The Qur’an constantly reiterates the transcendent and inaccessible nature of Allah, with the implication that the Divine Nature can only be experienced through the Divine Word. For this reason there is no equivalent in Mosques of the sort of iconography found in Christian Churches. But its place is often taken by quotations from the Qur’an, which can be quite extensive, and which gave rise to the rich traditions of Islamic calligraphy as an elevated form of architectural decoration.

Various other Qur’anic themes have contributed to Islamic artistic sensibilities, including the perfection of the Creation; ‘Thou seest not in the Creation of the All-Merciful any imperfection’ (Qur’an 67:3), the divine quality of light; ‘Allah is the light of heavens and the earth’ (Qur’an 35:24), and a pervasive sense of other-worldly esotericism ‘With Him are the keys of the secret things; none knoweth them but He’ (Qur’an 6:59). Each of these qualities contribute to the well-known Islamic preoccupation with the dissolution of matter, for the hints of infinity in the patterns of which it is so fond and for the sense of space that it so often seeks. The aim seems always to escape imprisonment within earthly forms. The unwillingness to accept the ‘counterfeits’ of representation also account for this cultures preferences for abstraction in its decorative schemes.

Traditions (Hadith)

The Revelations that comprise the Holy Qur’an are, of course, the foundation of Islam, but the recorded sayings and deeds of the Prophet, the Hadith, constitute another body of religious texts. The hadith do not have the scriptural authority of the Qur’an, indeed they have varying levels of authenticity, but they are an important secondary source of religious guidance. There are various hadith that refer to artistic creation. The most notable of these records Muhammad as saying that ‘No angel will enter a house in which there are images’. Although this has been interpreted as an injunction against figural representation by more puritanical elements, it was almost certainly directed against household idols. Another Hadith warns the maker of images that on the Day of Judgement he will be required to breathe life into his creations, and on failing will be condemned. But this too was primarily concerned with idolatry.

Although the reservations expressed in these hadith about the portrayal of living things obviously derive from the Jewish tradition, the Islamic interpretation makes a new distinction between vegetable and animal subjects, with the former being allowed, even in Mosques, and the latter banned. There is a similar line of demarcation between flat and sculpted surfaces, expressed in a hadith that disapproves of art forms that ‘create a shadow’; this is closer to the Jewish original. These concerns are clearly directed towards representations that try to create an illusion of animate reality, an enterprise that might be interpreted as an attempt to imitate Allah, who alone can create life. It is the case, however, that images of plants were used as decoration from the very earliest period of mosque-building.

Islamic Identity and the Image Controversy

The Islamic stance on the use of images for religious purposes was formed at a time when the Christian Church was involved in its own controversy about the subject. Christianity, like Islam, had originally followed Jewish precepts on the matter of images. In the course of time however this influence had receded, but the various Christians communities and sects had came to adopt very different views on the subject. In fact there were serious arguments within the broader Church for centuries as to whether it was proper, or not, to use images of Christ, the saints and the martyrs as an aid to worship. Naturally, as in all theological matters, the partisans on either side were equally fervent in their beliefs. Islam encountered this controversy, and was obliged to intervene, when it conquered the Christian middle-East.

From an Islamic standpoint, the Christian use of images in their liturgy, together with the dogma of the Holy Trinity and various other articles of their faith, simply proved the extent of Christian departure from pure monotheism. To Muslims they were all anathema. In 721 (102 AH) the Umayyad Caliph Yazid II ordered all images (including those in mosaic) to be removed from the Churches within his domains, and all coins bearing figures of the Christian Emperor to be replaced with de-Christianised versions. In the process, Islamic primacy (and self-righteousness) was asserted and Christian faith and practice backfooted.

The effects of this Islamic iconoclast campaign on the Church, both within the conquered territories and in the heartland of the Byzantine Empire, were to be very far reaching. The loss of vast swathes of their territory to the Muslims had already severely shaken Byzantium. There were many who blamed the Churches wealth and arrogance for invoking this divine punishment, and the long-running dispute concerning the use of images became the focus of a power struggle, and a virtual civil war, within the remaining part of the Empire. The Iconoclast Controversy raged on for well over a century, involving the Emperors themselves, some of whom were partisans for, others against, Icon-worship. Much blood was spilt in this crisis, which saw a constant fluctuation of fortunes between the opposing factions.

In the end the Iconophiles won the day in Byzantium. Icons were restored to the Churches in 843 CE (an event that is still celebrated in the Orthodox Church), and their use has continued right up to the present. For the Muslims, of course, the whole episode provided further confirmation (if any were needed) of the grievous errors accompanying Christian belief.

Mizan, Symmetry and Cosmic Equilibrium

Perhaps the most marked and abiding feature of Islam aesthetics lies in its dedication to symmetry principles. The arts of most cultures use symmetries to a varying degree, for various effects – but none place quite so much emphasis on the constraints of symmetry, or use it so consistently across the entire range of their artistic productions. Clearly, this aesthetic response derives from some deeply-held intuition on the underlying principles of existence.

Classical Greek ideas have undoubtedly contributed to this perception (see Background Note #3 - The Philosophical & Scientific Contribution), but the motifs of cosmic equilibrium and the general harmony of the Creation also occur in several passages of the Qur’an: ‘The sun and the moon to a reckoning, and the stars and the trees bow themselves; and Heaven – He raised it up and set the balance’ (Qur’an 55:5). This notion of a cosmic symmetry, symbolised by the balance-scales (mizan), extends to ideas of eschatological justice and retribution, a most important feature of Islamic religious belief. On the Day of Judgement good works and misdeeds will be weighed to ‘an atom’s weight’ (Qur’an 99).

The Mizan is an important and well-known symbol in Islamic theology – some early literalists took the Qur’anic reference to be an actual celestial entity. Interestingly, the term was also used to denote a ground-plan in architecture, and as a technical expression of musical patterns and rhythmic modes. In fact the introduction of symmetry concepts into cosmological speculation has very deep pre-Islamic roots; the scales were an important religious symbol in both Pharaonic Egypt and Zoroastrianism.

The Islamic Paradise (al-Djanna)

The Qur’an refers to Paradise in several suras (chapters). The picture that is painted is of a luxuriant, sheltered garden full of sensual delights, all of which are essentially beyond human imagination – ‘Gardens of Eden that the All-merciful promised His servants in the Unseen’ (Qur’an 19:61). In this exalted place the righteous experience the pleasures of the intellect as well as those of the senses. Not surprisingly, the promise of Paradise became a prominent theme in Islamic preaching.

It is also a major influence in Islamic art. In Islam the gratification of the senses and the search for perfection are not incompatible with spirituality. On the contrary, earthly beauty is seen as a pale reflection of the transcendent beauty of the Unseen. In this view it naturally follows that magnificent architecture and exquisite objects can put the believer in mind of the heavenly paradise to come.

There are many direct references to Paradise in Islamic art and architecture, in mihrabs and prayer mats for instance, the image of the Garden is frequently symbolised, and carpets designs are often reminiscent of an idealised garden. Similarly, the use of floral and vegetal decorative motifs in an Islamic context are bound to refer to al-Djanna, however faintly. Beyond these more direct references however, the transcendent qualities of the delights of Paradise have exerted a broader influence across many modes of Islamic artistic expression.

The high quality of Muslim workmanship in so many fields - in carpets, ceramics, woodwork, the arts of the book and in all the crafts associated with architecture – are well-known, as are its refined standards of taste. The aim seems always to be towards perfection, of style and execution. At their best, the arts of Islam manage to combine the sensual with the spiritual. In this culture, Beauty, represented by colours and forms, and Perfection, as expressed in the production of artefacts, always seem ultimately to refer to the numinousness of the divine.