Is the Islamic injunction against visual depiction of the sacred as thoroughgoing a taboo as many non-Muslims assume? Jamal J. Elias, plugging his new book Aisha’s Cushion at the Harvard University Press blog, says no :

. . . there is a common understanding that the only broadly acceptable forms of Islamic visual religious arts are architecture and calligraphy. With the notable exceptions of some illustrated books on the life of Muhammad, the tradition of pictorial representation of religious personages in the Persianate world, and the decoration of a few well-known mosques, such a view suggests that there is little pictorial religious art in the Islamic world. Nevertheless, even though Muslims would deny that the divine inheres in objects of human manufacture, visual religious arts (of which pictorial arts are a subset) remain widespread in Islamic society.

Iconoclasm is of course a debate which rent Christianity, as well, from the 700s onward—and attitudes towards it still serve as something of an indicator of theological and denominational placement. It’s true that Islam has taken the farthest position on the spectrum of any monotheistic religion, and considers direct visual depictions of holy figures anathema (though considering Cromwell’s decrees against Christmas lights and sporting events this is perhaps not as singular a tendency as it might appear).

Yet this does not preclude other forms of art like script, pattern design, or “alchemy,” nor even the visual depiction of certain events and people, and Elias is concerned that we do not simply deem Islam an abstract or purely “spiritual” faith, as is sometimes alleged. It often stresses, he says, “somatic engagement with material objects,” including specific buildings, objects, and locations of historical importance.

Read a longer synopsis of his argument here .

Articles by Matthew Cantirino

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