There exists a widespread belief that Islam can countenance no representational religious art, that any depiction of religious figures will trip the wire of Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage.” Such a belief is so firmly held in the west that it easily underwrote the government-propagated claim that the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi was a spontaneous reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” film, rather than the premeditated assault it now appears to have been.
In fact, as those willing to grant the possibility of dissonance within a centuries-old religion understand, it is not actually the case that Islam so thoroughly outlaws representational art. What we’ve lacked, writes Jamal J. Elias, is a thorough understanding of the historical and philosophical origins of the contentious role of iconography in Islam. In the following excerpt from his forthcoming study, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam, Elias explains his approach to filling this gap in our understanding.
It is often claimed that Muslims do not have icons, idols, or pictures of God or religious heroes; indeed, in modern times, there undoubtedly appears to be a widespread Islamic cultural opposition to depicting human religious figures as well as God in visual form. One need only recall the publicity surrounding the making and release of The Message in 1976—a film about the birth of Islam in which none of the primary characters appears on screen out of concern for Muslim sensibilities. Similarly, one might look to the intermittent controversies over the American comedy cartoon South Park’s allusions to depicting Muhammad beginning in 2005 and culminating in threats against the makers of the series in 2010, causing them to self-censor airings of the relevant episodes. And although the Taliban do not represent a widespread Muslim ideal, their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001 was religiously motivated to some degree, and religiously justified to every extent. More recently, the (at times violent) indignation following the publication of caricatures of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005, and the reaction to instances, threats, and rumors of the desecration of the Qur’an in the United States or in U.S. detention centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Cuba, underscore the obvious fact that Muslims hold complex attitudes toward religious images and objects, and that these attitudes do not reflect worldviews that are either naively unaware of or religiously oblivious to the power of images.
In fact, Muslim attitudes toward religious images and objects display apparent contradictions that not only are shared with Islam’s sister religions of Christianity and Judaism, but also are apparent in the history of image-rich religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. On the one hand, Muslims display a widespread (though not comprehensive) taboo on religious depictions, and a narrower—but still prevalent—distrust of treating material objects as supernatural or divine. On the other, they embrace a religious culture that is rich in images, reacts to the images of others in complex ways, and is spatially focused around an object—the Ka‘ba building in Mecca—and its associated primary ritual of pilgrimage, which incorporates somatic engagement with material objects such as stones and pillars.
It is my purpose in this book to explore Muslim attitudes toward visual images and to suggest strategies of conceptualizing the nature of perception and the ways in which visual objects and images have been and continue to be understood in various Muslim contexts. I am concerned with what people see and perceive when they are confronted with a visual religious object, and with how they respond to it. In the course of the book I offer explanations for the nature of perception within contexts where Muslims consciously believe that they have no representational religious art and, on the basis of that analysis, I theorize about larger issues concerning the relationships among religion, art, and perception. My starting thesis is relatively straightforward and not especially innovative: 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. Modern scholarship has recognized this phenomenon, but it has failed to explore adequately the historical and philosophical reasons underlying it. I would argue that, in fact, Muslim thinkers have developed systematic and advanced theories of representation and signification, and that many of these theories have been internalized by Islamic society at large and continue to inform cultural attitudes toward the visual arts. These discussions are not found in the same contexts as they are in Christendom—the history of which provides a basis not just for academic understandings of Islam but also of art—because of the different evolution of the two religious civilizations.
My contention is that Islamic theories regarding representation and perception should not be sought in theological writings or in those directly concerned with aesthetics or art production. On the contrary, preliminary answers to these questions are found in scientific works on alchemy (how one thing can be made to appear as another), optics (addressing questions of vision and how the perception of an object affects the perceiver), dreaming (addressing issues of imagination and psychology), and in philosophical writings, particularly of the kind belonging to the Sufi metaphysical tradition. Since I am interested in understanding the nature of popular perception, I focus my analysis on readings of important religious, philosophical, and scientific thinkers with a mass appeal rather than works by very interesting but esoteric writers who failed to have a substantial impact on mainstream Islamic society.