The Absence of Portraiture in Islam

The identity of the Muslim is a topic much debated and one that is probably not going to be solved in any easy way any time soon, but a much lesser known strand within the idea and perhaps one that could be a more powerful provocation of debate is the unspoken expression of selfhood. That form of expression does not demand understanding on any literal term but in its depiction through art can help to unveil the imposition of the censored image, even if the real absence is not of image, but of person; when the veil is lifted to reveal the hidden expression of personhood we are able to see politics and the ideals of political hegemony transcend its finite rigidity. There is a process of unravelling, and a journey toward the poetic and artistic expression is envisioned.

Veiled Woman by Justin Harris

Veiled Woman by Justin Harris

The traditions which make the form of the living or human image absent in their interpretations of culture and identity are certainly not lacking, but are, by not allowing a fruitful production of art in all its forms, perhaps derailing and in effect devaluing something of the human spirit. That is not to say that one needs to believe or accept that the depiction of the self is in some way a negation of aniconism, if the belief is held dearly that the human form is not to be represented or recreated, then self only needs to express its objective reality, and within an ardent order that makes sense in context to its existence, not through its transcendent subjectivity which might or might not, recreate the spiritual form; soul, life, matter: its objectivity is a reflection and a revelation of its deeper workings; its depiction is its subjective and personal truth.

The practice of aniconism in Islam – that is the proscription against the creation of sentient living beings with its absolute proscription against images of God/Allah followed by depictions of Muhammad and then Prophets and the relatives of the Prophets is a common and widely held view among Muslims, especially adopted by the denomination of Sunni Islam. The idea extends to include all living creatures, including animals.

Partly the reason for this proscription is to avoid the idolatrous worship of beings. Much like it is in certain facets of Christianity; iconoclasm is upheld in places of worship to stand against the worship of anything other than God. In particular for Islam, images which centralise the Prophet and his family, putting aside those found in art forms which illustrate events, are negated virtually everywhere in the Islamic world. In fact we have so little visual portrayals of Muhammad that the only descriptions and representations of him to be found are in the written form in books, or as it is more commonly valued in the Arab speaking worlds, within its oral tradition. Having said this, even a mental portrayal which may be depicted through literature, is prohibited, albeit other than his physical appearance which is selectively measured to contain a significance of his piety and religious character and which should only aid the devotee to aspire toward higher ideals – i.e. those that are attentive and focused on retrospection of God and the cosmological universe.

Isfahan Mosque (Iran)

Isfahan Mosque (Iran)

As for the description of God, we find the offering of attributes of an immaterial nature such as ‘the compassionate’, ‘the radiant, ‘the holy, or ‘the merciful’, rather than any anthropomorphic ones which again might distort or warp the mind of the devotee from its sole devotion of God as an entity outside of human conception. This turning inward to encapsulate religious and spiritual meaning or significance has not been a negative influence on the Islamic tradition and if anything has given rise to the more beautiful and beatific, often decorative sacred arts of geometry and calligraphy, of which much of the western world has taken influence from. The absence of iconography has thus not played a negative role but in effect has positively opened up the sacred arts of Islam.

Artists within Islam, unlike the modern, or postmodern arts of the west, tend not to project themselves outside of themselves, the individual impression plays a smaller role, or rather, play a passive role, one in which the most pertinent and significant symbols are projected within the substance of a communal value system. Rather than art embodying the personal, the individual tends to enter the sacred realm where she is completely at one with the space that occupies everything within and without. Islamic art aims to create ambience, serenity and peace, where nothing, no idol or image of self or person is able to stand. In that space between a person and the invisible presence, the expression of the infinite, the sublime, and the intangible becomes manifest, thus creating a void and eliminating the turmoil and passions of sufferance in the world.

Another reason, an idea that can be traced back to many cultures of the world, is related to the notion that soul equals life. Thus any depiction of a living creature with eyes is a depiction of the soul, as the saying goes – the eyes are the window to the soul; the expression that is given within the eyes which capture thought and emotion are in effect, an extension of ourselves and it is this conjecture, that we human beings, who are the created, dare to depict life, dare to capture the essence of soul. In hindsight, this is a rather old-fashioned, out-dated mode of thought. Modern medical triumphs have shown us that life can not only be recreated from already existent substance, but can be created from its basic and essential form with the same energy that sparked the universe into being. The metaphysical questions of life are not easily decipherable, indeed how one sees the modern world with all of its virtual realities, has moved us far beyond the questions of life or the substance of life within image. In Islam however, the inanimate being, of our human creation, is only a depiction or the object of our desire, and this desire, this non-reality, the ambiguous falsity of ourselves is not the created being’s choice, to give (or to take) – only the Creator, as anti-abortionists would say, has that power.

In hindsight, we can say that abstract art in the west took a turning when it looked towards the east for inspiration. Part of that movement was a process to liberate the self from being confined to a western ideal of self-expression based on literal or realistic interpretation of the world. It raised the spirit to another level where expression was not contained to a traditional set of orders, it denigrated the idea of aesthetics so that what was perceived as high art was made mundane and pointless, as well as reinterpret it so that it did not need to fit into a nice neat niche known within the contexts of beauty or perfection. That ideal of abstraction has always been a part of the Islamic culture and the new modern expression always moves along that vein so that every interpretation is a manifestation of a reinterpretation of its tradition. Islamic art is not lacking, and the figurative, which perhaps has a hard time in the public sphere, still has a strong resonance on a smaller private scale. The point however is that, as a globalised world, we are also immersed in imagery, and perhaps the greater point is that, image is a representation of identity, and individuality. Put aside religious dogmatism, or the dogmatism of authority and allow the opening of the senses, and we find artists such as Shirin Neshat exploring the inner depths of human psychology; of self, of identity, of its deep, dense cultural, historical, and political roots.

Shirin Neshat - Women of Allah

Women of Allah by Shirin Neshat

The proliferation of photographic and filmed images is another heated debate, causing all sorts of controversy, with some religious authorities even stating, for example, that all television is un-Islamic. It is a pedantic subject which raises hundreds of questions. Depicting the self in drawings, paintings, even photographs should not necessarily be the objective of art, rather we should question what is considered right and what is considered wrong in expression or through expression. How for example, do we filter one thing from another, and why, if we express eyes or image, landscapes or portraits, is it vital to do so. The expression should not necessarily need to give the explanation, or aim toward the explanation, the centralisation of character is not the epitome of the artistic expression, nor does it need to be expressed as the ghostly, or the God-like, or the strident embodiment of spirit, soul, and life.

The disadvantage is that artists of the Muslim heritage are limited to producing artwork that is impersonal and distant from their subjective realities, and yet traditional ideas in all sorts of settings are shifting, even if ‘authorities’ on the subjects would rather ignore this. It is a fact of modern society that those shifts are taking place, in both their ambiguous and their non-ambiguous settings, presently. The pillars which once held up the foundations of those perceived truths can also be placed within a transitory history as part of the structural make-up of society. Such ideals are the neurosis of a rigid, relentless, obtuse and unforgiving past. They are the focal objective of postmodernism’s nihilism, the world in which everything is broken down, dismantled, deconstructed and if required, reformed anew. They are merely sentiments vanishing into the ether of non-substance and non-form which can no longer be seen as entities fixed and positioned as the ingrained absolute matters of society, but as the transcendental products of a transitional history. Within the contexts of modernity and globalisation, these are fading dogmatic tendencies of a prehistoric knowledge. The blurring of cultures and traditions, being an inevitable process of modernity is an obvious threat for traditional world-views. And yet within this strain of thought there are endless possibilities, endless hopes which if harnessed, can give rise to newer forms of expression.

From an article by Esha Mirari originally written for Collage Magazine in October 2012

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