Innovative and Revolutionary Are the Two Words That Describe Islamic Art Perfectly

A general overview, analysis and critique of the relationship between Islam and Art in modern times contrasted to the Art that has highlighted Islamic history.

Why we are afraid of revolution, man?

Symmetry. An important part in the art of mosaic, whose symbolic sapphire blue we now take for granted, was not always just there. There on a wall. There at a museum. There on the bathroom wall.

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Fragment of a mosaic tiled wall with Arabic mosaic of an ancient mosque in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Mosaic was revolutionary when it first appeared, the thought of thousands upon thousand of tiny blue squares that when put in symmetrical patterns would create such buildings was unique. Byzantine was in awe. And rightly so. They had seen mosaic before, but no, not like this.

The calligraphy we see in our mosques today, that too shocked the Christians of the time who started to consider whether a series of earthquakes may be connected to their physical drawings and depictions of Christ, the connection more frightening as this new emerging religion equal in thought and religious drive, and now, it seemed, art. People were not used to the writing on the wall in religious places, it all revolved around seeing your God, or deity, or saviour, not the words of a book. Yet Islam did this, it took the circumstances, the guidelines of the Quran and Hadith, and it adapted to create its own unique and characteristic art.

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Islamic calligraphy adorns the interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

Innovative, revolutionary, proud, beautiful, immense, epic, these are all words we can associate with the Islamic art of the early days and indeed Islam itself, the older Islam, which in it youth seemed so much wiser, void of the human corruption. It was an Islam that many aspire to today, different to what it has become and what we have let it become, where we have those claiming a Caliphate yet destroying a heritage so old and that was left to us in the form of Art. A history being destroyed.

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The great mosque of Djenne, the oldest mud building in the world.

Art is all of those things. The same as the first words of the paragraph on top can be repeated here. It was what art symbolizes in many movements and why it is expressed. It invokes emotion and creates a reaction. The English Romantics, the Poets, the Renaissance of Italy, the Greek paintings and philosophy, all of these cultures and societies have created their own art. All with purpose.

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Abbas ibn Farnis inspired Da Vinci’s flight ideas and designs with his own that considerably outdated that of the Italian Renaissance most famous character.

Yet I’m Islam itself we find confusion. It’s almost as if the first question to be asked is ‘bro, is this painting halal?’

Simply put, if it was there in the old days, in a time of purity, well then surely it would be now? We have become so distorted with the multiple fatwas that common sense accidentally might have been ruled against. This leads us back to the suppression of art in modern days when it comes to Islamic communities. Do we as Muslims not have other things to be worrying about rather than arguing trivially over small matters?

And is a channel to addressing such problems in our communities not through the arts?

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This hand made, silk woven beautiful thing (unknown artist, Iran) is apparently not halal, because the old man has eyes. Yes that’s precisely why it is framed and yet somehow on the floor.

In fact I’d go so far as to say Islam is an art. It is ‘The Arts’, after all; art has had a fair few run ins with the law, sometimes not accounted for under the rules of British Law for example, often evading them, and creating a class distinction of their own. Similar like the Sharia run Muslim district of Birmingham, voila! Anjem Choudary is Monet, or at least should be with his days of limelight.

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Resistance Art is a Palestinian based arts collective

The point is though that Islam is being treated the way art once was, as outside and against the law,  a rogue rebel that needs to be contained.

Not only that, but to really practice Islam, or any religion in its pure form, surely that would be classed as an art? If a Chinese tea ceremony is a recognised art form, then I think completely devoting to yourself to a supreme being and trying to keep yourself as mentally, physically and emotionally clean as possible might just pass Grade 1 art class. Can’t cheat though.

Written by Hamza Asghar

Hamza Asghar

Hamza Asghar is a 26-year-old who's currently teaching English in China. He's interested in art, culture and cooking.