Islam is unique in that it is the world’s largest purely monotheistic religion wherein Muslims are told to believe in and worship The One God. The body of historical Islamic art strives to glorify The Creator–“God” in English, “Allah” in Arabic. The love and worship of the One God manifests itself in artworks, functional artifacts, decorative and architectural elements, song (especially a cappella songs—known as “nasheeds” in Arabic—traditionally performed without instruments or to the accompaniment of a drum) and the written word (as in the long Urdu poems called ‘Ghazal Shayari’). The great majority of visual Islamic Art and Architecture is devoid of the depiction of realistic human and animal figures. But why is this? Why and how does Islam promote aniconism?
According to Sheikh Mohamed bin Jamil Zino in his book Islamic Guidelines for Individual and Social Reform, the main concern of Islam is to call mankind to the worship of Allah alone discarding all other deities. That means anyone and anything ascribed as a partner to Allah – be it a saint, a dead pious man, idols, statues, or photos – is discarded. This call of Islamic monotheism has been the religion in all senses of the word since the creation of man. Muslims believe that monotheism has been the message of all the prophets of Allah at all times. Allah says: “And verily we have sent among every Ummah [community, nation] a Messenger [proclaiming]: ‘worship Allah [alone] and avoid Taghut’ [false deities, i.e. do not worship Taghut besides Allah] […]” [Quran, 16:36]. It is especially in the masjids and holy places that one will find the strictest adherence to this rule.
Depending on which school of thought a Muslim belongs to, and what evidences they choose to believe, one may believe that all images, photographs, and statues of animate creatures are strictly forbidden. Some Muslims believe that it is better to avoid creating representations of animate living things such as animals or humans and that other inanimate life forms like flowers, plants and trees are safer choices for objets d’art.
Muslims believe that all of their choices and actions in this life are written down and recorded by angels and that on the day of resurrection each person will be held accountable for their good and bad deeds. Because of this basic tenant of Islam we see often that Muslims will choose the Sunnah (way of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and err on the side of caution in their dealings and decisions.
Titus Burckhardt, in his article “The Void in Islamic Art” for the journal Studies in Comparative Religion, states:
Strictly speaking, the forbidding of images in Islam refers only to images of the Divinity; it is thus situated in the perspective of the Decalogue, or more exactly of Abrahamic monotheism, which Islam renews: in its last as in its first manifestation, this monotheism is directly opposed to idolatrous polytheism. […] The denial of idols, and even more so their destruction, is a translation into concrete terms of the fundamental testimony of Islam, the formula lā ilaha illā ‘Llāh (“there is no divinity apart from God”). […] If the prohibition of the image is not quite so far-reaching in other ethnic environments, it is none the less observed in the case of everything forming part of the liturgical framework of Islam: aniconism to some extent becomes co-extensive with the sacred; it is even one of the bases, if not the basis, of the sacred art of Islam.”
Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, was inspired by Allah to smash the idols housed in the kabbah. Ancient pilgrims would come for miles and miles to visit the false deities harbored there, not unlike the pilgrimages many art connoisseurs might make to view a painting or other art object: for example, the Mona Lisa, today. Though modern visitors to the Mona Lisa may not think she has any special powers to heal their ailments or solve their troubles (as ancient pilgrims to the kabba would have thought of their “gods and idols”) they do find Leonardo Da Vinci’s small portrait worthy to visit and would probably mourn her destruction if something were to happen to the small canvas painting. The basic tenant of Islamic aniconism includes that creating objects that are intended to be false gods is a sin and that even images that are not intended by the artist to be worshipped, perhaps created to only be enjoyed temporarily, could indeed turn into worshiped objects in the future. Just look at how some artists’ works are given special places in their owners’ homes or given whole rooms or walls to themselves. One could say that the Mona Lisa is “worshiped” in a way because six million visitors make a pilgrimage to see her every year, she is kept under lock and key, and what is she more than a figure on canvas ̶ but how many people would mourn her if she were destroyed?
The concept of abandoning false deities, pagan gods, and the Christian trinity was further expounded upon by Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, after receiving his first revelations from Allah in 610 CE. The rules and restrictions for art-making come from the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, as we find in the following examples.
Muslim artists often quote a translation of meaning of a maxim of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, saying: “Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.” [Sahih Muslim] to stake the claim that art-making, regardless of subject matter, is not only condoned in Islam but encouraged. But while engaged in art-making, many Muslim artists also heed other warnings set forth in the Hadith as well.
In the respected hadith collections of Al-Bukhari and Muslim, narrated from Abu Talhah, may Allah be pleased with him, we read that the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said; “The angels do not enter a house in which there is an image.” We are to understand from the further explanations of his companions that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, meant the images of creatures that have souls.
So here artists are warned against painting, drawing or sculpting people or animals that appear too life-like. The challenge for the Muslim artist for the last roughly 1400 years has thus been: how to create a symbolic piece of art without representing animals or humans and without tempting the worship of icons and partners to Allah by including figures in our art?
Many artists practicing these principles turn to geometric designs, architectural elements, arabesques, calligraphy, and non-photorealistic human forms. Paintings and sculptures by contemporary artists like Janet Kozak or Salma Arastu, sometimes still contain figurative silhouettes. The beings are not anatomically correct, they are merely approximations of figures. They may contain a congregation of “beings” facing towards the middle of the painting (i.e. towards Mecca), or a figurative scene evoking a feeling of dancing or community consultation, also known as “shura” in Arabic.
Historical and contemporary Islamic artists employ geometrical designs in their work, at times for quotation purposes (in reference to known historical landmarks and artworks), for graphic effect, or for their meditative qualities. Some modern Muslim calligraffiti artists like eL Seed, Aerosol Arabic, Sanki, Inkman, and others combine calligraphic elements with political slogans and moraled messages.
In Eva Wilson’s Introduction to Islamic Designs for Artists and Craftspeople she explains,
[…] Geometrical designs are basically very simple: they may be constructed with only a compass and a small rule and the knowledge of certain procedures which produce triangles, squares, hexagons, stars, etc. The designs may be reduced or enlarged with great ease. By repeating these procedures, and through further division and the addition of straight and curved lines, almost limitless elaborate variations may be achieved. Once the grid has been laid down there is scope for individual experimentation. Although these designs often appear highly complex there are no mysteries; all that is needed is a logical approach and a steady hand and nerve. The best way to understand the geometrical patterns is to draw them.”
In Islamic artworks we also see extensive use of tesselations which are repeating, and sometimes interlocking geometric designs. Muslim mathematicians made this type of artwork possible by developing algebra and trigonometry. Most traditional mosques use some element of tessellation in their design, construction, or decoration. Tilings with translational symmetry can be categorized by wallpaper group, which are mathematical classifications of two-dimensional repetitive patterns based on the symmetries in the pattern. Such patterns occur frequently in Islamic architecture and decorative art. There are 17 possible distinct groups of which all seventeen of these patterns are known to exist in the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain.
These common “starter patterns” include a seven circle pattern, squares, octagons, eight-pointed stars, and others. Repeat units can also be constructed on a grid structure. Keith Barry Critchlow, a leading expert in sacred architecture and sacred geometry and former professor of Islamic Art at the Royal College of Art in London, in his book Islamic Patterns explains: “A circle surrounded by six circles of the same size produces a hexagon-based pattern. This seven-circle pattern is commonly used in Islamic art, both as a design in its own right and as a grid for pattern making.”
In Geometric Concepts in Islamic Art, Issam El-Said and Ayșe Parman write that large-scale designs typically cover entire areas with a geometric framework creating shapes often filled with other motifs such as leaf scrolls. One method of producing such frameworks uses repeat units based on a geometric grid of octagons or other repeating shapes.
Muslim artists employ the above techniques, and others, to create their geometric foundational grids and patterns. These fundamental methods, in addition to ornamental and functional calligraphy, enable Muslim artists to avoid figurative representations and employ sacred geometry to represent the Divine as they understand Him. In this way they keep away from prohibited actions and to prove their obedience to Allah and His Messenger Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Aniconism is central to historical and contemporary Islamic Art and Architecture and will remain so as long as Muslims are educated about the core precepts of their religion.