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«Figurative» and «non- figurative» in early islamic art

By 28 Giugno 2019 No Comments

The word «image» itself in Islam stands actually for depiction of beings with the breath of the spirit of life (rûh) — hence it appears that only depiction of human or animal figures could be called an «image».


In order to understand Islamic attitude towards images, it is essential to appeal to main Islamic doctrinal sources, namely to Quran, the revealed scripture, and Hadith, the collections of the reports of the teachings, deeds and sayings of prophet Muhammad.

In general, there is no main treatise on images in Muslim doctrinal books. Quran that usually deals quite intensively with various aspects of life says almost nothing about figural representations, therefore it might be concluded that at the time of Mohammad the problem of artistic creativity and images simply did not come up as a significant question requiring some sort of pronouncement or legislation. Even Hadiths related to the question of image are contained not in separated chapter, but in ones about clothing or behavior.

The Arabs in pre-islamic times were steeped in pagan idolatry and the adoration of stones. Christian and Jewish influences was also widespread yet pagan practices and beliefs were prevalent. Therefore the message of Quran was directed towards struggle against paganism and idolatry.

First of two Surahs often used to authorize aniconism in Islam, is primarily referred to the question of polytheism:

«O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone altars [to other than Allah], and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful.»

As we can see, this verse is referred to stone altars, whereas images are not mentioned.

The second Surah that to some extent refers to the question of figurative representations narrates about the first ever iconoclasm that had been carried out by Abraham.

«…When he said to his father and his people, «what are these statues to which you are devoted?»

They said, « we found our fathers worshippers of them.»

He said, « you were certainly, you and your fathers, in manifest error.»

And [I swear] by Allah, I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away.» So he made them into fragments…».

The words for idols in these two Surahs, which are employed for justification of aniconism, are ”al-ansab” and ”al-asnam”, meaning representations, statues or paintings, used for worship. Here again the Quran stands for opposing the adoration of idols, and not of rejecting art as such. Yet these are the very passages that were later used to oppose images.


The “idea of return” to primordial religion of Abraham (Ibrahim) was influential on formation of Islam, as prophet Muhammad presumably was one of Hanifs, group of people who did not accept idolatry and who maintained the pure monotheistic beliefs of the patriarch Ibrahim.   Hence Abraham was a man of importance, the Prophet of Islam repeated his iconoclastic action. According to Azraki, the early islamic writer, Muhammad, after his triumphal entry to Mecca in 630, circled around the Kaaba on his camel, knocked over the 360 idols with his riding crop and while doing this he spoke these verses of Quran: “The truth has come and the falsehood has vanished; surely falsehood is a vanishing (thing)». However, he put his hand over a picture of Mary with Jesus seated on her lap, and said: “Rub out all the pictures except these under my hands». Grabar assumes that the very fact that Muhammad is supposed to have left an image of Virgin and Child suggests that representations as such did not constitute a threat to his vision of his faith.

As for Hadiths, which were based on numerous narrations, sages had spread them orally from generation to generation. As a result, five Sunni and four Shia canonic texts were established. In Shia tradition, in contrast to Sunni, Hadith contain not only words of Prophets but also remarks of Imams. Despite all of the differences in both traditions, Shia and Sunni Hadith collections have many similarities in content. Hadith is the second most authoritative and respectable Islamic doctrinal source after Quran.

Based on Hadiths, three main aspects of emerged aniconism in early Islam could be distinguished : prohibition on creation of idols, impiousness and impurity of any image and the danger of being competitive and impudent to God. Opinion and remarks of theologists considering aniconism influenced the society — although there wasn’t a total prohibition of images and iconoclasm, yet figurative art pieces were excluded from mosques and public places in order to make those ritually valid and pure.

As we know, it is allowed to paint only if there is no animal or human figures being created. In one of Hadiths, It is narrated that one painter, whose sustenance was from his profession, came to Ibn Abbas seeking for counsel. Ibn Abbas said to him: «If you insist on making pictures I advise you to make pictures of trees and any other inanimate objects.» However, there is another version of this story, when Ibn Abbas suggests that painter to depict animated figures headless or depict them looking like plants. Interestingly, this method of beheading images is very well known and widespread. Decapitation of animal and human figures would make those figures look lifeless hence allowable

Yet there are other opinions toward the emergence of the aniconism in early Islam. Oleg Grabar believes that «that the formation of a Muslim attitude toward the arts was the result neither of a doctrine nor of a precise intellectual or religious influence.» According to him, «It was rather the result of the impact on the Arabs of the prevalent arts.» For instance, the monetary reform of Abd al-Malik created a standpoint, that developed in the Islamic society, according to which the use of understandable visual system of writing and of inanimate objects could avoid being confused with Christian or pagan ideology and iconography.

Therefore, under the influence of the contemporaneous Christian world, Islam was aiming to engender official visual symbols of itself, however it could not develop representational ones because of the specific circumstances — in particular because of the unbearable competition with sophisticated christian iconography, visual weakness of its Arabian past that did not possess peculiar representative language that would allow development of new yet comprehensible symbolic forms on its own basis.

Also, Almir Ibric states that the emphasis on the transcendence of God is one of the crucial elements of the discussion concerning aniconism. The fact that God in Islam is appreciated as transcendent means equally that he cannot be expressed visually. Through methods of praying and the obligatory rite, like going around the Kaaba it came to the progressive mental development in order to come to appreciation of the transcendent. With this, the abstract idea developed and resulted in later Islamic non-figurative art.


Despite the overwhelming variety of motifs, Oleg Grabar could organize them in three categories. The first and largest consists of vegetal motives. While palmettes, half-palmettes, grape leaves and bunches, and rosettes predominate, almost every motif of vegetal origin of classical, early Byzantine, Sassanian, Central Asian, and possible Indian ornament can be found at least once in Islamic art as well.

The second group of motifs consists of geometric designs. These can be frames for other kinds of ornaments or they can be the whole design like in mosaics or windows. There are two hypotheses concerning this art of motives. One is that, it is just a translation of pre-Islamic art into a new medium. However, according to Ibric, geometry was as an embodiment of harmony, that in Islamic philosophy is an expression of divine justice, reflection of the inner peace and reference to Paradise. Therefore, here non-figurative art serves as a lighthouse that should guide an artist to «higher artistic mode of expression», to reunification with the Allah.

The third group of motifs is a miscellaneous category. There are all sorts of motifs such as hatchings or dots in ceramics, the motive of an arcade in manuscripts, as well as occasional design with animals or human beings

To conclude, it is important to determine one more time that Quran does not provide any definite judgement referring to figurative representation — it only opposes graven images and idolatry, whereas the an-iconic ideas of the Islam originate from the Hadith collections of both Sunni and Shia. It is doubtless that Jewish outlook impacted Islamic philosophy, however it is necessary to emphasize that Islamic iconographical language developed as a reaction to highly sophisticated Christian art.

Besides, Quran itself has never been a source for illustration, as its beauty and speciality lie first of all in the acoustic appeal. Therefore there was no special need and demand in complex figurative art. On the contrary, due to important feature of the Islam, namely the repetition, the development of non-figurative art occurred as an embodiment of harmony, divine justice and symbol of Paradise.

Although non-figurative designs were in general dominant, there have always been exceptions decorated with figurative representations. The deliberate avoidance of figural representations in early Islamic art led to modifications in the type of imagery, filled with extraordinary symbolic significance given to already known or new forms.

Therefore, in the early period of the Islam figural representations were acceptable, if those representations were not meant for religious purposes. Later, Islam adopted a position opposed to the representational in secular art, and the exclusion of all figurative motifs from religious yet this attitude is not necessarily to be regarded as iconoclastic in the true sense of the word.


Varvara Garib



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