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Are drawing and painting haraam?

By: Menachem Wecker / The Arab American News

In May, the National Islamic Arts and Culture Foundation hosted the first Islamic Arts Festival in Lansdowne, Va. The artwork ranged from calligraphy to landscapes to less traditional Islamic work, like Asma Ahmed Shikoh’s hijabs mixed with iPods and Islamic super-heroines.

Shikoh is not the only artist producing edgy works with Islamic imagery. A recent Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art show included Hussein Chalayan’s fashion collection “Between,” which features a model wearing only her head scarf. Max Emadi, an Iranian-born artist, recently created a series called Islamic Erotica, with women in burkas assuming American pin-up poses.

Emadi’s Terrorists & Freedom Fighters series depicts President George W. Bush nude in the Oval Office, Osama bin Laden and 9-11 mastermind, Mohammad Atta.

This sort of work raises a number of questions about what Sharia law has to say about representational art, especially nude depictions. Emadi readily admits he is neither a practicing Muslim nor a believer. Though he feels his work contains no nudity, he adds, “Islamic tradition regarding what constitutes pornography and what is appropriate subject matter for art is so rigid that I am sure most imams would consider the work inappropriate.”

His prediction is right on the money. Imam Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini, founding imam of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, Calif., said nudity "absolutely prohibited," because it fails to fulfill the basic tenet of Islamic philosophy: "Everything should remind us of God." Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he is certain that any Muslim who paints nude forms is secular.

According to Ori Soltes, professional lecturer in Georgetown's theology department, there has never been a history of nudity in Islamic art. Soltes cited the "curvaceous forms" of Mughal art as the closest contender, but said "I am pretty sure that you would be hard put to find any legitimate (as opposed to illegitimate or cartoon or caricature-type) nude images."

Scholars hotly debate Sharia law's position on representational art. Some suggest that idolatry has disappeared, making drawing and painting permissible, while others insist that scripture still condemns picture-makers to the fire.

An article on Islamtoday.com, published under the supervision of Sheikh Salman Al-Oadah, addresses the "spectrum of opinion" on the question of depicting human and animal life, from "those who view all image-making to be lawful" to "those who categorically prohibit all drawings of animal life." After considering the evidence, the anonymous author rules in favor of the middle road—that sculpture is prohibited, while two-dimensional works are permissible.

Not everyone chooses this middle road. Mufti Ebrahim Desai of the Madrassah In'aamiyyah in Camperdown, South Africa, responded to a question on his website Ask the Imam on October 18, 2000, with the categorical: "Picture frames and photographs of animate objects are not permissible to display."

Both Imam Yahya Hendi and Mustafa Abu Sway echoed Mufti Desai's citation of education as an exception to the ban on painting. Imam Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, added abstraction as another exception. Though he differentiates between seeing art and creating it, Imam Hendi chooses not to visit museums exhibiting representational works.

Abu Sway, professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, said "One can detect tolerance ... if the human is portrayed in an incomplete fashion."

Others question whether leniencies like leaving out features or using the work for educational reasons are even necessary. Baker Masad, who directs the Amman, Jordan-based Arab Art Gallery, said he knows of no passage in the Qur'an which prohibits the portrayal of living creatures. "What is prohibited is the portrayal of God and creation in the form of idols," he said. "So paintings are excluded from that prohibition."

Oleg Grabar, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, called figurative art "a false problem" for the same reasons Masad discounted it—"There is nothing in classical Islamic thought that would forbid representational art." Grabar added that most of the Muslim artists he knows are "primarily American or rather modern and not Muslim," so calling them 'American and Muslim' is inappropriate. "Would you call Barnett Newman an American Jewish artist or a modern artist who happens to be American and Jewish?”

Mohamed Zakariya, a calligrapher based in Arlington, Va., considers himself lucky, because he does not work naturalistically. "At present, what constitutes Islamic law and its areas of application is very controversial," he said. "Artists are basically on their own, using or ignoring texts as they want. Figurative art, especially realist art, is being done, although it's controversial."

Other scholars argued that the ban on representational art only applies to religious contexts and spaces, like mosques. Rebecca M. Brown, professor of politics and international relations at University of Wales, Swansea, said the ban generally relates to religious spaces, and "many Islamic cultures over time have pursued quite elaborate figural traditions" outside of the mosque. Brown added that artists trained in the Lahore school create figural art, as the Mughals did in their manuscripts.

Juan E. Campo, associate professor of religious studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, views the divide as a Sunni-Shi'a one. Campo said Sunni legal schools tend to ban figurative art in mosques, while "the Shi'a tend to be much more relaxed about this ban." Campo also cited illustrated manuscripts, the "so-called Persian miniatures," which even depict the Prophet Muhammad, early Muslim caliphs and angels. "These were intended for a literate elite, not the masses," he said, "but were commissioned by Sunni as well as Shi'a rulers."

Imam al-Qazwini charted out his own middle road. He said "classical traditionalists" or "radical Islami"” prohibit representation altogether, and some Saudi Arabian citizens frown in their passport pictures to express their distaste for the medium. Others insist that actors playing the Prophet Muhammad cover their faces or turn their back to the camera. "I think when it comes to movies it would be fine," Imam al-Qazwini said as long as the actors have "sound character" and are not known to be corrupt. "People know this is an actor."

Menachem Wecker, who is based in Washington, DC, blogs on religion and art at Iconia.canonist.com.