Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Religious Dimension of Art

The Qur’an, by comparison with the Jewish Book of the Law, has very little to say about images. The Torah makes numerous and quite explicit prohibitions against figurative imagery of any kind. By contrast, the few references to idolatry in the Qur’an are not directed to figuration as such. The Jewish horror of divine representation extends even to the accidental creation of images, and the inadvertent bowing before false gods. This extreme image-phobia led to a culture in which art had a greatly reduced role. This is very obviously not the case in Islam. Islamic concepts, whilst regarding pagan idolatry as an abomination, rarely expressed the same abhorrence of non-religious imagery.

The Qur’an constantly reiterates the transcendent and inaccessible nature of Allah, with the implication that the Divine Nature can only be experienced through the Divine Word. For this reason there is no equivalent in Mosques of the sort of iconography found in Christian Churches. But its place is often taken by quotations from the Qur’an, which can be quite extensive, and which gave rise to the rich traditions of Islamic calligraphy as an elevated form of architectural decoration.

Various other Qur’anic themes have contributed to Islamic artistic sensibilities, including the perfection of the Creation; ‘Thou seest not in the Creation of the All-Merciful any imperfection’ (Qur’an 67:3), the divine quality of light; ‘Allah is the light of heavens and the earth’ (Qur’an 35:24), and a pervasive sense of other-worldly esotericism ‘With Him are the keys of the secret things; none knoweth them but He’ (Qur’an 6:59). Each of these qualities contribute to the well-known Islamic preoccupation with the dissolution of matter, for the hints of infinity in the patterns of which it is so fond and for the sense of space that it so often seeks. The aim seems always to escape imprisonment within earthly forms. The unwillingness to accept the ‘counterfeits’ of representation also account for this cultures preferences for abstraction in its decorative schemes.

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