This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)

On May 28th 1453, when the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI entered the “Church of the Divine Wisdom”, Constantinople was under siege. Perhaps the emperor knelt to pray before the Apse Mosaic of the Virgin and Child. Looking up at the gloriously gilded icon of one of Christianity’s most famous images – a young mother sitting on a throne holding a child upon her lap; the saviour of mankind. What would this mortal man at the feet of the almighty have felt? Perhaps, it was hope, the relief of salvation in Christ, or maybe it was fear. Fearful of what the fate of the Eastern Orthodox Church was to be, if the Muslim Ottomans were to storm the ancient city. One can only speculate what the final Roman emperor felt. Yet, he must have been touched when kneeling at the feet of this beautiful Byzantine icon. 

That is the power of religious imagery, its ability to evoke an array of emotions, to touch the soul and mind. For the iconophile, the lovers of sacred imagery, religious imagery serves to enlighten the beauties of God’s creation. For an iconoclast however, depicting the divine is an act of idolatry and sin, arguing that no earthly materials or artists can adequately depict the divine. Iconoclastic disputes have run deeply within both the Christian and Islamic faiths for centuries. 

As the youngest faith within the Abrahamic fold, Islam and its artistic movements were influenced by its exterior contexts. Yet, the Muslim attitude towards religious imagery mostly stemmed from the teachings and practice of the prophet Muhammad. In 630 CE, when the prophet entered Mecca, he expelled from the Kaaba all pagan idols. 

“There were three hundred and sixty idols around the Ka’ba. He began to thrust them with the stick that was in his hand saying: “Truth has come and falsehood has vanished.” [Quran 17:81]

This act of iconoclasm birthed for many historians and art critics the conventional line within Islam, of a firm rejection of any form of idols (known as aniconism). The traditional Western historiographical interpretation of Islam’s approach to idols in religious art focuses on Islam as a primarily iconoclastic religion, which aggressively pushes the removal of idols. Yet, this eludes the distinction between different types of cultural practices within Islam. This article serves to briefly survey such pluralities in the approach to art within Islam.  

Islamic art is a rich tapestry of representations of the divine. The conventional line tends to reject the use of idols (any depiction of sentient beings) based on the teachings of the prophet laid out in the Hadith – the traditions of the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. 

“He who creates pictures in this world will be ordered to breathe life into them on the Day of Judgment, but he will be unable to do so.” Hadith, Sahih Muslim (818-875)

The purpose of prohibition was initially to avoid idolatry. Yet the Quran provides no specific guidelines for the use of images, and iconoclastic practice was never uniform. The conventional prohibition has been interpreted in various ways. Consequently, Islamic art has been typically characterized by extensive use of calligraphy, and geometric and abstract floral patterns in its move away from figurative paintings. 

Muslim artists used geometrical shapes and calligraphy to make repeated patterns as a form of decorative art. Geometric patterns in Islamic art and architecture are regarded as a manifestation of divine and rational thought. In the Islamic worldview the sanctity of mathematics has been more apparent in art than many other things. It is in art that substance of the divine may be found, sacred spaces are created with the aid of geometry and arithmetic in which the complete presence of God is reflected. Mimar Sinan, one of the greatest architects and engineers of the Ottoman empire, adhered to these core values. His masterpiece, the Suleymanie mosque, is a grand example of geometric synchronisation. For example, the mimbar, the platform used by the Imam to deliver sermons, is adorned by delicate patterns that run on both sides, originating from eightfold stars in the middle.

The removal of idolatrous images, however, did not end an interest in figurative art within Islam. When looking at the splendid buildings and palaces of the Umayyad caliphs, one can see an abundance of images decorated in the style of Christian Late Antiquity. Moorish caliphs, similarly, utilised paintings, figurative stone reliefs and sculptures in the adoration of buildings. It is important to note however, that these were rarely used for the purpose of worship.

Still, it is in Persianate manuscript depictions where the religious worship of icons is made more complex. The private medium of Persian and other miniature book illustrations is a small yet rich source of rare depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Depictions have been found to be ranging from Medieval Persian, Timurid, Safavid and Ottoman manuscripts. These images complicate the traditional view that Muslim societies pursued a strict iconoclastic stance. Made for both Sunni and Shia worshippers, manuscripts discovered from the 13thcentury show almost every episode of Muhammad’s life as recounted in the Quran and other texts. These images laid the foundation for a minor tradition of devotional images which exist to this day, from icons adorning homes to a five-storey government-commissioned mural in the heart of Tehran and even to revolutionary street art in Cairo – although the prophet’s face is obscured in both those public drawings.
Just as Constantinople straddles East and West, so too the Hagia Sophia connects the Islamic world with that of the Christian. When Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottomans in 29th May 1453, Mehmed immediately went to the Hagia Sophia. He bent to pick up a handful of earth and proceeded to pour the soil over his turban as an act of humility before God. The basilica of Hagia Sophia became the mosque of Aya Sofya. Yet the beautiful Byzantine icons were not destroyed. Instead ornate Islamic calligraphy and geometric art were added to the wall, beside the Christian art. Today, if you go to Istanbul and visit the Hagia Sophia, you can still see a splendid coexistence of Christian and Islamic art, united in the purpose of worshipping God.