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Muhammad ‘Abduh and images

“A joy for the soul and a pleasure for the senses”: in these words Muhammad ‘Abduh described the painting in a chapter of his Account of a journey in Sicily, published for the first time in instalments in 1903 in an Egyptian magazine disseminated throughout the Muslim world. At that time ‘Abduh was the Grand Mufti of Egypt and the star of Muslim reformism. The journey to Sicily afforded him an opportunity to reflect not only on the relationship between Islam and the West but also on that between the Arabs’ past and present. In the correspondence translated in this article the author argues in favour of the “usefulness” of images and of their legality in Islam. In the Islamic world today this text still serves as a reference for those who are defending the visual arts and the artistic patrimony against the attacks of Islamist trends. It is even more interesting for the aspects which link it to its time and for its original work of cultural translation than for its current timeliness. ‘Abduh recognizes the value of painting and sculpture on the one hand as a “patrimony”, an essential component in the creation of a national memory and identity, and on the other as part of an aesthetic which continues to rotate around the word. From a rhetorical point of view images are “useful” because they express better than words the meanings that the latter transmit yet they are nevertheless always at the service of the word, like the miniatures in scientific or literary texts. Ultimately, ‘Abduh suggests, every cultured Arab can recognize that the artistic patrimony has a function comparable to that of the literary tradition, and can appreciate the value of painting because he knows the cognitive value of the imagination and the efficacy of figurative language. The other cultural translation which ‘Abduh proposes is the correspondence between idolatry, the cult of Christians saints and the cult of Muslim saints, which in his epoch was still the pulsating heart of Muslim piety. Just as he was influenced by positivism in his utilitarian conception of art, so too was ‘Abduh influenced by Protestantism in his condemnation of the devotion to saints. From this viewpoint his text – which we publish below – promotes and accompanies not only the birth of artistic trends of European inspiration, but also the rebirth of the Islamic version of iconoclasm.

The usefulness and legal status of sculptures

Sicilians preserve with extraordinary care images drawn on paper and fabrics, just as happens, on a far greater scale, in the museums of larger nations. The latter certify the dating and attribution of the paintings and compete with such tenacity to ensure they acquire them that some museums are prepared to pay astronomical figures for a single drawing by Raphael. What is truly noteworthy, however, is not the cost of the paintings but the fact that States compete with one another to purchase them, because they consider the masterpieces of painting the greatest legacy that past generations have bequeathed to the newer generations. The same thing applies to statues. In this case the value of the works and the jealous solicitude that they give rise to in nations is all the greater the more ancient the statues are.

If you want to understand the reason for all this, you only need to reflect on the reason why your forebears preserved poetry, keeping it – that is, their books of songs – in their archives, as well as on the reason why our ancients, may God preserve them in glory, made every effort to transcribe, collect and put in order the most ancient Arab poetry which dates back to the pre-Islamic age. It is for this same reason that these people are concerned with preserving paintings and sculptures. Indeed, just as painting is a poetry which is seen but not heard, so in the same way poetry is a painting that is heard but not seen. Pictures and sculptures preserve the memory of the most different aspects of the lives of individuals and of societies, so as to deserve to be called the archive of institutions and human conditions. Let us imagine a person or an animal in a moment of happiness and contentment, serenity and trust; these words have close meanings between which it is not easy to distinguish, but if one sees them depicted in images the differences stand out clearly before the eyes. Or let us imagine a person in the grip of fear and terror, fright and dismay: these terms are not synonymous and I do not write them next to each other for the pleasure of rhyme but rather because they refer to different things. And yet you must rack your brains to explain exactly what it is that distinguishes them, for what state of soul each one is most appropriate and to what external aspect each one of these states of soul corresponds. However, if you look at a painted image, that is, a silent poem the truth is clearly shown to you, bringing you at the same time joy for the soul and pleasure for the senses, through looking. If you want to verify exactly what is meant when someone says “I have seen a lion”, where “lion” is a metaphor which stands for “courageous man”, look at the sphynx beside the Great Pyramid and you will see with your own eyes that the lion is a human being and that the human being is a lion. Preserving these monuments thus means truly preserving knowledge, and showing gratitude to the artisan who created them.

I hope that you have understood something of this discourse. Otherwise, given that here I do not have time to say more, have it explained to you by a philologist, an artist or a poet, as long as they are capable of doing so.

Perhaps at this point a question will well up within you: according to Islamic law, what is the legal status of images which are proposed for the purpose we have described, in other words to represent human beings, showing their feelings and their specific characteristics? Is all this forbidden, permitted, reprehensible, recommended or obligatory? My answer is this: when an artist paints a picture he or she realizes a work whose usefulness is indisputable. Today it no longer occurs to anyone to worship or venerate statues and images. If you find a concrete case before you, you can understand on your own how to judge it or you can turn to a mufti who will give you his answer orally. If you quote the Hadith to him:“The most severely punished of people on the Day of Resurrection will be those who try to make the like of Allah’s creation”, or any other reliable saying of the Prophet with a similar meaning, I am prepared to believe that he will answer you: “these sayings refer to the epoch of paganism”. At that time images had two functions. The first: to enjoy the goods of the world forgetting about the hereafter. The second: to seek a blessing through an effigy with the likeness of a holy man or woman. In both these cases, either the artist does not care about God, or he levels the way to the worship of other gods. When these two circumstances are lacking and the intention is useful, the portrayal of human figures has the same status as that of trees and plants in artifacts. These plant motifs were also used to decorate the margins of manuscripts of the Koran and the headings of the Suras. No legal expert has ever forbidden it, even though the usefulness of the decorations of the Qur’an is debatable. On the contrary, the usefulness of images is indisputable, as we have explained.

Then if you go with sinful intentions to a place in which images are present, relying on the fact that angels, or at the very least those who record sins, “do not enter a house in which there are images”, as another tradition says, be careful! Do not deceive yourself that in this way you will spare yourself the obligation of accounting for your actions. God watches you and observes you, even in a house in which images are present. I really don’t believe that an angel will refrain from following you anywhere you go with such intentions, because of the simple fact that there are images there! If you answer the mufti that the image is always and anyway a potential object of adoration, he will probably tell you that your tongue too is a potential instrument of mendacity. Should we perhaps deduce that your tongue should be tied even if it can tell the truth as well as lies?

In short, I have strong reasons to believe that Islamic law is far indeed from forbidding this excellent means of knowledge, once it has been ascertained that it does not present any threat to religion, either from the viewpoint of faith or from the moral viewpoint. Muslims are in the habit of calling into question only things of obvious usefulness, with the result that they deprive themselves of their beneficial effects. Why do they not instead call into question pilgrimages to the tombs of saints or of so-called saints, those people whose lives are obscure and whose hearts no one has ever scrutinized? Why do they not consult muftis with regard to supplications and prayers of intercession, and to the offerings in money and in kind that are made around these tombs? They venerate tombs as much as or more than they venerate God. To them they address the requests which in their opinion God might not grant, and they believe that they respond to their needs with greater solicitude than Divine Providence. These beliefs are truly irreconcilable with faith in the oneness of God, which instead one can easily reconcile with the representation of human or animal figures, made with the aim of explaining the meaning of scientific terms and of giving a visible form to mental images.

Greek and Chinese painters

 Alexander judges between the Greek and the Chinese painters (miniature from the Khamsa of Nizami manuscript, c. 1455-60, Istanbul, Library of Topkapi Palace)

In the chapter on the “marvels of the heart” in his masterpiece (The Revival of the Religious Sciences),the great theologian Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), explains that the heart is the subtle organ through which the human being knows the invisible realities reflecting them in the form of images. Consequently, when the heart becomes as clear as a mirror it can have direct access to knowledge of the divine without passing through philosophical study, which has its own starting point for observing the world. The results of these two paths of knowledge can be identical, even if their methods are different. Al-Ghazali illustrates the difference with the help of a parable. A king orders two groups of artists, Greeks and Chinese, to paint two opposite walls of a room in order to judge which of the two groups is the better. The two groups work hidden from each other by a curtain.When the work is finished and the curtain is raised, it is discovered that the Greeks have painted a vivid image of the Creation in brilliant colours, while the Chinese have polished their wall and made it so shiny that it reflects the Greeks’ picture perfectly. The famous Persian poet Nizami (d. 1207) inserted this tale in his poem on the undertakings of Alexander, assigning to the Macedonian conqueror the role of arbiter in the dispute. The episode was illustrated various times in the richly decorated manuscripts of Nizami’s poems which were produced between the Middle Ages and the modern age. Dust Muhummad, an illustrator and historian of Persian art in the 16th century, tells the story again in his introduction to an album of miniatures, using it as an argument in defence of the pictorial art based on the distinction between the naturalistic mimesis and the figurative representation of intelligible realities.

Palmyrene relief with veiled women

Procession of veiled women (first century, relief in the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, target of the ISIS campaign for destruction in 2015)

André Grabar includes the Palmyrene relief in the iconographic apparatus of his article Plotin et les origines de l’esthétique médiévale (1945), seeing in it “as it were, a presage of the figures in Romanesque sculpture”. The transformation of the drapery of these figures of veiled women into an almost geometrical motif seems also to foreshadow the abstract decoration of Islamic art. The iconic use of the veil in contemporary Islam is the main theme of the essay by Bruno Nassim Aboudrar, Comment le voile est devenu Musulman [how the veil became Muslim] (Flammarion, 2017).

Samuela Pagani




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 20, 2019