The ongoing controversy of art and Islam

Published on 7 August 2014 in Culture
Mohammed Al-Khayat (author)

Mohammed Al-Khayat


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One Yemeni artist was beaten for having painted  a woman wearing a traditional Yemenis dess (pictured).

One Yemeni artist was beaten for having painted a woman wearing a traditional Yemenis dess (pictured).

From the US to Yemen, the cliché of the starving artist is nearly universal. The word “artist” is nearly synonymous with “struggle” for those who make the pursuit their life’s full-time work, whatever their geographic location. 

Artist Radfan Al-Mohammadi, who is also the head of the Arabian Forum for Fine Arts, has paid a high-price for his art, including the breaking-off of an engagement when the uncle of his future bride learned of his profession. Like concerned relatives around the world, he feared that Al-Mohammadi would not be able to support his daughter.

There was a secondary concern as well. Like many—but not all—Muslims, he feared that his daughter’s fiancé was pursuing a haram (“forbidden”) activity under Islamic doctrine. The subject has been widely debated by religious scholars.

“[The] rulings come from God and his prophet. It is not permitted to re-create the image of a human being under any circumstance,” said Mo’amar Al-Dhafree, an imam at Al-Sunna Mosque in Taiz and a Salafi clergyman.

However, a high-ranking official from the Rashad Union, a Salafi political party, told the Yemen Times the situation was not so straight forward.

Abdullah Al-Hashidi, chairman of Rashad Union's Judicial Authority, laid out the different opinions on the subject, distinguishing between portraits of people and photography.

Portraits of human subjects, as well as statues, are forbidden in his opinion. “This ruling is supported with many authenticated Hadiths [sayings of the Prophet],” Al-Hashidi said. “It imitates the work of God, who is the only one capable of creation.”

Interestingly, it is the modernity of photography that leads Al-Hashidi to believe it is permissible because, in his view, “it did not exist at the time of the prophet’s life and there is no imitation of God’s creation. That is my opinion on the matter, and God knows best.”

The religious permissibility of photography is still debated by scholars, many of whom argue that photography is similar to painting, drawing, or making statues in the form of people. Many of those same scholars make exceptions for IDs, passports, and other necessities of the modern world.

Al-Dharfree disagrees with al-Hashidi on the permissibility of photography.

“Drawing and photography are forbidden in Islamic law. It is clear that photographing creatures with souls is haram,” he said.

Yet another religious opinion is expressed by Yahya Bin Hadi, an imam at the Uthman bin Afan Mosque in Taiz. “There is no problem in fine arts if they convey a specific message about a topic in a positive way, such as caricatures that criticize the status-quo in a constructive and effective way,” he said.

“What is forbidden in art are paintings that entice temptation, such as those of naked woman or of women wearing makeup. However, I believe [non-provocative] paintings are okay, though this is a controversial point on which scholars have disagreed,” he added.

Like Al-Hashidi, Bin Hadi said that the times have changed, and this is what is leading scholars to speculate about and rigorously debate issues relating to art.

Al-Mohammadi finds it disappointing that many people fail to recognize the value of fine art, saying society can reinforce “values, morals, and humanity” through art in ways that cannot be expressed by words. But these people—who believe that such art is forbidden—are not the problem, he said.

It is those who take it a step further that scare him.

Al-Mohammadi has received countless death threats because of his art, mostly through social-media sites and email, but one man was bold enough to approach him at an art exhibition and to threaten him face to face.

Al-Hashidi, the Rashad Union official, says such threats are violent and un-Islamic. “Even if what the artist is doing is un-Islamic, it does not mean that he should be killed.”

Ayman Othman, another young artist, said that he once was physically attacked by a stranger who tore up one of his paintings, depicting a woman wearing a traditional Yemeni dress.

In addition to the threats, “people spread rumors about us, calling us atheists and accusing us of other illegal things,” he said.

While the threats are clearly concerning to Al-Mohammadi, it is the subject of his canceled engagement that seems to pain him most. “My strict uncle ended my engagement to his daughter when he [found out that] I am a painter,” he regrets.  

Othman said artists will receive more respect when the profession is able to financially support artists. “Most parents look at the fine arts as an occupation that does not provide a living,” he said.

Another objection to art that has only gained traction in the wake of colonization of Muslim lands is that much of what passes for fine art today is culturally imported from the West—that it is a purposeful distraction from religion and Yemeni traditions.

Yet the fine arts have been part of Islamic history since the arrival of Islam, and art dons the walls of some of the oldest and grandest of mosques.

Sociology professor Abdulkareem Nasser says one can glean much by examining the status of art during “the peak of Islamic Civilization. An interest in fine arts and music was appreciated; the role of art was evidenced in the greatness of [our civilization] in the past.”

Mohammad Al-Yemeni, one of Yemen’s most famous artists and the owner of Fantasia Fine Arts Studio, told the Yemen Times that whenever he is confronted with opposition, he refers people to books of important Islamic thinkers who have studied these matters and provided rulings on them.

According to Al-Yemeni, those who oppose art are “extremists.”

“While people in the first world compete to hone the gifts of their painters and teach painting in schools to educate students about the importance of this gift, here in Yemen we are still debating whether or not it is permitted in Islam,” he added.

“We find that rulings on fine art take high precedence with clergymen, more so, than say, the denouncing of violence and importance of peace and forgiveness,” Al-Yemeni said. He encouraged clergyman to put their energies towards more practical concerns.