Re: Anthropomorphic imagery & religion

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Posted by Stephen Louw on February 03, 1999 at 07:39:27:

In Reply to: Anthropomorphic imagery & religion posted by Tom Cole on February 02, 1999 at 08:30:52:

The discussion above raises a number of interesting questions about the relationship between Islamic belief/culture, and art. Perhaps I could share the following ideas, tying into different threads of the discussion. Firstly, Islamic doctrine and the representation of human images. This is a widely debated aspect of Islam. It is true that the sayings of the prophet (hadiths) imply that these are prohibited. But these are just sayings, to be taken very seriously -- of course -- but in the context of other sayings and Koranic doctrine. Often these clash: for example, the hadith about female circumcision clearly clashes with the prophets other remarks about a women's right to enjoy sexual pleasure. So too with art, and representations of human beings. Doctrine here is by no means as explicit as many contemporary Muslims suggest. Indeed, if we look at great Safavid and, especially, Mogul art, we find that explicit, almost documentary, representations of both courtly and everyday life are commonplace. Shah Jahan period miniatures are a case in point. It is also true to say that Sunni and Shi' interpret doctrine differently. Secondly, we need to periodise our discussion of Islamic doctrine. Much of what is presented as "true Islam" today is indeed an attempt to revive the Caliphate: however this must be understood as a specifically modern, twentieth century / post-colonial (political) project. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most Islamic countries were largely pre-industrial. Religion in the urban areas was clearly Islamic, with organised rituals, highly educated religious leaders, etc. Ernest Gellner calls this High Islam. If anywhere, this is where the prohibition against human images would be observed. In almost complete contrast, religion in the rural areas as Mr Cole suggests was highly disorganised, led by local religious leaders, and infused with local beliefs. Gellner calls this Low Islam. Here spirt and saint worship was the norm, not the exception; and the strange amalgamation between Islam and local beliefs can only be unpacked on a place by place, culture by culture basis, (as opposed to the use of vague terms like "radical", "orthodox", etc.). It is my personal belief that many of the truly strange humanoid images on yomut asmalyks (headless men and women, etc.) owe something to these local spirit beliefs. Finally, I think that all this suggests that Marvin is right: accepting that prohibitions against human imagery are important, but likely to have been ignored outside of the large urban areas, the real question is, why are these so rare? Regards, Stephen

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