Teaching Islam through Islamic Art and Literature

By Buchanan, H. Ray | Social Studies Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Teaching Islam through Islamic Art and Literature


Buchanan, H. Ray, Social Studies Review


Responses to the events of September 11 have reminded us again that it is absolutely imperative to reemphasize with high school students an appreciation for learning that generates balanced understanding and sophisticated insights rather than settling for generalized stereotypes and oversimplifications. Too often the actions of radical or conservative fringe groups who take on the cloak of religious justification have resulted in their actions becoming attributed to the whole religion, even to the whole people and their culture. In this tragic circumstance the imperative is not just to focus on the study of Islam, but to approach the history and complexity of this subject with the aim of establishing a firm conceptual perspective as will as with a selfgenerated sensitivity.

A study of Islamic art and literature engages the student in the fundamental concepts regarding the Muslim obligation to submit to the one God-creator with the resulting absolute command to praise God (Allah in the Arabic language) in all aspects of life political, economic, family, and personal - as a total way of life. It demonstrates the absence of theology, priesthood, and religious doctrine (in the Christian sense) and the focus, rather, on behavior and the law that guides behavior and the absence of any division between sacred and secular. It utilizes the structural pattern of the Qur'an and its role as cultural and behavioral authority. Art and literature highlight the creativity of early and contemporary Islamic culture as well as the unity amidst the diversity of Islamic styles and geographically and historically eclectic experiences. Finally, this study provides a conceptual framework for the student that fosters abstract thinking and independent study allowing for the religion and culture to speak for itself. It also allows the student to have a direct and sensitive dialogue with Islam as a basis for current understanding and future learning.

Art "tells the time"; it reveals the culture, ideas, and values of a people and the times as a primary source. Reading this kind of document involves evaluation of the subject: the images and characters and the setting and action. It involves the artist's treatment of the subject through the style: how the artist created the forms, the space, light and shadow, and so on. Most world art in all time periods submit to the rigors of such analysis, except, that is, Islamic art! Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu arts have no problem in portraying images of their sacred figures. But not Islam!

The source of the difference and the starting point of the artistic and literary dilemma for all Muslims is the belief about the nature of God. The central statement of all Muslims is: "There is no god, but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger" (Tawhid). The religious life, therefore, is one of "surrender" ("Muslim"one who surrenders) to the all-powerful and allencompassing God. "God, the utterly transcendent creator of all things, judge of all men, and all knowing and all-powerful, exists from eternity to eternity, and is beyond all reach of men's mind" (Jarrah). The Qur'an states: "No vision can grasp God..God is above all comprehension" (6:103). Thus, any attempt to capture an image of God or to show a divine subject is completely forbidden as idolatry: shirk, which is the act of thinking about anything or anyone on the same level equal to God and is the only unforgivable sin in Islam.

This presents a unique dilemma. The Hindu notion about the thinness and transparency of the separation between this physical world and the spiritual world allowed for human images with certain stylized characteristics (smooth, rounded shoulders; egg shaped head; eyebrows like an Indian bow; and so on) to stand for the Gods and their imminent presence. For the Islamic devotee the situation was reversed: the chasm separating the world of the eternal and the spiritual and this world of physical and temporal reality was virtually unbridgeable! …

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