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Images in Islam: Past and Present

Panel III-21, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Recent events ranging from attacks on the Charlie Hebdo publication headquarters to the firing of a Hamline University professor for showing images of the Prophet Muhammad in class have directed public attention to the question of the status of image-making and image-display in Islam. This panel will take a historical and legal anthropological approach to the question of image-making and image-display among Muslims, related to humankind, the Prophet Muhammad, and the divine. It will cover a variety of discussions ranging from the discourse of early Islamic theologians regarding images to contemporary issues of the display of art in post-Arab-Spring Egypt and Tunisia. The panel uniquely covers large swathes of time while considering the various ways that Muslims have negotiated together and explained to one another what images are permissible and for what reasons. The papers will be ordered starting in the present and moving backwards in time, in an attempt to provincialize contemporary controversies. The first paper will look at a series of blasphemy cases in post-Arab-Spring Tunisia, focusing on two prosecutions concerning art. The second paper will examine how contemporary artists in Egypt are navigating issues related to censorship, freedom of expression, and cultural appropriation while explicitly challenging traditional norms and pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in images in Islam. The third paper discusses Qur’anic verses that mention the bodily attributes of God in an eleventh-century late-Abbasid work of Qur’anic exegesis. The fourth paper will examine Fatimid conceptions of images through an observation of medieval jurisprudential texts and material culture that considers their creation and treatment in the 10th century.
Art/Art History
Media Arts
Religious Studies/Theology
  • This paper will examine previously unstudied rulings dealing with the aesthetic concepts of ornament in material culture, specifically pictures (ṣuwar) and human representations (tamāthīl). Examining the rulings of Fatimid chief justice al-Qāḍī al-Nuʻmān (d. 974), this paper will provide important context about the permissibility of creating figural imagery in this early dynasty while discussing jurisprudential rulings regarding textiles in al-Nuʻmān’s legal work titled Da‛āʼim al-Islām (The Pillars of Islam). This paper will argue that Al-Nuʻmān’s jurisprudential discourse demonstrates that the early Fatimids were engaged in a contemporary debate about image-making taking place in the medieval Islamic world, and that the Fatimids provided their own justification to permit its practice in their court, while providing categorizations and typologies of image-making. Engaging with textual, jurisprudential, and material cultural sources, this paper will further our understanding of Fatimid perspective on images in art.
  • This paper will focus on two blasphemy prosecutions that took place in 2011 and 2012 Tunisia: specifically, the prosecution of Nessma TV (precisely its president and two members of his staff) and of an artist who participated in the Al Abdellia art exhibit. The paper will focus in particular on the prosecution’s criticisms of defendants in both cases for their display of images of the divine, in physical as well as calligraphical form, in a film (Nessma TV) and in a painting (Al Abdellia). This paper will argue that prosecutors, and those who filed complaints with the public prosecutor against the defendants in these cases, relied on theological reasoning treated as common sense assertions about the place of images in Islam. This paper will also show that defendants responded by offering mitigating context for their choice to display images of the divine, though without resisting the prosecution’s overall assessment that images of the divine are prohibited in Islam. The paper concludes that common-sense notions of the impermissibility of representations of the divine is difficult to resist and functioned in Tunisia as an effective means of sidelining potentially anti-Islamist public figures in the post-Arab-Spring moment.
  • The Shāfiʿī jurist al-Māwardī (d. 1058) is best known today for his works on Islamic law and political thought. But his work of Qurʾānic exegesis (tafsīr), al-Nukat wa-l-ʿuyūn fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān, remains understudied, especially when compared to those of al-Ṭabarī, al-Zamakhsharī, and al-Rāzī. Yet among al-Māwardī’s writings, the Nukat was the work on which most of his biographers fixated when they accused him of espousing Muʿtazilī views on certain matters of theology. For instance, Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ (d. 1245), the author of a biographical dictionary of Shāfiʿī jurists, devotes half of his biographical entry on al-Māwardī to this very issue, deeming the Nukat to be harmful to its reader’s faith because it contains “unorthodox” Muʿtazilī views presented in a concealed fashion. Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ’s allegations that al-Māwardī’s harbored closeted Muʿtazilī views would be transmitted in later biographical dictionaries, including those by al-Subkī, al-Suyūṭī, and al-Dāwūdī. This paper evaluates these allegations by revisiting al-Māwardī’s Nukat, in particular his commentaries on seemingly anthropomorphic Qurʾānic verses pertaining to God’s bodily attributes (ṣifāt Allāh) such as His hands, face, and eyes. It argues that although al-Māwardī often interprets these verses metaphorically and in line with the Muʿtazilī belief that God cannot have any human attributes, for the most part, he avoids wading into controversial discussions and does not delve into the debates that surround these verses. At times, he simply glosses over a verse without providing commentary. This paper will also situate al-Māwardī’s commentaries on the anthropomorphic verses in relation to other medieval Sunni and Shiʿi commentaries to bring his views into sharper relief. Its notoriety among later scholars notwithstanding, al-Māwardī’s Nukat remains an important milestone in Islamic intellectual history. It serves as a testament to a moment in Islamic history when Muʿtazilī ideas were in such vogue that they entered the tafsīr work of a prominent Shāfiʿī jurist. Furthermore, it speaks to the intellectual flexibility and experimentation that was characteristic of the Buyid period, such that Muʿtazilī theological views co-existed side by side with views considered “orthodox” by later Sunni scholars.
  • This paper focuses on the emergence of the feminist artistic movement in Egypt. The research identifies and analyzes contemporary art practices in contemporary Egypt and examines how they challenge traditional norms and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in images in Islam. This paper will look at new media, techniques, and subject matter that challenge traditional Islamic art forms and themes, as well as exploring how contemporary artists in Egypt are navigating issues related to censorship, freedom of expression, and cultural appropriation. This research also suggests that political forces, from early Islam to today, have played a significant role in politicizing Islamic art, particularly regarding the use of figural imagery. Specifically, this study suggests that authoritarian regimes may have employed double standards in art practices to hide their vulnerability.