Islam and the Fine Arts

Shehzad Saleem

    It is generally believed that the attitude of Islam towards the fine arts is not very encouraging; it does not nurture the aesthetic sense found in human nature; in particular, it totally prohibits the art of music as well as the art of making human images and portraits. We believe that this view is not consistent with Islam.  
    However, before we present our observations on this issue, it is necessary to keep in consideration two important principles of interpreting the shariah.  
    Firstly, it is only the Quran which prohibits anything in Islam. As far as the Ahaadith are concerned, they only explain something alluded to by the Quran or state the corollory of some principle mentioned in the Quran. They are not an independent source of knowledge on Islam and must have some basis in the Quran, the Sunnat-i-Thaabitah1 or the established principles of human nature and intellect. Consequently, if some Ahaadith mention the prohibition of something, it is imperative to look up its basis in the original sources.  
    Secondly, if a particular matter has been elaborated upon in the Ahaadith, it is necessary to have a complete picture of it by collecting and analyzing all the Ahaadith on the subject. This is essential in order to have some idea of the context and background of what has actually been said or implied.  
    In the light of these two principles, it is evident that:  
    i) As far as the Quran is concerned, there is no mention of any absolute prohibition of music or portrait making. On the contrary, it mentions that the Prophet Solomon (sws) had made many statues and images through the agency of his obedient army of jinns (34:13). Similary, it is also a known fact that one of the other divinely revealed scriptures, the Zaboor, is basically a collection of hymns. The Prophet David (sws) used to sing the various Psalms revealed to him on his harp.  
        ii) If the Quran does not apparently mention this absolute prohibition, it is necessary to re analyze all the Ahaadith on this subject to see whether they have been interpreted correctly.  




    By collecting and analyzing all the Ahaadith on portrait and image making, the complete picture which emerges is that a particular category of pictures and portraits had acquired the status of idols and were worshipped like them. They were regarded as deities by the people of Arabia. As such, they used to consider them alive and capable of granting them their wishes. They used to bow down before them in adoration. Even in the Ka`aba, as a study of its history reveals, besides numerous idols, there were many sacred pictures drawn on its walls. Consequently, there is mention of the fact that the portraits of Abraham (sws) and Ismail (sws) were sketched on its walls. Moreover, Ayesha (rta) has narrated some Ahaadith in which it is stated that the portraits of Maryam (rta) and Jesus (sws) were suspended on the walls of churches and people used to bow before them.  
   Similarly, if all Ahaadith pertaining to music are examined, the real picture which comes to light is that musical gatherings possessed a great element of immorality. Slave girls used to dance before an inebriated gathering, where lewdness was let loose and promiscuity prevailed. They were a means of stimulating base emotions in people. The extent which these gatherings of music and dance had reached can be ell imagined by the fact that even after the battle of Badr, a Companion of the Prophet (sws) as great as Hamzah (rta) was seen witnessing the dance of a slave girl with some of the people of the Ansaar, while they were taking liquor. Inspired by the words of the song the maiden was singing and in a state of deep inebriation, he severed the hemp of a camel standing nearby and brought forth the meat to her.2  
   In the light of this analysis, the prohibition of portraits and music can be easily understood: only portraits which possessed religious sanctity and led people into worshipping them had been prohibited, while music and songs which possessed an element of immorality in them had been forbidden. Both music and image-making, it is clear, were not condemned because of any intrinsic evil in them, but because the former contributed to the polytheistic tendencies of people while the latter was responsible of stimulating base sentiments in a person.  
   The main object of the religion revealed to the Prophet (sws) was to cleanse and purify human souls from evil. All means which promote base emotions in people certainly could not be allowed in the society. He, therefore, strongly took exception to the gatherings of music and dance in order to rebuild the society on healthy lines.  
   Similarly, the Quran regards monotheism as the fundamental article of faith and the Prophet (sws) considered it his duty to eliminate any traces of polytheism in the society; therefore, he ordered for the elimination of portraits and images which had assumed the status of gods. Consequently, if the Ahaadith are carefully studied, the words which cannot be helped missing are `such pictures.. ' and `these pictures...', which point to a certain type of portraits and not to all forms of it. In this regard, another hadith often quoted in support of their total and unconditional prohibition, we are afraid has not been interpreted correctly. The words of the Prophet as quoted in the Sahih of Bukhari are:  

"Creators of images shall be chastised and asked to inject life in them and they shall be unable to do so." (Kitab-ul-Libaas?)  

   The words actually point to the fact we have stated before. The people of Mecca used to regard these images as living beings and as such used to invoke their help. The hadith warns such people and says that those who believe that that these images are living creatures and will save them on the Day of Judgement from the wrath of the Almighty, shall actually be asked to inject life in them on that Day, if they can, to redeem them of their punishment. This demand, of course, would only be meant to add insult to injury.  




   It is evident from the foregoing discussion that the prohibition of music and image making pertains to a few specific forms of these arts. Music which boosts the morale of an army or expresses noble sentiments is perfectly allowed in Islam. Similarly, the art of image making and sculpture, if it does not revolves around immorality or cultivate the sentiments of worship towards something is certainly not disallowed. Similarly, Islam has no objection against photographs which have become a social need in the form of identity cards, passports and a means of information.  

1. By Sunnat-i-Thaabitah is meant the established customs of the Prophet (sws) which were passed on as religion to the Muslim Ummah by a vast majority of the Companions of the Prophet (sws) through their practical consensus or perpetual adherence to such customs. As far as its authenticity is concerned, there is no difference between it and the Quran. Just as the Quran has been transmitted to us by verbal perpetuation of the Ummah, the Sunnat-i-Thaabitah has been transmitted to us by the perpetual adherence of the Ummah to it. 
2. For details see Bukhari, Kitab-ul-Kaghaazi.