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Eric Ormsby

The Imaged Word

Aisha's Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam
By Jamal J Elias (Harvard University Press 404pp 25.95)
'Supplication to God' and 'Sandal of the Prophet', c1790.

In 'Among School Children', W B Yeats wrote that 'Both nuns and mothers worship images', a line calculated to send shudders of outrage down the spine of any zealous dogmatist, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim. To worship an image is to engage in idolatry; it is to see a divine presence embodied in an object made by human hands. Nevertheless, as Jamal J Elias shows in considerable detail in Aisha's Cushion, his engrossing study of figural representation in the Islamic tradition, the issue is far more ambiguous and nuanced than Biblical or Koranic condemnations of idolatry might suggest. In fact, even these condemnations are not always what they seem to be. Are idols to be smashed because they are false gods or because they are the 'wrong' gods - that is, gods in competition with the 'right' god? With regard to the subtler and more intricate subject of icons, are these to be seen as spiritual 'windows' opening onto a transcendent realm, and to be venerated as such, or are they idols in camouflage, worshipped for their own sakes (and not only by 'nuns and mothers')? As Elias rightly notes, in the end, and perhaps perversely, it is the iconoclasts themselves who 'are the ultimate affirmers of the power of images'.

Though he draws on an abundance of sources, both visual and textual, and in a very wide range of languages - Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu as well as French and German - Elias's focus is consistently on the peculiar nature of representation itself. He sees sacred images - whether icon or amulet, calligraphic frieze on mosque facades or chromolithographs of the 'Sandal of the Prophet' - less as objects of aesthetic consideration in our usual sense than as artefacts conditioned by the expectations of believers and the specific and varied social milieus in which they are produced. Such images may be beautiful but that is, in a way, incidental to their purpose, and Elias is very good at clarifying the meaning and significance of beauty in the Islamic tradition. Though beauty was prized, it was not prized for its own sake on narrowly aesthetic grounds; rather, in Islamic terms, 'beauty is moral rather than purely aesthetic in nature, and is therefore linked to goodness'. He cites the famous and oft-invoked hadith, or sacred tradition, which states: 'God is beautiful and He loves beauty'. It is the beauty of God, whether exemplified in creation or in scripture, from which the beautiful itself derives. Elias is right to draw a parallel with Platonic conceptions of beauty as essentially moral: the influence of Plato's dialogues, and especially of Timaeus, which affirms the beauty of the cosmos as a reflection of its creator and which was translated from Greek and Syriac into Arabic as early as the ninth century, was huge. He might have noted as further evidence of this parallel emphasis on moral beauty that the Arabic words for 'good' and 'bad' - hasan and qabih - also denote 'beautiful' and 'ugly' respectively, just like the Greek kalos and aiskhros.

Elias takes his title from a widely attested hadith in which it is reported that Aisha, Muhammad's favourite wife, once hung a figured tapestry on the wall of their home. When the Prophet objected to this on the grounds that 'angels do not enter a house containing images', Aisha cut the tapestry into cushion covers; according to one report, the Prophet had no objections to this, though according to another, he objected to the cushions too. From this Elias infers that when an object such as Aisha's tapestry was turned into an object of household use, it became acceptable since 'a textile with images does not signify the same thing as it does when it hangs on a wall in one piece'. This is a suggestive anecdote, though no doubt fabricated after the fact - like so many such traditions - to justify the prohibition of images, and it is a rather slender thread from which to draw any inferences, let alone conclusions. Elias knows this, of course. Still, it suits his larger purpose. For he wishes to show that contrary to popular conception, the prohibition on images in Islam is hardly straightforward but crisscrossed with contradictions, reversals and seemingly flagrant instances of defiance of the ban. Certainly, representation flourished, often where least expected. The mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus are radiant with images. True, these are not representations of human figures; yet, in the exquisite desert palaces of the same Umayyads, wall-paintings as well as statuary, often of buxom, blithely topless dancers, abounded. You might argue, as Elias does, that these examples of representation were intended for an elite class, just as the elaborate and lovely miniatures painted at the Persian Safavid court almost a millennium later were commissioned by the affluent and the literate. (The same applied to wine-drinking, sternly prohibited yet lavishly indulged in at court and within circles of literati, as a vast anacreontic literature makes plain.) Even so, 'a complex attitude toward images, and religious images in particular, continues in Muslim society to this day'. Anyone who strolls into a souk in a Muslim country can attest that this is so. (I even seem to recall spotting the jovial, vaguely sinister countenance of Colonel Sanders on the facade of a KFC in iconophobic Riyadh some years ago, but perhaps this was merely the hallucination of a disoriented iconophile.)

To illustrate this complexity, Elias situates his subject in the broadest possible context. Although most of his discussion deals with Islamic conceptions of representation, elaborated with reference to sources as far-flung as medieval optics and Sufi theories of perception, he also devotes substantial sections to other traditions in which the image proved significant, either by its profusion or by its absence. Thus, as might be expected, he gives a good account of the century-long Iconoclast controversy in Byzantium, but he also provides capsule accounts of the role of images in Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. His discussions of Biblical conceptions of the image and the related condemnation of idolatry take on added nuance when he comes to the patristic literature. It was, after all, the Orthodox Father of the Church, St John of Damascus, himself a functionary at the Umayyad court of the caliph al-Hisham, who provided the best defence of icons and by extension, of religious images at large: by virtue of the doctrine of the Incarnation, images act as signs for the senses of the invisible presence of Christ.

Although Elias claims that he bases his speculations on the image in Islam by relying on Arabic or Persian authors who have 'enjoyed broad popularity', this doesn't really work - nor could it. Philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), mystics such as al-Ghazali, or scientists such as the astonishing Ibn al-Haytham, the 11th-century mathematician whose work on optics transformed the discipline, may be renowned - and Elias has a very pertinent discussion of them - but they are hardly 'popular'. For truly 'popular' representation in Islam, you have to turn to such earlier works of Elias as his wonderful On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan (2011), with its fantastically decorated trucks festooned with bold calligraphy together with images of the Kaaba and the Prophet's Mosque. The Pakistani trucks attest to Elias's contention that in the Islamic tradition, where representation is supposedly banned, the Arabic script, as well as its Persian and Urdu variants, is 'intrinsically iconographic'. Such writing 'mimics the "script" of the creation of the world'. Whether incised on the portals of mosques or adorning the fenders of a teetering lorry, it functions not simply as 'text' but as 'an image of the word'.


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Eric Ormsby's Reason and Revelation, his translation of the last work of the 11th-century Persian poet and philosopher Nasir Khosraw, was published in May of this year.


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