Art and the Muslim Identity

Being Muslim in America today is supposed to be about finding our identities, figuring out a way to balance our cultures and religion, etc., etc. How difficult is that, though, when these days (or months, or years, or your entire life) Islam is only brought up on the news in a negative light?

Photos of Pakistan and Afghanistan show the aftermath of a suicide bomb in the middle of a debris-strewn street. All anyone apparently seems to know about any African country is that it’s home to loads of poor, starving children. Who can even remember how beautiful Iraq and Egypt and Syria are when all we ever see of them are their cities completely war torn and destroyed?

This is why it’s so important to educate ourselves about our history, and to remember that the Islam we are often exposed to is not what Islam is meant to be (and also to remember that we have a responsibility to get our act together as a collective ummah and stop the current media portrayal of Islam from becoming the norm! But that’s probably a topic for another column). And one of the simplest but most powerful ways to do all this is by appreciating the history of Islamic art.

The problem is, art is severely underrated in our own Muslim communities. In this society, when we talk about people being “cultured,” it usually involves a taste for art and music – but these are things that are either ignored or actually looked down upon by many people in our religion. Maybe Muslims have this hyper-iconoclastic attitude about art because we identify Islam as the complete antithesis of idol worship. Or maybe it’s because many Muslims, for whatever reason, don’t find art important at all in the grander scheme of things. This is a terrible attitude that needs to change.

I went to an Islamic school, and a prominent scholar came to our fundraiser one year to speak. Before the event we were talking about the school and I mentioned that we didn’t have an art program, and he was pretty shocked – like, “I don’t know if I even want to speak at this fundraiser anymore” upset about it. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty,” so why wouldn’t an Islamic school place an emphasis on making beautiful art? But this isn’t about me ragging on my old school – which, for the record, I actually liked – the point is, the collective opinion of art in the Muslim community needs to be a lot higher, especially considering its significance in our history.

Our religion is a flexible one that is compatible with cultures across the globe. From the architecture of mosques in Spain to intricate carpet weaving in Persia, Islamic art encompasses a variety of forms, and in its diversity it offers something for everyone.

Doris Duke, an American heiress and the richest woman in the world at her time, spent a huge part of her wealth building a foundation for Islamic art at her own private home (a room from which is pictured above) in Hawaii. She collected artwork during her extensive travels across the Middle East (which was part of her honeymoon around the entire world!), commissioned pieces from India and Morocco, and even had entire works of architecture shipped piece by piece from places like Turkey and Iran and reconstructed in her home. The amount of effort, care, and money she put into thoughtfully preserving these authentic works of art and arranging for them to be beautifully displayed in her home after her death for the public is absolutely amazing.

The universality of this art is what makes it so accessible to everyone and so vital to the task of building bridges across cultures and faiths. More importantly though, it can serve as an inspiration for Muslims everywhere, as it is a beautiful part of our heritage and a part of that Muslim-American identity that can often be difficult to embrace.


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