The Issue of Sculptures in Islam

The Taliban destroyed Buddha statues in 2001 because they felt they violated the Quran's ban on idolatry.
... Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images

Unlike in the Western tradition, in the Islamic world sculpture is a minor art form. Because of the Quran's ban on idols and the hadiths against figural representation, what sculpture one found in Islamic art in previous centuries was usually small and portable, made of glass or metal. In the contemporary world, Muslim artists feel free to create sculpture, but the opposition against sculptural representations in certain factions of Islam remains intense.

1 Aniconism

The Islamic opposition to the depiction of living creatures, or aniconism, stems not just from the Quran's ban against idolatry, but the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, known as hadiths. The two specific sayings in the hadiths against figural images are, "On the day of judgment artists will be asked to give life to their own artistic works, and when they fail to do so, they will be severely punished." And, "Those who will be most strictly punished by God on the Day of judgment will be the painters and sculptors." (See Reference 1) The Prophet Muhammad himself was known to destroy figural sculpture and images in an attempt to stop idolatry, which was common in his lifetime (See Reference 2).

2 Adaptation

As Islam spread around the world, it adapted to the different cultures its devotees encountered. For example, both the Umayyads in Spain and the Fatimids in Egypt settled into areas where there was a long history of sculptural tradition. Instead of destroying or banning these sculptures, however, the Fatimids and Umayyads adapted to include sculpture on a small scale and in non-religious contexts. The portable arts such as glass blowing, metalwork and ceramics might include small sculptures of fantastical beasts like griffins, or warriors riding a horse.

3 Contemporary Islamic Sculpture

Because much of contemporary art is abstract, Muslim artists today can create sculptural forms that are both modern and in keeping with the teachings of Islam. One such artist is Sahand Hesamiyan, an Iranian sculptor who uses forms to play with geometric patterns and architectural motifs traditionally associated with Islamic art. To some Muslims, even representational sculpture is now acceptable in a secular context. Said art critic Ashraf Ibrahim, "No one for sure is going to worship a statue now. The reason to forbid statues is finished."

4 Modern Aniconism

Not all Muslims feel as Mr. Ibrahim does, however. In 2006 a fatwa was issued in Egypt against all sculptural representations, including statues made by ancient Egyptians. Although fatwas are religious rulings that only carry as much weight as the person who issues them and are frequently ignored, this particular fatwa prompted concerns that extremists would go so far as to destroy thousands of years of ancient Egyptian art. The idea isn't as outrageous as it may seem: in 2001 the Taliban dynamited statues of the Buddha dating back to the third and fifth centuries.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.