Islamic Arts and “Arabian Nights Mode”

By Fatima Hye

As a Muslim in America, I always felt that there was a rift in our community. Either you were a practicing Muslim, and therefore had zero interest in the arts, or you engaged in the arts, but weren’t very practicing. In my view, this issue (that other faith-based communities sometimes face as well: when I was growing up, U2 was one of my favorite bands, and I remember that there was a point where they weren’t sure that being musicians was compatible with being good Christians) is fraught with false assumptions and fundamental misunderstandings.

One assumption is that religion and the arts are by their very nature, anathema to one another. In some strict interpretations of Islam, the arts are at most, a road to personal indulgence, shameful sinning, and spiritual ruin, and at the very least, a waste of time. Of course, this interpretation has also beset other religious traditions from the Medieval down to the Puritanical, affecting even some modern day revivalist movements which yearn for reform and a reclamation of “purity”. Although I do not agree with this assumption, I do not offer any real objection to it, because I consider it a valid viewpoint. Perhaps every minute of existence should be spent in service to the Lord with absolutely no earthly distractions, but the majority of practitioners of all faiths would see evidence from the Holy Books or Prophetic practices that would not render such a narrow outcome. In other words, stricter may seem safer, but at the end of the day, this view is still based on human interpretation, and is certainly not the only one possible.

Another assumption is that religious authority is automatically vested with the power to dictate political and personal expression. Admittedly, one of the reasons that the issue of the arts seems more extreme in the Muslim community is that much of the Muslim world does not view itself as something to be secularized. While I don’t find that to be problematic in and of itself, from the outside, Islam definitely seems like a repressive force that restricts people’s right to free expression. It is true that orthodox Islam, like most other orthodox faiths, contains certain limits like the prohibition of blasphemy against God or Prophet (this would include all the prophets, including Moses and Jesus), yet a classical theocracy would also respect individual privacy and hear the grievances of the people. There is no theoretical basis to justify the abuse or misuse of power by so many of our contemporary Muslim leaders. History is riddled with examples of religion being used as a tool for oppression, and unfortunately, our current time is no exception.

Yet, what about the view from within? It is unclear to me why so many in the Muslim community, even in the West, also view artistic expression with such distaste. To examine this question, it helps to remember that the world as we now know it was not always so, and may not be in the future. As Nietzsche said, “All long things are difficult to see.”[1]Recently, I found myself surprised to hear rock songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were quite “Christian” in nature and wondering how that was possible – a friend and fellow philosophy student theorized that in the ‘80s there was a growing movement of evangelicals that declared that rock and roll was the enemy. It was interesting to consider that polarizing political attitudes and increasingly extremist “us-them” thinking could take things that had once co-existed and turn them into diametrical opposites.

Similarly, current social and political trends add to the confusion over the role of the arts in Islam. For example, certain groups of Islamic thinkers may take views that do not necessarily reflect all or even mainstream thinking (the example of Saudi women being prohibited from driving is an example of a very specific ruling that became, for many people, synonymous with Islam’s view of women in general – thankfully, it has since been reversed). There are some Muslim groups that are currently destroying artifacts from non-Muslim cultures, and even Muslim ones, if deemed to be against their own views. Just as American Christianity is not necessarily representative of Christianity as it is practiced all over the world, so Islamic interpretation and practice varies greatly.

What is so surprising, then, is that Islam, unbeknownst to many non-Muslims and even many Muslims alike, nowadays, has had a very rich history in the arts. Yes, even beyond the traditional areas of minaret and mosque architecture, geometric designs and arabesques, or calligraphy of religious phrases. There were actually periods of time when the Prophet himself was represented by Islamic artists! (We might pause here to distinguish between “Islamic” versus “Muslim” art, and go even further to consider an individual artist’s work as non-representative of an entire religion or culture, a courtesy extended to many in the great canon of European artists. Surely no one thinks of Handel as a “Christian” composer or Descartes as a “Christian” philosopher.) Thus, I think it falls upon any intellectually curious person to examine Islamic art through a broader historical context, and it especially falls upon the Muslim community to question from where their own current attitudes originate.

This leads me to the final assumption I would like to address. It may be asserted that, even if considered spiritually neutral, the arts are simply useless. I suspect that in the aftermath of the dismantling of the Islamic Empire and under Colonialism, many Muslim elders began to see tangible, economic success as the onlysuccess. This is understandable – according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, such lofty things as “self-expression” would undoubtedly seem frivolous to those fighting poverty and oppression. (Again, this is a trend seen in almost every human culture.) Yet, the view of art as a monolithic, sinful, materialistic indulgence and time-waster is flawed. Surely one can see the difference between a mindless Hollywood popcorn movie designed to satisfy popular impulses in service of the sole purpose of monetary profit, and a serious work of art that brings forth a powerful message, reaffirms our shared humanity, or gets us to think deeply about an idea, for example, the film Children of Heaven. Granted, certain elements such as nudity, obscene language, or depictions of sadistic cruelty would be objectionable to serious practitioners of any faith, yet, one feels that in the effort to curb some of the more unsavory elements of popular art, we have failed to separate the wheat from the chaff. Our attitudes should not come from moments of weakness or fear. Losing our identity and values is a serious issue, but abstaining from any depiction of the human experience altogether can be just as harmful.

For example, I hardly know a single Muslim who does not watch TV, see movies, or rely on media in one form or another. By restricting Muslim participation, we are doing a disservice to our community because we only hear other people’s voices, but have no voice of our own. It is time we acknowledge ourselves as human beings, part of the human race, and worthy of both listening to as well as sharing our own subjective experiences with the rest of humanity. Thankfully, I feel that more and more Muslims are rejecting the false dichotomy between religion and art which have caused a cultural Dark Age. I am hopeful that we will see a Renaissance of Muslim artists, who release the “Islamic arts” from being stuck in “Arabian Nights mode”, a discontinued relic from a forgotten and glorious past.

Fatima Hye is a Bangladeshi-American Muslim woman who grew up in Houston, TX. She earned a certificate in Islamic Studies from the American Open University in Virginia, as well as certifications in Quranic Recitation and Classical Arabic while in Jordan. She got her BA and MA from the University of Houston, majoring in Philosophy, minoring in Psychology and Media Production. She is currently an adjunct instructor of philosophy and humanities at San Jacinto and Houston Community colleges, as well as a filmmaker focused on idea-based art films. You can see her work at:


[1]Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Tr. Carol Diethe. Ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson. Cambridge University Press. 1994. Pg. 18.


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