What is Islamic art? How should we define it?
I would answer this question by saying that any lawful work of art that stems from an Islamic context deserves to be called Islamic art, even if it does not convey a specific religious meaning. What matters is that, as art, it contributes to building human life, making people more optimistic, more aware, more capable of coping in the world, and more able to coexist and connect with others. Islamic art should help people engage with life in a more positive way. This should be its most important objective. This work of art might have a religious overtone or it might convey a particular moral message, but that is not necessary for us to recognize it as Islamic.
Art is, in essence, a message sent forth by a human being. I do not think we can envision art that is devoid of at least some sort of message. This applies even to popular works that are intended purely for entertainment, amusement or comic effect. Since those works intend to bring pleasure and relaxation to others, they contain a message. It is experienced by the audience who gives the work its reception. It is possible for a person to remember something humorous and relive it in his mind. He might smile to himself or even chuckle. When this is presented to others, it has the power to transmit the same effect to them.
The message of art can have a broad scope, encompassing life in its totality. There are some people who argue contentiously whether the message of art is something specific to itself, or whether it compass embraces life as a whole. I personally feel that art should be for life.
Baudelaire was among the early supporters of the notion of l'art pour l'art
–"art for art's sake" – meaning that art exists only for its own intrinsic, aesthetic value. According to this view, art should not have any other purpose or message. However, when the 1848 Revolution came, his views on the matter changed in his article "Pierre Dupont" (1851), he writes: "By excluding morality and often even passion, the puerile utopia of the school of l'art pour l'art
was inevitably sterile. It was flagrantly contrary to the spirit of humanity."
The arts – whether drawing, calligraphy, or what have you – respond to our natural human sentiments and needs. I believe that art is necessary for making us whole as human beings.
Television & Cinema
Turning to the possibility of our producing dramatic works that are uniquely suited to ourselves and our needs as Muslims, I believe it is high time that we set our minds to it. Rather than preaching about how dark things are, we should be turning on the lights. We must face the fact that in today's world, there is no hiding from the media. The public has full access to it and they know how to get what they want.
What prevents us as Muslims from producing television drama that is dignified and free from lewdness? Why can't we play an active role in the cinema, making decisions about the state of the art and producing films of our own? By doing so, we can communicate positive messages that we want the public to receive.
What is wrong with us having live theatre in each and every one of our cities, with each city vying to excel the others in communicating a wholesome message in the most eloquent, inspiring manner possible while cultivating the tastes of the public? Would it not better for countries like Saudi Arabia to produce their own programs rather than importing everything they watch from overseas?
It is a sad certainty that we as Muslims are the only people on Earth who are incapable of effectively communicating our values and ideals. This is not going to change with a few articles here and there on the Internet. This effort needs to be financed by the business community. Producing quality movies and television programs takes money. There also has to be some willingness from the television broadcasters to support, commission, and purchase such works.
There are also political factors to consider. Some works are suffocated by political considerations and limitations. Political censorship is often quite stiff in Muslim countries and can have a stifling effect on human creativity.
Then there are social considerations. How is the public going to receive what is being produced? It is not desirable for these works to go against the grain society or cause division. What we need are works that will elevate society, be a positive influence, and serve as a source of guidance.
We need to put these matters to serious study. Even those who have serious reservations about the idea should be allowed to play an active role, since this is not a static process, and – as we have seen in many Arabic speaking and non-Arabic speaking countries – these efforts might evolve over time in directions that are incompatible with our religious values and our societal needs. Those who have the most reservations will bring the vigilance that is needed to the process. We need this perspective to keep us on track.
When people adopt the terminology "Islamic" – when referring to drama, television, or any other form of artistic expression – we face the question: Does it have to purposefully put forward Islamic values, or is it enough that it reflects the genuine experience of people in society?
This is a complicated question, because the arts bring whatever subject matter they address into the aesthetic domain as well as the public domain. Therefore, art, no matter how candidly and neutrally it might depict its subject matter, has a tendency to seem to supporting or endorse what it represents. The depiction of the realities of life is something especially prevalent in modern Saudi literature. Many Saudi novels depict and expose aspects of society that are hidden or taboo, but that are certainly present in society for real. This sometimes causes a bit of a sensation within Saudi Arabia and abroad.
On the one hand, there is no point for the arts to misrepresent human experience by presenting a whitewashed, counterfeit, and idealized world that has no relationship to what is going on in reality. At the same time, there is no point in art simply presenting things as they are. People know what goes on in their world, and the arts need to contribute something more to that experience. If a work of art addresses a difficult subject, it should have a purpose in doing so. Art that depicts negative or tragic aspects of our experience might suggest a solution or at least highlight the need for a solution. It might provide insights into the background of what is going or how to understand it, or it might contribute to our ability to cope with the problem's existence.
For drama to be Islamic, what it must not do is aggress against those essential Islamic values that are accepted by all Muslims. For example, it should not debunk Islamic teachings or reject the Qur'ân and Sunnah. It should not seek to dismantle basic moral values.
Islamic art, like all aspects of a Muslims life, should be harmonious. Yet, from the practical perspective, we know that life – even at its best – is not like that. During the Prophet's lifetime, not everything that took place in the society Madinah was according to Islamic ideals. People did not always do what Allah and His messenger (peace be upon him) wanted of them. The people were criticized and corrected at times. Crimes were committed on occasion and people had to be punished for them. Then there were things that were known about but not made public, like the identities of the hypocrites who lived in Madinah and formed part of Madinan society.
We can speak, from one angle, about standards and ideals. We must also speak from a practical angle. Whatever artistic expression an artist might put forth – a poem, a novel, a play, or what have you – it will have its shortcomings. Therefore, everyone who identifies with Islam and has upholding Islamic values as a goal must be prepared to accept criticism. People will never all agree on something that is presented to them. It might be that one's efforts will be rewarded with a severe media attack from one group or another. This is why we need to be qualified, prepared, and ready to understand these matters. We need to study these issues well and have a clear vision and not simply improvise as we go along. Even then, there will be those who accept our efforts and those who reject them. It is the nature of any successful work that it will have its supporters and detractors. If a work of art is responded to with silence, then we know that there is a problem or that its message was not successfully received.
The Role of Fatwa
I have serious reservations about the idea of letting Islamic art works be governed by fatwa – meaning that fatwâ decides which works of art are allowed and which are prohibited. Since when has fatwâ had the power to exclusively dictate the terms of Muslim society? During the Prophet's time, fatwâ was present – along with commands, and prohibitions, advice, guidance, and the decision at times not to expose faults. The same can be said for the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. Thereafter, the society became more diverse and fragmented. As a consequence, responsibilities were diversified and redistributed. Today, Muslim society is not governed by a single factor, but by many. It is led by government policy, by the business sector, by the media, by preachers, as well as by religious scholars. It is led by fatwâ, but also by traditions and customs. There are numerous other factors that contribute to Muslim society and influence it.
I recall one occasion where someone undertook to produce a drama program which he sincerely believed would be of service to Islam. He went to a mufti and said: "This is my purpose and these are my operating principles."
The mufti said to him: "I have no reservations about it. Quite the contrary, I think this work you are doing is good. It is an act of piety. Perhaps it will benefit some Muslims with little knowledge or some non-Muslims and help our cause."
On the strength of that fatwâ, he went ahead with his ambition and spent countless hours and a considerable amount of money on the program.
After some time, people began to say to each other: "So-and-so gave a fatwa for this." They did not stop whispering, gossiping and causing a stir until the mufti in question released a statement declaring himself innocent of the program in question and that he had no connection to it in any way. Instead of that fatwâ serving to support the media effort, it destroyed it. This is because the existence of that effort was based on the fatwâ permitting it. When the fatwâ was retracted, the effort lost all of its Islamic legitimacy as a consequence.
Therefore, I say: people must fear Allah as much as they can and to their best to adopt sensible and balanced principles.
And Allah knows best.