Friday, April 29, 2011

A Theological Defence of Islamic Painting


Akbar as a boy, ca. 1557 AD

         A theological defence of the painter on somewhat different lines was put forward a little later by the Emperor Akbar [1], who according to the report of his devoted minister and panegyrist, Abu’l-Fazl, declared on one occasion,  ‘It appears to me as if a painter has quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the Giver of Life, and will thus increase in knowledge.’  Such a defence obviously has in mind the condemnation embodied in the Traditions, discussed above, and attempts to refute it by suggesting that, so far from the art of painting being regarded as blasphemous, it may serve as a stepping-stone towards advance in  divine knowledge.

Akbar riding an elephant, ca. 1609-10,
Staatliche Museen zu berlin - Museen für islamische Kunst

         It is characteristic of the mental attitude of Muhammedan thinkers at that period, as during most others, that this new appreciation of the art of painting should find for itself expression in the language of theology, and seek to confute the unfavourable  judgement of the older theologians with their own weapons.  In Muhammedan literature no attempt has ever been made to work out any independent system of aesthetics or arrive at any appreciation of art for its own sake.

Abu'l-Fazl presenting Akbarnamah to Akbar at court by Nar Singh, 1605

[1]  Akbar in his youth had taken lessons in drawing.  (Abu'l-Fazl, Akbarnamah, translated by H. Beveridge, Vol. II, page 67).

From Sir Thomas Arnold, Painting In Islam.  Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1928.