Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Hugh Fitzgerald, Jihad Watch: Kenan Malik and the Art that Connects Europe and Islam

Hugh Fitzgerald: Kenan Malik and the Art that Connects Europe and Islam

Recently an article — “Look at art for the deep connection between Europe and Islam” — appeared in the Guardian. The author, Kenan Malik, sometimes a critic of, and sometimes a sly apologist for, Islam, claimed that there was a deep respect in Renaissance Europe for the world of Islam. “Embodied in the Renaissance view is certainly a sense of Islam as the other. But it is intertwined with curiosity, respect, even awe. There is a willingness, too, to reach beyond the otherness of Islam and to see the Muslim world not as demonic or exotic but as a variant of the European experience.” He states this; he does not prove it. Do “curiosity, respect, even awe’’ adequately describe what the people of Western Christendom felt about the world of Islam as they watched, in horror, as the Muslim Turks steadily conquered all of Byzantium, including, on May 29, 1453, what had been for 500 years the largest and most splendid city of Christendom, Constantinople?
Malik offered as his sole evidence of this “deep connection between Europe and Islam” in art a single painting by Gentile da Fabriano, “The Adoration of the Magi,” from 1423,  or rather, he offered a single detail in that painting, in which, the author claimed, he could detect Arabic writing in the halos of Joseph and Mary. But as Robert Spencer has pointed out, this Arabic “writing” was not “writing” at all, but merely the use of what is called Pseudo-Kufic, a script that the Europeans of that time believed was also used in the time of Jesus. Pseudo-Kufic was used as a decorative element, in non-Arabic contexts, usually associated with the Holy Family, especially with Mary. And far from being a sign of respect for Islam and the Arabs, it appears that the artists who painted in a bit of Pseudo-Kufic wished to express a cultural universality for the Christian faith, by blending together various written languages, at a time when European Christians entertained hopes for converting the Muslims.
But Gentile da Fabriano’s painting is significant in a different way. It points out not what connects, but what separates, Islam and Western Christendom. It is a work of art that by what it depicts could never have been produced by Muslims. Not just because it is an example of high Renaissance Christian art, with its subject the birth of Christ. No, it could not have been produced by Muslims because it shows sentient beings. In Islam, the depiction of living creatures in paintings was considered to be forbidden, haram. This prohibition on such depictions comes from the hadith in which Muhammad says an angel will not enter a dwelling that has a dog or images (of living creatures), and from still others where he himself refused to enter a house that contained such images (including those found on curtains and cushions), thus demonstrating in his own behavior, as a Model of Conduct, what all Muslims must emulate. And from this comes the paucity of painting and sculpture in the Islamic tradition. No portraits, no scenes of domestic life, no scenes taken from history, no animal paintings, no religious paintings, no mythological paintings, no statues. Uninhabited landscapes are okay, though rarely produced. Geometric patterns as an ornamental element are best of all.
Set Gentile da Fabriano’s masterpiece, or a hundred thousand other paintings by European artists, beside examples of Islamic art — the geometric patterns of tiles in mosques, the Iznik tulips, the Qur’anic calligraphy — and you will understand the difference between the richness of the European artistic tradition and the deep impoverishment of Islamic art, because of some hadith that long ago prohibited  images of living creatures. Muslim artists have been the first victims of this prohibition, that diminished  their permissible modes of expression.
Kenan Malik might have written a different kind of article. He might have used the Gentile da Fabriano painting as the occasion for an appreciation of Western art, and to take Islam to task for not allowing the human form and face to be depicted at all. He could have written that it was time for Muslim artists to allow themselves the artistic freedoms that non-Muslim artists have always enjoyed, and to slip off the mind-forged manacles that have so limited what their talents, as  artists, were allowed to produce during the last 1400 years. But that would have meant criticizing Islam, in an important matter, that challenges the example of Muhammad himself, and that is something that Kenan Malik, though he has in the past taken issue with aspects of Islam, is not prepared to do.
Hugh Fitzgerald
Hugh Fitzgerald is a student of history and literature, primarily of America and Europe. He admires Jacques Barzun, J. D. Salinger, and Alan Bennett, reads dictionaries for profit and pleasure, and finds particularly appealing the words “recompense,” “quondam,” “magari,” and “degringolade.”
By far the best way to reach him is through the good offices, in every sense, of Robert Spencer; Fitzgerald has an email account, the address of which is, but almost never looks at it.