Religious Dimensions of Classical and Contemporary Islamic Art


This paper focuses on the work of Egyptian Islamic contemporary artist Ehab Mamdouh who grew up in Saudi Arabia, then moved to Cairo, where he was exposed to religious, historical concepts and art forms, then came back to work in Saudi Arabia to observe the societal struggle raging between traditional and emergent concepts, and the influence of Islam and ideology thereon. The artist conveys a fundamental tenet of Islam, embodied by the five daily calls to prayer, replete with attributes borrowed from classical Islamic art but infused with the contemporaneity of modern art—all in the context of contemporary Islamic art. In Moqeem, Mamdouh replaces the abstract geometric elements of classical Islamic art with an abstract portrayal of the praying worshipper. Mamdouh’s artistic style merges the Islamic milieu of the artist’s upbringing in Saudi Arabia and Egypt with his deep knowledge of the region’s history and architectural heritage. Moqeem is a “veiled” extension of Islamic art, in accordance with the standards by which the latter was classified in the past, yet it is shaped by the cultural development of our society and by the intellectual growth that the artist experienced on an individual level. Through this work, Mamdouh incites us to think and wonder—the true mark of a successful visual artist today.

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Senan, M. (2015) Religious Dimensions of Classical and Contemporary Islamic Art. Art and Design Review, 3, 35-41. doi: 10.4236/adr.2015.32006.

1. Introduction

In the West, the term contemporary Islamic art is commonly used to describe religiously themed works by artists fromMuslim countries; in this sense,itsuggests that the genre is an extension of conventional Islamic art. However,the term is also usedmore broadly to refer to all art produced by artists from Muslim countries, implying here that contemporary Islamic artis the product of the aftermath of September 11,revolutionary political movements in the Arab and Muslim worlds, economic and cultural growth in the Arabian Gulfcountries, and increased attentionto Islam across the globe.

Islamic concepts are present,whether intentionally or unintentionally,in the work of manycontemporary Saudi artists. These concepts are often interpreted, sometimes gratuitously, ashaving a religious viewpoint. However, it cannot be denied thatreligion―and Islam in particular―isa significantinfluence on contemporary art in Saudi Arabia.Furthermore, Muslim society at largeis engaged in an ongoing debate about what is halal(permissible) and what isharam(not permissible) in the visual arts, despite number of the disputedpoints now being less pertinent. Some of these pointsare directly associated with religion:for example, differences in thought or doctrine, the growing number offatwas (religious edicts) on a subject, and the reinterpretation of religious texts. Others arelinkedto art itself, such as the current trend toward conceptual, abstract, and idea-based work that does not rely onrepresentations of living beings.

One such disputed point is the permissibility of representations of living beings. While rare in Islamic art, such depictions do exist. Some researchersconsiderthe prohibitionof representations of living beings in Islamtobe limited to places of worship (Aga-Oglu, 1954; Al-Faruqi, 1985; Arnold, 1965; Creswell, 1946; Grabar, 1973; Issa, 1996) . These findings are evidenced by the position of the Prophet, concerning the imagery of Mary and Christ upon his entry into Mecca. They are furthersupportedby the sermon of Sa’dibnAbiWaqqas, one of the Prophet’s companions,to the crowd when he conquered Al-Mada’inyet neither damagednor objected to the presence of such paintings and embodiments in Kisra’s palace. There areother examples of companions who decorated their palaces with the images of people and animals,including coins produced during the reigns of Muawiyah and Abdul Malik that bore their images, as did other widely used currencies of that era, particularly in Hellenic culture (Creswell, 1946) .Furthermore, history records noobjections from the caliphs of the Umay- yad dynasty to such representations, except for Umar bin Abdul Aziz when he entered a bathhouse, although some attribute his protest to the erotic nature of the fresco there (Creswell, 1946) .

An examination of Islamicart in its infancy reveals that theobjection torepresentations of living beings came from the idea that the worshipped (Allah) must not be embodied in a physical form. This contradictsthe prevailing art forms of the era―Greek, Roman, Coptic Christian, Byzantine, and Renaissance, for example―in which sanctified deities were embodied and worshipped.Muslim artists tended to use architectural geometric decorations and Koranic calligraphy rather than human or animal manifestations to represent that which is perceived.These are subjects of discussion partly because the standard of beauty in Islamic art isrelated not to representational skills, as was the case in Greek art, but to the beauty of the idea and its content.As Lois Ibsen Al-Faruqi(1985) states,Arab artists relied on abstraction because they were children of an abstract culture or one that relied on abstract artistic thought, particularly considering that art forms predating Islam in the region relied on abstraction at the expense of detail. Al-Faruqifurther notes that Arabs did not take up human representative art forms until they came into contact with other cultures through migration and expansion, whereby they spontaneously adopted the forms and copied some techniques, as can be seen in the Umayyad-era Amra Palace.

While representations of human beings are rare in classical Islamic wall frescos, the prevalence of such illustrations in books and pamphlets, particularly in Persia and India, confirms that these were indeed practiced art forms.For this reason, it is important todifferentiate between worldly and religious art forms in Islam.The for- mer deal with representations of living beings, while the latter disregard such representations, even in relatively contemporaneous periods such as the Umayyad era, when worldly buildings, such as palaces, were adorned with statues and drawings borrowed from ancient and contemporary art while religious buildings, such as the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, were devoid of them.

2. EhabMamdouh

Born in Egypt in 1975, EhabMamdouh Ahmad Hilmi, also known as EhabMamdouh, grew up in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. An aspiringfilmmaker who took to heart the ideathat one must be wellversed in the past to understand the present and future,Mamdouhstudied history, particularly the history of cinema, as part of his liberal arts education. After graduation, he gained experience at local cultural events as well as those organized by foreign cultural centers in Egypt and pursued further study in digital production techniques, graphic design, and advertising, among other disciplines.Over the last 16 years, he has worked as a director and film producer, focusing on subjects such as identity, religion, the Arabian Peninsula, and Islam.

In conjunction with his film work, Mamdouh has long been interested inthe visual arts and considers everything he sees from an art history perspective,all within a religious, historical, and cultural framework. Visits to historical mosques for Friday prayers and frequent tours of Islamic art museums,both beginning at an early age, exposed him to religious and historical concepts related to ancient Egyptian art, Fatimid and Mamluk Islamic monuments, and other art forms that have characterized Cairo throughout Muslim history.In addition, his love of reading on a multitude of subjectsled him to publish a magazine entitled Bank of Arts,for which he served as editor in chief and artistic director.

Mamdouhwas greatly influenced by his mother, who specialized in Islamic studies. He went on repeated pilgrimages to Mecca to perform the hajjwith his parents and subsequent visits to Egyptian historical mosques in Cairo. He was also inspired by ancient Egyptian art,which disappeared from the Egyptian scene during various periods of colonial occupation but returned with the liberation of Egypt,manifesting itself in the work of such pioneers as painter Mahmoud Said (1897-1964) and sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934).

Followinga period during whichhe concentrated on filmmaking, Mamdouh’s senses became reinvigorated by the Saudi fine arts scene. He became drawn to the visual arts movement that was then thriving in Riyadh’sexhibition halls,one that focused on visually depictingongoing social conflicts. Art spread thanks to an economic boom, the cultural stimuli that accompanied that boom, and an (hypothetical) openness onto the world, where visual arts took their cues from works being exhibited in London, New York, and Venice.

Mamdouhobserved the societal struggle raging between traditionaland emergent concepts and the influence of Islam and ideology thereon, as well as their effect on Saudi art, which, to some extent,had become ideologized as a result of the influences and temptations engendered by the world stage. Here,then,his old love reemerged, helped along by the technical and digital skills gained through his journey in the filmmaking arena. This gave rise, after three years of work, to the Muqeemproject, through which the artist conveys a fundamental tenet of Islam, embodied by the five daily calls to prayer, replete with attributes borrowed from classical Islamic art but infused with the contemporaneityof modern art, all in the context of contemporary Islamic art.

3. Muqeem

Muqeemis derived from the second pillar of Islam, prayer, and takes its name from the Koranic verse “O my Lord! Make me and my offspring the callers[Muqeem(s)]to prayer, and accept my supplication O Lord”. It also comes from the idea that group prayer, one of the five duties of Islam, which follows the call to prayer and ends with a set of beautiful, rhythmic movements, clearsthe soul through sacred spiritual practices and reestablish the believers’ presence in the material and social world, subsequent to their pure, ritualistic contact with their maker.

Mamdouhrecreatesthis important tenet of Islam as an artistic element in his work via a symbolic representation of Muslim ideology,affirmingboth its continuity andits significance in the lives of people today. Instead of choosing the act of prayer as a title, hechose the act of calling to prayer, alluding to the need for a reexamination of contemporary Islamic art, on one hand, and a myriad of social mores, on the other. Through this work, Mamdouhexplores the call to prayer as a factual act and prayer as an act that cannot be proven to have occurred, in light of the harsh repercussions associated with religious practices in contemporary society, or the affirmation of the individual’sattempt to perform his or her religious duty, regardless of any social, political, economic, revolutionary, or partisan circumstances that may be developing around him or her.

In Muqeem,Mamdouh uses a repeating pattern of geometric designs that is derived from classical Islamic art―and yet distinct from it―to portray living organisms, nay, more than living organisms: Muslims, in fact, practicing one of the most important rituals of Islam, prayer. Is the artist trying to combine two conflicting elements or is he attempting to merge two related ones? This provocative contradiction excites the viewer’s curiosity butcanbe perceived as less inflammatory because ofits abstract portrayal of human elements combined with the hallowed act of prayer.

Traditionally, religious edifices (mosques) have beensacred places not to be adorned with decorative representations of human beings; all representations therein areto be of God alone. Yet here, using modern techniques,Mamdouh merges the worshiper and the act of prayer itself through geometric decoration. He thus depicts, for the viewer’s benefit, how Islamic art has changed both qualitatively and intellectually in tune with contemporary art worldwide, while maintaining an intellectual awareness and structure that are real, unadulterated, and unideologized.

Mamdouh replaces the abstract geometric elementsof classical Islamic art with an abstract portrayal of the praying worshipper. This produces a similar overall impression but one that is more appropriate formodern times, when art transcends the concept of serving religion to ultimately express human thought, all the artistic components of whichcan be discussed, not only those relating to religion. Today, in a Muslim country where religious rites are regularly practiced, prayeris an importantinfluence in people’s daily lives. Mamdouh uses prayer as the symbol to represent himself in his art, though he uses it in a unique manner,employingboth modern abstraction and the abstract art of ancient Arabs whoendeavored to conceptualize their God, religious arts, and symbols.

Mamdouh’sartistic style merges the Islamic milieu of the artist’s upbringing in Saudi Arabia and Egypt with his deep knowledge of the region’s history and architectural heritage. The element forming method he uses was inherited, as is the case with all Egyptians, from artistic characteristics dating to the second millennium BCE. This was the result of his constant exposure to the ancient Egyptian style of sculpture and portrayal, characterized by an unambiguous technical methodology for depicting living beings, according to beliefs long associated with the region and its ideologies(Figures 1-6).

Figure 1.Untitled 2-077-Square-W, curtesy of the artist and AlāanArtspace.

Figure 2.Untitled 5-106, curtesy of the artist and AlāanArtspace.

Figure 3.Untitled 6-0141-B, curtesy of the artist and AlāanArtspace.

Figure 4.Untitled 10-095, curtesy of the artist and AlāanArtspace.

Figure 5.Untitled 10-095, curtesy of the artist and AlāanArtspace.

Figure 6.Untitled 20-043, curtesy of the artist and AlāanArtspace.

4. Conclusion

Muqeemis a “veiled” extension of Islamic art, in accordance with the standards by which the latter was classified in the past, yet it is shapedby the cultural development of our society and by the intellectual growththat the artist experiences on an individual level. Through this work, Mamdouhincites us to think and wonder, the true mark of a successful visual artist today.


This paper is based on an essay I was approached to do by Alaan art space; Founding Director Naema A. Al-Sudairi and Mary TeelingHead of Curatorial Program, it had their believe, support and enthusiasm, not to mention the essay had the insight of the artist EhabMamdouh.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Aga-Oglu, M. (1954). Remarks on the Character of Islamic Art. Art Bulletin, 36, 175-202.
[2] Al-Faruqi, L. I. (1985). Islam and Art. Islamabad: National Hijra Council.
[3] Arnold, T. W. (1965). Painting in Islam: A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture. New York: Dover Publications.
[4] Creswell, K. A. C. (1946). The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam. Ars Islamica, 11/12, 159-166.
[5] Grabar, O. (1973). The Formation of Islamic Art (rev. ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.
[6] Issa, A. M. (1996). Painting in Islam: Between Prohibition and Aversion. Istanbul: Waqf for Research on Islamic History, Art, and Culture.

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