The Art of Being Modest: How do Muslim Artists Balance Art and Faith?

By Mohsina Alam.

Most artists will agree that one of the most gratifying and exciting aspects of creating art is having the freedom to experiment, push boundaries, and express oneself without limit. But for Muslim artists, whose artistic production may be guided by their faith, freedom to experiment can become a little more complicated. Speaking to Muslim artists from across the globe illuminated the diverse approaches individuals take to create artwork that adheres to Islamic principles. 

Islam has numerous guidelines regarding what styles of art and which subjects are permissible for artists to incorporate into their work. For example, it is broadly agreed upon by Islamic scholars that depictions of nudity or ‘indecent expressions’ are haram (forbidden in Islam). Realistic drawings and sculptures of God, Prophets, and anything with a soul are also considered haram, or at the very least, are disliked in the religion. This ruling comes from the belief that only God can create living forms, and Muslims should not attempt to replicate this act. 

In these ways, Islam’s rulings on artistic creation and experimentation can seem restrictive. So how do Muslim artists navigate creating art that feels authentic and honest to them without defying their religious values? The answer is, with a lot of research, careful consideration, and compromise. 

Janna Rais, a Muslim artist who is preparing to study the history of figurative art in Islam at master’s level, suggested that the Islamic ruling on drawing figures was something she struggled with during her undergraduate degree. Through further research on early Islamic art, her understanding of the ruling broadened and shifted. She states: “There is significant evidence to suggest that Islamic decoration did know figurative art and although rare in religious buildings, in much of the medieval Islamic world figural art was not only tolerated but also encouraged.” Her research, while not entirely justifying the depiction of living things in art, has in part made her more willing to include outlines of figures in her own art. 

In one of her line drawings which celebrates the female form, she depicts a minimalistic outline of a woman flexing her bicep. Taking inspiration from medieval Islamic artists who strayed away from drawing faces, the woman in Janna’s drawing has no facial features. The drawing’s deliberate omission of facial features could be read as a way to celebrate women in all their forms, across different ages and races. 

Artwork by Janna Rais

For other artists, adjusting the style of their drawings has been imperative for creating work with which they are both artistically and religiously satisfied. Illustrator Maryam Huq, (@vividbymaryam) whilst researching the permissibility of drawing people in Islam, found that drawings with less realistic features were more acceptable than those with a likeness to real life. This encouraged her to draw animals and people in a cartoon-like style, which she says is a “happy compromise” between her art and her faith.

Artwork by Maryam Huq

Similarly for Fatimah Nadeem, the artist behind @fatimah.creates, avoiding drawing human faces and instead opting to depict Muslim women dressed in niqab (face veil) has enabled her to continue creating art that she feels fit within the framework of Islamic principles. Fatimah portrays the face veil as a means of empowering women, evident in one drawing featuring multiple figures donned in the niqab with the slogan ‘GRL PWR’ at the bottom. Creating uplifting representation of Muslim women is a key tenet of Fatimah’s art.

Artwork by Fatimah Nadeem

What became evident in speaking to different Muslim artists is that they do not feel restrained by their religion. Rather, it is a source of inspiration for them. For Janna, Islam’s teachings on the importance of simplicity and modesty in life have informed the minimalist, lightweight, and clean style she adopts in her illustrations. Islam has influenced the content of Fatimah’s art; she explains her work “mostly focuses on the beauty of nature and celestial beings”, inspired by verses of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad wherein they describe a visual image of Heaven. In this way, art becomes a means to celebrate Islam and its ideas for artists, rather than being something that stands in contradiction to the religion. 

Artistic creation in Islam is fraught with tensions and differing opinions. But this has not stopped Muslim artists from continuing to make art which allows them to express their thoughts and feelings. Muslim artists are not monolithic, and have come to their own varying conclusions about how they can balance art and faith. What is pertinent is that religion has not necessarily been a limiting factor for these artists, and has instead inspired innovation within artistic output.

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