Aisha's Cushion

Aisha's Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam

Jamal J. Elias
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 370
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  • Book Info
    Aisha's Cushion
    Book Description:

    Westerners have a strong impression that Islam does not allow religious imagery. Elias corrects this view. Unearthing shades of meaning in Islamic thought throughout history, he argues that Islamic perspectives on representation and perception should be sought in diverse areas such as optics, alchemy, dreaming, vehicle decoration, Sufi metaphysics.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06739-4
    Subjects: Religion, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface on Abbreviations and Conventions
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue: The Promise of a Meaningful Image
    (pp. 1-26)

    A famous hadith account describes how Muhammad’s wife, ‘A’isha, acquired a tapestry with images on it which she hung on a wall in their home while the Prophet was out of the house. When he protested to the tapestry on his return, ‘A’isha cut up the fabric and used it to make cushions, which subsequently were used in their home without any objection from him. Accounts of the Muslim conquest of Mecca in 630 ce relate how, when the Ka‘ba was being emptied of its idols and images at Muhammad’s command, he placed his hand over a painting of the...

  5. 1 Representation, Resemblance, and Religion
    (pp. 27-42)

    The interest in representational images often cloaks an ontological concern with mimesis, where sculpture is seen as more mimetic than two-dimensional representations. Sculpture’s very plasticity lets it resemble the living referent more closely than images do, which opens it to attacks for being more deceptive precisely because it is more “real,” threatening to destroy the border between the living being (be it divine or human) and the copy, which verges on being a clone, capable of taking the place of its prototype, or at least confusing the viewer as to which is the original and which the copy. Stories of...

  6. 2 The Icon and the Idol
    (pp. 43-83)

    In a narrow sense, the term icon refers to any image that serves as the object of organized, ritual, religious veneration by Christians belonging to the Orthodox Church. Although in a contemporary context the term (from the Greek eikōn, or “image”) brings to mind portable, painted, religious images on wood, canvas, or glass, for the purposes of this historical discussion neither the portability of the image nor its medium is relevant. Therefore the category of “icon” as the word is being employed here also includes frescoes, mosaics, prints on paper, and statuary. The concept of the icon carries relevance for...

  7. 3 Iconoclasm, Iconophobia, and Islam
    (pp. 84-99)

    There is, of course, no basis to make any historical argument suggesting that the nascent Muslim community of the seventh and eighth centuries adopted its attitudes toward images and their veneration directly from the Byzantine church. On the other hand, it is obvious that early Muslims situated themselves quite squarely within a Christian and Jewish historical context. Several factors, including that the Qur’an was seen as a definitive scripture abrogating the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, demonstrate that Christianity and its material and intellectual environment were living concerns for early Muslims. Among the many other relevant issues demonstrating this...

  8. 4 Idols, Icons, and Images in Islam
    (pp. 100-138)

    The belief that Islam represents a revolutionary break from the earlier history of Arab society is central to the religion. Pre-Islamic Arabia is referred to in historical, religious, and literary sources as an age of “ignorance” (jāhiliyya) that was eradicated by the arrival of Islam, the religion of surrender to the will of the one, true God. In the opinion of some Muslim scholars, and certainly in the view of wider Muslim society, jāhiliyya characterizes not just pre-Islamic Arabia but also any contemporary society that does not correspond to an Islamic notion of acceptable religious practice, in particular, to a...

  9. 5 Beauty, Goodness, and Wonder
    (pp. 139-174)

    The majority of scholarship on Islamic art has conceptualized its subject using patterns that are familiar from writings about Western art. In such a system, the value of true “art” lies in pure aesthetic experience—an exclusively emotional response unblemished by utilitarian or other concerns. By such a reckoning, art that is religious in subject and retains valence as a religious signifier cannot provide the viewer with an aesthetic experience but only a purely religious one that is to be seen as categorically distinct. As has also been the case with scholarship about European art, Islamic art gets related to...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 Alchemy, Appearance, and Essence
    (pp. 175-197)

    The role played by the sciences in the construction of premodern visual and material culture is difficult to quantify. On the one hand, there was an extensive and rich tradition of research in the experimental and theoretical sciences in the early modern and medieval Islamic world. On the other, such learning was definitionally restricted to an educated elite and probably played a limited role in shaping the majority of the population’s conception of the visual and material world. At the same time, however, the priorities in exploring new knowledge displayed in such scientific works reflected the living concerns—in terms...

  12. 7 Dreams, Visions, and the Imagination
    (pp. 198-215)

    Imagination, prophecy, visions, and dreams are integrally linked in much of Islamic thought, which almost universally posits that beyond the physical, quotidian world discernible by sense perception lies another, larger realm. Whether through scripture and theology or through scientific, philosophical, or metaphysical writings, Muslim scholars have maintained that the suprasensible world has an ontological status that is more real and more perfect than the one we perceive through our senses. Prophecy represents a divinely ordained status through which chosen individuals see the “real” world in what is understood to be its “true” relationship to the suprasensible one. Similarly, for philosophers...

  13. 8 Sufism and the Metaphysics of Resemblance
    (pp. 216-235)

    Well-meaning scholars and practitioners who see in Sufism an artistic muse that explains the underlying motivation and message behind the entirety of Islamic visual art have done significant damage to the rigorous intellectual use of Sufi writings in the study of perception (and visual perception in particular) within the wider field of Islamic history. The problem is especially severe in discussions of abstract forms such as the arabesque, which are often seen as representing some inner meaningful system of spiritual signification that can be decoded through a form of mystical insight.

    Earlier scholars have bemoaned the anti-intellectual implications of this...

  14. 9 Words, Pictures, and Signs
    (pp. 236-263)

    Writing, words, and cultures of text have been important since the earliest recorded periods of Islamic history, and a direct link between the scriptural word and cultures of writing and text was made almost immediately after the death of Muhammad. A hadith account on the authority of Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. ca. 732) states that if a man were simply to inscribe “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”—and write it well and carefully—God would pardon his sins.¹ Medieval accounts concerning respected scholars and religious figures reinforce the sacred nature of writing. For example, the renowned...

  15. 10 Legibility, Iconicity, and Monumental Writing
    (pp. 264-283)

    As I have alluded to in previous chapters, several writers have noted that a substantial portion of Islamic monumental epigraphy was not meant to be read, not even by literate viewers familiar with the content of the words. Aside from the fact that ornate, sometimes overlapping, difficult-to-read calligraphic scripts are often used, inscriptions are sometimes placed in locations that are impossible to see from the ground; this architectural use of script is similar to the use of epigraphy and images in Buddhist art mentioned in the Prologue and Chapter 1.¹

    Various explanations have been put forward as to the purpose...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 284-290)

    One might have hoped that somewhere in the vast and rich intellectual traditions of the Islamic world, or in its bejeweled social history, there was to be found a Rosetta Stone, a clavis interpretandi by which to make sense of the nature of the visual image in Islam. Such a key is not to be found; but more to the point, the search for such an interpretive key is a conceptual error because, were a text providing a doctrine or theory of images in Islam to be located, it would only shed light on the attitude toward images of its...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 291-348)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 349-392)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 393-394)
  20. Index
    (pp. 395-404)