HRH The Prince of Wales once observed that the Western world needs to re-learn a “sense of the sacred” from Muslims. Indeed, much of the history of art cannot be understood without a sense of the significant of both the holy and the profane. Our common culture is built upon these categories, and the distinctions between them. The question of sanctity arguably lay at the heart of the “Salman Rushdie affair” 30 years ago. It has now reared its head again although, one hopes, on a much smaller scale.
Over the weekend, a small controversy arose in connection with two images displayed in a recent art exhibition by an artist at the Saatchi Gallery in London. At the time of writing, the gallery is closed in between exhibitions.
Both of these works consist of background images overlain with traditional Arabic calligraphy spelling out the shahada, the fundamental declaration of the Muslim faith: There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God. These words are central to Islamic faith and practice and beloved to Muslims worldwide. For readers who are unfamiliar with this text, we recommend the Swiss writer Frithjof Schuon’s Understanding Islam or the American-Japanese couple Chittick and Murata’s The Vision of Islam for full explanations of the sacredness and crucial metaphysical meanings of the shahada.
The background images of the two works, respectively, are as follows: (i) a painting of a nude woman, with one breast visible; (ii) a collage of images of nude women in sexually explicit poses, including depiction of their genitalia. When Usama was approached for a comment on these images, The Times reporter herself described the latter painting as containing “pornographic” imagery.
We’d like to set the record straight. Usama Hasan, a co-author of this article, played no part in the joint decision of the artist and the gallery to cover up these images after complaints from Muslim customers, as reported by The Times. The Times simply asked Usama for comment. Upon viewing the images, Usama Hasan stated accurately that these would be seen as blasphemous and sacrilegious by most Muslims. As we know, we have been involved in a deadly war with religious militants in the West for almost two decades since 9/11. It should therefore be uncontroversial to note that, in these times, there is an element of danger inherent in such imagery.
Quilliam’s 2013 paper, No Compulsion in Religion – Islam and the Freedom of Belief, authored by Usama, and our 2017 study, The Blasphemy in Blasphemy Laws, comprehensively argue against blasphemy and apostasy laws.
The responses of viewers to art which mixes profanity with the sacred will vary. Some may find it uplifting. Others will be horrified. That is to be expected. Those with no religious sentiment at all may well be wholly unmoved. It ought to be a matter of little surprise that somebody who is deeply religious would be shocked by such imagery. The concept of blasphemy has meaning to such a person.
It is also worth stating that erotic art is not absent from the Islamic tradition: however, this has been largely confined to a handful of pieces of literature, such as The Perfumed Garden by the Sheikh Nefzaoui, given the traditional Islamic discouragement of visual depiction of the human form.
When responding to a work of art, it is important to be honest about the impact which it has on us.
David thinks that the Saatchi Gallery should not have covered the images up: Usama agrees with their right to do so. We both believe that any artist has the right to produce whatever they wish and to publish it. Galleries may also, in their discretion, decide whether or not material is suitable for display and promotion. And anybody can express their opinion and complain about or praise a work of art.
Usama Hasan, Head of Islamic Studies
David Toube, Director of Policy