Why Islamic art is key in understanding Muslim identity

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Detail from a malong woven by the Maranaos. Abraham Sakili, author of the book "Space and Identity," says that the malong may be the most recognized Islamic art form in the Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — After coming from the encampment in Camp Crame during the 1986 People Power Revolution, Abraham Sakili looked into the mirror and did an initial sketch.

“So, this is me,” he says, pointing to his self-portrait — a man, with an intricately designed headscarf wrapped across his forehead, who looks into a crowd of activists, some of them carrying a banner that faintly shows the word “Moro” and “people.”

A Muslim born in Sulu and an artist whose major contribution in design is the University of the Philippines’ Sablay, Sakili quickly asks me, “Is my self-portrait Muslim art?” To which I reply, “Of course.”

He says Muslim art is not as straightforward as one might think. While it’s true that his self-portrait is considered Muslim art, he says it certainly is not Islamic art.

The difference between Muslim art and Islamic art

Sakili, a professor of art and humanities at the UP College of Arts and Letters, emphasises that the distinction between Muslim art and Islamic art should be made.

National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco, for instance, has done works that portray Muslim culture, such as his painting “Muslim Betrothal,” which depicts a Muslim wedding. It is Muslim art, but much like Sakili’s self-portrait, it shouldn’t be considered as Islamic art because it doesn’t express tawhid or the Islamic idea of worship to one God.

The ways in which artists can express tawhid are explained in Sakili’s book, “Space and Identity: Expressions in Culture, Arts, and Society of the Muslims in the Philippines,” which was published in 2003. And in November 2017, the book was translated to Filipino by the UP Asian Center and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. The book also examines different Islamic art forms, along with other Muslim ways of looking at things that people of other lifestyles and religious groups may not be familiar with.

Understanding Islam, he says, is a prerequisite to understanding either Muslim art or Islamic art. Besides tawhid, the Islamic idea of haram (elements that are prohibited in Muslim spaces, such as pigs, liquor, pornographic materials, gambling dens, and market stalls, among many others) is also immediately introduced in the book.

Photo-1 (Edited).jpg “Space and Identity: Expressions in Culture, Arts, and Society of the Muslims in the Philippines” was published in 2003. In November 2017, the book was translated to Filipino by the UP Asian Center and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. Photo by JL JAVIER

“I imagine my audience are the non-Muslim readers, then they would find this idea foreign to them,” he says. “But to the Muslim, haram is innate and the Muslims automatically understand what haram is.”

With various prohibitions on what Islamic art should be, this then seems to pose a limitation to the Muslim artist. He explains that the practice of haram is not an issue of restraint, as haram is a strong measure of defining the Muslim identity.

“To the Muslim, Muslim identity is clearly defined by this ruling of what is haram and what is not haram. So to be a Muslim, is to really, absolutely, observe what are haram by Shariah and Islamic rules.”

Sakili contends that if the intention of the artist is just pure expression then that art is not haram, but if the intention is to portray an idol or make a representation of God, then it must not be considered Islamic art.

Sakili also says that the the highest kind of Islamic art is calligraphy, particularly, Islamic or Arabic calligraphy because it automatically or immediately represents oneness of God. In fact, he says, there are still Muslim art writers who still consider calligraphy as the only form of Islamic art, and those who would go as far as shunning painting as an art form.

“[Others disregard painting] because it is an attempt to imitate or to duplicate God's capacity to create. [They say] only God can create [and] humans should not exert efforts or should not attempt to do the act of creation,” he explains.

The styles and techniques of Islamic art

As mentioned, expressing the Islamic idea of tawhid is the absolute indicator of Islamic art. Sakili says that artists who want to succeed in doing so must follow certain styles and techniques.

He shares that the expression of the art should be generally abstract — no reference to humans or animals, human or animal representations, and human expressions. Another technique is to denaturalize the medium.

“For example, [if an artist uses] wood or marble, [the artist should] introduce an intricate design over the surface,” he explains. “The idea is to arrest the attention of the looker away from the materiality, and in order to contemplate the higher force, the divine.”

He also says that the artist can use infinite patterning to denaturalize the surface. “Infinite patterning … would remind the viewer of the attribute of God as transcendent, having no beginning, no ending, all-present, all-powerful, omniscient, omnipotent in life,” he says.

2 (1).jpg After coming from the encampment in Camp Crame during the 1986 People Power Revolution, Abraham Sakili did a self-portrait on canvas. This piece he says shouldn't be considered Islamic art, as it was only an expression of his experience of EDSA revolution, and not an intention to portray an idol or to make a representation of God. Photo by PORTIA LADRIDO

When asked whether a Christian or Buddhist artist can just employ these techniques to have their works regarded as Islamic art, he says that they can. He further explains that inversely, even if the artist is Muslim but does not express tawhid, then at most, one can say that his work is a Muslim art done by a Muslim artist, but never Islamic art.

Despite these rules, Sakili says that there are still artists who would consider their art as Islamic art but actually don’t qualify the standards set by the proponents and scholars of Islamic art. “Muslim theologians are always on the watch to shun away those elements that would endanger the integrity of so-called Islamic expression,” he says.

The different Islamic arts and so-called crafts

It could look as though Islamic art could not be at its most diverse since it follows similar and specific rules of style and expression. But Sakili says that Muslims, like any other culture or religion, have different ways of practicing religion, noting that Islam was also introduced in the Philippines by various entities — from missionaries to traders — and so, it has become natural for Muslims to also have several forms of practice.

“One of the characteristics [or] features of Islam is its preference for or tolerance of diversity,” he says. “In fact, this is among the commandments of God in one of the chapters of Q'uran.”

This diversity is also seen in the numerous Muslim groups in the country. In the book, Sakili introduces their histories to clearly present the differences and similarities in the way they lead their lives, as well as the way they express art.

“There are 13 muslim groups in the Philippines so each group excels in different art forms,” he shares. “For example, the Maranao are accordingly excellent in the use of okkil or okir, this curvy linear motif. The people of Sulu, on the other hand, are experts in weaponry, like the kalis.”

“You have to really strengthen … your personality or your internal identity and at the same time, you must be able to open yourself to ideas coming from the outside.” — Abraham Sakili

 

The book also includes an analysis of the textiles and weaving processes of Muslims from Basilan. Sakili says that textiles, particularly the malong, may be the most recognized within the collective consciousness of Philippine society. But Sakili criticizes how textile weaving, for instance, has been considered ‘craft’ and not art.

“I don't agree with the use of the word craft; this seems to be a means of belittling the status of this art of the indigenous people in general or of the Muslim artists in particular,” he says.

He explains that labeling Muslim artists’ work as craft may be due to factors such as cultural conditioning or cultural leveling, where an idea is constructed by what language dominates mass culture.

“This makes language not really a neutral thing, but sometimes a means of empowering or a means of foregrounding a preferred cultural group or subject,” he says. “This of course has been unjust to those who may not have access to the channel or to the means of disseminating information.”

Muslim identity and dialogue

The marginalization of Muslims in the Philippines and the notion that the Muslim identity is mostly isolated from what constitutes the Filipino identity, with the Philippines having a predominantly Catholic population, may be why Muslim or Islamic art is largely misunderstood.

Sakili says that while Muslim identity is a crucial element of Islamic art, Muslim identity should not be chauvinistic enough that the artist is not able to understand or reach out to other forms of art that do not represent Islam. “You have to really strengthen … your personality or your internal identity and at the same time, you must be able to open yourself to ideas coming from the outside,” he says.

Photo-2 (Edited).jpg The ways in which artists can express tawhid (the Islamic idea of worship to one God) are explained in Sakili’s book, along with other Muslim ways of looking at things that people of other lifestyles and religious groups may not be familiar with. Photo by JL JAVIER

He says that artists, no matter the religion, should foster openness — openness to different cultures, traditions, beliefs, and ways of living. “The best thinkers of both worlds — [in] Islam and [in] Christianity — there were no problems among their greatest thinkers. They were actually friends,” he explains. “They were actually sharing ideas, and then dialoguing, and then engaging in some kind of debate.”

Much like the thinkers and social scientists of the past, Sakili says Filipinos should not be afraid to constantly engage in a healthy, perennial dialogue. He says, “Such dialogue is the one that creates and produces the dynamism to let things forward.”

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“Space and Identity: Expressions in Culture, Arts, and Society of the Muslims in the Philippines” is available at the UP Asian Center. For more information, visit their website.