FRSEMR 63J - Islam vs. Image?: Visual Representations in Islamic Art





David Roxburgh

Is Islam against images? For reasons that are perplexing and hard to pinpoint, this notion appears to have been promoted by ideas about Islamic doctrine and an endemic hostility toward images which has only been magnified after recent years of religious extremism and terrorism. These include the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, and the Charlie Hebdo mass shooting in Paris 2015 over the cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad. And yet there is ample evidence of making and using images across the time and space of Islam. The stereotype of Islam’s antipathy toward paintings and drawings, etc., has fostered the understanding that calligraphy and geometry flourished because of figuration’s illicitness. These ideas and assertions are misleading and incomplete. The Seminar is an opportunity for personal reflection and to study the issues at stake in questions about the values, forms, and functions of images and examines a broad variety of images produced throughout the Islamic lands from 600–1900. Each week focuses on a selected case study that together span diverse subject matters, mediums, functions, and contexts, and invite thought about a spectrum of modes of representation. We will learn that the condition of images in Islam is as diverse and complex as the religion itself which cannot be reduced to a unified or monolithic expression, to a singular system of belief.

Each weekly meeting is held in the Art Study Center of the Harvard Art Museums with selected works of art.

Course open to Freshman Students Only