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Christian Iconography and Islamic Symbolism

Randall A. Terry

[A note from Randall: this paper is written with college students and academia in mind; it is less polemic and more detached than some of my other writings on Islam. It is difficult reading at points, but it is worth the effort to keep plowing through to the end. I promise you that you will learn several critical differences between Christianity and Islam.]

I recently had the privilege of spending six weeks in the Middle East on an educational journey.

My primary purpose was to begin my Arabic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and to examine some of the historic sites of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I traveled to many locations in Jerusalem, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey.

Examining historic works of art and architecture of Christianity and Islam were key aspects in my adventure. As a student of Christianity and church history, as well as a student of Islam and Islamic history, the religious art work I saw from both religions provided me with deeper clarity and insight into the philosophical similarities and differences that exist between the two largest monotheistic religions in the world.

I have several goals in writing this paper. First, I want to give a brief philosophical/theological and historical view of Christian iconography. Second, I want to give a brief philosophical/theological and historical view of Islamic symbolism. Finally, I will look at one Islamic “work of art” that is found in one of the most famous mosques in all of Egypt: Al Azhar.

I say "work of art" in quotes not as a slight, but because it does instantly fit into the western minds’ common definition of a “work of art.” In fact, if you look the massive book, "Art History" – which has over 700 pages -- you will notice that there are virtually no works of Islamic art. The exception is found in a brief study of art from India, but even this further proves the point -- it pictures the Taj Mahal (a mosque) and a page from an illuminated manuscript. (Art History, pages 787 – 794) Most of the art discussed from India is Hindu, not Islamic.

The particular item of artwork I will examine is actually a portion of the floor in an entryway that adjoins a crypt in the Al Azhar mosque. The symbolism of this art work was rich with religious meaning, so much so that I visited the location twice, and hired a local Muslim guide to explain to me the details and meaning of the work, as well as details in that Mosque, and four other mosques in Cairo.

However, before focusing on this particular Islamic work of art, and in order to give it greater meaning, I must paint a philosophical backdrop to explain why this floor is at once marvelous and typical as an expression of Islamic devotion. To do that, one must know something of Islamic theology and history.

For reasons of contrast, clarity, and context, the student of art (and history and religion for that matter) must also understand something of Christian philosophy and history as it relates to Christian icons. Since Christianity predates Islam and also serves as a historical backdrop, let us begin there.

For the first 1000 years of Christianity, with one notable exception, the church embraced the use of “icons” as a part of Christian devotion, and as a tool in (but not an object of) worship. “Icon” is a word of Greek origin equivalent of the English word “image.”

The Christian God, or the God of the New Testament, is also the Jewish God -- the God of the Old Testament. Both Jewish and Christian theology teaches that there is one God, and that God is one. One key point where Christianity and Judaism differ is that while Christian theology teachers that God is one God, it also embraces as dogma the three persons of the Trinity -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In terms of "bumper sticker" theology, it can be thus stated: One God, three persons, eternally coexistent. While this is the source of considerable discussion and debate between the Jewish and Christian faiths, it is historically accurate to say that the God of Christianity is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

This is critical in the discussion of art and icons because the Christian Church embraces and believes the Old Testament as a whole and the 10 Commandments specifically. The short version of the second Commandment (according to the Orthodox and reformed ordering) says: “You shall not make any graven images.” (See Exodus 20:4 - 5.) Historically, this was held to mean that the worship of all idols was forbidden, and that images created to portray the Deity, or "any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth..." (See Ex. 20) were expressly forbidden.

With the coming of Jesus Christ, the Christian Church came to view this prohibition as modified. Idolatry was still outlawed; i.e., the worship of idols of wood and stone -- or for that matter, the worship of anything besides God himself -- was forbidden. But because Christ was “…the image (Greek -- icon) of the invisible God,” the prohibition was modified. (See Colossians 1:15) One writer of iconographic history stated the foundation of this reasoning succinctly: “Christ is the first icon in that He revealed the Father ("He who has seen Me, has seen the Father," John 14:8-9).” (Apologia)

Hence, in its strictest sense, an icon is used both as a representative image of the thing it portrays and a means of inducing devotion to the ultimate object of affection it represents -- not the icon. “Like all religious images, an icon has as its purpose acting as a "window to Heaven," a portal through which one sees greater Truths than can be revealed by word alone.” (Apologia)

The following icon writer (classic two-dimensional icons are written, not painted or drawn) explained to Jewish observers how the use of icons in Christian devotion was not idolatry. As will be seen, the same reasoning can apply when discussing icons with devout Muslims: “I sketch and paint Christ and the sufferings of Christ in churches, in homes, in public squares and on icons, on linen cloth, in closets, on clothes, and in every place I paint so that men may see them plainly, may remember them and not forget them... And as thou, when thou makest thy reverence to the Book of the Law, bowest down not to the substance of skins and ink, but to the sayings of God that are found therein, so I do reverence to the image of Christ. Not to the substance of wood and paint -- that shall never happen... But, by doing reverence to an inanimate image of Christ, through Him I think to embrace Christ Himself and to do Him reverence... We Christians, by bodily kissing an icon of Christ, or of an apostle or martyr, are in spirit kissing Christ Himself or His martyr.” (Leontius the Hieropolian, Quoted in Apologia.)

The acceptance and use of icons after the incarnation of Christ had profound theological implications for Christian anthropology: “When Christ incarnated at the Annunciation and was born of the Virgin nine months later, He demonstrated one of the first Biblical Truths: what God made is good, and flesh, while humbling for God to take on, while weak, and while prone to corruption and sin after the Fall, is not inherently evil.” (Apologia)

Following this logic, not only were icons of the Deity permitted, but also icons of apostles, martyrs, and Saints. Since Christ had become flesh, or more broadly -- since he had become matter… the very stuff of this world… we can be assured that flesh and matter and the stuff of this world are good. Humanly speaking, we can make icons of “the stuff of this world” to celebrate and commemorate the great men and women of Faith, even as our Lord and Master became “the stuff of this world” and in his flesh was the perfect Icon of God the Father.

Finally, before we focus on Islamic art, I must explain one more point of theology which will be critical when we examine the origins and cultural implications of Islamic art.

The historic Christian Church is content to live with the tension of her mysteries. How is it that Christ can be fully man and fully God? How can God be one God, yet three persons? How can bread and wine become body and blood? The very word which embodies the height of Christian liturgy – “sacrament” -- is a hybrid of Greek and Latin which means "sacred mystery.” (Webster) The Christian faith has mysteries; and by definition a mystery is something that cannot be fully understood or explained... otherwise it would not be a mystery.

Broader historic Christian theology is also rich with mystery, especially concerning the presence and the purpose of suffering in human existence. Why did Christ have to suffer? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do good people after doing noble deeds suffer ill fates? Why were the martyrs killed? We can join these painful questions with our own personal questions: Oh God, where are you? Why have you forsaken me? Why did you allow this to happen to me? Why did you allow my father to die? Why did my friend betray me? Why did you allow (fill in the blank) to happen?

Rather than avoiding painful questions and theological tensions, Christian iconography portrays and embraces them. Christian iconography is content to help the viewer "see through a glass darkly;” to fearfully and recklessly plumb that which is unfathomable; ever ready to embrace mysteries, and even to provide a source of strength and inspiration from the very starting point of what is painful or inexplicable or confusing.

We (I say “we” in the general sense of mankind) cannot fully understand the dual nature of Christ nor his sufferings, yet we are strengthened and comforted by a crucifix; we do not understand how a virgin can bear the Son of God, but we are content to stare in wonder at the Madonna and Child; we do not understand why we sometimes suffer unjustly, but we find solace in the icon of a martyr. One other point: for the sake of simplicity and brevity, when I use the words icon or iconography, I am speaking of proper two-dimensional icons, as well as three dimensional Christian images in Western Christian art.

Let us now consider Islamic art.

First of all, as with Judaism and Christianity, Islam also forbids the making and worshiping of idols. However, unlike Christianity, Islam does not allow the use of images in a religious context: “Most sects of Islam forbid any artistic depictions of human figures, this being shirk, which originally means "partnership": the sin of associating some other being with the one God, Allah. This is considered akin to idolatry, if not idolatry outright.” (Answers)

Hence, when you enter a mosque, you will never see an image representing God, an angel, a man or a woman, or an animal.

However, not only are images forbidden in a mosque, but in addition to this, most Islamic sects do not practice having images in their homes.

While all of this is understood by Muslims, many Muslims do not know the origin of this theology and practice. One Muslim author writes:

“Most people are familiar with the characteristic arabesques and repeated geometric patterns which characterize and distinguish so many facets of Islamic Art. Fewer, perhaps--even amongst believers--are aware of the hadith, or Tradition of the Prophet, which gave rise to this peculiarly Muslim phenomenon. It is reported that, on a particular day in early 7th century Arabia, the Prophet Muhammad returned home to find that his favorite wife, Aisha, had bought some cushions decorated with illustrations of birds and animals. The Prophet explained that only God could bestow life, and that pale imitations--such as the pictures on the cushions--were better eschewed. The hadith ends on an appropriately admonitory note: ‘The house which contains pictures will not be entered by the angels’.” (CPAmedia)

Instead of art or icons depicting the images of animals or birds mentioned above -- all of which are depicted in Christian art -- Islamic art focuses on Arabic calligraphy, geometric designs, and sometimes vegetation:

“Calligraphy is the most important and pervasive element in Islamic art. It has always been considered the noblest form of art because of its association with the Koran, the Muslim holy book, which is written in Arabic. This preoccupation with beautiful writing extended to all arts—including secular manuscripts; inscriptions on palaces; and those applied to metalwork, pottery, stone, glass, wood, and textiles…” (Islamic Art)

Please note that as with Christian icons -- whose value and place in religious use comes from Christ being the "icon" of God the Father -- the artistic use of Arabic calligraphy is directly tied to the Koran itself. One reveres the Koran and by extension Islam itself by the artistic use of Arabic calligraphy. Please remember: it is not calligraphy in general, but specifically Arabic calligraphy, because the Koran was written in Arabic.

This is a seminal point of similarity and distinction between Christian and Islamic theology, and hence Christian and Islamic iconography and symbolism. Hence, the similarities and distinctions must be fully understood.

Both religions are religions that are “logo-centric;” i.e., word centered. Conversion to Christianity involves a “profession of faith:” one must believe and confess that “Jesus is Lord” (whether in the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, or in the Evangelical sense of a “profession of faith”.) In Islam, one must believe and confess, “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger.”

Both religions claim to have an inspired and infallible revelation from God in word form; the Bible for Christians, the Koran for Muslims. Both claim that their holy book is “The Word of God.”

However, the Christian religion has a dogma that creates a chasm of difference between the two: The Incarnation.

In the Christian religion, the gospel writer St. John says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the father)...” (John, 1:1, 14) Because the Word became flesh -- the Incarnation – and because God clothed himself with the substance and matter of this world, we are therefore permitted to use the stuff of this world -- i.e., matter and icons -- to portray and communicate the Incarnation.

In short: Christ became matter and in his flesh was an icon of the father; therefore, we can use matter to make icons of Christ.

In the religion of Islam, the word does not become flesh. The word remains in printed form only, and has special significance in its original tongue -- Arabic. Unlike Christianity, God is completely separate from the matter of this world. It is only in the Koran -- i.e., only in words written specifically in Arabic -- that we find God revealing himself to this world. Hence, since the Koran was revealed in Arabic, the use of printed words in general -- and Arabic calligraphy in particular -- is the best way to inspire a man to look heavenward.

Before going further, I wish to attest to the magnificent beauty of Arabic calligraphy as an art form. (I am a beginner student in classical literary Arabic, having begun my studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.) While I do not agree with the theological premise that catapulted Arabic calligraphy into an art form, I must show tremendous respect to the human spirit mingled with artistic ardor that labored and created within those religious constraints. If you would like to see a sample for yourself, simply do a Google search on “images,” and type in the words: Art Islam.

A student of symbols and signs will note that Arabic calligraphy perfectly exemplifies a discussion on theories of and differences in “semiotics”. Semiotics is the science of symbols; “semiology” is the study of symbols. Two authors on the subject, Cunningham and Shank, argue that symbols are “…the relation between the sign and its object…” [and propose] three ways in which the sign can stand for its object: as icon, index or symbol.” (Cunningham and Shank)

(Fear not, oh Reader! The trail grows easier, not harder!)

Lest any readers fear that they will be bogged down and lost in this expedition of symbols, history, art, theology and “semiotics,” have no fear: as I stated, Cunningham and Shank have given us three simple categories in which to break down the study of signs (semiotics): the icon, the index, and the symbol. I will use their definitions, and then give examples known to all of us for the purpose of clarification. This is actually enjoyable...

“An icon is a sign that stands for an object by resembling it…Included in this category of sign are obvious examples like pictures, maps and diagrams...The essential aspect of the relation of an icon to its object is one of similarity, broadly defined.” (Cunningham and Shank) In other words, you'll always recognize a Madonna and Child because it is always a Madonna and Child. You will see halos around Mary and Jesus; you'll see gold, blue, and green… images and colors that always refer to the Virgin Mother and the Christ child. This is a perfect illustration of “Semiotics 101: Icons”.

The second symbol they discuss is the index. They state: “Indexes refer to their objects, not by virtue of any similarity relation, but rather via an actual causal link between the sign and its object: smoke is an index of fire, a weather vane is an index of wind direction, a mark on a fever thermometer is an index of body temperature, and so forth. The relation between the sign and its object is actual in that the sign and object have something in common; that is, the object ‘really’ affects the sign.” (Cunningham and Shank)

The index (for all of us non-semioticians) is easy to remember because of the weather vane and the thermometer; there is a cause and effect relationship between the sign and its object. When the thermometer reads 103° after taking my temperature… it is an “index” that says I'm in trouble!

The "symbol" is only slightly more complicated. They state: “Finally, symbols refer to their objects by virtue of a law, rule or convention. Words, propositions and texts are obvious examples in that no similarity or causal link is suggested in the relation between, for example, the word "horse" and the object to which it refers. In this category especially the potential arbitrary character of signs comes to the foreground. If symbols need bear no similarity or causal link to their object, then the signs can be considered by the sign user in unlimited ways, independent of any physical relationship to the sign user…”

“…If signs stand for other things, such that these other things are brought to mind when the sign is used, then we have a case where a system of signs acts as some code for some system of objects. Here we stress again that a sign stands for its object not completely, but in only some aspect or ground.” (Cunningham and Shank)

This defines Islamic art to a tee.

The Islamic world has developed by “convention and rule” that geometric patterns indicate aspects of God's eternal character. Other religions have done things similar to this in matters of religion or eternity; i.e., indicating that the circle is a perfect representation of eternity, or that a clover is a representation of the Trinity, or that the Sun represents God, or that a snake represents Satan.

So, when Muslims state that geometric patterns are a symbol of the Almighty and his nature, it may be foreign to us, it is not unusual to use an arbitrary symbol to depict something. The thing we must remember is that a geometric pattern is not an icon, and it is not an index; it is a symbol.

Let me make one more illustration. Without training as to the meaning of symbols or conventions (conventional uses), one could see an image of a man being crucified and understand that it pictures a man being crucified. Likewise, with a small amount of observation, a man could feel the wind in his face and study the motions of a weather vane, and understand that the weather vane is an index; i.e., there is a direct link between the wind and the movement of the weather vane. But it is not reasonable to argue that a man could see an image of a fish and understand that it is talking about Christ or Christianity; likewise, it is not reasonable that a man could see a geometric design and think of the Islamic definition of God's eternal character. Both are symbols and codes that are learned.

When using a symbol, rules and conventions are necessary. It is important here to note that Christian iconography also uses symbols and conventions in its’ images.

For example, study icons of Christ seated on a throne and notice his right hand. Usually, his fingers are grouped together in specific patterns which signify the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ. (Apologia) Only those schooled in the laws and conventions of Christian symbolism would recognize this.

However, someone who is barely acquainted with the story of the gospel could recognize the resurrected Christ by virtue of his five wounds -- wounds in both his hands, both his feet, and his side. These pictured wounds are iconographic images, while the coded posture of his fingers are symbols of convention within an icon.

Let us return to Islam and our discussion of Islamic art. As alluded to above, geometric shapes play a vital role Islamic art; it is specifically used in a Muslim’s understanding of or meditation on God himself.

“Another characteristic of Islamic art is a preference for covering surfaces with patterns composed of geometric or vegetal elements. Complex geometric designs, as well as intricate patterns of vegetal ornament (such as the arabesque), create the impression of unending repetition, which is believed by some to be an inducement to contemplate the infinite nature of God. This type of nonrepresentational decoration may have been developed to such a high degree in Islamic art because of the absence of figural imagery, at least within a religious context.” (Islamic Art)

Islamic geometric patterns are put forth to create an impression -- to provide a springboard for contemplation on the nature of God. But as I stated above, these patterns are not iconographic in nature, and neither are they in an index; they are symbolic.

In the most magnificent Christian churches of the old Catholic world (with a few exceptions, such as Notre Dame in Paris) the Christian art -- whether frescoes, icons, statuary, portraits, murals, relique, chalices, reliefs, or tapestry -- are all present to aid the viewer in his devotion to the Almighty, his study of eternal Truths and immortal beings, and his wrestlings with "sacred mysteries."

In similar fashion (in intent, but certainly not in form), every mosque that I visited in the Middle East had magnificent Arabic calligraphy and brilliant geometric patterns and arabesques as a part of the artistic message and architectural balance of the building. But moreover, these artistic works were clearly there to create a religious “aura" that one is to see and feel when inside of a mosque. The objective is to get one to ponder the nature and laws of God.

Arabic calligraphy, geometric design, and to a lesser degree -- representations of vegetation -- all of these are combined with a sense of symmetry and balance. “From an aesthetic point of view this Tradition, whilst limiting the scope of artistic endeavour open to Muslim artisans, was to give direct rise to the magnificent non-representational art forms associated with the World of Islam. From the rich terraces of the Alhambra in Spain, through the dazzling minarets of Cairo and Isfahan, to the infinitely elegant Taj Mahal in Agra, no cultural tradition can surpass that of Islam in the fine art of geometric decoration.” (CPAmedia)

I will now try to explain the geometric patterns on one section of the floor in the Al-Azhar mosque, and I will give the coded meaning that was given to me by a professional guide.

Portion of the repetition in the floor was a pattern involving seven circles. One circle was in the middle, and six circles surrounded it perfectly -- each of them touching the center circle as well as the circle to the right and left; it was a circle of 6 circles encircling one circle.

My guide explained it in this manner. First of all, a circle is the Arabic symbol for a “5”. The number "5" (or a “O” if you were reading “5” in Arabic) is a critical number in the Islamic life.

For example:

There are 5 pillars in Islam: 1) The confession that “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger.” 2) Praying five times a day -- sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset, and nighttime; 3) The giving of alms to the poor; 4) Ramadan-- fasting of food, water, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar); 5) The Hadj -- to travel on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one's lifetime if it is economically feasible.

There are 5 letters in the name of God in Arabic -- Allah.

Muslims are to pray 5 times a day (see above).

The pattern in the floor had seven circles; there are seven steps to heaven.

In Arabic, a 7 looks like a “v” while an 8 looks like an upside-down “v”. So, if you take an Arabic seven and eight and tie them together, it looks like an unending zigzag, similar to this: wwwwww. The seven again speaks of the seven steps to heaven, and the eight speaks of the eight entrances to the special garden in heaven.

An Arabic “4” looks like a backwards “3”. (Sorry, I cannot figure out how to make a backwards three on my computer! I will get an Arabic font soon.) So we see a continual connection of threes touching from top to bottom. This acts like a border. The 4 is a significant number because Sunni Muslims have four great Imams who have taught the Koran and the Shari’a.

Hence, this art work of geometric patterns on the floor of this entryway and the arabesques in other places in this mosque and in the other mosques I saw have codes of symbolism within them. An arabesque is defined as "a complex and elaborate design of intertwined flowers, foliage, geometrical patterns, etc. painted or carved in low relief.” (Webster) These geometric patterns (absent of the foliage) and arabesques themselves are designed to make us think of the infinite nature of God, or some aspect of the Islamic faith.

What was decidedly absent in every mosque was any image that even remotely resembled an angel, a man, a woman, or an animal. And of course, there was no representation of God.

However, the crowning artistic glory of each mosque was Arabic calligraphy. High above in a Byzantine arch or dome were magnificent paintings or carvings of Arabic calligraphy, quoting a passage of the Koran, or teaching some Islamic principle. These huge letters stand as artistic sentinels and messengers, a constant reminder to each Muslim that his holy book was delivered to him in Arabic. Their artistic message is specifically defined with the parameters of the meanings things of the words they represent.

Finally, I would like to explore some of the historical and spiritual and cultural implications of this art work. I earlier wrote about the "symmetry and balance" you see and feel inside of a mosque. It is a mathematical reality.

I must compare that to the architecture and iconography found inside historic Christian churches. There is a center, yes: that center is inevitably a crucifix representing our Lord Jesus Christ in his passion, or as a second or alternate central point it is the altar itself: that place where we celebrate or commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ with bread and wine.

In either case, whether the iconography of the crucifixion or the iconography and symbolism of the Last Supper (an altar is a table, and a table is where the Lord celebrated the first Eucharist), we are brought face-to-face with the central event of human history: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

If one were to study the icons that exist in a church building on either side of the crucifix, and were to attempt a mathematical addition of the lines or patterns and sequences of the images that adorn the building, one would quickly see that the building does not have perfect balance. The average Islamic mosque is far more balanced architecturally and artistically than the average Christian Church.

In this light, it could be argued that Islamic art "bests" Christian art.

This discussion begs a question: Is the mathematical exactitude in Islamic art and the mathematic symbols of God’s attributes something that births inspiration in the human heart? Do the absence of human heroes and the presence of unending repetition can give hope? Does the balance of the architecture and the art within the structure cause someone to ponder God? Does it comfort the weary on the journey?

It could be argued that the further one trods the path of this life, the more one senses that life is not in perfect balance; on the contrary -- it is often as unstable as water. It is not clean and crisp and clear like a geometric pattern -- life is messy and tattered around the edges.

Moreover, many can attest that the interventions and mercies and kindnesses of God are at times confusing. His ways are not balanced, they are mysterious. His dealings with men and nations are not a mathematical equation -- at times they make perfect sense; at times they are bewildering. The human existence is surrounded by mystery and shadows and paradoxes.

Perhaps this is where the religious art of Islam is the most unrewarding and unchallenging to the viewer—namely this: the human understanding of God is not static; an individuals knowledge of the Almighty changes over time and through different experiences. By and large, individual pilgrims do not interact with the Almighty in the same way they did as a child, or as a teenager, or as they did last year. This interaction is not an unending repetition of patterns – whether they are simple or complex.

Art that would truly reflect this life and the human interaction with God could not possibly be shown as an ongoing repetition of geometric patterns that afford neither growth nor pruning. Such symmetry and balance would prove a false witness to life; it would repulse the man attempting to walk on water; the man who cries out: "Save me Lord, I am sinking!”

And more importantly, a mathematic pattern -- which by definition lacks all mystery -- has no room for mystery; no room for a God Incarnate who can walk on water. Because as all mathematicians know... walking on water is not mathematically possible.

Theologians will rightly argue that ones understanding of the Almighty and the Christian faith cannot be as unstable as water; that one must embrace an image that remains within the "picture frame" of the Scriptures and the Apostles Creed. One is not free to re-create the faith, nor abandon the faith of the early fathers.

Having said that, let all baptized readers be honest -- whether Catholic or Protestant, Orthodox or evangelical; whether devout or lapsed in faith; whether secure or searching, whether embracing the use of icons or rejecting them -- ones understanding of God and suffering and love and prayer and faith and eternity and free will and Christ's sufferings and a thousand other things changes over time: knowledge and faith do not remain static. They grow and contract; ebb and flow – but not with mathematical predictability. Whatever might possibly exemplify faith -- it is not a perpetual geometric pattern; it is not circles on the floor.

Experience indicates two things that are central to the Christian faith: Humans are always linked to humanity, and life is marked by mystery. Humanity is fraught with weakness; and mystery is defined by uncertainty.

And herein lies what appears to be a central difference between Christian iconography and Islamic symbolism: the objective of the Christian Icon, and the objective of Islamic Symbolism.

Christian Icons are built around the truths and historic themes of Christ and Christianity. When someone studies and meditates on a Christian icon – perhaps pondering or praying, perhaps weeping or rejoicing – what is happening? In the language of semiotics, there is a message being communicated from that Icon, and from all the indexes and symbols within it. For example, Icons of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, or the Holy Family in flight to Egypt may say that the Almighty understands what humans go through, because he too… once veiled in flesh... went through unthinkable hardship. He too pondered and prayed and wept saying, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me..." and even more wrenchingly, "My God, my God -- why have you forsaken me?"

The icons of the martyrs testify that others have felt debilitating pain or bewildering confusion; they too have passed through water and fire, have retained their faith, and have continued on the journey; weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning; one Icon portrays the darkness of the crucifixion, another shows Christ rising from the dead.

It is the very humanity of the icons -- including the mystery and the lack of balance that they embrace -- that gives comfort and strength and hope for the future. Faith is not like math; it does not always add up.

By contrast, geometric symbols of God's self-sufficiency and patterns of his eternal being state the things he is: But by stating what he is with those symbols, viewers are left to wonder what He is or is not in addition to those concepts. Does He understand our struggles? Is He detached? We are not given symbols or indexes of Him being full of love and tears and compassion.

The Islamic God gives us five pillars, but we are never told if he weeps with those who weep; he gives seven steps, but he is never shown healing crippled legs in order to ascend those steps; he gives four interpretations of Islamic law, but he does not provide a Paschal Lamb or an Advocate for the day of judgment; he gives 8 doorways into paradise, but he does not provide the key with his own suffering and blood. The eternal mathematician gives equations and patterns and cold solutions, but not tokens of tears and passion and unquenchable hope. He peers from above, but does not reach down with nail scarred hands to lift up the fallen.

Contrast this with the art and Icons of Christianity showing the Lamb of God, or the Savior. The images bring a visual representation of the words of the Christian Scripture: He was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief…” and the Icon shows him in bitter sorrow; He was “tempted in all points such as we are, yet without sin;” and he is shown being tempted by Satan in the wilderness; He “tasted of death, so that he might free those who were all their lives subject to bondage because of the fear of death;” he is shown dying as the offering for sin.

Icons show with compelling language that he knows what it means to be born in poverty and raised in obscurity; he knows what it means to receive gifts from strangers and then spend those gifts for survival as his family flees to a foreign country; he knows what it means to be despised and rejected; he knows what it means to be falsely accused and ridiculed; he knows what it means to work with his hands, to care for his mother, to be forsaken by friends, to laugh with joy and to weep with sorrow. All of these images are a part of the Christian faiths’ teaching (in words) about Christ, and the Icon brings them to sight – acting as a herald for the heart.

All of these images of Christ and Christianity (and a thousand others) have been movingly portrayed in icons, allowing us to witness him mercifully interacting with humanity; see him tenderly touch and forgive the woman caught in adultery; see him washing the disciples feet; see him breaking bread and feeding multitudes; see him appearing to Mary Magdalene -- the former prostitute -- and sending her as an apostle to the Apostles announcing his resurrection.

Icons give a portal through which we can see him; icons put a tear in our eye, a lump in our throat, comfort in our soul, and hope in our heart… because we see with the eyes of faith through the icon.

Many will admit to being struck by the artistic beauty of Arabic calligraphy. I will admit to being deeply impressed by the complex repetitions of certain geometric patterns and arabesques. But do these symbols and mathematical progressions provoke devotion in the soul? Or do they leave the observer to ponder God in a way that is dry and exacting -- cold and distant?

My time focusing on Islamic art has caused me to believe even more strongly in the power of Christian icons, and secondarily, the power of images in general (animals, men, angels, etc). Ironically, I believe that the works of art that have been birthed in the Islamic world within the parameters of Arabic calligraphy and geometry and vegetation testify to one basic Christian truth: man is made an image of God.

I admire the Islamic artists that have labored and created inside the religious parameters and fences that have been handed to them through Islamic tradition and law. I again urge you to do a web search for images using "Art Islam." You'll see exactly what I'm talking about. Artists have danced on the edge of the forbidden and used Arabic calligraphy to draw animals and scenes with men -- just barely creating a shadow or an outline of the forbidden images; they have created what are arguably the most beautiful geometric patterns in the history of the world. Their creativity in calligraphy and geometry and arabesques are astounding; an artistic “jailbreak” that testifies about mans ability to be creative within very strict parameters.

It has been argued that man is made to create, to invent, to dream. In fact, one of the only ways in which mankind is actually like God is that something deep within man wants to “create,” even as God created. While it is certain that man can never create matter from nothing ("ex nihilo”), the human brain is wired to take a blank slate and create a home, or a dishwasher, or a microwave, a beautiful gown, or a space shuttle, or a sports car, or a fancy watch, or a computer; and after creating such a wonder, his brain is wired to improve on his creation.

Allow me to end on a more personal note. While I have respect for the artistic accomplishments of Islamic Artists, I wonder how many souls have been comforted or strengthened by calligraphy; or have been brought to tears of joy and hope by geometric patterns. How many have been given hope that dispels despair, or faith that conquers fear by staring at arabesques? How many have had the hope of their sins being forgiven by seeing WWWWWWWWW on the floor?

In one way, Christian Icons and Islamic symbols have similar goals; in another, they have very different goals and even more different means. Both art forms span centuries; both have a set of laws and conventions in which they are created, and both have a very singular theological and philosophical foundation.

However, in the final analysis -- and I speak now as a Christian -- Christian iconography communicates to us the tender truths of the gospel; moreover, we can see in Christian iconography the hope of eternal life through the redemption offered us by the death of Christ. By contrast, Islamic symbolism does little to communicate the love of God, and as religious symbolism it appears to be cold and detached. While offering ingenious geometric patterns, it does little to offer solace for this life, and does not give the viewer the hope of eternal salvation.


“Iconoclast” is a Greek word that literally means "icon smasher.” Students of art history and/or Christian history have heard of iconoclast movements, in which the “icons smashers” would destroy Christian icons, statuary, paintings, stained-glass windows etc., -- anything that had an image of Christ or a saint. These rampages were seen by the iconoclasts as acts of devotion to God.

The Reformation had segments within it that believed in the value and proper use of icons, and segments who wanted icons destroyed. Most Protestants familiar with iconoclasm are aware of this byproduct of the Reformation.

But iconoclasm did not begin here.

Over 700 years earlier, this dispute was fought and then settled at the seventh ecumenical Council in 784. As during the Reformation of the 1500s, in the mid 700s, a wave of iconoclasm disrupted parts of the Byzantium Christian empire, and resulted in many icons being destroyed.

But iconoclasm did not begin here either.

The first iconoclast movement which destroyed and defaced magnificent Christian art and icons originated with Muslims and Islamic armies. It was they who introduced the notion into the Christian Church that icons were idols, and that those who venerated them were committing idolatry. (This happened within 100 years of Mohammed’s death, long before the first “in house” or “family quarrels” erupted in the Christian community. As a part of their devotion to the teachings of Mohammed, Muslims destroyed untold amounts of ancient, sacred, and irreplaceable Christian art. I leave it to the Christian reader who is an iconoclast to ponder the ramifications of this historical truth -- it was Islamic theology and armies that first sought to upend Christian iconography.

On my trip to the Middle East, I went to the heart of the ancient Byzantine Empire -- Constantinople -- which we know as modern day Istanbul.

While in Istanbul, I went to the world renowned Christian basilica, Haggia Sophia -- Holy Wisdom – which was built by Justinian in the 6th century. It was the largest building in the world for many centuries. When Constantinople fell to Muslim armies in 1453, Warriors drove their chariots inside this glorious building, killing the priests and nuns, and forcibly turning Haggia Sophia into a mosque. At that time, the church had four acres of mosaics (icons) inside on the walls and ceilings. Think of the size of your yard…and then think of 4 acres of Mosaics.

These mosaics were either destroyed or covered in plaster. The loss was catastrophic.

In a 1920s, after President Atatürk had successfully created a Republic, he took Haggia Sophia and converted it from a mosque into a museum, which it remains to this very day. Museum staff decided to see what was underneath some of the plaster. In so doing, they have uncovered portions of mosaics that are over a thousand years old. They are absolutely amazing.

The building itself still stands as a glaring witness of the artistic, theological, and cultural stress that exists between Christianity and Islam. Massive Arabic calligraphy hangs from the ceiling where Christian icons used to be; yet more Islamic symbolism is where the altar used to be; the Islamic pulpit, now silent, stands as a part of the museum in the front of what was the most magnificent church in the world.

I believe it would be a fitting gesture of reconciliation for the Turkish government to restore Haggia Sophia to the Orthodox Church (her rightful owner), so that the ancient icons could be fully restored, and joyfully and fearlessly displayed, so that those ancient walls could once again echo the preaching of the gospel, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and so that the faithful could worship the risen Savior, whose Incarnation is the foundation for all Christian iconography.


Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History: Revised Second Edition, Volume 2. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
Apologia. “Sacred Images: Statues and Other Icons” Dictionary,
CPAmedia; The Asia Experts. “Indian Ocean Arabesques” Andrew Forbes, 2001
Islamic Art. “Introduction”
Cunningham and Shank , “Semiotics, An Introduction” Indiana University Donald J. Cunningham And Gary D. Shank,
Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, The World Publishing Company, Buenos Aires, 1970

Additional articles on Islam by Randall Terry

Mohammed Cartoons, Courage and Freedom

Is Islam a Threat to Freedom?

Mohammed, Assassinations, and_Beheadings

Comparing Christ and Mohammed




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved