[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
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,
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
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
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
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
“…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
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
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
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’
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
These mosaics were either destroyed or covered in plaster. The loss was
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
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