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  By Dr. Abraham P. Sakili  

Figurative painting is not only unpopular among the Muslims, but also had been condemned by orthodox Muslim theologians who warned painters of severe punishment of hell.

What in Christianity was regarded as the highest term of praise—calling one a “painter,” which in Arabic is musawwir—was to the early Muslim theologians the most damning affirmation of a person’s guilt.

The influence of the Ulama, as Muslim theologians are called, was so enormous  that for several centuries, painting in general was kept from becoming, integral part of the Muslim culture. The Islamic expansion, which brought with it the pictorial arts of neighboring cul­tures, gave rise to the Islamic painting of miniature which was developed to a high degree of artistic refine­ment and distinction.

The patronage of pictorial art in the expanded world of Islam has triggered a debate among Ulama on the issue of figurative art prohibition. Patrons of figurative painting did not only argue for its legality, but also in­sisted on its conformity with the Islamic concept of God and its view of the universe. If this is so, this painting is not only "Muslim" in ethno-geographical sense, but also "Islamic" in essence as it is expressive of Tawhid or the Islamic Doctrine of God's Oneness.

In the Philippines, Muslim painting in general has not been studied. In research, Muslim figurative paint­ing itself makes for an exciting topic as it is wrapped in art issues of the so-called religious prohibition and of the status of Muslim painters in changing times.

So how do Philippine Muslim painters cope with all these problems? Does Islam really discourage figurative painting or prohibit portrayal of images? How come there developed Islamic figurative painting among some Muslims? What aesthetic alternative can Islamic art offer?

Meanwhile, the crisis in Mindanao offers great op­portunity for painters to exercise social responsibility. In light of the “Moro problem" what can
Muslim painters do to help?

Here we explore these questions from a Muslim’s perspective.


The prohibition of figurative art was a matter of attitude of orthodox theologians not of Islamic doctrine.

In doctrine, Islam does not prohibit figurative art nor does it condemn the art of painting. The Qur'an has no verse that can be cited to back up any prohibition. Even the Ahadith of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him—hence on, Pbuh), one of which is supposed to mete punishment of hell to the painter (Goldzher in Arnold, 1965: 5), were said by many contemporary Muslim scholars and Ulama to have been misunderstood and taken out of context by the early Muslim theologians. (Ahmad Muhammad Isa, Majallat Al-Azhar, 1950: 605­-609; 731) Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) himself did not show any opposition to figurative art except when it was placed before him as he prayed?

The condemnation of figurative arts was, therefore, a theological opinion common to the whole Muslim world, and the practical acceptance of it largely de­pended on the theologians' influence upon the habits and tastes of society at any particular time.

Through time, Muslim or Islamic art has been un­derstood in different ways. "Muslim art" is loosely de­fined to refer to any art produced by a Muslim artist, regardless of whether his art subject is Islamic or not.

The use of the word "Muslim" or "Islamic" to describe something, as in art, should be qualified. In its strictest religious sense, "Muslim art" is different from "Islamic art." The former is used in a non - religious sense, the latter refers to art having to do with Tawhid or the Islamic belief in God's Oneness.

The Islamic Tawhid as an encompassing concept re­quires art to be in harmony with God's Transcendent Nature, which in the arts is suggested by such qualities as abstraction, stylization of figures and composition in a highly relational manner alluding to the attributes of God as Universal Being, All Present, and with No Ending Nor Beginning.

Throughout Muslim history and all over the Muslim world, most Islamic art objects revea1 similarities that are in some manner influenced by the Islamic message of Tawhid. How could a painting be Islamic?


Orthodox Muslim theologians ruled that the act of painting is a sin. The effects on figurative painting of this theologians’ ruling were many.
Interesting accounts of how the Muslims reacted to this prohibition vary. There were, for example, Cases of mutilation of a number of paintings in illustrated manu­scripts just because pictures were painted on them. If the manuscript was not totally burned or destroyed, pages with figures were detached and thrown away; or the head of the figures were scratched out of the pages.

On a larger scale, destruction would either be or­dered by a ruler or initiated by a bigot. There is a writ­ten account of a peasant in 1897 who threw into the river--as unholy things--five cartloads of Manichaean manuscripts with pictures decorated in gold and col­ors. (Arnold, 1965:40)

Figurative painting had also caused uprisings. In Constantinople people rose in revolt against the display of the portrait of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839) in all military barracks. For each fear of violent public reactions, a high Turk official in the court of Sultan Mustapha III (1757 - 1 773) advised the painter of his portrait to dis­guise as a physician every time he reported to work.

Despite the distinct prohibition of pictures by the Muslim ulama, many Muslim monarchs continued to patronize pictures in the confines of their palace away from public eye. The frescoes discovered in royal baths in Qusayr Amra and in the ruins of Mutawakkil Palace in Samarra yielded pictures not only of "fierce lions, barking dogs and butting rams" but also of nude female figures and dancing girls--to the horror of the faithful. Scandalous erotic images, as in Kamasutra, were re­ported to have been painted in the palace of a son of famous ruler Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030). (Arnold, 1965:86)

Paintings of this kind illustrate the luxurious habits of the pleasure-loving Muslim princes. Since Islam prohibited such arts, other painters the Christians, Persians, Manichaean’s and the Chinese were tapped to serve the needs of the princes.

Until the last decade of the 15th century, Muslim theologians had successfully prevented figurative painting from becoming part of Muslim culture. By the end of the 15th century, however, a new generation of Muslim rulers emerged to become supporters or practitioners of figurative painting.

One of these was Mughal Emperor Akbar, who provided the first theological defense on painting by declaring that “a painter has peculiar means of recognizing God.” (Arnold, 1965: 77)

This new evaluation of the art of painting, however, has never succeeded in displacing the earlier condemnation which had been entrenched in the Muslim common man.

Sensitive to the theologians’ prohibition and aware of the negative popular Muslim sentiment against pictures, Muslim and non-Muslim artist in Muslim territories faced this dilemma in art: how to satisfy their longing for figuration without violations the presumed prohibition.

The artist resolved this conflict by striking a balance between the two demands. For instance, they did paintings of figures with the human head omitted or “chopped off.” Some pictures showed human parts such as heads, arms, and legs metamorphosing into fantastic forms—blurring their human nature.

Paintings of religious personalities such as Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) were presented in a manner that would not offend Muslim viewers or readers. The Prophet, for example, is suggested by a flame-halo and his figure represented in full white without indicating the facial and other bodily details.

The Islamic view of Islam that regards man as the center of creation and for whom the universe was made, had somehow helped legitimized the artists’ patronage of the human figure in their artworks. This was how a Muslim artist worked within the religious framework which, on one hand, prohibits representation, but on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of man as the center of creation. This theological position yielded a kind of art model that directed the development of Muslim aesthetics of painting.


When the Muslim artists turn their backs on the principle of naturalism which had been the rule of all arts in Greek antiquity, they discovered that what matters most in arts is not the imitation of nature, but the pictorial space of their representations with its forms and colors assembled in certain order. How did the Muslim artists do this?
One method was the use of compositional spiral running through the faces and, sometimes, the hands, to easily reduce the form into a diagram.

In horizontal space, for example, the figures are staggered and arranged in tiers to give structure to the spatial configuration where the use of a spiral oval form suggest projection in depth and penetration into the autonomous space. As organizing principle, the spiral makes for great variety and suppleness in composition. A particular spiral may have form one to six coils with as many as 50 defining points—always the eyes or hands along it—which is not possible with any other curve except by making very obvious the groupings of the figures which appear monotonous.

The spiral method used in organizing Muslim painting had been a long kept professional secret. It came to be essentially regarded as the successful link between the diagram or preliminary sketches (tarh) and the grouping of the figures. (Haydar Dughlat, in Papadopolou, 1980: 101)
In Muslim art, the compositional spiral corresponds to the macrocosm of the universe which the Almighty God has constructed for man.
This same compositional spiral had established the reality of the autonomous world of Islamic art where all sorts of forms and colors are related in a manner that gives Islamic painting its distinction and vitality.
In composition, Muslim artists are sensitive to densities of color areas which are made of patches of solid colors without internal tonal gradation, but filled with tiny decorative motifs which constitute a group of modules. All the color areas on the pictorial plane are inter-related, as if engaging in endless dialogue with each other.
As colorists, Muslim painters do not temper the edges of their color areas by reflections, by shadow or by chiaroscuro. There is no atmospheric color effects used to convey depth or sense of distance. Brightly colored animals and plants, which are supposed to be lying in far distance, are depicted as large and as clearly as those on the foreground.
In this world of pure colors, only the color of human faces and hands is not subjected to exaggeration or fantasy. Faces and hands are colored naturally to ensure that the governing structure of the picture is easily discernible. On the style of figuration, Muslim artists created a type of human figure exuding strong presence through the illustration of powerful facial characteristics but which did not suggest emotive expression.
Islamic figuration avoids any violent manifestations of feeling. Instead, figures are represented with serenity and dignity of bearing which characterize the outward behavior cultivated in a polite society.
Since Islamic painting avoids emotive expression, painters have to device conventional modes to indicate emotions—putting a finger to the lips as a sign of astonishment, the gnawing of the back of the hand to indicate despair, shrouding the face, or tossing the arms to show violent grief.
Although the lack of emotive facial expression deprives the subject of individuality, the vivid presence of the faces and the large surfaces occupied by the figures integrate this forms into the structure of the autonomous world of Islamic painting.
In sum, painting in Islam which had been condemned by the theologians was not only able to conform to the law on prohibition but also succeeded in making Islamic painting a proof of God’s work, not through mere imitation but through successful organization.


Philippine Muslim painting is not a popular and developed art. In the past, a traditional painting expression was done on boras (rattan mat) by Simunul Sama ladies who used enamel paint to fill the space with a variety of designs.

Initially, boras designs were purely geometrical but as a result of pilgrimage to Mecca, new designs such as the Ka’aba temple in Mecca, Arabic kufic calligraphy and figurative burraq were integrated into boras designs by the arriving pilgrims. The burraq is believed to be the miraculous creature that transported Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) to heaven. It is pictured as a winged white horse with a woman’s face, which travels at the speed of light.

Because of the scarcity of rattan as raw material for boras and compounded by the human dislocation caused by the war brought in Mindanao, boras painting in Simunul has ceased to be practiced as early as the ‘70s.

Today, western painting tradition is the main artistic vocabulary of most, if not all, Philippine Muslim painters. This tradition became part of the local Muslim psyche through the avenues of public schools and the mass media.
Contemporary Philippine Muslim painters are few, and struggling to free themselves from the clutches of western painting tradition. Deriving inspiration from and experimenting with the local Muslim ethnic art forms and designs, these contemporary Muslim painters are potential beneficiaries of alternative art ideas and methods inspired by Islam. But, how about the supposed prohibition of pictures?

In the Philippines, Muslims are unmindful of any Islamic comment or provocation regarding art figures. They have been accustomed to these images on posters, magazines and signboards displayed around. Many of their houses are adorned with family pictures.

The general public and the theologians are preoccupied with life’s mundane concerns, leaving them no time to discuss the Islamicity or unIslamicity of figurative art. Critical comments can be heard only when a prominent artist like Abdulmari Imao was quoted to have said that “religion has been the main cause of slow development of (art) careers, not only of Filipino Muslims, but also of other Muslims from the Arab and the other Islamic world.” (Jocano, 1983:71)

Such intellectualizing quips are rare, however. Per­haps, in place of Professor Imao's observation, the more relevant question is: why did the Muslim artist, in com­ing to the execution of his craft, limit his artistic choice?

What follows is a brief survey of Philippine Muslim painters and their works to give a general picture of the state of Muslim painting in the Philippines.
Abdulmari Imao is the famous and multi-awarded Tausug artist who is known more as a sculptor than as a painter. He is experimenting with a painting style he called "sarimosque" or "sari-okir," combining elements of Arabic calligraphy, ukkil (curvilinear motif, mosque parts and sarimanok (mythical bird) motif.

Maranao painter Bert Manta, who earned his Master's degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Philip­pines, is also doing Maranao art adaptation in his work.

A non-Muslim painter from Lanao is Ramon Doplon who is working on Muslim-inspired art abstraction.

From the Maguindanao tribe, Ib'n Salipayasin Ahmad (Saudi Ahmad) does colorful paintings chronicling Maguindanao festivities and everyday events such as wed­ding celebration, Hariraya festival. harvest and burial.
Ceremonies and cultural events similar to these are also the subjects of the paintings of "Utu Unni" Urao, a Tausug painter who has a highly developed painting skill and sensitivity to details.

Another young Tausug painter, Remeer Tawisil, has demonstrated skill in figurative painting in some of the canvases he had displayed in a group exhibit in March 1993 at Nayong Pilipino.

In Jolo in the ‘70s, Tausug painters Barrich Hamid and Jul Tiblani were known for their skills in portraiture, landscape, genre and still – life paintings executed in western modern styles such as impressionism, cubism and the like.

In Tawi-Tawi, Datu Pangilan is a painter of sea genre depicting mostly the sea life of the Badjaos who are portrayed on their lepa house boats as they scan the surrounding seas for fortunes.

A political dimension in Muslim painting was opened by this writer who in his 1989 Exhibit Kamahardikaan (Freedom) utilized the traditional Tausug and Maranao cultural symbols "to articulate in visual forms the (Phil­ippine) Muslim's quest for self- determination" (Guillermo, 1985: 5)
In sum, the Muslim painters of the Philippines have demonstrated their capacity to be on par with other Fili­pino painters.

However, working as individual and relating more to Western art traditions do not seem to serve many of them well. The need for organization and Islamic art educa­tion are two good things that could work in their favor.

In the meantime, among non-Muslim Filipino paintings on Muslims, only very few works on this subject were done by Filipino masters.
One of these paintings, published in the book "Portfolio of 60 Philippine Art Masterpieces" (1986), is the "Maguindanao Princess" painted by Ireneo Miranda who emphasized the colorful attires of his subject and presented it "with a kind of nobility and grace natu­rally appropriate to a culture least tainted by western ways." (MECS 1986: 129)
A controversial painting on Muslim, done by National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco, is a work entitled “Muslim Betrothal” which Muslims find to be naughty and offensive. Done in the usual Botong folk-genre manner the painting portrays a supposed Muslim bride receiving blessings from an Imam (religious leader) who looks more like a witch-doctor or mangkukulam that one sees in Tagalog comics.
What are very offensive in this painting are the images of half-naked women dancing and a pig—both which are, to the Muslims, haram (forbidden) of the highest order. Without considering the proper Muslim context, Francisco committed a grave offense against Muslim Filipinos.
Now that Botong is dead, the owner or caretaker of that painting must rectify the error to avoid the recurrence of such mistakes. As it is, there is already another painting of the same title, "Muslim Betrothal," by Vicente Reyes who projects Muslim image almost in the same way Botong did, but without the pig. Such misrepresen­tation should be corrected immediately.

In light of uneasy cultural relationship between the Muslims and Christians in the Philippines and recognizing the fact that the colonial negative Moro image still persists in the psyche of many, if not most, Christian Filipinos, images such as that in Botong Francisco's or Vicente Reyes' painting, is detrimental to the promotion of national cultural harmony.
This holds true for other cultural fields-theater, lit­erature and movies, where another unfounded jurametado image of a Muslim as ugly and blood­thirsty amuck, is highlighted. In this regard, a painting of this writer titled "Parrang Sabil” was exhibited to correct the misconception that the juramentado, known locally as parrang sabil, is an act of a mad man; rather it is a patriotic act directed against external and inter­nal forms of oppression and colonization,.
The misunderstanding of Philippine Muslim life and culture by non-Muslim co-citizens has been a key fac­tor in the emergence and worsening of the so-called Moro Problem in Mindanao. As a consequence of miseducation and colonial biases, the Muslims, instead of being the victims, are perceived as the culprits in the on-going crisis--a case of mistaking the "effect" for the "cause" of the problem, which is basically unjust.
The solution to the problem—which is enlightenment and education—has not been undertaken well. Where the Department of Education and Culture and the mass media seem to be lax in the task of correcting the errors of the past, the artists through the power of their medium, can significantly rectify the situation.
In these trying times in Mindanao, artists must take active role in resolving the issue. Escaping from it by way of the “beautiful and entertaining” art is an act of irresponsibility and a disservice to the society.
In this regard, Pablo Picasso reminds that "art is not done to decorate an apartment but an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy."
Another reminder comes from H. Benac who posits the need for the artist to recognize his social role. He reminds that "by alienating himself from his society and time, his art would fall into artifice and formalism which leads to artistic nihilism,"(Guil1ermo, 1987:16)
The author's experience with the "Kamahardikaan" traveling exhibit demonstrated how the potentials of images can help correct misconceptions and develop positive thoughts and impressions.
To be effective in addressing the above-mentioned concerns, Muslim artists must organize themselves into a group and initiate activities that would yield positive results. As Muslim artists, who are immersed in the con­flict in Mindanao, they are in the best position to articulate visually the whole picture of this multi­dimensional "Moro problem," which at its roots is basically the struggle of the Philippine Muslims to safe­guard and preserve their religious and national iden­tity, and to achieve socioeconomic development only through real autonomy.
In this task, Muslim painters must forge a link with their fellow non-Muslim painters and other artists in Metro Manila and in other provinces where many of them, this writer has found out, are sympathetic to the Muslims' plight and would be willing to help clarify the issue. This linkage would also enable the Muslim paint­ers to participate in artistic undertakings that would hone their skills and expand the horizon of their artistic activity.

In their tasks ahead, Muslim painters must not lose touch with their Islamic identity, which in Islamic art finds meaning only in affinity to God and the rest of humanity.
As Muslim artists, they must be aware of Islamic art’s possibilities and consequently practice them with a high sense of ingenuity and creativity.
In Malaysia, Muslim painters had found Islamic art aesthetic principles that gave them the opportunity to experiment with new art forms which harmonized the ideals of their Malaysian nationality and their Islamic identity. The art book Pameran Tamaddum Islam, published in 1985 in Malaysia, showcases the products of Malaysian ingenuity—their contemporary paintings which derive from Islam their uniqueness and vitality.
It is, therefore, evident that contrary to common belief, Islam does not curtail the Muslim artist's free­dom to express and to create art. Islam as an all-en­compassing way of life allows free will.

The limit imposed by Islam on art is the concoction of idols to be worshipped and the creation of other im­ages which contradict human decency and integrity.

Islam has allowed some measure of tolerance of figu­rative arts as long as they do not stand in the way of worship of one God, As a comprehensive doctrine which expresses itself in various forms of cultural development, Islam encourages the pursuit of man's expression of his humanity and his view of the world and the cosmos. The Muslim artist knows that whatever he does, he can never counterfeit God's creation. This idea sets him free from man-made conventions and traditional restrictions.

In the final analysis, in the execution of his art, a Muslim painter, or any artist for that matter, can never be likened to God nor can equal him. There is nothing in nature that can symbolize the Transcendent Realm of God.

Finally, it is by understanding the logic of the Islamic way of life which expresses itself in everyday reality that the issues surrounding Islamic art in general and Muslim painting in particular can be best understood. The appreciation of the harmonious relationship between Islam and the arts should be framed in the broader Islamic cultural perspective that that treats representational art as a wholesome expression of man’s ingenuity and creativity.

Islam is way of integrating art and life, and harmonizing man’s faith in God with his practical pursuit of day-to-day life.


  Source: Pananaw: Philippine Journal of Visual Arts, January 2, 2006
Used with permission by the publisher.
  Copyright 2011 Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication