Fine Arts

There are two arts which unfortunately had no great share in Arab Civilization, i.e. acting and the plastic arts forms, painting and sculpture.

Like all other Eastern and Western peoples in ancient history, the Arabs did not know much about acting and the plastic arts. These two arts were not much known to civilized peoples. It follows that they were utterly unknown to uncivilized Bedouins.

In Greece, acting began with religious rituals during Dionysus ceremonies. It was limited in its initial stage, to dancing and singing. Then one more actor was added to fill up the time between dancing and singing by doing some acts and singing some hymns. The more actors were successively added, and acts were accordingly increased in one show. This development ended in the form of the theatrical play, as laid down by the ancient Greeks.

Nations, whose primary religious cults had no such rituals did not have the chance to develop the art of acting on these lines. Arab society might have had other reasons than those of worship, which blocked the development of acting on social grounds. Acting is an art which is closely connected with social life. Acting could not be conceived in a society which has not a multitude of social aspects which differ with the variety of work, trades, tastes and classes of the people. Acting from the social standpoint is based on response between individuals and families as and when their relationships are multiplied, and their tastes and inclinations are variegated. Bedouin society did not have a wide scope for this kind of multi form response between family and family, and individual and individual. They well reflected their social life, whether Bedouin or urban in the ballads, songs chivalrous sports, debates and boasting.

As regards the Arabs' lack of Plastic Arts, many unconvincing reasons were given. Amongst these reasons are the allegation that the Arabs lacked in sensitivity, or that their sensations were too weak to be reflected by representation or figuration.

It was alleged that the Plastic Arts had not greatly advanced under the Arabs in view of religious factors. But those hostile to Semitic intuition retorted by alleging that banning of pictures and statues was a result of the limited range of permissible and exhaustion of sensibility, and was not the basic reason for the Arabs' abandonment of picture-drawing and sculpture.

It was said : «In view of the lack of sympathy between the Arab and the animal, he did not represent creatures and paint them on buildings and paper as did the ancient Easterners».

But the fact, which is forgotten by those who make these allegations, is that other peoples do not have closer and more generous sympathy with living creatures than that between the Arab and his steed, or she-camel, hounds, the deer, gazelle, fowl and other animals. A Bedouin poet seldom composed a poem which did not begin with the description of his beautiful love, or his steed and she-camel. No poets of other ancient nationalities likened the beauty of lovers and beauties to that of deer and gazelles as does the ancient Arab poets and their followers. This is without doubt a piercing sensitivity which found its way to self-expression by means of one of those arts within reach of the sons of the Desert. Portrayal is not the sole means of reflecting one's sensations, particularly in a Bedouin environment, which was short of all means of portrayal.

Now that we are at the outset of discussing the taboo on pictures, it is worth mentioning that taboo was observed by many people in Asia Minor. It was vigorously advocated by a large number of the followers of the Eastern Roman Church, who were called «Iconoclast». Their call in the 7th century was a forerunner of the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western Church. However, the Western Church had after separation some staunch followers of those taboos. Had not the temples sponsored the arts of sculpture and painting it would have been uncertain that the social requirements of the European nations could have satisfied the needs of those two arts and supplied them with talented sculptors and painters.

In this connection, it may be said that the Arabs differed from the Europeans in the evolution of the arts of sculpture and painting just as the plan of the mosque differs from that of the church suggested by their respective cults.

There was no place in Islam for mediators between Allah and Man. It also had no place for the mystery of priesthood and its channel and the embodiment of Allah and saints. Furthermore, it is inconceivable in Islam that it sponsors those arts which cater for the decoration of the temple with paintings and statues. In effect there is no better incentive for the promotion of arts than the sponsorship of temples and the zeal for cults. Both greatly contributed to the promotion of architecture among Muslims in the same way as glorification of saints had contributed to the promotion of sculpture and painting among the Europeans.

The Mosque did not embrace paintings and statues, and consequently Islamic civilization had no wide scope for them as the European civilization has had.

But that did not hamper the rise of beautiful buildings and splendid domes, which were the bases for Arabesque architecture. Arabesque architecture can stand the comparison with the best arts of building in the past and at present.

The intuition of the Arabs - rather of the Easterners - had a particular trait which implied the independence of their style from the patterns from which the Arabs drew the art of building.

It is a mistake to state for instance - that the Byzantine style was the basis of that school which adopted that pattern of building in the East, because the Byzantine style was a characteristic trait of the East which distinguished it from the European styles such as the Gothic and Romanesque. Had there not been that suggestive trait of the East, there would not have been that distinction between the style of Byzantine architecture and that of the Germans or Italians.

It is undoubted that the Arabs relied in architecture on the arts of building of their predecessors such as the Persian, Romans and Egyptians. They recruited some Copts and Armenian masons in building many big buildings. Doubtless, the building hands were only the expression of the Arab mind, which could not be confused with any other. Who could ever contemplate the picture of an Arabian palace and isolate it from the elegance of the tall palm-tree, the briskness of the slim horse, the palanquin of the sacred wife, and the alternation of life between the bleak space and the shady place. And who could ever see those arches and windows and fail to connect them at one time with the hoof and another time with the padded foot.

Whoever reads the similes and falls under the moving charm of rhythm in Arabic poetry and fails to recognize the mental source of its inspiration, harmony and counterpoise, as well as the squares that are laid opposite to each other as had figured in the first holy building which the Arab pilgrim had visited, namely, the holy Ka'ba.

Arabism was undoubtedly stamped on the harmonious style of building. No one ever sees an Arab building and mistakes it for European or Chinese or Persian one, although there is a similarity of styles and provincial traits.

We believe that this distinct style of the Arabs prevented its borrowing by the European nations which were connected with the Islamic civilization. This is due to the fact that Arab styles were characteristic of either the mosques or the regions, and both could not be drawn into the European art in view of the difference of climate, cults and religious rituals.

However, the Europeans borrowed as much as they could from the Arabic styles of architecture in building castles, palaces, and other buildings which have no relation with cults and religious rituals.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth and thereafter, engravings spread in England. They were known by the «Arabesque decorations». The English built their castles after the Crusades on lines very closely similar to the Arab styles; they doubled the walls, built high towers between them, planned central fortifications and built right angled, but inclined gates, which could block the use of the gate by the enemy and bar him from firing his missiles into the courtyard. They also borrowed from the Oriental Church, which had greatly been influenced by the Arab style, many models of angles and round towers which were unknown to Western Church-builders the Crusades.

There is no stronger evidence of the artistic influence of the Arabs on the Europeans than the way the latter copied their works without understanding their significance. `There were inscriptional characters which goldsmiths copied without being able to read them. They copied them as they were because they keen on reproducing the Arab decorations and ornaments which they had seen on textiles, embossed metallic work and woodwork. In his book «Legacy of Islam», Professor Thomas Arnold said that a cross that probably dates back to the 9th century, was found in Ireland. The verse «In the name of God» was inscribed on a piece of glass inside the cross. The character were Kufic... In Florence, a curious scene was seen during the crowning ceremony of the Blessed Virgin. Angels were seen holding in their hands scrolls carved out in Arabic character. Oriental figures were introduced in European pictures, drawings and tapestries; they exerted a great influence in the orientation of the European art or drawing its renaissance in the Middle Ages.

However, the Arabs did not utterly renounce portraits in pre-Islamic and Islamic days. Their poesy was fraught with descriptions of dummies, puppets, effigies, buildings, urns and utensils, ornaments, royal and princely palaces. The marble dummy was referred to in this verse "A dummy of marble was built high of bricks".

The famous scholar and researcher, the late Ahmad Taimour Pasha, brought forward in his valuable book on portrayal among the Arabs, hundreds of verses which imply that painting and sculpture were widespread among the Arabs. These two arts were used in the decoration of buildings, golden ornaments, in the dying of textiles manufactured by Muslims. He gave the names of many Arab portrayers who were addicted to the carving of drawings and sculpturing of metallic and stone statues.

We cannot dedicate more space in this chapter for evidence and examples of portraits and portrayers in Arab civilization. We are only interested in pointing out that the Arabs were not alone in following behind the ancient advanced nations in the two arts of painting and sculpture and that they were not lacking in the relevant artistic sense and vital emotions. Their artistic taste remained a long time a pattern for the Europeans which they adopted in building palaces, houses, and markets. It was not restricted to the circles of art and its principles.