There are two arts which unfortunately had no great share in Arab
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
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
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
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
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
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".
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.