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Reviewed by:
  • Islamisches Bilderverbot vom Mittel- bis ins Digitalzeitalter
  • Richard McGregor
Islamisches Bilderverbot vom Mittel- bis ins Digitalzeitalter. By A. Ibrić. Wien: LIT Verlag GmbH, 2006. Pp. 120.

Islamisches Bilderverbot vom Mittel- bis ins Digitalzeitalter by Almir Ibrić is a contribution to a small but growing literature in the long-neglected area of Islamic aesthetics. The author has attempted to establish grounds for a philosophical treatment of the Islamic prohibition of images (Bilderverbot). His task is problematic, due in large part to the absence of such treatments within the tradition itself. Of course this is not to say that Islam is lacking in art, imagery, or aesthetic sensibility, but simply that a systematic reflection on the nature and function of such things is absent. Ibrić's efforts draw on material from the earliest period of Islamic history up to the contemporary digital age of the Worldwide Web. The scope is wide and the conclusions sweeping.

In his introduction the author engages the methodological problem of reconstructing a philosophical discourse that is lacking from the tradition itself. He notes that although the Shia, Sufi, and mainstream Sunni theological and legal discussions have in many instances contributed to either the production of images or the censoring of such productions, the discourse of Islamic philosophy has remained largely silent on the subject. The problem, then, is how to proceed, and here Ibrić proposes several paths, all of which contribute to his final conclusion. In short, his approach is a bricolage that surveys a variety of practices and discourses, tying them back into an argument for a common and uniquely Islamic ethico-theological commitment.

The first of these paths leads back to pre-Islamic Arabia. Here the stage is set for the harsh monotheism of the new Islamic revelation. The author specifies Jewish/ Abrahamic/Hanif iconoclasm as setting the ground for the Islamic prohibition of images. The identification of a monotheistic vision (tawhid) aside, the revolutionary force of this iconoclasm appealed to early Islam in its struggle to overcome the "old religions" around it. But, perhaps more importantly, this iconoclasm served to anchor the Islamic commitment centrally to an utterly abstract divinity. This move toward abstract expression is revisited later in reflections on non-figural themes in Islamic art. Another pre-Islamic carryover is the animating force embodied as the jinn. Here the implications are less clear, since the positive inspirational role played by muse-like jinn in early Islam was displaced by the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic formulations of philosophers such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd, who re-centered artistic inspiration and production back upon the artist. These formulations however did not displace the negative functions of jinn, which persist across Muslim culture today.

In chapter 2 the author runs quickly through a number of well-known positions within the Islamic tradition relating to predestination, free will, and individual responsibility, all with an eye to what light these discussions might shed on the prohibition of images. Here a systematic comparison is laid out between the "Traditional way" of the mainstream Sunni legal/theological perspective; the "Rational way" of a [End Page 292] very wide category of philosophers and modernists; al-Ash'ari's "Liberal way," seeking to anchor responsibility within the individual while preserving God's omnipotence; al-Maturidi's tilting the scales of responsibility further toward the individual; and, finally, an amorphous "Mystical" perspective, characterized as a search for extinction of the individual into the divine—something that, Ibrić argues, simply makes the pursuit of anything but the divine a pursuit of idols. These five perspectives, presented here only in their bare bones, would each benefit from further analysis.

The following chapter continues the search for insight into the prohibition of images as it turns to various dimensions of aesthetics. Beauty, mimesis, form, and artwork are themes touched upon, then followed by summaries of six strikingly different solutions that have been proposed to resolve or at least loosen the prohibition of images. These range from Oleg Grabar's modern "atomist" theory of Islamic art to Abu Hayyan's eleventh-century concept of sina'a (art, skill), which integrates the natural form with the intellect and spirit of the artist. As...