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  • Introduction:The Politics and Poetics of the Child Image in Muslim Contexts
  • Pamela Karimi (bio) and Christiane Gruber (bio)

Images of the Child in Historical Contexts

Images of children are synonymous with perceptions, ideas, and beliefs. They elucidate early human experience and dominate professional discourse.1 Moreover, portrayals of children vary across culture groups and historic periods. In some cultures, children are given more consideration than in others. Since the early medieval period, the model child in European imagery was the infant Jesus, whose cult spread rapidly, especially among Cistercian circles. Compared to Christian contexts, Islamic visual culture contains few depictions of children.

Nonetheless, portraying children in Islamic art extends as far back as the medieval period. For example, images in illustrated copies of al-Hariri's Maqamat (Assemblies) are particularly appealing. One manuscript dated 1237 CE includes a depiction of Abbasid children sitting at the feet of their tutors, writing religious lessons on tablets and repeating them back for correction while a boy works a fan to provide proper air circulation in the classroom (fig. 1).2 Images such as these depict the atmosphere of the kuttab, or religious schools for youngsters. In such settings, children are not meant to be identified as particular individuals or stand for symbolic qualities, as is often the case with images of the child in coeval European illustrations.3 Rather, they provide evidence for teacher-student relations and learning methods in the medieval Islamic world as well as personifications of cultural knowledge as passed down from one generation to the next.

Despite the relative paucity of representations of children in the Islamic world,4 there exists an abundance of writings related to children. Much in line with Judeo-Christian traditions, [End Page 273] the Koran rejects the pre-Islamic tribal concept of the child as a father's property. Instead, the Holy Book refers to children as sacred beings.5 Moreover, medieval texts often describe the Prophet Muhammad as having treated children with care and compassion.6 The topic of childhood also found clear expressions in various medieval legal, theological, hygienic-medical, ethical, pedagogical, and belletristic texts. In addition to providing instructions on ethical living and emphasizing the importance of religious belief, these writings also identify stages in a child's maturation, each perceived as a unique moment in the physical and psychological growth of an individual. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Arabic language has a rich vocabulary to describe the distinct phases of childhood.7

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Figure 1.

A primary school (kuttab), with seated tutors, pupils writing on boards, and a boy pulling the rope of a fan. Painting from the Maqamat of Abu Muhammed al Qasim ibn Ali Hariri (or Al-Hariri) (1054-1122). Image courtesy of Bibiothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Arabe 5847, folio 152 recto.

Most medieval and early modern Islamic texts portray children as arousing the love, and having to meet the expectations, of their parents. Several texts, including the Koran, stress the parent's love for a child (especially boys) as well as a child's purity and innocence.8 However, [End Page 274] many other writings portray the child as an ignorant creature, filled with base desires and of a vulnerable spirit. At times, children were regarded as potentially threatening to the stability and order of the adult world; for these reasons, they were in need of moral education and social discipline. Corporal punishment—sometimes excessive to modern sensitivities—was therefore deemed necessary to curb misbehavior. As a result, the corrective effect of physical reprimand received attention among painters of the Islamic world.9 Depictions of beatings can be found among the folios of a number of illustrated-manuscripts, including the Maqamat of 1237 CE. Later examples include a Persian tinted sketch of 1605-6 CE in which a pupil's chastisement by foot whipping is depicted by a highly skilled artistic hand (fig. 2). Obviously, the rearing of children was not guided solely by practices of positive reinforcement.

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Figure 2.

Chastisement of a pupil by foot whipping, tinted sketch by Muhammad Qasim, Safavid, Iran, AH 1013/1605-6...


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pp. 273-293
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