Posted on 1 Comment

Unislamic Art?

I’m struggling with this cut-up piece for a variety of reasons. It’s unlike my other collages for a number of reasons I’d like to unpack. For starters, it feels both finished and unfinished simultaneously. Currently, it consists of only two pieces: the subject in the foreground, and the battle in the background. This is a dramatic lack of chaos compared to my other work, but in it’s simplicity it feels complete to me. It conveys what we as muslims call sakina, or a profound spiritual tranquility. Here, the serene figure is sheltered from my customary chaos, exemplified by the battle outside. So, I’m ambivalent whether to declare it finished, or delve back into the source material and increase the chaos in my normal fashion.

Ironically, the source material is the most interesting part of this piece for me. It doesn’t come from an islamic book. It comes from the “Assamite Clanbook,” a sourcebook for the roleplaying game “Vampire: The Masquerade,” describing a faction of Muslim vampires. Ironically, I found it in a Christian bookstore. I played this game extensively in my youth, and even played an Assamite or two. At the time, the game was criticized by Christians in my life as containing demonic overtones, similar to their criticisms of Dungeons & Dragons. And honestly, a typical Muslim would find this book deeply offensive… but I don’t.

I have always believed that God judges us by our intentions, not our rectitude… that acting with sincerity is more important than acting without error. As the Prophet Muhammad allegedly said, “Actions are judged by their motives, so each person will have what they intended” (Bukhari & Muslim). This book contains a variety of errors which would offend the bulk of Muslims. It describes a clan of vampires engaged in a violent jihad against other clans. It appropriates passages of the Quran to describe their beliefs. Here, the illustrator included a passage called al-Qadr to describe the battle, the translation of which is:

Verily We have sent down the Quran on the Night of Power.
And what will make you understand how excellent the Night of Power is?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
Therein descend the angels and the Spirit, by the permission of their Lord, with decrees concerning all matters.
Peace it is, until the appearance of the dawn.

In fact, this scene originally contained a depiction of Muhammad himself, inside the fortress and engulfed in flames, which I covered with the subject in the foreground.

So, why aren’t I offended? Well, for starters this depiction of Muhammad didn’t come from the imagination of the illustrators. It’s a recreation of an ancient Persian tapestry. In the iconography of the age, the flames were a symbol spiritual purity, like the halo in European art. The intention of the original image is honorific, and it’s the intention of the entire book that earns my merciful interpretation. The writers were not intending to characterize real Muslims as bloodsucking monsters. There intention was equal inclusion of a foreign culture, through the lens of their fictional world. That’s what most of the Vampire clanbooks are. The core rule book of the game describes a dark world of vampires, mostly in America, and the clanbooks expand that mythos to include factions elsewhere in the world. It’s similar to Frank Herbert’s inclusion of elements of islamic culture in “Dune” and it’s sequels. In their ignorance they made numerous errors, but their intention was a celebration of that culture, and ignorance is innocent. Only willful ignorance is offensive.

I see this collage an effort to reclaim these illustrations and rectify their original honorific intention.

I actually submitted this piece, as is, to an Islamic Art Exhibit, but it was rejected. Not because of the offensiveness of the source material, but because of this little detail.

The eye of the elephant. In the strictest interpretation of “Islamic” art, artists are not supposed to depict the eyes of living beings. This rule is obviously not universally observed. Not even the prohibition of depicting Muhammad is universally observed by Muslims, evidenced by the long history honorific tapestries. But the Imam behind the curation felt abiding by the strictest interpretation was integral to their exhibit. So this particular piece remains undisplayed, and perhaps unfinished, in my private collection. I like that just fine.