Aisha's Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam

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Media coverage of the Danish cartoon crisis and the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan left Westerners with a strong impression that Islam does not countenance depiction of religious imagery. Jamal J. Elias corrects this view by revealing the complexity of Islamic attitudes toward representational religious art. Aisha’s Cushion emphasizes Islam’s perceptual and intellectual modes and in so doing offers the reader both insight into Islamic visual culture and a unique way of seeing the world.

Aisha’s Cushion evaluates the controversies surrounding blasphemy and iconoclasm by exploring Islamic societies at the time of Muhammad and the birth of Islam; during early contact between Arab Muslims and Byzantine Christians; in medieval Anatolia and India; and in modern times. Elias’s inquiry then goes further, to situate Islamic religious art in a global context. His comparisons with Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu attitudes toward religious art show them to be as contradictory as those of Islam. Contemporary theories about art’s place in society inform Elias’s investigation of how religious objects have been understood across time and in different cultures.

Elias contends that Islamic perspectives on representation and perception should be sought not only in theological writings or aesthetic treatises but in a range of Islamic works in areas as diverse as optics, alchemy, dreaming, calligraphy, literature, vehicle and home decoration, and Sufi metaphysics. Unearthing shades of meaning in Islamic thought throughout history, Elias offers fresh insight into the relations among religion, art, and perception across a broad range of cultures.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Countering the popular perception of Islam as wholly disapproving of representational art, Elias, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, lays bare the complexity inherent in Islamic attitudes toward religious art. The book is thorough in its investigation of everything, including early Christian and Jewish attitudes toward representational art and representation of idolatry in early Muslim scholarship, especially philosophy and the sciences; the religious functions of beauty; Arabic calligraphy; and the notion of writing as an image. Elias’s careful, dedicated scholarship acknowledges prior work while venturing into new ground in both art history and Islamic studies, and is as much a work of semiotics as history, as Elias is not naïve about the difficulties of constructing meaning from visual images and their place in religion. The book may be somewhat dense for the lay reader, but in its exploration of a non-Western approach to semiotics and visual culture, as well as its detailed explication of Islamic history and Muslim practices and scholarship, it deserves to be regarded as a new classic in the field of religious studies. (Nov.)
Shahzad Bashir
Reflecting deep erudition in multiple fields across Islamic studies as well as religious studies more generally, the book is both a summation of a large amount of material and a treatment that breaks new ground in multiple areas.
Kishwar Rizvi
A groundbreaking and provocative contribution to the fields of comparative religion, philosophy, visual culture, and art history. Elias expertly addresses issues of iconography and iconoclasm, semiotics and anthropology, idolatry and wonder, as they pertain to the comparative study of Islam, within the context of Christian, Judaic, and Hindu practices. This sophisticated book will appeal to readers interested in Islamic culture, as well as to specialists in Middle East and South Asian intellectual history.
PopMatters - Subashini Navaratnam
Mainstream, popular discussions about Muslim belief and art tend to be reductive, ahistorical, and removed from particular specificities and contexts...Elias' Aisha's Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam arrives at the right time and is an extensive, finely-detailed work of research that seeks to upend predictable, simplistic beliefs and assumptions about the role of Islam in artistic creation and reception...Aisha's Cushion is expansive and edifying.
Literary Review - Eric Ormsby
Engrossing...Elias is very good at clarifying the meaning and significance of beauty in the Islamic tradition...He wishes to show that contrary to popular conception, the prohibition on images in Islam is hardly straightforward but crisscrossed with contradictions, reversals and seemingly flagrant instances of defiance of the ban.
Times Literary Supplement - Marcus Milwright
[A] thought-provoking book…There is much of value here, and the reader gains a sense of how Muslim intellectuals conceptualized the visual in the ‘real’ world and in dreams and visions…This important book offers fresh perspectives that might allow us to identify recurrent themes in perceptions of visual culture, whether religious or secular, across the Islamic world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674058064
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 11/15/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 983,245
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Jamal J. Elias is Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Four: Iconoclasm, Iconophobia and Islam

There is, of course, no basis to make any historical argument suggesting that the nascent Muslim community of the seventh and eighth centuries adopted its attitudes toward images and their veneration directly from the Byzantine church. On the other hand, it is obvious that early Muslims situated themselves quite squarely within a Christian and Jewish historical context through a number of ways. Among many other factors, that the Qur’an was seen as a definitive scripture abrogating the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament; the real or imagined but extensively documented interactions and conflicts of Muhammad with Jews and Christians both within the Arabian peninsula and beyond its borders; the demographic dominance of Christians in important provinces of the early Muslim empire (Egypt, Palestine and Syria); and the material tastes of the early Umayyad princes as displayed in the architecture and decoration of their palaces, all go to demonstrate that Christianity and its material and intellectual environment were living concerns for early Muslims. Similarly, the Muslims, who were threatening Constantinople itself within a century of Muhammad’s death and whose early conquest of Jerusalem had implications for the relationship between Christianity and Islam that go far beyond the purview of this book, were very much on the minds of the church and imperial leadership of the Byzantine Empire. However, mutual awareness, influence and interaction do not prove, or even necessarily imply, direct influence on each other’s attitudes toward images.

As already noted, some scholars have argued that the rise of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Christian world was directly related to either the influence either of Semites or of Islam. Observing that some of the emperors who supported iconoclastic policies were of Semitic descent, they have made an outdated and thoroughly discredited argument for what amounts to a Semitic genetic aversion to idolatry. Others have made a much more historically rigorous claim for influence based on the rapidly ascending fortunes of Islam and the correspondingly diminished ones of Byzantium which placed the Christians on the defensive in their interactions with Muslims. The main historical argument in favor of seeing Byzantine iconoclasm as a response to the rise of Islam lies in the chronological sequence of the caliph Yazid II's decree for the destruction of Christian images in 721, the condemnation of images by Bishop Constantine of Nacoleia in 724, and the beginning of the active Iconoclastic movement under Leo III in 726. Perhaps coincidentally, Jewish polemic against Christian image-veneration appears to arise only after the coming of Islam. The apologia in support of image-veneration also blame the origins of Christian iconoclasm on the conniving of Jews and Muslims, though this cannot be taken seriously as an accurate view of history. There is a difference between misplaced notions of innate iconophilic or iconophobic mentalities and the historical argument that the rise of Muslim Arabs as a regional power made the Byzantines more sensitive to questions of image veneration. As stated by Brubaker:

…icons took on new significance at the end of the seventh century because they addressed the spiritual crisis and insecurities brought about by the Islamic conquests. The ramifications were almost immediate. Changes in practice by around the year 680 were countered by the institution of canonical legislation regulating the proper use of Christian imagery at the Quinisext Council of 691/2. Conversely, the following generation of churchmen, active in the 720s… represent the backlash against the new role of icons and provide our earliest documented iconoclasts.

As I have demonstrated, Christian hostility to images and their veneration was already well-established long before the birth of Islam and the life of Muhammad. And though individuals such as John of Damascus and Theodore Abu Qurrah were deeply aware of their Muslim surroundings, the train of their arguments concerning image-veneration is wholly comprehensible as one of internal Christian debate. The as-yet-unformed Muslim attitude toward image-veneration allowed John of Damascus considerable freedom in his formulation of apologia for image-veneration, such that he was arguably much better off for being at a Muslim court than he would have been were he to have lived under Byzantine territorial control.

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Table of Contents

Preface on Abbreviations and Conventions ix

Prologue: The Promise of a Meaningful Image 1

1 Representation, Resemblance, and Religion 27

2 The Icon and the Idol 43

3 Iconoclasm, Iconophobia, and Islam 84

4 Idols, Icons, and Images in Islam 100

5 Beauty, Goodness, and Wonder 139

6 Alchemy, Appearance, and Essence 175

7 Dreams, Visions, and the Imagination 198

8 Sufism and the Metaphysics of Resemblance 216

9 Words, Pictures, and Signs 236

10 Legibility, Iconicity, and Monumental Writing 264

Epilogue 284

Notes 291

Bibliography 349

Acknowledgments 393

Index 395

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