Between Islamic Jurisprudence and Art: Controversy Over the Image
By Charbel Dagher
Arab Cultural Center, Casablanca, 2021
The Lebanese scholar and poet Charbel Dagher has written over 70 books, ranging from collections of poetry, novels, and translations to literary criticism and original research. Indeed, we can clearly recognize his various and rich creative achievements. What distinguishes Dagher’s academic works is his devotion to the quality of his writing – his rigorous documentation, sound methodology, and commitment to objective analysis are a testament to the earnestness and patience with which he approaches his craft. At the same time, Dagher’s writing maintains a vivacity often missing in academic research, which can often be dry and even burdensome to the reader. Dagher’s style flows with ease, and he delivers his arguments in a logical progression of documentation. One could even argue that in his fictional works, which he has taken care to separate from his poetry – he is, after all, a poet who has built his own experimental style and language – documentation is ever-present.
His latest book, “Between Islamic Jurisprudence and Art: Controversy Over the Image,” recently published by the Arab Cultural Center, delves into an issue that has featured prominently in many of his books, including “Doctrines of Aesthetics: A Lexical-Historical Reading of the Arts in Arabic,” “Islamic Art in Arab Sources: Making Ornament and Beauty” and “Arabic Painting between Context and Horizon.” Dagher asserts that this “dispute over images” is a relevant issue, since depictions of the Prophet have led to open, sometimes bloody conflict in parts of both Europe and the Islamic World in recent years. The root cause of this violence, he argues, is not clear. Does it stem merely from the Prophet being depicted, or from the way he is lampooned? Dagher begins with a series of questions about art itself: “Does art consist only of the artist’s expression and exercise of his/her individual agency? Or is it subject to the collective, or at least to a dominant group that seeks to define a collective identity and creed? ِAre the causes of this violence limited to the scope of art and its principles, or should the scope be broadened? Does not the speed and efficacy with which these images are disseminated via electronic media, in turn, contribute to the hasty transmission of the conflict?”
Next, Dagher offers some speculations, also in the form of questions, that he attempts to answer in the book by adopting a historical framework whereby he subjects his research to several “methodological limitations: among them, for it be conducted within religious, geographical, and historical borders.” Through an inspection of what the Islamic juridical canon says about the image in art, the book attempts to establish both “synthetic links between jurisprudence and art, on one hand, and the theory of art in jurisprudence, on the other hand,” focusing on the image with relation to “production, acquisition, use, and thought.”
Dagher chooses Morocco as his field of study, citing its distance from the Ottoman Empire and the presence of an abundant body of jurisprudential work for the topic at hand. Perhaps most interesting and relevant, Dagher argues, is that in the period stretching from the fall of Granada in 1492 to the beginning of the 20th century, the artistic image functioned as a symbol of struggle in what some have labeled the all-out war waged against them by Europe. That does not stop him, however, from surveying the state of the image in other Arab societies in recent decades, both by analysis of juridical discourse and how art itself has fared. This is especially the case for Gulf countries, a region in which Dagher calls for additional future study in his conclusion.
The first chapter of the 271-page book, titled “Between the Jurist and the Sultan,” begins by challenging an observation made in Gilbert Beaugé’s and Jean Francois Clément’s book “The Image in the Arab World” (L’Image dans le Monde Arabe), that the fate of the image in the modern Arab World differs from that of the era of Islamic empire. From the 19th century onward, the authors argue, a contrast emerges between the “production” of images and their “consumption.” Dagher considers this a deep-seated orientalist narrative of the Arab World constructed upon impressions rather than through a critical historical lens, particularly regarding literary and artistic production, that stems from a seemingly inherent orientalist tendency to muddle the two periods. Dagher addresses another fallacy, “intellectual scandal,” as he puts it, regarding the image in the Islamic period. The current academic discourse, he argues, has failed to understand the absence of the image in this period, much less the image’s sudden explosion in the 20th century, which has commonly been explained by a lack of fatwas and juridical consultations on the matter. Beaugé and Clément write that jurists largely stayed silent in the face of the revolution of the image, but Dagher reveals dozens of fatwas from numerous jurists in various societies, and in multiple centuries. This observation follows us throughout the book, and is borne out by substantial sourcing in the endnotes from Arabic language journals, conferences, and forums as well as Western sources, most of which are books or academic articles on jurisprudence.
Fiqh an-Nawāzil - Jurisprudence on Contemporary Issues
Summarizing the book will not suffice; it must be read in its entirety, as the researcher has committed to an organized and smooth academic style that renders history as an engaging story. Dagher presents the research question in a way that prompts reflection into unanswered questions, and gently guides the reader towards important and elucidating conclusions. Beginning with what is called “Nawāzil Literature” in Morocco, he draws our attention to the issue of transformations that affect societies, and the role of the jurist in them, while tracing the evolution and expansion of this role, as well as reasons or motives for his work, what can be called the relationship between jurisprudence and history, resulting in jurisprudence becoming the largest force in regulating life in Islamic societies.
Nawāzil Literature in Morocco refers to the texts and writings known as juridical nawāzil, which consist of jurists’ treatment of “any situation posed to them by individuals and their ruling on the matter. The jurist must ponder any dogmatic and moral issue that may arise in a Muslim’s everyday life, and find a solution that both fits the surrounding society’s values and lies within the rules of jurisprudence.” Based on these rulings, from the fall of Granada and a new paradigm for relations between Morocco and Europe, up through the Spanish Protectorate to gaining independence, one can track the transition of Moroccan society through the developing role of jurists and their expanding influence and sway, including jurists’ relation to the government of “The Makhzan.” Alongside these geopolitical developments, Morocco’s inescapable opening up to modernity and new developments in everyday life gave rise to robust juridical debate.
While the book focuses on the Maliki school, the dominant school in Morocco, that does not prevent Dagher from interrogating other schools of jurisprudence, including the other three Sunni schools and the Shi’ite school, cataloging juridical contributions from several Arab and Islamic countries. In any case, the author approaches the subject through analyzing juridical discourse, i.e. by attempting to comprehend the issue through a historical lens.
Just as the study is built on rigorous and pointed questions presented in the introduction, it also hints at possible answers in the form of questions. For example: Did Islamic jurisprudence specifically forbid depictions of the Prophet, or rather human depictions altogether? Did the various schools of jurisprudence come to a consensus opinion on the image, or did they differ in their treatments of it, particularly the artistic image? Do the positions of jurists differ from the practices of artists themselves in particular cultures?
At the end of the book, Dagher brings the reader back to the questions presented at the beginning, posing additional questions on the tail of his in-depth research. Can art, and the differences in opinion on it between the Arab and the Western worlds, really explain the violence between the two sides? Are not these attitudes, at odds with one another regarding the depiction of the Prophet, merely a pretext for conflicts with other underlying motivations? Those who endeavor to incite this violence, do they use religion, the Prophet, and images, among other things, to cement their dominance over their local environments? Does successful globalization, wherever the case may be, not exacerbate the pressure on cultural, artistic, and ideological boundaries to adapt and expand? And, in turn, does this pressure not incite “adversarial” and “miserable” and “desperate” situations?
Such a laundry list of questions gives the sense that the author steps outside of his academic charge to become a reader of his own book. He must, therefore, also be given credit for anticipating the reader’s potential questions and including them at the proper juncture. As for my reading of this rich and enjoyable book, it raises even more questions for me, sparked by an observation Dagher makes in a section titled “The Image According to Current Values,” which reads, “ٌRecent discourse on the image transmits, or reflects, rather, current values, imposing them on the long history of the image and transforming it, whether in Islamic and Arab societies or their Western counterparts. Thus what is said about the right of an image to express what it wants, or an artist to paint what she wants and how, is a proclamation of claiming the artists’ rights, but reaches no further than to protect the role of art as currency or investment in capital.”
Charges of “ridiculing the Prophet” or opposing his prophethood are an attempt by elites to impose their power over fellow Muslims by claiming to be “the most fervent defenders” of the Prophet and his message. But if the role and prestige of the jurist of contemporary Arab societies have receded, there has been a subsequent ascendance in the last decade, i.e. the Arab Spring era, as Arab and Islamic societies have encountered a stretch of confusion and restiveness regarding modern life. This period of widespread alienation experienced by Arabs and Muslims stemming from political, intellectual, and cultural modernity has led to an increased demand for juridical opinion. The jurists’ role, Dagher argues, is to work toward extracting Islam from the seemingly inescapable stereotypes by which the rest of the world sees it – a breeding ground for violence, terrorism, and extremism. Only then can Islam become a partner with the larger world in formulating the values relating to our collective human fate, by persuading the world that Islamic societies are able and ready to produce tools for humanity’s peace and thriving, not for war.
Translated from the Arabic by Joseph Sills
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid