Have you ever wondered why in mosques there aren’t any pictures of animate creatures, unlike other religions’ places of worship? This is because in Islam there is a law on drawing animate creatures, also known as tashwir (تصوير). In general, this law states that the act of creating and using pictures of animate creatures is haraam (forbidden), and the one who does it is condemned as a sinner.

However, is it always like that?

Bangdzia is a moslem artist who had once stopped drawing because of this. However, while studying as a student of Visual Communication Design at Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of Art), Yogyakarta, he came into an idea to conduct an extensive research about the view of Islam regarding the act of drawing or sculpting animate creatures. He put forward his research as his final project to obtain his degree.

Through a laborious process, consulting some Islamic scholars and reviewing many books, the book titled Gambar itu Haram? (Is Picture Forbidden?) was produced in a form that will be easy to understand for many people: a comic book.

What is Tashwir?

Even Gundam could be considered as tashwir. So is it forbidden by the religion too? (©Bangdzia/Pustaka Al-Kautsar)

The issue of drawing animate creatures has been a longtime affair in the world of Islam. Public may think that Islam really prohibits this, resulting in the assumption that Islam is a “art-unfriendly” religion. On the other side, moslem artists feel disappointed with this kind of postulate, so they respond to it with another postulate, resulting in a prolonged debate that actually has no benefit.

Gambar Itu Haram? tries to explain this problem in simple terms. Bangdzia begins with explaining that the actual meaning of tashwir is so broad, not just limited to the act of drawing or sculpting. In fact, it is said that “Tashwir includes anything that has depiction, shape, and character. It means that almost everything that humans create is included in tashwir.” That statement comes after analyzing the word tashwir in Arabic, which meaning turns out to be not as narrow as we thought.

Before explaining the law of tashwir itself, this book explains the classification of tashwir first, which are based on its character (animate or inanimate), shape (2 dimension or 3 dimension), to treatment (creator or user). The classification is important because this would be the basis to learn that the law for each group is different, so that it will be shown that not all tashwir are stated to be forbidden. It will also explain the difference of opinions among scholars around the world regarding this problem.

The Long Journey of Tashwir

From idolatry to Wayang, different time periods offer different perspectives on the religious law regarding art (©Bangdzia/Pustaka Al-Kautsar)

It is advisable that before we say whether tashwir is forbidden or not, we look to the past, referring to the long history on how moslems treated pictures of animate creatures. And this is what the second part of the book detailed, which has the most content compared to the other chapters.

The historical periodisation in explaining tashwir  in this book is divided to several eras: pre-Islamic Arabiaearly advent of Islam and the khulafah ar-Rasyidin, Umayyad Dynasty, Abbasiyah Dynasty, The Sultanate of Ottoman Turkey, and the propagation of Islam in Nusantara (especially the regions that would later comprise Indonesia). Each era has its own story and it is discussed in detail. In every age there are also different traits regarding the act of drawing animate creatures.

There are some interesting things that I found in this “history of tashwir” part. For example, the art of Arabesque that appeared in Umayyad Dynasty, emerged from a concession between those who forbid and allow tashwir. There is also the story about Indonesian puppet show, wayang. The unrealistic proportion of the wayang body shape of Wayang was taken as a solution to make wayang not considered as a depiction of “living creature” anymore, meaning it couldn’t be stated as forbidden tashwir. This idea came out after several debates among the Wali Songo who propagate Islam in Java at that time.

The main cause of the appearance of tashwir law actually originated before Muhammad received his prophethood. The rise of idols (not to be confused with those who sing and dance) that were worshipped other than Allah was common at that time, to the point that it was recorded that there were 360 idols in Mecca at the time of the Fath Makkah (The Conquest of Mecca). The ban of creating or using depictions of animate creatures appeared as a form of prevention to the worship of such depictions as “gods” other than Allah, because in Islam, only Allah should be worshipped as the One God, and He couldn’t be substituted nor personified in any form.

To be continued on the next page


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