The ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar is definitely about more than just sports alone.
A new kind of controversy within some Muslim circles is geared around the symbolism which was presented during the opening ceremony of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. This was where famous African-American actor, Morgan Freeman—who played “God” in the 2003-comedy Bruce Almighty—extended his hand towards Ghanim Al-Muftah, a disabled Qatari entrepreneur and YouTube personality.
This image reminded many of a fresco painting, The Creation of Adam (circa 1512), by the Italian painter Michelangelo. This painting depicts “God” trying to reach Adam, and its traditional interpretation is of “God” giving the “existential divine spark” to “Adam.”
There’s a lot to analyze in this painting.
For instance, you have what is such an obvious anthropomorphic depiction of “God,” who is presented as an old man. Of course, as Muslims, we know that Allah is not a human with a body. He does not resemble any of His creation in any way:
He is the [Sole] Originator of the heavens and the earth [with no precedent]. It is He [alone] who has made for you from among yourselves mates, [males and females]. And out of [all kinds of] cattle, He made [such] mates, [as well]. Thereby, He multiplies you. There is nothing [whatsoever] that is anything [whatsoever] like Him. For He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing. (Qur’an, 42:11)
And then there’s the portrayal of this “God” in the painting doing all the hard work while “Adam” is just sitting there, quite passively waiting for the so-called “existential divine spark” to just arrive, like some sort of little king expecting his servant’s obedience.
Doesn’t all of this indicate to us how Christians, centuries prior to liberal-modernity, were mocking their religion? And that this was for the simple reason that Christianity itself is entirely based on a mockery of God through its fundamental dogmas such as the Trinity and the Incarnation?
Looking at things more generally though, what does painting or art tell us about Western civilization as a whole?
Art: A Product of the City and the Bourgeois Mind
Many bash Islam for its lack of love towards what are referred to as the “arts,” and painting is often brought up within such diatribes.
Of course, they become completely oblivious to all the abstract art that we can see in mosques or calligraphy, which fits within the Islamic paradigm. The very idea of Tawhid imposes a sort of simplicity, even minimalism, respectful of the Creator. This is the reason why there is no sense of pure realism, or any attempt to make an exact replica of reality, since ultimately, Allah alone is Al-Musawwir (which can be translated as The Giver of Forms or The Fashioner).
Such a link between Islamic art and Islamic epistemology has been explored and discussed by many, with perhaps the best scholar on the subject being the late Titus Burckhardt (Ibrahim ‘Izz al-Din).
In the West, on the other hand, far from reaffirming the absolute inferiority of the creation in relation to the Creator, art has been a form of Fir’awnism, amplifying the human ego.
And this seems to trace back to Ancient Greece, as Didier Maleuvre tries to demonstrate in his book, The Art of Civilization.
Within this book, Maleuvre says that art is linked to a certain city-dwelling “bourgeois” approach to life, one that is characterized by expressive individualism; a rationalist epistemology; and a never-ending quest for material wealth, while being aware that this may seem anachronistic when applied to the Ancient Greeks (which is what we would usually think more of modern Westerners). He expounds on this, on p.17:
Ancient Greeks were an adventuring, pirating people, to be sure, but also a trading and productive one—indeed, as the classicist Edith Hall argues, an uncommonly pragmatic, money-minded, go-getting, and competitive people too. They valued precision and technical expertise (‘it’s skill, not brawn’, an Iliad charioteer tells his pupil); they celebrated material wealth and, like the Abyssinians, enjoyed keeping lists and taking stock; they were inquisitive, argumentative, individualistic, and business-minded. ‘No work is a disgrace, and idleness a greater disgrace still’: these are the words of, not a Victorian scold, but the poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer. Though the Iliad glories in the warrior–plunderer ethos, its language is precise, forensic, business-like. When Odysseus is done with the warring and buccaneering, he yearns to go back to Ithaca to till his acres and increase his property. If we must apply a Victorian type to the ancient Greek, that of the East India Company man (since the Greeks were essentially merchant settlers) will do better than the lily-clutching aesthete. Theirs was the civilization that in its heyday produced Pericles’s famous eulogy to the rule of law and meritocracy, the fifth-century rationalism that begot ‘ironic’ Socrates and his conceptual jousts, wry Aristophanes, deadpan Thucydides, Euripides’s defense of political free speech, Xenophanes’s astringent remark that men make gods in their own image, and Protagoras’s agnosticism: we, he said, ‘know nothing about the gods, either that they are or that they are not. Many things make sure knowledge impossible: the obscurity of the theme and the shortness of human life’
Art in the specific case of the Ancient Greeks refers more to sculpture than painting. It is thus a product of urbanization and the proto-bourgeoisie, by which we understand individualism and rationalism, and when it comes to religion this translates into a form of agnosticism.
We began this article by questioning Christianity’s respect, or more accurately its lack thereof, towards God. And Maleuvre emphasises that Christianity shouldn’t have become the “image-loving civilization” that it eventually evolved into. He writes on pp.40-41:
Originally the odds were that Christianity should not have evolved into an image-loving civilization. For Christianity initially branched out of a fiercely iconophobic religion, Judaism, which proscribed all representations of the divine, and abhorred the graven idols of their Greek and Roman masters (…) there are several explanations for this surprising turnaround. One is that, a Jewish breakaway cult though it was, Christianity proselytized among the pagans whose passion for images it had to accommodate: when in Rome, and so on. To spread the gospels (or ‘good tidings’) wide and far, the new evangelical religion needed all the means of communication at its disposal, whether sermons, parables, symbols, or images.
Christians corrupted their religion for what some would describe as marketing, and others would call it a strategy. Basically they needed converts, and they were willing to do whatever it took to get them.
It seems like Christianity just can’t help but “adapt” to its environment. We see this even now with the manipulation carried out by missionaries in order to try and convert Muslims; and with priests in the West pandering to the LGBT communities.
A Christian who recognized the danger posed by art in general and painting in particular against his religion was the influential Orthodox theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who was executed by the Soviets during the ’30s.
Westerners often argue that the true beginning of their “great art of painting” was due to the discovery of perspective, which is the idea of having a realistic representation of three-dimensional objects within two-dimensional artwork.
The pioneers of perspective were the Italian Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo.
But Florensky argued that this “perspective” in fact infuses a sense of individualism, as reality is being shaped by the artist, who then becomes a sort of miniature deity despite all the “realism.”
In his main essay on the question, Beyond Vision, he defines “modern man” as follows (pp.217-218):
Modern man who considers only his own desires and, of necessity, the most immediate means of realising and satisfying them. Hence it is understandable that the prerequisites for a realistic view of life are and always will be as follows: there are realities, i.e., there are centres of being, something in the nature of concentrates of more intense being, that submit to their own laws, and each of which therefore has its own form. Therefore, nothing that exists can be seen as indifferent and passive material for fulfilling whatsoever kind of schemas, still less taking into account the schema of Euclidean-Kantian space.
Florensky, in an attempt for European-Christians to save their paintings, proposes the “reverse perspective” that one can find in the Russian icons, but it goes without saying that, for Muslims, these are still extremely problematic because of the way they depict the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him).
Painting and Anti-Humanism
In Western thought, there’s a whole trend you could describe as irrationalist, beginning during the mid-19th century and including philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; and psychologists such as Freud (the late Swiss historian Fernand-Lucien Mueller has a entire book on the subject).
In his book, Crisis of Reason, the British historian J. W. Burrow has shown that it has much to do with the current developments in science at the time, mainly “materialist reductionism” (as he terms it) and Darwinian evolutionism.
If you analyze Symbolist paintings, you notice that there’s a sort of erasure of humans. Instead the environment, portrayed in a non-naturalistic way, seems to be preferred, and there’s emphasis given to vivid colors.
But it becomes clearest with Egon Schiele, the most notable disciple of Klimt. In his paintings—which are mainly self-portraits with sexual elements to them—humans lose their “form” as well, as they seem to not even have bones, the “basics” of their external appearance.
In a way, humans end up no longer being human.
In perhaps what is his only good book, The Order of Things (1966), French philosopher Michel Foucault, while analyzing centuries of European history, notices that the evolving episteme (worldview) goes from anthropocentric to anti-human. This is similar to the modern social sciences, where man is no longer a subject but rather an object of study.
We can see the same thing in panting. Because of the “irrationalist” revolution brought about by materialist science during the mid-19th century, man slowly loses his humanity, as can be seen with Schiele.
It is thus no wonder that the main Western painting movement post-WWII was abstract expressionism (consider Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, etc.), something that was weaponized by the CIA during the Cold War, and where man is literally non-existent.
So, is this the “great art” of painting that Muslims are criticized for refusing? Were all these Renaissances nudes worth the consequences that occured centuries later?
And shouldn’t Christians in particular know that when you start depicting “God” or His prophets in such a degrading manner, you naturally end up negating man himself?
We read in Surat al-Hashr:
Then do not be like those who forgot Allah. Therefore, He made them forget their own souls. It is these who are [themselves] the ungodly. (Qur’an, 59:19)