Art and Islam

North African Hand-Tooled Copper Tray (LEO Design)

There’s a long and impressive history of fine metal-tooling throughout the Middle East and North Africa—especially on seemingly utilitarian objects like trays, pots, lanterns and table tops.  Since much of the Middle East and North Africa is Islamic, local craftsmen observe the strictures of their religion (to greater or lesser degrees) when it comes to material selection and decorative motif.  First of all, Muslim craftsmen are restricted from using costly materials (like gold or precious gems) but, rather, humble materials like copper, brass and wood.  As a result, a simple object (like a copper tray) can be elevated to an article of great beauty in the hands of a talented artisan. Surely, this phenomena was not lost on early Arts & Crafts designers who strived to create beautiful objects using simple, natural materials. Secondly, conservative Islamic tradition forbids the depiction of humans in artwork (since human artists should not attempt to imitate “God’s creation of man”).  Animals, too, were usually forbidden, though (less conservative) artists could get-around this regulation by making the animal in a somewhat-stylized form.   Because living creatures were not used as an artistic subject, Islamic artists elevated other elements into beautiful—even sublime—works of art: botanical subjects, interlocking graphic elements (“Arabesques”), even calligraphy reached new heights in the hands of Muslim artists.

The technical term for this prohibition is called Anaconism—and how strictly it is observed depends on how liberal or conservative the artist (and his community) tends to be.  There is a scale of offenses: depicting Muhammad is the most serious, other prophets and religious figures come next, followed by humans, animals and (for some) plants.  Sometimes anaconism is respected in religious commissions while "secular" objects might deviate from the strict conservative observance.  In the end—like so many things religious—the most conservative practitioners tend be take (and attempt to enforce) a more rigid interpretation of the practice.

The hand-tooled copper tray, shown above is probably North African.  Though folk craft is sometimes hard to date, it is safe to say it was made between the 1920’s and the 1950’s. Please click on the photo above to learn more about it (and to see a fuller picture of the entire piece).

Today—when the new crescent moon appears—Ramadan will begin.  To my Muslim customers and friends: Ramadan Mubarak!



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