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Islamic Art Is the One Grown in the Islamic Culture, Civilization: Navvab

We believe that Islamic art is an art that has grown in the context of Islamic culture and civilization, said Hujatt al-Islam Sayyid Mohammad Hossein Navvab, the head of the Islamic School of Art (ISOA).

9th April, the martyrdom anniversary of Sayyid Morteza Avini marks the day for “the Art of Islamic Revolution”. For this occasion, ijtihadnet has interviewed Hujatt al-Islam Sayyid Mohammad Hossein Navvab, the head of the Islamic School of Art (ISOA). He is a graduate of the Islamic seminary of Qom and holds a Ph.D in Philosophy of Art from Allameh Tabataba’i University.

  1. 9th April, the martyrdom anniversary of Sayyid Morteza Avini marks the day for “the Art of Islamic Revolution”.Would you please shed some light on some aspects of the life of Martyr Avini, especially those related to Islamic Art?

Avini was a documentary filmmaker who captured scenes of bravery and martyrdom of Muslim fighters during the 8-years imposed war by West-backed Ba’th Regime of Iraq against Iran. He was eventually martyred on landmines planted by the army of Saddam Hussein. Avini studied at the faculty of Arts and behaved like any other artists, but later became acquainted with the ideas of Imam Khomeini and in the following years, became a revolutionary and changed the course of his life. He tried to acquaint people with the oppression of the Pahlavi regime through television and cinema, and by writing many books and articles, he explained the Islamic art and introduced the Iranian scientific and artistic community to the religious and social functions of art.

  1. What are the main features of the art of the Islamic Revolution?

The role of art in the victory of the Islamic Revolution and the days of the Holy Defence cannot be denied. In the victory of the Islamic Revolution and the Holy Defence, the cinema, music, and theatre of the visual arts all joined hands to show the sacrifices of the young people who tried their best for these victories. After the war, Iran has achieved a very valuable art due to its long history in art and its precious heritage that has been inherited from all the years after Islam. Its cinema is considered as a moral cinema in the world today, and its music is known as mystical music, and many valuable works have been created in graphics and visual arts. If I want to point to the features of the art of the Islamic Revolution, I would like to say that the art of the Islamic Revolution is an art that has grown in the context of revolutionary and Islamic thought. It pays special attention to beauty and functions at the same time. In the Western culture, arts are divided into fine arts and applied arts, but in Islamic art, we are faced with only one set of arts that are both beautiful and practical. In the West, painting on the wall is chosen only for its beauty, but in Islamic art, we pay attention not only to the beauty but also to the function.In the architecture of the mosque, in addition to the beauty and decoration of the architecture, functions such as qibla are also considered. Or in a carpet that is one of the most important examples of Islamic art, when it is woven, an attempt is made to use designs that make a person look at heaven, and beauty is definitely considered, and on the other hand, an attempt is made to design a carpet that is soft and comfortable.

  1. Let us generalize the topic and discuss Islamic art in general. How do you define Islamic art?

In defining Islamic art, there is much disagreement among scholars. First, many Orientalists believe that Islamic art is the regional art of Muslims that has historically been derived from previous regional traditions and is not designed based on the Islamic intellectual principles. They have created something new in accordance with all the traditions called Islamic art. For example, Islamic art in Iran is derived from ancient Iran and Islamic art in Turkey is derived from pre-Islamic Anatolian tradition, and Greek art has had a serious impact on it.

On the other hand, some believe that Islamic art is an art that is created in accordance with Qur’anic verses and hadiths and that everything that is inaccordance with narrations and verses is Islamic art.The third group believes that the art that is growing in the context of Islamic culture and civilization is called Islamic art. This third category has a stronger opinion. Yet another group, the traditionalists, believe thatIslamic art is a formal expression of the revelatory tradition of Islam. These expressions are like revelatory holy books that have descended from the higher world on the lives of talented artists. Traditionalists such as Schuon, Guénon, and Nasr have a purely mystical interpretation of Islamic art.

We believe that Islamic art is an art that has grown in the context of Islamic culture and civilization.

 Although the principles of Islamic art are not partially included in the verses of the Qur’an, pieces of advice on art and beauty in narrations can be seen in many ways. The Holy Qur’an itself, as a masterpiece of art that expresses its uniqueness, is an example of artists’ encouragement to create works of art with religious themes. We see the same behaviour from the Shia Imams. Poets who wrote poems in praise of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him and his family) and the Imams were encouraged by them. Therefore, we cannot say that Islamic art is the one directly mentioned in the Qur’an and hadiths; rather, we can say that Islamic art is the result of the behaviour of the people who lived according to the Qur’anic verses and narrations and is indirectly originated from the verses of the narrations.

In a collection that we have been working on for several years in the Islamic School of Art, we have extracted all the narrations that are related to beauty and art. Accordingly, we have more than 4,000 narrations in the books of hadith that look at beauty and art. Wherever the attributes of God are discussed in theology, the beauty of God is mentioned, and in Islamic philosophy and mysticism, Farabi, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra have repeatedly discussed theoretical issues about beauty and art.

  1. Is the notion of Islamic art rooted in Islamic sources such as the Qur’an and narrations? If yes, would you please share some verses and hadiths in regard?

As I mentioned before, beauty and art have been mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, but the details are not mentioned in the Qur’an which has advised us to enter the mosques with adornment:

يا بَني‏ آدَمَ خُذُوا زينَتَكُمْ عِنْدَ كُلِّ مَسْجِدٍ

O Children of Adam! Put on your adornment on every occasion of prayer, and eat and drink, but do not waste; indeed, He does not like the wasteful. (7:31)

 And the Qur’an itself is a perfect example of aesthetic work, but in many narrations about beauty and art, the issue of art and beauty has been raised, like this narration which says:

حسِّنوا القرآنَ بأصواتِكم فإنَّ الصوتَ الحسنَ يزيدُ القرآنَ حُسْنًا[1]

“Adorn the Qur’an with beautiful voice since it increases the beauty of the Qur’an.”

The beautiful sound is the music. Therefore, we should observe the music in accordance with the Qur’an in reciting the Qur’an and not allow it to be recited with an ugly voice.

  1. What about the Sirah (conduct and way of life) of the Prophet and Imams? How did they encourage Muslims regarding Islamic art?

 We have many narrations about Sirah, that is, the behaviour of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family) and the Imams (as) in historical reports about paying attention to art. Poets who wrote poetry in the grace of Islam and the Imams or wrote poems about Imam Hussein and Karbala,  were given many gifts that were usually not comparable to the gifts given to others, and it is natural that it was because of the Prophet and the Imams’ special attention to poetry and respect for art, and because of the influence of poetry. Islam seems to have used this language to convey its message, and it is clear in the Qur’an that it is a masterpiece of art, and it is stated both in the narrations and in the tradition of the Prophet. Of course, everything in Islam has a limit, and art has a limit, and its divine limits must be observed and the forbidden arts must be avoided.

  1. Would you please explain about the categories of Islamic art? Can we claim that we have Islamic painting, Islamic calligraphy, Islamic play, and the like?

Regarding the categories of Islamic art, I should like to say that we have an Islamic art in the historical sense, which is like pottery and historical architecture of mosques, calligraphy, and other arts, but according to our definition of Islamic art, which is an art in the context of Islamic culture and civilization, we are faced with the contemporary Islamic art, we are confronted with the cinema that grew in the context of the culture and civilization of Islamic Iran or any other Islamic civilization, and Islamic cinema, Islamic music, and any contemporary art that has grown in this context and serves to convey religious concepts. We can call all Islamic art.

Of course, we still respect the historical arts that I mentioned, such as calligraphy and architecture, and they are still very valuable and are always growing. Nowadays, Quran calligraphy is a living and dynamic field of art in Islamic societies, and there is always an effort to write a more beautiful copy of the Holy Quran than before.

  1. How do you evaluate the role of Islamic Revolution of Iran in developing the idea of Islamic art?

Regarding the role of the Islamic Republic in art, I must say that there is a mutual relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and art after the Revolution.Art has helped the Islamic Republic of Iran as much as it could, and the Islamic Revolution has provided an open space for artistic creation. The services provided by the Iranian government to artists that have led to the growth of art are less common in developed countries. The number of films made in Iran in a year shows the Iranian government’s attention to cinema, or the number of concerts held in one night in one of Iran’s major cities is equal to the world’s most important cities. This shows that art and beauty are very important for Iranian officials. Many Iranian films that are usually moral films have won awards at world-famous festivals every year. Today, Iranian cinema is known as a moral cinema, and we did not have these achievements of in the Pahlavi era.

Or I should say about calligraphy that it has grown very seriously after the Revolution. Many of the scripts that were forgotten were revived, and today Thuluth, Naskh and Nasta’liq are at their peak. After the Revolution, new educational and research centres of calligraphy were established, such as the Dar al-Kitab or the School of Kitabat of the Holy Quran, where researchers and artists from outside Iran travel for education and research.

  1. As the head of the Islamic School of Art, please introduce the school, its history, aims and achievements.

Islamic School of Art (ISOA) is an academic centre for research and teaching on Islamic art. we discuss the theoretical dimensions of Islamic art and the relationship between art and Islam and other religions. The ISOA has master’s and doctoral degrees in art, and has authored and translated many books on the intersection between the humanities and the arts. Free art classes are also held. ISOA has extensive contacts with various researchers and research centres on art and Islamic art.  Professors from different universities around the world who want to research about Islamic art and Iranian art come to this centre as guests.



[1]Shaykh Hurr al-‘Amili, Wasa’il al-Shi’a, vol. 6, p. 212

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