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Allah, the imageless, suits desert tribes
(see notes at bottom of poem)
with their long dazzling slopes of sand;
veils and robes simplifying faces and forms,
smoothing the puckers and warts of particularity;
their dearth of mirroring water, art
of abstract arabesques, intolerance
for heroic statues (until mutilated) and
photographs, for any promiscuous propagation
of human images, which must remain rare
and precious in thought, as, in their hard land,
It was the chaos of a bad trip
for Muslims, their first exposure
to jungled India with its jungled Hindu
Pantheon, a tangled orgy of divinity-
wracked images, gods for each force,
each place; gods, even, for the toenails
of gods, temples not decorated
with images but MADE of them, walls
a clotted vomit of god-bodies.
The Muslims took India by force
but failed to remake it in their image,
nor could they be part of its spiritual
polyglop, and, when the British
left, seized for themselves the most
barren places, as one waking
from a nightmare of leering complexity
to a throbbing hangover spurns all
but simplest food, can't stomach even
morning sunlight on a bright quilt.
A few notes on this poem:
1. Though the poem deals with aspects of Muslim culture and
history, it is not a response to 9-11. In fact, it was written
2. The poem is a speculation or vision of a possible relationship
between Muslim aesthetics (or rather ARAB aesthetics) and the
stark desert landscapes of Arabia, where the religion came into
being. It might pertain to 9-11 to this extent: The qualities
I'm describing are most extreme in fundamentalist sects like
the Wahabi, often considered to be the immediate forrunners
of Al Qaeda. The main quality is an objection to images of bodies
-- usually accompanied by an objection to the exposure of actual
bodies as well (women covered, men disliking public nudity).
This is found in segments of most religions. Jews, as well as
Muslims, have destroyed "graven images" (idols). Christians
abandoned the Roman practice of bathing, for centuries, because
it exposed the body.
Within Christianity, the Puritans considered (and consider)
Anglicans and Catholics idolatrous in their displays of images
in churches. Note that the closer a Christian denomination is
to Catholicism, the more likely it's crucifixes will include
the body of Jesus on the cross. Most Protestant churches have
only the cross itself in their churches.
But more than other sects I know of, the fundamentalist Arab
Muslims appear to take this a step further: It is evil to make
an image of Allah; man was created in the image of Allah; therefore,
it is evil to make an image of MAN. And beyond that, these groups
avoid images of just about anything. In rugs from Persia, you
will see flowers, human forms, deer, etc. But Persia isn't an
Arab nation. In the art from Arabian Muslims, most of what I've
seen is abstract -- graceful "arabesques" (a word
derived from its prominence in Arab art), lines and colors,
designs, but short on imitations of living things.
Long ago I was impressed to read about Arabs finding Greek or
Roman statues and destroying them or knocking their heads off
because it was sinful to make images of people. I also heard
about Arabs objecting to having their photos taken for that
reason (though in some accounts, it said they feared to have
their souls stolen from them by the camera -- soul going with
This is not a description of Arabs, but of certain Arabs who
are probably a small minority among both Arabs and Muslims.
Nonetheless, it caught my attention, and seemed to me to be
appropriate, for reasons I try to suggest in the above poem.
In the poem, I chose India as the antagonist or distorting mirror
to face the Arab sensibility. I chose India for maximum contrast,
because Hindhu temples are often clotted with image, the entire
walls all one incredibly elaborate sculpture of Gods and men
and maidens and animals and demons cavorting (and, in some cases,
having very explicit sexual relations and, per Bill Clinton,
explicit relations that "aren't sex").
I'm no scholar, but based on skimmed encyclopedia articles,
I can tell you that the confrontation I describe probably never
happened. There was a Muslim conquest of India (called the Mogul
conquest, though the Muslims who conquered India were not Mogul
[meaning Mongol]. But they weren't Arabs either. They came from
the north, not the west -- from the area of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
They were Turkic Muslims, accustomed to lands starker by far
than most of India, but not the Arabian deserts. Still, they
were Muslims, had received their religion from Arabs and should
have shared that repugnance for images. Compare the image-fraught
Hindhu temple art to the sleek, abstract lines of the Muslim
But, oops! An early Muslim emperor of India, Akbar, generally
considered the greatest of the Mogul emperors, filled his government
with Hindhus and Jains and Sikhs and other native religious
leaders and was a paragon of tolerance. However, the 6th and
last Mogul emperor, Aurang-zeb (1618-1707) was a "serious"
Moslim scholar, and, though he extended the empire by force
of arms, he created so much internal dissension by his persecution
of native Indian religions that the empire fell apart soon after
his death. I wonder how those Hindhu temples looked to him.
Whether or not my view of Arabian and possibly Muslim aesthetics
has historical validity, I enjoy the concept of a confrontation
of an image-rich people with a group whose view of such things
is akin to the nausea of a hangover, with its exaggeration and
rejection of physical stimuli.
Copyright c. 2007 by Dean Blehert. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
July 31, 2007