"Everything you imagine Him to
be, He is other than"
Islamic aniconism is the term used to describe the absence of icons in Islamic art. Islam is centred on Unity, and Unity is not expressible in terms of any image. Thus, Islamic art as a whole aims to create an ambience which helps man to realise his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an 'idol' even in a relative and provisional manner - nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God - thus eliminating all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world and in their stead creating an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace.
According to the fundamental formula of Islam: There is no divinity other than God (la ila ha illa lah), it is through the distinction of the different planes of reality that everything is gathered together beneath the vault of Supreme Unity, once one has recognised the finite for what it is one can no longer consider it "alongside of" the Infinite, and for that very reason the finite reintegrates itself with the Infinite. From this point of view the fundamental error is that of projecting nature of the Absolute into the relative, by attributing to the relative an autonomy that does not belong to it: the primary source of this error is imagination, or more precisely illusion (al-wahm), therefore a Muslim sees in the figurative art a flagrant and contagious manifestation of the said error; in his view the image projects one order of reality into another. Against this the only effective safeguard is wisdom (hikmah), which puts everything in its proper place. As applied to art, this means that every artistic creation must be treated according to the laws of its domain of existence and must make those laws intelligible.
The Islamic negation of anthropomorphic art is both absolute and conditional. It is absolute with regard to all images that could be the object of worship, and it is conditional with regards to forms imitating living bodies. We refer to the saying of the Prophet (pbuh) in which he condemned artists who try to 'ape' the creation of God: in their afterlife they will be ordered to give life to their works and will suffer from their incapacity to do so. This hadith (saying of the Prophet, pbuh) has been interpreted in different ways. In general it has been understood as condemning intrinsically blasphemous intention, and therefore Islam tolerates anthropomorphic art forms on condition that they do not create the illusion of living beings. In miniature painting, for instance, central perspective suggesting 3-dimensional space is avoided. In focusing more on the intention than the deed: in the Persian and Indian world especially, it was argued that an image which does not claim to imitate the real being, but is no more than an allusion to it, is allowed. Hence the absence in them of shadows and perspective. No mosque, however, has ever been decorated with anthropomorphic images.
The Quran says: "We offered the Trust (amaanah) unto the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man assumed it... <Al-Ahzab-The Confederates, 33:72> This Trust is merely potential in ordinary man. It is actual in perfect man: in Messengers (rasul), Prophets (anbiya), and saints (awliya). In them it overflows from the inward to the outward, shining forth even in their bodily appearance. Fearing to offend this divine trust within man, Islamic art shrinks from depicting the Messengers, Prophets and Saints. It is through them that the theomorphic nature of man becomes manifest, but this theomorphism is a secret whose appearance in the corporeal world remains ungraspable.