The Rise Of Islamo-Erotica

(Image: “God Is Great” by Makan Emadi)

Betwa Shermer has a really interesting piece about Muslim artists in America who incorporate nudes into their art.  Defenses of nudity in art as permissible by Islamic standards:

The Lebanese-born artist, who now lives in New York, insists that the taboo stems from a conservative society and not the religion. “We live in the Dark Ages right now, where everything is forbidden but it was not always like this and it will change again.”

Nada Shabout, a professor of Islamic art at the University of North Texas, agrees that Islam never took a formal position on nudity in art, and what is perceived as a religious ban is actually a cultural taboo imposed by a conservative society. “Keep Islam out of this discourse; it’s different people saying different things at different times,” she says, warning that the guise of a holy prohibition has created a great deal of misunderstanding in society.

The professor explains that no explicit ban was really required because religious leaders, very early on, barred the painting of life-like human portraits, fearing idol-worship, and the present controversy surfaced only in the 20th century when European-styled art schools popped up in the Middle East.

A 40-year-old artist, Khalid Al Tahmazi, based in Bahrain, who has done a few semi-nude paintings, wants religious leaders to stop fixating on the subject of the painting and focus on its message. “We now don’t make those pictures to worship; we just make them as expressing our thoughts and feelings,” he says.

All the same, nude paintings have appeared throughout Islamic history, according to art historian Zainab Bahrani at Columbia University, especially in manuscript illumination. “It’s not common but it does exist,” she says, clarifying that nudity for the sake of nudity isn’t permitted. “In the context of a narrative or a story, it has been possible.”

And there are the cases of two Iranians:

This Chicago-based photographer had his exhibition closed due to intense protests from Muslim students at Harper College in Illinois. “You believe that your work is protected by the freedom of speech,” says Normandie. “But it is removed the same way it would be in Iran or in the Middle East.”

His series Hejab portrays Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, doing a tango with a veiled semi-nude figure. “The clerics in Iran forced Iran and the women of Iran to a tango,” says Normandie, who has used his work to criticize the Iranian regime for what he perceives as the complete subjugation of women.

Another Iranian artist, Makan Emdai, has used his work to ridicule the objectification of women both in the West and their repression in the East. A series called Islamo-erotica depicts women wearing long black dresses in revealing pinup poses. The paintings include a female exposing her bottom while sitting in a martini glass, one straddling a gun, and another with her skirt blowing up, a la Marilyn Monroe.

“It is about sexism everywhere,” says Emadi, who is based in Los Angeles. “On one side of the world sexuality is a common selling point and in another it is denied.”

Both Iranian-American artists have considered the possibility of a fatwa being issued against them but so far have only been inundated with hate mail.

See 20 images in the Daily Beast media gallery.

Thanks to Farhin for the link.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Agatha J.

    A bit off topic- it is bizarre how religion at once bans all sexual images- but often features an enormous amount of nudity and sex in its own art.

    Roman Catholicism bans all homosexual sex, premarital sex, extramarital sex, anal sex, oral sex and even bans (or once banned) sex for any reason but procreation *in marriage*. And yet, their absolute holiest site has a giant, enormous naked man with his schmuck on full display on the ceiling- and more naked dudes and naked ladies all over the place than you could shake a stick at.

    Hinduism is a very conservative religion. In India, kissing in public is punished with a fine. Even romantic comedies start and end with no kiss. Women and men are expected to be virgins until marriage as a matter of course in India and other parts of Southwest Asia. Prostitution is banned. Extramarital sex was once against the law (or still is?). Widows- as young as 8!- used to be forbidden from remarriage and locked up as total social outcasts in colonies. Homosexuals are discriminated against as a matter of course. And so on.

    And yet look at Hindu art. Hindu sacred art, in their holiest temples. Shiva and Vishnu are doing things they should be absolutely ashamed of. Heck, these two porn stars are doing things they should be ashamed of even thinking of. Some pretty kinky stuff.

    Ok, so it goes back to the religious tradition of tantra and enlightenment but still. It’s really strange, how this religion could be simultaneously so anti-sex in art and so obsessed with sex in art.

    Islam is another example. Very conservative society- but look at some of their manuscripts, both sacred and secular. Read The Arabian Nights. There are times that it reads like soft core porn.


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