Art, the universal language of religion

by Naif Al-Mutawa
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those that go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art mirrors. - Oscar Wilde

Kuwait City - It is neither a secret nor a surprise that the first manifestation of religion was in art form. Cave drawings and hieroglyphics shine a light on the mind of early man seeking meaning in life. The abstract pictorial representations were gradually solidified into idols and idolatry was born. But when the Abrahamic tradition took centre stage, idolatry was abolished throughout most of the world. Or was it?

Art is the only language that all humans share in common. Anyone can look at art and tell you what they think it means. A word can be written in hundreds of languages but each word only makes sense to those few of us who understand that specific language. Even then, words within a language can have various meanings based on the context.

Take the word iqra in Arabic. Iqra is credited as being the first word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Holy Qur’an. Ask most Arabs and they will tell you that iqra means “read”. They will also tell you that the Prophet was illiterate. And when asked why God would order an illiterate man to read, most will just shrug their shoulders. Why? Idolatry of the word iqra.

When people first communicated through the use of images, idols were – well, idolised. As methods of communication improved, the written word – in the form of holy books – often took the place of these idols. The more concrete the interpretation of a word, the more the actual image of that word is being idolised. Words communicate a depth and breadth of meaning that transcend the sum of their letters. For example, it just so happens that the word iqra can also be defined as “to spread”, as in spreading a message or a religion. In essence, then, a rigid interpretation of God’s words by man is nothing more than idol worship.

All Muslims believe that the Holy Qur’an is for all time and place. There are some Muslims who believe that the Qur’an is alive and is as adaptable to today’s society as it was in the day of the Prophet. But then, there are some Muslims who believe that there is only one interpretation of Islam, and like George Bush’s interpretation of democracy, we should export it in a one-size-fits-all box throughout the world.

As a writer, I have had to negotiate abstract representations of my work with various ministry officials in various countries. I have met with people whose thoughts are so set in stone that they would make the mountains proud. It is a real shame that censors are still the intellectual gatekeepers of the world, the high priests of the idols we worship.

The human mind follows the same rules as the rest of nature. In all living things, diversity is the key to success and losing diversity is equivalent to certain death. For example, the less diverse the gene pool from which one selects a mate, the more likely the offspring will be diseased. The human intellect works in the same way: the less access to a variety of ideas, the more “diseased” the intellect.

I grew up in a part of the world where George Orwell’s Animal Farm was banned. It was also banned in the former Soviet Union. The Kremlin banned it because as a totalitarian regime, it did not want democratic messages to be spread within its borders. The censors in the USSR chose to go beneath the surface of the allegory, understand the message in the book and ban it accordingly. In my neck of the desert, it was banned because there was a pig on the cover. Go figure.

The Holy Qur’an was revealed in an Arabia that was alive with the richness of Jahiliya (pre-Islamic) period poetry. The miracle of the Qur’an was not only in its message, but also in the complexity of the syntax used to communicate that message. Its prose is unmatched in the history of the Arabic language. It is an absolute shame that the Qur’an continues to be held hostage by those who favour the idolatry of words over the depth of their meaning and the elasticity of the human intellect.


* Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa is the creator of The 99, the internationally acclaimed group of superheroes based on Islamic archetypes. For more information, please visit This article is part of a series on freedom of expression written for the Common Ground News Service.

Source: Common Ground News Service, 22 January 2008,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Other articles in this series

Islam and individual freedom by Sheikh Ibrahim Ramadan
Religion and art, outrage or opportunity by Anisa Mehdi
Where freedom is relative by Diana Ferrero
Controversy can lead to change by Marie Korpe
A veiled Muslim view of art by Bashir Goth