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The Islamic Dimension in the Contemporary Works of Ehab Mamdouh

12th October 2014
Religious Dimensions of Classical and Contemporary Islamic Art

ESSAY: By Maha A. al-Senan, PhD

In the West, the term “contemporary Islamic art” is commonly used to describe religiously themed works by artists from the countries of the Muslim world; in this sense, it suggests that the genre is an extension of conventional Islamic art. But the term is also used more broadly to refer to all art produced by artists from these countries; here the term implies that contemporary Islamic art is the product of the aftermath of September 11, revolutionary political movements in the Arab and Muslim worlds, economic and cultural growth in the countries of the Arabian Gulf, and increased attention to Islam across the globe.

Islamic concepts are present, whether intentionally or unintentionally, in the work of many contemporary Saudi artists. These concepts are often interpreted, sometimes gratuitously, as having a religious viewpoint. Yet it cannot be denied that religion, and Islam in particular, is a significant influence on contemporary art in this country. Furthermore, Muslim society at large is engaged in an ongoing debate about what is halal (permissible) and what is haram (not permissible) in the visual arts, despite the fact that a number of the disputed points are now less pertinent. Some of these points are directly associated with religion, for example, differences in thought or doctrine, the growing number of fatwas (religious edicts) on the subject, and the reinterpretation of religious texts. Others are linked to art itself, such as the current trend toward conceptual, abstract, and idea-based work, which does not rely on representations of living beings.

One such disputed point is the permissibility of representations of living beings. While rare in Islamic art, such depictions do exist. Some researchers consider the prohibition of representations of living beings in Islam to be limited to places of worship.1 These findings are evidenced by the position of the Prophet, peace be upon him, concerning the imagery of Mary and Christ upon his entry into Mecca. They are further supported by the sermon of Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, one of the Prophet’s companions, to the crowd when he conquered Al-Mada’in but neither damaged nor objected to the presence of such paintings and embodiments in Kisra’s palace. And there are other examples of companions who decorated their palaces with images of people and animals, including coins produced during the reigns of Muawiyah and Abdul Malik, which bore their images, as did other widely used currencies of that era, particularly in the Hellenic culture.2 Furthermore, history records no objections from the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty to such representations, except for Umar bin Abdul Aziz when he entered a bathhouse, although some attribute his protest to the erotic nature of the fresco.3

An examination of Islamic art in its infancy reveals that the objection to representations of living beings came from the idea that the worshipped (Allah) must not be embodied in a physical form. This contradicted the prevailing art forms of the era—Greek, Roman, Coptic Christian, Byzantine, and Renaissance, among them—in which sanctified deities were embodied and worshiped. Muslim artists tended to use architectural geometric decorations and Koranic calligraphy rather than human or animal manifestations to represent that which is perceived. These were subjects of discussion in part because the standard of beauty in Islamic art is related not to representational skills, as was the case in Greek art, but to the beauty of the idea and its content. As Lois Ibsen al-Faruqi stated, Arab artists relied on abstraction, for they were children of an abstract culture, or one that relied on abstract artistic thought, particularly considering that art forms predating Islam in the region relied on abstraction at the expense of detail.4 Al-Faruqi further noted that Arabs did not take up human representative art forms until they came into contact with other cultures through migration and expansion, whereby they spontaneously adopted the forms and copied some techniques, as seen in the Umayyad-era Amra Palace.5

While representations of human beings are rare in classical Islamic wall frescos, the prevalence of such illustrations in books and pamphlets, particularly in Persia and India, confirms that these were indeed practiced art forms. For this reason, it is important to differentiate between worldly and religious art forms in Islam. The former dealt with the representation of living beings, while the latter disregarded such representations, even in relatively contemporaneous periods such as the Umayyad era, when worldly buildings, such as palaces, were adorned with statues and drawings borrowed from ancient and contemporary art, while religious buildings, such as the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, were devoid of them.

About Ehab Mamdouh

Born in Egypt in 1975, Ehab Mamdouh Ahmad Hilmi, also known as Ehab Mamdouh, grew up in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. An aspiring filmmaker who took to heart the idea that one must be well-versed in the past to understand the present and future, Mamdouh studied history, particularly cinema history, as part of his liberal arts program. After graduation, he gained experience at local cultural events as well as those organized by foreign cultural centers in Egypt, and pursued further study in digital production techniques, graphic design, and advertising, among other disciplines. Over the last sixteen years, he has worked primarily as a director and film producer, focusing on subjects such as identity, religion, the Arabian Peninsula, and Islam.

In conjunction with his film work, Mamdouh has long been interested in the visual arts and considers everything he sees from an art historical perspective, all within a religious, historical, and cultural framework. Visits to historical mosques for Friday prayers and frequent tours of Islamic art museums, both beginning at an early age, exposed him to religious and historical concepts related to ancient Egyptian art, Fatimid and Mamluk Islamic monuments, and other art forms that have characterized Cairo throughout Muslim history. In addition, his love of reading on a multitude of subjects led him to publish a magazine entitled Bank of Arts , for which he served as editor in chief and artistic director.

Mamdouh was greatly influenced by his mother, who specialized in Islamic studies; by repeated pilgrimages to Mecca to perform hajj with his parents; and by subsequent visits to Egyptian historical mosques in Cairo. He was also inspired by ancient Egyptian art, which disappeared from the Egyptian scene during various periods of colonial occupation, but returned with the liberation of Egypt from its external conquerors, manifesting itself in the work of such pioneering artists as painter Mahmoud Said (1897–1964) and sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891–1934).

Following a period during which Mamdouh concentrated on filmmaking, the Saudi fine arts scene reinvigorated his senses. He was drawn to the visual arts movement that was then thriving in Riyadh’s exhibition halls, one that focused on visually depicting ongoing social conflicts. Art spread thanks to an economic boom, the cultural stimuli that accompanied that boom, and the (hypothetical) openness onto the world, where visual arts took their cues from works being exhibited in London, New York, and Venice.

Mamdouh observed the societal struggle raging between traditional and emergent concepts, and the influence of Islam and ideology thereon, as well as their effect on Saudi art, which, to some extent, had become ideologized as a result of the influences and temptations engendered by the world stage. Here then his old love reemerged, helped along by the technical and digital skills gained through his journey in the filmmaking arena. This gave rise, after three years of work, to the Muqeem project, in which the artist conveys a fundamental tenet of Islam, embodied by the five daily calls to prayer, replete with attributes borrowed from classical Islamic art but infused with the contemporaneity of modern art—all in the context of contemporary Islamic art.


Muqeem is derived from the second pillar of Islam—prayer—and takes its name from a Koranic verse: O my Lord! Make me and my offspring the callers [Muqeem(s)] to prayer, and accept my supplication O Lord. It also comes from the idea of group prayer, one of the five duties of Islam, which follows the call to prayer and ends with a set of beautiful, rhythmic movements that clear the soul through sacred spiritual practices and reestablish the believers’ presence in the material and social world, subsequent to their pure, ritualistic contact with their Maker.

Mamdouh recreated this important tenet of Islam as an artistic element in his work, via a symbolic representation of Muslim ideology, affirming both its continuity and its significance in people’s lives today. Instead of choosing the act of prayer as a title, he chose the act of calling to prayer, alluding to the need for a reexamination of contemporary Islamic art on one hand and a myriad of social mores on the other. Through this work, Mamdouh explores the call to prayer as a factual act and prayer as an act that cannot be proven to have occurred, in light of the harsh repercussions associated with religious practices in contemporary society, or the affirmation of the individual’s attempt to perform his or her religious duty, regardless of social, political, economic, revolutionary, or partisan circumstances that may be developing around him or her.

In Muqeem, Mamdouh uses a repeating pattern of geometric designs that is derived from classical Islamic art—and yet distinct from it—to portray living organisms, nay, more than living organisms: Muslims, in fact, practicing one of the most important rituals of Islam—prayer. Is the artist trying to combine two conflicting elements, or is he attempting to merge two related ones? This provocative contradiction excites the curiosity of the viewer, but may be perceived as less inflammatory because of its abstract portrayal of human elements combined with the hallowed act of prayer.

Traditionally, religious edifices (mosques) were sacred places not to be adorned with decorative representations of human beings; all representations therein were to be of God alone. Yet here, using modern techniques, Mamdouh merges the worshiper and the act of prayer itself through geometric decoration. He thus depicts, for the viewer’s benefit, how Islamic art has changed both qualitatively and intellectually in tune with contemporary art worldwide, while maintaining an intellectual awareness and structure that are real, unadulterated, and unideologized.

Mamdouh replaces the abstract geometric elements of classical Islamic art with an abstract portrayal of the praying worshipper. This produces a similar overall impression, but one that is more appropriate for modern times, when art transcends the concept of serving religion to ultimately express human thought, all the artistic components of which can be discussed, not only those relating to religion. Today, in a Muslim country where religious rites are regularly practiced, prayer is an important influence in people’s daily lives. Mamdouh uses prayer as the symbol to represent himself in his art, though he uses it in a unique manner, employing both modern abstraction and the abstract art used by ancient Arabs to conceptualize their God, religious arts, and symbols.

Mamdouh’s artistic style merges the Islamic milieu of the artist’s upbringing in Saudi Arabia and Egypt with his deep knowledge of the region’s history and architectural heritage. The element forming method he used was inherited, as is the case with all Egyptians, from artistic characteristics dating to the second millennium BCE. This is the result of his constant exposure to the ancient Egyptian style of sculpting and portraying, characterized by an unambiguous technical methodology for depicting living beings, according to beliefs long associated with the region and its ideologies.

Muqeem is a “veiled” extension of Islamic art, in accordance with the standards by which the latter was classified in the past, yet it is shaped by the cultural development of our society and by the intellectual growth that the artist experienced on an individual level. Through this work, Mamdouh incites us to think and wonder—the true mark of a successful visual artist today.

Maha al-Senan is the Executive Director at the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society, a Fulbright Alumni, as a visiting Post-Doctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University 2010/2011. She is a Saudi Art Historian, and her studies cover both pre Islamic and Contemporary fine art in Saudi Arabia.

1 Sir Thomas Walker Arnold, Painting in Islam: A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture (New York: Dover Publications, 1965); K.A.C. Creswell, “The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam,” Ars Islamica 11/12 (1946): 159–66,; Ahmed Mohammed Issa, Painting in Islam: Between Prohibition and Aversion (Istanbul: Waqf for Research on Islamic History, Art, and Culture, 1996); Mehmet Aga-Oglu, “Remarks on the Character of Islamic Art,” The Art Bulletin 36, no. 3 (September 1954): 175–202,; Lois Ibsen al-Faruqi, Islam and Art (Islamabad, Pakistan: National Hijra Council, 1985); Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).
2 K.A.C. Creswell, “The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam,” Ars Islamica 11/12 (1946): 159–66,
3 Ibid.
4 Lois Ibsen al-Faruqi, Islam and Art (Islamabad, Pakistan: National Hijra Council, 1985).
5 Ibid.

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