One of Hanan Tabbara’s most provocative sketches is a charcoal and pastel drawing of blood pouring out of a woman’s vagina. She made it after a close friend was raped, and later uploaded it as her Facebook profile picture. For two years now, the 20-year-old, political science student from Brooklyn has been drawing nudes. “I’m aware that it is prohibited but it doesn't bother me,” Tabbara says.
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While the Koran does not specifically ban nude art, the almost universal opinion of religious leaders is that Islam forbids it. However, a handful of Muslim artists have been daring to depict nudity. “This leads to moral consequences that are against Islam,” says Imam Shamsi Ali, the leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. “There is no justification to say it is allowed in the name of art.”
The prohibition principally stems from the taboo against entertaining sexual thoughts that a naked figure might provoke. In this light, Imam Ali also explains that it is “not desirable” for Muslims to view nude paintings, even if they are considered masterpieces. “Islam sees the harms of such exposure outweighing its benefits,” he says. “An artist can have an important message in his work without drawing nudes.”
Tabbara, whose family is originally from Lebanon, balances God with her passion for painting. “There are so many rules, social and political, that it would be debilitating for any artist,” she says, admitting openly to have worked with naked models.
Many Muslim students take classes in art school that require them to draw naked models. Shiite religious scholar Muhsin Alidina advises against these courses since, under Islam, women can only show their face, wrists, hands and feet, while men need to keep the area between their waists and knees covered. “The idea is to prevent base desires from being aroused,” he says.
Nude modeling even in the West, however, is only a recent phenomenon. Anne Higonnet, an art historian at Barnard College, explains that the practice declined after the fall of the Roman Empire, reemerging briefly during the Renaissance and then being revived in 17th-century European art academies where most of the posing was done by working-class women or prostitutes. The debate of whether female artists could work with nude models persisted until the end of the 19th century.
Higonnet points out that the stigma against nudity even lasted into the 20th century as critics debated Picasso’s depiction of five prostitutes in his now-classic 1907 work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. “They’re supposed to signal the dangers of sexuality,” she says.
But Hala Shoukair, 53, had no hangups sketching from models at the Sorbonne in Paris, during the 1970s. “The only connection was between me and pencil… I was not thinking about whether God was looking down at me and saying 'Hala don’t do this,'” she says.
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.”
Even now, the fewer instances of nude art and photography cause only a mild headache to the clergy, who are more preoccupied with Muslim youth’s exposure to pornography. Imam Ali doubts that the future will give way to any change in the rules. “Islam guards against going down the wrong path,” he says.
The reason for rejecting nudity in the West, for very long, was also more cultural than religious, according Higonnet. “It has primarily been a social unease tinged with a very old Christian discomfort with the pleasure of the body,” she says. “All cultures around the world for large parts of their history have felt very nervous about this. It’s not just Islam.”
Four years ago, the Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain, a Muslim, was chased out of the country by death threats from Hindu fundamentalists and hundreds of legal cases that accused him of hurting public sentiments for drawing Hindu goddesses in the nude.
“Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity,” Husain said in a recent interview with Tehelka, an Indian weekly. But public opinion in the country remains divided as the 95-year-old artist felt compelled to relinquish his Indian passport and become a citizen of Qatar.
Today, artists painting nudes expose themselves to threats and censure from the larger community, which causes their families a great deal of anxiety. Tabbara, who is planning her first public exhibition, has ignored her mother’s pleas to “modulate the nudity.” “She expects me not to do it, but she accepts it,” Tabbara says. “My father has always been supportive.”
On the other hand, 67-year-old Amir Normandie’s mother, back in Tehran, is adamantly against his nude photography. “You won’t be able to change the world so why do you create animosity and make enemies,” she berates her son.
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.
Despite being in the Middle East, Al Tahmazi has managed to avoid the kind of wrath his American counterparts have faced. “In Bahrain, the audience who attends art exhibitions are kinda liberated and have no objections,” he says. “Religious leaders don't see these paintings, and if they do, then they'll probably make trouble.”
While Normandie has asked the Chicago police for protection, Emadi relies on his carefully guarded obscurity but still isn’t oblivious to the danger. “Do I want to be the next Salman Rushdie, of course not… so far so good,” he says.
Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India. She blogs for the Huffington Post and is also a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Time.com, The Global Post, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times, Frontline, and Columbia Journalism Review.