back to Footnotes Overview

Christian vs Islamic views in LIfe and Art


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

Dear friends and readers,

Come, join me on a virtual visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s newly arranged department of Roman and Greek antiquity. We turn left at the entrance and quickly discover, among the sculptures and various vessels, ten fragments of fresco incorporated in a reconstruction of a cubiculum nocturnum (bedroom) from a house in Boscoreale, a town northwest of Pompeii.

The town suffered a similar fate as the better known neighbor, but these frescos were preserved. They show, besides garlands of flowers and leaves, a vibrant city with multi-storied buildings in complex arrangements, with foregrounds and backgrounds, perspective painting as we encounter it again in Florentine Renaissance Art. Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello and Filippo Brunelleschi all draw, paint and construct, often on flat surfaces, what is an illusion to the eye of depth and distance. What Greek philosophers elaborated and artists used on theater stages, “mimesis”, orders everything around the human eye.

The human being is central to this perspective. Man is valued, master of the call to have dominion, responsible for the world around him. For that he needs to see it accurately. The frescos of Boscoreale are vivid and vibrant expressions of this point of view. For the Romans as well, Man was of central importance beyond, but also including the rule of law, a regular supply of water, trade routes, private property and, further north, central heating.
The art of perspective, and much else, was neglected when Rome fell and its order, law and power over Europe was overrun by Goths, Burgundians, Saxons, Jutes, Suebians, Allamans and Vandals (What heritage they left for us in their name!). First to enter Roman territory — as refugees from the Huns — were Visigoths from North of the Black Sea in 376 AD. Tolerated by the Romans on condition that they defend the Danube frontier, they rebelled, eventually invading Italy and sacking Rome in 410, before settling in Iberia or modern Spain.
In France, what was then Gaul, the Franks, a fusion of western Germanic tribes whose leaders had been strongly aligned with Rome, entered Roman lands more gradually and peacefully during the 5th century and were generally accepted as rulers by the Roman-Gaulish population. Fending off challenges from the Allemanni, Burgundians and Visigoths, the Frankish kingdom became the nucleus of the future states of France and Germany. Meanwhile, Roman Britain was more slowly invaded by Angles and Saxons from Northern Europe.
Slavic tribes settled Central and Eastern Europe between 500 and 700 AD, making it predominantly Slavic. Bulgar people, possibly of Turkic origin in Asia, conquered the eastern Balkan territory of the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century and the Lombards, a Germanic people, settled the region of northern Italy now known as Lombardy.
Under the effect of such turmoil, destruction and pillaging the delight in illusion, perspective painting, and the construction of cities were lost. Instead the surviving church as a weak central authority under Rome’s bishop and Pope focused on other things. Monasteries grew as little islands of sanity in a sea of Vandalism. Texts were copied to preserve what was left of God’s word; law was administered within the walls, hospitality and safety offered and the sick received advice, care, comfort and herbal medication.
A new interest in perspective is first awakened again in the Carolingian period after about 780 AD. Charlemagne undertook a great effort for education, developing a script with Alcuin’s help, sculpture and miniature painting of religious themes. Somewhat later perspective, centering on the validity and necessity of the human perception, is taken up in Alhazen’s “Book of Optics” in 1021. This Iraqi physicist and mathematician explained that light projects conically into the eye. This was, theoretically, enough to translate objects convincingly onto a painting, but Alhalzen was concerned only with optics, not with painting.

Now this is where it gets even more interesting, as we consider not just questions of perspective in art, but also the religious and philosophical background of perspective.

Perhaps the reason why perspective has been so important to European art lies in the philosophic awareness of the centrality of the human being, of the human eye, the human mind. “Oh I see” has a double meaning, after all, being used both for seeing with the eye and understanding with the mind. Greek philosophy, certainly from Plato onwards, is also an effort to put the gods in their place, a rejection of their vicious games. Thought was used to limit the seeming randomness of events, to know and discover a fundamental order in which human beings stand up with comprehension rather than being victims of divine circumstances, fates and competing deities.
Rome had its gods, but also its army and rule of law, its culture and mastery, to a point, of the world around it. We all inherit from Athens and Rome a mentality of applying reason in law and employing personal responsibility in life.
Before Athens and Rome, however, Moses in the Bible already affirms the centrality of the human being as a person with responsibility. Creation is real, as are our perceptions of it and our mandates to work in it as stewards. God is not hindered by our questions. He rather seems to enjoy human creativity which he mandated even before the fall. To put the hand to the plough after the fall of Adam and Eve is not the first encouragement to work, to name the animals and to have dominion and to build relationships.
The Bible sees the relationship between Creator and creature as a relationship of persons. The Three Persons of the Holy Trinity relate in love, and the creatures made in God’s image are called to also love, enjoy and extend into multiple areas the reality of relationships, character and creativity. Dominion is exercised not by obedience, but by fulfilling our status as persons, as creative agents seeking justice and taking pleasure in being human.
All this stands out when compared to the Iraqi/Islamic background of Alhazan in the past, the recent Turkish Nobel prize winner for literature Orhan Pamuk’s insightful novel I am Red (2002) or Tariq Ramadan’s arrival in the US this month to present his ideas in Islam, The West and the Challenges of Modernity (2009).
Pamuk’s novel is on the surface a detective story about the search for the killer of two miniaturist artists, who with brushes made from either cat whiskers or squirrel hair are able to paint a tree on a grain of rice. Over generations a group of such craftsmen work in the employ and under tight control of the Sultan in Istanbul to paint what amounts to the ‘Absolute’ or ‘ideal’ horse, an abstraction of perfection similar to Plato’s ideal forms. It is not a real or a specific horse, but the idea of ‘horse’.
In their effort to refine their brush strokes over time, locked in the painting school, most of them go blind and yet continue to paint. In this way they are no longer distracted by the sight of real particular horses. Blindness is not considered a hindrance, but an advantage. They do not paint from past memory, but can in this way eventually reach a ‘spiritual’ vision of the ideal horse in their mind.
Reading this I was strongly reminded of the desire of Icon painters to reach a heavenly vision of the saints, not a portrait at all, but a spiritual otherness in a vision of an ideal. Is there perhaps a common Platonic influence in the Eastern Church and in Islam?
In Pamuk’s book the story takes place, of course, in the Islamic world of thought. The ideal horse is the one unchanging and perfect horse that Allah sees. The painter’s task is to make real for our eyes what Allah sees from his absolute vantage point. The particular horse is only a poor reflection, a distant indication of the perfection, of which only the blind artists has a faint vision.
The murders occur when Frankish, i.e. Venetian, that is European portraits show up on the market in Istanbul and become both a jolt and a temptation to local artists. For European art stands in contrast to Islamic art in several ways. The difference is not only particular in subject matter and technique. More importantly, the differences are philosophical. From the Islamic angle they are even blasphemous in their open demonstrations of the centrality of the human, the particular, the real thing in time.
Venetian painting shows perspective, human perspective! Canals, houses, churches are painted against a receding background, just as reality appears to the human eye. Worse in Islamic thought, portraits place the reflected person into the middle of the frame, showing his wealth or his wrinkles, his dress and his age, his pride or his generosity. Think of Rembrandt’s portraits for example.
The artist who is pulled away from the divine perspective to the human, from Allah to the infidels’ god is a threat to the whole superstructure of Islamic thought and must be eliminated. It is a threat to the One, Eternal, the Absolute without particulars.
For art is a religious statement. What I have just called human perspective contradicts the only true, i.e. Allah’s perspective. He sees all things at once in their real size and distance without foreshortening and receding backgrounds. God belongs into the center of things, not the artist or his object. God is the universal, like Plato’s forms, and there is no value in the particular, no value to individual life, thought or action beyond the five pillars of faith the Muslim keeps.
There is a profound philosophical difference with practical moral and cultural consequences between the Islamic and Western view of God, reality and the human. The East is concerned about the universal, the ideal, perfection as a static phenomenon. That view is rooted in Allah’s Will as total control, a ‘finished’ creation and submission of the believer to God. All reality is sacred. The universal in the mind of Allah is permanent. Any particulars have only a secondary meaning and importance. The idea, the abstract, is more important than any reality, the concrete.
By contrast the Bible speaks of a dynamic God in the Trinity, where there are no permanent forms of particular things in creation, no ideal of horse or other phenomena. There are no abstractions of ‘chair’, ‘marriage’ or ‘justice’ anywhere. Instead God is Unity in Diversity. He is always just in the sequence of his relations to creation and people. He created particular things and mandates people to do the same. There is no ideal symphony somewhere in the heavens, only particular ones at any time and anywhere that are specific, beautiful or less so.
Cultural consequences to each view are enormous. In the world taught by Scripture we find value placed on human creativity, on enjoyment of accomplishments. Perspective is a true reflection of what the human eye sees. The particular is painted, not the heavenly abstraction; a clear vision is rewarded, not blindness to the shapes of the real. The factual does not contrast the spiritual. A symphony is composed by someone specific. The whole world, including God, is enriched by it. God is not threatened by the work, thought and real life of the creature. It is thus not blasphemous to show how God’s creation as seen by human beings, who receive praise for their efforts and are addressed by God in Scripture by name.
Pamuk’s novel is highly critical of the Islamic view with its devaluation of the human mind, vision and understanding. For, when god denies the human, it will consequently lead to the denial of the human between people: the flogging of underlings, the cruelty between men and women, the death threats to those who dare to think differently. Allah is presented in Islam as power, not as loving in his very being. God in the Bible is by nature, not by an occasional will alone relational. Love is the nature of the relation in the Trinity, whereas for Allah, being alone and without anyone to love before creation, it becomes an occasional expression of an arbitrary will, a random act.
The freedom of the creature to create, so see things from his perspective, to have an opinion, to explore creation and to make a name for himself, to doubt and question is not only the discussion in Pamuk’s novel. It reaches into the core of what separates Islamic thought from Western thought. It is interesting to find this to be the subject of Tariq Ramadan’s book as well.
Ramadan’s ideas recognize and reprimand the largely secular nature of Western society. He offers an explanation of the roots of that development from our religious Christian past and presents Islam as a therapy. He has stated in the past that rather than modernizing Islam he seeks to Islamize Modernity. He claims not to have anything to do with Islamists, though his grandfather was a founding member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and his father had an interest in a Bank drawing on Nazi/Fascist funds. He caused quite a stir in the recent past with the call for Sharia law in Western countries.
Fundamental to Ramadan’s view is the totality of the sacred and the exclusion of anything secular. The secular, according to him, is rooted in our habit of questioning things rather than accepting, believing and doing. Stories about Prometheus (“the great friend of men: Nietzsche”) in Greek mythology and Abraham and Isaac in the Bible encourage what Ramadan sees as creating a secular space. Common to them, he says, is a rebellion against gods and God. It constitutes the rejection of a universal divine order by means of the affirmation of human (derived) autonomy and greatness, straining the relation between God and men through the affirmation of the particular, of freedom.
This is seen as a metaphysical rebellion, a refusal to submit to the harmony of the divine. Abraham, according to Islam, submits with Isaac without any sense of the tragic solitude of the father or the question of the son about the sacrifice. Both share and live their faith: Father, do as you are bidden! Don’t ask: Where is the sacrifice?
There is no tragic consciousness here. In Islam nothing is ever out of order, troublesome, uncertain. Nothing is ever questioned. There is no cause for torment of the soul, no guilt, no conflict. Reasoning does not venture out of the sacred space of Islam.
There is a profound reason for this, and Ramadan admits that there are “two different universes of reference, two civilizations and two cultures”. He, not alone, sees criticism as a fundamental, though destructive contribution of the Western mind. Yes, active reasoning, opposition to any religious dogmatism and reviewing old certainties accurately marks our Western tradition.
I propose that does not originate during the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, but from Moses and is carried on through Jeremiah and Job to Jesus himself in the agony of Gethsemane and his plea for another way, if possible. The space for doubt and questions is not primarily an act of rebellion, however, but a necessity in light of the contrast between the holiness of God and the damaged reality of our present existence. The Fall and its effects now require inquiry about the character of God and results in the discovery of God’s mercy, forgiveness and redemption. The gap is not closed by assuming that everything is as it is meant to be (which requires a dulling of emotions, moral sense and personal integrity), but by recognizing that God is at work to heal the real damage of what went wrong at the time of the Fall.
There are at least two sources in Scripture that demand the use of reason, the employ of criticism and review. The first is the fact that God created an unfinished universe in the sequence of distinct days of creation. Time flows, actions follow previous creations. Then Man is given mandates to continue. With what? How? In what form? That was for Man to figure out in the enjoyment of God’s call to be human. It requires reflection, imagination, delight and innovation. The second reason is that this openness to choice was misused in the act of rebellion, the fall, which left us with a world that is not part of the will of God for our life and therefore not yet sacred again.
The understanding that we now live in a reality that does not in its totality express the will of God any more (God’s will and character are expressed in his word and the person of Jesus Christ, not in every event of history) is absent from Islamic thought. It cannot contain such an idea, firstly since Allah’s will is found in the text and the events of life; and secondly, because disobedience in Islam is easily forgiven without the reality of continuing consequences in the form of a fallen world. Islam knows forgiveness, but not redemption.
Islam has a slam-dunk creation: There it is, sacred, to be left in the form as Allah willed it. Man is called to obedience, submission, not to creative variation, multiplication, alternatives. Man is to admire what is and leave it that way. Obedience to the divine form is submission, which is what ‘Islam’ means!
The Bible talks about a fall of man, true rebellion in history, and consequently a separation between what is and what ought to be, between the will and effects of God and the effects of human will. These need to be discerned, not overlooked in communal acceptance of everything as divine or sacred. Life in heaven is not our goal or expectation. We expect the Messiah on earth in the New Jerusalem. We do not seek death to get to heaven. Death is not part of the original sacred intention; neither are poor governments, tragic events in life, polygamous marriages or religious legalism.
There is then a distance between what God intended and what Adam’s fall created. That distance makes the character of God, the quality of goodness, something not self-evident, but in need of discovery by means of doubt, inquiry and reasoning along both the ‘book of God’s work and the book of God’s word” as Francis Bacon formulated it.
We are therefore thankful that Isaac asked about the sacrifice, that Moses argued with God and that Jesus, the Lamb of God, did not go to the cross dumb like a sheep. We are thankful for those, inside and outside of the religious world, who have raised questions about the divine presence (or absence) in events, who have refused to tie God to events of human cruelty or failings.
By contrast, Islam does not know of the foundational rupture between what God had made and the present, post-fall state of things. The Jew and the Christian look at reality with questions about the normality and abnormality, justice and injustice, making the distinction between the sacred and the profane. With some justification we are glad that God is not seen in everything, in all events of history, for many are done by people like ourselves.
We see the failure of people to have knowledge of God not only as regrettable, but also as evidence for a fundamental freedom. It can be the refusal of a god the church has at times tied too closely to events in history. It expresses in this case a moral stand, a rejection of a determining god, other than the one of the Bible. We lament then not their absence of devotion, but their absence of curiosity, of moral integrity and intellectual honesty to seek further and to find in Scripture a God worth trusting.
In consequence to the European philosophic tradition I regret not the willingness to question, to doubt dogma and imposed authoritarian views, and the search for what reality actually consists of. I regret their marching from Jerusalem to Athens to get answers. Too many embraced Greek thought and abandoned Jewish Biblical insight. Much of the church had done that before with its emphasis on mystery and the otherness of God. More about that is detailed in my book “The Innocence of God.”
After all is said and done, I still prefer a multitude of viewpoints even with the danger that all truth becomes personal and political, to an imposed religion, an enforced veneration of the sacred by enslaved minds. They tend to affirm in the community of the believers ideas and practices that allow for no outside critique. Such was the scholastic tradition and such is Islamic teaching in each of the three separated branches of Islam. This attitude separates people not only from their own minds and moral sensitivity, but also from the community of real neighbors in a damaged world.
The nature of the Muslim faith is submission to a life filled with repetitions, communal affirmations and religious doctrines. Seeing Allah in and behind everything may be seen as admirable faithfulness and religious devotion, but it hides a fundamental cruelty to the individual person, his or her mind, heart and soul. When salvation lies in unquestioned obedience to the rigidity of practices, attitudes and words, no difference between gods and demons can be established.
The nature of Biblical faith lies in recognizing that truth is not always evident under the dust of a fallen world, the dust of death. It must be sought, argued for and over, and struggled with in daily individual efforts.
Each distinct view has links to resulting psychological, economic and cultural consequences. Repetition contrasts with innovation; obedience with responsibility; absolutism with multiple participating voices in government; and fatalism with creative interventionism. On the one hand is the attempt to tidy up people by silencing them, on the other to benefit all from the good things found among the noise of an untidy humanity.
For that reason also, I prefer a secular setting to a Muslim one. The latter does not allow my questions; the former will see them as curious additions to discourse in the public square. Muslims hold moral absolutes absolutely, while secularists hold amoral views relatively. Only the latter will let me breathe, argue and believe.
A further comment after the vote was cast:

When Adam had been made by God he was lonely. God was not a full satisfaction for the first created person. A help, meet for him, was made in Eve from Adam, giving us a reflection of the relationship within the Trinity.

The community of people is therefore a social reality, a reality of neighbors (lat: socius and socii, pl.), of parents and children, of widows and orphans, of priests and laypeople, of citizens and aliens under the same law, responsible for each other. Failure to practice ‘society’ leads to severe judgment from God, as it had already happened to the surrounding nations in Amos’ prophecies to the Northern kingdom

This involves actions from the heart, i.e. comprehending what society is about as an outflow of the ‘one-humanity’ perspective of the Bible. It may be delegated to specific organizations. The priestly function was outsourced to the tribe of Levi, who were paid to do that service through a tithe. Teaching truth, administering justice, being my brother’s keeper, applying the same law for citizen and alien and caring for the poor by not taking their things in pledge over night: all this illustrates aspects of human relationships, independent of likes and dislikes. Israel was to be a model of humanity that stood against the divisions elsewhere between rich and poor. God, not fate, directed life, morals and situations. In the common experience of a fallen world, where people separate from each other and from justice, the community was to bring healing.
The Early Church also had a social component to its life. The “having all things in common” was never an obligation, but a voluntary expression of love for others. Yet even then, Deacons had to be appointed in order to prevent that the distribution of aid to widows, left to personal spontaneous charity, neglected some and favored others.

In subsequent centuries the Church always had a social, not only a voluntary affirmation of charity. Monasteries gave protection, shelter, food and healthcare, pronounced justice and started economic initiatives. They pacified the landscape and created markets, watching over the exactness of weights and measures and the quality of the merchandise. The intention was to set into the chaotic social context of the great migrations manifestations of Christian sanity, love and healing.

Later the church sought a counterweight to unbridled exploitation of human hardship when it encouraged social legislation in the 19th century. The abolition of slavery in the West, protection and care for those wounded in war, invalidity and unemployment insurance as well as labor unions and laws limiting the hours on the job for children resulted from Christians insisting on a social responsibility commanded in Scripture’s teaching. These things were not considered matters to be left to personal charity.

We know all that, I am sure. But have we sufficiently considered Biblical teaching and church history in our reflection about our own time, our social context. Are we not perhaps much more influenced by a relatively short period of history when men and women, seeking freedom from various enslavements in their past in fact made personal freedom and selective charity their new opus operandi?
Where in the Christian view of things do I have the right to claim no obligation greater spontaneous charity to pay for someone else’s needs? Is my social responsibility covered through voluntary action alone? Where am I free to act alone on the basis of conscience, without considering that in a fallen world, and admittedly as a sinner, my conscience requires an education to combat latent or expressed fear and selfishness? We all have a handicapped conscience to start with. Conscience is not the voice of God. It is the tool in our brain that points out contradictions, non sequiturs, etc.

Deacons in the church or priests in Israel were called and sustained to do work that would not depend on charity. The whole community was required to keep bridges built and roads safe for accidental murderers to reach cities of refuge. A whole public administration in Israel was paid for by the second and third tithe without that being considered government interference in the free activity of citizens.

In modern life we willingly pay for the public collective, less efficient though it may be (partially because we do not review their action and do not punish them for inefficiency!). We pay for their services for the public good, even when it transcends our own needs or desires, because of the social reality in which we live. We pay for sewers, the safeguarding of peace, for cleanliness along roads we might take, not only in front of our houses. We pay for unproductive children, our own and our neighbors’, in the hope to hire them later as educated, rather than what they were left to become.

The notion that I am only responsible for myself, that all benevolence should be result of personal charity, is quite unbiblical and unrealistic. We are not islands, but part of a social landscape, a location, a neighborhood and a nation. We have not only an individual identity, but also a social one. That is not socialism, but rather the practice of love for our neighbor: not only the one’s we like, approve of and admire, but also our potential neighbors, whom we wish to effect to become more likable. For, does your Bible not even call for love, not approval, of the enemy?


back to top