Art, aesthetics, and visual culture

Authored by: Aaron Rosen , Yasser Tabbaa

The Routledge Handbook of Muslim–Jewish Relations

Print publication date:  June  2016
Online publication date:  June  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415645164
eBook ISBN: 9781315675787
Adobe ISBN: 9781317383215




The idea of viewing Jewish and Islamic art simultaneously by two specialists in these fields has proved both intriguing and somewhat frustrating. The fact that the two artistic traditions developed within more or less the same geographical region and coexisted for periods lasting several centuries was in itself sufficient ground for studying their artistic interaction. It was equally fascinating to investigate the structural concepts underlying both artistic traditions and to examine some of their vivid episodes of overlap, transmission, and appropriation of artistic and architectural forms and ideas. Some of these interactions were direct, while others were mediated through Christian iconography, whose more developed figural language elicited comparable responses in Jewish and Islamic art, making it difficult at times to disentangle the visual narratives of these three religions. The authors were also intrigued by the possibilities of applying some of their findings and conclusions from these pre-modern artistic encounters in order to nuance our critical understanding of modern and contemporary Jewish and Islamic art.

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The idea of viewing Jewish and Islamic art simultaneously by two specialists in these fields has proved both intriguing and somewhat frustrating. The fact that the two artistic traditions developed within more or less the same geographical region and coexisted for periods lasting several centuries was in itself sufficient ground for studying their artistic interaction. It was equally fascinating to investigate the structural concepts underlying both artistic traditions and to examine some of their vivid episodes of overlap, transmission, and appropriation of artistic and architectural forms and ideas. Some of these interactions were direct, while others were mediated through Christian iconography, whose more developed figural language elicited comparable responses in Jewish and Islamic art, making it difficult at times to disentangle the visual narratives of these three religions. The authors were also intrigued by the possibilities of applying some of their findings and conclusions from these pre-modern artistic encounters in order to nuance our critical understanding of modern and contemporary Jewish and Islamic art.

We were initially frustrated by the difficulty of providing even an acceptable definition of Jewish and Islamic art within which to frame this chapter. Both artistic traditions have been notoriously difficult to define, being very syncretistic, with Jewish art assimilating artistic forms that practically span the entire history of ancient and Western art, and Islamic art appropriating artistic traditions that cover much of the globe. Within these enormously long periods, the episodes of vivid interaction and integration between Jewish and Islamic, and especially those that left a material record, are relatively short and sporadic.

As such, we decided not to provide parallel histories for each tradition or to attempt to generate a single, continuous history of Jewish-Islamic art. After providing working definitions and brief historiographical introductions for our respective fields, we have decided to focus instead on five main themes, which follow a loosely chronological order: the conceptual similarities between Jewish and early Islamic art, particularly with regard to questions of figuration; the Temple of Solomon as a place of cultural interaction in the Jewish and Islamic imagination; the populist adaptation of some Biblical tales, such as the Book of Esther, in Judeo-Persian literature; the correspondences between Jewish and Islamic art and architecture in medieval Spain; and finally an investigation of some of the commonalities between Jewish and Islamic art of the modern and contemporary period.

Definitions and historiography

Jewish art

First, we must confront the prevalent assumption that Jews do not possess a tradition of representational art or that Judaism assigns only negative value to the visual arts. This myth has been besieged in recent years from all directions. Kalman Bland and Margaret Olin, among others, have shown how these notions of the “Artless Jew” (to use Bland’s phrase) have little grounding in Jewish tradition and history, arising instead from politically charged philosophical and art-historical debates in the nineteenth century. 1 Recent studies in the Hebrew Bible, kabbalah, and modern Jewish philosophy have borne out this insight, highlighting a rich, long-standing interest in visuality in Jewish thought. At the same time, the study of Jewish visual culture has expanded to include everything from illuminated manuscripts and ritual items to the fine arts to the representation of Jews in popular media. For a field that once had to legitimize the very objects of its inquiry, this surge of interest in aesthetics, in the widest sense, has led to a sea change. The question facing scholars today is not so much “Is There Jewish Art?” as the critic Harold Rosenberg famously asked in an essay from 1966 but, rather, when is art Jewish and for whom? 2

Elsewhere, Aaron Rosen has identified three of the most prevalent, if sometimes implicit, modern strategies for defining Jewish art: the biographical, functional, and compositional approaches. 3 These emphasize, respectively, the identity of the artist, the purpose (often ritual) of a work, or its subject and style. While each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses, Rosen argues for a new approach to Jewish art: one that forgoes the dubious benefits of definition in favor of searching out Jewish aspects and dilemmas for investigation, in this case interactions between Jews and Muslims.

As we begin this inquiry, it is important to keep in mind some basic historical concerns and parameters. While Jews often had fewer objections to making visual art than sometimes assumed, practical and political forces still intervened to curtail Jewish visual creativity. Up until the emancipation of Jews in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Western Europe – and later in other regions of the world – Jews living under Christian and Islamic hegemony often faced restrictions regarding the materials they could use, the places where they could display their work, the dimensions and locations of their architecture, and their ability to train under or collaborate with non-Jews. Though Jews nonetheless created significant ritual items, illuminated manuscripts, and synagogues during these periods, there is a vast discrepancy between their pre-modern achievements in painting and architecture and those of their Islamic and Christian contemporaries. As social and legal restrictions relaxed in the mid-nineteenth century, the first generation of major modern Jewish artists, including Camille Pissarro and Josef Israëls, found themselves relating to Western art history from the position of outsiders and without the anchor of a comparable Jewish artistic tradition. Despite a glittering roster of modern Jewish artists including Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Marc Chagall, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, Jewish artists today must still find their place within a predominantly non-Jewish visual history – a position at once challenging and liberating. 4

Islamic art

A study of Islamic art and aesthetics, particularly one that aims to establish linkages with other artistic cultures – in this case Jewish – must begin with a working definition of its subject matter, “Islamic art.” Nowadays, it is generally accepted that “Islamic art” is a convenient but imprecise term whose origins, similar to “Jewish art,” date back to late-nineteenth-century European scholarship. The imprecision of the term encompasses at least three main variables: geography, history, and religion. Since the vast and varied geographic regions that have come under the rule of Islamic powers already possessed their own distinctive art, some have proposed hyphenating Islamic art as Persian-Islamic, for instance, or even doing away with “Islamic” altogether, in favor of a classification in regional terms. 5 As for the historical span of about fourteen centuries, some scholars have opted for discontinuing the use of “Islamic art” sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, when European artistic modes became increasingly dominant, while others have proposed a definition of Islamic that encompasses the arts of all regions that have experienced some form of Islamic rule up to the present.

Even if some unanimity could be reached about the scope and span of Islamic art, the term “Islamic art” is still vexed by its linkage with Islam as a religion. Is it simply the art made by Muslim artists and architects for Muslim patrons? Is it all art produced within regions that were ruled by Islamic dynasties, whether Islam continued to be the ruling power or the main cultural factor in them? Or, is this art identified as Islamic by virtue of the impact of certain Islamic beliefs or practices, such that it bears a religious identity that distinguishes it from other arts? Here, too, some scholars have placed the totality of Islamic art under a pan-Islamic umbrella; others have viewed it instead in relation to political and economic factors; and a few others, including Yasser Tabbaa, have acknowledged the impact of religion under specific historical conditions. 6

Since these complex questions remain largely unresolved, it follows then that all definitions of Jewish and Islamic art, including those mooted here, are working definitions intended to achieve a particular objective without any claim to absolute veracity. Thus, our definition of Islamic art as the art produced in the predominantly Muslim regions of the Middle East and North Africa (including the Iberian Peninsula) between the seventh century and the present is so framed in order to engage more fruitfully with Jewish art while acknowledging that there are significant changes from the nineteenth century onward. The definition also acknowledges that Jewish and Islamic art are similarly amorphous categories, subject to similar pressures of Western philosophical, political, and art historical discourses. Above all, while “Jewish art” and “Islamic art” both cover a tremendous geographical and chronological span, Jewish art has almost always positioned itself in relation to a non-Jewish majority culture, whereas Islamic art has been governed more by internal imperatives.

Approaches to figuration

Scripture and tradition


It is frequently assumed that if Jews and Muslims share anything when it comes to art and aesthetics, it is a mutual antagonism to imagery, especially the figurative. However, this view needs significant revision. In the case of Jews, this notion is based on a misunderstanding of the so-called Second Commandment, which ignores both its scriptural context and its subsequent application. The term Second Commandment is itself somewhat of a misnomer as it is formulated slightly differently in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates the imperative identically in both instances: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’ (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8). This translation obscures a discrepancy between the two versions that is best brought out as the distinction between the more restrictive injunction “You shall not make for yourself a pesel or any temunah of [...],” (Exodus 20:4) and “You shall not make for yourself a pesel of any temunah of [...]” (Deuteronomy 5:8). 7 It is difficult to determine precisely what manner of images these two Hebrew words refer to, although pesel is generally translated more specifically as graven or sculpted image, whereas temunah is commonly translated as “likeness.” Despite their gradations, Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 each stress the prohibition of images as a precaution – first and foremost – against idolatry. Both “Second Commandments” are prefaced by an admonition not to have other gods before the Lord, and both are followed by a warning of the divine wrath that the Israelites will incur should they stray from the worship of their God. 8

The broader, often positive treatment of images in the Hebrew Bible emphasizes that this injunction is aimed at idolatry and is not rooted in deep-seated iconoclasm. The Book of Exodus thus offers extended praise for Bezalel, the artisan responsible for constructing the Ark of the Covenant, the tent of meeting, and its ritual implements.

The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.

(Exodus 31:1–5)

Divinely imbued with talent and charged with a sacred commission, the story of Bezalel – including the sumptuous accounts of his gilded creations (Exodus 31:35–37) – clearly sanctions the production of art within an appropriate context. Building upon such examples, later Jewish tradition emphasized the principle of hiddur mitzvah, which encourages Jews to enhance the performance of a mitzvah (commandment) through beautiful means, such as elegant ritual items.

When the Second Commandment is placed in appropriate context, then, we see that the Hebrew Bible offers a more lenient and indeed positive approach to imagery than may appear to be the case prima facie. This is reinforced by later Jewish writings. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish law compiled in the third century ce, specifically notes the danger of sculpted hands (especially when holding a bird or an orb), heavenly bodies, and dragons: anxieties clearly predicated on the religious practices of contemporary cultures (Avodah Zarah 3:1–3). And yet, the same tractate relates the story of a respected rabbi who felt entirely justified entering a bath decorated with a statue of Aphrodite. As the rabbi colorfully explains, people routinely urinate in the pool, surely something they would avoid were the figure of Aphrodite anything but ornamental. Thus, he reasons, “that which one treats not as a god is permitted” (Avodah Zarah 3:4). The Talmud and subsequent Jewish texts, while expanding at length upon specific cases, tend to reinforce this general insight that “what constitutes an idol depends on no inherent attribute, solely on its context and relationships.” 9 To be sure, one must be cautious when it comes to images, but they are rarely iniquitous ab initio.


In a similar vein, Islamic art has been viewed as aniconic and even iconoclastic, both in theory and in practice, somewhat more than is warranted by the injunctions of sacred scriptures and their uneven application in practice. In view of the prevalence of aniconism in Islamic art, one would have expected a clear and consistent iconoclastic statement in the Qur’an. This is not the case; in fact, nearly all references to figural representation in the Qur’an deal exclusively with the condemnation of idolatry, both the making of idols (aṣnām, pl. of ṣanam; or awthān, pl. of wathan) and the worship of idols (ʿ;ibādat al-aṣnām; Qur’an 5:87–92; 6:74; 21:51–52; and 22:30). This injunction has often been linked to perceived Jewish aniconism or even to earlier trends among various Near Eastern peoples not to represent their supreme deity in human form. However, in the Qur’an, the prohibition is less theological and more functionalist, directed not so much against the representation of God in sculpted figural form but rather against the role of idols in polytheism (shirk), the greatest sin in Islamic monotheism. 10

The strict rejection of idolatry in the Qur’an was quite likely directed against a rather sophisticated form of paganism practiced by the pre-Islamic Arabs of Hijaz, evidenced by the recent discovery of numerous monumental human statues in the hinterlands of Medina. 11 Idols such as these, whose worship seems to have continued up to Muhammad’s time, must have posed a considerable challenge to Islamic monotheism, and they may represent the kinds of statues that Muhammad destroyed once his mission had succeeded. Their suppression was subsequently extrapolated as an injunction against all three-dimensional figures that cast a shadow and eventually even to those that do not cast a shadow. 12

On the other hand, Islam had not yet been exposed to the potent use of painted imagery, such as Christian mosaics, which would explain the Qur’an’s complete silence about them. In fact, injunctions against figural representation, which would develop into a form of aniconism, are found only in the hadith, the statements and practices attributed to Muhammad. Most are found in Kitāb al-Libās (book on garments) in Saḥīḥ al-Bukhāri: a number of them address Muhammad’s reaction to the use of human figures in a residential context; others impugn the makers of images (muṣawwirūn), who are condemned to hell because of their act of intransigence against God, who is the only maker. 13

Overall, it seems likely that this aniconic discourse was being constructed by using a likely series of episodes from Muhammad’s time in order to address the more urgent challenge of Christian figural representation, which was quite prevalent in the newly conquered regions of Syria and Palestine. Repeated encounters with Christian imagery, and especially exposure to its profound impact on worshippers, must have provoked considerable anxiety among the religious scholars of a minority faith intent on self-preservation and the creation of a distinctive identity. 14 The earliest example of active opposition to images could in fact be ʿAbd al-Malik’s well-known coinage reform (696–698ce), where figural Sassanian and Byzantine coins, which had continued to be used since the Islamic conquests, would be substituted by completely non-figural coins that instead carried Qur’anic and other Arabic inscriptions. Perhaps a more notorious episode – this one crossing the line from aniconism to outright iconoclasm – is the edict of Yazīd II of 721ce, which called for the destruction of images in churches and monasteries. Though rarely applied in practice, Yazīd’s edict underlines a hardening of attitude toward images, which were clearly seen as a “danger” to the new religion. 15

We may, therefore, conclude that Islamic aniconism had little to do with the anti-idolatrous pronouncements of the Qur’an and everything to do with a new monotheistic faith carving an identity that is based on a radically distinctive visual tradition. 16 This in itself explains the complete prohibition of figural representation in a religious context or space and the consequent absence of a true figural iconography. It also might explain the relative and uneven toleration of figuration in secular or private contexts, including desert palaces and luxury objects, and later manuscripts, which we discuss in the next section.

Gold dinar, Damascus, 86

Figure 23.1   Gold dinar, Damascus, 86h./705ce; Los Angeles County Museum of Art: (Public domain: Wikimedia Commons).

Material culture


The modern notion of Jewish aniconism was still prevalent in 1932, when Clark Hopkins led the discovery of a third-century ce synagogue at Dura-Europos, in what is now eastern Syria. Stunned by the figurative murals he encountered on its walls, including depictions of the binding of Isaac and Moses parting the Red Sea, Hopkins declared that “there was absolutely no precedent, nor could there be any” for this kind of illustration by Jews. 17 Other early interpreters, such as Erwin Goodenough, could comprehend the synagogue only as the product of some hypothetical brand of mystic Judaism, with close parallels to early Christianity. For Kurt Weitzmann, the images at Dura constituted a key stepping stone for later Christian art. These interpretations have been largely dismissed by later scholars, who have tended to emphasize Dura’s connections with the rabbinic Jewish culture of the period rather than its deviation from “normative” Judaism, or its relation to Christianity.

Discoveries of figurative imagery in the late antique synagogues of Beth Alpha and Sepphoris – both located in the north of present-day Israel – further demonstrate that Jews of the pre-modern era possessed a much richer visual heritage than once acknowledged. In particular, the presence of zodiacs on the floor mosaics of Beth Alpha and Sepphoris, replete with images from Greek mythology – at Beth Alpha, Helios boldly sits astride his heavenly chariot – present a “highly complex example of the ‘inculturation’ of non-Jewish imagery and its resulting Judaization.” 18 In fact, as Steven Fine points out, Jews persisted in decorating synagogues with zodiacal imagery after they lost favor in the wider culture since they had become important markers of Jewish identity, most notably as signals of Judaism’s unique calendar. 19 It is clear that Jews of antiquity belonged to a general culture inflected by imagery derived from various cults and faiths, from which they felt able to draw freely, with little fear of religious syncretism.


Modern scholars of Islamic art have also increasingly recognized the need to situate Islamic art within its broader cultural milieu rather than seeing it as a discrete entity impervious to enculturation and historical development. When Alois Musil stumbled across the soot-blackened figural paintings of Qusayr ‘Amra (datable ca. 127h./748ce) in 1890, in what is now Jordan, scholars were faced with an anomaly that led them to question their earlier assumptions, much as the finds at Dura did for Jewish scholars. Confronted by extensive frescos of hunting, feasting, bathing, royal iconography, and even Greek mythology – another parallel with late antique Jewish art – scholars of the early twentieth century had to acknowledge the existence of at least one sphere of Islamic art that was not restricted by aniconism. This and other discoveries of figural frescos, mosaics, and even sculpture contributed to a lively debate about the limits, contexts, and role of figural representation in Islamic art. Was it a question of a secular-religious divide, or was it a question of context, whether public or private?

Since all monumental Umayyad and even Abbasid figural imagery is found in either desert or extra-urban palaces, we are led to conclude that both questions weighed in developing a sense of decorum regarding the use of imagery and its nature. Although the sources are silent on this development, we may deduce from the archaeological evidence that urban palaces were only rarely decorated with figural images and that the complex and rambling imagery at Qusayr ‘Amra would in most later palaces be thematically restricted to what has often been called the “princely cycle,” with its depictions of those themes – feasting, hunting, falconry, astrology, and drinking – that became marks of distinction and exaltation. Largely borrowed from Sassanian iconography (also influential for the Jewish community at Dura Europos), quite likely transmitted through textiles and silver objects, these figural representations are largely emblematic in nature, displaying images or activities that stood for ancient archetypes or traditions but were not specifically related to historical events or narrative cycles.

Fresco at the western wall of Qusayr ‘Amra (Jordan), 740-45

Figure 23.2   Fresco at the western wall of Qusayr ‘Amra (Jordan), 740-45ce. (Source: Yasser Tabbaa)

Aesthetic theories: What is beautiful?


There is no authoritative treatise on Jewish aesthetics but, as we have seen, there is nonetheless a great deal of Jewish thinking about images, beginning from the Bible onward. Indeed, as Melissa Raphael, Martin O’Kane, and others have pointed out, the very opening of the Book of Genesis, in which God repeatedly sees his creations and pronounces them good, demonstrates an intrinsically visual understanding of the created world. While seeing and making can be dangerous acts, as witnessed in the notorious incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32), even in this case there is some exegetical room to maneuver. The great medieval Jewish poet and philosopher Judah ha-Levi, for instance, posited that the calf was never intended to be an idolatrous representation of God but was instead meant to serve a purpose similar to that of the qibla in mosques, indicating the direction of prayer. 20 The Israelites had erred in making an unsanctioned image, but their impulses were not inherently wrong.

Unsurprisingly, much of the formative Jewish thinking about aesthetic questions has been done against the backdrop of the surrounding culture, and for Jews in medieval Iberia and North Africa, Islam provided key examples, both positive and negative. The great twelfth-century philosopher Maimonides, born in Córdoba and later resident in Cairo, placed the abolition of idolatry, “even its memory,” at the center of his understanding of Jewish law, 21 an emphasis that resonates deeply with Islamic thinking. And yet, Maimonides’s highly influential Mishneh Torah clearly states that the “prohibition against fashioning images for beauty applies only to the human form” and finds no fault with the creation of images and relief sculptures of other living beings, even specifically mentioning cattle. 22 In fourteenth-century Spain, Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel was asked to rule on whether Muslim prayer rugs with depictions of the Kaaba could be hung in a synagogue next to the ark. 23 While he decides negatively, the mere fact that congregants considered this a viable debate to bring to the rabbi demonstrates a considerable amount of Jewish familiarity and comfort with Islamic ceremonial objects and a strong desire to beautify Jewish prayer space. In the sixteenth century, when Joseph Caro, author of the authoritative legal code, the Shulḥan Arukh, was asked to decide on the advisability of hanging a decorative textile with imagery in the synagogue, he responded positively on the principle that “Honoring the Torah,” in this case by a beautiful object, “is given precedence.” 24

Until the modern period, most Jewish aesthetic thought was formulated in terms of what was and was not permitted – fed by rabbinic responsa to specific situations – rather than aiming toward a systematic theological aesthetics. Drawing on halakhah, or Jewish law, Steven Schwarzschild has proposed orienting Jewish aesthetics around the notions of “distortion” and “incompleteness.” 25 Rather than seeing this as a distinctly modern emphasis derived from Cubism and modern art more generally, Schwarzschild makes the bold but implausible claim that “In modernism, art is assimilating Judaism.” 26 Recently, several scholars have sought to flesh out some of the neglected aesthetic dimensions of major Jewish philosophers. Zachary Braiterman has set the philosophy of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig “alongside its immediate visual environment in early German modernism, especially German expressionism,” yielding fresh insights into the theology of both. 27 Rosen has argued that there is even a strong aesthetic vein running through the work of Emmanuel Levinas, which can be tapped as a resource for interfaith dialogue. 28 Melissa Raphael has drawn upon these philosophers as well alongside feminist theologians in order to add an embodied dimension to modern Jewish theology. She also develops a powerful image of the unfolding relationship between God and Israel as a form of revelatory dance. 29


Although historically grounded explanations can be offered for aniconism in Islamic art, we still lack a comprehensive aesthetic theory that addresses beauty in Islamic culture, or more specifically, the penchant for abstraction or ornamental representation of physical matter. Aesthetic theories based on atomism, Neoplatonism, and Sufism have been advanced by various scholars, although none of these can claim to inform the totality of Islamic art. For example, nearly a century ago, Louis Massignon proposed an aesthetic theory based on al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and the later Ash’aris, whereby the ornamental abstraction of physical matter in Islamic art was linked to the transience and impermanence of human creations, itself a demonstration of the permanence of the creator. 30 Al-Ghazālī’s binary conception of beauty – whereby the perceptible external beauty encloses a core of mystical internal beauty – has also resonated widely in studies of Islamic aesthetics and religious art. 31

This approach was greatly nuanced and historicized by contemporary scholars, including Necipoglu and Tabbaa, who have focused on epochs of significant transformations in Islamic ornament, linking them to the theological change from Mu’tazilism to Ash’arism, where in the former the atomistic structure of the universe allowed for the mediation of natural agents, while in the latter God alone governed an occasionalistic universe consisting of atoms and accidents. As such, geometric ornament would have a spiritual dimension, as a reflection of the beauty and order of the universe and as an allegory of an omnipotent God and his wondrous creations. Similarly, the contemporaneous developments in calligraphy and arabesque ornament were not mandated by an ahistorical Islamic spirit but based on geometric principles that were themselves produced under specific historical circumstances. 32 Other scholars, influenced by the works of S. H. Nasr and Henri Corbin before him, have attempted, perhaps without sufficient regard to history, to explore the impact of the theosophy of Illumination (Ishrāqī), a synthesis of Neoplatonism and Sufism, on Islamic art. 33

Other writers on Islamic aesthetics, including Oleg Grabar, Doris Behrens-Abouseif, and Roger Lehman, have generally proposed theories that highlighted the pleasurable aspects of Islamic art but rejected any religious connotations or symbolic meanings in it. In addition to turning Islamic art into a hollow vehicle and the only artistic tradition that is devoid of meaning, these conclusions can also be criticized for their overly restrictive interpretation and selection of evidence, in particular evidence from Shi’i traditions. 34 Although a comprehensive aesthetic theory for Islamic art does not seem possible or even desirable, there is little question that future investigations of its various sectors, periods, or forms will contribute to the creation of a mosaic of aesthetic theories that may share some commonalities.

The Temple of Solomon as a place of cultural interaction

“The Temple, lost and reconstructed, yearned for and mourned for, pictured and sung about, is above all else,” writes Simon Goldhill, “a monument of the imagination.” 35 There is no material or written evidence for the Temple of Solomon outside the Hebrew Bible. The biblical description we have of the First Temple was written after its destruction, and thus the grand account of its foundation is inflected by a deep longing for the past. The Book of Kings lovingly records the lavish details of Solomon’s Temple, in particular its opulent craftwork of cedar and gold, its “engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers” (1 Kings 6:29). Despite the Temple’s abundance of images of things from both “heaven above” and “the earth beneath” – including the sculpted cherubim flanking the Ark in the Holy of Holies, the Temple’s inner sanctum – Solomon is not accused of transgressing the Second Commandment.

After its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586bce, the memory of the Solomonic Temple continued to be a touchstone for national and religious hopes, embodied in Ezekiel’s powerful prophetic vision of a rebuilt Temple. Under the permission of the Persian king Darius, it was rebuilt in 515bce by Zerubbabel in a form much less impressive than its Solomonic precursor. This Temple stood another half millennium before Herod’s extensive rebuilding project replaced it in 19bce with the grand edifice of Jesus’ era, itself destroyed by the Romans in 70ce. From then on, the Jewish Temple lived exclusively in the imagination. Later Jewish texts amplified the tales of its construction, even describing a miraculous worm that cut its stones at Solomon’s bidding. 36 The Talmud records the measurements of the Herodian Temple in minute detail and relays extensive conversations by rabbis over intricate matters of ritual in a Temple that had by this time not existed for centuries. With the loss of the physical Temple, Judaism took on a new form, with prayer and study taking the place of sacrificial rituals. Synagogue design – especially in the evolution of a Torah ark that hearkens back to the Ark of the Covenant – reverberates with memories of the lost Temple without attempting to take its place. Revealingly, the synagogue of Dura-Europos has an image of the Temple façade over its niche for the Torah, providing reassuring continuity in an age of transition for Jews.

Resonating powerfully with the Hebrew Bible and later Jewish legend, King Solomon is exalted in the Qur’an (e.g., Qur’an 21:82; 34:12–13) for the luxury and grandeur of his palace and temple and also for his wisdom and God-given magical powers. In the Qur’an, the building of the Temple of Solomon is described in miraculous terms, such that Solomon could not have had it built on such a grand scale and luxurious form without the jinn whom God had commanded to help in its construction. Possessed with the divine power of a magical ring, the Seal of Solomon, the king could force demons and jinn to gather gold, silver, marble, and incense to build and furnish the Temple, which became one of the wonders of the world. 37 The Qur’an (Qur’an 17:4–8) elaborates that Jews’ diversion from the true faith brought about its destruction; the episode serving as one of the main Qur’anic lessons against apostasy.

Not surprisingly, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was the site of one of the first and most vivid encounters between early Muslims and the Solomonic tradition, evidenced by Caliph ʿUmar’s visit in 638 to the then-derelict site and his order to have a masjid built there. This simple place of prayer, located at the southern end of the precinct, most likely developed later into the Aqsa Mosque, while the center of the Temple Mount would be occupied by the Dome of the Rock itself, built by ʿAbd al-Malik in 692-5ce. To what extent the Dome of the Rock was viewed as the new Temple of Solomon cannot be determined on the basis of early Islamic sources and the evidence gleaned from the monument itself, but it was quite likely viewed as such by the Jewish community in Jerusalem, some of whom described the event in apocalyptic terms. 38 For Christians, from the Crusades onward, the Dome of the Rock became none other than the Temple of Solomon, often identified as such in medieval and Renaissance images of Jerusalem, including Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin (1504).

Although the Dome of the Rock is generally believed today to be the site of the Masjid al-Harām, the spot where Muhammad’s winged horse landed during his miraculous night journey (isrāʾ and miʿrāj), most scholars have disputed the likelihood of this interpretation in the late seventh century. Rather, following Grabar’s lead, most scholars attribute political motivations to ʿAbd al-Malik’s building as a statement directed toward the dominant Christian population of Jerusalem and their ultimate defender, Byzantium. The long Qur’anic inscriptions on the interior of the building, some of which question the concept of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, can be interpreted as a form of “ideological warfare,” or they can in fact be read as a more conciliatory engagement with the central questions of Christianity. Briefly, the Dome of the Rock’s prominent location above the remains of the Temple of Solomon and its vivid ornamental and epigraphic program conjoin to place it discursively in a three-way conversation with Judaism and Christianity: continuous with the Jewish sacred site; respectful of Christian beliefs; but the perfection of both. 39

Adapting and illuminating biblical tales

Although Solomon occupies pride of place in the Qur’an and later pious literature, there are other Jewish patriarchs who have been historically honored by both Jews and Muslims and whose stories developed into a very popular genre called Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ (stories of the prophets) and within compendiums of histories. One of the first texts to include Jewish history as a predecessor of Islamic history was the Jāmiʿ al-Tawārīkh (Universal History), Rashīd al-Dīn’s magisterial account of Mongol and world history, produced in Tabriz (northwestern Iran) in the early fourteenth century. Rashīd al-Dīn himself was born a Jew and converted to Islam in 1278ce, which might explain his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and of the specificities of representing Jewish stories in a contemporary Mongol-Islamic style. 40 Some scholars, for example, have noted that some paintings, such as that of Abraham seated under a tree with Sarah near him, hearken back to the narrative as told in the Hebrew Bible, leaving the door open to Jewish interpretations.

More popular than the rather cerebral Jāmiʿ al-Tawārīkh were biblical stories that involved a love encounter between ill-fated lovers, such as the Book of Esther and the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. The Book of Esther was first illustrated in the frescos at Dura Europos, to the left of the Torah ark, as a lively sequence that shows the treacherous Haman leading Mordechai on a horse and, in an adjacent scene, King Ahasuerus seated with Esther on a throne. Since the story occurred in Persia and involved Persian kings – where Ahasuerus is often equated with Xerxes or Artaxerxes – it appealed especially to Persian Jews, who also seem to have “found comfort in the story of a Jewish woman who secretly remained faithful to her people and was rewarded with greatness.” 41

The great affection in which Esther and her cousin and protector Mordechai are held by Persian Jews in history is evidenced by the double shrine made for them in Hamadan, which is still visited today, and in the few remaining manuscripts that illustrate a medieval version of their story. In 1333ce, the great Persian Jewish poet Shāhīn of Shiraz adapted the Book of Esther to local tradition, renaming it Ardashīr-nāma, by conflating Ahasuerus with the Sassanian king Ardashir and peppering his text with other historical events, such that Persian and Jewish histories are conjoined. An illustrated Ardashīr-nāma from mid-seventeenth-century Isfahan shows Queen Esther giving birth to Cyrus, from her marriage to Ardashīr, a vivid representation of the deep affinity felt by Jews to Persia and of the complete assimilation of Jewish tradition within the norms of Islamic art. 42

The biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, retold in the Qur’an as Sūrat Yūsuf, would become one of the favorite tales of Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ and subsequently rewritten in the fifteenth century by the Persian poet Jāmī (d. 1492) as the mystical love poem of Yūsuf and Zulaikha. The story of Yūsuf and Zulaikha represented the eternal quest for love, which was allegorically interpreted as the mystical journey to seek unity with the divine. Frequently illustrated in Persian painting – including a sublime painting, dated 1488, by the great Persian painter Bihzad – this poem was also illustrated in a few Judeo-Persian manuscripts, and the images of Yūsuf and Zulaikha appear frequently on amulets for love and marriage, alluding to the triumph of love over great adversity. 43

Architecture and worship

General parallels in synagogue and mosque design

Judaism and Islam share some commonalities with regard to worship, including its congregational aspect, the importance of sacred scriptures in the service, and the orientation of the ritual toward a sacred spot, Jerusalem for the Jews and Mecca for the Muslims. In fact, the interconnection between the two religions in terms of ritual space and architecture underwent at least two main phases that corresponded to their relative degree of development and cultural prominence. It is generally accepted that in its formative period, Islamic ritual and the concepts of sacred space assimilated some Jewish practices and forms, including praying toward a particular direction, the role of sacred scriptures in the prayer, and its congregational aspect.

There are even some correspondences, though not absolute similarities, in some of the necessary ritual objects in the synagogue and the mosque. For example, some scholars a few generations ago have compared the form of the miḥrāb to early Torah arks, such as the one in Dura Europos, proposing some continuity in form. 44 This connection has been questioned by recent scholarship since Torah arks play a central role in Jewish ritual and theology, whereas the role of the miḥrāb is generally believed to be more symbolic than ritual. Furthermore, the Ark forms the focus of the synagogue to a much greater degree than the miḥrāb, which is far too small to command the focus of the entire mosque, although later mosques certainly attempted to do that. 45

The bimah, the reader’s desk or lectern in a synagogue, can also be compared to the minbar, the pulpit in a congregational mosque. Both are elevated platforms intended for a cleric to address the congregants with the word of God, but there are equally significant formal and ritual differences. Formally, the bimah directly faces the congregation, whereas the minbar, whose form changed very little between the tenth and twentieth centuries, consists of a series of steps that rise away from the congregation. Ritualistically, the main difference is that, unlike the presence of the Torah scroll upon the bimah, the Qur’an is almost never taken up into the minbar, as the khuṭba (sermon) is spoken without resort to a written text.

Mosques and synagogues in medieval Spain

Early mosques were little more than communal spaces, at first oriented toward Jerusalem, as most traditional synagogues are, but shortly afterward toward Mecca, where the congregants worshipped by acts of kneeling and prostration that demonstrate humility toward God and by repeating verses from the Qur’an interspersed by repeated supplications. Even in their fully developed form, early mosques, such as the Great Mosque of Córdoba, were characterized by their non-monumental, inward-facing design and by the simplicity, clarity, and repetitiveness of their forms. 46 More than any other mosque, the Córdoba mosque, built in several stages between the eighth and tenth centuries, plays a pivotal role in the appropriation and assimilation of design concepts and architectural forms from the eastern Islamic heartland and from the regional traditions of Roman and Visigothic architecture and in the eventual dissemination of these concepts and forms to later mosques and synagogues.

Although the ruins of many ancient synagogues have been discovered in Israel and the surrounding region, no synagogues have survived from the first five Islamic centuries (the seventh through eleventh centuries), which could be a factor of preservation, restricted building activity, or the fact that many were located in private houses. In fact, the only remaining medieval synagogues are a handful in the Iberian Peninsula and one in Cairo. Interestingly, all the remaining ones in Spain – two in Toledo and one each in Córdoba and Segovia – postdate Islamic sovereignty over these cities. Yet, they are all built in a thoroughly Islamic style, to the point that Vivian Mann calls their style “Jewish-Islamic art.” 47

Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain, interior, ninth century (Source: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz, Wikimedia Commons)

Figure 23.3   Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain, interior, ninth century (Source: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz, Wikimedia Commons)

The confluence of artistic and literary traditions among the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim populations in central and southern Spain has been viewed in some recent literature under the heading of convivencia, or coexistence. This rather benign concept was intended as a correction to earlier xenophobic views that tended to valorize the Catholic nature of Spanish art and to dismiss the Jewish and Islamic contributions. Theoretically linked to post-colonialist multicultural studies, the three-way artistic and intellectual partnership among the three monotheistic faiths in Spain has more recently been subjected to criticism, mainly by social historians using a different body of texts and documents than those utilized by art historians. 48 On the basis of striking overlaps and commonalities in architecture, ornament, and even manuscript illumination, art historians, like us, would be inclined to interpret these connections as at least one level of interaction and coexistence.

The church of Santa María la Blanca in Toledo was first built as a synagogue in ca.1205, more than a century after the city’s conquest by the Castilians in 1085. It seems to have functioned as a synagogue for about two centuries before being converted into a church in 1391. The irregular exterior shell encloses a fairly regular rectangular space divided by five longitudinal aisles that create a rather undifferentiated space, unique among all known synagogues, that resembles contemporary mosques. In fact, the lack of a deep niche on its eastern end makes it difficult to imagine how it could have been used as a Torah ark. 49

Church of Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, Spain (previously a synagogue), interior view (late twelfth century) (Source: kurtxio, Wikimedia Commons)

Figure 23.4   Church of Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, Spain (previously a synagogue), interior view (late twelfth century) (Source: kurtxio, Wikimedia Commons)

The similarities that this synagogue shares with earlier Iberian Islamic and especially with Almohad mosque architecture in Morocco extend to the plan, the massive piers, horseshoe-shaped arches, elaborate floral capitals, and geometric ornament on the spandrels. Regardless of whether Santa María la Blanca was first built as a mosque, as one scholar has proposed, 50 the relatively easy functional translation between Jewish and Muslim places of worship should be related to the adaptability of mosque design and even more to the deeply rooted commonalties of their shared culture. In contrast, it should be noted that synagogue architecture rarely showed much affiliation with Spanish Christian architecture, despite its much greater prevalence. 51

In addition to the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the Alhambra Palace in Granada, largely built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, also played a crucial role in the perfection of Andalusi palatial architecture and in the creation of an artisanal tradition – in zillīj (tile work), plaster work, and woodwork – whose impact would be felt in Islamic, Jewish, and Christian architecture well into the sixteenth century. Interestingly, part of the site of the Alhambra had been occupied in the eleventh century by the Palace of Yūsuf ibn Naghrella, the Jewish vizier of the Zirid rulers of Granada. Although the theory, proposed by F. Bargebuhr, that equates the current Fountain of the Lions at the Court of the Lions with the Brazen Sea of Solomon, has been generally discredited, the cultural continuity, in this case from Jewish to Islamic, further points to the deep interpenetration of cultural norms in medieval Spain. 52

A small and rather irregular synagogue in Córdoba, built by Isaac Menhab and dated to 1315, appears inserted into a dense urban fabric, which made it necessary to adjust its inner orientation to the east at an angle to the street direction, a phenomenon seen in many medieval religious structures in Cairo. A rectangular vestibule leads to a spacious square room with a deep niche in its eastern side, framed with a foliate arch and with a built-in platform, undoubtedly intended for a Torah ark. The foliate arch and the minute plaster floral ornament flanking it closely resemble the ornamental style of the Alhambra Palace.

The largest and most famous Iberian synagogue, El Tránsito of Toledo, was built in 1357 by Samuel Halevi Abulafia, who was the finance minister and advisor to King Pedro I (the Cruel) of Castille. Its long prayer hall is covered by a lofty pitched roof that is decorated internally in the artesonado wooden marquetry style common to contemporary Islamic monuments. Its exceptional ornamental plasterwork also closely resembles contemporary plasterwork at the Alhambra palace, except for the use of raised bosses and heraldic shields. In fact, the El Transito synagogue is not only identical in its forms and ornamental patterns to the Alhambra and to the Palace of Pedro I in Seville, but it has been suggested that the same team of artisans was responsible for all three. 53 The only difference is that Hebrew inscriptions are used where Arabic inscriptions would be in an Islamic building, making the term Jewish-Islamic especially appropriate. The dedicatory inscription is particularly revealing about the artistic aspirations of the synagogue’s patron, and how the community perceived its cultural identity:

And the house which Samuel built/And the wooden tower for the reading of the written law/And the scrolls of the Law and the crowns thereto/And its lavers and lamps for lighting/And its windows like the windows of Ariel/And its courts for them that cherish the perfect law/And seats, too, for all who sit in the shade of God. So that those who saw it almost said, ‘This semblance/ Is as the semblance of the work which Bezalel wrought.’/go now, ye peoples, and come into my gates/And seek the Lord, for it is a house of God even as Bethel. 54

Referencing the creator of the Tabernacle – and punning on Bezalel’s name, which means “in the shadow of God” – the inscription sets up El Transito as something much more than a mere house of gathering. Despite dwelling in the Diaspora, the Jews of this community felt both at home and favored by God in late medieval Iberia.

Although built during the twilight of the Islamic presence in Spain, these three synagogues and a few others share significant commonalities with North African and Spanish-Islamic architecture of the thirteenth andfourteenth centuries, best seen in the Alhambra Palace. Their mature style points to the existence of earlier synagogues that have long vanished and to a well-established artisanal tradition, shared by the three faiths, whose products were much in demand throughout the later Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century, both Muslims and Jews had been expelled from Spain, although echoes of this period of cultural exchange persisted in mosques of North Africa as well as Sephardic synagogues built in the Jewish Diaspora of North Africa and Europe. 55

Synagogue of El Tránsito (1354), Toledo Spain: ark niche and plasterwork (Source: Selbymay. Wikimedia Commons)

Figure 23.5   Synagogue of El Tránsito (1354), Toledo Spain: ark niche and plasterwork (Source: Selbymay. Wikimedia Commons)

Modern and contemporary period

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as social and political conditions changed for Jews in Europe, Jewish artists began to emerge in significant numbers. Rather than forming some self-contained artistic unit, Jews became involved in the full spectrum of modern artistic movements, with Camille Pissarro emerging as a leading Impressionist and Max Liebermann assuming the presidency of the Berlin Secession. Although traditional arts continued to hold sway in many Islamic areas, in this period Muslim artists, too, began to adopt some of the techniques and subjects of contemporary Western fine art. Perhaps most prominent was the nineteenth-century Turkish archaeologist and painter Osman Hamdi Bey, who produced works in the manner of Parisian academic masters Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Boulanger, noted for their depiction of Orientalist motifs.

Jawad Salim: “Freedom” relief sculpture at Bab Sharqi, Baghdad, 1962 (Source: Yasser Tabbaa)

Figure 23.6   Jawad Salim: “Freedom” relief sculpture at Bab Sharqi, Baghdad, 1962 (Source: Yasser Tabbaa)

Both Jews and Muslims in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also began to identify visual art as a key resource for nation building. In 1901, at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the painter and printmaker Ephraim Moshe Lilien organized an exhibition featuring prominent artists including Josef Israëls, Lesser Ury, Maurycy Gottlieb, and Hermann Struck. 56 Buber was convinced that despite the international prominence of such Jewish artists a true and enduring Jewish art depended on the formation of a Jewish state. As he wrote that year in an article for the Zionist periodical Ost und West, “A national art requires a homeland out of which it develops and a heaven towards which it strives. We Jews of today have neither of these. We are the slaves of many lands, and our thoughts fly to various heavens.” 57 Answering Buber’s call, the Russian-born sculptor Boris Schatz formed the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem in 1906, named after the biblical craftsman of Exodus. “The great idea,” Schatz wrote in 1914, “is not to copy Arab or European models, but to derive new inspiration from Hebrew ideals, from the flora and fauna of the mould the Hebrew alphabet into artistic forms for decorative purposes, in short, to create a Palestinian renaissance.” 58 After closing due to lack of funds, it reopened in 1935 as New Bezalel (it is now the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), spurred on by a revised nationalist ideology. “Inspired at least as much by the Bauhaus as the Bible,” Bezalel’s new leaders “measured nationhood in terms of the ability to stand as equals on the same modernist footing as other nations.” 59

Modern Muslim artists have likewise alternated between emphasizing local and international styles as a means of cementing national identity. Many of the art academies founded in the Middle East from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century emphasized instruction in life-drawing as a means of combating Western assumptions about Islamic aniconism and artistic inferiority. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, epitomized this position when he declared in 1923: “A nation that ignores painting, a nation that ignores statues, and a nation that does not know the laws of positive sciences does not deserve to take its place on the road of progress.” 60 Through mid-century, many artists in historically Islamic regions continued to produce work with limited references to Islam, often preferring references to established iconography and styles of Western art as well pre-Islamic Mesopotamian and Egyptian motifs. 61 Jawad Salim – in many ways the founding father of modern Iraqi art – embodied this tendency in his paintings as well as his massive Freedom Monument in Baghdad, commemorating the 1958 foundation of the Republic of Iraq.

By the last third of the twentieth century, and especially after the 1973 Arab-Israel War and the ensuing oil embargo, this internationalist outlook began to give way to works that actively sought inspiration in traditional Islamic practices and subjects. Perhaps most prominent was a rediscovery of Islamic calligraphy, which took center stage in the ḥurūfiyya movement. In the early products of this movement, such as the works of the Syrian-born artist Madiha Omar, Arabic calligraphy is inserted, collage style, into otherwise Cubist compositions. However, later artists of the ḥurūfiyya school, such as Ahmad Mustafa and Khaled al-Saa’i, would use the spiritual and formal properties of Arabic calligraphy, or even abstracted Arabic characters, to generate a language that addressed Islamic heritage while also evoking parallels to Abstract Expressionism in both scale and gesture. 62 Ironically, Abstract Expressionism – the first major American avant-garde movement – is closely associated with some of the most prominent Jewish artists of the twentieth century, including Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb, to the extent that it has even been described by some critics as a Jewish style. 63 Regardless of whether individual artists see such an affinity, the parallels between ḥurūfiyya and Abstract Expressionism demonstrate the difficulty of defining modern Jewish or Islamic art and the sometimes slight difference between them.

Figure 23.7   Khaled al-Saa’i (Syrian): “Abstraction”, acrylic inks and collage on paper 50×70, 2014 (Copyright: Khaled al-Saa’i, 2014)

Yoav Weiss: “Buy the Wall” (ongoing) (Copyright: Yoav Weiss. Image courtesy the artist)

Figure 23.8   Yoav Weiss: “Buy the Wall” (ongoing) (Copyright: Yoav Weiss. Image courtesy the artist)

More explicitly, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East have often created images about one another, particularly in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In The Walls of Gaza Series I (1992), Palestinian artist Laila Shawa (b. 1940) depicts graffiti scrawled on walls by protesters during the first Intifada. Using a hidden camera, artist Emily Jacir recently recorded her passage through the Surda security checkpoint in the West Bank, while Sharif Waked wryly and incisively intersperses faux fashion runway videos with photographs of Palestinians undergoing searches by Israeli soldiers in Chic Point (2003/7’00’’). Many Israeli artists have also created works meditating on the nature of political, cultural, and religious borders, in many cases as a form of protest against government policy. Joshua Neustein has treated the subject of contested boundaries in various media, from his torn paper map works to his Territorial Imperative series (1976–1977) in which he followed a dog as it marked its territory and then hung a photograph of the urinating dog at each location. More recently, Yoav Weiss invited viewers to imagine buying pieces of the concrete barrier erected along the West Bank border – which he conjectures will be dismantled in the future – much as tourists today buy relics from the Berlin Wall. Given the heated rhetoric and firmly entrenched positions that usually characterize discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict, works of art – especially humorous pieces such as those by Waked and Weiss – may have the potential to prompt fresh conversations.

R.B. Kitaj: “Arabs and Jews (After Ensor),” 2004. Oil on canvas. (Copyright: R.B. Kitaj Estate. Image courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

Figure 23.9   R.B. Kitaj: “Arabs and Jews (After Ensor),” 2004. Oil on canvas. (Copyright: R.B. Kitaj Estate. Image courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

While the Middle East is an important nexus for examining parallels and connections between Jewish and Islamic art, it is equally important to consider commonalities among Jewish and Muslim artists living in areas in which both are minorities. The Jewish-American painter R. B. Kitaj explicitly called attention to the unique dilemmas of minority artists in his First Diasporist Manifesto of 1989, in which he defines a Diasporist work of art as “one in which a pariah people, an unpopular, stigmatized people, is taken up, pondered in their dilemmas.” 64 The Diasporist scrounges more than he invents, according to Kitaj, selecting and combining images from art history “like an itinerant pedlar,” an image consciously evoking the stereotype of the “wandering Jew.” 65 In the first instance, Kitaj hoped that such a method could capture what he saw as the unsettled nature of modern Jewish life, especially in the wake of the Holocaust. However, Kitaj insisted that Jews “are not the only Diasporists by a long shot,” naming Palestinians in particular. 66 In her analysis of several prominent contemporary Muslim artists, including Ghada Amer, Shahzia Sikander, and Shirazeh Houshiary, Fereshteh Daftari identifies several themes that resonate deeply with Kitaj’s description of “Diasporist art.”

Today, a new phenomenon is becoming apparent: many artists who draw on Islamic art actually originate in these lands but are now rooted in the West. These artists are extending the Islamic vocabulary beyond its original framework, developing new narratives that reconfigure and subvert the original idioms. At the same time, they also defy the assumptions of modernism. 67

In this way, in their ambivalent reception of both their own religious heritage and that of Western art – which for most of its history has largely been defined on Christian terms – Jewish and Muslim artists may share more in common than they have in any other period.


As we have seen throughout this chapter, the most intriguing connections between Jewish and Islamic art are not always the most explicit or direct. We began by unpacking the difficulty inherent in the very terms “Jewish art” and “Islamic art”, exposing some of the historiographic conditions that contributed to their formation. Moving to historical examples, we found that in many cases, rather than direct interaction, Jewish and Muslim artists have faced parallel dilemmas, such as how to reconcile figurative and aniconic impulses within their sacred texts or how to battle Orientalist assumptions in the modern period. Even when treating examples of direct architectural connections in medieval Spain, for example, we found that it was important not to overplay the notion of convivencia, of coexistence among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. While this was in some ways a golden age, especially in contradistinction to other more factious periods, we were careful to distinguish a modern desire for interfaith dialogue from historical realities. Conversely, while the Arab-Israeli conflict has been a fraught and powerful subject for modern Jewish and Muslim artists, it is crucial to avoid stereotyping artists of given backgrounds as proponents of any one political perspective or to assume that this conflict is the preeminent point of contact between Jewish and Islamic art and artists in the modern period. At the most basic level, by emphasizing the sheer variety of Jewish and Islamic visual culture, we hope to have demonstrated that Judaism and Islam not only share an identity as “people of the book,” as has been noted since the Middle Ages, but that these cultures are also people of the image. They may work out this identity in different ways, but this is an important place to begin, both for scholarly analysis and interfaith dialogue.


Kalman Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Margaret Olin, The Nation without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

Harold Rosenberg, “Is There a Jewish Art?” Commentary 42, 1 (July, 1966): p. 57.

Aaron Rosen, Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj (London: Legenda, 2009), pp. 6–12.

This is nicely captured by the observations of the painter R. B. Kitaj, who comments, “whereas Jewish writers work in traditions going back to the Psalmists and before, our painters have no traditions except those available to all painters….There is no Jewish painting tradition or style, so I’ve had to begin with what I know….” [R. B. Kitaj, interviewed by Monica Bohm-Duchen, “The Tribal Passion,” Jewish Quarterly 146 (Summer, 1992): p. 21].

This is indeed the case with the renaming of the “Islamic Galleries” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the “New Galleries of the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” This renaming has been criticized by some scholars, including Nasser Rabbat, “What’s in a Name? The New ‘Islamic Art’ Galleries at the Met,” Artforum 50, 8 (January 2012): pp. 75–78.

The last decade has signaled a growing interest in the historiography of Islamic art, resulting in a vigorous debate. See, for example, Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field,” The Art Bulletin 85, 1 (2003): pp. 152–84; Gulru Necipoglu, “The Concept of Islamic Art: Inherited Discourses and New Approaches,” in Islamic Art and the Museum, ed. Benoît Junod, Georges Khalil, Stefan Weber, and Gerhard Wolf (London: Saqi Books, 2012); and especially Wendy M. K. Shaw, “The Islam in Islamic History: Secularism and the Public Discourse,” Journal of Art Historiography 6 (2013), pp. 1–34.

Joseph Gutmann, “Prolegomenon,” in No Graven Images: Studies in Art and the Hebrew Bible, ed. Joseph Gutmann (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1971), p. xv.

Each of the other five biblical indictments against imagery – Exodus 20:23 and 34:17; Leviticus 19:4 and 26:1; and Deuteronomy 27:15 – are likewise located in the context of worshipping foreign gods.

Lionel Kochan, Beyond the Graven Image: A Jewish View (New York: New York University Press, 1997) p. 97.

To date, the clearest and most extensive statement on Islamic aniconism remains Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, rev. edition 1987), pp. 75–103 passim.

Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ed. Ute Franke and Joachim Gierlichs (Chicago: Somogy Art Publishers, 2010).

The distinction between idols that do or do not cast a shadow was a subject of debate among early hadith tellers. See the fatwas (legal opinions) of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Baz, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who cites various sources to support a strict prohibition against all forms of sculpture. (accessed 6 May 2016).

The historicity of these hadiths has often been questioned: Do they reflect the time of Muhammad or the time of Bukhari in the ninth century, when figural textiles and garments mentioned by Bukhari actually existed? See, most recently, Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 24–99.

Interestingly, Judaism seems to have been similarly impacted by the intense development of Christian iconography and the cult of icons in the seventh and eighth centuries, and its visual response bears similarities to that of Islam.

Grabar, Formation, pp. 93–96.

Silvia Naef, Y a-t-il une “question d’image” en Islam (Paris: Teraedre, 2004), p. 66 ff.

Clark Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, ed. Bernard Goldman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 131.

Steven Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 197.

Fine, p. 197.

Bland, p. 131.

Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 29, in A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 1972), p. 321.

Moses Maimonides, “Which Images are Permitted?” Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts, ed. Vivian Mann (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 24.

Asher ben Jehiel, “Fourteenth-Century Prayer Rugs with Depictions of the Ka’ba,” Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts, ed. Vivian Mann (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 46.

Joseph Caro, “Synagogue Textiles Woven with Figures,” Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts, ed. Vivian Mann (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 53.

Steven Schwarzschild, “Aesthetics,” Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs, ed. Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (New York: Scribner, 1987), p. 3.

Schwarzschild, p. 6.

Zachary Braiterman, The Shape of Revelation: Aesthetics and Modern Jewish Thought (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. xvii

Aaron Rosen, “Emmanuel Levinas and the Hospitality of Images,” Literature and Theology 25, 4 (2011): pp. 364–378.

Melissa Raphael, Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish Theology of Art (London: Continuum, 2009)

Louis Massignon, “Les méthodes de réalisations artistiques des peuples de l’Islam,” Syria I 2 (1921): pp. 47–53, 149–160.

See especially Elias, Aisha’s Cushion, pp. 162–167

Yasser Tabbaa, The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival (Seattle, WA: University of Washington, 2001), pp. 163–167. Gulru Necipoglu, The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995), Chapter 2.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987); Samer Akkach, Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam: An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005); Valerie Gonzales, Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007).

Oleg Grabar, The Mediation of Ornament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991); Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Beauty in Arabic Culture (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1999); Oliver Leaman, Islamic Aesthetics, An Introduction (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004).

Simon Goldhill, The Temple of Jerusalem (London: Profile Books, 2006), p. 18.

Goldhill, p. 36.

William J. Hamblin and David Rolph Seely, Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007), pp. 131-32. Jewish legends also mention the Seal of Solomon, which gradually became connected with the Shield of David, the six-pointed star. The Shield/Star of David first became popularized as a Jewish symbol in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially through its use by Zionists. The menorah has a longer and more consistent history as the symbol of Judaism, dating back to antiquity. For a detailed exploration of these connections, see Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), pp. 257–281.

Hamblin and Seely, pp. 145–157.

It is interesting to note that there is a kind of tacit agreement, undoubtedly based on different concerns, between Jewish and Muslim religious authorities not to conduct any archaeological investigations in the Temple Mount.

For a lavishly illustrated early fourteenth-century manuscript, see Sheila Blair, A Compendium of Chronicles: Rashid al-Din’s Illustrated History of the World (London: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1995).

Ariella Amar, “Art in the Shadow of Oppression: The Visual Culture of Iranian Jews,” in Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews, ed. David Yeroushalmi (Los Angeles, CA: Fowler Museum at UCLA and Beit Hatfutsot, 2012), p. 54.

Amar, p. 61.

Amar, p. 66.

See, in particular, E. Lambert, “La Synagogue de Dura Europos et les origins de la mosquée,” Semitica 3 (1950): pp. 67–72.

See, in particular, Nuha N. N. Khoury, “The Mihrab: From Text to Form,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 30, 1 (February, 1998): pp. 1–27.

Pre-modern synagogues also tended to be inward-looking and lacking in ostentation, as they were intended as a beit knesset, a house of gathering, not meant to compete with the unreconstructed Temple. Furthermore, both external pressures – imposed restrictions on building in public areas – and internal factors – fear of attracting unwanted attention to their wealth – may have also contributed to the rather self-effacing form of synagogues.

Vivan Mann, “Jewish Islamic Art and Architecture: Spain and North Africa,”, (accessed 3 March 2014).

See, for example, Maya Soifer, “Beyond Convivencia: Critical Reflections on the Historiography of Interfaith Relations in Christian Spain,” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 1, 1 (2009): pp. 19–35.

Carol Herselle Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning (New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1985), pp. 331–335.

Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe, p. 333.

Cf. Jerrilynn Dodds, “Mudejar tradition and the Synagogues of Medieval Spain: Cultural Identity and Cultural Hegemony,” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, eds. Vivian Mann, Thomas Glick, Jerrilynn Dodds (New York: George Braziller in association with the Jewish Museum, 1992), p. 118.

Frederick Bargebuhr, The Alhambra: A Cycle of Studies on the Eleventh Century in Moorish Spain (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1971).

Jerrilyn Dodds, Maria-Rosa Menocal, and Abigail Balbale, The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Making of Castilian Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

Dodds, “Mudejar tradition and the Synagogues of Medieval Spain: Cultural Identity and Cultural Hegemony,” p. 128.

Although the period of close architectural interaction between Islamic and Jewish architecture comes to an end by the sixteenth century, scholars have often noted the preference for the “Moorish” or generally Islamic style in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century synagogues built in New York City and elsewhere. See the recent article: Olag Bush, “The Architecture of Jewish Identity: The Neo-Islamic Central Synagogue of New York,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 63, 2 (June, 2004): pp. 180–201.

For further treatment of this exhibition, see Gilya Gerda Schmidt, The Art and Artists of the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901: Heralds of a New Age (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003).

Martin Buber, “Lesser Ury [or The Viability of Jewish Art] and a Letter to Hermann Struck,” Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts, ed. Vivian Mann (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 144.

Margaret Olin also calls attention to Schatz’s early “activities in another new country, Bulgaria, where he gained practical experience in constructing national identity through art,” prior to his immigration to Palestine (Olin, p. 37).

Olin, p. 56.

Silvia Naef, “Re-exploring Islamic Art: Modern and Contemporary Creation in the Arab World and its Relation to the Artistic Past,” Res 43 (Spring, 2003), p. 166.

Naef, p. 168. An interesting parallel can be found in the Jewish artist Itzhak Danziger’s iconic sculpture Nimrod, from 1939. At the time, the work gave tangible form to the budding archetype of the “New Hebrew,” a solid, heroic figure with a primordial connection to an ancestral homeland. And yet, as much as the work might have been intended as a repudiation of the image of the weak Diaspora Jew, it remains steadfastly multivalent. This purported incarnation of Hebrew identity, carved from Nubian sandstone, was likely influenced by Danziger’s study of Assyrian sculpture at the British Museum [Yigal Zalmona, A Century of Israeli Art (London and Jerusalem: Lund Humphries in association with the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2013), pp. 113, 116].

Ḥurūfiyya remains a highly influential movement, as demonstrated by the success of the 2006 British Museum exhibition Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East. Such calligraphic works, with a distinctly modern feel yet suitable for even the most religiously conservative viewers, are today among the works most highly collected by Muslim patrons (Aaron Rosen, personal Communication with Reedah El-Saie, founder and director of Mica Gallery Ltd, London, 1c February 2014).

Remarking on an exhibition of Abstract Expressionist works at the Jewish Museum in New York City, Leo Steinberg wrote:

Both Jewry and modern art are masters of renunciation having at one time renounced all props on which existence as a nation or art, once seem to depend. Jewry survived as an abstract nation, proving, as did modern art, how much was dispensable [...] like modern painting, Jewish religious practices are remarkably free of representational content, the ritual being largely self-fulfilling, rather than the bearer of a detached meaning. Lastly, both Judaism and contemporary art established themselves by uncompromising exclusiveness.

(Vivian Mann, Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 18.

R. B. Kitaj, First Diasporist Manifesto (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989) p. 99.

Kitaj, p. 61.

Kitaj, pp. 21, 27, 75.

Fereshteh Daftari, “Beyond Islamic Roots-Beyond Modernism,” Res 43 (Spring, 2003), p. 175. Daftari curated the 2006 exhibition Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which showcased works by the trio of artists mentioned above as well as a range of other, mainly Muslim, artists. One of those represented, Marjane Satrapi, the author of the graphic novel Persepolis, is particularly germane. While Satrapi’s work might be connected to the tradition of Islamic illuminated manuscripts, she specifically cites the “big revelation” she felt upon reading Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, which depicts his father’s survival of the Holocaust (Fereshteh Daftari, “Islamic or Not,” Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2006), p. 21).

Further reading

Baskind, Samantha , and Silver, Larry , Jewish Art: A Modern History (London: Reaktion Books, 2011). This is an ideal point of entry into the topic of modern Jewish art, while also containing valuable insights for scholars.
Bland, Kalman , The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). Bland’s monograph represents a watershed moment in debates about Judaism and aniconism.
Elias, Jamal J. , Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). Erudite analysis of aniconism and aesthetics in Islamic art, historical and contemporary, by a historian of religion.
Dodds, Jerrilyn , Menocal, Maria-Rosa , and Balbale, Abigail , The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Making of Castilian Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008). Focused on eleventh-century Toledo, the book examines the various dimensions of convivencia in medieval Spain.
Grabar, Oleg , The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, rev. edition 1987). The first book to view early Islamic art in terms of process rather than product.
Grabar, Oleg , The Mediation of Ornament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992). A post-structuralist interpretation of the semiotic dimensions of Islamic calligraphy and ornament.
Mann, Vivian (ed.), Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Mann, a leading scholar and curator of Jewish art, provides a useful resource for students, with selections ranging from antiquity to the present.
Michell, George (ed.), Architecture of the Islamic World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978 ; reprinted 2002). Still the best thematic introduction to Islamic architecture, monumental and vernacular.
Olin, Margaret , The Nation without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001). Olin, a leader in the field, offers news insights not only into works of Jewish art themselves but the changing ways they have been discussed and studied.
Raphael,  Melissa , Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish Theology of Art (London: Continuum, 2009). Alongside Zachary Braiterman, Raphael is one of the major voices today on issues of modern Jewish aesthetics and Jewish philosophy more generally.
Rosen, Aaron , Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj (London: Legenda, 2009). This book examines how modern Jewish artists have related to the art of the Christian past in ways that shed new light on their Jewish identities.
Ruggles, D. Fairchild (ed.), Islamic Art and Visual Culture: An Anthology of Sources (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). This is a very useful collection of pre-modern material spanning various regions.
Tabbaa, Yasser , The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival (Seattle, WA: University of Washington, 2001). Examines the transformation in medieval Islamic calligraphy and ornament in relation to contemporary political and theological struggles.
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