The Theology of Islamic Art

In late 2017, Zaytuna College, America’s only Muslim liberal arts college, invited three artists: Eleanor Aisha Holland, Abdulatif Whiteman, and Oludamini Ogunnaike, to spark a thought-provoking discussion. The topic was one rarely discussed before in Islamic religious circles: the connection between Islamic art and its theological tradition.

Modernity Against Tradition

Modern Islamic culture has fallen into the cut-and-paste mould that runs on the heels of modernity’s fast-paced culture. Our mind’s eye, when reminded of Islamic art, conjures forth a mishmash of bright colours, geometric designs, flower patterns and arches and domes. Islamic art becomes a fast solution, something we can strap on “for the culture,” rather than a process which builds on personality and experience. As such, everything from mosque walls to Islamic apps are caked with these images which, although aesthetically pleasing to a certain degree, fail to do justice to the creative process that backs authentic Islamic artistic tradition.

How to Define Islamic Art

A large part of Islamic art does, of course, come from the Islamic identities of the artists themselves. However, what defines Islamic art is the form and structure which emerges from the Quranic revelation.

For example, there are many strong poetic traditions that come out of places such as Mali, Java, and Malaysia. Although they share the common thread of Islamic religion, their cultures are vastly different. The poetry from those societies reflected the poetry of their own cultures, but also included meter and rhyme, as well as imagery which reflected from the influence of the Quran. The same pattern can be seen in the vocal traditions.

Saints Who Are Artists

What distinguishes Islamic art is not how it looks or sounds. Rather, what makes Islamic art special is that it comes naturally, out of an experience felt by the artist. For example, poems like Rumi’s Masnavi or Iman al-Busiri’s Al-Burda, were not penned by poets doing their work. Rather, these poets had deep experiences with Allah and His Messenger, which led their poetry to natural flow in a way that was graceful rather than forced. They were not simply artists cultivating a craft, they were saints who happened to be artists.

Resources for Seekers

VIDEO: Sins of the Heart, Imam Nahlawi’s Uncovered Pearls

A two-part course with Shaykh Faraz Khan on the sins of the heart from Imam Nahlawi’s Uncovered Pearls on the Lawful and Prohibited, A Manual on Ethics, Character, and Creed.

Imam Nahlawi was a Damascene scholar of the last century (d.1931CE/1350AH) whose book is a notable contribution to the Islamic legal and ethical canon. The sections discussed in this course are summations of earlier formative works on Islamic ethics, such as Imam Ghazali’s Revival of the Religious Sciences.
Imam Nahlawi’s fascinating work expounds upon the lawful and prohibited related to food, clothing, gender relations, earning a living, and general sins of the tongue, heart and limbs. However, far from being just a fiqh text, it discusses the ethics and virtues related to these issues, providing a well-rounded understanding. Many of the questions you have about daily life will be answered through this manual; you will be exposed to those areas of fiqh rarely looked at, but that govern our everyday actions; and most importantly, you will gain confidence in your every act of worship.
Most of the major fatwā collections contain a chapter on the lawful and prohibited (hazar wa ’l-ibaha). This manual draws from the major works and is supplemented with ample evidence from the Qur’an and hadith. It has been used as a scholarly reference for decades. The rulings in this work are relevant to all Muslims seeking an authoritative Sunni manual on the halal and haram in Islam. [source]

This course was held over two Saturdays, March 19th and 26th, 2016 at MCC East Bay 5724 W Las Positas Blvd, Pleasanton, CA 94588.

Resources for seekers:

Cover photo by Syed Nabil Aljunid.

Lessons From Medina – The Creed, Politics, and Ethics of Islam

When the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) entered Yathrib, it was renamed ‘Medina’, meaning ‘city’. This change marked the beginning of a shift of focus in revelation; the foundations of faith laid in Mecca would now rapidly take on many new pillars of outward practice. In other words, the city of Medina would become a manifestation of the inward beliefs of the Early Muslims – personally, and civilizationally.

In this talk, Shaykh Faraz Khan of Zaytuna College discusses the three changes that the Prophet (May Allah bless him and give him peace) used to transform Yathrib: the building of the mosque, the brotherhood between the Muslims, and the treaty with those of other faiths.

Video: How to Read a Book, Part 2 by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Video: How to Read a Book, Part 2 by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

“How to Read a Book, Part 2”, a Zaytuna Faculty Lecture by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.
The Zaytuna Faculty Lecture Series presents lectures by Zaytuna College faculty members exploring a variety of contemporary topics.

See also:

Video: How to Read a Book by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf – Part 1

Video: How to Read a Book by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf – Part 1

Video: How to Read a Book by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf – Part 1

“How to Read a Book”, a Zaytuna Faculty Lecture by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.
The Zaytuna Faculty Lecture Series presents lectures by Zaytuna College faculty members exploring a variety of contemporary topics.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

Video: “The Irony of Democracy” – Zaytuna Faculty Lecture by Imam Zaid Shakir

“The Irony of Democracy”, a Zaytuna Faculty Lecture by Imam Zaid Shakir

The Irony of Democracy, can it be resolved? A Zaytuna Faculty Lecture by Imam Zaid Shakir.
The Zaytuna Faculty Lecture Series presents lectures by Zaytuna College faculty members exploring a variety of contemporary topics.

Zaytuna College, Year One: Making Faith and Learning Coexist

Zaytuna College, Year One: Making Faith and Learning Coexist

Zaytuna College has completed its first year. Its inaugural class of students share their reflections about the experience.
Support Zaytuna:

How Do We Respond? Part 3 – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf – Sandala Productions

How Do We Respond? Part 1 – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

How Do We Respond? Part 2 – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

How Do We Respond? Part 3 – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf


6. Strengthen our community centers. One of the most important things we must do is strengthen our community centers, but this is not possible without wise leadership in our centers. A major problem is that, notwithstanding their sincerity, unqualified people too often take the helm. Our centers need a level of professionalism that is grossly lacking today. Albeit, a change is in the air. Many young people who have grown up in this environment and learned the ways of more astute institutes are emerging, but they must be empowered, and those of a previous generation need to stand aside and let these young and talented Muslims do their work, unimpeded by the antiquated ways of a bygone era.

For example, when the media comes to interview someone from one of our centers, we need to put forth active spokespeople who don’t have foreign accents. Studies show that one-fourth of American viewers stop paying attention when they hear a person speaking with a strong foreign accent. I know this from first-hand experience, as my own father has a very hard time understanding South-Asian and Arab accents.

When we put forth Muslims with strong foreign accents as our spokespeople, people often assume all Muslims are foreign-born nationals and that our allegiances lie elsewhere, whereas in actuality, we are comprised of a largely diverse community that includes American-born natives as well as immigrants. American Muslims are indigenous and have always been indigenous, and in that way, WE ARE AMERICANS, so let Rush, Bill, Ann, and all those other bigots put that in their pipe and smoke it. We have never been a recent immigrant community, as there are now third and fourth-generation immigrant Muslims here in large numbers, not to mention native American converts as well as African and Euro-Americans. Moreover, African-American and Euro-American converts and their offspring are an excellent resource for immigrant Muslims to better understanding the mainstream population.

Cultures are highly nuanced, and even many first generation natives who grew up here often do not fathom all the depths of the dominant culture, as the homes they grew up in were immigrant homes. I recently saw a commercial aimed at reaching the mainstream American community. The commercial seemed as though it was produced by well-intentioned immigrant or first generation Muslims, as it was clear the producers did not have a deep understanding of this culture; the commercial depicted nice, smiling Muslims with foreign accents, little children with headscarves, and even some speaking in foreign languages. Unfortunately, such images actually engender fear in many of the very people the images are meant to reach. Such attempts at reaching alienated Americans should involve indigenous American Muslims and first generation immigrant Muslims in order to normalize the community as part of the tapestry of America. This is my personal opinion, and I am very aware of the different strategies that can be applied to this vexing problem. However, the Qur’an reminds us, “We only send messengers with the tongue of the people they are sent to, in order that they may present the message clearly” (14:4). Notice that the Qur’an uses the word “tongue” (lisan) here and not “language” (lughah); the tongue includes not only knowledge of the language but also its nuances, not to mention the accent that goes with that native tongue. Hence, we say, “English is my native tongue.”

For example, in my opinion, Adil Jubair, the Saudi ambassador, is a much better spokesperson for the Saudis than someone with a heavy accent. Having said that, on the other hand, Prince Turki bin Faisal, who was educated at Cambridge, has only a slight accent, but he was, in my opinion, as an educated, erudite royal, who breaks the stereotype of the ignorant desert Arab, even more effective. So I don’t think one should be axed as a spokesperson merely due to a slight accent. A case-by-case assessment is necessary. However, I think that very heavy accents are problematic. Nota bene: the Israelis almost always front people with perfect American accents as their spokespeople. Even the current ambassador, a Princeton historian who was raised in the U.S., has no hint of a foreign accent. When Americans hear such people, they hear themselves, as the accent is the same, and it is much easier for people to listen to one of their own than to a complete “other,” which is how people with foreign accents are usually viewed.

Alterity, for now, is no longer an alternative. Common ground must be built and done so quickly. The theme of the RIS this year is the Ten Commandments, a bridge-building topic, which provides Muslims with tools we can use to convey our message in a language that makes sense to people here in the West; interestingly, someone from – I wont identify which religion – in Toronto claiming to represent that religion wrote an op-ed criticizing our “co-opting” the tradition of “another” people. Certain groups don’t want people here to see Muslims as sharing commonalities with Jews and Christians. These groups want to maintain the foreign and negative perception of Islam and Muslims in order to successfully demonize us. Once that is accomplished, it is easy to bomb Muslims into obliteration with impunity. Note how unsuccessful the anti-war movement has been as of late. Who cares about a bunch of crazy Arabs and Afghans who’d kill themselves anyway if we didn’t do it? Just read Chris Hedges for a good analysis of how this has been done.

Read more…

Year End Message from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf – Zaytuna College


Dear all,

As-Salaam ‘Alaykum. All of us at Zaytuna hope that you enjoyed a successful past year, and we pray that Allah increases His blessings upon you in the coming year.


I am writing this letter to you because you donated so generously to Zaytuna College in the past. Without your help, the significant and historic accomplishments that were realized this year would not have occurred. The highlight, of course, was the arrival of Zaytuna College’s inaugural freshman class and our move into our new campus in Berkeley, the epicenter of intellectual life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You made this happen.


However, we have only just begun — because Zaytuna College is expanding rapidly. In 2011, a new freshman class will join our sophomore students continuing from this year.


We are committed to providing our growing student body a world-class educational experience. Next year, insha’Allah, we will make several key additions to the heart of our educational program, our faculty. We will also add to our senior administration, and make our student experience richer by establishing a state-of-the-art academic library, among other initiatives. Finally, we will con- tinue making strong ties with the local, national, and international academic community.


As 2010 comes to a close, we are grateful that we have built the foundation of the vibrant Muslim college in America that we envision — but we are far from where we need to be. To arrive there, we need prayers, support, and providential care. And, we need your help.


We are reaching out to you because you are Zaytuna College. This is no exaggeration, as without you, Zaytuna College would not exist. Your support enabled achievements many thought not possible.


We are asking you to recognize the continuing responsibility and the opportunity to contribute to this necessary endeavor, in order that we may continue to march forward toward fulfilling a powerful and flourishing future for Islam in America through Zaytuna College‘s ambitious and critically needed educational mission.


Great accomplishments occur when people who have wealth enable people who have time. We have devoted our time our lives — to this critical project, and we implore you to continue to devote your wealth.


Yours sincerely,

Hamza Yusuf,

Co-founder, Zaytuna College

PS: Click here to learn about our special year-end donor gifts — including an unprecedented opportunity to be a student at Zaytuna College for a day.

Attend Zaytuna College Online Open House with Imam Zaid | Thursday, Dec. 2 at 5:30pm

Attend Zaytuna College Online Open House with Imam Zaid | Thursday, Dec. 2 at 5:30pm

Zaytuna College’s Online Open Houses are a series of informational sessions designed as an opportunity for parents, students, and educators to learn more details about the Bachelor’s degree programs offered by Zaytuna and pose their questions to college administrators.

Each hour-long Online Open House is free of cost and includes a college presentation and ample time for questions and answers. High schools, community centers, mosques, and student organizations are encouraged to sign up as groups, but participants may also sign up as individuals.

Online Open House Schedule

  • Monday, November 15: 5pm – 6pm PST
  • Tuesday, November 23: 6pm – 7pm PST
  • Thursday, December 2: 5:30pm – 6:30pm PST WITH IMAM ZAID SHAKIR!
  • Monday, December 6: 6pm – 7pm PST
  • Tuesday, December 14: 12 Noon PST

Event URL and other details will be emailed to registered participants. Sign up for your session here. More Online Open Houses will be announced shortly.