I decided to write this article to explore the relationship between ‘creativity’ and artistic expression and iconoclasm. There is a bit of a story behind linking these ideas together and examining them against each other. I was once invited to be interviewed as an Islamic art historian by British MP Boris Johnson who was visiting Damascus a couple of years ago, in 2007, as part of his filming for a documentary he was making on Islam.

I thought we would talk about the art and architecture, the heritage of the old city of Damascus and its impact as the capital city of the Umayyads, the interaction between Muslim caliphs and Frankish princes, that kind of thing. However, after the ever-polite British greeting came a tirade of harassing questions that were decidedly hostile. One that particularly stuck to my mind went something along these lines: “Isn’t it true that Islam forbids the drawing of human beings…? Doesn’t this fundamental antagonism towards beautiful works of art, like the elegant sculptures and figurative busts of Greek and Rome, mean that Islam is fundamentally antagonistic to creativity and beauty? Isn’t this why it is inherently easier for Muslims to be terrorist suicide bombers?”

If figurative art were a barometer of civility, than the Christian West has much explaining to do. Yet the fact that questions like that get formulated and thrown out into the world is in itself something that needs unpacking. The purpose of such questions is not to learn anything new but to transmit faulty information and aggravating sound bites that distorts the truth for the purpose of promoting the ‘clash of civilizations’ paradigm driven by the terrorist-blaring media-circus. So, stepping away from the attitude of polarization which such a question is meant to engender, I quietly held my ground (yoga practice comes in handy at this point) and calmly made sure to get three points across in response. Firstly, suicide bombing has nothing to do with Islam. Islam holds life to be sacred and forbids both the killing of self and others. It would be misleading to take the actions of criminally insane individuals as representative of Islamic principles. Secondly, Islam’s prohibition against figurative art is directly related to the core values of monotheism which is in principle shared by Christians and Jews. And thirdly, as far as art, creativity, and beauty is concerned, aren’t British museums the proud holders of some of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world? I wondered what Boris thought of the Taj Mahal, an excellent specimen of Islamic architecture and world-recognized wonder of beauty and harmony.

Not surprisingly, my interview with Boris was not included in the final cut. The entire exchange is now lost among piles of unused footage. But the question remained stuck in my mind. I needed to explore a bit deeper the relationship between creativity, art, and the attitude which Johnson refers to, which is called ‘Iconoclasm’.

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