- Sana Khoury
- Religious Affairs Correspondent – BBC News Arabic
What can unite an Indian living in California, with a Lebanese from the south? They like the same soccer team? maybe. Do they share watching the same series on Netflix? possibility too.
Nabi Haider Ali of India, and Ali Najdi of Lebanon, do not know each other. However, when I asked the two of them about an artist influenced by his works, he told me about the Iranian painter Mahmoud Farshjian.
Nabi and Ali are two painters in their twenties, posting their work on Instagram, both Shiite Muslims who use drawing to express their faith and commemorate Ashura each year.
Mahmoud Farshjian is a well-known Iranian artist, at the age of ninety. He is considered one of the most prominent painters of the famous Al-Tuff incident. His works had a great impact in Iran and abroad, and this extended to generations of younger plastic artists.
Ali Najdi, who was born into a Lebanese Shiite family, tells us that he started imitating Farshjian’s drawings when he was eight years old, specifically the painting “The Age of Ashura” (1976).
The painting represents the grief of the women of the family of Imam Hussein bin Ali, and their circle around his horse returning without a horse after the battle that took place in Karbala, to signify his death.
The painting draws its subject from the historical incident in the city of Karbala in the year 680, when Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed after an unequal battle with the army of Yazid ibn Muawiyah.
The Battle of Karbala constituted a turning point in Islamic history, and inspired literary and artistic works over centuries, as it carried all the elements of the popular epic, and the exploits of heroism intensified, from the proportions of the hero’s personality, to his confrontation with injustice alone, to the dramatic sequence of events, and the people’s rise to support Hussein and his family.
The traditions of drawing Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, Hussein, and their family are not new, as some historians take them back to the thirteenth century, and they have been a source of artistic inspiration for a long time for the various schools of art.
As Shiites were subjected to political persecution in different eras throughout history, these images were a means of expressing their identity and challenging oppression.
After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the growing political presence of Shiite political parties in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, the presence of Husseini banners and murals increased. And optics dyed with an epic Ashura character in the public space.
Over the past few years, Instagram has turned into a “Karbalai” gallery, so to speak, with some young illustrators choosing this platform as a way to publicize their work.
Among the most prominent of these Iranian plastic artist, Hassan Rouh Al-Amin (1985), whose works have been displayed on public boulevards in Iran and in international exhibitions, and whose drawings have a role in shaping the visual mood of a wide audience, builds a close emotional bond with the Ashura commemoration.
We tried in BBC News Arabic to speak with Rouh al-Amin, but he said he does not give statements to our media outlet.
“I’ve only seen beautiful”
Nabi Haidar Ali is one of the artists whose influence extends on a large scale as well, and he has followers of different nationalities on Instagram, and we were guided to his account through the advice of a young Lebanese woman who was influenced by his representation of the infallible imams.
Nabi Haider Ali was born in India to a Hindu Tamil family, and grew up in the United States. He tells us that during his childhood, he was in contact with negative stereotypes of Islam, whether in the media, or in the family, which has not yet accepted his Islam.
The young man found his way to Islam at first, through his interest in the Asian Sufi traditions, and he loved the Shiite doctrine because, as he tells us, “he finds in it mystical roots through the concept of guardianship, where there is a hierarchical structure of knowledge and a sequence in its request.”
The Prophet does not know many Shiite Muslims in the United States, so his connection with the followers of his sect was strengthened through the communication sites. He chose to call himself “Prophet” because it is a common name among Muslims in Iran and South Asia.
He tells BBC News Arabic in an interview via Zoom that he goes to the mosque and returns home, and does not practice many of the collective rituals known in the month of Muharram among the Shiites of Lebanon, Iraq and others.
But he says, “The recordings of the al-Ltamiyat and the Husseini councils coming from Iraq were among the things that aroused my curiosity in order to search more about the Shiite sect, and I would later like to embrace it. I started drawing the infallible imams, influenced by the posters that are raised in the month of Muharram.”
He says that he intends to show an aesthetic character in his works, exemplified by what Zainab, the sister of Hussein, said after the Karbala incident: “I saw nothing but beautiful.”
The Ashura scenes were not only a source of artistic inspiration for a prophet, but also his way of deepening his understanding of Shiite history and traditions.
In a series of drawings of the infallible imams, the painter chooses to veil their faces with an ornate frame, and prints in it formations symbolizing stations from the biography of each of them. “I have done extensive research to get in touch more with these traditions, and to portray each character in a proper way. And because I am essentially inattentive, I always need to occupy my hands with something, I find in painting a kind of masculine.”
In Nabi’s drawings, the influences of Indian culture are clearly visible in the Ashura images, as if a cross-fertilization between two worlds. He uses some techniques of Mongolian art, choosing bright colors such as golden yellow and blue, and depicting clothes flowing wide.
The Prophet veils the faces of the imams in some works, and shows them in others. He says that he knows that “drawing them is not forbidden according to Shiite jurists,” but some commentators on his works told him, “They do not feel comfortable seeing faces drawn.”
Is this drawing forbidden by law?
The drawings of the imams’ faces among the Shiites raise a legal dispute, given that the Shiite sect is less strict in permitting drawings than the Sunni sect, but the biggest dilemma is the question of the accuracy of the characters’ features.
It is believed that the unknown artists who, centuries ago, took the initiative to draw the portraits of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, based their comparison of features on the study of biographies, history and what was reported about the narrators, and each drawing was affected by the mastery of the painter and his cultural backgrounds.
In the drawings of Imam Ali we find fixed elements, such as wide eyes and a piercing gaze, a green turban, a beard and dark skin, in addition to his sword Zulfiqar, his horse, and the lion prostrating next to him.
On the website of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in response to a question, the reference permits the suspension of pictures of the infallible imams, “but believing that they match them is definitely wrong.”
Allama Ali Fadlallah, head of the institutions of the authority, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Lebanon, told BBC News Arabic that the Shiite sect does not forbid photography, but “the method and quality of photography should be taken into account in a way that does not affect respect for personalities.”
Fadlallah points out that the light around the imam’s face in some pictures does not mean that drawing the face is forbidden according to a legal opinion, but rather a personal diligence on the part of the artist so that he “does not bear responsibility or err in defining the features.”
The lesson of these drawings is not to evoke the accuracy of the features, then, as much as it is an attempt to be blessed, honor, or imitate figures of great moral value, and to keep their memory alive, which means a lot to the Shiites.
wolves and light
Lebanese painter Ali Najdi says that drawing faces and features is one of the most difficult techniques of the craft, so his imitation at a young age of depicting imams and his relentless attempt to draw their faces, was a gateway to mastering the art of drawing, by trying to copy the common analogies in religious stores in Beirut and its suburbs.
Unlike Nabi Haider Ali, who entered the world of Ashura traditions on a personal choice years ago, Ali Najdi lived his childhood and youth imbued with those traditions, as he accompanied his mother to mourning councils, watched rituals, listened to recitations, and waited for the distribution of harissa, which is a dish of boiled wheat served in councils Condolences in Lebanon.
In response to BBC News Arabic’s questions, Ali Najdi writes: “I was greatly affected by the loneliness and injustice that afflicted Hussein in the Al-Tuff incident, and the widespread similar images supported my understanding of his personality as a merciful person, crucified and oppressed at the same time.”
He adds: “There is no information or details about this analogy. Some say that it is based on the characteristics of the imam mentioned in the history books, and some say that there is a painter who saw the imam’s face in a dream and painted it later.”
As a large segment of the Shiite community in Lebanon, Ali believes that Ashura inspired the people of southern Lebanon during the era of the Israeli occupation to “rise up against a tyrant and defend the land.”
He tells us: “When I paint the Umayyad kufic faces, I involuntarily draw evil features, as if they are wolves, and sometimes they are anxious and unstable. When I paint for Hussein and Bani Hashim, I often find myself drawing around them an aura of light, certainty, tranquility and tranquility despite their alienation and loneliness.”
What is the origin of these images?
Spiritual, political, religious, and cultural influences mix in the painters’ approach to the personalities of the imams and Ashura, especially as we are facing a reality whose influence has not diminished despite the passage of centuries.
The Iraqi painter and poet Shakir Laibi compares the images of Imam Ali, which find popularity in the Islamic popular imagination, in all its sects, to the popularity of drawings of other heroic figures such as Antara bin Shaddad, and the flags of the epics of Bani Hilal.
In his book “Imam Ali’s Paintings: Their References and Artistic Indications” (Dar al-Rayes – 2011), Laibi writes that “Imam Ali’s painting is found throughout the Arab world and its breadth, in Tunisian innate art on glass, and in Syrian innate art in particular the works of Abu Subhi al-Tinawi, and in The Egyptian counterpart, in Morocco, among the Shiites of Iraq, and in areas of the Arabian Gulf, as well as Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Laibi attributed the reason for the spread of these drawings to the innate and emotional popular desire to celebrate the heroism, courage and piety of the character, as we always find him carrying his sword, riding his horse, or appearing beside him a lion.
According to the author, the depictions of Imam Ali bear influences from the traditions of Islamic painting with its cheerful colors and flat areas, and miniatures, all the way to the traditions of Christian icon painting.
The writer returns the first mention of the images of Imam Ali to the year 1246, when a reference to them was made in a text of one of the Mu’tazila scholars Ibn Abi Al-Hadid, who says that the fighters used to draw Imam Ali on the handles of their swords to seek blessings, and it is believed that they appeared among the non-Arab Muslim peoples, “who did not You would feel no harm in using the image for religious purposes.”
But how did we get from the handles of swords, to the popular portraits today? Shaker Laibi relies on the professor of Iranian art history, Yaqoub Ajand, to point out that the images in their current form are related to the Safavid period in Iran (1501 – 1736), but took their final form during the Qajar state (1779 – 1925). “The face of the Messenger and the infallibles became hidden or covered with a veil when Shiism became the official doctrine of Iran, and this has extended to neighboring countries to this day.”
Nabi Haider Ali tells us with enthusiasm about that thread of continuous influence between peoples, in the images of the imams and the drawings of Ashura.
He says that it is like a cycle of continuous influence and influence. Just as South Asia was a source of popular images of imams in their first form, today he is an Indian Shiite artist in the United States, drawing inspiration from the Arab traditions in his works, and imprinting them with his indigenous Indian culture.