Islam and the visual arts in Indonesia and Malaysia

Sulaiman Esa Garden of Mystery VI 1992, mixed media, 216 x 157 cm. Collection of the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Khatijah Sanusi.

There is nothing better than the remembrance of God
Qur'an 29 Al-'Ankabut
, verse 45

In 1995 a blockbuster exhibition of Islam-inspired art was held in Jakarta for just one month. Named Festival Istiqlal II, after its venue - Indonesia’s national Istiqlal (Independence) mosque - Muslim artists from Indonesia and eleven Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian nations were invited to participate. More than 6.5 million visitors came to see the exhibition.

In their catalogue note, the Indonesian curators give their view of the place of art in Islam,

In Islamic tradition, art is the means to ibadah [worship]. All forms of ibadah are realisations of tauhid, the witnessing and proof that God is One...Works of Islamic art are also a projection of dhikir [remembrance of God] and musyahadah [bearing witness to] and reflecting on the Oneness of God. The many things, the visual objects that are brought into being by the artists in their works, are nothing less than a ladder towards the One…Islamic art is a release and a liberation from the materialism of this world. It is born from the spirit of freedom of expression according to certain principles, which every creative artist should have.[1]

Non-Muslim art historians and critics have found it challenging to respond to art that is created as an act of worship and as “proof that God is One.”[2] However, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the authoritative Muslim philosopher and historian of Islamic art, has encouraged non-Muslims to explore the organic relationship between Islam-inspired art, and Islam the religion.[3] In the spirit of S.H. Nasr’s comments, this article presents examples of works by four Muslim artists who have thought deeply about the relationship between their spiritual beliefs and their artistic practice. Each creates their art as a conscious act of “remembering God”, an act of worship and personal piety that they hope might also inspire their viewers to be more aware of the spiritual aspects of life. Two of the artists are from Indonesia and two from Malaysia. Each has played a leading role in developing Islam-inspired art in their nations. They have written on the aesthetics of Islam-inspired art, designed and curated exhibitions, and served as judges for national art competitions. They continue to mentor young artists and to represent their nations abroad as recognised practitioners of Islam-inspired art.

A few words about Islam. Muslims believe God sent a divinely revealed text, the Qur’an, to humankind through His Prophet Muhammad as a guide for life in this world and the next. The Qur’an describes the omniscience and transcendence of God and outlines the obligations of humans to God, as well as to each other. In some verses of the Qur’an these links are referred to as vertical and horizontal ties of relationship, binding individuals to God through worship and to each other in social obligations (charity, forgiveness, justice). Balancing the formal, exoteric aspects of Islam outlined above, are its “inner” esoteric aspects expressed in metaphysical and mystical terms. Many Muslims use guided spiritual practices to bring them closer to the mystical essence of God the One.

A.D. PirousKebenaran yang Memerangi Kegelapan/QS 113 Falaq [The Truth That Battles Against the Darkness/ QS 113 The Dawn], 2000, marble paste, gold leaf, acrylic on canvas. Image: courtesy of Yayasan Serambi and Kenneth M. George. 

A.D. Pirous is Indonesia’s most famous exponent of Islamic art. During the 1950s he studied and later lectured at the Bandung Institute of Technology’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Design. In 1969, while in the USA on a two-year Rockefeller Fellowship to study graphics, he visited the Islamic art collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The examples of art from the golden age of Islam made a visceral impact as he realised, “This is a part of my own body, a part of my own blood.”[4] He began immediately to create Islam-inspired works, many of which include verses from the Qur’an.

Pirous has explained how the Qur’an is interpreted in his works,

The Holy Qur’an itself may not be changed, but to understand it, you must be free to interpret it. … So, I take a verse and I try to animate it with my personal vision, with my personal understanding. …When I express it in visual language, that’s when I use aesthetic knowledge: composition, colour, texture, line, rhythm, everything.…[5]

Pirous’s work The Truth that Struggles Against the Darkness/QS 113 Al Falaq (The Dawn), 2000, presents the brief chapter of the Qur’an known as “The Dawn”. It seeks God’s protection from darkness and evil in all its forms. The ancient tablet which bears the words thrusts up and just pierces[6] the last of the night sky in which stars are still visible. Pirous has emphasised the complexity of the meaning of the verses with minute moments of multi-colour, including turquoise to ward off evil and fragments of gold, and contrasted it with the smooth serenity of the firmament in its subtle pearly grey.

Pirous created the work in 2000, the “dawn” of a new millennium in the Christian calendar, and also the third year of the hard-won post-Soeharto Reform Era which replaced three decades of authoritarian rule in Indonesia. He reflects the significance of this point in historical time with the flashes of light that illuminate the tablet with the promise of the light of a new day.

In Malaysia during the 1970s the works of Sulaiman Esa were, like those of Pirous in Indonesia, attracting interest. During the 1960s he studied at London’s Hornsey College of Art. Significantly for the development of Sulaiman’s later theories of art, Hornsey followed the Bauhaus philosophy that encouraged students to think about art as a form of scientific investigation and to study philosophy and aesthetics. Sulaiman took postgraduate courses in printmaking in Paris with S.W. Hayter and a Masters in Fine Arts in Baltimore, USA. There he elected to specialise in weaving and papermaking techniques.[7] His PhD from Temple University drew connections between the esoteric, mystical aspects of Islam (which were being outlined in the publications of the al Faruqi’s and S.H. Nasr)[8] and the beliefs and designs of Malay traditional woodcarvers, artisans, and weavers, which he described as being inspired by God the Original Source.[9]

Sulaiman’s Garden of Mystery VI, 1992, illustrates his philosophy, his use of traditional Malay materials in a contemporary context, and his meticulous execution of a complex design. His choice of subject, the garden, is rich in symbolism and allusions to key beliefs in Islam: beauty, tranquillity, Paradise, contemplation of the impermanence of this world, and recognition of God’s powers as Creator and Sustainer of life in all its diversity. The full richness of the symbolism of this Garden of Mystery, the frames, the grid patterns, geometric shapes, and colours cannot be analysed here. It is enough to note the central “sunburst” focus in “expanding arabesque form”[10] which draws the eye to a point of origin and then out again as it radiates to all parts of the work.

This work also exemplifies Sulaiman’s innovative technique in which he deliberately combines traditional skills (in this case weaving) with contemporary artforms to bridge the divide between traditional Malay crafts and art. In Garden of Mystery VI the base of the work was woven on an open loom with dyed and metallic yarns that divide the surface into grids. The geometric motifs were painstakingly created from tiny strips of bamboo. Multi-layers of paper pulp were applied and each was individually sun-dried. The work was then removed from the loom and the paper surface and bamboo motifs painted with acrylics.

Khatijah Sanusi is a well-known Malaysian artist, curator, art educator, and academic who has written widely on Islam-inspired art in Malaysia. Educated in Australia and Temple University USA, she has been inspired (like her husband, Sulaiman Esa) by the motifs and designs of Malay traditional arts and crafts that she describes as “steeped in Islamic spirituality.”[11] Her preferred medium is batik (resist dye) chosen, she says, because it is indigenous to her Malay cultural roots and also because she wants to “revitalise batik art tradition in a contemporary manner in my efforts to sustain a cultural continuity of past heritage whose axiological foundation was rooted in Islam”.

Anugerah II (Divine Gift II) is an intricately patterned batik hanging. Twelve horizontal bands of geometric and vegetal motifs structure the piece which is unified by a vertical panel of multi-coloured light in which float two medallions of Arabic script. They contain the Bismillah phrase “In the name of God” recited by Muslims before beginning any new enterprise. The title Divine Gift acknowledges God’s gifts of multiple varieties of plants to feed, heal, and shelter humankind. The horizontal bands of diverse patterns echo this theme. Most of the bands take the form of “meander arabesques” or “patterns of infinity” which are inspired by the Malay traditional patterns known as awan larat (interlocking swirling clouds) which have no beginning or end and are symbolic reminders of the transcendence and unity of God.

Didin Sirojuddin ARTali nan Kukuh Kuat (Ties that are firm and strong), 2010, acrylic on canvas. Image: courtesy the artist

Didin Sirojuddin AR is the only artist in this group who has had an Islamic education. He is a graduate of one of Indonesia’s most respected modern-oriented pesantren (Gontor) where he specialised in calligraphy. Sirojuddin is a master calligrapher and has won national and international prizes for his work. He now serves as a judge for major international competitions and lectures at Jakarta’s State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah. Like the other artists described here, he has developed his own philosophy of art, which is inspired by and grows out of the teachings of the Qur’an. Since the 1980s Sirojuddin has devoted himself to training new generations of Indonesians in classical and contemporary Islamic calligraphy and calligraphic painting and has established Indonesia’s only Islamic college devoted entirely to the practice of Qur’anic calligraphy.[12]

Although Sirojuddin is recognised for his mastery of the classical styles of Arabic calligraphy, in his recent work he uses an expressive style which he calls ‘contemporary’. The title, Tali Nan Kukuh Kuat (Ties that are firm and strong), is part of the Qur’anic verse in chapter 3 Ali Imran, 103: “And hold fast/All together, by the Rope/Which God (stretches out / for you), and be not divided/Among yourselves”. To write the verses, Sirojuddin has created forms of the Arabic letters to resemble ties or ropes. The longest loops reaching up to the upper section of the canvas, represent the Arabic ‘L’ in the words “liLlah” (to God) – graphically representing the Rope sent down by God to be grasped by humans and form a link with Him. The small red letters (Arabic is read from right to left) cascading down are God’s words, warning humans not to be divided.

The colours convey a further aspect of the picture. The tops of the ties or ropes are trying to reach the sky while the roots below are plunging into the earth. Besides illustrating the content of the Qur’anic verse written in the picture, the “tree” shape alludes also to another Qur’anic verse from chapter 14 Ibrahim, 24. It relates the parable of the ‘godly tree’ whose branches reach for heaven while its roots are anchored in the earth.[13] Every element in this minimalist painting has a symbolic or allusive meaning.

Each of these four Muslim artists seeks spiritual inspiration from the Qur’an which they believe is a source of endless creative energy. They express their works in forms that invite viewers to seek deeper levels of meaning. Muslim viewers have a context for their interpretation of the works. They recognise the Qur’anic quotations which prepare and orientate their responses. For Islam-inspired art to be more than beautiful arabesques and Arabic calligraphy, most non-Muslims need expertly prepared commentaries to shape their understanding of what they see. As Khatijah Sanusi and Sulaiman Esa point out, even the warp and weft of textiles can remind Muslims of the vertical and horizontal ties linking God and humans, and humans to each other.[14]


  1. ^ Seni Rupa Kontemporer Istiqlal (Istiqlal Contemporary Art), Festival Istiqlal Foundation Jakarta 1996 pp12-13 (my translation).
  2. ^ Sheila S. Blair, Jonathan M. Bloom, ‘The mirage of Islamic art: Reflections on the study of an unwieldy field', The Art Bulletin 85, 1 Mar 2003, pp152-184.
  3. ^ Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1987, pp 197.
  4. ^ Kenneth M. George, ‘Picturing Islam’, Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld, Wiley-Blackwell, UK, 2010, pp 43.
  5. ^ Ibid, pp 85.
  6. ^ Pirous may be making a visual pun on the Arabic word for “dawn” which also means “to pierce”.
  7. ^ Raja’ah: Seni, Idea dan Kreativiti Sulaiman Esa dari 1950-an - 2011, Art, Idea and Creativity of Sulaiman Esa from 1950s –2011, Balai Seni Visual Negara, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2011, pp 261 – 68.
  8. ^ See Nasr, op cit, and Ismail R. al Faruqi & Lois Lamya al Faruqi, The Cultural Atlas of Islam, Macmillan, New York, c1986.
  9. ^ Insyirah: Lukisan Sulaiman Esa dari 1980 hingga 2000 The Art of Sulaiman Esa from 1980 to 2000, Petronas, Kuala Lumpur, 2001, pp 77.
  10. ^ For a description of this term see I. al-Faruqi & L. al Faruqi, op cit, pp 406.
  11. ^ Personal communication from Khatijah Sanusi, Aug 2012.
  12. ^ Virginia Hooker, ‘Art for Allah’s Sake’, Inside Indonesia 101: July-Sept 2010,
  13. ^ Didin Sirojuddin, personal communication, July 2012.
  14. ^ Harun Abdullah Coombes ‘The Islamic Spirit: Social Orientations in Contemporary Malaysian Art’, Hani Ahmad, Art and Spirituality: Kesenian dan Kerohanian, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1995, pp 28.

My thanks to A.D. Pirous, Sulaiman Esa, Khatijah Sanusi and Didin Sirojuddin for permission to use their works and for answering my queries. T.K. Sabapathy (and Helen Musa) introduced me to Sulaiman and Khatijah and Kenneth M. George was generous as always with materials, as well as introducing me to A.D. Pirous.

Virginia Hooker is Professor Emeritus and Fellow in The Australian National University’s College of Asia & the Pacific. She has written on history, literature, Islam, and social change in Indonesia and Malaysia.