Recently, Deborah wrote on article on Sakina Design in which she quoted Miles Young, Global CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide who I had the distinct pleasure of hearing lecture at the 2010 American Muslim Consumer Conference. She quoted one of his most important thoughts from the lecture:
Islam is not strongly enough associated, in this country, with design: with graphic design, with the arts, with fashion or creative design. And in this sense it differs from the minority Muslim communities in Europe and certainly from the majority Muslim communities. And let me tell you, art and design diffuse fear. They normalize, they soften...
Islamic imagery tends to fall into very few categories: crescents, stars, Arabic calligraphy, the hamsa, and swords, to give some primary examples. The idea that Islam was spread by the literal sword far more than the metaphorical one (i.e., the sword of truth) has been pretty well investigated and debunked repeatedly (agree, disagree, agree), but the strength of that idea and the iconic images of the sword die hard. (Some of it is propagated by Muslims, since it helps bolster the ego.) The problem is that it feeds the fantasies of Islamophobes, and helps justify their ideas that Islam and Muslims have always been and continue to be bloodthirsty and violent. We are our own worst enemies in this regard. Here is perhaps the most egregious example I've seen in the recent past:
This tie was created in November 2010 by Iranian designer Hemat Komeili. Iran has generally disapproved of Western-style neckties since the 1979 revolution. Allegedly in the early days of the revolution, men with ties were detailed and their ties were cut off. (I should emphasize these are rumours I've heard but haven't been able to confirm.) Komeili, sensing a deep sartorial gap, went to Islamic history and modeled the tie after Imam Ali's famous scimitar, Zulfikar ("bifurcated"). Komeili says that his tie has been approved by some of the "sources of emulation" (probably sounds better in Persian). He says it appears beautiful like a tie, in addition to being based on Islamic values. The inscription is based on a hadith of Prophet Muhammad, "There is no hero but Ali and no sword except Zulfiqar," after Ali's use of the sword to defeat a tremendous warrior during the Battle of the Trench.
It's a powerful historical symbol that means a lot to some Muslims, and in particular Shi'a Muslims (since it was Ali's sword). But if dawah through neckwear is your thing, check out these ties from Zazzle. They look good. (I rather like a few of them, like the Alhambra Elegance.) And you're not wearing a friggin' sword around your neck! Could you really wear this to any interview other than one for an Iranian government position? I'm not picking on Islam here. I'm picking on design that makes the wearer look…questionable. There are similar examples that aren't Islamic (e.g. this or this).
Perhaps the most famous visual association of the sword with Islam is on the flag of Saudi Arabia. Now I realize I'm treading on dangerous ground here, not qualifying my statements with history and context. My point is simple: sensibilities and understandings change as history unfolds and we encounter each other in all our diversity. Most people won't take the time to learn your context – they will only ever see it in theirs. Perception is all that matters. Moving people away from the idea of all Muslims being frothing-at-the-mouth nutjobs, and toward the realistic understanding that of the 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, only a tiny fraction is barking mad, requires (among things) a significant exercise of rebranding through design. It might not be the single most important thing, but it's not as trivial as some might think. That was Miles Young's point: art and design aren't negligible. They are critical elements of communicating with others. (It's one of the reasons we are selling T-shirts rather than handing out pamphlets expounding our philosufi.)
Drop the swords, yelling, and screaming. Change comes from within. Enough with the swords. Even taking into account the strongly aniconic elements of Islam, our tradition has such a mindblowing history of art and design – I mean seriously, when you see some of the simply stunning examples of Islamic calligraphy or Islamic architecture, is a sword really the best we can do? Really?