Art and Islam: Interview with Ken George

kenArt0Many of the world’s greatest art works are inspired by religion (for example, Leonarda da Vinci’s The Last Supper) and arouse an almost religious sense of awe (think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings). This close relationship between art and religion is very much alive in contemporary Indonesia, home of the largest Muslim population in the world. Nobody understands this better than Kenneth George, UW-Madison professor of anthropology and author of an upcoming book, Picturing Islam: Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld. Prof. George sat down with Inside Islam recently to share his diverse experience with Muslim culture, from living in a small rural Muslim community to working with cosmopolitan Muslim artists and urban intellectuals.

As you can hear in part I of our interview, Prof. George became interested in Indonesian Islam more than two decades ago because of a good Muslim friend. For his doctoral research, he went to the island of Sulawesi in central Indonesia, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious mountain area, and lived with a Muslim family in a very small thatch-roofed town called Mombi.

Inside Islam Ken George Interview Part I

Prof. George’s venture into Islamic art was also through a friend, this time a prominent contemporary painter in Indonesia, Abdul Djalil Pirous. “We never know what types of surprises life will serve up for us,” Prof. George reflected on his encounter and decade of collaboration with Pirous. Check out the part II of our video below about his story and commentary about two paintings by Pirous, “17 Names of God” and “the Night That is More Perfect than a 1000 Months.”

Inside Islam Ken George Interview Part II

I asked Prof. George how he would respond to people who think of Islam as a violent and backward religion. “We shouldn’t be surprised that there are strands or allusion to violence in any religious literature,” he said in part III of our interview below, “I urge others to seek first the common grounds before you look for differences and threats.” Prof. George concluded his interview with a summary of Islam in three words.
Inside Islam Ken George Interview Part III

How do you like the paintings of Pirous? Do they differ from your expectation of Islamic art? Do you think art is powerful enough to be a tool for interfaith dialogue? We welcome your comments.

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  1. Islamic Dialogues Published On-Line

    The On-Line Journal Scriptamus ( has just released series of short dramatizations of Moslem characters is now available to show the wide diversity of the 20 percent of the human race who follow Islam. The dramatic form is not only easy reading but can be produced as plays by schools and other institutions. Through a foundation grant, these dialogues may be produced with no fee or royalty paid.

    The first Dialog is of an American Moslem young man who is attending the University of Michigan. His father is a little distressed when he visits the college and realized that the usual Islamic community supports from their Islamic neighborhood in Detroit are not as pervasive at the college. The father persuades the son to visit and speak with the imam who has known the family for years. At the Detroit Islamic center, another imam, a younger man who is a youth specialist joins them. The dialog that takes place illustrates the variety of cultural and theological patterns and views that exist relative to young people in a non-Islamic country.
    The: College in America is at Additional dialogues will be released ever two weeks or so until the series is complete.