Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Mona Lisa and the Art of Islamic Interpretation


BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day – Wednesday 20th January 2010
Amanullah De Sondy
Assistant Professor of World Religions
Ithaca College, New York

An Italian doctor has suggested the woman who sat for Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous masterpiece shows signs of a tumour in her right eye and a build-up of fatty tissue on her skin revealing high cholesterol. Dr Vito Franco, of Palermo University, said: “The people depicted in art reveal their physicality, tell us of their vulnerable humanity, regardless of the artist’s awareness of it.” The question raised is, was famed beauty the Mona Lisa in good humour despite a tumour?

It’s certainly an interesting interpretation and it leads me to ponder the notion interpretation is a personal business. As we allow our imagination to run wild over a painting we do exactly the same in texts, especially religious ones. It baffles me to see that some believe that interpretation is restricted to one view. In the last few days I’ve been having discussions on how to interpret one of the most contentious passages of the Qur’an in which men are allowed to marry up to four wives. From locating the text in a medieval context of the many widows left socially ostracised from dead warrior soldiers, to talk on equality amongst wives that the Qur’an says cannot be achieved, to dismissing the text in view of UK bigamy laws, the discussion is endless and most importantly open to interpretation.

But for me the core of the issue is authority, whose saying what and to whom? How much clout does the person have who is making the statement? Does a professor at a university carry the force of authority? Or a man with a big beard at the Mosque ? Often religion is used as a bad word without us considering that generalised views of religion, good or bad, are generalised interpretations by individuals or groups of people. How many times have we heard comments made upon the basis that ‘Islam says’ or ‘Christianity says’? The words Islam and Christianity are no divine souls but labels created by human beings carrying out acts of interpretation and strengthening their position by whatever means possible. And so maybe we need to place more emphasis on the power of our own interpretation and authority in the most creative and artistic manner.