Meet Salma Arastu, a Muslim Woman Exploring Islam Through Art

Islamic Art has a been a beautiful part of the Islamic tradition for as long as it has existed.  Recently there has also been a growing modern art movement centered around Islam.  Salma Arastu is at the center of this movement, having shown her work around the world in galleries and other venues, including recently publishing a book.  Happily, she agreed to share some thoughts and reflections with Muslim Girl  

Muslim Girl: Thanks so much for taking the time to let our readers get to know more about you and your work! How did you become an artist and become involved in the arts?  What’s your story?

Salma Arastu: My narrative begins several years back in 1947 when my Sindhi Hindu family was uprooted from our ancestral home in Sindh and landed in the small town of Ajmer in Rajasthan, India, as refugees where I would later be born. The city is known as a great pilgrimage for Hindus and Muslims. Hindus travel from all over India to take a dip in Pushker lake as it is sacred, and Muslims travel from all over the world to visit the Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti monumental tomb.

At birth, I was given the life-defining challenge of a left hand without fingers.

Born into the Hindu tradition in my native India, and embracing Islam later, I have enjoyed the beauty of these two distinctive traditions firsthand. As a woman, artist, and mother, I work to create harmony by expressing the universality of humanity through paintings, sculpture, and calligraphy. Inspired by the imagery, sculpture, and writings of my Indian heritage and Islamic spirituality, I use my artistic voice to break down the barriers that divide to foster peace and understanding. At birth, I was given the life-defining challenge of a left hand without fingers. I use my life experiences and my pain to bridge the solidifying divisions between different faiths that are so prevalent in our culture today. My personal triumphs have been defined and shaped by the simple principle of faith in The Divine, as the compelling force which has guided my life and work.

My mother was a spiritual person and throughout her life she encouraged me by insisting that I am created for a special reason.  Exploring art has been the vehicle through which I find existential purpose. She also seeded the spirituality in my heart and guided me towards one God for all.

Muslim Girl: Who and what are some of your inspirations?

 I am Inspired by the imagery, sculpture, and writings of my Indian heritage and Islamic spirituality and my work is influenced by Arabic calligraphy, miniatures, and folk art. I have tried to bring together Eastern spirituality and Western techniques of painting learned over the years.

Muslim Girl:  What do you think about the direction of the Islamic Arts right now?  There is clearly more attention to it and a growing movement, which you really predate by quite a bit.  What does the development of the Islamic Arts look like from your perspective?

I think it is a good time for all Muslim artists to come forward and share the beauty of Islamic art and philosophy. Mainstream audiences are anxious to learn about Islamic arts, museums and galleries are open to such proposals. If we present genuine art rising from our spirituality we will connect with many viewers and arouse curiosity and appreciation.

Just asking for some thoughts, not an official opinion, but something a lot people have talked about is the question of whether faces or eyes are haram in art.  Can you share your thoughts on this?

I am not a scholar, so I don’t want to give any opinion regarding this statement. I trust my Creator and He is guiding me. Regarding arts in Islam I am quoting Dr. Jasser Auda, president of the Maqasid Institute from the essay that he has written for my book Our Earth: Embracing All Communities:

“…the popular translation of ‘maqasid’ as the ‘objectives of the Islamic law,’ and the general perception that the ‘Islamic law’ has nothing to do with the arts. In fact, many would even think that the arts are generally discouraged in Islam or even prohibited.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The maqasid are not only the objectives of Islamic law, but rather the objectives of Islam itself. Though jurists, in the traditional sense, did not include beauty in the objectives of the law, except perhaps as a ‘luxury’ (tahsiniyat), the Words of Allah in the Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad exemplified a different perspective. In the Quran, the objectives of creation are explicitly associated with diverse forms of imagery and beauty. The Quran connects the concept of jamal (beauty) with other core Islamic concepts, including husn (intrinsic beauty), zeena (decoration), zukhruf (adornment), nuddrah (illumination), taswiyah (leveling), ta`deel (proportioning) and tawazun (balance). Similarly, Prophet Muhammad was known to praise diverse forms of beauty and to have said, ‘Allah is Beautiful, and He loves beauty.’”

There’s some great pictures on your social media of your new book. Can you share about how you came to do a book and any thoughts you have on it?

I have been creating a series of large-scale paintings using Arabic Calligraphy to reflect the positive and universal message of the Quran to the world. My purpose is to reach out to a broad community in the pursuit of peace; to celebrate diversity and create a positive interfaith dialogue through visual art that subtly penetrates the human heart to evoke response.

More recently I have also explored the themes of ecology, sustainability, and green living as they appear in the verses of the Quran and then translated them into visual imagery using a combination of Arabic calligraphy and illustrative painting. This project brings all creation, this earth and all living creatures including all humanity in my embrace. I call it “Our Earth: Embracing All Communities” and as I received the grant from East Bay Community Foundation in support of my project, I decided to publish a catalog of all these images in book form. I was fortunate to get translations and descriptions of these verses by Dr. Basma Abdelgafar’s beautiful simple, all-inclusive language has enriched my paintings.

What is your thoughts on the Eco-Arts movement generally, as well as your personal involvement?

Ecological living is about protecting and preserving the environment of planet Earth, through recognizing the uniqueness of its various eco-systems and species. Every individual habitat supports all manner of life.  Awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only we can hear the language of other beings as we can understand the generosity of the earth and learning to give our own gifts in return.

My heart pains to see that earth has become a commodity, land or real estate, or capital of natural resources, in today’s material world.

Earth was given as a gift for humanity and the human being was created and established on this earth as vicegerent. My heart pains to see that earth has become a commodity, land or real estate, or capital of natural resources, in today’s material world. What we are witnessing in our world is the failure of humanity to maintain the balance. The Quran declares: “Corruption has appeared on the land and in the sea because of what the hands of humans have earned” (Ar-Room 30:41).  Having created us, and then through the institution of religion oriented us towards Him, our Creator then situated us in a delicate, intricate system where our success, and indeed the perpetuation of that system, rests in maintaining a balance between all things.

The paintings in this project are inspired from the verses of Quran. It is my humble effort to amplify awareness of the imbalance that humans have created in nature, and to encourage people to care for the Earth and live-in harmony with other living things. And ultimately to reinforce the scientific concept of the ‘chain of life’ the concept that each species depends on another and connection between nature and humanity will bring joy forever.

How do you see your art connecting to your spirituality?  Clearly you are deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition, and it comes out in your work.  Can you speak to this?

I feel that I am blessed because I was born with the urge to create and the love for my Creator. My joy of living has been doubled by these blessings, my energy abounds and my quest to create and discover never ends. As spirituality -the eternal relationship of the Creator and human being- is central to my nature, my mission is to spread the joy and blessings that I have received through this relationship.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists, both Muslim and non-Muslim?

I would like to each aspiring artist to follow the rhythm of heart. Search for the guiding light within and trust yourselves. Do not get discouraged by negative responses as after each failure you will be yearning to do more and better work if you are portraying the truth, the beauty which benefits all.

Any final thoughts you would like to share with us?

Thank you for reaching out and allowing me to share my thoughts with other young aspiring Muslim artists. I always feel gratitude that Superpowers are guiding my hand and mind. I am only the tool. So again, I encourage all to find that light within you.

If you would like to connect more with sister Salma’s work you can find her on social media on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, or on her website at https://salmaarastu.com.

Sarah is a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area with at-risk and homeless youth. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God.