Islam has traditionally forbade the artistic depiction of living forms, founded on a principle expressed in one of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which states: "Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created" (Hadith, Sahih Muslim vol.3, no. 5268). This hadith views art as a form of creation, with creation being a capacity uniquely given to humans by God when he made them in his own image. On the grounds that to shape a person or animal out of clay, paint, or marble without endowing it with the gift of life as God did is to make a mockery of that divine capacity, Islamic scholars have made a practice of banning figurative representation in art (although it has been permitted under certain rulers and at certain times in Islamic history, most notably during the Safavid period in Iran). For this reason, most Islamic art is characterized by geometric shapes and abstract motifs or is calligraphic in nature, making it perfectly suited for housewares, furniture, textiles, and architecture but not as suited to filling a canvas.
An illuminated Quran in the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization.
European artists have never had qualms about depicting the human body, not even when it belongs to the son of God himself. Each time I stroll through the pre-Renaissance European painting collection in the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am confronted by dozens of seemingly identical artistic renderings of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Close examination reveals that each one is differentiated from the one beside it on the wall only by a slight variance in the color of the Madonna's robe or the arrangement of celestial beings posing in the background. This is art clearly meant to be functional rather than expressive; most of the paintings seen here once adorned churches, and were intended to remind the faithful of God's presence in their lives, not to distract them from their piety with beautiful images.
But as unimaginative as these early takes on the Madonna-and-Child theme seem now, such devotional works were crucial to the development of European art as a whole. With the emergence of humanist ideas in philosophy and religion and the birth of Protestantism, artistic representations of sacred figures did not dwindle in popularity, but instead began to follow a new fashion of being modeled after regular people (think Rembrandt's quietly reflective Christ or Peter Paul Rubens's famously humanized saints). When the dedication to capturing the human form that this movement inspired was applied to secular subjects as well, the door was opened for future generations of Europe's painters and sculptors to produce some of the most celebrated art we know today.
Portrait of Christ, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.
Yet perhaps, with the Islamic point of view in mind, we might consider it a sign of self-obsession that the art we hold in highest esteem in the West is that which depicts the human form. Nearly all of the "best" paintings of the European tradition are of people, and even when the people are ugly or distorted, these paintings reflect a preeminent interest in the human body that we cannot help but find flattering, whether we realize it consciously or not.