Through a Colonial Lens: Unveiling Inaccuracy and Bias in Orientalist Art

European colonialist art of the 18th and 19th centuries offers a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era.

Driven by colonialism and the allure of the “Orient,” a term encompassing the Middle East and North Africa, artists flocked to depict scenes from the Islamic world. This fascination birthed the artistic movement known as Orientalism, which produced a plethora of paintings, sculptures, and illustrations depicting Islamic culture. However, these works are riddled with inaccuracies. This skewed portrayal of Islamic life stems from the artists’ inherent subjectivity tainted by Western biases and agendas, and fuelled by the prevailing colonial ideology of the time. Understanding these inaccuracies is crucial, as they distort the very concepts the art tries to represent. The vibrant intellectual and artistic life of many Islamic societies was largely ignored.

The Orientalist Reality

The term “Orientalism” refers to the Western world’s fascination with the East, often painting it as an exotic, mysterious, and often inferior “other.” This perspective coloured the works of European artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Eugene Delacroix. These artists, rarely having lived in Islamic societies, relied on limited experiences, travelogues, hearsay, and their own imaginations to portray Islamic life and detailed customs such as the month of Ramadan.

Paintings like Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Feast During Ramadan prioritised lavish displays of food and throngs of people, overshadowing the spiritual core of Ramadan. This emphasis on indulgence trivialised the act of breaking the fast (Iftar), which is meant to be a time for moderation and gratitude. The focus often fell on the “exotic,” exaggerating aspects like lavish clothing, bustling marketplaces, and opulent interiors. Orientalist art often showcased extravagant feasts, belly dancers, and a general air of sensuality.

Women, Harems, and Sensuality

A recurring trope in Orientalist art is the depiction of veiled women, often relegated to the confines of harems. Paintings like Jean-Baptiste Vanmour’s The Favorite portray women as objects of male desire, completely erasing the crucial role women play in Islamic societies and, especially, Ramadan traditions. Women actively participate in prayers, prepare special dishes for Iftar, and often take on increased responsibility within the household during this holy month.

Women in these works were often depicted as passive, confined to domestic spaces, or worse, as objects of male desire. This not only erased the agency of real women but also failed to capture the important roles they played in Islamic societies—as scholars, patrons of the arts, and leaders in trade.

Images of harems perpetuated the myth of Muslim men as hyper-sexual and oppressive towards women. Islamic legal codes and social structures were often misinterpreted. Many paintings depicted women in seclusion or adorned in revealing clothing, catering to the Western fascination with harems. This sexualised portrayal not only disrespects Muslim women but also misconstrues the spiritual essence of the religion, which emphasises piety, self-restraint, and spiritual reflection.

Power Dynamics and Patronage

Commissioned by European patrons with a colonial mindset, these artworks often reinforced the idea of European superiority. Scenes of marketplaces, for instance, might depict Europeans as observers or even as the centre of attention, while Muslim merchants were relegated to the background. Depictions of daily life often focused on lively marketplaces, bustling with exotic goods and scantily clad merchants. While these scenes might hold some truth, they ignored the vast agricultural sector, the sophisticated systems of education and scholarship, and the vibrant artistic traditions that were also part of daily life in the Islamic world.

Orientalist art often presented a Eurocentric view of Islam. Artists projected their own social and religious hierarchies onto Islamic societies. This not only obscured the diverse realities of Islamic life but also served to justify colonial domination by portraying Islamic societies as backward and needing Western intervention.

Feasting and Opulence

Many paintings depict scenes of extravagant meals and celebrations during Iftar. While feasting is a part of Ramadan traditions, it serves a specific purpose. The breaking of the fast is a time for families and communities to come together, express gratitude, and share blessings. The focus is not on excess, but on mindful consumption and strengthening social bonds.

By highlighting lavish spreads, the art reinforces the stereotype of Muslims as overly materialistic, neglecting the act of self-discipline and sacrifice that is central to Ramadan.

Static Traditions and a Frozen Orient

Orientalist art portrays Islamic life as unchanging and homogenous, failing to capture the regional variations in Ramadan practices. Yet traditions vary across different cultures within the Islamic world, with specific dishes, prayers, and community events unique to each region. By presenting a monolithic view, these paintings erase the rich diversity of Islamic life and its various expressions of faith during Ramadan.

Furthermore, these works often depict a timeless Orient, ignoring the socio-political context of the time. The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of decline for the Ottoman Empire, a reality glossed over in Orientalist art. This creates a misleading image of a static and unchanging East, overlooking the dynamism and complexities of Islamic societies.

Stereotyping Religious Practices

Scenes of prayer or religious ceremonies were often depicted with a lack of understanding or respect. Details might be inaccurate, or the focus might be on the “exotic” elements rather than the spiritual significance. This not only disrespected Islamic practices but also failed to capture the spiritual essence of Islam such as the essence of Ramadan as a time for devotion and self-reflection.

Distorted Perceptions

The inaccuracies in colonialist art have lasting consequences. These portrayals have contributed to Western stereotypes of Muslims, fostering misunderstandings about Islamic practices and traditions. This, in turn, fuels prejudice and hinders intercultural dialogue.

These inaccuracies not only affected the Western perception of Islamic life in the colonial era, but also had a lasting impact on how Muslims themselves were viewed. It contributed to the stereotype of the “mystical East,” obscuring the intellectual and scientific advancements taking place in the Islamic world during this period.

The focus on luxury and indulgence undermined the emphasis on self-discipline and piety, especially during Ramadan, a large part of orientalist fascination. By portraying Ramadan through a purely exotic lens, the art diminishes the spiritual significance of the holy month. It reduces a complex religious practice to mere spectacle, neglecting its core principles of self-improvement, piety, and community.


European colonialist art offers a distorted window into Islamic life and its traditions such as Ramadan. While valuable as historical artefacts, these works are riddled with inaccuracies stemming from the artists’ limited perspectives and colonial ideologies.

Recognising these inaccuracies is crucial to fostering a more nuanced understanding of Islamic traditions and fostering genuine intercultural exchange. Examining historical documents, literature from the region, and contemporary Muslim artists’ work can provide a richer and more nuanced perspective, free from the distorting lens of colonialism.