PARIS, April 2 (RNS) -- During the 1980s, Morteza Asadi settled on abstractpainting to capture the fury and fervor of Iran's Islamic revolution. Hetranslated religious experiences in sun-drenched colors. He added dovesto his images during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in a not-so-subtle pleafor peace.

Now from his Paris window, the Iranian painter watches loversstroll. They clasp hands and kiss as the Seine rolls by under broodingspring skies. And Asadi, a devout Muslim studying in France, capturesthem in warm reds and blues.

"There is no problem with this subject," he said, when asked whetherIslam forbids depicting the human form. "In Iran, artists can even paintnudes, if they are a bit abstract."

Until recently, debates over Islam and art have mostly raged among anarrow group of intellectuals and clerics. But that has changed sinceAfghanistan's Taliban militia blew two fifth century Buddha statues tobits, sparking worldwide outrage.

The fury has reached Islamic countries as well. While some extremistgroups applauded the Taliban's actions, many scholars and clericsdenounced the militia's claim that the statues merited destruction forbeing "un-Islamic idols."

Critics cite the Koran and the hadiths -- Prophet Mohammed's sayings-- to defend Islam's tolerance of different faiths and culturaltraditions. And they point to a treasure trove of pre-Islamic art,including phallic pharaonic statues in Egypt and Roman busts in Tunisia,preserved over centuries of Muslim rule.

Indeed, artistic expression in Islamic countries, from Niger toIndonesia, is far from monolithic. Recent interviews with artists andexperts from the Middle East and North Africa alone sketch a vibrant andcomplicated portrait of contemporary art in many parts of the Muslimworld.

If some artists have fled political repression and economichardship, others have flourished in unlikely places.

Some of the area's most provocative works have emerged from SaddamHussein's Iraq and from war-torn Lebanon, experts say. Petrodollars andbusiness booms are financing new galleries in Dubai and Riyadh. Andstudents from Asadi's native Iran are turning to Pablo Picasso and AndyWarhol for inspiration, alongside ancient Persian miniaturists.

"Personally, I don't know of a great Islamic artist who doesn'tfirst celebrate his individuality," said Ibrahim Alaoui, head of themuseum department at the Institute of the Arab World, in Paris. "Artistsmight be inspired by traditional Islamic art, but they don't claim theirart as Islamic. We can't really say today there is contemporary Islamicart in this sense."

At his gallery in Ile St-Louis, where his spare, abstract works hangalongside those of French and Japanese counterparts, Ziad Dalloulbristles at being defined by his faith.

"You wouldn't ask a Christian artist how he is inspired by hisreligion," the Syrian painter pointed out. "So why ask me?"

Even defining traditional Islamic art is fraught with controversy,experts say. Does it reflect the art produced in Muslim countries? Or isit the work of individual Muslim artists?

To be sure, strict injunctions against depicting humans or animalsover the centuries produced the trademark geometric patterns, arabesquesand calligraphy that decorate mosques across the Islamic world. Lessknown are the sly works of Iraqi artist Alwa Siti, who painted noblemenmerrily quaffing alcoholic spirits during the early Islamic Abbasiddynasty. Or the 10th century Andalusian sculptors who crafted gracefulhuman and animal forms in ivory and marble.

"Islam is a religion that has adapted to different geographicalspaces, history and cultures," Alaoui said. "It's true Islam foughtagainst idolatry, like the Jewish and Christian religions. Islam foughtagainst a certain figuration at the beginning -- the images thatincarnate God. But not against art and figural representation ingeneral."

Today, Sudanese painter Islam Zian al Abdeen curves half-moons intopowerful horns of African cows or into Islamic crescents. Hanging fromhis northern Paris studio is also a picture of two naked women lyingside by side, with African warriors in the background. A prostitutestares sleepily from another.

"God is beautiful," said Abdeen, a member of Islam's mystical Sufiorder, when asked about what is religiously permissible. "He cannot stopyou from making beautiful things."

As an art student in Khartoum, Abdeen gathered his material fromboth Sudan's Muslim north and its largely Christian and animist south.But Abdeen said he was kicked out of Khartoum University's art school in1991, after helping organize student protests against the fundamentalistregime of President Omar al Bashir. For a while he laid low. Then, in1999, he arrived in Paris on scholarship. He has since applied forpolitical asylum.

"The problem is not whether to draw figures or not to drawfigures," Abdeen said of Sudan, where he believes artists oftenpractice self-censorship. "The problem is any kind of art that opens themind. Freedom is forbidden in a dictatorship."

Across the region, tolerance for modern artistic expression has beenspotty.