How images of a prophet became ‘forbidden’

A carved depiction of the prophet Mohammad (centre) in the courtroom of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, which was built in the 1930s

Dozens of Pakistani lawmakers rumbled through the streets of Islamabad in January this year with one voice: Death to the blasphemers. Death to the blasphemers. Death to the blasphemers.

The “blasphemers” in this case were the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who had published a fresh depiction of the prophet Muhammad on their magazine’s cover in remembrance of the journalists who were killed in the January 7th’s terrorist attack. “Making blasphemy cartoon of Prophet is the worst act of terrorism,” a photographed banner at the rally bellowed. “THE SKETCH MAKERS MUST BE HANGED IMMEDIATELY.”

It’s so commonly reported that Islam forbids Muhammad’s portraiture that it seems almost a waste of space to repeat it. After all, isn’t that why some Muslims were so outraged in 2006 when the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten depicted Muhammad in an unflattering light? Isn’t that why the Metropolitan Museum of Art pulled three paintings of the prophet? Isn’t that why the show “South Park” had to censor all mentions of Muhammad in a 2010 episode? “Islam forbids images of Muhammad,” CNN boomed in a headline last year.

But the reality is substantially more complicated.The Koran, in fact, does not directly forbid the portrayal of Muhammad.  And the second most important Islamic text, the Hadith, “presents us with an ambiguous picture at best,” wrote Christine Gruber of the University of Michigan. “At turns we read of artists who dared to breathe life into their figures and, at others, of pillows ornamented with figural imagery.”

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris, 18th century Ottoman, Topkapi Palace Museum

The most explicit fatwa banning the portrayal of Muhammad, she notes, isn’t tucked into some ancient text. It arrived in 2001. And its creator was the Taliban. The ban is a very modern construct.

Still, no one refutes its pervasiveness, nor its emotive underpinnings. To reiterate, Pakistani men in January proclaimed the only thing worse than terrorism was drawing Muhammad — a crime punishable by violent death. What explains this sentiment? Where did it come from?

From circa 1315, Jami al-Tawarikh (“The Compendium of Chronicles” or “The Universal History”), by Rashid Al-Din: In the center, Prophet Muhammad, with two long hair plaits, places the stone on a carpet held at the four corners by representatives of the four tribes, so that all have the honor of lifting it. The carpet is a kelim from Central Asia. Behind, two other men lift the black curtain which conceals the doors of the sanctuary. This work may be assigned to the Master of the Scenes from the Life of the Prophet. (Notice how Mohammed looks ORIENTAL in many old paintings?)

True face of Prophet Mohammed: Dark, Fearful, Delusional and Superstitious!

But such drawings were far rarer in the Arabian Peninsula, “where verbal reality eclipsed the reality of the visual image,” wrote Ali Aijdan in the Proceediings of the 11th International Congress of Turkish Art. He argued there was a wide divide between Arab Muslim cultures and non-Arab Muslim cultures on how to handle artwork, which eventually led to the contemporary disappearance of Muhammad.

“An important element in Islamic aesthetics is the role played by Arabic language,” Ali wrote. “Among Arabic-speaking people, the need for illustrative pictorial art to accompany historical, religious, or literary works was rarely felt.

For example, although the description of the Prophet is quite explicit in the Arabic annals, there is not a single picture painted by an Arab that portrays him. On the other hand, among the Turks, the Persians and the Indians, whose artistic heritage had been rich in pictorial images and whose language is other than Arabic, the Prophet was actually portrayed.”

Along the way, something changed in non-Arab drawings of Muhammad. Muhammad still appeared in paintings. But his features weren’t shown. Rather, they were covered with white linen or cloth, his form enshrouded by golden flame. (This depiction has carried over into modernity; in 2008, the Iranian government commissioned a five-story mural showing Tehran in such fashion.) Those pictures, however, soon disappeared as well.

This 2008 Tehran mural depicting Mohammed’s ascension into heaven was commissioned by the government. Photo

Gruber, in an interview with the BBC, said the modern objection to images of Muhammad may have been a reaction to colonization by Christians, with their images of Jesus and the crucifix. It was during the colonial era that pictures showing Muhammad began to vanish, replaced by an aversion to his image.

“To a large extent, this divide is rooted in real-world grievances rather than theology: a sensitivity caused by many Muslims’ perceptions that they are under attack by the West,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov. “And that their societies are in seminal economic and cultural decline that started with European colonization centuries ago.”

Muhammad as a young boy among the stars and planets, postcard purchased in a supermarket, Tehran, Iran, 2004

But even in modern times, Muhammad’s image continued to appear in Muslim nations, including Iran, where until recently, the Guardian reported, carpets showing his image as well as postcards were openly sold.

Of course, many who have no religious objection to images of Muhammad per se, deeply resent cartoonish images that ridicule the prophet or make fun of Islam. As Pope Francis recently told reporters commenting on the Charlie Hebdo portrayals, “you cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

Pope Francis stated that anyone who insults a religion can expect “a punch in the nose,” in an impromptu address to press aboard his official plane as it flew from Sri Lanka to the Philippines.

source: Washington Post


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