Depictions of the Prophet (s’lm) – Draw Muhammad Day

Uzza said: Considering that Draw Mohammed Day is coming up (5/20), it might be a good idea to lay out just who it is that is against pictorial representations of the Prophet. (contra the public perceptions that it is”Islam”)

As usual, a very good suggestion!

Unfortunately, this is one of those difficult questions because there are a whole bunch of elements that feed into the concerns over depictions and images in Islam, and really, when you come right down to it, it’s a taboo, and from a sociological perspective, taboos are hard to study because from an outside perspective, there rarely seems to be ‘enough’ reason for something to be a taboo[1].

It is not the case that there are no examples of Muslim depictions of Muhammad (peace be upon him) or that there is no portrait art in Islamic tradition.  In general, bans on images seem more common among Sunnis than the Shi’a, but at various times such bans have existed in both.  At its core, the ban on images arises out of the Muslim understanding of graven/graphic images (it should be pointed out that those words mean the same thing – ‘graven’ does not mean idolatrous or scandalous, as it is sometimes used, but just ‘firmly imprinted’, as in ‘to engrave’).

In the Biblical account of Moses and the Law, the focus is on depiction – according to my friendly, neighborhood Semitic linguist[2], in various translations between Hebrew and Aramaic, the terminology switches between ‘statue’ and ‘image’ (meaning something two-dimensional), but nevertheless, the focus is on the act of depicting.  In the Qur’anic accounts of idolatry, however, the focus is on the createdness of the idol (khalq), versus the uncreatedness of God.  This more or less coincides with the Muslim understanding of idolatry, as worshiping something created rather than the Creator and as attaching partners to God.

It is in this vein that the first early stories banning depictions of Muhammad (s’lm) circulated – the concern was that Muslims would begin to worship the depictions, thus drawing them away from their worship of God.  This concern is a very internal one – applying really only to Muslims, and makes the most sense when placed in its Late Antique setting – most of the eastern Christian churches used (and continue to use) painted or mosaic icons in their churches and as part of both private and public devotion.  The Muslim iconophobia was then a rejection of a very visible Christian practice.

There are a lot of other elements that play in here, as well, though.  In the 1960s, Marshall Hodgson argued that Muslim iconophobia should also be understood as a statement about Islamic egalitarianism, a theme often developed by Muslim thinkers in opposition to Christian tradition.  Art, in any form, in the Late Antique period was an elite possession, and churches and public spaces with mosaics and frescos regularly include inscriptions giving the name of a wealthy patron who donated the money for the work.  By rejecting this tradition, Hodgson argued, Islam was again stressing its common and egalitarian nature, that Muslim did not need the finery Christians produced in order to worship God.

Obviously this argument is not entirely convincing, as there were plenty of expensive Muslim building projects that appear to do just what Hodgson is arguing against, that is, demonstrating the glory and wealth of Islam – after all, the Taj Mahal is a Muslim shrine, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem are both massive construction projects, beautifully decorated and opulently designed.  But I think there is validity to Hodgson’s argument in terms of private practice, that the iconophobia of Islam was meant as a statement in reference to the other major monotheist, universal, apocalyptic tradition of the territory.

Up until now I have been talking about ‘iconophobia’, which any Late Antiquarians in the crowd might be questioning, but I think for the early period, that is a fair description of the Muslim perspective on icons.  This is one of the strange things about the Muslim taboo about depictions of the Prophet (s’lm) – it appears that over time, Islamic thinkers who support iconophobia have become more conservative and more iconoclastic over time, so that the position today is actually more stringent than in the early period.

Now to explain what those words mean – iconophobia is the disapproval of icons (literally the fear of icons, but I don’t think anyone actually has a fear of icons.  Although I have seen some fairly creepy ones.).  Iconoclasm is the public destruction of icons, meaning the actual removal of icons from public spaces.  Periods of iconoclasm took place in the Byzantine empire in the eighth and ninth centuries, and although many scholars have argued (in my opinion, unsuccessfully) that this iconoclasm arose in part because of Byzantium’s interactions with Islam, there is little evidence for Muslim participation in iconoclasm.  In fact, it appears that the opposite was true – many of the churches built in Muslim territory during the early centuries of Muslim rule survive iconoclasm (a beautiful example of a non-iconoclasted floor mosaic survives in the church of St Stephens in Umm ar-Rassas in Jordan).  The iconoclasm that does take place in these territories appears to have been performed by zealous Christians – in most cases, the faces are scrubbed off of frescos and the tesla of mosaics are painstakingly dug up, scrambled, and resealed, demonstrating a level of care in preserving the overall appearance of the artwork that the Muslims wouldn’t have had.  So at least for the first few centuries of Islam, it doesn’t appear that Islam was actively concerned with images of prophets (admittedly, Jesus, not Muhammad, peace be upon them both).

Part of the reason for the increased levels of iconoclasm in recent centuries is undoubtedly the generally negative depictions of Muslims in these centuries.  More and more, Muslims are concerned with the image that Muslims and Islam play in the larger world, and I would say, not without good cause.  A quick search for ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ illustrates this point – although the original picture was just a slightly strange series of inanimate objects calling themselves the Prophet (s’lm), many of the pictures offered by those who chose to participate are of the Prophet (s’lm) holding weapons, torturing people, or being physically or sexually assaulted.  These are, by no means, neutral images.  And although it’s possible to find similar images of Christ, the negative portrayal of Muhammad (s’lm) coupled with the taboo of depictions of the Prophet is a lot of what has stirred up this issue, and kept it stirred up.

[1] As a Yank living in Britain, I have learned this one for myself with regard to the use of profanity in public.  When I first moved to Britain, I thought it was incredibly scandalous that the Brits were so laid back about their use of language in public.  But after five years here, I go home and don’t understand why people give me dirty looks for cursing in public.  Social standards are a fickle thing!

[2] What, you don’t have one of those?!  Why not?!

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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4 Responses to Depictions of the Prophet (s’lm) – Draw Muhammad Day

  1. ataralas says:

    I think, also, Westerners—especially Protestant Westerners—forget that we also went through a major iconoclasm in the Reformation and a subsequent iconophobia that persisted as a dominant stream of thought well into the 19th century in America.

    However, I see one interesting point of connection: among the Protestants, a major argument for the destruction of images of Jesus/God, was the Protestant emphasis on “the Word”, both in the sense of the opening of the Gospel of John, and the emphasis on the Bible as the revealed and authoratative word of God, that should be studied and heard. Do you think there is also a connection with the Islamic scholarly tradtion and the emphasis on Quranic literacy?

    • Quite possibly – a lot of Islamic art evolves around writing and calligraphy, so that literacy and the written word is a visual marker of Islamic culture and identity. There are also issues of anthropomorphization and how precisely mankind was made in the image of God (Muslims generally stressing that we are made in one of the images or elements of God, in order to emphasize the unique nature of God). But questions of anthropomorphization are complicated from either side, as Christianity has questions about it as well (for example, is the Holy Spirit anthropomorphized?).

      In general, I think iconophobia and iconophilia are concepts that most Westerners have problems comprehending, just because we’re so rarely exposed to them. In the East this all makes a lot of sense, but here, we lack the cultural setting to appreciate why these debates mean something to the people engaged in them.

  2. m says:

    “In the East, this all makes sense”? I did not know that students of 2011 were generalizing about “the East,” and I really doubt that a Hindu or a Taoist is going to find iconophobia more comprehensible than a Jew.

    I think the more interesting question is what changes in theology and culture made depictions of Muhd and family acceptable in some Muslim settings.

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