Oleg Grabar: The image of the prophet in Islam: the real story

[Oleg Grabar is professor emeritus at Harvard University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is the author most recently of Masterpieces of Islamic Art: The Decorated Page (Prestel).]

Are representations of the Prophet Muhammad permitted in Islam? To make or not to make images of the Prophet: that is the question I will try to answer. It is an unexpectedly burning question, as the newspapers regularly demonstrate. But both the answer to the question and the reasons for raising it require a broader introduction.

There have been many times in recent years when one bemoaned the explosion of media that have provided public forums for so much incompetence and ignorance, not to speak of prejudice. Matters became worse after September 11, for two additional reasons. The first is the propagation of a climate of fear, of ever-present danger from ill-defined foes, which led in the West, and especially in the United States, to a plethora of security measures ranging from reasonable and useful to ridiculous and demeaning. Penetrating and perverting institutions and individuals, this fear collided in the Muslim world with a complex ideological and psychological evolution that led many people in Muslim countries and communities to a reflexive and often self-destructive brutality in reaction to the slightest whiff of verbal or visual provocation.

The second reason is the exacerbation of a mode of judgment that is not new by itself but has in recent years acquired frightening dimensions. It consists in identifying the country--or religion, ethnicity, race, or any other general category of human association--of anyone responsible for a crime or misdeed, and then condemning the whole group for the action of a single person. The crimes and misdeeds, I should add, need not be recent ones. They can be--and often are--events of many years and even centuries ago. A cult of past and present horrors surrounds us. The paradoxical analysis of past evils according to contemporary norms has the effect of denying history, which has its own explanation of events.

Recently Yale University Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in America, agreed to publish The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, an academically acceptable and well-researched study of the publication by a Danish newspaper, in 2005, of cartoons willfully showing the Prophet Muhammad in vulgar and politically charged ways, and of the turbulent aftermath of their publication. As is well known, several weeks after their appearance these drawings--which should be called caricatures rather than cartoons: a first example of the technical ignorance in the media's accounts of the story--were shown, and sometimes simply mentioned without being shown, in Muslim communities in Europe, and then in various parts of the Muslim world. This led to riots, with losses of life, in a few cities, and to the destruction and the boycott of Danish products.

Klausen, who provides a careful chronology of the events, is a Danish political scientist who teaches at Brandeis University. Her book was meant to include the images themselves (which are available on the Internet) as well as earlier, mostly Western, illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad in a variety of contexts, usually not in a terribly favorable light. But at the last minute, and in accordance with opinions provided by a wide variety of people, Yale University Press decided to drop all representations of the Prophet from a book whose subject is their impact. The argument of the press was that the images could be considered offensive by Muslims and lead to violence, to attacks on Yale and other American institutions.

The assumption that the masses in Karachi and Jakarta would have seen, or otherwise taken note of, a book from Yale is a bit presumptuous--unless, of course, they were prodded by the media's sensationalism, and its interest in stories of riots by uncouth youths worked up in their anti-American feelings (by this point Yale and its actual book would be long forgotten) by local purveyors of hate and destruction. Yale's decision is certainly a denial of free speech, though of course the argument can be made that a possible danger to people may compel restrictions in the expression of opinions and of facts. I am not persuaded by this argument about this book. And the deletion of the images is also--a far more important criticism in this instance--a gratuitous betrayal of scholarship, since many other books (including at least four published by Yale, two of them by me) do show images of the Prophet.

Here I must make a disclosure. Several years ago, in a book on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem that was published by Harvard University Press, I included a representation of a fourteenth-century Persian painting showing the archangel Gabriel bringing the city of Jerusalem to the Prophet Muhammad. The press requested that the section of the painting representing the Prophet be removed. First I objected and then I agreed, because its presence was not essential to my argument; but the episode left a bad taste in my mouth, a feeling of regret, especially in light of the fact that many learned books or journals, and even some popular ones, especially in Europe, publish pictures of the Prophet when such images are required by the text or proposed by their authors.

Generalities and disclosures aside, the substance of the dispute lies in the allegation made by Muslims, or at least some Muslims, and often repeated by the Western media, that representations of the Prophet are forbidden in Islam, and therefore that such representations as do exist, or have existed, within the Muslim world or beyond its borders are either sins or provocations. The conclusions to be drawn from such a view are obvious. Sins must be punished, and their repetition avoided; and provocations must be answered with vigor.

In reality, however, things are not so simple. In the past, and still today, pictures of the Prophet Muhammad have been produced, and are still produced, by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons. How do these images fit with the presumed existence within the Islamic world of a doctrine prohibiting all representations of living beings? To answer this last question, it is essential to understand the nature of a legal system that operates in the absence of an organization such as the church or of formal written codes of law accepted by the vast majority of those who claim to be Muslims.

From the very beginning of its existence, the Muslim world practiced and developed an elaborate legal system meant to control and to judge all aspects of life, but its totalistic ambition was often frustrated by its own sophistication and diversity. This system, known as sharia, was based on the Qur'an, an immutable divine revelation, and the hadith, a huge body of actions and statements attributed to the Prophet, whose authenticity--and reliability for believers--was discussed for centuries. The words of the Qur'an and the stories of the hadith were interpreted and re-interpreted for centuries by learned scholars and practicing judges, known respectively as fuqaha and qudat (the plural of qadi). Although a consensus was established on many issues, and was often adopted by the legal systems of Muslim states in our times, this consensus was not total or universal. With variations that arouse the passions of modern historians and politicians, the opinions and judgments of this tradition of legal interpretation can, in theory at least, range from absolute and constant to near-anarchical and open-ended.

The issue of the visual representation of human beings, and therefore of the Prophet too, belongs to the latter category. The Qur'an itself is silent on the subject. Only a single passage is usually quoted in discussions of the matter. This passage (3:43) relates the words spoken by God to Mary, the mother of Jesus, saying that her son will proclaim: "I come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will make for you out of clay the likeness of a bird, then I will breathe into it and it will become a bird, by the leave of God." This was understood by the majority of interpreters to mean that God alone can create life, and to imply that there is no point in representations other than to make them alive. Other passages that are sometimes adduced in discussions of representation refer to them as real or potential idols--which is to say, sinful less for what they are than for the behavior that they may encourage.

The fear of idolatry permeates the formative centuries (essentially the seventh and eighth of the common era) of Islamic culture, which is perfectly understandable when one recalls the importance of images in Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and whatever pagan traces had remained in the vast territory, from the Atlantic Ocean to the frontiers of China, taken over by a relatively small army of Arab Muslim conquerors and missionaries. The result of these contacts with a world replete with religious and other imagery was a refusal by Muslims to make images--what scholars now call aniconism; and the frequent substitution of writing for representation. There are occasional examples of the destruction of images, though in early times such iconoclasm is much rarer in Islamic lands than in Christian lands. Eventually--possibly as early as the end of the eighth century, according to a shaky scholarly consensus--the condemnation of all those who make images became the view of the majority of legal scholars. And yet a minority kept on maintaining that beauty pleases God and does not necessarily lead to idolatry.

The result of all these opinions and feelings was complicated: religious art, in mosques in particular, avoided and rejected images, while the secular art of princes, and later of wealthy city dwellers, ornamented their abodes and the things in their possession with all sorts of representations. In other words, and in perfect harmony with the rich legal culture of the time, a range of possible attitudes toward religious imagery was maintained. Abstinence dominated, but it never became the only Muslim attitude or practice.

On the whole, especially when compared to the contemporary Eastern Christian world, which was rocked by the crisis of iconoclasm, the question of images was secondary within the thinking of the legal scholars, largely because neither the bases on which Islamic thought rests nor the specific needs of the Muslim faithful gave it much consideration. Although I am not familiar with the legal or theological literature of later centuries, or with the jurisprudential discourse in legal and theological schools in our own day, I suspect that the same comparative absence of extended reflection on the subject of iconography remained the case until the twentieth century, when technology made visual images ubiquitous. And even then the subject provoked relatively few comments. The one exception may be the milieu of Saudi Arabian wahhabism, where a doctrine of aniconic prohibition in official and public circumstances co-existed with the relatively open practice of displaying images in the privacy of homes or as homages to ruling princes. A sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy seemed acceptable to the ruling classes, although rumbles for change could easily be felt in the few countries with forceful restrictions...

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