FW: [agade] FEATURES: Representations of the prophet
- List members who recall our discussions about representations of the
Prophet--and the decision by Yale U Press to exclude from The Cartoons That
Shook the World, the very images that "shook the world"--may be interested
in this article in The New Republic by Oleg Grabar, forwarded from the Agade
The New Republic
October 30, 2009 | 12:00 am
Seeing and Believing
The image of the prophet in Islam: the real story.
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
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.
Did the pictures of the Prophet Muhammad exist within this double
system? The historical evidence is very curious. During the first six
centuries of Islam's existence, there is one very early coin type, an
example of which is kept at the American Numismatic Society in New York,
which may have represented the Prophet Muhammad; but this interpretation
is far from being accepted by all scholars. And then, in the tenth
century, there developed a fascinating story. It was said that there was
an image of the Prophet in the possession of the Byzantine Christian
emperor, which was shown by him to early Muslim ambassadors who came to
convert him to Islam. The alleged image was in a collection of images of
prophets from Adam to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. It served to
demonstrate that Muhammad was indeed the last of the messengers sent by
God for the salvation of man. One account of this image is that it was
made by a Christian monk named Bahirah, who recognized prophecy in the
youthful Muhammad accompanying a caravan of merchants from Mecca.
Until very recently, the sensuous representation of young Muhammad, as
allegedly painted by Bahirah, could be acquired in Iran. It had been
copied and reproduced in the many ways in which the commercial society
of today distributes its most valued symbols. The image has undergone
recent changes, and it no longer exhibits the slightly risqué sensuality
of its early versions--whose original, according to the Persian
inscription at the bottom of the image, was kept in a "western or
Christian museum" (muze-i rum), a mysterious and perhaps mythical
location which deserves its own philological and psychological analysis.
The casuistic explanation by Islamic scholars for the existence of this
image was that it belonged to a time that preceded the assumption of
prophethood by Muhammad, and that therefore "Islamic" rules did not
apply to it.
The alleged existence of such early images of the Prophet was
fascinatingly developed among Chinese Muslims of later times. There is a
story, told in various texts, that a Chinese emperor had heard of
Muhammad and wanted to know more about him and his new beliefs. He
invited Muhammad to visit China and to convert its people, but Muhammad
thought the trip too complicated, and instead he sent a picture of
himself. The Chinese emperor set it on his bed, and once the country had
been converted, the picture disappeared. There are several variants to
this story, which serves simply to show that, even when there is no sign
of the existence of actual portraits, the idea of such portraits of holy
figures existed, and was usually associated with others rather than
Muslims, in this case with Western Christians or Chinese. As so often in
every cultural system, foreigners are responsible for things that seem
wrong or embarrassing.
What is more important, for our purposes, is that these stories--written
by and for Muslims about non-Muslims--employed images to demonstrate the
point of Muhammad's uniqueness within a divine revelation through a
series of prophets that began with Adam. In a paradox that permeates
much of early Islamic thought on this subject, this visual and
theological uniqueness co-existed with the very human reality of a
particular person's life and demeanor, which were described (and of
course praised) in many accounts. As we shall see, this paradox affected
the further history of images of Muhammad.
A major transformation took place in Islamic culture from around 1200
onward. The old centers of science and culture were profoundly affected
by ethnic change (mass immigration of Turks), territorial change (the
conquest of Anatolia and of northern India), social change (the growth
of a feudal order and of an urban middle class), religious change (a
complex symbiosis of Sunnism and Shiism, and the growth of mystical Sufi
movements), and intellectual change (the emergence of a brilliant new
Persian literature, and of vast theological and philosophical
syntheses). In the Arab world, and especially in Iran, there was born a
new art of book illustration. One of its earliest examples is the
Persian manuscript of a mystical romance known by the name of Warqa wa
Gulshah, now kept in an Istanbul museum, usually dated to the early
thirteenth century and probably executed in Anatolia or in Iranian
In one of the miniatures in Warqa wa Gulshah, the Prophet Muhammad is
seated on a princely throne and is surrounded by the first four caliphs,
the so-called orthodox caliphs who succeeded the Prophet at the head of
the Muslim community, who are shown like members of a feudal court, some
carrying military symbols, others bureaucratic ones. Nothing
distinguishes the Prophet from the other personages in the miniature.
They all have a halo, a sign of honor probably picked up from Christian
art. In another miniature, the Prophet is shown accomplishing the unique
task of resurrecting two lovers who had already been buried. He is
smaller than all the other figures in the painting, and is making a
simple gesture of the hand to accomplish his task. Similar secondary
appearances occur a few more times in fourteenth-century chronicles or
romances, but not very frequently.
More interesting representations of the Prophet appear in two other
manuscripts, both of which happen to be housed in Edinburgh. One is a
copy of a celebrated History of Ancient Times by the great polymath
Al-Biruni, who died around 1050. The manuscript dates from around 1300.
One striking miniature in the manuscript shows Muhammad surrounded by
his daughter Fatimah, her husband Ali, and their two children Hasan and
Husayn--the first family of Shiism--greeting a Christian delegation from
Najran in southwestern Arabia, an illustration of a well-known
half-legendary event in the Islamization of the Arabian peninsula. All
these personages are dressed in fancy clothes modeled on courtly
vestments of the time, without any distinguishing or sacralizing sign.
The same is true of an even more remarkable series of representations of
the Prophet found in the other manuscript of the time, dated 1314-1315,
also in Edinburgh. It is a copy (only fragments remain from it) made in
Tabriz of a world history, a Compendium of Histories, gathered by Rashid
al-Din, the great vizier of the Mongol regime. There are no less than
six preserved illustrations of the life of Muhammad, including his
birth, his dramatic visit to Mecca as a young adult, the archangel
Gabriel informing him of his vocation as a Prophet of God, and a
stunning representation of his ascension into heaven, about which more
will be said below. None of these images are given any formal,
codicological, or iconographic features that would separate them from
standard illustrations of historical texts.
This sort of inclusion of Muhammad within a broader body of illustrated
material continued over the centuries, and in the sixteenth century it
acquired a new vehicle in the Qisas al-Anbiya, or Stories of the
Prophets, originally written in Arabic, and frequently illustrated in
Persian or Turkish versions, many copies of which exist in most
collections of manuscripts. Illustrations dealing with Muhammad are
usually small in number, when compared with those that depict Moses,
Joseph, or Jesus and many minor prophets from what is now called the
"Abrahamic" tradition; and nothing distinguishes them in particular.
They play a minor role in a genre that itself turned out to be
relatively secondary in the tradition of painting in Muslim lands, which
developed so brilliantly in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. But
the important fact is that they existed, and there is no evidence that
these images were criticized within the presumably religious milieu that
created them. They must have fulfilled some purpose in the piety and the
instruction of some faithful, though we do not know what that purpose was.
Something else also began in the early fourteenth century. In an album
in Istanbul there is a remarkable series of large and beautiful
miniatures depicting, without a remaining explanatory text, several
episodes from a story that developed quite early within the Muslim
religious system--the story of the Prophet's Night Journey to the masjid
al-aqsa, the "farthest mosque," usually identified with Jerusalem, and
then his ascension (mi'raj) to heaven and his encounter with God. At
roughly the same time, in the early fifteenth century, a text known
primarily by its Persian name as the Mi'rajnameh, or Book of the
Ascension, was produced, based on earlier--and mostly Arabic--versions
that have not been preserved or have not yet been discovered. The
Persian text exists in several copies. The most spectacular of these, in
the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, was written in 1436 in chaghatai,
the Turkic language of the military class of Turks and Mongols who ruled
over most of the Islamic world east of the Mediterranean. It depicts
every detail of the Prophet's journey: his meeting with all other
prophets, his seeing the tortures inflicted in hell as well as the
rewards of Paradise, and his eventual encounter in a cloud of gold with
the divine presence. The images are clear and direct, and of very high
technical quality. The Prophet is consistently depicted with a crown on
his head and riding the mythical beast Buraq, and he is preceded
everywhere by the flying archangel Gabriel.
This manuscript is unique for the quality and the quantity of its
images, but other "Books of Ascension" exist, some with a few
illustrations. Yet there was one image created for the Mi'rajnameh that
appeared in manuscripts of many other texts, sometimes with a minimum of
inspiration from whatever passage seems to have been illustrated. This
image shows a brilliantly lit sky, sometimes with clouds and sometimes
with stars, and against the sky there is the Prophet on his mythical
beast rising up into the heavens, with a host of angels holding lamps,
crowns, and various gifts surrounding him. It is a heroic and brilliant
procession which, owing to the consistent repetition of its details and
the consistency of composition and colors, comes as close to being an
icon as can be imagined within the Islamic world, even though it is
found most of the time within the context of secular or mystical poetry.
Sometime in the fifteenth century, and certainly by the sixteenth
century, it became customary to veil the face of the Prophet. The
reasons for this veiling have not been clarified, but they seem to have
arisen less from a formal decision by legal scholars than from a piety
that, while not averse to the representation of human beings, concluded
that the Prophet's uniqueness could best be expressed by making his face
invisible. This procedure was then extended to all Shiite leaders, such
as Ali and Husayn, and occasionally to other figures as well. What all
of this seems to mean is that the representations of holy figures were
distinguished from all other representations by the hiding of their
faces. Again, the decision to do so was certainly not a legal or learned
one, but the expression of a religious desire to emphasize the
uniqueness of the person by concealing his physical presence. It was
only then, in the sixteenth century, that such images of the Prophet
visually separated him from the rest of mankind.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were also the times when, especially
in India, mementos of holy figures, especially Shiite ones, increased
drastically. Images of Muhammad existed among them, but neither in
number nor in aesthetic quality did they resemble the images of Ali or
his children. Yet something quite different transpired in the Sunni
world, especially in the Ottoman empire. Relics of the Prophet were
collected (and are still kept in the Istanbul museum located in the
imperial palace), though nothing comparable in size or brilliance to
Christian or Buddhist relics. There also developed a special genre of
highly decorated sheets of paper, known as hilyes, which contained
descriptions of the Prophet's features and qualities, and praises for
his beauty and his nobility.
Some of these sheets of paper included, on the upper part of the page, a
small portrait of the Prophet, usually shown as a distinguished man of
middle years with a simple turban. These portraits were not the norm,
but there does not seem to have been anything argued against them.
Hilyes were hung on walls or kept in private treasuries as signs of
piety and as ways to recall the unique physical form, personality, and
character of the Prophet. It is probable that, in our own times,
contemporary technology has been used to continue the manufacture of
What, then, can one deduce from all these examples? For a start, there
can be no doubt that, especially from the thirteenth century onward, the
Muslim world accepted the existence of representations of the Prophet.
This iconography was not common, and was usually restricted to the
accompaniment of a narrative text, or to serve as pious reminders of an
exemplary life. There seems to have been no judicial ruling approving or
opposing them, but their relative paucity may reflect the long-standing
cultural aniconism of a system of faith that was surrounded by religions
and cultures in which images played a major role. It should be added
that these images, and the references to them, are far more frequently
Shiite than Sunni, and very few of them come from the Arab world.
Two details merit special attention, even though we do not quite
understand the intellectual and psychological mechanisms that led to
them. One is the striking development of ascension (mi'raj) images as
works of art rather than as mere illustrations. It is perhaps not an
accident that some scholars over a century ago saw in these images of
the Prophet, and in the story on which they are based, an inspiration
for Dante's Divine Comedy, although this suggestion is less popular in
recent scholarship. The other detail is the eventual predominance of
images in which the Prophet's face is veiled, thereby suggesting that
images of people are acceptable but that the face of holiness must not
be shown. This phenomenon is of considerable interest for any general
theory of ways to represent the holy.
To the extent that the argument against the so-called cartoons has
centered on the legal propriety or impropriety of representing the
Prophet Muhammad, it has been a pointless argument. Of course it is
possible to question the Danish caricatures on grounds of taste, or
social or political intent; but the lack of taste is not a legal
category, and mischievous or even evil intent is difficult to discern in
the absence of clearly stated moral and philosophical principles. The
only certain lesson to draw from the sad story of the Danish cartoons is
the almost universal prevalence of ignorance and incompetence--and that
everyone, from writers and pundits to the leaders of mobs, should learn
more before making a judgment or starting a riot.
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).
- Thanks for the Grabar piece on Mohammed portraits.
One wonders how the following will fare. (and if all we'll see is the Prophet's back, like Max von Sydow in his spin as J.C.)
Qatari firm in talks to make Prophet Mohammad film
By Tamara Walid
Sunday, November 1, 2009 12:15 PM
DOHA (Reuters) - An epic film about Islam's Prophet Mohammad backed by the producer of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix" is being planned with the aim of "bridging cultures."
Filming of the $150-million English-language movie is set to start in 2011 with American Barrie Osborne as its producer, Qatari media company Alnoor Holdings said on Sunday.
The film - in which the Prophet would not be depicted, in accordance with Islamic rules - is in development and talks are being held with studios, talent agencies and distributors in the United States and Britain, Alnoor said.
Osborne told Reuters the film would be an "international epic production aimed at bridging cultures."
"The film will educate people about the true meaning of Islam," he said.
Alnoor said it wanted to attract the "best international talent" to star in the movie.
Alnoor, which was set up this year to take advantage of opportunities in the entertainment sector, focuses on international film production, Arabic production and animation and wants to acquire distressed assets in the U.S. and British film industries.
Raja Sharif, vice president of international projects at Alnoor, told Reuters in a telephone interview he expected to conclude deals next year.
He said the company was not interested in large studios but was targeting distributors, sales agents and possibly post-production and production facilities.
Qatar, the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, aims to become a cultural hub in the region. Earlier this week, it held the first Tribeca Doha Film Festival attended by regional and international filmmakers, stars, agents and distributors.
(Editing by Firouz Sedarat and David Cowell)
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- This recalls the 1976 film, "Muhammad, Messenger of Allah," (in the US, "The
Message") in which neither showed the Prophet nor even had his voice. See
the Wikipedia entry, "Mohammad, Messenger of God" the story of how it was
filmed and the ensuing hoop-la.
Dan Lusthaus wrote:
Thanks for the Grabar piece on Mohammed portraits.
One wonders how the following will fare. (and if all we'll see is the
Prophet's back, like Max von Sydow in his spin as J.C.)
- What worries me is their interpretation of "the true meaning
of Islam." Considering that Islam has no church, no Pope, no
accepted final authority to rule on dogma or orthodoxy, any
mullah can issue fatwas, how can there be a "true meaning?"
You can be sure that the vast Shi'a community, their beliefs and
practices, will be ignored or given short shrift. Considering
the sponsors, Alnoor Holdings, this film will be simply
promotion for one viewpoint.
Yes, all you might see, if anything, is the Prophet's back. My
guess is he won't appear at all, but we will hear him speak.
The technique was famously first used in the film
'Dark Passage' (1947) starring Humphrey Bogart, where
it begins (and proceeds as such until he gets a plastic face
job), by our hearing his voice but not seeing his face.
- I can remember as a child pious films that enlivened Lent at school.
Jesus' face was never shown. I think this might be a general human
response to dealing with a highly revered images at some times & places.
(Similarly I sometimes mistake very conservative Arab women in my
neighborhood with old-fashioned Catholic nuns at a distance - the power
of early imprinting!)
- Looking at this another way, Trudy: maybe it makes sense not to show
the faces of putative tradition founders who are (at most) half-
mythological in the first place?
Am I on the wrong planet or century? Didn't
Hume pretty much take care of this in 1757? :^)
I'm sure of course that the producers will present this
point of view. :^)
On Nov 2, 2009, at 11:01 AM, Trudy Kawami wrote:
> I can remember as a child pious films that enlivened Lent at school.
> Jesus' face was never shown. I think this might be a general human
> response to dealing with a highly revered images at some times &
> places. (Similarly I sometimes mistake very conservative Arab women
> in my neighborhood with old-fashioned Catholic nuns at a distance
> - the power of early imprinting!)
- Since Prof. Grabar was writing not only about representation of
the Prophet but in general about the prohibition of figuration in
art according to Muslim traditions,
I'd like to expand a bit on the theme of iconophobia (as I prefer
to call it).
As I wrote about this in my publication on ricksha arts (2003,
Indiana U Press), I'd like to quote from the Readings file (on my
CD-ROM, an essay titled :"Life is Short..."), on the insightful
analysis of the term 'tamaseel' by a Muslim writer in Pakistan,
of a crucial difference between the uses of a noun in two
different Koranic verses having to do with figurative
"The most popular scriptural source for prohibition of graven
images in Pakistan and Bangladesh today derives from the hadith,
or sayings, of the Prophet, rather than from the Koran. As Nasser
Rabbat (1999) wrote: "...quotations vary and many are dug out
recently with the polarization of opinion on figural
representation...The most famous hadith is from the Sahih
al-Bukhari (the most widely used collection of hadith) and it
says: 'Among those who will be most punished by God in the
Judgement Day are the musawyrun', which today means painters but
could have also meant sculptors." ...
Besides the generally known prohibition inscribed in the hadith
just noted, another interpretation of Koranic language has
recently surfaced in an article from an online Pakistani journal,
in which Khaled Ahmed wrote:
"In the June  issue of Ishraq [an Urdu monthly journal], an
excellent research article has been contributed by Muhammad Rafi
Mufti, [in which he asks]: Is the creation and display of [the]
human image expressly forbidden by the Quran? In Surah Al-Anbia
(52-54), the Quran narrates the story of Prophet Abraham in which
he condemns the worship of tamaseel (statues) by his tribesmen,
including his father. This verse has been at the root of the
rejection of the human image by the jurists. Tamaseel means both
pictures and statues. The rejection is meant to forestall the
setting up of any gods other than Allah. The said verse,
according to the author [Mufti], referred to tamaseel of
Abraham's father as [a] 'proper' noun (nakra), meaning that
pictures and statues made for the express purpose of worshipping
are banned by the Quran."
...Ahmed continues Mufti's argument:
"There is another verse in the Quran, in Surah Saba (13) which
refers to the tamaseel created for Prophet Solomon by his jinns,
differently interpreted by commentators as supernatural beings or
forest-dwelling tribes. Solomon got the pictures and statues made
for his palaces as well as the Temple as part of the new
architecture he introduced in his kingdom as a great builder. The
Quran, after referring to these tamaseel, actually asks the
Children of David to be grateful to the Lord for them. It clearly
means that the Quran is not opposed to pictures and statues in
general. The author makes it clear that in this verse tamaseel is
a common noun (tama), meaning that any tamaseel not meant for
worshipping are not only not banned but appreciated. Pictures and
statues can therefore be a part of Islamic culture if they are
not meant for worshipping in lieu of Allah."
Ahmed's conclusion in his article on the status of human images
in Islam is:
"Pictures and statues of the prophets are common in the Christian
West, but the Islamic civilisation has stayed clear of depicting
them as well as the Companions of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, barring
Iran where the tradition of depicting the latter has always been
in vogue. The ban on tamaseel has thus been selectively applied.
If Sura Saba allowed both pictures and statues, the Muslims have
themselves decided voluntarily not to make statues" (Ahmed,
In other words, the proscriptive interpretation according to
Muhammad Rafi Mufti revolves around whether the term tamaseel is
used as a proper noun or a common noun.