Why do Muslims scream blasphemy at the thought of a visual depiction of the Prophet? The short answer is: we do so out of a deep respect for him. That’s a good starting off point, but not a comprehensive enough answer for critical Muslims. One of my bigger regrets is not feeling informed enough at the time to contribute to the debate around Zapiro. The cartoon followed hot on the heels of the more infamous Danish cartoons, which has led, one way or another, to over 100 people being killed.
Killing for an image? Luckily this hasn’t happened in South Africa, and Zapiro thankfully has been able to continue his art without a fatwa dangling like a Damoclean sword. Yet the issue of what is permissible artistic licence in Islam and what isn’t, continues to be a profound one for modern Muslims to seriously dwell upon.
I’ve listened to several scholars telling me that Islam has never allowed the human form. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human figurative art was a continuous tradition in Islamic lands as early as the eighth century, flourishing across North Africa, Spain, Egypt, Syria, Turkey and modern day Iran and Iraq. And though depictions of Muhammad were rare, they certainly do exist and date back to the tradition of Persian miniatures as manuscript illustrations from the 13th century. Some of my most prized collections of Islamic art contain Ottoman and Safavid portraits in which the Prophet has been represented. Initially these began as fully formed visual representations, although over many centuries they grew to covering his face with a veil or halo, out of reverence and out of respect. And, as attitudes have hardened over the last few centuries, these depictions have all but disappeared – which doesn’t mean that they never existed in the first place.
Contrary to conventional thinking, the Quran does not explicitly forbid the representation of the human form – although it does say that God alone creates, giving life to man and beast, and also that He rejects idols. However, it is in the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the Hadith, in which a variety of pejorative references are attributed to him about the creators of images. On the other hand, others have argued that these sayings are counterbalanced by others, which refer to possessions which either he or those closest to him had, which were adorned with human figures. Thus the Hadith appears to provide justifications for both sides of the issue.
So what is really going on here regarding reaction to the cartoons, and what actually is the crux of the matter? Many of the Friday sermons I’ve attended and the various theological discussions I’ve read, tend to focus on two issues – whether Islam forbids human representation generally; and that of the Prophet specifically. I think that while there is sufficient evidence to argue that there is precedent in Islamic thinking and in Islamic art to allow for the depiction of human forms generally and even the unveiled Prophet specifically (though rarely, and always with respect), in modern practise the depiction of any unveiled Prophet contradicts what most mainstream Islamic and Jewish scholars have established as acceptable. In other words, while there is a history of justification, I can understand how many Muslims would frown upon it. Allowable, but controversial and fraught with societal norms and disapprovals.
Yet for me this isn’t the fundamental question which needs to be asked. Rather, in locating for myself whether or not I would support the publication of the Zapiro cartoon, I concerned myself with why the Prophet uttered those negative viewpoints on images in the first place. Context, as always when deciphering Islamic thought, is crucial here.
My Prophet had nothing if not a profound understanding of human nature. He lived and preached during a period in which his society had turned their collective back on the existence of a single God. Polytheism had been embraced and idols abounded. His mission was thus to change a deep-rooted culture of wanting to worship something tangible, something which could be pictorially depicted. At the same time, there was a constant concern that the newly converted would unwittingly conflate him with God, imbuing him with an immortality which, upon his eventual death, would dash their religious faith and cause them, in the words of the Quran, to “turn about on [their] heels” and return to their previous practises. Against this context, then, it becomes clear why the Prophet would be so weary of images being created –either of himself or of others – which had the potential to be subverted into a vessel for idolatry.
If one is clear about this context, it becomes apparent that the true prism to judge whether depictions of the Prophet are forbidden or not, is their potential for their subject to be worshipped and to detract from the proper worship of God. Other questions are secondary.
Photo: The Prophet Muhammad leads other Prophets including Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer. Medieval Persian manuscript, 14th Century.
The Zapiro cartoon – here I would go so far as to also include the Danish cartoons – were clearly never intended to lure those with weak hearts into worshipping the Prophet. The sanctity, or absoluteness of my Creator was not threatened by the cartoons, nor did it become more likely that people would want to revere these images. Of course, whether or not they were respectful or not to the Prophet’s memory is the secondary (but important) issue – although even here I think that Islam’s clear views on tolerance needs to be considered.
What, in a convoluted way, am I trying to say? Simply that on this sensitive subject both Muslims and non-Muslims have a burden of huge responsibility. To begin with, non-Muslims need to be empathetic enough to understand that – while allowed – culturally, visual depictions of the Prophet are a source of great distress for Muslims. Equally though, critical Muslims should understand that the defence of “depictions being forbidden in Islam” is not a solid enough one to hide behind. The potential for worship is the crux of the matter. And they need to be comfortable enough with their religion not to instinctively react with paroxysms of rage and violence when such depictions occur – as, I believe from time to time, such depictions should.
I don’t believe that I will be met with universal acclaim on such an important issue, so I welcome your views. DM