A strong iconoclastic streak

Sameer Rahim at Prospect points out that it’s not straightforwardly true that – as so many media outlets glibly assert – “Islam forbids depictions of the Prophet.”

Although it’s true there is a strong iconoclastic streak in the religion, there is also a significant alternative tradition of representing the Prophet in Islamic history books and devotional manuals—a tradition not especially well known in the West because Muslim clergy have often condemned or tried to suppress it.

Nothing in the Koran forbids image-making but it does worry about idol-worshipping. A century after the Prophet died in 632, around the time his first biography was being circulated, religious authorities tried to avoid replicating what they saw as the misguided Christian adoration of Jesus and avoided painting him, especially in places of worship.

That’s quite ironic if true, because the attitude to Mohammed of way too many Muslims – and not just the “extremist” ones – is worship. That’s exactly what it is. That’s also what makes it so toxic. Sacranie trying to argue that dissing the prophet is comparable to dissing someone’s relative (which is obvious nonsense since the relative example is limited to one set of relatives while Mo is not limited in that way) is idol-worship and dangerous with it.

Modern western images of Muhammad are by no means always critical of Islam—as some who obsess over the 2006 Danish cartoons published byJyllands-Posten or the South Park episode from 2010 in which the Prophet appeared might think. (That episode was never aired by Comedy Central.) Along with Moses and Charlemagne, he is one of 18 lawgivers carved on the US supreme court building. Bizarrely, a German meat extract company produced some lovely postcards of the Prophet’s life in 1928 as part of a series of great figures in history.

I’ve long thought it would be a great idea to have an exhibition devoted to images of Muhammad—both Islamic and non-Islamic, devotional and polemical—to give some much-needed context to a debate that often seems to produce more heat than light. Under the current grim circumstances, though, I can’t imagine that happening.

Nah; too much fun to kill people instead.


  1. John Morales says

    Not straightforward because from one perspective, the true Islam is what’s codified in its holy book, but from another the true Islam is how it manifests in reality.

    (And, of course, Islam has denominations as does Christianity, so to make sense a proposition about it has to be true for all versions)

  2. johnthedrunkard says

    And of course, most of the Danish cartoons were neutral or quite respectful. Most are about the fear of ‘giving’ offense. Or mocking the project as a publicity stunt. The most ‘anti-Islamic’ cartoons feature enraged, violent, Muslims, not Mohammed.

  3. Silentbob says

    @ 4 Ophelia Benson


    I thought I’d previewed but forgotten to submit. derp. Feel free to delete the meta comments.

  4. says

    There’s another religion that has a stricture against (English translation) “graven images” Oddly, its adherents decided that more or less only applied to idolatry and, um, medieval art, gilded reliquaries, kissing the toes of carved wooden jesus, etc. The Koran doesn’t actually say pictures of god/mohammed are bad, it just ripped off mosaic law on the whole idol worshipping thing. What’s probably most significant is that the interpretation of the idolatry and imagery issue is one of the Sunni/Shia splits. In other words, the whole issue is like, well, imagine if in 1600 the Catholics and the Protestants went to war over an ideological difference in scriptural interpretation, and were willing to kill any non-involved party who dared to get in the way or have the temerity to disagree about one part of the interpretation or another. Which is exactly what happened and it was called “The 30 Years’ War”

    Religion: bullshit worth killing for.

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