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Not every illustration of Muhammad has been a line in the sand
Scripps Howard News Service


February 09, 2006

WASHINGTON - As the rage of anti-Western demonstrations in several Islamic countries shows, picture depictions of the prophet Muhammad are a sensitive issue in modern Islam.

But Islamic scholars note that there were some Islamic countries where depicting Muhammad was once accepted by local customs, and book illustrations of Muhammad in Islamic texts survive today that were drawn in Persian and Afghani cultures.

Some of the illustrations kept in Istanbul's Topkapi palace library and several Western museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington, show the prophet with a veil over his face, but others show a complete picture of Muhammad as a baby and an adult. There are colorfully written contemporary accounts written by his cousins of what Muhammad looked like in life.




Mohammed Salama, assistant professor of Arabic at San Francisco State University, said pictorial representations of Muhammad seem to have been accepted in countries that weren't familiar with Arabic, and appear to have been viewed as a respectful way of passing the message of Islam to those who weren't familiar with the natural language of the Koran.

But Salama said it's a sensitive issue in Islam because visualizations can only be illustrations and are forbidden to become idols to be venerated as statues in many Christian religions are venerated. There are no statues in mosques and Islamic scholars note that during his lifetime, Muhammad was alarmed about idolatry in the Middle East, and the prophet personally purged the holy Kaaba in Mecca of hundreds of idols it contained.

"Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture," Muhammad is recorded as having said.

Salama said the protests in the Muslim world also have to be understood against a historical background. The West once sought to colonize the Muslim states and impose Western religions on them. "There's a lot of misdirected anger here," he said.

Rashied Omar, a Muslim scholar at the University of Notre Dame who teaches Islamic ethics, said there was no historical consensus in Islam over depictions of Muhammad until modern times and that in some cultures it was accepted.

"Generally speaking now, most Muslims would find any depiction to be incorrect," said Omar, a former imam.

But he added that many Muslims accept respectful depictions of Muhammad, and some don't object to the appearance of Muhammad in the frieze inside the U.S. Supreme Court chamber, which depicts the prophet alongside other lawgivers, like Justinian and Moses. After a 1997 protest, the Supreme Court revised its guidebook to state that "the figure is a well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Muhammad, and it bears no resemblance to Muhammad. Muslims generally have a strong aversion to sculptured or pictured representations of their prophet."

Omar noted that other religions discourage representations of religious figures, and during the Protestant Reformation, Scottish reformer John Knox destroyed all of the religious statues in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

"Go to Geneva now, and the churches are absolutely bare because of the movement of the Christian Reformation," Omar said. Jewish synagogues do not contain depictions of religious figures, and Orthodox Jews even avoid invoking the deity's name directly, referring only to "G-d."

David Cook, an assistant professor of religious studies at Rice University and author of the book "Understanding Jihad," said the prohibition against depicting Muhammad seems strong in the core Arabic-speaking lands of the Middle East, while restrictions were relaxed in Islamic areas like Persia and Mogul India that are outside that zone.

Cook said he doubts that many of those protesting the cartoon lampooning of Muhammad in European newspapers are aware of the existence of the Persian miniatures and other illustrations. "Knowledge of this history is with a small group of specialists," he said. "Most of the evidence is in museums."

Western depictions of Muhammad have provoked violent protests in the Muslim world in the past, and Cook noted that there were periodic riots in 19th-century India caused by Christian missionaries crusading to convert Muslims. After the British took direct control of India in 1858, the government periodically was forced to ban missionary work because of unrest in both Muslim and Hindu communities.

Art scholars said the European cartoons that sparked the current spate of unrest are tame compared to some of the poisonous depictions of Muhammad in 19th-century Western texts. A favorite theme of anti-Muhammad cartoons was to repeat Dante's assignment of Muhammad to the torments of hell in "The Inferno." Western painters, including William Blake, Gustave Dore, August Rodin and Salvador Dali, have depicted Muhammad in hell with his entrails hanging out.

Muslim sensitivity goes to other arts depicting the prophet's image. For example, the 1976 Hollywood movie "The Message" starring Anthony Quinn provoked demonstrations in the Islamic world after it depicted a shadowy Muhammad.

James Herrick, a professor of communications at Hope College in Holland, Mich., believes that the intensity of the opposition to the lampooning of Muhammad comes about because Islamic countries haven't gone through periods where their religion has been ridiculed.

Herrick said that criticism of Christianity has been fair game since at least 1680, and he recalled the Deist movement's vitriolic attacks on Christianity, which resulted in the tradition of religious tolerance picked up by Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers.

"The difference is that this is all new to Islam because dissent and criticism have been officially and strongly prohibited in Muslim countries," he said. He said globalization is now bringing the Islamic world into conflict with traditions Muslims have not experienced before. "It is all part of a process of public scrutiny that Islam has yet to encounter - but is encountering now," he said.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.

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