This was a piece I published in The Tablet 11th February 2006 (copyright).
Truth Behind the Images
ON ONE SIDE of the current controversy over the cartoon representation of Muhammad, the press seeks freedom of speech and on the other Muslims are outraged to see illustrations of their beloved prophet. As a Scottish Muslim I feel caught between these two positions as I value the freedom and liberty I enjoy as a Scot but I also understand the anger and sentiment that Muslims are showing.
At the core of the issue is that Muslims do not feel comfortable with figural representations. But does this mean that non-Muslims should also not feel comfortable illustrating prophets? After all there are many religious traditions where images are central. Even for Muslims the issue is not entirely clear cut. At one point the prophet Muhammad says: “The most severely punished people on the Day of Judgment will be the makers of figures.” On another occasion he warns that those who create pictures and statues will be punished by God and commanded to “bring to life what they had created”. But then, in contradiction to these traditions, is the time when the prophet allowed his wife, Aisha, to make pillows out of cloth with pictures on them.
Essentially, the prophet’s teachings need to be understood in the context of his time when his message was aimed at an idol-worshipping nation which he felt had lost touch with monotheism. The prophet wanted to bring back belief that focused on a God who was beyond figural representation and who was uniquely the creator of everything: “He it is who fashioned you in the wombs as he pleased” (Koran 3:6). To reiterate, his main objective was to overturn “idol” worship.
Of course it is not true to say that figurative art has not blossomed during the history of Islam. The Umayyad dynasty, which ruled the early Islamic empire from 661 to 750, had no problem with the representation of images as is evident from wall paintings, at times rather erotic, in their palaces. During a visit to Jordan in 2000, I was amazed at the intricacy of some of the paintings that still remain and then confused at being instructed, by the clearly embarrassed Muslim tour guide, not to look at these “un-Godly images”. Figural representation in Islamic art is also evident in pottery, metalwork, wood and coins. However, when the Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled in Baghdad until 1258, figurative art virtually died out. There is some evidence for images of the prophet during this time but he is usually represented with a blanked out face. Mosques, however, were then, and remain today, devoid of any figurative art.
Despite some confusion over representation of the prophet in the past, the issue today are drawings that represent him in a negative light with the aim of offending Muslims. Let us be clear, if it is not already clear, fear of idolatry lies behind Muslims’ finding figural representations of the Prophet Muhammad totally unacceptable. But will any Muslim turn to idolatry because of the cartoons? And indeed should Muslims be offended by their negativity? Prophets of many religions, including the prophet Muhammad, were not unaccustomed to being mocked and ridiculed during their lives, as the Koran shows: “Apostles before you were also mocked, but those who jeered were engulfed by what they mocked.” When Muhammad went to the city of Taif to invite its inhabitants to follow Islam he was thrown out and pelted with stones by children until his feet bled. As the prophet walked away, the archangel Gabriel appeared and told him that God was aware of his hardship and had deputed an angel to raze the mountains surrounding Taif and destroy the city and its inhabitants if he so wished. The prophet did not accept this offer and told the angel that the inhabitants were free to accept or reject his message but he remained optimistic that their progeny might one day believe in God.
This message of humility and foregiveness from Muhammad’s life is in sharp contrast to the violence-filled placards and banners that extremist Muslims wave during the current mass demonstrations. The torching of Danish embassies will do little more than cause mayhem and destruction. Muslim communities throughout the world have every right to demonstrate against the offence they feel but surely their objective needs to be one of peace?
Rather than just offence at representing the prophet, in a good or a bad light, it seems that the real issues at stake are power and identity. This whole cartoon affair has given added authority to imams, clerics, so-called community leaders and leaders of the Muslim world, who have seized this opportunity to unite Muslims globally on a highly emotional issue. But in effect it shows little more than their impotence on the real issues affecting Muslims today, and rather than building and securing bridges with the non-Muslim world they are destroying them. It is their aim is to transport Muslims back to a romanticised medieval notion of what is “Islamic”, an indentity of what is “us” and “them”. Maybe the enlightened spirituality of the Umayyad princes has an important message to convey?
An Islamic identity that does not feel comfortable and able to sustain itself within the current state of the world becomes highly emotive, insecure and irrational. Is it any surprise that Islam today is labelled as a “ticking time bomb” in the hands of certain Muslims?
So are the hate-filled demonstrations truly about love of the prophet or are they just indicative of a search for an “Islamic” identity? Surely living Islam is about “beautifying” (Ihsan) one’s relationship with God, so should Muslims even be wasting their time with an issue that does not affect this? In the end, the only winners from this controversy are the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Nick Griffin, representing European political parties long calling for the removal of all Muslims from “white Christian” Europe.
I hope that through this frenzy we do not lose sight of mutual respect, and that the voices of reason and peace on all sides prevail. If Muslims really want to show love of the prophet they need to follow his way: “Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.” (Koran 7:199)
Amanullah De Sondy is a Research Fellow in Islamic Studies at the School of
Divinity, University of Glasgow