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One of the controversial Muhammad CartoonsI’m sure you have all heard about the controversy surrounding cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims forbid images of Muhammad and though Shi’a Muslims do allow representations of Muhammad any depiction of him must be done with respect and dignity. Because of the Danish cartoons many Muslims were quite pissed off. In true religious insanity they wanted the heads of the cartoonists because of the disrespect done to Muhammad and because the images depicted Islam as violent.

So why does Islam get so touchy about images of Muhammad? Christianity seems perfectly fine with showing Jesus as black, white, Asian, young, old and pretty much anything else you can think of. Some of the most beautiful art ever made has featured Jesus yet Muhammad is strangely neglected in the world of art.

From the Qur’an
Shakir translation
Chapter 21 : Al-Anibiya (The Prophets)

021.052
When he said to his father and his people: What are these images to whose worship you cleave?

021.053
They said: We found our fathers worshiping them.

021.054
He said: Certainly you have been, (both) you and your fathers, in manifest error.

021.055
They said: Have you brought to us the truth, or are you one of the triflers?

021.056
He said: Nay! your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, Who brought them into existence, and I am of those who bear witness to this:

021.057
And, by Allah! I will certainly do something against your idols after you go away, turning back.

021.058
So he broke them into pieces, except the chief of them, that haply they may return to it.

The earliest surviving image of Muhammad made in 1315 and showing Muhammad re-dedicating the Black Stone at the Kaaba.

This passage from the Qur’an is talking about idolatry and is similar to the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai getting all worked about the golden calf. We have to dig a bit deeper to get at the real meat of the issue.

From the Sahih Bukhari
Volume 9, Book 93, Number 648:

Narrated Abu Huraira:

I heard the Prophet saying, “Allah said, ‘Who are most unjust than those who try to create something like My creation? I challenge them to create even a smallest ant, a wheat grain or a barley grain.’ “

The Sahih Bukhari is known as a Hadith which is a written form of the oral traditions regarding discussions “relevant to the actions and customs of the Islamic prophet Muhammad”. These Hadith are used as tools to help Muslims gain a deeper insight into their faith. They are a supplement to the Qur’an on issues either not covered in that text or that may be open to interpretation because the teachings are not clear. These Hadith are considered cannocial but are not technically part of the Qur’an so there is plenty of room for disagreement which has led, in part, to the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.

Putting aside the history lesson and any of the deep religious reasons for controlling (or forbidding) a “graven” image of Muhammad there is another benefit. Think about it this way – Miles Davis, Jim Morrison and Maynard James Keenan are all potent public figures who knew that people will want them even more if during a concert they turned their back to the audience. Anticipation motivates people and in some ways makes the presenter even more powerful because he remains something of a desired mystery.

15th century illustration in a copy of a manuscript by Al-Bîrûnî, depicting Muhammad preaching the Qur'an in Mecca.

In the movies of the 30’s and 40’s the screen would go dark when the characters were about to have sex and your imagination was left to fill in the blanks. This same method then turns Muhammad into a much more of a personal experience for those who believe in him because each believer is investing a bit of themselves into the experience. A Christian has plenty of images of Jesus with which to stare at but it becomes a less personal investment made by the viewer. Instead of a happy profile of Muhammad hanging on the wall on the other side of the room like Jesus, Muhammad is right there in your minds eye – a visualized manifestation created by the individual that is always present. He becomes not only a God from a holy text but also a God you have helped to create for yourself.

This close attachment to Muhammad may be why Muslims are so much more fervent about their faith than modern Christians. 1000 years ago Christian icons of Jesus were harsh and angry and motivated people to do terrible things (to Muslims ironically enough) but over time the image softened and so did the Christians. Islam, on the other hand has taken the opposite route. Before the 16th century images of Muhammad were more common but then artists began painting him with either a veil covering his face or even just as a glowing bright light.

Illustration portraying Muhammad preaching to his early followers. 15th century illustration kept in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.Muhammad at Mount Hira (16th century Ottoman illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi)Though many Muslims do allow Muhammad to be shown his image is tightly controlled because Islam understands the power their prophet can have over the faith. Since the Qur’an requires supplemental texts to clarify murky issues and with the deep divisions already present within the Islamic faith, keeping Muhammad on a tight leash keeps the faith from spiraling out of control because they are controlling its most important figure.

 

To conclude two days of posts I want to impress upon you that art can be a powerful tool even if many people may not know why or how. Since religion relies on faith in the unseen, the decisions made in depicting various important holy figures plays a large role in the lives of the believers and can literally alter the tenor of the faith. By controlling art, music, literature and other forms of human expression a religion can become a powerful vice with which to hold people inside of.

Islamic protesters in London denouncing the Danish cartoonsThough there are theists who believe they are well meaning in limiting the sorts of expression that should be publicly acceptable (banning books in high schools, denouncing rap music, etc), what is really going on is just plain and simple control over free will. Something seemingly as simple as a friendly picture of Jesus or a veiled image of Muhammad has a deeper meaning than just some fickle taste in art because it can literally change the world and they way people “choose” to see the world.

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