Monday, June 1, 2015

Islamophobia, Iconophobia, and Islamic Images of Muhammad

A helpful analysis of the place of images in Islamic history.


by Timothy R. Furnish, Mahdi Watch — May 31, 2015

Timothy R. Furnish holds a PhD in Islamic history; writes, lectures and consults on Islamic world issues; and blogs on Mahdism and Muslim eschatology at

Muhammad cavorting with houris, from the Ottoman palace museum.
THIS should upset Muslims more than anything from "Draw Muhammad."

The rather obscure realm of Islamic art, and in particular whether it’s “unIslamic” to portray Islam’s founder, Muhammad, therein, has become an important—indeed, potentially lethal—topic, first with the murders of the Charlie Hebdo publishers, then with the Garland, Texas, attack on the organizers of “Draw Muhammad” which resulted in two self-styled jihadists being dispatched to consort with the houris.  The brains behind “Draw Muhammad”—Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller—inspired another similar event in Phoenix this past Friday (May 29, 2015).  Geller, the lightning rod of the Spencer-Geller counter-jihad duo, recently mixed it up on CNN with Chris Cuomo, as the latter compared her push for people to draw Muhammad with using the “n-word” in referring to black Americans.  

Whether one feels that “Draw Muhammad” events are intentionally provocative, it’s clear that they are certainly legal on First Amendment grounds—so I do not wish to rehash that debate.  Rather, I think it more important to examine the history of Islamic attitudes toward art in general and the portrayal of humans, particularly prophetic figures, in particular.  Media experts are all over the map on this issue:  some maintain that images of  Muhammad are strictly forbidden in the world’s second-largest religion, while others argue that “the koran [sic]” does no such thing.

Jesus and Muhammad, the original easy riders.
Neither seems too uptight about being painted. 
For a reasoned and exhaustive take, yet one accessible to us philistines, I have turned to the chapter “The Visual Arts in an Islamic Setting, c. 1258-1503,” pp. 501-520 in The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods by the brilliant historian Marshall G.S. Hodsgon.  Hodgson situates the topic into the the long history of the “Irano-Semitic lands,” and of the monotheistic religions therein, and pegs the distaste for visual symbolism—particularly of humans, and even more specifically of those deemed prophets—to a rejection by Jews, some Christians, and later Muslims for the “figural images” which were a staple of non-monotheist nature cults in the Middle East.  This “iconophobia” is not spelled out in the Qur’an, true; but Islam’s intense focus on abstract monotheism derived from the Qur’an meant that “any other symbolism, particularly in such seductive forms as music and visual imagery, must appear as a rival to the Qur’anic presence.”  Thus, “Shar’iah-minded Islam” eventually “banned all figural imagery…on the ground that it might tempt the weak to idolatry. Hanafi and Usuli [Twelver] Shi`i law books banned images…Shafi`is and Malikis implicitly linked art to luxury...but they all came to like conclusions”—contra artwork that showed holy humans, that is.   The Hanbali school of jurisprudence, which did not develop until centuries later, doubled (at least!) down on this artistic puritanism (Wahhabism and Salafism stem from Hanbalism); it is from this particular Islamic interpretive ideology that most of the world’s terrorists now come—including the al-Qa`idah-linked killers in Paris, and the ISIS destroyers of any and all art which they can get their bloody jihadist hands on.

There are those who got around the portrayal prohibition—especially in the areas of the Islamic world conquered by the Mongols, to which less restrictive ideas about painting and imagery were exported from the Far East, particularly China.  In Afghanistan and Persia, in particular, and between 1300 and 1600 AD, “miniatures” which portrayed humans—as well as prophets, up to and including even Muhammad—were allowed, and often even patronized by Islamic rulers. 

Even in the central (Arab) Islamic lands, the Shari`ah-minded “iconophobia” was not the only perspective: often at loggerheads with that was Sufism, the broad, mystical movement more concerned with inner than outer piety, and thus not always averse to depictions of prophets and other holy figures. But in so far as the Shari`ah-minded have come, since 1600 AD,  to dominate Islamic thinking and adjudicate acceptable Islamic piety—“where if a peasant came upon ancient paintings or statues he was likely to destroy them at once, or even a scholar (with the sanction of fiqh law) might actually draw a line across the throat of a painted figure to show that it was not alive”—the Sufis (who number perhaps 100 million, all told) now comprise not just the numerical but the ideological minority. 

Muhammad "the Lawgiver" flanked by two others a bit more relevant to Western civilization: Charlemagne and Justinian.  Why haven't Muslims rioted over this graven image on the US Supreme Court building? Well, the millennium IS young...

So does Islam ban portrayals of its founder, Muhammad? Yes—and no.  The majority opinion of Muslims—certainly of the `ulama, the cleric-scholars, in all five major interpretive schools—is that it is “idolatrous” to paint/illustrate any human, much more Jesus or Muhammad. However, it is also quite clear that such depictions were done in the past by Muslim artists, and thus that the Shari`ah-minded consensus of the last 400 years could very well be rolled back to what held before that—if Muslims were willing to give the Sufi side of Islam another chance.  Until then, while it is not true that cartoons of Islam’s founder are the visual equivalent of the “n-word,” a more effective means of exposing the majoritarian intolerant strain of Islam might be to eschew modern drawings of Muhammad (and certainly intentionally insulting ones) and, rather, stage exhibits with examples of ISLAMIC paintings of him.*  That would make the point more historically and legitimately, and less provocatively, in my opinion.  

[The three images used on this page all come from the "Mohammed Image Archive" at]

* The Garland Texas event — which was actually entitled 'Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest' — did include reproductions of images of Muhammad created by pious Muslims during preceding centuries of Islamic history. In his remarks at the Garland event, Robert Spencer did in fact make a similar point to that of Dr. Furnish, namely, that in earlier Islamic history, Muslims did depict Muhammad.