In the wake of the massacre that took place in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, I have been called upon as a scholar specializing in Islamic paintings of the Prophet to explain whether images of Muhammad are banned in Islam.
The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.
Moreover, the Hadith, or Sayings of the Prophet, present us with an ambiguous picture at best: At turns we read of artists dared to breathe life into their figures and, at others, of pillows ornamented with figural imagery.
If we turn to Islamic law, there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figural imagery, including images of the Prophet. While more recent online fatwas can surely be found, the decree that comes closest to articulating this type of ban was published online in 2001 by the Taliban, as they set out to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
In their fatwa, the Taliban decreed that all non-Islamic statues and shrines in Afghanistan be destroyed. However, this very modern decree remains entirely silent on the issue of figural images and sculptures within Islam, which, conversely, had been praised as beneficial and educational by Muhammad ‘Abduh, a prominent jurist in 19th century Egypt.
In sum, a search for a ban on images of Muhammad in pre-modern Islamic textual sources will yield no clear and firm results whatsoever.
While Islam has been described as a faith that is largely aniconic—i.e., that tends to avoid images—figural imagery has nevertheless been a staple of Islamic artistic expression, especially in secular, private contexts (and today, Muslim majority countries are saturated with images, dolls, and other representational arts). Indeed, a variety of Muslim patrons commissioned illustrated manuscripts replete with figural and animal imagery from the 13th century onward.
Christiane Gruber is associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Her primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written two books and edited a volume of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalog of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles, The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual culture and post-revolutionary Iranian visual and material culture, about which she has written several articles. She also has co-edited two volumes on Islamic and crosscultural visual cultures. She is currently writing her next book, titled The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images.
Uitgelichte afbeelding: Topkapı Palace Library
Ingevoegd: FREER/SACKLER MUSEUM OF ASIAN ART/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION