A sixteenth-century Ottoman depiction of Mohammed welcoming Jacob
Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, Turkey/The Bridgeman Art Library InternationalA sixteenth-century Ottoman depiction of Mohammed welcoming Jacob

On the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 25th Street stands the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, a Corinthian-columned marble palace built in 1900 by architect James Brown Lord. Gracing the roof balustrade are nine statues of historical lawgivers, including Solon, Justinian, Confucius, and Moses. Originally, the design honored ten men, the tenth being Mohammed, in an eight-foot marble statue by Charles Albert Lopez. The New York Times described the statue as “of average height, but broad-shouldered, with thick, powerful hands. Under his turban, his brows are prominent and frowning. A long, heavy beard flows over his robe. In his left hand, he holds a book, symbolizing the new religion he founded”—a blunder by Lopez; no devout Muslim, let alone Mohammed himself, would touch the Koran with a hand reserved for dirty chores—“and in his right, a scimitar, connoting the Moslem conquest.”

In 1955, as a renovation to the courthouse was under way, the Mohammed statue came to the notice of the Egyptian, Indonesian, and Pakistani ambassadors to the United Nations. As Daniel Pipes recounted the episode in a 2008 Jerusalem Post article, they immediately demanded that the U.S. State Department use its influence to get the statue removed—despite its obvious intent to honor the Muslim lawgiver—on the grounds that Islam forbids artistic representation of the Prophet. The State Department complied. New York City’s public works commissioner, Frederick Zurmuhlen, filled in the vacant spot on the balustrade by shifting around the remaining nine statues.

Over half a century later, Muslim demands related to the visual representation of Mohammed have become familiar—and today, they are usually accompanied by threats of violence. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting Mohammed, sparking violent riots and threats and prompting most other Western papers to refuse to run the cartoons. Last year, Yale University Press published a book on that controversy but refused to print the cartoons themselves. More recently, in response to apparent threats against the creators of the TV show South Park, the cable network Comedy Central censored an episode that mocked Mohammed.

The most important response to these incidents, of course, is that democratic societies cannot tolerate violent threats against freedom of expression. But a second point should be made, too: though most Western observers assume that Islam does prohibit visual representations, especially those showing Mohammed, the history of the issue is more complicated than radical Islamists would have us believe.

Islam is not monolithic. To simplify matters considerably, we can speak of “Islam 1”—the Koran; “Islam 2”—the religion as it was subsequently expounded, interpreted, and developed; and “Islam 3”—the actual behavior of believing Muslims. To begin with Islam 1: though the Koran condemns idolatry, it does not explicitly forbid the representation of human figures. Some theologians, however, later interpreted its verses to prohibit sculpture in particular.

Moving on to Islam 2: numerous hadiths—sayings and deeds of the Prophet, first collected in the ninth century—were often interpreted to prohibit any depiction of living creatures. Yet an account of Mohammed’s life that is as revered as the hadiths—the eighth-century Sira of Ibn Ishaq—contradicts the prohibition, recounting how Mohammed preserved portraits of Jesus and Mary from destruction. In addition, the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa’d, who died around ad 845, tells us that on one occasion Mohammed found his young bride, Aisha, playing with her dolls. He asked her what they were, and on being told that they were King Solomon’s horsemen, made no adverse observations and let her continue playing with them. Despite these examples, certain schools of Islamic law, beginning in the late eighth century, accused artists showing human beings of trying to imitate God’s creative function. Others argued that what mattered was the artist’s intent and that Mohammed would object only to full-size human figures that could be mistaken for real persons. Hence, miniatures or small dolls were permissible.

As is often the case, Islam 3 has often ignored the prescriptions of Islam 1 and Islam 2. Islamic history is full of examples of paintings—particularly miniatures, one of the glories of Islamic art—of human beings, including the Prophet. There are illustrated Korans depicting Mohammed, some showing human beings with distinct lines drawn over their necks, symbolically defying them to come to life and thereby demonstrating the artist’s denial of his intent to compete with God. Some paintings clearly show Mohammed’s face; others draw his body but leave his face blank or veiled. The tradition of veiling Mohammed’s face may have nothing to do with any prohibition on representational art but rather refer to a belief that Mohammed needed to cover his face, since it radiated such light that it would blind a normal person.

Sculpture is rarer in the Islamic world, but even there, we see plenty of exceptions. Khumarawayh, the ninth-century Tulunid ruler of Egypt and Syria, commissioned statues of himself, his wives, and singing girls. In tenth-century Spain, Abd al-Rahman III erected a statue of his favorite wife, al-Zahra. Under the Egyptian dynasty of the Fatimids (909–1171), bronze ewers and perfume burners in the form of birds and animals were often made. The Seljuk princes of Asia Minor in the thirteenth century employed sculptors to carve human and animal stone figures that were used to decorate their capital, Konya, and can still be viewed in the museum of that city. In the fourteenth century, Mohammed V commissioned marble lions for the Alhambra palace in Spain; they, too, remain extant. Ismail Pasha of Egypt (1830–95) erected statues of Muslim dignitaries in public places.

One might also cite certain Ottoman gravestones from the eighteenth century onward, which vaguely suggest the human figure—especially the head, depicted without facial features and usually shown wearing some form of headgear, most often a turban. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the zealous and bigoted Muslims who poured into the country destroyed many such beautiful gravestones.

Persia seems to have the longest tradition of representing human figures in the Islamic world. Illustrations of the stirring stories in the Shah-nama, composed by Firdawsi (940–1020) and considered a national epic, played an enormous part in popularizing the use of wall paintings and book illustrations in Persia. One of the earliest representations of Mohammed is in an Arabic version of Rashid al-Din’s universal history commissioned by Mahmud Ghazan Khan, a ruler of the Ilkhanate state, which included Persia. Usually dated to 1307, the book shows the Prophet replacing the Black Stone in the Ka’aba, in Mecca. The Timurid Dynasty, which subsequently ruled Persia, also produced illustrated works, such as the Miraj Name (1436). Here Mohammed is portrayed with clearly Chinese features, surely because Timur, the dynasty’s founder, was Mongol.

Later, in sixteenth-century Persia, wandering dervishes would go from town to town telling stories of the Holy Family—that is, Mohammed; his daughter Fatima; her husband, Ali; and their children, Hassan and Hussain—and illustrating them with curtains or canvases painted with representations of the five. Persia also offers evidence of murals and paintings of Ali and Mohammed during the Qajar Dynasty (1794–1925). In modern times, with the advent of printing, illustrated biographies of Mohammed were published in Iran, and posters of the Holy Family were widely sold. (For their poster art, the Persian artists drew on the Western Christian tradition, and many of the posters of Mohammed and Ali are essentially copies of scenes illustrating Old or New Testament stories by the Bible illustrator Harold Copping.)

Even today, across the Muslim world, we find portraits—including portraits of religious leaders—on banknotes, coins, and posters, as well as in magazines and journals. Strictly speaking, an interdiction on human representation should place television and even photography off-limits; in reality, of course, all Islamic societies are addicted to movies and soap operas.

In its unwillingness to pass judgment on other cultures, the West is far too eager to defer to the Muslim world’s shrillest spokesmen on matters of religious doctrine. Some fringe group threatens South Park, and Comedy Central parrots and accepts uncritically that group’s claim that Islam forbids the representation of Mohammed, period.

But even if pictures of Mohammed—or of human beings in general—were forbidden in Islam, we should still unabashedly defend our right to freedom of expression. In doing so, we would not simply give our adversaries pause for reflection; we would encourage liberals in the Islamic world, who watch with dismay each time we cave to radicals’ demands and reinforce their cruel and empty certainties.


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