Two months ago I was sitting beside the tomb of a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, telling a story about the last week of the Prophet’s life. It was detailed enough to paint an imaginary portrait of him and included a mildly ribald joke from one of his wives, told to him on his deathbed when he was racked with fever. This kind of story often perplexes my rationalist friends back home. ‘Why can you describe the Prophet but not draw him?’ ‘Why can you make jokes but not draw cartoons?’ Where does this idea that it is forbidden to represent the Prophet come from?
There is no line in the Koran that forbids it. The whole tradition rests in the Hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet — in essence what one of his wives or early converts remembered the Prophet Mohammed saying. Number 5963 in al-Bukhari’s multi-volume Hadith recalls him decrying that ‘Whoever makes a picture in this world will be asked to put life into it on the Day of Resurrection, but he will not be able to do so.’
What exactly did he mean? Now you must take a deep breath and dive into the murky waters of Islamic scholarship. On the one hand there are commentators who think this condemns every sketch and photograph ever made and their makers to eternal hellfire (including the snap used in your passport). On the other there are commentators who explain that this prohibition refers only to diabolical artists who attempt to create something with a soul — such as Dr Frankenstein. Still other scholars have pieced together all the relevant Hadith and argue that Mohammed was simply telling a parable to illustrate that mankind — for all its pretensions to creativity — will never make anything as useful or as beautifully compact as even a seed of barley.
Nevertheless, a sort of consensus has emerged. Most Muslims accept that two-dimensional images (photographs, films and television) are absolutely fine but that three-dimensional sculptures that cast a shadow are best avoided. If you go into a typical Sunni Muslim home, you will usually find a television on in the sitting room, often showing a football match or an Egyptian soap. There may also be a photograph of a heroic football team. Practically all public spaces are decorated with large photographs of the current ruler of the country.
Looking at the artistic tradition and history of the Islamic world sheds further light. The mosques of Islam are empty of human imagery but positively billow with beautiful representations of flowers, gardens, trees and buildings (such as those depicted in mosaic in the ancient mosque of Damascus). These have clearly always been acceptable. The imagery of ‘the garden’ is designed to remind the worshipper of the garden of paradise that awaits the pious in the life beyond.
When we try to look at early Muslim two-dimensional art on paper, papyrus and parchment we face an historic blank. The Mongol decimation of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 13th century (epitomised by the sacking of Baghdad in 1258) was so horribly destructive that it wiped out 500 years of historical evidence. Only the chance survival of a 13th-century illustrated manuscript (the incredibly precious and much-reproduced Maqamat of al-Hariri — held in the French National Library in Paris) reveals a rich figurative tradition. And once again you have to choose between two antagonistic schools of thought: one holds that this wonderful corpus of 99 images is evidence of a brand new influence, that of the Turks and Mongols; the other that it is precious evidence of an earlier and confident Islamic figurative tradition.
The Shiite Persians believe the latter, and to this day have no problem about two-dimensional images, even those illustrating the life of Mohammed, though they prefer to depict the face of Mohammed as veiled, or subsumed by a halo of gold or green fire. Indeed the Iranian Republic continues to support public art depicting the heroes of Islam, which include fantastically vivid and romantic posters of Imam Ali (the Prophet’s cousin, first disciple and son-in-law) and his martyred son Husayn and their bloodied, riderless horses.
Whatever the heritage of their medieval past, Sunni Islam — in the Arab-speaking Middle East — had decisively turned its back on depictions of the Prophet well before the 18th-century emergence of Wahhabism. Once again there are no definite answers. It may have been a gut reaction to the magnificent art produced by their Iranian Shiite rivals but it also reflects a very real fear that Mohammed was slowly being turned into a demi-god and that in the process his actual prophetic message would be ignored. This was especially true in the far eastern frontiers of Islam, such as India and Indonesia (numerically the two largest Muslim nations in the world) with their ancient syncretic traditions. So the attack on imagery can also be seen to have a constructive element embedded within it, concentrating all attention on the text of the Koran and reinforcing the Arab nature of that revelation.
Confused? I would hope so. For that is the end point of all useful discussions about Islam and the beginning of wisdom.
Barnaby Rogerson has written biographies of Mohammed and his heirs.