Charlie Hebdo was attacked for depicting Muhammad but drawing the Prophet has a long tradition in Islamby Sameer Rahim / January 9, 2015 / Leave a comment
Since the appalling attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices on Wednesday, I’ve heard many people—Muslim and non-Muslim—confidently assert that depicting the Prophet in Islam is strictly forbidden. Although it’s true there is a strong iconoclastic streak in the religion, there is also a significant alternative tradition of representing the Prophet in Islamic history books and devotional manuals—a tradition not especially well known in the West because Muslim clergy have often condemned or tried to suppress it.
Nothing in the Koran forbids image-making but it does worry about idol-worshipping. A century after the Prophet died in 632, around the time his first biography was being circulated, religious authorities tried to avoid replicating what they saw as the misguided Christian adoration of Jesus and avoided painting him, especially in places of worship.
Until today mosques are never decorated with images of Muhammad or any other human figure. The anxiety about turning him into a quasi-divine figure is central to the early theological wrangles between Islam and the religions it confronted—not only Christianity, but also Zoroastrianism and Hinduism in the East, which have their own rich religious artistic heritages. Yet there were some image-friendly stories in the canonical biography of Muhammad: after he conquered Mecca, for example, he ordered all pagan images to be destroyed, except for one of a Madonna and Child.
One of the earliest surviving images of the Prophet appears in an illustrated world history commissioned by a Mongol ruler in 1307. He is shown uniting the warring Arab tribes by restoring the sacred black stone to the Kaaba. Apart from his long flowing hair and downcast eyes, he seems indistinguishable from the men surrounding him. The picture is now held at Edinburgh University, but at last year’s exhibition displaying images from the book, it was conspicuously absent. Interestingly, in that image there is no fiery halo round the Prophet’s head—a motif that would later become important in Persian miniatures.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, poems and prayers lauding Muhammad’s noble qualities began to feature pictorial representations of Islam’s founder. You could compare them to Christian images of Mary, of which there are also many Islamic variants. In a 14th-century image from Shiraz, now held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, the Prophet ascends to heaven on a winged horse surrounded by angels. (The story of the ascension is derived from a brief reference in the Koran.)