Muslims have visualized the Prophet Muhammad in words and calligraphic arts for centuries
The republishing of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in September 2020 has led to protests in several Muslim-majority countries. It also resulted in disturbing acts of violence: In the coming weeks, two people were stabbed near the magazine’s former headquarters and a teacher was beheaded after presenting the cartoons in a classroom class. Mohamed’s visual depiction is a delicate issue for a number of reasons: Islam’s early attitude to idolatry has resulted in a general rejection of images of living beings throughout Islamic history. Muslims rarely took or disseminated pictures of Muhammad or other notable early Muslims. Recent cartoons have offended many Muslims around the world. Focusing the reaction to Muhammad’s images stifled an important question: How have Muslims imagined him for centuries in the almost complete absence of icons and images? In my courses on early Islam and the life of Muhammad, I teach to the amazement of my students that there are few pre-modern historical personalities we would know more about than Muhammad. The respect and devotion attributed to him by the first generations of Muslims led to a wealth of textual material that provided rich details on every aspect of his life. The earliest surviving biography of the Prophet, written a century after his death, covers hundreds of pages in English. The last ten years have been so well documented that certain episodes of his life can be traced day by day during this period. Even more detailed are the books of the early Islamic era, which were specifically devoted to describing the body, character, and manner of Muhammad. From the very popular 9th century book “Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya” or the sublime qualities of Mohamed, Muslims have learned everything from Mohamed’s height and body hair to his sleeping habits, clothing preferences and favorite foods. No information was too ordinary or irrelevant when it concerned the prophet. The way she walked and sat records this book, along with the approximate amount of white hair on her temple in old age. These meticulous textual descriptions have worked for Muslims for centuries as an alternative to visual representations. Most Muslims portrayed Muhammad as described by his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, in the famous part of Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya: a man with broad shoulders, medium height, black, wavy hair, rosy face, slightly leaning down. The second half of the description focused on his character: a humble man who evoked fear and respect in everyone he met. Mohamed text portraitsHe said Muhammad’s figurative depiction was not completely unheard of in the Islamic world. In fact, from the 13th century onwards, the manuscripts contained scenes from the life of a prophet, initially in full form and later with a veiled face. However, the majority of Muslims would not have access to the manuscripts that contain these images of the prophet. For those who wanted to visualize Mohammed, there were nonpictorial, textual alternatives. There was an artistic tradition that was especially popular among Turkish and Persian-speaking Muslims. The ornate and gilded borders on the single page were filled with a masterfully calligraphic text of Muhammad’s description in Ali’s Shama’il. In the center of the page was the famous verse of the Qur’an: “We have sent you (Muhammad) into the world only by grace.” These textual portraits, called “hily” in Arabic, were closest to taking a picture of Muhammad in much of the Muslim world. Some hills were strictly without any figural depiction, while others contained a drawing of the Kaaba, the sacred shrine of Mecca, or a rose that symbolized the beauty of the prophet. Framed hills also decorated mosques and private houses in the 20th century. Smaller copies were carried in bottles or in the pockets of those who believed in the spiritual power of the prophet’s description for good health and against evil. Hilyas kept the memory of Mohamed fresh for those who wanted to imagine it out of mere words. The legal basis for Islam is images, including the ban on Muhammad, unclear, and there are differences between denominations and law schools. For example, Shiite communities seem to have accepted visual representations more than devotees for devotional purposes. Images of Muhammad, Ali, and other family members of the Prophet are in some circulation in the folk religious culture of Shiite-majority countries such as Iran. Sunni Islam, on the other hand, largely avoided religious iconography. Outside of the Islamic world, Mohammed was regularly fictionalized in literature and depicted with images in the medieval and early modern Christian world. But it was often in a less sympathetic form. Dante’s most famous “hell machine” suffered the Prophet and Ali in hell, and the scene inspired many drawings. However, these depictions received little attention from the Muslim world as they were made and consumed for the Christian world. Providing historical backgrounds to offensive cartoons and a visual depiction of a colonial past Muhammad provides a much-needed nuance to a complex and potentially inflammatory issue, but it only helps explain part of the picture. Equally important for understanding the reactions to Mohamed’s images are recent developments in history. There is a large Muslim minority in Europe today, and Mohamed’s imaginary or visual depiction does not go unnoticed. With the development of mass communication and social media, the rapid spread of images as well as the mobilization of reactions to them have also taken place. Most importantly, many Muslims find the cartoons offensive because of their Islamophobic content. Some cartoons imply a rough equality of Islam through violence or treachery through the image of Muhammad, a cross-cutting theme in the Mohamed colonial European scholarship. Anthropologist Saba Mahmood argued that such depictions could cause “moral injury” to Muslims, causing emotional pain due to a special relationship with the Prophet. Political scientist Andrew March sees the cartoons as a “political act” that could be detrimental to “efforts to create a public space where Muslims feel safe, valued and equal”. Even without images, Muslims developed a vivid mental image of Mohammed, not only on the outside, but on the whole person. The roughness of some of Mohamed’s cartoons is worth pondering.[Insight, in your inbox each day. You can get it with The Conversation’s email newsletter.]This article is published by the non-profit news site The Conversation, which aims to share ideas from academic experts. Written by Suleyman Dost, Brandeis University. 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