There exists a widespread belief that Islam can countenance no representational religious art, that any depiction of religious figures will trip the wire of Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage.” Such a belief is so firmly held in the west that it easily underwrote the government-propagated claim that the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi was a spontaneous reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” film, rather than the premeditated assault it now appears to have been.
In fact, as those willing to grant the possibility of dissonance within a centuries-old religion understand, it is not actually the case that Islam so thoroughly outlaws representational art. What we’ve lacked, writes Jamal J. Elias, is a thorough understanding of the historical and philosophical origins of the contentious role of iconography in Islam. In the following excerpt from his forthcoming study, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam, Elias explains his approach to filling this gap in our understanding.
It is often claimed that Muslims do not have icons, idols, or pictures of God or religious heroes; indeed, in modern times, there undoubtedly appears to be a widespread Islamic cultural opposition to depicting human religious figures as well as God in visual form. One need only recall the publicity surrounding the making and release of The Message in 1976—a film about the birth of Islam in which none of the primary characters appears on screen out of concern for Muslim sensibilities. Similarly, one might look to the intermittent controversies over the American comedy cartoon South Park’s allusions to depicting Muhammad beginning in 2005 and culminating in threats against the makers of the series in 2010, causing them to self-censor airings of the relevant episodes. And although the Taliban do not represent a widespread Muslim ideal, their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001 was religiously motivated to some degree, and religiously justified to every extent. More recently, the (at times violent) indignation following the publication of caricatures of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005, and the reaction to instances, threats, and rumors of the desecration of the Qur’an in the United States or in U.S. detention centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Cuba, underscore the obvious fact that Muslims hold complex attitudes toward religious images and objects, and that these attitudes do not reflect worldviews that are either naively unaware of or religiously oblivious to the power of images.
In fact, Muslim attitudes toward religious images and objects display apparent contradictions that not only are shared with Islam’s sister religions of Christianity and Judaism, but also are apparent in the history of image-rich religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. On the one hand, Muslims display a widespread (though not comprehensive) taboo on religious depictions, and a narrower—but still prevalent—distrust of treating material objects as supernatural or divine. On the other, they embrace a religious culture that is rich in images, reacts to the images of others in complex ways, and is spatially focused around an object—the Ka‘ba building in Mecca—and its associated primary ritual of pilgrimage, which incorporates somatic engagement with material objects such as stones and pillars.