A historical and theological look at the sentiment against figural representations, caricatures in Islam

Most religious groups are highly reactionary to any insult hurting their belief system, but in Islam it is of particular concern when the images, portraits or sound of God and the Prophets are involved.

Tarushikha Sarvesh and Aftab Alam November 05, 2020 13:32:06 IST
A historical and theological look at the sentiment against figural representations, caricatures in Islam

A fragment from the first chapter of the Quran, Al-Fatiha (The Opening). Image via Wikimedia Commons

Mocking religion is considered among the most serious kinds of ridicule, as is evident from many instances of conflict over such occurrences in the past — be it the depiction of the Virgin Mary using elephant dung and sexually charged motifs by artist Chris Ofili (1996), MF Husain’s paintings of the goddesses Durga and Saraswati (1998), or Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses (1988/89). The reactions to each of these controversies have been extraordinarily sentimental. Such reactions involve collectivisation of hurt and insult premised on differential understanding of the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ as well as ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’.

Most religious groups are highly reactionary to any insult hurting their belief system, but in Islam it is of particular concern when the images, portraits or sound of God and the Prophets are involved. Images and pictures of any living being (Jaandaar) are forbidden (considered haraam) in Islam. There are historical, religious debates cited regarding the severity of punishment for the “sinful error” of causing insult to the Prophet (Alama Ibne Taimiya). However, for pragmatic purposes, Islam does allow the use of portraits and photos. The issue is one of deliberate provocation.

Religion is equally public and private, that’s why the ‘private’ or ‘public’ insult works at the same level. Therefore, religious insults can seldom remain individualised. This sentiment is further fueled by religious organisations and institutions that bring out religious diktats or fatwas against any religious insult.

Rabta-tul-Alam-al-Islami or the World Muslim League, a pan-Islamic religious charitable organisation based in Mecca is an example of such an organisation that has not only proscribed making any pictorial depictions of the Prophet haraam but also regard the act as punishable. An institute functioning under this organisation — Majam-ul-Fiqhe-Islami — has declared it a crime to make pictures or videos of Prophets.

The primary rationality driving such prohibitions is the understanding that any humanly capacity to capture or depict the Prophet is not possible. In the Quran, this sentiment is voiced through the following words: “He is Allah, the one and only. Allah, the eternal, absolute. He begetteth not, nor is he begotten and there is none like unto him.” (Surah: 112). The book, Alama-Ibne-Taimiya — written in Arabic and translated in other languages — also mentions the death penalty for an insult to God and the Prophet. However, its injunctions are restricted to Islamic states. For non-Islamic places, especially non-Muslim states — it is believed that there should be resistance and protests within the capacities of its people. In the same book, Imam-Abu-Hanifa — whose reasoning and arguments hold great influence over the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent — also argues that it is an insult to depict the Prophets pictorially. Furthermore, even for the purposes of glorification, any pictorial depiction is strictly prohibited.

The Quran condemns polytheism and idolatry and uses the terms Khaliq, Baari, Musawwir — maker of forms, or artists — as an epithet only for God (Aayat no. 24, para 28, Surah Hashr no. 59). People who indulge in sculpture, painting, videos etc. of any Prophet or messenger of God are often seen as sinners. As such, figural representation is banned in Islam, as they consider it polytheistic. Experts quote Hadith to qualify that it is considered un-Islamic and haraam to draw the picture or portrait of any living being — be it humans, animals or birds. There are many references in Hadith to substantiate this argument. Ayesha, the Prophet’s wife, has narrated an instance of how once, on seeing a curtain with pictures of animals, the Prophet was enraged and refused to enter the room. He said the creators of pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and will be asked to put life into these creatures. Give life to what you have created, he said. He also said that angels do not enter houses with pictures. This has also been seconded by Abu Syed Khudri. The reference for the same can be found in Hadith (Al-Muatta: 2/965.966).

Abdullah bin Masood, who often accompanied Prophet Mohammad, has mentioned that he heard the Prophet saying that Allah would give severe punishment to those who make pictures and sculptures. (Sahi Bukhari: 5950)

According to a Deoband Fatwa (ID: 749/SD=01/1437-4), any figural representation as well as clicking photos is banned within Islam. Syed Suleiman Nadvi as well as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad both initially felt that photos can be mentioned in books but later they accepted their ‘mistake’ and retracted such beliefs and practices.

The Iranian film Muhammad: The Messenger of God (Majid Majidi; 2015) didn’t draw the audience’s wrath to a large extent because no person played the Prophet’s role in the movie, nor was a person’s sound attributed to the Prophet. Yet, the movie raised controversy because of the ‘unacceptable’ portrayal of certain characters like Hazrat Bilal and a few others, that went against the grain of Islamic beliefs.

Abduallah Ibne Umar says that when the Prophet Mohammad entered Mecca, 360 idols were found there, which he hit with the stick he was carrying, all the while reciting, “Jaa al Huq wa zahaqal batil, Jaa al huq wa Maa yubdiyul baatil wa Maa yoeido (The truth has arrived and falsehood has vanished; falsehood will never start or return)” (Tajride Bukhari, Vol 2 page 290. Hadith no. 1607).

Another example of passion and commitment to the correct portrayal of Prophet Mohammad comes out in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s resolve to rectify the wrongs supposedly committed by William Muir in his work, Life Of Muhammad. Sir Syed resolved to go to Britain and spend even his life’s savings on projecting the correct image of Islam and Prophet Mohammad. This is the kind of response in present times that may be considered the most acceptable form of protest, especially where the rule of Islam does not exist.

Many wars had to be fought during the last days of Prophet Mohammad and the initial days of Khalifa Abu Bakr, as people who kept claiming the status of Prophet had to be curbed. The garden where the most consequential war was fought in Arabia came to be known as the ‘garden of death’ (hadiqatul maut). Its reference can be found in the historical work Tareekh-e-Islam

Islam has the second-largest community of followers across the globe. The common sentiment regarding their religious beliefs as well as their socio-political existence forms an important part of a religio-cultural unity. This unity is experienced in their collective reactions to occurrences or acts of humiliation or triggers. Their concept of ‘Ummah’ provides mass legitimisation to such feeling of discontent emerging from any ‘insult’ to ‘their’ religion.

Even simple, general, well-intentioned portrait making of living beings is proscribed among the Muslim community; any kind of humiliating image-making or insult through cartoons would be seen by the group’s members as a challenge to the core beliefs of their religious existence and teachings. It is one of the main pillars of Islam, which preaches faith in one ‘creator’ of living beings, and anyone else creating even an image or picture of living beings is taken as a challenger to the sole creator. Severe punishment is prescribed in Islam even for the challenger or disbeliever in one God (Murtad), once the person has embraced Islam. While drawing or making pictures of Prophet is considered offensive and challenging in itself, mocking through cartoons takes the perceived offense to another level, which goes beyond any possibility of reconciliation when repeatedly. It is seen as a challenge to the existence of the religious community, which might also be read as a signal for war in the wake of unrestrained triggers.

Christianity preceded Islam by at least 500 years. Idol worship was rampant till Islam arrived, and replaced it for a large section of the world’s population. This was Islam’s main differentiating factor from other religions and their practices.

Obtaining abstraction (formless reverence) with deep faith was an unprecedented challenge for Islam. In that regard, Islam has been trying to maintain a delicate balance between its core beliefs and external challenges that crop up from time to time, often resulting in collective anxiety –to restore the equilibrium.

There are many other denominations in Islam that have gotten back to some form of idol worship — in the form of worshipping mazaars, condemned by followers who believe in a formless God. Anything concrete cannot be a symbol of faith and has to be an abstract to be a symbol of faith

Abstraction is difficult to obtain and it remains an ongoing process. Any notion challenging such a unique concept, which was always difficult to establish amidst the well-developed and deep-seated practice of faith in other religions, is often perceived as a threat.

We inhabit a world of multiple cultural spheres and insoluble antinomies, which are part of everyday realities because of different practices, faith and belief systems. Hence, it is reasonable to minimise deliberate offense. Our expressions should be guided by a moral compass based on mutual respect, civility and responsible judiciary to minimise social anxiety.

It is understood that humans will associate or engage in some kind of transcendent meaning, that’s why it is essential to have to a critical theory of society which will help in developing a language to connect reflexive spirituality and modern rationality. It is equally important to understand the logic of modern rationality as well as communities’ belief systems, in order to develop a better language of negotiation and co-existence. Both life-worlds will have to understand each other by comprehending how they integrate themselves within and without their life-worlds.

Max Horkheimer, philosopher and sociologist, said in this regard, “Religion is the expression of human anguish and suffering that contains an implicit, if not explicit, indictment of the existing antagonistic social totality.”

In matters of faith, the path to assess the response to insults or other triggers can be a slippery slope with possible consequences in any direction. To maintain a fine balance in the co-existence of various sects, beliefs and values, it is desirable that expressions, criticisms and value judgments of sentiments of people do not come across as prejudiced or provocatively encroaching. These days this tussle is most vividly seen in the overlap between religious beliefs of people and the constitutional values defined by most of the post-Westphalian states.

Tarushikha Sarvesh is assistant professor of Sociology, Centre for Women’s Studies, Aligarh Muslim University. Aftab Alam is assistant professor, Department of Urdu at Aligarh Muslim University.

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