Images of Muhammad
We repeatedly hear that "Islamic tradition bans depictions of the Prophet Muhammad or Allah."
On the right, you'll find an image of Muhammad riding the Buraq that carried him on his heavenly ascent.
I've borrowed the image from the British Library's Images Online (h/t Big Hominid), which has it from the c. 1782 illuminated manuscript Divan produced by Minnat (Mir Qamar al-Din [Mir Taqi Mir?]) in India, though the language of the script is Persian. According to the official description:
The Prophet (his face shown through a veil) on Buraq guided by Jibra'il and escorted by angels over a plain on the outskirts of a city. A miniature painting from an eighteenth century manuscript of the Divan of Minnat.Images Online has a larger selection of Islamic images, including other images of Muhammad:
As we see from these images, the Muslim world has itself produced images of Muhammad, so the claim that "Islamic tradition bans depictions of the Prophet Muhammad or Allah" is simply false. Perhaps Islamic tradition has generally banned such depictions, but the ban has certainly not been absolute, or we wouldn't find these images from illuminated manuscripts.
The Prophet riding Buraq: in Yusuf va Zulaykha, by Jami (Nur al-Din 'Abd al-Rahman), with the illuminated manuscript being produced in India in the 16th century and the language of the script being Persia.
Ascent of the Prophet Mohammed: in Khamsa, by Nizami, with the illuminated manuscript being produced in Tabriz between 1539 and 1543 and the language of the script being Persian.
The Prophet on Buraq: in Khamsa, by Nizami, with the illuminated manuscript being produced in Isfahan, Iran, between 1665 and 1667 and the language of the script being Persian.
The Prophet on Buraq: in Khamsa, by Nizami, with the illuminated manuscript being produced in Isfahan, Iran, between 1665 and 1667, the illustrator being Talib Lala and the language of the script being Persian.
Ascension of the Prophet: in Khamsa, by Nizami, with the illuminated manuscript being produced in Iran around 1505 and the language of the script being Persian.
I note this because of the furor over the images of Muhammad published on page three of the Jyllands-Posten's culture section for September 30, 2005. For the fuller story of this controversy, see Wikipedia's entry on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. To summarize in brief (paraphrasing Wikipedia's opening paragraph):
The drawings are twelve editorial cartoons satirizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published along with an article about self-censorship and freedom of speech. The images were also intended for drawing attention to a claim made by Kåre Bluitgen that he had found no artist willing to illustrate his children's book about Muhammad for fear of being physically attacked by extremist Muslims who oppose depictions of the prophet and maintain that Islam prohibits them.
Muslim organizations in Denmark protested the depictions, and one of them, the Islamic Society in Denmark, toured the Middle East denouncing the images. This organization also added two other pictures of Muhammad, one as a pedophile demon and another as a pig-nosed man. A third included image depicted a praying Muslim being raped by a dog. None of these three additional images was published in the Jyllands-Posten, but they surely must have added to the outrage expressed in the Middle East.
Clearly, the problem here for Muslims is not that someone depicted Muhammad in an illustration, for Muslims have done this as well; rather, the problem is that the depictions that appeared in the Jyllands-Posten treated Muhammad as worthy of satire.
For Muslims, that is taboo.
Thus began the protests, the threats, the boycotts, the official complaints, the demands for apologies, the recall of ambassadors, and the demands for punishment. I expected that all of that pressure being applied would bring the Jyllands-Posten to submit and offer a humble apology for having published the images.
I was wrong.
On January 30, 2006, the paper's Editor-in-Chief, Carsten Juste, did apologize, but only for inadvertently injuring the feelings of Muslims, not for publishing the cartoons:
In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.This didn't satisfy the Muslim critics, who have continued to apply pressure.
Now, something very interesting has happened. Other European newspapers have begun publishing similar images of Muhammad. According to The Jerusalem Post, "Germans print Muhammad caricatures" (February 1, 2006), the German paper Die Welt for Wednesday, February 1, 2006 published on its front page an image, selected from the Danish paper's illustrations, depicting Muhammad with a turban as a bomb, and it posted in an accompanying commentary the following words:
Democracy is the institutionalized form of freedom of expression .... There is no right to protection from satire in the West; there is a right to blasphemy.The Jerusalem Post then added that France Soir, also on Wednesday, published the entire twelve drawings and stated that religious dogma cannot force its values onto a secular society. According to a BBC report, "France enters Muslim cartoon row" (February 1, 2006), France Soir's article had the headline "Yes, we have the right to caricature God." The BBC report then added that Italy's La Stampa, Spain's El Periodico, and Holland's De Volkskrant have also published some of the drawings.
This is only the beginning of what could become a huge controversy, and the winner is by no means assured of being the Western right to free expression. According to another BBC report, "Muhammad cartoon row intensifies" (February 1, 2006), late on Wednesday France Soir's owner, Raymond Lakah, announced that he had dismissed managing editor Jacques Lefranc "as a powerful sign of respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual." Well, whatever one might think of such reasoning, Lakah is the owner, and he can do what he wants with his paper, but firing Lefranc at a time like this is not good for freedom of expression.
Regardless of what the mainstream media does with this issue of free expression -- and I hope that they continue to fight for it -- internet media, especially bloggers, will doubtless engage in a heated, free, often offensive debate over this very issue. One netizen has already posted an fascinating and at times highly offensive sequence of illustrations under the heading "Depictions of Mohammed Throughout History," which includes, incidentally, Muslim depictions of Muhammad. Expect that site to generate a lot of heated debate.
So ... whose side do I take? Naturally, I side with the angels. But I give the devils their due right to free speech. After all, they too are angels ... fallen ones, but angels.