Sandow Birk: Artful Observations on a Qur'an
The prominent American artist Sandow Birk may have had a naive idea in creating an "American Qur'an" . . . but we shall soon see. The above image comes from Birk's hand-painted series to accompany each of the suras in the Qur'an. Not that Birk is really illustrating the Qur'an, for the text is not in Arabic but in English, as he explains:
"Really, technically, this wouldn't even be considered a Koran by Islamic scholars because it's not written in Arabic."The man has a point, one backed up by the Islamic art and book-arts expert Marianna Shreve Simpson:
"The Koran only exists in the language in which the prophet Muhammad received the revelations, and he received and preached them in Arabic."But that opinion might carry little weight among Muslims. In Culver City, the King Fahad Mosque's director of public relations, Usman Madha, gave his opinion that Muslims might see Birk's artistry as "insulting to the Islamic faith," for he offers a warning:
"There is no such thing as an American Koran, or European Koran, or Asian Koran . . . . If someone calls a work their own version of the Koran, they are misrepresenting the Koran as revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel . . . . [and] could cause people to react in a hostile way . . . . If you look at Islamic history, we have never associated any revelations with imagery because it then becomes idol worship . . . . With all due respect to people's belief in First Amendment rights, the artist may be opening up a Pandora's box . . . . And that's the last thing we want in this day and age."As for Birk, he doesn't appeal to the US Constitution's First Amendment but to his own interpretive understanding of the Qur'an:
"The Koran is supposed to be a message from God . . . . If God is speaking to human beings, I should be able to pick up this book and think about it. I should be able to contemplate what it means to me."That sounds like a very Protestant expression -- the priesthood of all believers going back to Luther -- but it isn't the Muslim point of view. In Islam, the Ulema -- or community of religious scholars -- determines the limits of expression through application of Islamic law, sharia, based on the Qur'an, the sirah (life of Muhammad), and the hadith (traditions about Muhammad). There's no freedom of religious interpretation as one finds in the West, where such a thing is also increasingly endangered these days.
Birk himself has already encountered this sort of restriction. While developing a film based on his illustrations for Dante's Inferno, violent protests over the Danish cartoons ridiculing Muhammad were raging, and he was forced by the film's producers to excise the scene depicting Muhammad in hell. At the time, he strongly disagreed with the decision: "I thought it was wrong to act out of fear." He seems, however, to have acceded at the time . . . but perhaps he now wishes to test the limits of artistic expression? His 'respectful' Qur'anic illustration might prove useful toward this aim, whatever his intentions.
With that in mind, I find Birk's use of a contemporary stock-car race to illustrate Sura 100 an oddly compelling image to accompany his rendering of John Medows Rodwell's poetic 1861 English translation:
By the chargers, snorting, striking sparks of fire, attacking in the morning, leaving dust behind them, and cleaving midway through any host, mankind is indeed ungrateful to his Lord and he himself knows it, for he is sure [sic. surely] violent in love of worldly goods. Doesn't he know that when what is in the graves shall emerge and what is in hearts is found out that your Lord will know everything?Note that Birk is only loosely following Rodwell's version, if you happen to check, and might in fact be using several English translations as guides, thereby putting his own personal version at several removes from the original . . . though I assume that the grammatical error is unintended.
Not that distance from the Arabic original will make a difference. What will make a difference, however, is how the Islamists decide to react. If they treat Birk's 'respectful' perspective as they did the Danish cartoonists' disrespectful perspective, then they will orchestrate violent riots around the world . . . but they might handle this differently since a violent response to one artist's well-intentioned perspective on the Qur'an might not do much for Islam's positive image, and even radical Islamists might be aware of that.