Since the Charlie Hebdou cartoons controversy in January 2015, and now the cafe attacks in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015, more attention has been focused on the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that do exist in Islamic art. They are not widely known: even on my Islamic Art and Architecture MA course at SOAS in 2008-9, they were never mentioned. Today there is increasing speculation that such images, as found for example in early illustrated Korans, are being steadily bought up by wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, specifically in order to be destroyed.
It is striking that the early images originate overwhelmingly from either Sunni Ottoman lands or from Persian Shi’ite lands, with almost nothing similar coming out of the Arab heartlands. In subject matter and style the drawings are reminiscent of saints’ icons, especially in their depictions of heaven and hell, complete with angels and demons.
These two final images from the 1920s are testimony to the fact that such images were evidently not seen as blasphemous a hundred years ago. The German Bovril equivalent did not have its factories blown up.
As Paul Chevedden, author of A New History of the Crusades, recently put it: “The great strength of Islam historically has been its ability to adapt itself to local cultures. Syncretism was one of its strong suits. Just think of all the pagan Arabian practices incorporated into the faith, not to mention its debt to Judaism and Christianity. Now it is only scandalized by syncretisms, and what passes for Islamic creativity amounts to ridding the faith of the accumulated traditions going back many centuries. If the trend continues, we will see a Salafī-Wahhābī wasteland. A richness and diversity of Islamic cultures replaced by a desert.” Too true.
With thanks to Paul Chevedden for sharing his thoughts.
Also thanks to the following:
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