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Portraits of the Prophet
Spectator Article, February 2015


Two months ago I was sitting beside the tomb of a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. The chamber walls were lined with a magpie’s nest of tiles, a happy jumble of colours and ages, while the stone floor was bumpy with gifted carpets. Women in headscarves sat companionably on one side of the tomb with their backs to the wall, with a much smaller number of men on the other. Kneeling to one side, a man recited from the Koran: God’s message, delivered to the world in Arabic through the mouth of Muhammad. The tone was not assertive, dominant or triumphant, but charged with a curious note of mournful regret, almost touching on sadness, as if it was doomed to be ignored by mankind. After the recitation had finished I told a story about the last week of the Prophet’s life, so that the English-speaking group I was travelling with could have something other than mood and sound to take away from the building. My story included a description of the Prophet Muhammad, detailed enough to paint an imaginary portrait, and included a mildly ribald joke from one of his wives, told to him on his deathbed when he was racked with fever. When we left the building I was stopped by a custodian, who I imagined either wanted me to leave a banknote behind in the collection box or wanted to tell me not to talk when I visited this holy building. I was wrong on both counts, he simply wanted to offer me a gift, a drop of highly scented oil, for he had liked my story and wanted to show his appreciation.

It is stories such as this, which I bring back as souvenirs from the east, that often perplex my rationalist friends back home. I can hear their questions now.

“Why can you describe the Prophet but not draw him? I just don’t understand the difference.” “Why can you make jokes but not draw cartoons? It makes absolutely no sense.”

So where does this idea that it is forbidden to represent the Prophet come from? There is no line in the Koran that concerns itself with it. The whole tradition rests in the Hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet – in essence what one of his wives or early converts remembered the Prophet Muhammad saying. Number 5963 in al-Bukhari’s multi-volume Hadith recalls him decrying that "Whoever makes a picture in this world will be asked to put life into it on the Day of Resurrection, but he will not be able to do so." And what exactly did he mean by that? Now you must take a deep breath and dive into the murky waters of Islamic scholarship. On the one hand there are commentators who think this condemns every sketch and photograph ever made and their makers to eternal hellfire (including the snap used in your passport or national identity card). On the other there are commentators who explain that this prohibition only refers to diabolical artists who attempt to create something with a soul – like Dr Frankenstein or Oscar Wilde’s imagined portrait of Dorian Gray. Still other scholars have pieced together all the relevant Hadith and argue that Muhammad was simply telling a parable to illustrate that mankind – for all its pretentions to creativity – will never make anything as useful or as beautifully compact as even a seed of barley.

Nevertheless, a sort of consensus has emerged. Most Muslims accept that two-dimensional images (photographs, films and television) are absolutely fine but that three-dimensional sculptures that cast a shadow are best avoided. If you go into a typical Sunni Muslim home, you will usually find a television on in the sitting room, often showing a football match or an Egyptian soap opera. There may also be a photograph of a heroic football team, which is as likely to be Chelsea, Barcelona or Real Madrid as the national squad. Practically all public spaces are decorated with large photographs of the current ruler of the country – be he a King, a Sheikh, a Sultan, a revolutionary colonels, a mullah or last years Chief of the General Staff in this year’s presidential suit.

Looking at the artistic tradition and history of the Islamic world sheds further light. The mosques of Islam are empty of human imagery but positively billow with beautiful representations of flowers, gardens, trees and buildings (such as those depicted in mosaic in the ancient mosque of Damascus). These have clearly always been deeply acceptable. The imagery of “the garden” is designed to remind the worshipper of the garden of paradise that awaits the pious in the life beyond.

When we try to look at early Muslim two-dimensional art on paper, papyrus and parchment we face an historic blank. The Mongol decimation of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 13th century (epitomized by the sacking of Baghdad in 1258) was so horribly destructive that it wiped out five hundred years of historical evidence. Only the chance survival of a 13th-century illustrated manuscript (the incredibly precious and much reproduced Al-Maqamat Al Hariri - held in the French National library in Paris) reveals a rich figurative tradition. And once again you have to choose between two antagonistic schools of thought: one holds that this wonderful corpus of ninety-nine images is evidence of a brand new influence, that of the Turks and Mongols; the other that it is precious evidence of an earlier and confident Islamic figurative tradition. The Shiite Persians believe the latter, and to this day have absolutely no problem about two-dimensional images, even those illustrating the life of Muhammad, though they often prefer to depict the face of Muhammad as veiled, or subsumed by a halo of gold or green fire. Indeed the Iranian Republic continues to support public art depicting the heroes of Islam, which include fantastically vivid and romantic posters of Imam Ali (the Prophet’s cousin, first disciple and son-in-law) and his martyred son Husayn and their bloodied, riderless horses.

But whatever the heritage of their medieval past, Sunni Islam in the Arab-speaking Middle East had decisively turned its back on depictions of the Prophet well before the 18th-century. Muhammad, his character and even his physical attributes were represented, indeed glorified, in a brilliant calligraphic tradition which continues to this day, with complex patterns and images being created from his name and characteristics. It may have been a gut reaction to the magnificent art produced by their Iranian Shiite rivals, but it is also true that the Sunnis were concerned that Muhammad was being turned into a demi-god, that his image would be worshipped and in the process his actual prophetic message ignored. This was perhaps particularly likely on the far-eastern frontiers of Islam, in India and Indonesia (numerically the two largest Muslim nations in the world), with their ancient syncretic traditions. So the attack on imagery has a constructive element, concentrating all attention on the text of the Koran and reinforcing the Arab nature of that revelation. Confused? I would hope so. For that is the end point of all useful discussions about Islam and the beginning of wisdom. It is vital to remember that there is no single source of authority about anything Islamic: there is no Muslim Pope, no ruling cultural academy, no monarch sitting in parliament to provide a definitive answer. Instead there are a myriad of opinions. It is inherent in the true nature of Islam that each believer is in direct contact with God, with no need of intercession on his or her behalf, no need of priest-craft. And it is important to remember, even if you have never read the two hundred epithets that have been awarded him over the centuries, that the Prophet Muhammad is a man who is very much loved – whatever his followers have done with his message.

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