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To hang or not to hang - On Portraits of the Prophet Muhammad in Museum collections
Spectator blog post, January 2015


The V and A have recently decided to remove an historic image of the Prophet Muhammad from their website. I am not sure it is a very uplifting example, this censorship of the past, but they are certainly not alone in doing this. Indeed over the last generation, a slow but efficient iconoclasm has been at work in Britain pruning images of the Prophet from published books, not just about the life of the Prophet but also illustrated surveys of Islamic Art. It is extraordinary how successful this campaign has been, based not on any physical threat but on a deluge of orchestrated complaints by telephone and e-mail. And if you are the publisher of an Islamic interest book, receiving hundreds if not thousands of messages from your target audience telling you that this book would have been bought, except for the inclusion of an ‘offensive’ illustration – well this message certainly gets through to the marketing department.

Last week, an art scholar friend of mine, who is incidentally a Muslim, told me that things are getting worse. He has been doing valuable work for many years, teaching the basic principles of Islamic design to young craftsmen who are keen to reconstruct in carved wood, plaster and painted tile their own Islamic heritage, which has been destroyed by war and revolution. You would have to say that he stands on the side of the angels in this work, for which he is paid only travel expenses. He packs in centuries of artistic development in an accessible three-day or week-long course of lectures, which is also a wonderful testament to his travels and taste, for they are beautifully illustrated by the slides he has taken over the years. You might have thought he would be honoured, but after one of these recent lectures he was arrested by the police of his host-nation and told that he had a choice: either destroy all the slides on his computer or be thrown into jail. His crime was to have shown a beautiful book illustration of the Prophet, veiled in a halo of light, ascending to the heavens.

We have become so inured to this process that it can be a shock to stroll into a second-hand bookshop and see how free the 60s and 70s was from this iconoclasm. To take an example, look at a copy of Emel Esin’s study of the two Holy Cities, entitled “Mecca the Blessed, Madinah the Radiant”. It is a book that oozes piety, scholarship and devotion, and also has dozens of beautiful illuminated images of the Prophet and his family. If you tried tracking down the various images from the dozen museums proudly cited in the acknowledgements to this book, including lots from the Victoria and Albert museum, you would now enter a world of selective silence.

All faiths have had their iconoclastic periods, and to this day the decoration of any mosque might appear positively skittish compared to the interior of a Free Presbyterian church in Scotland. Even the Orthodox Church, renowned for the beauty of its spiritual art, frescoed on the walls and painted on icons, will not tolerate a free-standing statue. It’s part of a compromise that finally buried the hatchet in the bloody struggles between the iconoclasts and iconodules in the 9th century. And it means that, to my amusement, when the Great Mosque of the Umayyads was built in Damascus in the 8th century, it was the great church of Byzantine Constantinople, Ayia Sophia, that had the simplest, image-free interior. And Buddhism, which supports the largest and longest personality cult in the history of the world, began as a strictly non-representational philosophy. Indeed for the first four hundred years the most that was tolerated in terms of imagery was a symbolic wheel or a footprint.

Although we can be sure that there were no images in any of the early mosques of Islam, we cannot be so certain about the domestic space. Fragments of frescoes from Umayyad hunting palaces suggest a lively delight in the human form. We simply don’t know if there were images of the Prophet in medieval book illuminations, as our oldest sources only go back to the 13th century. And what we do possess from this period and the subsequent three centuries was clearly created for a very elite market, largely commissioned by rulers for themselves or as prestige gifts for other rulers, and kept within the compounds of their palaces. In no way can they be thought of as part of the lived experience of 99.5% of the Muslim world. And the dynasties who primarily made them – the Timurids (descended from Tamburlane), the Safavids (partly descended from Tamburlane and Genghis Khan), the Ottomans (descended from a warrior Turk called Osman) and the Moghuls (descended from the Timurid Babur) – were all descended from blood-thirsty Turkic and Mongol warriors from Central Asia, who for a long time were not especially good Muslims. Indeed the Mongol-Turks very nearly obliterated Islam, before they got back into the cultural swing of things by building monstrously large mosques and university colleges beside their tombs. Looking at some of the details from the glitteringly beautiful book illustrations of this era, the angels do have a very Central Asian look about them, if not actually Chinese and Buddhist, and the tents and armour tend to be Turkic not Arabic. So there is some sense in keeping these images to one side, if in your role as the perfect museum curator you were wanting to reflect the lived culture of the majority of the Islamic world. It could be argued that these books and especially their illustrations were the property of an alien ruling class of destructive conquerors. But we need to hear this story, not hide it.

At the moment, museum departments of Islamic culture have an identikit quality to them – a “Best Of” quality that vaults over all the more interesting details of region, time and ethnicity. You get exquisitely beautiful examples of high culture, all the expensive things from the auction houses – a Safavid carpet, samples of Arabic calligraphy, a cabinet of Iznik tableware, some fragments of Nishapur and Raqqa ware (reassembled from a dig in Mesopotamia), a Mameluke glass lamp and an astrolobe. And a number of them are nicely reproduced in the gift shop – but first can I show you the way to the café?

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