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As of January 2009, this site is definitely closed, but you can follow Safa Haeri on his new blog: DAMAVAND at http://wwwdamavandsafa.blogspot.com

Bonfire of the Pieties

Published Friday, February 10, 2006



New York "The Muslim Fury," one newspaper headline screamed. "The rage of Islam sweeps Europe," said another. "The clash of civilizations is coming," warned one commentator. All this refers to the row provoked by the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper four months ago. Since then a number of demonstrations have been held, mostly -- though not exclusively -- in the West, and Scandinavian embassies and consulates have been besieged.

But how representative of Islam are all those demonstrators? The "rage machine" was set in motion when the Muslim Brotherhood -- a political, not a religious, organization -- called on sympathizers in the Middle East and Europe to take the field. A fatwa was issued by Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood sheikh with his own program on al-Jazeera (Television). Not to be left behind, the Brotherhood's rivals, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) and the Movement of the Exiles (Ghuraba), joined the fray. Believing that there might be something in it for themselves, the Syrian Baathist leaders abandoned their party's 60-year-old secular pretensions and organized attacks on the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and Beirut.

There is no Qor’anic injunction against images, whether of Mohammad or anyone else.

The Muslim Brotherhood's position, put by one of its younger militants, Tariq Ramadan -- who is, strangely enough, also an adviser to the British home secretary -- can be summed up as follows: It is against Islamic principles to represent by imagery not only Muhammad but all the prophets of Islam; and the Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion. Both claims, however, are false.

There is no Qor’anic injunction against images, whether of Mohammad or anyone else. When it spread into the Levant, Islam came into contact with a version of Christianity that was militantly iconoclastic. As a result some Muslim theologians, at a time when Islam still had an organic theology, issued "fatwas" against any depiction of the Godhead. That position was further buttressed by the fact that Islam acknowledges the Jewish Ten Commandments -- which include a ban on depicting God -- as part of its heritage. The issue has never been decided one way or another, and the claim that a ban on images is "an absolute principle of Islam" is purely political. Islam has only one absolute principle: the Oneness of God. Trying to invent other absolutes is, from the point of view of Islamic theology, nothing but sherk, i.e., the bestowal on the Many of the attributes of the One.

The claim that the ban on depicting Mohammad and other prophets is an absolute principle of Islam is also refuted by history. Many portraits of Mohammad have been drawn by Muslim artists, often commissioned by Muslim rulers. There is no space here to provide an exhaustive list, but these are some of the most famous:

A miniature by Sultan Mohammad-Nour Bokhara’i, showing Mohammad riding Boraq, a horse with the face of a beautiful woman, on his way to Jerusalem for his M'eraj or nocturnal journey to Heavens (16th century); a painting showing Archangel Gabriel guiding Mohammad into Medina, the prophet's capital after he fled from Mecca (16th c.); a portrait of Mohammad, his face covered with a mask, on a pulpit in Medina (16th c.); an Isfahan miniature depicting the prophet with his favourite kitten, Hurairah (17th c.); Kamaleddin Behzad's miniature showing Mohammad contemplating a rose produced by a drop of sweat that fell from his face (19th c.); a painting, "Massacre of the Family of the Prophet," showing Mohammad watching as his grandson Hussain is put to death by the Umayyads in Karbala (19th c.); a painting showing Mohammad and seven of his first followers (18th c.); and Kamal ul-Molk's portrait of Mohammad showing the prophet holding the Qor’an in one hand while with the index finger of the other hand he points to the Oneness of God (19th c.).

Bonfire of the Pieties-Body

Some of these can be seen in museums within the Muslim world, including the Topkapi in Istanbul, and in Bokhara, Samarkand and Haroun-Walat (a suburb of Isfahan). Visitors to other museums, including some in Europe, would find miniatures and book illuminations depicting Muhammad, at times wearing his Meccan burqa (cover) or his Medinan niqab (mask). There have been few statues of Mohammad, although several Iranian and Arab contemporary sculptors have produced busts of the prophet. One statue of Mohammad can be seen at the building of the U.S. Supreme Court, where the prophet is honoured as one of the great "lawgivers" of mankind.

There has been other imagery: the Janissaries -- the elite of the Ottoman army -- carried a medallion stamped with the prophet's head (sabz qaba). Their Persian Qezelbash rivals had their own icon, depicting the head of Ali, the prophet's son-in-law and the first Imam of Shi’ism. As for images of other prophets, they run into millions. Perhaps the most popular is Joseph, who is presented by the Qor’an as the most beautiful human being created by God.

Now to the second claim, that the Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion. That is true if we restrict the Muslim world to the Brotherhood and its siblings in the Salafist movement, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al Qa’eda. But these are all political organizations masquerading as religious ones. They are not the sole representatives of Islam just as the Nazi party was not the sole representative of German culture. Their attempt at portraying Islam as a sullen culture that lacks a sense of humour is part of the same discourse that claims "suicide-martyrdom" as the highest goal for all true believers.

Islamic ethics is based on "limits and proportions", which means that the answer to an offensive cartoon is a cartoon, not the burning of embassies or the kidnapping of people.

The truth is that Islam has always had a sense of humour and has never called for chopping heads as the answer to satirists. Mohammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him for more than a decade. Both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of "laughing at religion," at times to the point of irreverence. Again, offering an exhaustive list is not possible. But those familiar with Islam's literature know of Obaid Zakani's "Moush va Gorbeh" (Mouse and Cat), a match for Rabelais when it comes to mocking religion. Sa'adi's eloquent soliloquy on behalf of Satan mocks the "dry pious ones." And Attar portrays a hypocritical sheikh who, having fallen into the Tigris, is choked by his enormous beard. Islamic satire reaches its heights in Rumi, where a shepherd conspires with God to pull a stunt on Moses; all three end up having a good laugh.

Islamic ethics is based on "limits and proportions", which means that the answer to an offensive cartoon is a cartoon, not the burning of embassies or the kidnapping of people designated as the enemy. Islam rejects guilt by association. Just as Muslims should not blame all Westerners for the poor taste of a cartoonist who wanted to be offensive, those horrified by the spectacle of rent-a-mob sackings of embassies in the name of Islam should not blame all Muslims for what is an outburst of fascist energy. ENDS CARTOON 10206

Editor’s note: Mr. Amir Taheri is a veteran Iranian journalist, commentator and writer, author, among other books, of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes" (Editions Complexe, 2002).

The above article was published by The Wall Street Journal; on 8 February 2006.

Some editing, phonetisation of names and highlights are by IPS

 

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As of January 2009, this site is definitely closed, but you can follow Safa Haeri on his new blog: DAMAVAND at http://wwwdamavandsafa.blogspot.com


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