“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. 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.
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 Quranic injunction against images, whether of Muhammad 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 Muhammad and other prophets is an absolute principle of Islam is also refuted by history. Many portraits of Muhammad 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 Muhammad-Nur Bokharai, showing Muhammad riding Buraq, 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 Muhammad into Medina, the prophet’s capital after he fled from Mecca (16th century); a portrait of Muhammad, his face covered with a mask, on a pulpit in Medina (16th century); an Isfahan miniature depicting the prophet with his favorite kitten, Hurairah (17th century); Kamaleddin Behzad’s miniature showing Muhammad contemplating a rose produced by a drop of sweat that fell from his face (19th century); a painting, “Massacre of the Family of the Prophet,” showing Muhammad watching as his grandson Hussain is put to death by the Umayyads in Karbala (19th century); a painting showing Muhammad and seven of his first followers (18th century); and Kamal ul-Mulk’s portrait of Muhammad showing the prophet holding the Quran in one hand while with the index finger of the other hand he points to the Oneness of God (19th century).