Mohamed: the messenger of Allah
By Paul Vallely
Published: 03 February 2006
Images of the Prophet Mohamed have long been
discouraged in Islam. The West has little
understanding of why this should be so - nor of the
intensity of the feelings aroused by non-believers'
attitudes to the founder of Islam.
To historians, Mohamed was a prophet and religious
reformer who united the scattered Arabian tribes in
the 7th century, founding what went on to become one
of the world's five great religions. To Muslims, he
was the last in a line of figures which included
Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but which found its supreme
fulfilment in Mohamed.
They believe that he was visited by the Angel Gabriel
who commanded him to memorise and recite the verses
sent by God which became the Koran - and that he
completed and perfected the teaching of God throughout
Because Muslims believe that Mohamed was the messenger
of Allah, they extrapolate that all his actions were
willed by God. A singular love and veneration thus
attaches to the person of Mohamed himself. When
speaking or writing, his name is always preceded by
the title "Prophet" and followed by the phrase: "Peace
be upon him", often abbreviated in English as PBUH.
Attempts to depict him in illustration were therefore
an attempt to depict the sublime - and so forbidden.
More than that, to reject and criticise Mohamed is to
reject and criticise Allah himself. Criticism of the
Prophet is therefore equated with blasphemy, which is
punishable by death in some Muslim states. When Salman
Rushdie, in his novel The Satanic Verses, depicted
Mohamed as a cynical schemer and his wives as
prostitutes, the outcome was - to those with any
understanding of Islam - predictable.
But understanding of Islam is sorely lacking in the
West. The culture gap has its roots in the fact that
Christianity - like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism -
is essentially an iconographic religion. In its early
years, the Christian world took the statues of the old
gods and goddesses of Greece and morphed them into
images of the Virgin Mary and the saints, which were
venerated in all the churches. Muslims, like Jews,
take a polar opposite view. Islam and Judaism are
religions of the word, not the image.
Islam has traditionally prohibited images of humans
and animals altogether - which is why much Islamic art
is made up of decorative calligraphy or abstract
arabesque patterns.Throughout history Muslims have
cast out, destroyed or denounced all images, whether
carved or painted, as idolatry. Despite that
prohibition, hundreds of images of Mohamed have been
created over the centuries. Medieval Christian artists
created paintings and illuminated manuscripts
depicting Mohamed, usually with his face in full view.
Muslim artists from the same era depicted Mohamed too,
but usually left his face blank or veiled.
Sixteenth-century Persian and Ottoman art frequently
represented the Prophet, albeit with his face either
veiled, or emanating radiance. One 16th-century
Turkish painting, in the Museum of Fine Arts in
Boston, shows Mohamed in very long sleeves so as to
avoid showing even his hands.
The ban is not absolute. Today, iconic pictures of
Mohamed are sold openly on the street in Iran. The
creation, sale or owning of such images is illegal,
but the regime turns a blind eye (Muslims in Iran are
Shia not Sunni).
Two things are different today. The cartoons published
first in Denmark and now more widely across Europe set
out not to depict but to ridicule the Prophet. And
they do so in a climate in which Muslims across the
globe feel alienated, threatened and routinely
despised by the world's great powers.
The combination of this with Islam's traditional
unhappiness at depictions of any human form, let alone
of their most venerated one, was bound to be
explosive. The affair is an example of Western
ignorance and arrogance combined. We have lit a fire
and the wind could take it a long way.
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