A brief history of not drawing Muhammad


Second Council of NiceaOur world is image heavy. Images are now omnipresent to the extent that our minds are losing the subtle skill of differentiating good from bad or indifferent.

We skim through files of selfies to find the 'right one'. We try to sort any amount of online pictures to connect what we read with what we see. We click icons to reach, Hydra-like, more icons. Our eyes reach the point where the most satisfying image is the one out our window as the sun rises, anything other than this endless entourage of artificial attention-seeking. The eye is too busy.

In such a world many find it hard to figure why certain images could drive people to terrible acts like the murders in Copenhagen last weekend, or, previously, at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

We understand the purpose of internet filters, we know why some images are restricted or unpublishable as 'not being in the public interest', and our bad drawing of the Eiffel Tower rightly goes into the recycler, but why ban an image of the Prophet Muhammad? Why is he an image-free zone?

The answer is not primarily political or artistic but theological.

The clue is in a statute of a meeting of bishops called the Second Council of Nicea (787 CE). This may seem obscure and unimportant to us, but the bishops weren't obscure and the issue was whether or not humans can make an image of God. The outcome of their meeting is decisive in the history of world art.

The eighth century was an interesting time to be alive. While many good people were keen to make images, or icons as they say in Greek, other good people were upset by the very idea of things being objects of veneration. These iconoclasts were prepared to destroy such icons, and even kill people, in order to stop what they saw as transgressive blasphemy.

An emperor would be unhappy with such business happening on his watch, hence Nicea.

Saint John of Damascus and his friends engaged in a profound human argument about the creative act. Christianity, like Islam, is not just a long history of agreements, it is a long history of arguments. Rightly understood, non-violent argument is an inheritance from these faiths that we all live with to this day.

While we may be comfortable with the idea that the entire created universe is an icon of God, humans are more conflicted about whether they themselves can or should create such a thing themselves, an icon of God. Is it a graven image? Is the icon a means to worship or the object of worship?

Nicea determined that certain images and objects, within rules, be made 'for the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes'. By prototypes they meant Jesus Christ and his saints, those who direct us to understanding of God.

That John lived in Damascus in Syria is not an accident, for he was involved in the very same arguments with followers of the new religion of Islam, adherents of which were pressing the borders of Byzantium.

Nicea is significant too, for even though iconoclasm rears its head again over the centuries, it is here that Christians chose the incarnational way of Imago Dei, while the Muslims refused to have images in their places of worship, or anywhere, something that remains the case to this day. The Incarnation is a crucial difference between the two great faiths.

Wags will ask, but how do we know what the Prophet looked like?

Once at a research conference on the Turin Shroud a scientist caused mirth by explaining that he couldn't be sure the face on the cloth was Jesus of Nazareth, because he had no prototype for Christ-likeness. Christians ought to find this amusing because Christ-likeness is not about growing a curly beard and walking round in a long robe like some Palestinian hipster. It's about trying to become more Christ-like in your life and thought, which means becoming more like your true self, in Christ.

So I suppose we know something is an image of the Prophet when all the artistic indicators tell us, without a shadow of a doubt. Except in rare instances, Islam since has excluded the image and evolved an art of pattern and symbol, some of it deliberately indicative of God, but none of it representational of the Prophet or his saints.

Nicea is today a section of the Turkish city of Iznik, most famous for its patterned ceramics. Yet another example, like Orthodox Icons, of the cultural divide that occurred after the Ecumenical Council in that ancient city.

Whether one argument trumps the other is not at issue. The concern is about our understanding of true holiness. It is about other people's complex values in this regard. Which is why we need to question Danish cartoonist Lars Vilks when he makes the sweeping claim, 'It is fundamental for Western thinking to be able to express one's artistry without making exceptions for holiness.'

Is it as simple as that? It was an ironic moment when one recent report called Charlie Hebdo 'iconoclastic', for in the truest sense of the word it was not the cartoonists but their assassins who were the real iconoclasts. The events in Paris and Copenhagen remind us of why Nicea was called: to avoid further destruction and bloodshed over the making of religious images. We all live with this inheritance.

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Charlie Hebdo, Muhummad, Second Council of Nicea



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Exodus 20:4 prohibits any graven image of Yahweh so it's a tricky question. I've never liked images of Jesus in books/paintings depicting him as fair-skinned with a mushy smile on his face. I do like tapestries and paintings depicting biblical scenes though. I respect Islam's view. True freedom (of speech and art) involves responsibility.
Pam | 17 February 2015

There are, in the Hadith and Life of the Prophet, as recorded and passed down a general and idealised description of what Muhammad looked like, not enough to do an Identikit picture of him, which is as Sunni Muslims would wish. There are later Turkish manuscript illustrations in which he is shown veiled as is the Muslim convention. Shi'ite Islam is more inclined to picture Ali. It is interesting that the Iconoclast Controversy arose after the rise and spread of Islam and that the most prominent Iconoclast Emperors in the East were from Asia. Iconography, which is basically an Art which saw its apogee in the Christian East and is still a living tradition in Orthodoxy, has a very developed theology. Iconoclasts and Iconodules represent two extremes of the Semitic ("Abrahamic") religious tradition. The majority of Christian Churches (especially Catholic and Orthodox) could be placed firmly in the Iconodule camp whereas Judaism and Sunni Islam (at least 75% of Muslims are Sunni) are Iconoclast. It appears, culturally, this will always be a flashpoint between Muslims and Christians.
Edward Fido | 17 February 2015

“Islam since has excluded the image and evolved an art of pattern and symbol, some of it deliberately indicative of God, but none of it representational of the Prophet,” ........... St Thomas Aquinas famously said (variously translated), “An adequate concept of God is so far beyond the power of the human mind, that the closest we can come to it is to realise that it is beyond the power of the human mind.” Never the less, we need something to help us bridge the gap, and we can find this in images, either abstract mental ones or material visual ones. One danger in this is that they can become idols, and become ends in themselves. The main example of this is the allegiance given to the structures, the rites, traditions, and parables fashioned by the different religions. Only when these are acknowledged for what the are, can we hope to find cooperation, peace and harmony among those following different paths up the Mountain of God.
Robert Liddy | 18 February 2015

Mr. Liddy sir, Aquinas furnished 5 a posteriori syllogistic philosophical proofs for God's existence, based on concepts employing abstract ideas zilch imagery, let alone iconography. And after rationally substantiating Gods existence by reason and concept alone, he then proceeded to analyse by rigorous logic the properties and nature of God using analogy pf intrinsic and extrinsic proportionality. Aquinas was the utter antithesis of agnosticism, and was no florid iconographer. The Doctor Angelicus supplemented biblical theology with philosophical theodicy aka Natural Theology: both give a very ample knowledge of God[ample for our needs, though of much much lesser degree than Beatific Vision, of course. Perhaps that Aquinas "translation" needs contextual sharpening and corroboration.
Father John George | 18 February 2015

Fr. George: "he (Aquinas) proceeded to analyse by rigorous logic the properties and nature of God using analogy."..... St Thomas Aquinas left us with many inspirational thoughts .However he lived in an age when it was believed , that God dwelt just above the clouds, that the earth was flat, and 'hand-fashioned' for mankind; that the Bible was the infallible Word of God; that Genesis was literally factual. He had no concept of the vast age of the Earth or of Evolution, or the vastness of the Universe or the billions of stars in our galaxy, or the millions of other galaxies, all evolving with constant and universal laws. Using analogies to depict the 'nature' of God is very helpful and comforting, but conveys only as much accurate and actual knowledge as trying to explain the beauty of music to someone with no experience of sound. To paraphrase Thomas Merton:-When it is said, 'God is dead', what is true is that the many symbols and analogies that were helpful in the past are dead, and need to be updated and replaced with more appropriate ones. he "
Robert Liddy | 18 February 2015

I wonder if Eureka Street would see value in asking a leading Islamic scholar who is also a Muslim to write an article as to why it is considered 'anathema' to draw a representation of Muhammad. Even accepting that Muhammad, under the guidance of God as he understood God, wrote the Koran, and that he is the last of the prophets (indeed The Final Prophet) in a line through Abraham, Moses and Jesus, why is it forbidden to attempt even to draw an image of him. Could it be that that Muslims saw what happened when Christians made images of Jesus Christ? They ended up claiming that he was co-equal with God, leading eventually to the doctrine of The Trinity. Both doctrines (Jesus is true God and true man; Jesus is the second person of a triune God) blasphemous to all Muslims. Does not allowing images of Muhammad render him superior to Jesus and helps maintain the doctrine "There is but One God and Muhammad is His Messenger"?
Uncle Pat | 18 February 2015

To Father John George: Buck Mulligan, a character based on Oliver St John Gogarty, early in ‘Ulysses’ protests to Stephen Dedalus (the James Joyce artist character) that “I’m not equal to Thomas Aquinas and the fiftyfive reasons he has made to prop it up. Wait till I have a few pints in me first.” A more credible theologian is Rowan Williams. In his new book ‘The Edge of Words’ he says “the classical so-called ‘proofs’ of God developed by Aquinas and others ... are not arguing in the abstract towards an otherwise unheard-of conclusion.” He believes they draw up a ‘map’, a way of working through or even finding a way to start talking about God, given the finite nature of our own experience. Williams is making clear that Aquinas is not really in the business of giving hardline doctrinal answers but opening up further possibilities for thought, as is the nature of God, and true philosophy too. I recommend both books for close study.
PHILIP HARVEY | 18 February 2015

Cosmos = 14.8 billion years. Earth = 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years. We are in the universe and the universe is in us. Alternatively, we are in the Book of Genesis, and the Book of Genesis is in us… God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
AO | 19 February 2015

Mr Harvey Sir! The Right Reverend Rowan Douglas Williams, Baron Williams of Oystermouth ought note Aquinas wrote, for example, the "Summa contra gentiles" not as a mere academic map of sorts for waffle armchair philosophy. It was A synthesis covering the entire range of solid Catholic truth, specifically for defending the faith, apparently intended for the use of Dominican missionaries in Spain. Aquinas was no smoking room armchair philosopher but a hard-nosed apologist of the Faith, rejecting and analytically dismantling false doctrines, meticulously according to scholastic incisive methodology a methodology replete in his "Summa Theologiae". The Summa Theologiae (written 1265–1274] and also known as the Summa Theologica or simply the Summa) is the best-known work of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274). Although unfinished, the Summa is "one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature." It was intended as an instructional compendium of all the main theological teachings of the Catholic Church. It presents the reasoning for almost all points of Christian theology in the West. "Williams making clear that Aquinas is not really in the business of giving hard line doctrinal answers" is utterly inadmissable
Father John George | 19 February 2015

To Father John George: Thank you for this response. The “waffle armchair philosophy” you refer to is contained in last year’s Gifford lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh. You can pull up your armchair and watch it on YouTube, though it’s not as action packed as a game between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Elsewhere Rowan Williams quotes David Lodge’s satirical novel about philosophers in which one delegate to a conference asks what would happen if everyone agreed. Obviously at an Aquinas conference it would become clear there is no need to have an Aquinas conference. William’s book on the creed is a good place to start if you thought there was nothing more to say about the creed. It’s called ‘Tokens of Trust.’ Again, highly recommended. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid is worth watching for the crowds, not just for what’s happening on the pitch. Everyone has an opinion and yells very loudly.
PHILIP HARVEY | 19 February 2015


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