Muslims have visualized Prophet Muhammad in terms and calligraphic art for generations

Hilye, or calligraphic panel containing a physical description of the Prophet Muhammad made in 1718 in the Galata Palace, Istanbul.

© Dihya Salim al-Fahim, (1718), by means of Wikimedia Commons
Hilye, or calligraphic panel containing a bodily description of the Prophet Muhammad designed in 1718 in the Galata Palace, Istanbul.

The republication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad by French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in September 2020 led to protests in many Muslim-vast majority nations. It also resulted in disturbing functions of violence: In the weeks that adopted, two individuals have been stabbed in close proximity to the former headquarters of the magazine and a trainer was beheaded immediately after he showed the cartoons in the course of a classroom lesson.


Visible depiction of Muhammad is a sensitive concern for a range of motives: Islam’s early stance versus idolatry led to a basic disapproval for illustrations or photos of living beings throughout Islamic record. Muslims rarely developed or circulated photos of Muhammad or other noteworthy early Muslims. The current caricatures have offended several Muslims close to the environment.

This target on the reactions to the illustrations or photos of Muhammad drowns out an significant query: How did Muslims visualize him for centuries in the in close proximity to complete absence of icons and photos?

Picturing Muhammad devoid of photos

In my programs on early Islam and the life of Muhammad, I instruct to the amazement of my college students that there are few pre-present day historical figures that we know much more about than we do about Muhammad.

The regard and devotion that the very first generations of Muslims accorded to him led to an abundance of textual supplies that supplied loaded particulars about every single part of his lifetime.

The prophet’s earliest surviving biography, penned a century just after his demise, runs into hundreds of web pages in English. His closing 10 decades are so nicely-documented that some episodes of his lifestyle during this period can be tracked working day by working day.

Even extra detailed are guides from the early Islamic period of time devoted especially to the description of Muhammad’s human body, character and manners. From a pretty well-known ninth-century reserve on the issue titled “Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya” or The Sublime Qualities of Muhammad, Muslims acquired every thing from Muhammad’s height and entire body hair to his snooze behaviors, clothing tastes and beloved food items.

No one piece of info was witnessed also mundane or irrelevant when it anxious the prophet. The way he walked and sat is recorded in this e-book along with the approximate sum of white hair on his temples in previous age.

These meticulous textual descriptions have functioned for Muslims during generations as an different for visual representations.

Most Muslims pictured Muhammad as described by his cousin and son-in-law Ali in a popular passage contained in the Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya: a broad-shouldered gentleman of medium peak, with black, wavy hair and a rosy complexion, walking with a slight downward lean. The next 50 percent of the description targeted on his character: a humble guy that encouraged awe and regard in every person that achieved him.

Textual portraits of Muhammad

That mentioned, figurative portrayals of Muhammad were being not fully unheard of in the Islamic environment. In reality, manuscripts from the 13th century onward did include scenes from the prophet’s life, exhibiting him in comprehensive determine to begin with and with a veiled encounter later on.

The greater part of Muslims, even so, would not have obtain to the manuscripts that contained these visuals of the prophet. For those people who preferred to visualize Muhammad, there were being nonpictorial, textual possibilities.

There was an artistic custom that was specially common amongst Turkish- and Persian-talking Muslims.

Ornamented and gilded edgings on a solitary web site had been loaded with a masterfully calligraphed text of Muhammad’s description by Ali in the Shama’il. The centre of the web page featured a famous verse from the Quran: “We only despatched you (Muhammad) as a mercy to the worlds.”

These textual portraits, called “hilya” in Arabic, had been the closest that a person would get to an “image” of Muhammad in most of the Muslim earth. Some hilyas ended up strictly devoid of any figural representation, when other folks contained a drawing of the Kaaba, the holy shrine in Mecca, or a rose that symbolized the elegance of the prophet.

Framed hilyas graced mosques and non-public homes perfectly into the 20th century. Lesser specimens were being carried in bottles or the pockets of those who believed in the non secular power of the prophet’s description for great well being and towards evil. Hilyas stored the memory of Muhammad new for individuals who needed to imagine him from mere phrases.

Unique interpretations

The Islamic lawful foundation for banning visuals, including Muhammad’s, is much less than straightforward and there are variants throughout denominations and authorized educational institutions.

It appears, for instance, that Shiite communities have been much more accepting of visual representations for devotional functions than Sunni ones. Photos of Muhammad, Ali and other spouse and children associates of the prophet have some circulation in the well-liked religious lifestyle of Shiite-the vast majority nations around the world, these kinds of as Iran. Sunni Islam, on the other hand, has largely shunned spiritual iconography.

Outside the Islamic planet, Muhammad was on a regular basis fictionalized in literature and was depicted in illustrations or photos in medieval and early modern Christendom. But this was generally in much less than sympathetic kinds. Dante’s “Inferno,” most famously, had the prophet and Ali struggling in hell, and the scene impressed many drawings.

These depictions, nevertheless, barely at any time obtained any consideration from the Muslim planet, as they were made for and consumed in the Christian earth.

Offensive caricatures and colonial previous

Delivering historic precedents for the visible depictions of Muhammad adds much-wanted nuance to a complex and most likely incendiary concern, but it will help reveal only portion of the picture.

Equally vital for understanding the reactions to the pictures of Muhammad are developments from a lot more latest background. Europe now has a large Muslim minority, and fictionalized depictions of Muhammad, visible or or else, do not go unnoticed.

With advances in mass interaction and social media, the spread of the pictures is swift, and so is the mobilization for reactions to them.

Most importantly, several Muslims obtain the caricatures offensive for its Islamophobic articles. Some of the caricatures draw a coarse equation of Islam with violence or debauchery via Muhammad’s impression, a pervasive topic in the colonial European scholarship on Muhammad.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood has argued that these depictions can cause “moral injury” for Muslims, an emotional ache due to the special relation that they have with the prophet. Political scientist Andrew March sees the caricatures as “a political act” that could bring about damage to the endeavours of building a “public area the place Muslims feel secure, valued, and equal.”

Even without the need of photos, Muslims have cultivated a vivid mental image of Muhammad, not just of his appearance but of his overall persona. The crudeness of some of the caricatures of Muhammad is worthy of a instant of imagined.

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This article is republished from The Dialogue under a Artistic Commons license. Go through the unique short article.

Suleyman Dost does not function for, consult with, possess shares in or get funding from any company or business that would gain from this write-up, and has disclosed no appropriate affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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