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

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(THE Conversation) The republication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad by French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in September 2020 led to protests in severalMuslim-majority countries. It also resulted in disturbing acts of violence: In the months that followed, two men and women have been stabbed in the vicinity of the former headquarters of the journal and a trainer was beheaded after he showed the cartoons through a classroom lesson.

Visual depiction of Muhammad is a delicate challenge for a variety of factors: Islam’s early stance versus idolatry led to a common disapproval for visuals of dwelling beings all over Islamic history. Muslims rarely made or circulated illustrations or photos of Muhammad or other notable early Muslims. The modern caricatures have offended numerous Muslims all over the world.

This concentrate on the reactions to the photos of Muhammad drowns out an significant query: How did Muslims visualize him for centuries in the in the vicinity of complete absence of icons and photographs?

Picturing Muhammad devoid of photos

In my courses on early Islam and the everyday living of Muhammad, I train to the amazement of my learners that there are several pre-modern-day historic figures that we know a lot more about than we do about Muhammad.

The respect and devotion that the to start with generations of Muslims accorded to him led to an abundance of textual products that offered rich aspects about each individual aspect of his lifetime.

The prophet’s earliest surviving biography, prepared a century soon after his loss of life, runs into hundreds of webpages in English. His last 10 several years are so perfectly-documented that some episodes of his lifetime throughout this interval can be tracked day by working day.

Even additional comprehensive are guides from the early Islamic period devoted specially to the description of Muhammad’s system, character and manners. From a pretty common ninth-century book on the issue titled “Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya” or The Elegant Attributes of Muhammad, Muslims uncovered anything from Muhammad’s top and system hair to his snooze habits, outfits tastes and beloved food stuff.

No solitary piece of details was noticed way too mundane or irrelevant when it involved the prophet. The way he walked and sat is recorded in this reserve along with the approximate volume of white hair on his temples in previous age.

These meticulous textual descriptions have functioned for Muslims through generations as an option for visible representations.

Most Muslims pictured Muhammad as described by his cousin and son-in-regulation Ali in a renowned passage contained in the Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya: a broad-shouldered guy of medium height, with black, wavy hair and a rosy complexion, strolling with a slight downward lean. The 2nd 50 % of the description targeted on his character: a humble man that encouraged awe and respect in everybody that met him.

Textual portraits of Muhammad

That said, figurative portrayals of Muhammad had been not completely unheard of in the Islamic earth. In truth, manuscripts from the 13th century onward did incorporate scenes from the prophet’s daily life, showing him in complete figure initially and with a veiled face later on on.

The the greater part of Muslims, on the other hand, would not have entry to the manuscripts that contained these images of the prophet. For people who desired to visualize Muhammad, there were nonpictorial, textual alternatives.

There was an artistic custom that was specifically preferred among the Turkish- and Persian-talking Muslims.

Ornamented and gilded edgings on a single website page ended up stuffed with a masterfully calligraphed text of Muhammad’s description by Ali in the Shama’il. The center of the webpage showcased a famous verse from the Quran: “We only sent you (Muhammad) as a mercy to the worlds.”

These textual portraits, identified as “hilya” in Arabic, ended up the closest that 1 would get to an “image” of Muhammad in most of the Muslim environment. Some hilyas had been strictly without having any figural illustration, when other people contained a drawing of the Kaaba, the holy shrine in Mecca, or a rose that symbolized the splendor of the prophet.

Framed hilyas graced mosques and private homes effectively into the 20th century. Scaled-down specimens were carried in bottles or the pockets of these who believed in the spiritual ability of the prophet’s description for great health and fitness and towards evil. Hilyas saved the memory of Muhammad fresh for individuals who needed to picture him from mere terms.

Various interpretations

The Islamic authorized foundation for banning photographs, which includes Muhammad’s, is less than straightforward and there are variants across denominations and legal colleges.

It seems, for instance, that Shiite communities have been a lot more accepting of visible representations for devotional needs than Sunni types. Images of Muhammad, Ali and other spouse and children members of the prophet have some circulation in the well-liked religious society of Shiite-vast majority international locations, these kinds of as Iran. Sunni Islam, on the other hand, has mostly shunned spiritual iconography.

Outside the Islamic environment, Muhammad was often fictionalized in literature and was depicted in photos in medieval and early present day Christendom. But this was often in a lot less than sympathetic types. Dante’s “Inferno,” most famously, had the prophet and Ali struggling in hell, and the scene impressed numerous drawings.

These depictions, on the other hand, hardly at any time received any notice from the Muslim earth, as they ended up produced for and eaten inside the Christian world.

Offensive caricatures and colonial previous

Providing historical precedents for the visible depictions of Muhammad provides much-desired nuance to a intricate and possibly incendiary difficulty, but it can help make clear only element of the photograph.

Similarly significant for comprehending the reactions to the photos of Muhammad are developments from extra latest record. Europe now has a massive Muslim minority, and fictionalized depictions of Muhammad, visible or if not, do not go unnoticed.

With advances in mass conversation and social media, the distribute of the photos is swift, and so is the mobilization for reactions to them.

Most importantly, numerous Muslims come across the caricatures offensive for its Islamophobic material. Some of the caricatures attract a coarse equation of Islam with violence or debauchery through Muhammad’s impression, a pervasive topic in the colonial European scholarship on Muhammad.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood has argued that these kinds of depictions can trigger “moral injury” for Muslims, an psychological ache owing to the particular relation that they have with the prophet. Political scientist Andrew Marchsees the caricatures as “a political act” that could bring about harm to the efforts of creating a “public area wherever Muslims truly feel risk-free, valued, and equivalent.”

Even without the need of images, Muslims have cultivated a vivid psychological image of Muhammad, not just of his visual appeal but of his full persona. The crudeness of some of the caricatures of Muhammad is worth a second of assumed.

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