Muslims have visualized Prophet Muhammad in text and calligraphic art for hundreds of years

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(THE Discussion) The republication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in September 2020 led to protests in severalMuslim-the vast majority nations around the world. It also resulted in disturbing functions of violence: In the months that followed, two persons were being stabbed near the previous headquarters of the journal and a teacher was beheaded right after he showed the cartoons for the duration of a classroom lesson.

Visual depiction of Muhammad is a sensitive problem for a range of motives: Islam’s early stance in opposition to idolatry led to a standard disapproval for images of living beings through Islamic historical past. Muslims rarely manufactured or circulated visuals of Muhammad or other notable early Muslims. The recent caricatures have offended quite a few Muslims all-around the earth.

This concentration on the reactions to the pictures of Muhammad drowns out an vital issue: How did Muslims think about him for generations in the close to full absence of icons and images?


Picturing Muhammad devoid of photos

In my classes on early Islam and the daily life of Muhammad, I teach to the amazement of my pupils that there are handful of pre-modern historic 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 materials that supplied abundant aspects about every part of his existence.

The prophet’s earliest surviving biography, created a century following his death, runs into hundreds of webpages in English. His last 10 years are so nicely-documented that some episodes of his life through this time period can be tracked working day by day.

Even a lot more detailed are books from the early Islamic period dedicated particularly to the description of Muhammad’s body, character and manners. From a pretty well known ninth-century guide on the issue titled “Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya” or The Sublime Attributes of Muhammad, Muslims discovered all the things from Muhammad’s height and overall body hair to his snooze routines, outfits choices and most loved food stuff.

No single piece of facts was observed as well mundane or irrelevant when it concerned the prophet. The way he walked and sat is recorded in this e-book along with the approximate amount of money of white hair on his temples in aged age.

These meticulous textual descriptions have functioned for Muslims through generations as an alternate for visual representations.

Most Muslims pictured Muhammad as explained by his cousin and son-in-law Ali in a renowned passage contained in the Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya: a broad-shouldered person of medium height, with black, wavy hair and a rosy complexion, going for walks with a slight downward lean. The next half of the description focused on his character: a humble male that encouraged awe and regard in anyone that met him.

Textual portraits of Muhammad

That claimed, figurative portrayals of Muhammad were not solely unheard of in the Islamic world. In reality, manuscripts from the 13th century onward did consist of scenes from the prophet’s existence, demonstrating him in entire determine in the beginning and with a veiled experience afterwards on.

The bulk of Muslims, having said that, would not have obtain to the manuscripts that contained these photographs of the prophet. For those people who needed to visualize Muhammad, there were nonpictorial, textual options.

There was an artistic custom that was especially common among Turkish- and Persian-speaking Muslims.

Ornamented and gilded edgings on a solitary web page ended up crammed with a masterfully calligraphed textual content of Muhammad’s description by Ali in the Shama’il. The centre of the webpage highlighted a well-known verse from the Quran: “We only sent you (Muhammad) as a mercy to the worlds.”

These textual portraits, termed “hilya” in Arabic, had been the closest that a person would get to an “image” of Muhammad in most of the Muslim environment. Some hilyas were strictly without the need of any figural representation, though other people contained a drawing of the Kaaba, the holy shrine in Mecca, or a rose that symbolized the magnificence of the prophet.

Framed hilyas graced mosques and non-public houses well into the 20th century. Lesser specimens ended up carried in bottles or the pockets of people who thought in the spiritual electric power of the prophet’s description for good overall health and towards evil. Hilyas saved the memory of Muhammad contemporary for those who preferred to imagine him from mere words and phrases.

Various interpretations

The Islamic lawful basis for banning visuals, together with Muhammad’s, is significantly less than straightforward and there are versions throughout denominations and authorized educational facilities.

It seems, for occasion, that Shiite communities have been much more accepting of visible representations for devotional functions than Sunni ones. Photos of Muhammad, Ali and other spouse and children customers of the prophet have some circulation in the preferred spiritual tradition of Shiite-the greater part nations, such as Iran. Sunni Islam, on the other hand, has mainly shunned spiritual iconography.

Outside the Islamic world, Muhammad was routinely fictionalized in literature and was depicted in illustrations or photos in medieval and early fashionable 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 influenced numerous drawings.

These depictions, even so, rarely at any time been given any attention from the Muslim environment, as they had been produced for and eaten in the Christian environment.

Offensive caricatures and colonial earlier

Providing historical precedents for the visible depictions of Muhammad provides considerably-necessary nuance to a intricate and possibly incendiary difficulty, but it will help describe only section of the photo.

Equally essential for understanding the reactions to the photographs of Muhammad are developments from much more new record. Europe now has a huge Muslim minority, and fictionalized depictions of Muhammad, visual or in any other case, 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, a lot of Muslims uncover the caricatures offensive for its Islamophobic content. Some of the caricatures draw a coarse equation of Islam with violence or debauchery by Muhammad’s impression, a pervasive concept in the colonial European scholarship on Muhammad.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood has argued that such depictions can lead to “moral injury” for Muslims, an emotional suffering owing to the special relation that they have with the prophet. Political scientist Andrew Marchsees the caricatures as “a political act” that could result in harm to the initiatives of producing a “public room wherever Muslims come to feel risk-free, valued, and equivalent.”

Even without illustrations or photos, Muslims have cultivated a vivid mental image of Muhammad, not just of his visual appearance but of his full persona. The crudeness of some of the caricatures of Muhammad is worth a instant of believed.

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