Muslims visualized Muhammad in text, calligraphy for centuries

The republication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad  by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in September 2020 led to  protests in several Muslim-greater part nations.

It also resulted in disturbing functions of violence: In the weeks that adopted,  two people were being stabbed  in the vicinity of the previous headquarters of the journal and  a instructor was beheaded  just after he showed the cartoons throughout a classroom lesson.

Visible depiction of Muhammad is a delicate challenge for a number of explanations: Islam’s early stance from idolatry led to a  typical disapproval  for pictures of residing beings through Islamic historical past.

Muslims  rarely created or circulated  photographs of Muhammad or other notable early Muslims. The latest caricatures have  offended several Muslims  close to the environment.

This aim on the reactions to the photographs of Muhammad drowns out an crucial problem: How did Muslims imagine him for hundreds of years in the close to complete absence of icons and illustrations or photos?

Picturing Muhammad devoid of images

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-fashionable historic figures that we know far more about than we do about Muhammad.

The regard and devotion that the initial generations of Muslims accorded to him led to an abundance of textual products that delivered rich particulars about every element of his life.

The prophet’s earliest surviving biography, composed a century following his demise, operates into hundreds of pages in English. His final 10 yrs are so well-documented that some episodes of his lifestyle for the duration of this time period can be tracked working day by day.

Even more in depth are books from the early Islamic period of time focused particularly to the description of Muhammad’s overall body, character and manners.

From a very well-known ninth-century reserve on the matter titled “Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya” or “The Chic Characteristics of Muhammad,” Muslims realized every thing from Muhammad’s top and physique hair to his slumber habits, outfits tastes and favored foodstuff.

No single piece of info was found much too mundane or irrelevant when it worried the prophet. The way he walked and sat is recorded in this e book along with the approximate amount of white hair on his temples in aged age.

These meticulous textual descriptions  have functioned for Muslims through centuries as an alternative for visual representations.

Most Muslims pictured Muhammad as described by his cousin and son-in-law Ali in a renowned passage contained in the Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya: a wide-shouldered gentleman of medium peak, with black, wavy hair and a rosy complexion, strolling with a slight downward lean.

The 2nd 50 % of the description centered on his character: a humble male that inspired awe and regard in everyone that met him.

Textual portraits of Muhammad

That explained, figurative portrayals of Muhammad have been not entirely unheard of in the Islamic planet. In fact, manuscripts from the 13th century onward  did include scenes from the prophet’s everyday living, demonstrating him in full determine initially and  with a veiled face  later on.

The the vast majority of Muslims, having said that, would not have entry to the manuscripts that contained these pictures of the prophet. For individuals who desired to visualize Muhammad, there have been nonpictorial, textual choices.

There was  an artistic tradition  that was significantly well-liked among the Turkish- and Persian-talking Muslims.

Ornamented and gilded edgings on a single web site have been crammed with a  masterfully calligraphed text  of Muhammad’s description by Ali in the Shama’il.

The center of the web site highlighted a renowned verse from the Quran: “We only despatched you [Muhammad] as a mercy to the worlds.”

These textual portraits, called “hilya” in Arabic, ended up the closest that 1 would get to an “image” of Muhammad in most of the Muslim globe.

Some hilyas were  strictly without any figural illustration, although many others 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 residences very well into the 20th century. Smaller specimens have been carried  in bottles  or the pockets of those people who thought in the non secular power of the prophet’s description for good health and against evil.

Hilyas kept the memory of Muhammad contemporary for those who needed to picture him from mere terms.

Various interpretations

The Islamic authorized basis for banning photographs, like Muhammad’s,  is a lot less than straightforward  and there are versions across denominations and lawful faculties.

It seems, for occasion, that Shiite communities have been much more accepting of visual representations for devotional needs than Sunni types.

Pics of Muhammad, Ali and other family members customers of the prophet  have some circulation  in the preferred spiritual tradition of Shiite-bulk nations, these as Iran.

Sunni Islam, on the other hand, has mainly shunned religious iconography.

Outside the house the Islamic environment, Muhammad  was on a regular basis fictionalized in literature and was depicted in images  in medieval and early modern-day Christendom.

But this was normally in significantly less than sympathetic kinds. Dante’s Inferno, most famously,  experienced the prophet and Ali suffering in hell, and the scene inspired lots of drawings.

These depictions, nevertheless, barely at any time received any focus from the Muslim entire world, as they ended up generated for and consumed inside of the Christian world.

Offensive caricatures and colonial past

Supplying historic precedents for the visual depictions of Muhammad provides substantially-wanted nuance to a complicated and probably incendiary problem, but it can help explain only part of the image.

Similarly critical for knowing the reactions to the visuals of Muhammad are developments from much more current history. Europe now has a massive Muslim minority, and  fictionalized depictions of Muhammad, visual or if not, do not go unnoticed.

With developments in mass interaction and social media,  the unfold of the images  is swift, and so is the mobilization for reactions to them.

Most importantly, quite a few Muslims discover the caricatures offensive for its Islamophobic written content. Some of the caricatures draw a coarse equation of Islam with  violence or debauchery by means of Muhammad’s image, a pervasive theme in the colonial  European scholarship on Muhammad.

Anthropologist  Saba Mahmood  has argued that these depictions can lead to “moral injury” for Muslims, an emotional ache due to the specific relation that they have with the prophet.

Political scientist  Andrew March sees the caricatures as  “a political act” that could cause hurt to the attempts of developing a “public room exactly where Muslims really feel secure, valued, and equal.”

Even without photographs, Muslims have cultivated a vivid mental photo of Muhammad, not just of his visual appearance but of his complete persona. The crudeness of some of the caricatures of Muhammad is really worth a minute of considered.

Impression credits: Wikimedia Commons