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Guest Post: Aniconism and Islamic Art, and, you know, riots and all

[Your Humble Blogger has been itching to write something about this hoo-hah surrounding the Mohammed caricatures and riots and all. As with all questions, the correct answer is it’s more complicated than that, and as with all questions, that answer is not helpful in itself. Fortunately, my Best Reader happens to know a great deal about art and religion, and about aniconism specifically (which to me seems to be at the heart of the issue). Anyway, I have asked her to Guest Post, since unlike Your Humble Blogger, she knows what she is talking about.]

A much too abbreviated explanation of Islamic art as it pertains to the current controversy:

Islamic art has its roots in the semi-nomadic traditions of the Arabian peninsula before the advent of Mohammed (ca. 570-632). If you think about most semi-nomadic cultures, their artistic production is centered around small scale portable works—jewelry, pottery, functional ornaments on weapons and bridles, for example. The primary production here is aniconic (focused on vegetal and geometric forms but not human figures).

Like Judaism which prohibits the making of graven images, generally now thought to actually apply to the production of idols (as current evidence from Jewish synagogues like Dura Europas in Syria ca. 256 and catacomb evidence from the Villa Torlonia 2nd-4th c. CE argues for vigorous visual production), Islam has a tenet which argues against the production of the human form. After all, at the Eschaton, artists cannot bring their works to life; only God can do that. That is a negative expression of art and theology, if you see my meaning—it is what you should not do. There is also a corresponding positive valuation placed on aniconic work. Islam also values the artistic aesthetic of unity expressed in its arabesques (curling vegetal patterns) and calligraphy. These works generally involve a (masculine) organization of space combined with a (feminine) organic growing of the design. This kind of work—Kufic lettering establishing the composition of the page with vegetal and geometric design—is the only kind of decoration permitted in a Koran.

Consider the territories which became Islamic first—cultures like the Parthians and the Sassanians. These cultures had figural traditions but they also produced a huge amount of textiles and metalwork where vegetal and animal forms were the basis of this production. Good examples of Parthian and Sassanian works, as well as a fabulous little Arabian head, can be found at www.metmuseum.org in the Near Eastern Collection highlights.

Islamic art has generally separated out its artistic production into sacred and secular spheres. That’s a simplistic distinction but it kind of works. Islamic mosque art—from the exterior tile geometric forms and interior crown and vine mosaics at the Dome of the Rock (687-692) to the mihrab tiles from Isfahan in the late 14th century—emphasizes aniconic forms and shows no human forms. But Islamic art also has palaces and luxury production, secular production. Islamic palaces—witness Mshatta or the Alhambra—used lots of the aniconic imagery. The muquarna, the lovely stalactite stuccowork, decorates both mosques and palaces. It isn’t these stucco forms are sacred or secular; they are fundamentally Islamic in character and like Islam, they are both sacred and secular. But in secular small scale work, one of the most popular motifs is the image of the hunter; there’s also of plenty of Persian love poetry illustrated with paintings of its protagonists. There is just no crossover of figural images in sacred art, narrowly defined to mosques and Korans.

A really good set of visual exemplars can be found here: http://www.zombietime.com/mohammed_image_archive/

What this archive misses is that the images of Mohammed often come from secular books. The History of the World isn’t a religious book; it is a history book that incorporates the religious event into its scope. Adam and Eve, the figures who generally start this book, are as real as Alexander the Great and Mohammed is both prophet of God and political leader. The story of Mohammed’s ascent into heaven is similarly religious and history. These are books at the heart of a secular tradition that runs simultaneous with the sacred tradition. There are not images in the Koran and they have no place in the religious art and architecture of Islam.

Nobody likes to be made fun of or to have their beliefs mocked. But I would argue that it isn’t just the image of Mohammed that’s a problem here. The art historical evidence suggests a richer and more complex tradition of depiction than current discussion is allowing. Saying that it is the image of Mohammed that is causing the problem as a way of simplifying the issue; it’s also a way of simplifying Islamic response if you can just say, “you should find this offensive”. It is part of the problem but it isn’t the only problem. Sure, at one point is the idea that figural images are religiously offensive; certainly that’s why the Taliban destroyed much of the art of Buddhist/Hindu/pagan Afghanistan. But images like the Judensau (large pig suckling or being raped by a figure meant to be a Jew) are offensive because at heart they do more than mock—they take a principle of kashrut, believed by the Jewish people to have been given to them by Gd through Moses, and force the community into opposition to a fundamental belief. It perpetuates vicious ideas of bestiality and inhumanity in its form. This is more offensive, I think, than the desecration some Christians felt when images of Christ are suspended in urine (Andres Serrano, Piss Christ) which attacks the Crucifixion image but not the community’s belief. These Islamic cartoons are a complicated problem. They don’t come from the pen of a believer for a believing community. So on an initial level, they will be repugnant to a rigidly defined/defining group. They perpetuate stereotypes of violence and stupidity (as if all that was involved in a suicide attack was the chance to go to heaven and get a virgin). They are part of a fundamental insensitivity and ignorance on the part of the West (kind of like if an American editor commissions a series of cartoons to use the word ‘nigger’ and then is surprised to find that people are offended). But they are also being used in a way to incite a response of riot and violence: instead of placing them in the category of “things by stupid Westerners” or trying to teach the West why these images hurt, they are included in the level of injustices and offenses felt by a community that already feels isolated, misunderstood, and under attack.


To me, what’s going on, and there is a lot going on and I oughtn’t claim to understand all of it, because I don’t really understand any of it, is that the Jyllands-Posten did something really, really offensive. If you consider how people in this country reacted to the Piss Christ, or the Virgin Mary with elephant dung from that Sensations show a few years ago, and then thought about what might happen if the New York Times asked forty artists to portray members of the Holy Family in images made with excretions, that would still be nowhere near as offensive as this was.
Now, that doesn’t mean that people should riot. Nor do I think that, even if it was obvious that this would cause a riot, the Jyllands-Posten should have been prevented from printing it. And I think it’s important to point out that people are using this incident to underscore a rhetorical frame that says that Moslems are an oppressed people, by virtue of being Moslem, and that the riots derive in large part from that frame, which is not (I think) an accurate portrayal of the world, and is (I think) a cynical manipulation by some Bad People.
Finally, I’ll add another thing. As a Jew, I follow certain prohibitions, for instance against drawing an Image of the Divine, and against attempting to pronounce the Holy Name. However, lots of non-Jews do attempt to draw the Divine, and pronounce the Holy Name (not correctly, or usually with any attempt to be correct), and that doesn’t much offend me. The prohibition applies to Jews, not to non-Jews, and even within the Tribe, I allow for differences of opinion, not to say interpretation. But then, I’m a liberal, from a liberal tradition. Fundamentally, at root, I think what is going on here is a sense that not only does Islamic law and tradition apply to Moslems, it applies to everybody, and that therefore the Jyllands-Posten’s offense can’t be shrugged off. That’s a problem. And that problem is, I think, not entirely an overseas problem, or a division between Islam and the West.

thank you both - that was a fantastic combination to find for reading early in the morning.

since no one mentioned it, maybe i can tack on that the situation is further complicated by the relationship in europe not being primarily about war. it's much closer to an unfair boss-worker relationship as per white-black here - in that part of europe, particularly turkish workers, many illegal. the cartoons i think are acts of very great bitterness and one can also read them as commentary on the EU debate, through a straw figure (whose shadow double is rioting).

NPR had a trenchant comment (not quoted, paraphrased here) on the cartoon of Mohammed wearing a bomb for a turban that here you have a situation where mainstream Islamists are sick and tired of being painted as violent; they look at the cartoon and see themselves yet again in a stereotype. The radical Islamists are using it as a "if the west sees us as violent, we'll give them violence". And Islam can't get out of the cycle.

Two things struck me about the violence in Lebanon over the weekend: the cartoons are being used to fan a flame but it is cell phones and text messaging which apparently kept it going and the violence spilled over into the Christian community in Lebanon as rioters not only torched the embassy but also Christian churches, thus prompting a revival of hatreds at the heart of a 15 year civil war in Lebanon. Part of the trouble with violent response is that you can't always control it. And that it tends to be reductive--the Danes are Westerners, Westerners are Christians, let's attack Lebanese Christians.

i had a dark thought last night. i was asking myself, after reading an article talking about how the riots were crazily disproportionate with the situation, compared to all the other crappy stuff that has been going on that could have been a fantastic excuse for domestically unresting. i thought, what's the difference between then and now? riots in france. constantly clucked on television. the humiliation of the civilian government, the sudden "discovery" of its checkered religious treatment. check it out, says the hypothetical organizer, the euro-west's soft spot isn't security - they're not afraid of death - they're afraid of us.

I really liked this post. Can I copy it to my site? Thank you in advance.

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