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Sep 24, 2012

Muslim depictions of Muhammad

By now everyone has heard of the controversy over the film Innocence of Muslims, which has caused outrage in the Muslim world for its negative portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. There has also been a backlash over cartoons of Muhammad in various satirical magazines.

One thing that's forgotten in this debate is that some parts of the Muslim world have a long-standing tradition of depicting Muhammad. The belief that it is wrong to portray living things, especially Muhammad, is not universal in the Muslim world and never has been.

Above is a modern religious card from Iran, where the Shia majority has a centuries-old tradition of human portraiture. The next image shows a similar card from Turkey, produced by the Alevi sect. Both are in the University of Bergen collection, which has an interesting article on Muslim depictions of Muhammad.

While those who have created images of humans and especially Muhammad have always been in the minority in the Muslim world, they have been around since the early days of the religion. This is something to remember in the ongoing debate.

This image shows a young Muhammad meeting the monk Bahira. It's from the Jami' al-Tavarikh ("The Universal History" or "Compendium of Chronicles") written by Rashid Al-Din and illustrated in Tabriz, Iran, c.1315.
This image shows Muhammad at the Ka'ba in Mecca, and was made in Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire in 1595. Note that Muhammad's face is veiled in this one. In some images, he's not shown as a human figure at all, but rather with various symbols such as a pillar of fire. This is in the collection of Bilkent University in Turkey, which has a whole page of such images.
I am not showing these images to offend Muslims, merely to point out that Islam is not a monolithic, unchanging faith, and that the protestors are ignoring their own history. Of course, they're also offended by the negative portrayal of Muhammad. I've watched Innocence of Muslims and it's a mindless baiting of an entire religion. Muslims have every right to be offended by it and peacefully protest. Part of living in a free society is that you get offended sometimes.

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