Is It Ever Okay to Depict Muhammad?

The above image, portraying Muhammad as a boy, circulated widely in Iran throughout the later twentieth century and can read as a hadith in its own way. (Hadiths signify the sayings and actions of Muhammad or things said and done in his presence to which he did not object.) If you assumed that Muslims have always opposed the visual representation of living things and would absolutely never depict the prophet, and that the opposition to painting Muhammad represents an inescapably foundational Islamic value, this picture offers a lesson: claims made in always/never language rarely hold up to closer scrutiny, and no one within a tradition speaks for everyone else.

Though debates over images of Muhammad refer to various sources, the Koran itself is silent on the matter of art. A number of hadiths portray Muhammad condemning visual representation of living things, but the diversity of Muslim interpretive traditions produces a multiplicity of views. No less an authority than Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the head of state until his death ten years later, had reportedly named this portrait of a youthful Muhammad as his favorite visual representation of the Prophet. In Iran, iterations of the image became widely available at stores and in numerous products, including postcards, full-size posters, wall hangings, and key chains. It was only after a Danish newspaper’s publication of offensive Muhammad cartoons that Iranian authorities banned this popular image. As Christiane Gruber explains, the Danish cartoon controversy provoked an “inversion of tidal proportions” among global Muslims, in which “Muhammad had to be reclaimed rhetorically in Islamic spheres and, in Iran most especially, reinverted and reinvented at an iconographical level.” In the case of Iran, taboos against depicting Muhammad’s face were not merely representative of “traditional Islam” but just as much a modern response to a modern problem, emerging not in isolation from “the West” but in direct encounter with it. The question of drawing Muhammad’s face thus reveals the ways in which tradition often finds its definition while engaging forces from outside. 

This portrait authenticates itself with a hadith-style transmission history that traces its path to us: some prints of the image include a caption claiming that the artist had copied a painting by Bahira, a Christian monk who had seen Muhammad as a youth and recognized him as a future prophet. The original seventh-century piece is said to remain in an unnamed European museum. Even if the painting itself is inescapably modern, its claimed linkage to Bahira grants its image of Muhammad’s face with the power of an eyewitness; the painting authorizes itself in a way that mirrors the circulation of Muhammad’s sayings and actions as oral tradition. Its supposed attribution to Bahira aside, this portrait of young Muhammad emerged as a copy of a photograph, which originated with Orientalist photographers in North Africa around 1905–06, of an adolescent boy whose name happened to have been Muhammad. Somehow, the image of this particular Muhammad became popular as the Muhammad.

While we see Muhammad here as an adolescent, the image behind him of a cave entrance covered in a spider’s web refers to a miracle from much later in his life. The story goes that when Muhammad and his friend Abu Bakr fled from those who had conspired to kill him, they hid in a cave along the way from Mecca to Medina. A spider quickly spun its web over the entire cave entrance. When the conspirators’ expert tracker arrived upon the cave entrance, he saw the intact web and assumed that no one could have recently gone into or out of the cave. Muhammad would have been roughly fifty years old (and Bahira was presumably long dead) at the time; our artist’s reason for choosing this miracle as the background for a youthful Muhammad remains unclear, though it could have the effect of moving Muhammad’s life out of worldly time.

Contrary to the notion that this image represents only an isolated departure from an otherwise universal Islamic norm, there does exist a tradition of Muhammad images, made as devotional material by Muslims for Muslims, notably in the domain of medieval Persian and Central Asian painted miniatures. Such works would often depict events from Muhammad’s life. Several of the more striking examples portray Muhammad during his heavenly ascension; in some of these images, Muhammad’s face is concealed, though numerous pieces depict his features in full.

Similar to visual representations of Jesus, the depiction of Muhammad’s features invites the potential problem of racializing him. Classical miniatures coming from Central Asian contexts, for example, portray him as someone from the region. Likewise, Muhammad’s descendants tend to look like the artists who paint them. Amina Inloes observes the “white and essentially Iranian” depictions of Muhammad’s grandson Husayn in Iran, noting that contemporary Iraqi artists have sought to portray Husayn and the other imams descended from Muhammad as more distinctly Arab. Inloes adds that these images neglect classical sources that identify the mothers of several of the imams as African, including specifically Ethiopian/Somali, Egyptian, and Sudanese heritages.

The Ansaru Allah Community (also known as the Nubian Islamic Hebrews), an African American Muslim movement prominent in the northeastern United States throughout the seventies and eighties, regularly featured images of Muhammad and other figures of sacred history in its literature. These representations envision Muhammad, his family, and companions as black. Ansaru Allah pamphlets frequently presented an image in which Muhammad appears on his camel, holding the hooked staff that this community regarded as his inheritance from the Israelite prophets. In the foreground, we see Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali holding his famed double-bladed sword, and the first companion to perform the call to prayer, Bilal, carrying the standard. However, the Ansaru Allah Community depicted Abu Bakr, whom it regarded as a usurper of Ali’s natural right to the caliphate, as light-complexioned, marking what they perceived as Abu Bakr’s ethical deficit in his skin.

 

Michael Muhammad Knight is a novelist, essayist, journalist, and scholar. He converted to Islam at sixteen and traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, at seventeen to study at a madrasa. His books include The Taqwacores, Blue-Eyed Devil, Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing, and Why I Am a Salafi. He is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Excerpted from Muhammad: Forty Introductions, copyright © 2019 by Michael Muhammad Knight. Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull Press.

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