Unleashing the Artistic Imagination


When you look at the history of Islamic art, it’s inclusion in the Islamic faith has not been without periods of repression. Among those singled out for the most severe penalties of the afterlife, are the artists, and other “makers of images or pictures.”Although the Quran did not prohibit artistic expression, the subsequent Hadiths (oral traditions) do attribute considerable hostility to the artists of Muslim lands.

As the art historian Daniel Boorstin notes:

  • Sultan Firuz Shan Tughluk (c. 1308-1388; reigned 1351-88) left his mark in Muslim history not only by building his own capital city, Firuzabad, and by constructing mosques, hospitals, baths, bridges, and the Jumna Canal, but by mutilating and destroying innumerable works of art. His autobiography boasted that he had erased all pictures from the doors or walls of his palaces and “under the divine guidance and favor” had even removed the figured ornaments from saddles and bridles, from goblets and cups, dishes and ewers, from tents, curtains, and chairs. Sometimes pious Muslims economized efforts by merely scratching or smearing the faces of the images they happened to be on.[1]

The Jewish influence on early Islam is pretty obvious. The Second Commandment has often been interpreted as a ban against all graven images—a point of contention we experienced when the Temple refused to take the Roman coins bearing the likeness of the Emperor, who was often deified by the Roman society. Hence, money changers served an important function in the Temple whenever people coming from afar wished to purchase animals and other offerings. However, in Islamic history, the artist was often perceived as an “imitator” of God, trying to usurp God’s role as Creator. As Boorstin later observes: [2]

  • Islam, by affirming the “stark monotheism” of a God who had a monopoly on creation, abhorred the temptations to compete with God by man’s pretended acts of creation. On the Day of Judgment when God calls upon the painter to breathe life into the forms he has made, the painter’s mockery of God’s acts of “creation” is exposed. Then he is sentenced to the worst punishments of hell. The artist by pretending to be a creator has denied the uniqueness of God and commits blasphemy with every stroke of his brush. According to the Koran, God alone is the “fashioner” (musawwir).

As Islam gradually evolved, the Abbasid caliphs (750-1258) cultivated a reputation for strict piety, Muslim rulers slowly disregarded the old taboos against art and hired their own artists to glorify the Islamic faith in cities like but Baghdad and cities in Persia that were under Muslim control.

Fortunately, there is no known chapter in Jewish history where artists were routinely harassed or persecuted.  In one famous Mishnah, we read about how a famous 1st century rabbi used to frequent a bathhouse that had a statue of Aphrodite inside:

  • Peroklas, the son of a philosopher, asked once R. Gamaliel at Ako, who was then bathing in the bath of the goddess Aphrodite: Your law prescribes [Deut. xiii. 17]: “Let nothing of the devoted objects cleave to your hands”; why, then, do you bathe in the bath of Aphrodite? And he answered: Such questions are not answered–at a bathing place. After he had left the bath, he said: I did not come into her domain, but it is she is the one who came into my space! Truly, people do not say: The bath is erected to adorn the Aphrodite, but the Aphrodite was added in order to beautify the Roman bathhouse. Moreover, you would not agree for any amount of money to appear before your idol when you are naked or urinating. The Aphrodite, however, stands on the channel, and everybody urinates in front of her. The law says their gods, i.e., to say such toward whom one behaves with dignity inspired by something divine; while whatever does not inspire such a behavior, is allowed.[3]

I doubt very seriously, whether today’s Haredi or Hassidic rabbis, or even Modern Orthodox rabbis would be caught dead in a Roman bath house that had Aphrodite as an ornament for the bathhouse.  Yet, religious traditions evolve, as do their followers.

Today, there is scarcely a Muslim leader—even someone as extreme as Osama bin Ladin, who would refuse to have his picture taken. Yet, when depictions of Mohammed the Prophet are depicted by Western artists in a manner that is not complementary, the Jihadists view such disrespect as “blasphemy.”

While the old restrictions regarding art or music (as it was in the case of rabbinic tradition) have been cast into the dustbin of history, comedic and satirical depictions of faith still rub many of us the wrong way–whether the person being depicted is Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed. The problem occurs when people wish to use satire in explaining religiously venerated texts such as the Tanakh, New Testament or the Quran. Yet, in a free society you will not see other religious groups murder others who “blaspheme” their religions. Christians and Jews have learned to accept this, Muslims must accept it as well.  While many of us may not like the artistic depictions of our religious traditions, (e.g., the new movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), the majority of us will avoid what we do not wish to see or allow it to enter into our consciousness. Death by the polls is the best medicine here for all faiths to consider instead of using violence to suppress unpopular thought.

The award-winning author Salman Rushdie, who once received numerous death threats for portrayals of Islam in his work, expressed his support for the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo after an attack that killed at least 12 on Wednesday.

  • “I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity,” he wrote in a statement posted by the Guardian. Gunmen killed at least 12 people in the paper’s offices before fleeing the scene in France’s deadliest terrorist attack in recent memory. “Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms,” Rushie wrote. “This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.”[4]

Is there room for an alternative view within mainstream Islam? Actually, there is. As Hassan Nasrallah said a few days ago,“Islamic extremists have insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad more than those who published satirical cartoons mocking the religion.” He added, “The Islamic extremists who behead and slaughter people have done more harm to Islam than anyone else in history.”[5]

For once I must agree with Nasrallah. However, it’s a pity he does not apply this to the villainous mullahs of Iran. Simply put, we cannot control how other people think. In a free society, every religious group enjoys the freedom that comes with free speech. It is criminal for anyone who suppress the fundamental democratic life—even this speech seems barbed at times.

Maybe the time has come for religious people to redefine blasphemy in a manner that is not inconsistent with Western values. What is blasphemy? It is taking something beautiful and turning it into something ugly. When viewed from this perspective, killing people in the name of Islam—or any faith—now, that’s true blasphemy.

No cartoon is worth killing over.



[1] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 194.

[2] Ibid., p. 195.

[3] Mishnah Avodah Zara 3:4.

[4] http://time.com/3657541/charlie-hebdo-paris-terror-attack-salman-rushdie/

[5] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4612771,00.html

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