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Mohamed: The Messenger of Allah

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#1 [Permalink] Posted on 7th February 2006 16:55
Mohamed: The Messenger of Allah

By Paul Vallely

Published: 3 February 2006

Images of the Prophet Mohamed have long been discouraged in Islam. The West
has little understanding of why this should be so - nor of the intensity of
the feelings aroused by non-believers' attitudes to the founder of Islam.

To historians, Mohamed was a prophet and religious reformer who united the
scattered Arabian tribes in the 7th century, founding what went on to become
one of the world's five great religions. To Muslims, he was the last in a
line of figures which included Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but which found its
supreme fulfilment in Mohamed.

They believe that he was visited by the Angel Gabriel who commanded him to
memorise and recite the verses sent by God which became the Koran - and that
he completed and perfected the teaching of God throughout history.

Because Muslims believe that Mohamed was the messenger of Allah, they
extrapolate that all his actions were willed by God. A singular love and
veneration thus attaches to the person of Mohamed himself. When speaking or
writing, his name is always preceded by the title "Prophet" and followed by
the phrase: "Peace be upon him", often abbreviated in English as PBUH.

Attempts to depict him in illustration were therefore an attempt to depict
the sublime - and so forbidden.

More than that, to reject and criticise Mohamed is to reject and criticise
Allah himself. Criticism of the Prophet is therefore equated with blasphemy,
which is punishable by death in some Muslim states. When Salman Rushdie, in
his novel The Satanic Verses, depicted Mohamed as a cynical schemer and his
wives as prostitutes, the outcome was - to those with any understanding of
Islam - predictable.

But understanding of Islam is sorely lacking in the West. The culture gap
has its roots in the fact that Christianity - like Hinduism, Buddhism and
Jainism - is essentially an iconographic religion. In its early years, the
Christian world took the statues of the old gods and goddesses of Greece and
morphed them into images of the Virgin Mary and the saints, which were
venerated in all the churches. Muslims, like Jews, take a polar opposite
view. Islam and Judaism are religions of the word, not the image.

Islam has traditionally prohibited images of humans and animals altogether -
which is why much Islamic art is made up of decorative calligraphy or
abstract arabesque patterns.Throughout history Muslims have cast out,
destroyed or denounced all images, whether carved or painted, as idolatry.
Despite that prohibition, hundreds of images of Mohamed have been created
over the centuries. Medieval Christian artists created paintings and
illuminated manuscripts depicting Mohamed, usually with his face in full
view. Muslim artists from the same era depicted Mohamed too, but usually
left his face blank or veiled.

Sixteenth-century Persian and Ottoman art frequently represented the
Prophet, albeit with his face either veiled, or emanating radiance. One
16th-century Turkish painting, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, shows
Mohamed in very long sleeves so as to avoid showing even his hands.

The ban is not absolute. Today, iconic pictures of Mohamed are sold openly
on the street in Iran. The creation, sale or owning of such images is
illegal, but the regime turns a blind eye (Muslims in Iran are Shia not

Two things are different today. The cartoons published first in Denmark and
now more widely across Europe set out not to depict but to ridicule the
Prophet. And they do so in a climate in which Muslims across the globe feel
alienated, threatened and routinely despised by the world's great powers.

The combination of this with Islam's traditional unhappiness at depictions
of any human form, let alone of their most venerated one, was bound to be
explosive. The affair is an example of Western ignorance and arrogance
combined. We have lit a fire and the wind could take it a long way.
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