In Art Museums, Portraits Illuminate A Religious Taboo

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

All depictions of Muhammad -- or so we hear daily -- are now and have always been forbidden in Islam. Art's history disputes this. True, that strict taboo today is honored now by almost all Muslims, but old paintings of the prophet -- finely brushed expensive ones, made carefully and piously by Muslims and for them -- are well known to most curators of Islamic art.

There are numerous examples in public institutions in Istanbul, Vienna, Edinburgh, London, Dublin, Los Angeles and New York.

Four are here in Washington in the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall. Three are in the Freer Gallery of Art. The fourth is next door in the Freer's sister museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

These portrayals of Muhammad are not big or new or common. Most were made for the elite. And most were bound in books. These were lavish volumes that were political in purpose, and were designed to celebrate and dignify self-promoting rulers. What their paintings show is this: Once upon a time -- in the era of the caliphs and the sultans and the shahs, when the faithful felt triumphant, and courtly learning blossomed -- the prophet did appear in great Islamic art.

Old portrayals of Muhammad come from Sunni lands and Shia ones, from the Turkey of the Ottomans, the India of the Mughals, from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. The oldest that survive were painted circa 1300. The newest were produced about 200 years ago.

Three such pictures, from Turkey, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"Contrary to widespread assumptions today," says a statement issued by that museum's Islamic specialists, "the traditional arts of Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite, often did reverently depict the prophet, as abundantly attested by manuscript illuminations ranging in time from the 13th to the 18th century, and in space from Turkey to Bengal. Pictorial representations of the prophet remain accepted by many Shiites to this day, although they have been generally frowned upon by most Sunnis since about the 18th century."

"Of course such depictions exist," says Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America. "What is important to remember is that they were never widely available. Had they been, the common people surely would have resented them. But they were made for powerful dynasties, and no one could take them to task.

"Today the consensus is strong. From Morocco to Indonesia, our tradition prohibits such images."

Those rough cartoons from Denmark were intended to enrage. They do what they set out to do. Published in a bunch, they disrespect the faith. The paintings of the prophet found in grand museums aren't like that at all.

They were once imperial luxuries. The rulers who commissioned them were attempting to ally themselves with God-approved, courageous figures of the past.

The paintings of the prophet were not made for walls. They stayed in costly bindings. Sunlight hasn't dimmed them.

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