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In Art Museums, Portraits Illuminate A Religious Taboo
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"In the Holy Koran of Islam," says political scientist As'ad AbuKhalil, a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, "the one sin unforgivable is that of polytheism. The prohibition is intended to protect the faithful from that sin. The fear was that intense reverence for the prophet might if unrestrained cross over into worship. In the 8th and the 9th centuries a general consensus banning such depictions arose among the clerics, but not all Muslims knew of it, paid attention, or obeyed."
The earliest traditions of the faith do, at times, display a deep distrust of pictures, all pictures. "On the day of judgment the most terrible of punishments will be inflicted on the painter," is one warning to be found in an old collection of the sayings of Muhammad.
"There are many such sayings of the prophet," said Imam Talal Eid, director of the Islamic Institute of Boston in nearby Quincy. "He instructed his companions not to draw a picture of him, and this has been taken as a general prohibition. He also told them not to pray in places that have images. There also is a general prohibition against full statues. And -- though today, of course, we find photos in all passports -- many Muslims have felt some hesitance about permitting portraits of any kind."
Yet no such condemnation is explicit in the Koran. "It comes as a surprise to find," writes scholar Alexandre Papadopoulo, "that there exists in [the Koran] not a single interdiction against images, paintings, or statues of living beings."
For a blanket ban condemning images of any kind the reader has to turn to another holy text.
"Thou shalt not," God told Moses on Mount Sinai -- and He didn't just say it, he cut it into stone -- "make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."
This ban, though it sounds absolute, clear and comprehensive, did not, of course, prevent the pope from hiring Michelangelo.
Many great religions, and especially the great monotheistic religions, have at one time or another wrestled with permitting images that might depict aspects of the one uncircumscribable God.
In the early days of Buddhism, long before the Taliban demolished those huge and ancient sandstone statues in Afghanistan, many followers of Buddha were offended by the showing of his image, though hey did permit depictions of his footprint or his parasol.
Many Christians, too, once were ready "to the point of death" to defend God's commandment against images, or so we're told by Origen of Alexandria, the third century church father. In 754 the Christian emperor of the Byzantines declared war on icons, condemning "every likeness which is made . . . by the evil art of painters." The Calvinist anti-Catholics, who during the Reformation broke the heads off Gothic statues and hurled stones through stained-glass windows, were similarly filled with destructive sacred wrath.
The old Islamic ban on depictions of the prophet, though frequently ignored as these many paintings show, began to gain increased authority in the 18th century. Handmade books of history, especially those painted to legitimize one or another Islamic dynasty, were seldom commissioned after that.
"The growing power of conservative faculties in Islamic universities also strengthened the old ban on depictions of the prophet," As'ad AbuKhalil said. "So did the rise of the Wahabis in Arabia. Their conservatism went so far that they obliterated the prophet's tomb." They feared its veneration.
But theological taboos can evolve. Sometimes they tighten, sometimes they loosen.
Calvinists no longer decry the most bloody and emotional images of martyrdom -- think of those who paid to see "The Passion of the Christ." Jews don't shun all carvings. Not so long ago some Saudis died a violent death while attempting to prevent television with all its images from entering their land. Now millions of their countrymen now watch it every day.
Manuscript illuminations picturing Muhammad, the portrayals that survive in the Istanbul's Topkapi, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the British Museum in London or at the Freer in Washington, all tell us this: Images have power; beliefs are not unanimous. And though museums often seem far distant from the news, this isn't always so.