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.

The robe the prophet wears usually is green, his turban clean and white. Often, out of piety, his youthful face is veiled. When it isn't, we are shown that his brow is clear, his manner calm, his dark beard neatly trimmed. Angels swarm around him. Because sunlight hasn't dimmed them, the colors of his garments still glow like those of gems. In many of these pictures his halo is aflame.

"The Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey" (1556-1562), a Persian painting touched with gold, has been for 60 years among the prized possessions of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art.

The volume that contains it is called the "Haft Awrang," or "Seven Thrones." Its full-page illustrations are exquisite, opulent, anonymous. Its poems are by Jami (1414-1492), an associate of kings.

The book's illuminations are not only of Muhammad. They show King Solomon as well, and the Queen of Sheba, and the conqueror known in the West as Alexander the Great. The Persian equivalents of Romeo and Juliet also are depicted. For the past 200 years histories so poetic have not been much in vogue.

Jami was renowned for more than poetry. He also was a diplomat and a Sufi master. The Freer's book was commissioned in 1556 by Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, a Safavid prince who commissioned its rich pages to five court calligraphers, artists in their own right, who spent nine years at their task. Imagine the cost.

The Freer book is not a secret. One reason that it's familiar to all students of Persian miniatures is that the Freer in 1997 published a 481-page study of its lavish gold-touched pages. "The renown of the Freer Jami," says the introduction, "has ensured its appearance in all surveys of Iranian painting and a central place in all surveys of Safavid art."

We see the prophet in the sky. Winged angels skim about him, as do many curly and vaguely Chinese clouds. Muhammad isn't floating. He is mounted on Buraq, the wondrous supernatural human-headed horse who bore him in a single night to Mecca and Jerusalem and to the Seven Heavens. Buraq's coat is spotted, his hat is trimmed in fur. The prophet face is hidden, but the golden aura that surrounds him shows just who he is.

The prophet was no god; Muhammad was a man. If his face is often veiled it is because, as the Metropolitan Museum notes, his "countenance mirrored the dazzling light of the divine."

"The planets gathered around him," Jami sings, "and scattered coins in his path."

Three other paintings of Muhammad are owned by the museum. "Ascension of the Prophet" is an Indian image circa 1800. "The Prophet Enthroned and the Four Orthodox Caliphs" is 14th-century Iranian. "Ascent of the Prophet to Heaven," also Iranian, is from the 1550s.

For reasons that include "cultural sensitivity," and today's bloody news, none of these old paintings is currently on view.

* * *

"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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company