Supreme Court Frieze Brings Objection
By Tamara Jones and Michael O'Sullivan
A petition signed by 16 groups across the country has asked that the larger-than-life frieze of great lawgivers be altered "in the spirit of religious tolerance and pluralism" because Islamic tradition discourages artistic renderings of people, and showing the face of Muhammad is considered particularly offensive.
The Supreme Court refused to comment publicly on the controversy, but coalition spokesman Nihad Awad said there already has been one "fruitful" meeting and "a lot of phone calls" since the 66-year-old artwork first came to its attention three months ago.
"We've been trying to keep this quiet," Awad said in a telephone interview. "We believe the court had good intention by honoring the prophet, so we appreciate that. We want to be flexible, and we're willing to pay for the changes ourselves."
Designed by Adolph A. Weinman, the frieze on the chamber's north wall is part of the original Supreme Court architecture. The Beaux-Arts sculpture in ivory Spanish marble features a procession of history's great lawmakers, from the ancient Egyptian ruler Menes to Napoleon. The bearded Muhammad is shown clutching a scimitar in one hand and the Koran in the other.
At present, the Supreme Court sculpture is the coalition's only target. According to Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the petition signatories, the coalition is unaware of any other public representations of the prophet in such a prominent location.
"Every once in a while we get a call about a textbook or something minor. Typically it's clip art or some artist's rendering of what he thinks the prophet looks like," he said. "Usually we send a letter and say that this kind of thing is offensive to Muslims and it's resolved pretty easily with an apology. But this is different. This is a major American institution."
The coalition also has complained that the curved sword in the prophet's right hand "reflects long-held stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant conquerors." Furthermore, the protesters said, Supreme Court literature about the frieze incorrectly identifies Muhammad as the "founder of Islam" when he in fact is recognized as "the last in a line of prophets that includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus." The petition was addressed to the court's administrative assistant, James Duff, and curator Gail Galloway.
According to Awad, the court already has agreed to change the word "founder" in its literature to "prophet," but there has been no response yet to the request that the frieze be altered.
"If maybe they can sandblast out the face," said Awad, "we suggested they could replace it with a piece of marble with maybe a verse from the Koran or a saying of the prophet pertaining to justice and law." The group has not investigated the cost or plausibility of such a project, he added.
Even if the court were willing, sandblasting Muhammad could jeopardize Justinian and Charlemagne, who stand on either side.
"Oh dear, they've got a real problem on their hands," said Charles Geddes, a retired professor of Islamic history who now directs the American Institute of Islamic Studies in Denver. "That artist cut himself into a real pickle."
Although the coalition did not raise the issue, Geddes also pointed out that the depiction of Muhammad holding the Koran in his left hand compounds the insult because the left hand is considered unclean.
An article in the current issue of the Los Angeles-based Muslim periodical the Minaret claims that "only a few of the Supreme Court staff were aware that Muslims deem it offensive to display a picture of their prophet." Minaret editor Aslam Abdullah also wrote that "Muslim scholars say the Prophet himself commanded his companions not to carve his pictures."
Massumaeh Farhad, associate curator of Islamic Near Eastern art at the Sackler Gallery, says the Koran's prohibition against idols is somewhat more ambiguous. "It depends a little bit on to whom you talk," she said. "The fact is that the prophet is represented pictorially in art. That's the reality. Although the convention is to depict him with a veil over his face, there are exceptions. We do have several examples of paintings without a veil in our collection. That is certainly not the norm, but precedents do exist."
Farhad was quick to note that the Sackler has never received complaints when it displayed its paintings, emphasizing that sculptures are thought to be more idolatrous because of their three-dimensionality.
Within the Muslim community itself, there is disagreement over the seriousness of the affront. According to Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council, the demand for the carving's obliteration is excessive.
"Remember, this happened some 60 years ago." he said. "If it had been made today, I would have had a problem with it and it would have been repulsive. You have to take it in historical context.
"I'm actually pleasantly surprised by the piece," he continued. "It's an honor to see Muhammad portrayed as a lawgiver in the Abrahamic tradition, and Muslims should appreciate it."
Background literature prepared by the court curator's office notes that court architect Cass Gilbert selected Weinman to carve the four friezes adorning the chamber's walls because he was "one of the most respected and accomplished Beaux-Arts architectural sculptors of the period." Designed in 1931 and 1932, the friezes were in place beneath the chamber's coffered ceiling by the time construction was complete in 1935. The north and south friezes depict a total of 18 lawgivers, while the east and west friezes have allegorical themes. At least seven of the figures besides Muhammad carry swords.
"The Supreme Court Building Commission, like most building commissions of the 1930s, did not question what figures or symbols were to be used as embellishments," according to the court material. "They understood that the architect had authority in this matter, with the architect usually deferring to the sculptor himself." Both Gilbert and Weinman are long dead.
Nothing inside the chamber itself identifies the figures being depicted, and since renderings of Muhammad are forbidden by Islam, the Muslims lodging the complaint readily acknowledge that the faithful would not recognize the image on the frieze.
But a small plaster replica of the artwork is on display in the court's exhibit hall near the gift shop, and names and descriptions of each figure are marked on the case. Brochures also identify the figure as Muhammad.
Geddes suggested that the written identifications be removed and that a veil might be chiseled over Muhammad's face as a compromise.
Asked why there were no complaints before now, Hooper said no one had ever really noticed the frieze before. "The Muslim community only recently has begun asserting itself in this country."
Another Islamic spokesman, Musa Qutub of the Islamic Information Center of America in Des Plaines, Ill., said that not only Muhammad but Moses as well should be removed from the frieze.
"We object not only to pictures of the Prophet Muhammad, but to pictures of any prophet, including Moses and Jesus," Qutub said. "Besides, there is supposed to be a separation of church and state. This is a violation of the Constitution in the Supreme Court."
Qutub explained that no images of Muhammad are found in mosques or other Islamic institutions "for fear people out of temptation might start praying to him instead of to Allah."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company