AndFarAway

A Blog from Amman, Jordan, Online Since 2004.

The Face of Mohammad

When Natasha told me about the Jordanian parliament’s call for the punishment of the Danish cartoonist that drew 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad I got quite upset. I’m still upset, and although I can’t even begin to understand why they(ex. the Jordanian parliament) would do such a thing, I will redirect you to what Naseem Tarawneh wrote on the subject, for he, admittedly, is a lot less hot-headed. For one reason or another, I find it impossible to look at such situations without thinking more along the lines of this

Anyhow, what I will actually write about is one of my favorite issues- figurative illustration of human form in Islamic art throughout the centuries. The early Bedouin artists of Islam also disliked depicting the Prophet because to Muslim’s, he is the embodiment of the “ideal man”- an ideology that can’t be represented through physical properties. However, as Islam spread, the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula came in contact with many civilizations and cultures, including Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Coptic, Sassanian, Buddhist, Chinese, Berber, Turcik, Gothic and various others cultures, each of which had its own system of beliefs as well as its own artistic traditions.

It is only natural that illustrated stories of the time of the Prophet would find their way into books, especially as most of the cultures that the Muslims strove to convert to Islam didn’t speak Arabic, making illustration a necessary tool for communication.

The first time I saw these illustrations I was enthralled by the attention to detail, the rich use of color, and the heavy Eastern influence. These particular paintings are mostly from Turkey, Persia, and India, and so you will notice the Eastern style in drawing. Most of these paintings cover the Prophet’s face with a sheath of white, but a lot in Islamic history don’t.


Prophet Muhammad ascending on the Burak into the Heavens, Persia (1550 CE), painted by Sultan Muhammad. Notice chinese clouds, Chinese features, as well as the halo of fire which is very similar to Eastern religious art.


Mohammad’s trip, guided by Gabriel on the Buraq, in which he is shown sinners suffering in hell.

The collection below is one of my favorites, and it’s from a book called “Al-Seera Al-Nabaweyeh” done around the end of the 14th century, as ordered by a Mamluk Sultan in Cairo(check out whole collection here).

Nice, right? I love the usage of color.

Eastern influence isn’t the only influence on portrays of the Prophet though, there also have been some examples heavily influenced by Christian theology, such as the illustrations in the famous “Jame3 Il Tawareekh” of the Prophet’s birth, painted in the 13th century. The scene below is practically borrowed from Christian artistic tradition.

The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad

Fascinating isn’t it? Both Jesus and Mohammad are semites, and yet Jesus is portayed as a blue-eyed arian angel and Mohammad is portayed as a Chinese or Sassanian figure.

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24 Comments

  1. I was not upset for their having condemned it, I was upset at the haphazard choice of words they used, very unwise diction that makes their case deplorable.

    This is almost like potraying Jesus in an offensive state, some may like that, most will not, and some would go to extremes.

    I personally think it is about time religions and individuals started respecting each other’s feelings and lines of faith. Freedom of expression is highly regarded, and all should have it, not only the Danish catoonist. Why hammer some and spare others? He had something to say and he said it, very well, this is what I have to say, and I am saying it. It was insensitive of him to ignore Muslims’ sentiments and trigger this wide outrage.

    Lovely visuals by the way, Roba.

  2. Fida

    Roba:

    I relly do disagree with u regarding “minding our own business”!!! When it comes to depicting the Prophet in humiliating ways, and I quote from a news article “In one of the drawings, an image assumed to be that of the Prophet appeared with a turban shaped like a bomb strapped to his head.” then it is definitely our business, and the business of all muslims, to reject these uncalled for caricatures..

    Needless to say, this so called “freedom of expression” does no good for Muslims, Christians or even atheists.

  3. Fida, I beg to differ, it is definitely not our business, just because we’re Muslims does not mean we’re gonna suppress people from saying their opinions. It is our job as Muslims not to depict Prophet Mohammad in a humiliating matter not theirs. They don’t go on slitting our throats when we say the bible is altered.
    Personally i think this whole “Condemning” thing is the typical Arabic league kinda charade, “Blah Blah condemns the attacks on X”, “and Blah Blah condemns the murder of X”. And the end nothing happens, they just cool off and do nothing.
    I think the whole condemning issue has become a formality to Arabic nations/parliaments. However, i believe those cartoonists lack any empathy to the Islamic nation. And well, that is their problem not ours. I believe our parliament has better things to do that “Condemning” without action. And I believe we have better things to do than rage, how about serving our nations with good – don’t you think that is more Islamic than disliked rage?

  4. the depiction of a particular prophet is obviously influenced by the artist’s environment. while many Europeans perceived Jesus are a blue-eyed man, African (esp Ethiopian) artists nearly always represented Jesus as a black man.

  5. first of all i am athiest but i found what the danish cartoonists did way out of line .
    i agree on freedom of choice but freedom has limits.
    its been reported that the news papers that published the cartoons was trying to “sell out”..thats cheap and its not worthy to get mad about…let em do whatever they want..in the end they are just a stupid news paper and islam is much bigger than a news paper…
    but they still deserve to be called by thier names wich is “cheaps”

  6. This post has been removed by the author.

  7. about these paintings…i guess that the reason of why muhammed is portrayed as a chinese man is the story of “al esra’ wal me3raj” which is similar to some stories in china about buddhist monks in tibet who flew to the seventh sky while meditating..each one of the 7 skies represent one of the 7 sacred chakras in the eastern philosophy…

    mohammed went into a journey through 7 skies to reach the higer state wich he met god..and so is the budhist monks who try to pass all the 7 sacred chakras to reach the higer state wich is nirvan or savation

    i would like to mention that not only the face of mohammed was portayed in these painintgs..i have seen a similar painting that shows mohammed in the seventh sky setting infront of a giant chinese man that supposed to be “god”

    i think that the story of “al esra’ wal me3raj” inspired these artists to link between the two philosophies

  8. Everybody got offended from that newspaper.

    nice topic

  9. Isn’t it haram to post a photo of the prophet?

    Then how come your site hasn’e be bombareded?Or they are busy with mine?

    Though I think pepole should respect others believes!If it’s Haram to paint him!Then why do it and display it publicly?
    I don’t see the point!

  10. Jameel

    Roba, You want to test the freedom of speech in the west? Ridiculing Muslims is very easy, Shall we try something more challenging? Say something like Disputing the holocaust may be?
    Do you remember what happened in Sweden a couple of years ago with one of the exhibits at an art museum? Where was the freedom of speech then?

  11. Guys, I really am not trying to debate anything. I’m upset, still upset, will always be upset when it comes to such issues. I got upset when the Jordanian Christians banned the Da Vinci Code, I got upset when the Western Christians had piss fits at various advertisments that had Christ portrayed, and I got pissed when Burger King succumbed to the pressure and removed the cute logo of an icecream cone because some Ikhawanjeyeh decided it looked like the world Allah. So,like I said, go read Naseem’s post, which is admittedly a lot more level headed, a lot more subjective, and actually bothers to analyze.

    This post is about visual depictions of the Prophet.

    Iyas ya Iyas, that is indeed what I meant to portray. Did you read the whole post or just the last sentence?

    Mirror, yup, they are very influenced by Eastern traditions.

  12. i just came to yout blog by mistake and skipped straight to the last sentence of this post.

    nice blog by the way…

  13. No matter what others write about our beliefs! and regardless whether we are considered religious or not!
    We have to respect our history’s great men, becuase it is out case …

    I totally agree with most of the comments here, we should ignore even posting such stuff …

    There are different ways to obtain islamic ancient arts, other than this way! :)

  14. Anonymous

    I’m a dane, so this is my view of things. In denmark we have a tradition of being able to say almost anything, and that includes satire of religious people.

    Here is an example. Some years ago a danish artist made a sculpture of Jesus with an errection. The artist was supported with money from the danish goverment, did anybody care? Not really… Why? Because the danes don’t care if someone make fun of what they hold dear, they just think “Well that is they opinion, not mine”, and thats it.

    And when religion is personal, then you cant demand others to submit to your religious laws.

  15. some norwegian

    “When Natasha told me about the Jordanian parliament’s call for the punishment of the Danish cartoonist that drew 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad I got quite upset. I’m still upset, and although I can’t even begin to understand why they would do such a thing…”

    While it’s not clear to me who you have trouble understanding, I’m going to take it upon myself to explain the papers side of the story. A brief summary of the original article should accomplish that nicely.

    The infamous article started out commenting on the predicament of some writer, who was upset that he couldn’t find anyone willing to illustrate his book on Muhammad for fear of having their throats slit by islamists. It went on to recount numerous death threats made by this group against various authors, publishers and filmmakers, as well as the Salman Rushdie related murder of a Norwegian publisher. Listing cases of translators and authors opting to stay anonymous for fear of islamist reprisals, it then went on to assert that islamist intimidation of public discourse, and the resulting self censorship, constituted a noteworthy threat to free speech. The paper finished up by noting that free expression is integral to the concept of liberal democracy, and appended the caricatures as if to re-assert the right in Danish society to express oneself freely, even at the expense of the religious sensitivities of others.

    tololy:
    This is almost like potraying Jesus in an offensive state, some may like that, most will not, and some would go to extremes.

    Caricatures of Jesus don’t routinely result in an avalanche of death threats.

    fida:
    Needless to say, this so called “freedom of expression” does no good for Muslims, Christians or even atheists.

    It does me a bundle of good, and I’m keeping it. No one is forcing you to listen.

    Mirror:
    first of all i am athiest but i found what the danish cartoonists did way out of line .
    i agree on freedom of choice but freedom has limits.
    its been reported that the news papers that published the cartoons was trying to “sell out”…

    There are limits to speech even in Denmark, fortunately offending religious sensibilities isn’t overstepping them.

    Jameel said:
    Roba, You want to test the freedom of speech in the west? Ridiculing Muslims is very easy, Shall we try something more challenging? Say something like Disputing the holocaust may be?

    Yes, please do. I predict that if you do manage to convince someone to listen to you, you will be met first with ridicule, then with factual discourse, and that while people may well cast doubt upon your mental faculties, no one will challenge your right to express your opinion or your publishers right to publish it. You will meet neither censorship nor intimidation.

    Do you remember what happened in Sweden a couple of years ago with one of the exhibits at an art museum? Where was the freedom of speech then?

    You mean the thingamabob that was removed after the Israeli embassy launched a complaint? It was removed by the gallery, with no involvement of the government, and while I find the removal of it regrettable, it does not constitute censorship.

    roba:
    I got upset when the Jordanian Christians banned the Da Vinci Code, I got upset when the Western Christians had piss fits at various advertisments that had Christ portrayed, and I got pissed when Burger King succumbed to the pressure and removed the cute logo of an icecream cone because some Ikhawanjeyeh decided it looked like the world Allah.

    Ah, you’re on my side then. I apologise for doubting you earlier.

  16. Anonymous

    Jesus is actually a CHARACTER in south park… which GOVERMENT objected to that? please, as arabs we should LIVE WITH THE TIMES. stop embarrassing us arabs abroad!!!!!

  17. Anonymous

    Seems that its ok to burn National Flags of some countries, mainly Western, but we all seem ok with that. No world war 3 or vendetta or boycot of the country that it allows it. God (any one) help us if it was a Muslum (or other equally paranonia) state. I will stay anonymous in case anyone boycots me or worse!

  18. Anonymous

    I just would like to say that it seem like the ocidental world is about to disappear under the pressure of middle east;
    I dont understand all this fuz about some paitings. Muslims say to respect their religion, i say respect first of all us, europeans, christians. I have nothing against Muslims, the coran and the religion itself as long as it remains as personal choise and as along as everyone has their freedom;I laugh when you, people talk about respect. First of all just look at the way you keep mocking our religion, look at your behavior when calling european women whores and saying that we all will be burning in hell because we dont respect the coran rules. Is this your tolerance? Throughout the humain existence there have always been different parodies and ironic paintings of different characters even kings. How many times i saw the perverted paiting of Jesus, no one made a big deal. Because we dont live under Staline’s regime when people would be executed for such thing, that what we were fighting; Why is that muslims use every signle reason to get into conflict? Dont you have anything better to do? While living in Europe i get named a whore for wearing a skirt, you dont see me yelling at all corners that i’m himiliated;
    I just have to ignore them and keep existing, why do muslims use evey chance to show their hostility to the western world; I know many great muslims who’s religion doest not involve in their coexistence with the rest of the world, i’d call all those who created this conflict the islamists, the fanatics who would just keep dreaming about war;
    I am a free person and as long as i dont hurt anyone physically, as long as i stay the law-abiding citizen, i have a freedom of speech and it wont have any boundaries. It is revolting to realize that we are being under enormous pressure from the muslims communities in european countries; Our homeland is not our anymore, where we could feel safe. Where this whole agression comes from? How come no one was ever bothered by buhddists or orthodoxes? There have been also lots of ironic paintings, mocking those religions.
    I could say a lot more, but my point is clear

  19. Roba…I salute your modernity, liberalism and intelligence. Your ingenious comment on how Turkish, Persian and Indian paintings are marked by ‘heavy eastern influence’, pretty much says everything about you.

    More posts please. This is far too entertaining.

  20. Anonymous

    Blog by Anonymous at 5 05 PM 2nd Feb 06 says it all.

    If ‘they’ made anything id boycott it. The sooner we use up all their oil and sod them off the better for us all. They can go back to eating rats and camels in the desert and play their games with each other without bothering us!

    Technology will soon make ‘them’ and their ‘sacred religion’ redundant to the rest of the sane world.
    Can’t wait for that day then we can stop pandering to their whinges and whims.

  21. Dearest Ibn Yafa, I will not sit and argue with you or prove any points, have you no understanding for simple layouts? When I was refering to the influence, I was refering to it as Islamic art in bulk, and not as Turkish, Persian, or Indian paintings. Secondly, I was very much refering to the Chinese influence in these paintings, rather than Turkish, Persian, or Indian, and it is unfortunate that your eyes cannot percieve that distinct influence.
    I recommend you read a book called “The Arab Influence on Islamic Art” by Wijdan Ali, it will surely enlighten your eyes and mind.

  22. erik

    The legend goes:

    “June 15 1219 during a battle between the danes and the estonians at a place called Felin, the danes were almost defeated and humbly called upon help from God.
    A flag fell down from the sky, a red cloth with the christian cross upon it. The danes gathered hope and finally won the battle.”

    So when burning the danish flag, people are actually burning the christian holy cross!

    A thing I have read muslims would never do.

    Or would they ?

    Regards

    Erik – Denmark

  23. erik

    I am sorry for the last post Roba,

    I am just a little upset right now. We give away 1.4 billion dollars in foreign aid. Of those we give 10 million dollars in Palestine, we estabilsh projects to raise the standard of living. We build homes for families, we try to help them get a government and a state, we condemm Israel for what they do and what happens ?

    They burn our flag!!
    They tell us to go home because some independent newspaper prints a drawing..

    I just don’t get it…

    With kind regards

    Erik

  24. Eric, please understand that I am very much against these boycotts and the reaction. I assure you that I find flag burning not condonable at all, regardless of circumstances- neither are death threats.

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