Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Ranting. Sorry.

So a few weeks back I mentioned that this cartoon thing was getting a little heated. And now, of course, it's much worse. There are, I suppose, reasons enough to burn embassies. I'm not going to claim that this is one of them. But it seems to me that many of the casual commentators on the uproar are being rather dismissive, and quite missing the point. The thing to understand is that Islam as a religion does not allow the use of religious images at all. It's not just the fact that Mohammed is shown with a bomb for a turban. It's the fact that someone had the audacity to create a depiction of Mohammed, period. From Wikipedia:

No Muslim visual images or depictions of God exist because such artistic depictions may lead to idolatry and are thus disdained. A similar position in Christian theology is termed iconoclasm. Moreover, most Muslims believe that God is incorporeal, making any two- or three- dimensional depictions impossible. Instead, Muslims describe God by the many divine attributes mentioned in the Qur'an. All but one Sura (chapter) of the Qur'an begins with the phrase "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful." These are regarded as the most important divine attributes, at least in the sense that Muslims repeat them most frequently during their prayers (salat) and throughout their daily lives.

Yeah, that's right; Muslims aren't alone in this belief. Some Protestant sects feel the same. Look at the text of the second amendment: "You shall have no other gods besides Me . . . Do not make a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above . . ." Idolatry is a major reason the Catholics are so hated. But, you may point out, the Protestants don't burn crucifixes and smash pietas. True, but at least they believe in the same god as the Catholics. In the final analysis, God and Allah are the same being as well, but most believers on both sides don't care to acknowledge that.

Now, Mohammed was not always considered a deity, and you can find images of him in Islamic art (a quick Google search shows some from as recently as the 16th Century). But he's taken on a different character over time, more than a prophet, not quite a deity. To depict him as a man is seen by many Muslims, if not most, as sacrilege. Wikipedia again:

Islam forbids idolatry and polytheism. Most sects of Islam forbid any artistic depictions of human figures, even those of Muhammad, this being shirk, which originally means "partnership": the sin of associating some other being with the one God, Allah. This is considered akin to idolatry, if not idolatry outright. Furthermore, images of God are even banned outright in most sects of Islam, reinforcing absolute monotheism in Islam and attempting to eliminate any and all forms of idolatry.

Instead of depictions of Allah, Islamic religious art usually consists of elaborations upon his name or upon words from the Qu'ran which are used to describe his virtues. Some of them are magnificent. One could argue that the prohibition on human figures explains why the decorations in mosques are often so elaborate and intricate. Of course, this ingrained disdain for iconography has at times led to acts of vandalism against the icons of other religions. Wikipedia again:

Because of the prohibition against figural decoration in mosques--not, as is often said, a total ban on the use of images--some Muslim groups have on occasion committed acts of iconoclasm against the devotional images of other religions. A recent example of this is the 2001 destruction of frescoes and the monumental statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan by a radical sect and nationalist group, the Taliban.

Historically, despite a religious prohibition on destroying or converting houses of worship, conquering Muslim armies would on occasion use local temples or houses of worship as mosques. An example is the Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom, in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople which was converted into a mosque in 1453, when its mosaics were covered with plaster instead of being destroyed. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is said to have been built on top of the remains of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Some radical Jewish messianic groups believe that only by similarly demolishing the Dome of the Rock and rebuilding the Jewish Temple, can the messiah come to earth.

Similar acts of iconoclasm occurred in parts of north Africa.

Now I'm not saying there's an excuse for that sort of vandalism, and I'm not trying to excuse religious fanaticism. Some of you will know that to my mind, religion in general is just another way we put barriers up between ourselves and others. Nevertheless, I make an effort to understand and respect people's beliefs. It seems to me that the defacing of another religion's icons comes as a result of misunderstanding--perhaps willfully--that other religions have different value systems which are as valid as one's own.

When we refuse to understand the root of Muslim anger at these cartoons, we're doing the same thing.

It's not a simple matter of "they made a mean picture of Mohammed." To fundamentalist Muslims it's far more serious than that. Something perhaps on the order of magnitude of the Al-Ahram Weekly printing a cartoon of Jesus having sex with the Virgin Mary. Do you think the wackos over here wouldn't burn some mosques if that happened? Think again. They would. And no one's invading them, keeping them in poverty, taking away their land and their livelihood and their self-respect. So, hey. Maybe it's not just a matter of "those crazy Muslims" after all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said Christian theology calls it iconoclasm; actually, iconoclasm is simply "the destruction of images," and it's far from exclusive to Christianity. A favorite professor of mine taught a great class called "Iconoclasm and Iconophobia":

"Most iconoclasm involves confusion between the image or sign (such as a statue) and its referent (the actual subject), and a re-encoding of the signified (the meanings assigned to the sign)."


as for refusing to understand the muslim position on images -- well, there's also the fact that these cartoons were published in Denmark back in September, and only now that Muslim clerics are publicizing their "heresy" ..

it's not simple. it never is.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Well, I was quoting Wikipedia there; perhaps the terms are confused. I, at least, didn't mean to imply that it was exclusive to Christianity, or to Islam, or to anyone else.

Sounds like an interesting course, to be sure; but to use the term "confusion" seems to me somewhat dismissive; when Eliade talks about sacred space and time, he argues that in the religious mind, symbols become the things they represent; i.e., an icon becomes the deity, a temple becomes the primeval place of creation, a festival becomes the ritual of creation. They only work that way if we give them that power, i.e. if our beliefs are that strong, but that's the intended meaning. Although he does make a distinction between "historical" and "a-historical" religions, so perhaps it's not as valid when talking about the Big Three.

I also didn't mean to pass over the political aspects of the uproar, although I ended up doing so. Certainly there's an element of manipulation there.

it's not simple. it never is.

Amen to that.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Trent said...

My favorite is when a Christian fundamentalist bombs an abortion clinic. For some reason, acts have never been labeled by the media as religious fanaticism or terrorism when quite clearly it's both. But of course this would suggest that Christians could be fanatical and Americans could be terrorists, and we're not having that. Home of the free, tolerant, and brave, us.

What boils my cheese is the sweeping term "Muslim." On these shores, people are hyperaware of the differences between Catholics, Lutherans, and Baptists yet Islam is all the same? Point being, not all Muslims are fundamentalist wackos just like not all Arabs are terrorists, but it's easier on the brain if you don't worry about such details and just kill them all.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Trent said...

Dave, have you seen John Lesch's blog? He's from the Minnesota House of Representatives and just decided to up and go to Iraq to see it for himself. Makes for an interesting (and sometimes terrifying) read.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Trent said...

My bad. The link to his blog is

8:42 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I'll definitely check it out, Trent, thanks!

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said that Mohammed was not always considered a diety, but he NEVER was considered by Muslims to be a diety. Like all who walked on earth, even all the prophets and messengers, Jesus too, were mortals, people.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Fair enough; my meaning was essentially that he's taken on the character of something more than human over time, much as Jesus has, or Buddha.

11:54 PM  

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