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Why Islam Should Tolerate Images

by B.R. GOWANI

Every now and then one hears that Muslim “sentiments” are hurt because a picture or a cartoon of Mohammad (the Prophet and founder of Islam) was published. There are instances, such as in Denmark, Sweden, etc. where the cartoons, the one where Mohammad is wearing a bomb as a turban, were printed with no other intent but to malign Mohammad and Islam, and to hurt Muslim feelings. <1> Other times, the pictures are included as part of the articles without any ill intent.

As a consequence, the wretched and ignorant people in Muslim countries are incited by the corrupt and authoritarian leaders (the same leaders who if caught by those people wouldn’t see another day) for their own political motives. Riots and chaos ensues. Lives get extinguished.

 

Who are the Losers?

Dozens of internet websites are replete with hundreds of recent and old cartoons and pictures of Mohammad, many of them are hundreds of years old and have originated in both Europe and Muslim countries. Several of them are of good quality and pleasing to the eyes. Others are extremely nasty, hate-invoking, and illogical.

Then there is this Iranian lady, Oranous Qasemi, who sells paintings of young Mohammad on internet. The Microsoft video game “Age of Empires II” has Mohammad in the segment “Saracens” or Arabs. One of the lawgivers (along with Hammurabi, Confucius, Charlemagne, Salon, Moses) on a bas-relief sculpture, on the US Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. is Mohammad. He is shown holding a Koran in the left hand and a sword in the right.

The real losers of this intolerance are the Muslim artists who would like to try their artistic skills in portraying their God, Prophet, and other members of Mohammad’s family but cannot do it for fear of government reprisals and the wrath of the Islamic fundamentalists. Perhaps, few of them would do it in an unflattering manner but many of the Muslims, I am sure, would paint and draw pictures which could make Islam, like other religions, more understandable to its followers and outsiders.

 

“Mohammad, Messenger of God”

And when someone makes such an attempt, she/he is bogged down under so many restrictions that the final product looks ridiculous.

The case in point is Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 film, “Mohammad, Messenger of God,” about the Prophet of Islam.

The film was shot not in Mohammad’s hometowns of Mecca and Medina, but in Libya!

It was not released in Mohammad’s motherland, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia!! <2>

It was about Mohammad but without Mohammad!!!

Many other Muslim countries banned the movie but allowed it to be released after Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini permitted it to be shown in Iran. (Akkad’s aim in making the movie was to improve the image of Islam. It is sad though that he himself got killed in 2005, along with his daughter, in a terrorist bomb blast in a hotel in Jordan. The Islamists were behind the blasts. Akkad also produced eight “Halloween” movies.)
Images are Necessary

Many philosophers, intellectuals, and those with similar bent who believe in some supreme power are capable to fulfill their belief without resorting to any kind of image of goddesses, gods, or God, in an idol or other form. One can fathom their contentment with an abstract image of a deity. Many of those may even be critical, not wrongly so, of the religious spectacles which have become a regular nuisance, and which often ends up in rioting in many countries.

However, most of the people, whether educated or otherwise, are not that advanced in their understanding of the supreme deity they believe in and so cannot shun images and idols as part of their believing or religious rituals. It’s a natural tendency. Doesn’t it happens that when the loved ones are not around, most of the human beings try to find some solace in pictures, paintings, audios, and videos? So in the same manner, when the prayers are offered most of the people would like to have some object/s in front of them to look at and find the image they have created or perceived in their minds of the deities they believe in.

For believers the whole Universe is God’s creation and yet they assign a certain place as God’s house and give it a name of mandir, masjid, gurudwara, synagogue, church, etc. Why? It is precisely because they don’t see God everywhere but only in the places assigned and that’s why they go over there-of course, there are social, political, economical, and other reasons, too. Because if it was otherwise that they could feel the presence of God everywhere, then the mullahs or the clerics would have allowed poet (Mirza Asadullah) Ghalib (1796-1869) to drink in a place of worship, heeding his complain:

O imam, let me drink in the mosque
Or show me the place where God isn’t

The Shia branch of Islam is not that rigid about pictures and paintings of Mohammad and his family members. However, it can’t be said that most of the Sunnis, except the puritans and Wahhabis, are absolutely devoid of object worshipping. They do have their objects which they revere while praying or paying respect. Take, for example, Koran or the names of Allah and Mohammad or the Koranic verses written in calligraphic form on walls, papers, and clothes. Muslims touch them reverently, or kiss them or embrace them to their bosoms not because they see some aesthetic beauty in them; but rather it’s the Godly attributes which they feel in them. In mosques and shrines, the Koranic verses are in simple or calligraphic form all around. Not that the believers are incapable of appreciating the artwork, but basically their aim is different, whereas the non-religious, atheists, agnostics, and some artistic minded Muslims would only check if they find them beautiful.

(The dargahs or shrines of sufi teachers in South Asia are not only visited by Muslims but also Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and others. And the persons entombed in the shrines are invoked for help.)

 

Total Freedom Would Benefit Islam

Hinduism has been around for over twice the time Islam has been and is the third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. The Hindu deities are personalized and so are friendly as opposed to the Islamic God who comes out as some stern authoritarian dictator like Yahweh, the God of the Torah, i.e., the Old Testament.

As technology advances and becomes easy for people, through internet and other means, they explore these outlets to creatively put out their religious ideas for others to experience.

Last year in September, the Cartoon Network in India released four animated films on Lord Krishna. Then there is Virgin Comics, of Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, which produces comics based on Hindu mythology; associated with him are Gotham Chopra and filmmaker Shekhar Kapoor.

In the west, movies, TV programs, and plays such as “Benhur,” Ten Commandments,” “Moses,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and uncountable others have been produced.

Islam needs to be relaxed; it’s long overdue. It shouldn’t worry about losing to other religions. In this market of religions, if it loses few followers, it can gain a few, too. Either Islam can permit more freedom to its adherents by relaxing many of the obviously irrational restrictions and flourish like other religions, or carry on the US style rough and tough attitude and keep people within its fold with a danda <3>.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) declared God as a dead entity in 1880s; nevertheless, the religions are going to stay for a long time to come-because the system built by the ruling classes and the merger of religious, business, and political interests and their exploiting of the people to the maximum leaves those people no other option but to be at the mercy of goddesses, gods, and God for solace and comfort. Or to quote Karl Marx:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

And so it’s unthinkable that Islam would like to leave the field so soon.

B. R. GOWANI can be reached at brgowani@hotmail.com

 

Notes:

<1> In 2005, the same Danish newspaper had refused to print cartons of Lord Jesus Christ. The excuse from its Sunday editor Jens Kaiser was: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.”

<2> The Saudi rulers treat Mecca and Medina, the holy cities for Muslims, as their private property. In the US, the film’s release was postponed because a Muslim group took 22 workers of a Jewish organization B’nai Brith as hostages. A reporter was shot dead and few people were beaten and shot. It was released in 1977 as “The Message.”

<3> The US could have managed the Taliban menace through non-violent means. Instead it opted for the only thing it knows best- annihilation through war. This has created more “terrorists,” more mess, and more instability in the Middle East and the surrounding regions.

 

 

 

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B. R. Gowani can be reached at brgowani@hotmail.com

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