Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Wrong, Newsweek: Islam Does Forbid Images of the Prophet

This week Newsweek gives us this inaccurate headline.

Beneath the picture is the inaccurate caption, "The Charlie Hebdo killers were operating under a misapprehension." The author of the piece, Christiane Gruber,  is associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Nevertheless, she got it very wrong.

To set the record straight, the bit about not making graven images doesn't have to be in the Qur'an, and the fact that it's not there doesn't mean it's doesn't have a basis in Islamic scripture. There are four (4) holy scriptures in Islam. They are:
  1. the Tawrat (which Jews call the Torah and Christians call the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament)
  2. the Zabur (Psalms of David)
  3. the Injil (that's the word of God as thought to be originally revealed to the prophet Jesus, and not those Gospels that are distributed by Christianity today), and 
  4. the Qur'an. 
Three of them are complete surprises to most people.

The restriction on images is taken directly from the Tawrat: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Notice it doesn't say "of Muhammad", because it was written long before Islam... but it doesn't say "idols" either. It flatly says "anything". That's the basis in scripture that the clerics are using. And it is the very same scripture used by Jews and Christians. Now, the fact that Jews and Christians do make representational art doesn't change the fact that the restriction exists right there in Exodus 20:4. The next verse, Exodus 20:5, tells us that the context of this restriction is idolatry. That's how it's interpreted by Jews, Christians, and those Muslims who commissioned the art mentioned by Gruber. Nevertheless, there are two restrictions according to fundamentalist interpretation: 1. don't make an image, and 2. don't bow down and worship it. That's because there's a full stop between the two verses.

Fundamentalist Muslims interpret their scripture as literally as possible... at least, they stick to what they agree is in the book. Their view is that all scripture but the Qur'an has been handed down in a corrupt state, and that the Qur'an is there to correct them. But generally speaking, if the Qur'an is influenced by the contents of the Tawrat. That's also the basis for dietary restrictions. The reasons for keeping halal and kosher spring from the source.

Note that the fact that clerics disagree doesn't make the fundamentalists demonstrably wrong. It does mean that there's a difference of opinion; but to be perfectly fair about it, the fundamentalists have the advantage of adhering to the literal statements as they appear in scripture.

The point here is that no professor of anything has any business stating that "a search for a ban on images of Muhammad in pre-modern Islamic textual sources will yield no clear and firm results whatsoever".  Wrong. I just showed it to you.  And here I take the words "clear and firm" as being unequivocal and universally accepted as Islamic scripture. As with anything, there is disagreement on interpretation, which doesn't make the wording of the source unclear. It's not unfair to claim that it's more like, "I don't want to do that, so I'll read into it what I wish."

At least since the prophet died, Islam has not been a monoculture. Gruber's conclusion presumes that it is very nearly so. What the professor should have said is that there is genuine disagreement on the matter, and that there is an alternate interpretation made by a sizable body of mainstream Muslim clerics. You'll find bigger disagreements among the denominations of Christianity, or among rabbinic scholars.

Nevertheless, for the first six hundred years of Islam, that disagreement didn't exist.

A very early depiction of Muhammad, from 1307CE.
Here he is receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel
Wikimedia Commons 

The above image is a big "no-no" for most Muslims, and was even at the time it was created.

"The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century."
We've already examined the first sentence. But while I'm at it, I might as well point out that when Islam first arose on the Arabian Peninsula, there wasn't a whole lot of supplanting of polytheistic beliefs. Mostly it supplanted Nestorian* Christianity and Zoroastrianism. This is why you will find the Injil held up as a holy scripture. As Judaism is to Christianity, Christianity is to Islam. In either case, the practice is pretty drastically transformed from that of the parent religion. And Zoroastrianism was already monotheistic. The magi ("wise men") of the Gospels were Zoroastrians, who also abhor idolatry.

Of those tribes that were historically polytheistic, most had already converted to some form of monotheism before Islam. Nevertheless, there were some traditional polytheists, and more encountered as Islam later swept outward. So the professor isn't wrong here, but her wording -- mentioning only polytheism -- might lead you to believe that Islam supplanted rampant polytheism on the peninsula, and that isn't the case. Those that they did encounter "got all the headlines", as it were (and with good reason as the Kaaba at Mecca was replete with idols in Muhammad's day). I think the clarification is necessary.

* Nestorians held Jesus to be of human nature. Islam's views Jesus as an honored prophet. In other words, it's not hard to see how Nestorians would readily convert.

Blatant Editorial Note:

Gruber's piece isn't one that educates. She gets a fundamental principle agreed upon and accepted by most Muslims wrong, and her credentials rob her of any excuse of ignorance. She uses 13th and 16th century images (because there are none earlier) to support a personal opinion of a doctrine regarding religion that began in the early 7th century. She ignores that trends toward not depicting Muhammad are not recent innovations, but a return to the state that existed for the first 600 years of Islam. She has the hubris to announce that clerics and their devout followers are wrong about their own religion. And the worst part is that she is so easily proven wrong herself. This is simply shoddy scholarship of which she should be ashamed.

When speaking out against a group, it's always best to get their views right. After all, ultimately you not only want to educate the public, but change the group. And getting their fundamental beliefs wrong won't incline anyone to listen to you seriously. Those credentials that you flaunt become instantly meaningless if you don't acknowledge the basics. And... importantly... no ideological combat can be won with falsehood.

With regard to imagery: Yes, Islam forbids it. But the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were not Muslim. This is something that the Islamic terrorists knew before they trotted down there and started shooting. The price of admission to a Free society is Tolerance. It is the understanding that other people do not share your beliefs. In the end it does not matter if you believe that Charlie Hebdo was wrong. They were within their rights. On the other hand, the Islamic gunmen were both wrong and outside of their rights.

A Free society is built on a principle that we in the West sometimes forget ourselves. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo reminds us of its importance. People have the natural right to express their opinions no matter how badly it offends you, no matter what the subject. You have an equal right to give as good as you get, so long as this is limited to the expression of opinion. Both of you have responsibility to tolerate the opinions of others, no matter how harshly expressed. And you both have a sacrosanct right to Life. If you, like those gunmen, can't do that... if you think that your offense is an excuse for violence or censorship... then you have the option and obligation to pick your ass up and leave. There are places in the world for you. Free Western society isn't one of them. And this is a message for everyone, not just Muslims.

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