Images of the Prophet Muhammad: Brief Thoughts on Some European-Islamic Encounters

In: Seen and Unseen: Visual Cultures of Imperialism
Christiane Gruber
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This short contribution explores the history of depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic traditions at the same time as it tackles responses to the 2015 ISIS attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It aims to show that devotional images of the Prophet have not been historically prohibited in Islamic lands through an analysis of pre-modern jurisprudential texts. The explicit “ban” is instead a distinctly contemporary phenomenon particular to conservative, in particular Saudi-Salafi, spheres. Moreover, a long and rich tradition of prophetic iconography has thrived in Turkish and Persian lands. Such figural representations are examined in order to demonstrate how Muhammad has fulfilled a range of religious, cultural, and social needs over the centuries. After the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005-6, images of Muhammad blossomed once again in Iran, where the government supported a range of artistic efforts to retrieve his legacy and praise his status as the Messenger of God. Thus, while a number of Muslim and non-Muslim discourses promoting an ostensible “ban” of images of the Prophet were loudly present during the 2005-6 and 2015 cartoon controversies, such discourses should be considered essentially a contemporary innovation begotten by ideological and political contestations unfolding on the international stage today.

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