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.
This special issue of Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, entitled ‘Creative Dissent: Visual Arts of the Arab World Uprisings’, explores the artistic modes of dissent that have marked the uprisings during and in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Scholars working in various fields of the humanities consider the 2011 uprisings’ more creative—and rather fleeting—manifestations, from lived environments activated on the ground to imagined spaces generated by online platforms. Collectively, the contributors underscore that the visual arts of the Arab world uprisings should not be considered by-products or afterthoughts to social and political action. Instead, they are located at the core and at the vanguard, propelling the energetic dimension of crowds both in the streets and in cyberspace.
During the 2011 uprisings, artists and cultural agents unleashed biting pictorial forms of ridicule in Libya’s public domain. Their chief target was Muʿammar Qaddafi, the ‘Brother Leader’ of the Libyan Arab Republic and the so-called ‘King of Kings of Africa’. After failing to win support from Arab governments, Qaddafi campaigned for African unity, fashioning himself as a traditional sub-Saharan chief during the decade leading up to the ‘Arab Spring’. His bombastic African title, his Afro-like (shafshufa) hairstyle and his eye-catching robes made him an easy target for visual satire, which turned visibly more racist when he and his son, Sayf al-Islam, resorted to using mercenaries from the Sudan, Chad, Niger and Mali to violently suppress street demonstrations. Throughout the uprisings, anti-government actors sought to degrade Qaddafi through the use of ethnic stereotypes, revealing that, in the particular case of Libya, satirical contentions during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ were not just transgressive and factional, but instrumentally racist as well.