Islam and Idolatry

No, this is not about that wing-nut American general and his off-the-wall remarks about Islam, rather it is a somewhat serious question that I hope some member has the the answer to.

To my understanding, the Koran is perhaps the most explicit of any of the monotheistic holy books about how unacceptable idolatry is. I have always been under the impression that this was deeply rooted in all Islamic cultures (witness the dearth of human images in art in the classical Arab world).

But recently, while watching a documentary CBC was broadcasting about politics in Iran, it struck me all at once – the prevalence of portraits of the late Ayatollah Khomeini… there is obviously a real cult of personality going on there… but how is this reconciled with the tradition against idolatry? When did the change come about that would make the imagery that is part of a cult of personality acceptable to anyone who either had a literalist interpretation of the Koran, or who respected the historical interpretations of it…


It’s an interesting question. To simplify, there appear to be two broad classes of thought. The first is that only images used as or to promote actual idolatry are verboten. The other, more extreme take, is that all images should be banned because of the potential for them to be idolatrous. In earlier periods of Islamic history, the second interpretation tended to predominate ( hence the scarcity of images in early Islamic art, though of course later some of the most famous examples of Muslim art are Persian-style painted miniatures from the Mughul/Safavid period ), possibly fed by the rather spartan aesthetic of many of the early Muslims. However these days, I’d say the first interpretation is clearly dominant.

As to cults of personality, obviously that potentially cuts close to the boundary-line of heresy. Whether it actually crosses it would depend on personal interpretation, I guess. If Khomeini is just regarded as a wise figure to emulate/take guidance from ( which falls under standard Shi’a doctrine - Ayatollahs are guides for their followers ) and not someone to actually worship in a spiritual sense, then it still falls into the permissable category.

  • Tamerlane

It depends upon which Moslem you ask. I have personally had people in Saudi object to the old “fish tank” screen saver as being a potentially idolatrous image. Of course, the same group objected to video machines, television for anything other than news and prayer calls, and most of modern life.
Others have told me that as long as I wasn’t worshipping the image it made no difference.
I always wondered who it was that would be likely to worship a screen-saver. S

As far as the late Ayatollah goes, quite a few people here dislike him intensely. The Ayatollah evidently required or suggested that believers make a pilgrimage to his tomb, something that is verboten for the Moslems. Tamarlane, do you know anything about this? I haven’t heard it from an unbiased source but the locals in Saudi believe it.



This is interesting.

Tamerlane, I’ve heard that some of Khomeini’s most extreme followers actually believed him to be the Mahdi. Do you know if this is true?

Also, as Khomeini styled himself Imam Khomeini rather than a mere ayatollah, do you know if he would have been considered ma’sum? (That’s the sort of purity usually reserved for Muhammad and the Shi’a a’immah, right?)

I doubt he required such a thing, though he may have given his blessing to it. In general with Shi’ism, pilgrimages to the tombs of saints and other holy places, as well as praying to intercessionary figures, seem to occupy a more central place in every day theology than it does in Sunnism ( in the Sunni world veneration of saints is more commonly associated with various branches of Sufism ). And Wahabi Sunnism of course takes the opposite tack to the extreme. If one may draw a very crude analogy, Shi’ism would be like the Roman Catholic Church, while Wahabi Sunnism would be more like an austere, fundamentalist, evangelical Protestantism. So Wahabis generally, I think, regard Shi’a practices, with its special veneration of the Imams, as pretty borderline or even outright idolatrous to begin with ( and they certainly have that opinion of Sufism ). So that they would be down on that practice is unsurprising.

However even some Shi’a regarded Khomeini’s more extreme followers as a little off their nut. The application of the title Imam to him caused some pious muttering, as the last “true” Imam in mainstream Imami Shi’a was occultated about a millenia ago.

I’ve heard so. Obviously his death kinda put the kibosh on that a bit ;). Besides Khomeini himself, if I recall correctly, was of the view that the Mahdi’s return was not necessarily imminent, but might be a long way off yet.

As I mentioned, at least some pious Shi’a weren’t too crazy about him being called “Imam”. However I believe his exact title was *Nayeb-e Imam, or “aide to the Imam”, not Imam e-Zaman, which would be the messiah. As to that title, his followers just considered even that much more holier than other Grand Ayatollahs, that he deserved a loftier distinction. I suspect ( am pretty sure, in fact ) most other Grand Ayatollahs disagreed ;), especially the various ones imprisoned at various points ( or folks like Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari who issued a fatwa against the portion of the 1979 constitution that enshrined the concept of velayet-e faqih ).

  • Tamerlane

I’ve nothing particular to add to the information already given but, if you’re looking for an accessible introduction in novel form to Turkish/Persian painting and miniatures and the contrast in perspective (in both senses of the word) with western art, you could do worse than My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. You get a rollicking good murder mystery into the bargain.

Thank you for that. As I mentioned, the local Wahabi take it as an article of faith that Khomeini required a pilgrimage to his tomb. Anti-Shia rumors are easy to start and are readily accepted around here. The Sunni I’ve met seem dead-set against pilgrimages other than Haj and Umra. Visiting tombs is pretty much out of the question.



Thanks again, Tamerlane and Testy, for the great info.

How about the Kaaba (sp?) I mean, the Saudis guard it, so it must fit even the most rigorous requirements of not being an idol. It’s an ancient meteorite, right, worshipped by pre-Islamic peoples? Why travel thousands of miles so you can walk around it? Or is it special because of where it is–on a sacred spot or something? Do some special imams get to go inside and look at it? Is it carried around like a relic in processions sometimes?

As far as the meteorite idea, I read something similar in one of Carl Sagan’s books but haven’t seen anything else one way or the other.
I’m sure someone could determine one way or the other very quickly but frankly, I wouldn’t want to be the guy caught with the specimen hammer in my hand. S


Thank you for the informative responses… I appreciate the background information.

So who gets to go inside? I couldn’t find anything on the net.

I don’t really know the management details on the big-black-box. A professional priesthood would be the obvious suspects but Islam doesn’t have one of those. I have been told that the cloth wrapped around the top of the box is made by a specific family of Egyptians that has lived in the Mecca/Medina region for many centuries.
I can’t vouce for the truth of this but can say that many Saudis believe it.