Islam and images of beings

Is the following accurate:

At first, it was forbidden within Islam to create images of living beings (or just animals?). Then that prohibition was narrowed to creating images of humans then further narrowed to images of the major prophets i.e.: Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed and now it’s been narrowed to only Mohammed.
If this is accurate, I’d like to know about the narrowing process of this definition. The only thing I know about that is the anti-TV demonstrations in 60s Saudi Arabia.

Are there Muslim groups which have used images of Mohammed in the present or past?

Yes. here are some Islamic portraits of Muhammad.

You can’t make a blanket statement like this. Different Muslim groups at different times and places have had different restrictions on what could be depicted, but it’s not a plot of continually increasing tolerance everywhere with increasing time. If that were the case, you’d have no problem depicting The Prophet today – and you know that’s not true.
There are probably groups today that don’t allow any depictions at all, taking the biblical injunction against graven images very literally*. There have been places where schematic illustrations (but not naturalistic depictions) were allowed, others where it was permissible to show animals, others where you could depict people but not Mohammed, others where you could even show the Prophet – as long as his face was hidden, and even those where there was no restriction at all, and you could show the face of the Prophet. But the restriction varied from group to group, and from place to place, and from time to time.

What’s the footnote?

Saudi Arabia put a likeness of the king on their currency beginning in 1977. That was one of the last holdouts. Oman, also, in 1977.

I’ve tried to find a cite but can’t. I remember when I worked at Toys R Us in the 90s they opened their first store in the Middle East and all portrayals of Geoffrey the Giraffe (the store mascot) could not show his eyes so he had to be shown wearing sunglasses. I’m sure there’s an article about this but I can’t find it. It would have probably been in '96 or '97.

Ah – forgot that

*Jews took the proscription literally most of the time, which is why we don’t have a lot of Jewish Synagogue art. (They didn’t always do so – I’ve seen some paintings of biblical scenes from a middle eastern synagogue circa 2000 years ago).

Christians were said to take it literally at first, as well, which is one reason there is nothing from the first centuries of Christianity, but they started putting illustrations up after that, and have generally kept it up except for groups that don’t hold with Church Art (like Quakers) and for occasional outbreaks of Icoloclasm.

Christianity too has had periods when religious iconography was banned, most notably under the Byzantine emperor Leo the Iconoclast and at times of Puritan infuence in England.

This isn’t something peculiar to Islam.

In Iran it’s totally cool to show images of Mohammed as long as the portrayal is “respectful”. They even have a museum in Tehran with a few famous paintings of him. Hell, here’s an Iranian film from last February about Mohammed as a child. (Iran in particular is known for having a really strong film tradition, with some notable directors you probably haven’t heard of if you don’t care about the stuff that wins awards at international film festivals. Depicting Mohammed isn’t, like, the most common thing ever, but him appearing is not really remarkable.).

Generally, I understand that whether it’s okay to show Mohammed is generally considered a Sunni/Shia doctrinal difference, but even within both and within various subsects of those, there are large degrees of variation, from ultra-orthodox “no depicting people” to “no depicting the form of Mohammed” to “it must be respectful” to, I’m sure, a few “I want to satirize my own religious figurehead” people.

That said, the “no depicting Mohammed” viewpoint seems to be the norm, roughly speaking, and is retained largely in Sunni Western culture (that is, American/British etc Sunnis), so it’d probably be read as disrespectful if you tried to make a film about Mohammed.

It definitely varies wildly, though, the country of Saudi Arabia has a single movie theater. At least it’s an IMAX. Though there are a few films made with the involvement of SA nationals, and some people definitely do watch things on DVD/digital video/etc there, so please don’t take that to mean that nobody in Saudi Arabia has ever seen a film or anything like extreme like that, it’s just that there appears to be no market for theaters for whatever reason (or at least nobody has bothered exploiting that market). Exactly how much of that is inertia or failure to capitalize on opportunity, and how much that ties into local religious and cultural mores is something I’m not qualified to answer. Maybe someone asked and they just said “Najd, we’re good, man.”*

I’d wager that, except perhaps for the very narrow “depictions of Mohammed” issue, it’ll probably go the way of Christian iconoclasm eventually. It seems to be moving that way already.

  • If you’re only going to take one thing away from my post, please let it be that terrible pun.

I think part of the issue re. amount of Synagogue art is that Synagogue art is

  1. either liturgical objects that can be carried relatively easily if the hordes don’t reach them first, or architectural
  2. too often, Synagogues have been destroyed, so the architectural bits aren’t there to be seen

What we do have is not iconic but more along geometric lines, which is where the proscription comes in; in the type of art, not the amount.