From Koran to Caricature Debate
Confronted with barbarity like this, it is easy to form the impression that Islam is fundamentally opposed to images. The fierce protests during the caricature debate only reinforced this impression. But doesn’t this contradict that fact that images abound in the Islamic world, even in rigorously orthodox Saudi Arabia?
Images of the Prophet
The question of the ban on images seems to elicit nothing but contradictions, particularly in the modern Islamic world. In her book, Silvia Naef, an expert on Islam and Islamic art, aims to clarify the issue at last. In doing so she ventures into complicated terrain.
The miniature is not unusual: there has always been figurative painting in the Islamic world, even paintings of the Prophet.
So how are we to understand the ban on images?
In order to examine the question thoroughly, Naef goes back to its religious and theological roots. The first thing that becomes clear is that there is no ban on images in the Koran. Only in the Prophetic sayings, the hadith, are there indications to suggest a restrictive attitude. This can be explained in terms of a fear of idolatry in the polytheistic environment in which Mohammed lived. Figurative images are condemned in the realm of ritual, i.e. everywhere where people pray.
Naef devotes considerable space to the opinions of scholars, but comes to the conclusion that the ban on images has no great significance: „There are no tracts on the subject of images.“ It is only in modern times that scholars have given imagery much thought, in view of the flood of images created by new techniques and media – film, photography, television, portrait painting.
However, Naef also speculates as to what the motivation behind a radical ban on images might be. Is the ban aimed at the images themselves, or at the message that these images convey?
Surely the fundamentalists‘ real target is the modern world, as symbolised by these images?
In the past, says Naef, figurative images always had a place in Islamic art: namely in the private sphere, which was neither sacred nor open to the public. In the Christian West it was very different. There, figurative imagery was firmly placed both in the sacred realm and in public.
According to Naef, the widespread idea that there have never been any figurative images in Islam results from a perception formed according to the Christian view in dealing with such images. In Islam, images have a different function to the one they have in the Christian West.
The image in the Islamic world
The scholar of Islam, who lectures at the University of Geneva, also turns her attention to the dissemination of imagery in the Islamic world.
Of course, it was not ever thus. Important figures contributed to the dissemination of the image in the public realm. One of the first photographers in Iran was Nasr ad-Din Shah. He photographed women from his harem, who were kept strictly closeted away; among them also his mother and a number of concubines.
In Istanbul Sultan Abdulhamid II built up a large collection of photographs with countless albums and instruments. He oversaw the creation of valuable documentary photographs of the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian Abdullahyan brothers were counted among the best photographers, and in their function as court photographers Abdulhamid bestowed many honours upon them.
Muslims too need clarification
The value of Silvia Naef’s monograph is twofold. Here is a systematic and compact overview of the question of the ban on images and its actual practice in the Islamic world. Since the caricature debate, if not before, it has become clear that there is still a need for clarification on this issue – among Muslims as well. In this respect, Silvia Naef has written a book that is long overdue.
Furthermore, by questioning the actual content of many widespread preconceptions, Naef also helps us to overcome our intellectual limits where the understanding of certain questions is concerned. In so doing, this book also contributes to a deeper understanding of Islam.
© Qantara.de 2007