Listen to the story.
Marco Werman: In the wake of the Paris attacks, many Muslims in France and elsewhere are complaining about an ongoing lack of respect for their faith, even more so after a new issue of Charlie Hebdo hit newsstands yesterday, again with a caricature with the Prophet Muhammad on the cover. We wanted to find out more about why many Muslims find any depiction of Muhammad so offensive, so we reached Christiane Gruber, professor of Islamic arts at the University of Michigan. She’s working on a book called “The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images,” and I asked her if the Quran actually bans drawings of the prophet.
Christiane Gruber: No, there’s no place in the Quran that prohibits images of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, the Quran doesn’t ban figural imagery as such whatsoever. The only mentions in the Quran that we see that come even remotely to this kind of prohibition is a series of verses that castigate idols and idol worshipping, and this of course makes sense when we think about the time and place where Islam rose. So, the 7th century in pagan Arabian Peninsula.
Werman: The Taliban in Afghanistan in the late “˜90s, they forbade depictions of all forms of figural imagery--the Prophet Muhammad, animals, anything. Were they the first or just the best publicized?
Gruber: I think they’re the first in a large wave of very contemporary efforts to prohibit images of the Prophet Muhammad. The Taliban took it slightly further and they prohibited sites and sculptures of non-Islamic deities. So, the buddhas of Bamiyan are perhaps the most famous of those. But their fatwa, which they issued online in 2001, that decreed that all non-Islamic sites be destroyed, said absolutely nothing about the necessity to destroy images, sculptures, and sites that are Islamic.
Werman: If you were to ask some Muslims to describe what Muhammad looks like, have you ever done that and what kind of responses do you get?
Gruber: You’ll get a variety of responses today but Muslims who have read historical sources have a pretty good idea of what he looked like because there’s a series of texts in Islam that are known as characteristic texts, meaning that they’re texts that describe the characteristics of the prophet, and there’s another that’s a corpus of texts that are known as “proofs of prophecy texts,” which describe all of the proofs, physical proofs as well, that made him a prophet sent by God. In those characteristics and proof texts, Muhammad is described as being of median height--he’s not too tall, he’s not too short, so when you look at him, you’re quite comfortable--we’re told that his eyes are almond shaped, that he has beautiful curved eyebrows, that his cheeks, his flesh is slightly rosy, that he had a beautiful beard, that when he smiled, it was sometimes like little flashes of lightning emerged from between his teeth. Often times, his companions, in fact, describe him as so radiant, so luminescent that they “couldn’t look unto him because he shone bright like the moon.” We’re also told that he smelled beautiful.
Werman: Do Islamists, the extremists see an inherent contradiction in their ability to describe the Prophet Muhammad based on character texts and these illustrations that they say, “Oh, we can’t tolerate that.”
Gruber: I think the difference here is between the way we express and visualize the prophet. If we talk about the prophet, we have to use language, and so this language becomes quite allegorical. If we have images, the images are before our eyes, and so they become quite literal. It is much easier to slip into potentially worshipping an image or an idol than it is to worship the image in the mind. So, I think the disconnection there is between the visual image and the mental image.
Werman: I’m curious as to what’s been going through your head the past week with the violent furor over pictures of the Prophet Muhammad that aren’t just depictions, but for many Muslims, are seriously insulting images as well.
Gruber: Well, I’ve seen these cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad not just in Charlie Hebdo but also in 2005 in those Danish cartoons, and as an art historian, I look at those materials and I find them not only mediocre but I find them really not worthy of any attention. To me, they’re not aesthetically pleasing, they’re not intellectually challenging, they’re incredibly offensive.
Werman: They are political cartoons. That’s how we need to classify them. They aren’t the kind of art that you typically look at in your work though.
Gruber: Exactly. They try to fuel the flames of divisiveness. They basically are there not to create constructive dialogue but really to offend.
Werman: Christiane Gruber, professor of Islamic arts at the University of Michigan, thanks so much for joining us. This was fascinating.
Gruber: It was my pleasure.