A picture is worth…
Although the world is chock full of news of genuine significance, the front pages of Jakarta newspapers are preoccupied with a real crisis. It seems that an elementary school in Solo, Central Java has a book in its library called “Interesting Stories of the Prophet’s Childhood”. That’s not the crisis; the crisis is that if you look very hard you could find an illustration that is intended to depict Muhammed’s mother holding the Prophet as a baby. The crude drawing has the baby deliberately blurred and it is impossible to make out anything other than the rather poorly drawn general outline of a swaddled newborn in the arms of a woman who is dressed much like the Virgin Mary is usually depicted, except that her veil is brown rather than the traditional blue.
The horror, the horror! Islamic fundamentalists are up in arms over this blasphemy and bloodshed is demanded by the truly devout. This, after all, constitutes a depiction of the Prophet, something prohibited under Islamic tradition. Heads will surely roll. Department of education functionaries, the school principal, librarian, and everyone else remotely connected to this obscenity is running for cover, passing the buck, shifting the blame, and otherwise behaving as though something is seriously wrong. Let us not forget that this is a country in which elementary schools’ entire budgets have been embezzled, resulting in roof collapses which killed dozens of students, and those responsible were merely censured. They were not even required to return the money they stole, and even kept their positions.
A little history is perhaps in order here. The reason that depictions of the Prophet are haram in most traditions comes from the Christian schism known as iconoclasm. During the days of the Byzantine Empire, the Christian church nearly tore itself apart as one segment felt that the veneration of icons was a contravention of the 3rd Commandment delivered by Moses, the injunction to have no graven images or likenesses, while the other segment worshipped relics (bones of saints, pieces of the cross, scraps of fabric alleged to have been touched by Jesus, etc.) and icons. Icons took many forms, but whether they were paintings, sculptures, mosaics, bass reliefs, or hammered metal, the iconoclasts (lit. “image breakers”) did their level best to destroy them. The power and authority of the iconoclasts versus the image worshippers swung back and forth for centuries with the pendulum finally favouring the worshippers of graven images (fortunately, or much of our Renaissance artwork wouldn’t exist).
While this internecine battle raged, a new warrior religion (contrary, I’m sorry to say, to the claims that Islam is a religion of peace) was growing at an astonishing pace and conquering much of the Middle East; the leaders wanted to preclude this kind of doctrinal debate and determined that, in an effort to prevent the deification of Mohammed as the result of people creating and worshipping his image, they would prohibit the depiction of the Prophet. The idea was to avoid venerating him as anything greater than the last prophet before the arrival of the Messiah. Above all, Mohammed was not to be worshipped; hence the prohibition.
Islam today has turned this on its head. They have made a god of Mohammed; a god of such sanctity that people are killed for drawing his likeness, much in the same way that the ancient Hebrews saw it as sacrilegious to speak the name of their god. This is the exact reversal of the reason for the original prohibition. Those who are offended by the likeness in the schoolbook are, according to true Islamic doctrine, far guiltier than those whom they accuse of creating graven images. They have contravened the 2nd of Moses’ commandments. They have placed a god before the Mosaic god. But they have gone further; they are guilty of creating a god. Only a god, which Mohammed most definitely was not, need be revered to the point of such a furor over his depiction in a schoolbook. Only a god is so utterly apart from and above humanity that his image is unfit for human eyes. If Mohammed was anything, he was human.
It is becoming apparent that the Islamic fundamentalists here in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Islamic world have become outrage junkies. It is time to add common sense, moderation, and tolerance to the anger that characterises the hard-liners’ worldview…Mohammed, the man, would approve.