Monday, February 23, 2009

On the Likeness of the Prophet

This is the first in a series of discussions between Patrick and I in an attempt to learn more about topics foreign to the both of us.  Feel free to continue our exploration in the comments section.  - Klint

Patrick: Klint, I know this is dangerous territory here, but I'd like to tackle a question I've been wondering about for some time now.
Klint: And what's that?
Patrick: Well, you probably remember that big hububalo about the cartoons of Muhammad. If I understand correctly, the issue wasn't that he was depicted as an asshole, but that he was depicted at all. I'm curious why muslims care so much.
Klint: I've heard about this, and always sort of wondered the same thing. Religious art is something that has a long tradition in any faith, so why is Islam the exception?
Patrick: I have a religious studies degree and consider myself fairly knowledgeable on that broad topic, but I don't have a fucking clue about this particular hang-up. So I was thinking you and I could do some heavy research, dig deep, and get to the bottom of this.
Klint: I think that's a reasonable idea. Hopefully we can crack this open.
Patrick: Let's break for a moment and independently collect some knowledge here.

Klint: So I started with Wikipedia to gather some background information.
Patrick: A reliable source. I like to change baseball players' stats at random on wikipedia, so I trust it.
Klint: I once made myself the mayor of Riegelsville, PA. I think it still says that I am. But, on topic, the Qur'an says:
"Behold! he said to his father and his people, "What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?" They said, "We found our fathers worshipping them." He said, "Indeed ye have been in manifest error - ye and your fathers."

Patrick: Is that it? Like, from that I'm supposed to pull that Muhammad is above being depicted?
Klint: Not exactly. I think the practice exists to discourage the worship of Muhammad's image instead of his words. Which aren't even his. They're just the regurgitated words of Allah.
Patrick: Like if I'm at the Jersey shore with Muhammad and I want a cute caricature of the two of us from a boardwalk vender, that shit is haram?
Klint: No, they have ways around it. Sometimes they veil his face or just depict him as a huge ball of fire.
Patrick: So fire is ok, but as we learned from that whole Danish debacle a bomb is not ok. How stylized can I get with this ball of fire?
Klint: I'm not really sure. Apparently the word of God is full of loopholes, so it can be pretty abstract.
Patrick: Like if I want to make the ball of fire look like the Mac Tonight McDonald's mascot from the 80's, is that shit cool?
Klint: Sure. Just leave the face blank, like this.  For all we know, he could look like the Noid.
Patrick: So, Ghost Rider?
Klint: I think motorcycles are haram.
Patrick: Most interesting about this, to me, is what it says about likeness. Clearly, a cartoon is not a realistic likeness of Muhammad. But Muslims took it as such.
Klint: It begs the greater question, what constitutes likeness?
Patrick: How abstract and removed from actual likeness can we get before a fundamentalist Muslim would have to throw in the towel and admit it was ridiculous? Like if I drew a carrot and said, "This is the prophet!" Would I be in hot water?
Klint: If someone worshipped the carrot, I think so. Or what if i spray painted Muhammad on the side of a barn?
Patrick: So we're in the clear provided that no one takes my childish doodle and prays to it?
Klint: Maybe? Or it might be a matter of merely attempting to depict the prophet. Regardless of skill level, I expect it's still a transgression.
Patrick: My intent is what matters here?
Klint: That seems the most reasonable interpretation. Because if a child tries to draw Muhammad, it's probably not going to look much like him, but it should still be forbidden. Or else you get into arbitrarily judging how much it looks like a man no one has ever met or seen an actual picture of.
Patrick: Hm. I was impressed with that probing bit of research you did by using Wikipedia, but I wanted to push further into this topic. Posing the question, "Why do Muslims hate cartoons?" to yielded this
Klint: Watching that doesn't really answer your question, but I'll say I find the video to be reassuring, only because it proves that Muslims are consistent. If they hate the Dutch, they're not going to support the Dutch in any way.
Patrick: Is Muhammad the original Keyser Söze?
Klint: I'm not familiar enough with The Usual Suspects to really tell you that. I will say that Muhammad is the original Wilson.
Patrick: I know a guy is really angry that I owed him $30 for three days in 2003. I think Muslims are a lot like that guy.
Klint: Explore that idea.
Patrick: He IS Wilson. Holy shit. They both give scary, but attractive, truths from behind a veil of visual anonymity. I think we've gotten somewhere with that. That is really cutting to the core of the matter.
Klint: I'm glad we've been able to dig into it. I suggest a reader pick up from wherever we leave off for their dissertation.
Patrick: Agreed. People have strong views on religion and it might be best for everyone to give themselves a primer on the details of various faiths. If only for your own safety.
Klint: It's true. You don't want to accidentally serve a Jew a BLT or draw the prophet.
Patrick: Klint, can we safely say we got to the bottom of this? I thought the video was a spicy visual aid.
Klint: I think we have. The video was a nice touch. I'll include a few links for further exploration at the end, as well.
Patrick: Peace be upon you.
Klint: I'd like to thank everyone for joining us on the inaugural discussion for Learned Men.   All praises due Allah.

For further reading:


  1. Are muslims uniformly against this though or is it like how some Christians are against modern music and make women wear skirts that touch the floor and others have rock bands and illegitimate children?

    I guess the real question is, is every Muslim a good Muslim?

  2. Yes, a non-Muslim was responsible for the cartoon. Actually there was a set of cartoons and, to my knowledge, none of the illustrators were Muslims.

  3. "The Cowboys have spoken heresy as well!" -Rabbit.

    The video really pulled it all together for me.

    "I know a guy is really angry that I owed him $30 for three days in 2003. I think Muslims are a lot like that guy."

    I honestly don't even know what to say about this quote, just that it bears repeating.

    Also, spray painting Muhammad on the side of a barn is something I can truly get behind.


  4. as a fellow holder of a bachelors degree in religious studies, i can say that this subject is def. worth more delving into.

    since there is a record of exactly what muhammed looked like, i think it's safe to say that what falls into the category of idoltry would be anything intended to be the image of the prophet; that is anything that is purposefully drawn to resemble the physical description given.

    i think it might also have something to with muslims wanting to keep the word of god and the figure of muhammed as two separate things, as god is to be worshipped while muhammed is merely the messenger of god. if there's a distinct image of muhammed available, it might encourage idoltry.

    or something like that. this blog rules. a lot.