Monday, January 19, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Islamic Aniconism

As a wanna-be Parisian and a professor of Islamic art, I've been following the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris with interest.  I've been spending a month at a time in Paris every few years since 2006 (I will be there for the month of April this year) and have been teaching courses on Islamic art regularly since 2002.  The latter was my response to 9/11: although a medievalist by training, I've become a self-taught Islamicist in order to teach that material because I believe that Americans need to know more about Islam and because teaching Islam through art history has the advantage of presenting it as part of a sophisticated high culture.

In following reactions to recent events, I've been most interested in two topics: reactions against the "Je suis Charlie" slogan and discussions of Islamic attitudes towards - or against - images and specifically images of Muhammad.  The most recent Charlie Hedbo cover, which I've chosen to include above, brings these two issues together by showing an image of Muhammad holding the now-ubiquitous "Je suis Charlie" sign.  I want to explore that combination here, because I see the two as having in common a tendency to over-simply complex issues and in so doing to collapse the world into a binary of us-vs-them, and because this is a tendency that I want to disrupt. 

The case against the "Je suis Charlie" response is well stated in this piece by Roxane Gay from The Guardian.  If only way to express my opposition to the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is by identifying with them - by proclaiming that I AM them (je SUIS Charlie) - then I loose all ability to be critical of their work, and being critical of it becomes identifying instead with their murders.  And in this way the world becomes divided into us and them, victims and terrorists; you are either with us – indeed ARE us - or you are against us, there is no space in-between.     

Likewise, in this piece also from The Guardian, two spokespeople for contemporary Muslim groups in the U.K. state that Islam forbids images in general and images of Muhammad in particular, and one asserts that this has always been the case - despite recognizing the existence of images of Muhammad made by Muslims in the 12th and 13th centuries.   Their position seems to be that Islam is now/has always been what they/the groups they represent say that it is.  What get’s lost when they assert that position is complexity and diversity within Islam, both historically and in the present day.   Image use and its rejection thus become a wedge issue dividing us from them: “we” Muslims don’t use images where “you” westerners/Christians do; or “you” Muslims have this issue with images that “we” westerners don’t share and don’t really understand.

And yet, as Christiane Gruber has pointed out, repeatedly, in the piece I linked to above and in an article in Newsweek and in a piece for The World on NPR and elsewhere, the Koran does not in fact prohibit images in general or images of Muhammad in particular.  As Oleg Grabar discusses in his classic “Islamic Attitudes toward the Arts” from his The Formation of Islamic Art, the Koran doesn’t really say much about art or images and what it does say is oblique: the jinn make statues for Solomon as signs of his prophetic status, but then they also make him water troughs and cooking pots - what are we supposed to make of that?  Grabar goes on to argue that a largely anti-image position did develop within Islamic tradition, historically, over time, in reaction against the Roman/Byzantine/Christian context in which it developed; note that his title here is “Islamic AttitudeS towards the Arts,” not THE Islamic attitude towards the arts, so that he explicitly allows room for multiplicity and for change.

As both Gruber and Grabar state, furthermore, the Koran’s real concern is with idolatry: not with the existence of images, but with their (improper) use in (pre- and so non-Islamic) forms of worship.  And this is a concern that the Koran shares with the Jewish and Christian texts.  It is most clearly stated in the Jewish scriptures/the Old Testament in the 10 Commandments, where God warns first against worshipping other Gods and then against making idols/images of things that appear in the world and finally against bowing down to or worshipping those idols.  The concern in this sequence of ideas seems to be that making images will lead to worshipping them and so to worshipping things other than the one God who is to be worshipped.  The story of how Christianity in particular went on despite these warnings to develop a rich artistic tradition and to incorporate images into its forms of worship is a long and complicated one.  And it is marked at several junctures by rejections of images and image use: specifically in the Byzantine Empire in 700’s and 800’s and in northern Europe during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s.  These anti-image episodes were frequently marked by violence, furthermore, although typically violence against the images or artworks themselves rather than against their makers.   This period in Byzantine history is known as Iconoclasm, that is, the breaking or destruction of images.  And in Basel in 1529 a crucifix was dragged out of a church by a horse, hung as if it were being executed, and then buried in the horse’s stall (See Amy Powell's Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum). Thus rather than standing in between Islam and Christianity/the west as defining the difference between us and them, these concerns about images and image use, and the tendency of these issues to spill over into violence, are something that the two religions and their histories share.

Finally, to return to Charlie Hebdo, the real problem with the cartoonists’ work – because I do find it problematic - is not the fact that they depicted Muhammad, but the way in which they did so.  Because unlike the cover I included above, many of their images of Muhammad are highly offensive – and offensive in much the same way as many of their images of Jews and of the Pope.  Thus being offended by Charlie Hebdo is also something that Muslims, Jews, and Catholics, and many many others, have in common.  And this is because those cartoons were meant to be offensive to broad range of different types of people.  But that, of course, does not excuse or justify the murder of the cartoonists.  Nothing could.


  1. This is great -- among the best things I've read about this, and it really gets at my feelings about the situation. Also, ART HISTORY has something very important to contribute to the discussion, but were are the art historians on the talk shows, etc? (Asa)

  2. Thanks Asa! Christiane Gruber has been getting a lot of press, because of her upcoming book on representations of Muhammad, but its a specific kind of press - The Guardian and NPR.