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Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Face of Mohammad

When Natasha told me about the Jordanian parliament's call for the punishment of the Danish cartoonist that drew 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad I got quite upset. I'm still upset, and although I can't even begin to understand why they(ex. the Jordanian parliament) would do such a thing, I will redirect you to what Naseem Tarawneh wrote on the subject, for he, admittedly, is a lot less hot-headed. For one reason or another, I find it impossible to look at such situations without thinking more along the lines of this...

Anyhow, what I will actually write about is one of my favorite issues- figurative illustration of human form in Islamic art throughout the centuries. The early Bedouin artists of Islam also disliked depicting the Prophet because to Muslim's, he is the embodiment of the "ideal man"- an ideology that can't be represented through physical properties. However, as Islam spread, the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula came in contact with many civilizations and cultures, including Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Coptic, Sassanian, Buddhist, Chinese, Berber, Turcik, Gothic and various others cultures, each of which had its own system of beliefs as well as its own artistic traditions.

It is only natural that illustrated stories of the time of the Prophet would find their way into books, especially as most of the cultures that the Muslims strove to convert to Islam didn't speak Arabic, making illustration a necessary tool for communication.

The first time I saw these illustrations I was enthralled by the attention to detail, the rich use of color, and the heavy Eastern influence. These particular paintings are mostly from Turkey, Persia, and India, and so you will notice the Eastern style in drawing. Most of these paintings cover the Prophet's face with a sheath of white, but a lot in Islamic history don't.

Prophet Muhammad ascending on the Burak into the Heavens, Persia (1550 CE), painted by Sultan Muhammad. Notice chinese clouds, Chinese features, as well as the halo of fire which is very similar to Eastern religious art.

Mohammad's trip, guided by Gabriel on the Buraq, in which he is shown sinners suffering in hell.

The collection below is one of my favorites, and it's from a book called "Al-Seera Al-Nabaweyeh" done around the end of the 14th century, as ordered by a Mamluk Sultan in Cairo(check out whole collection here).

Nice, right? I love the usage of color.

Eastern influence isn't the only influence on portrays of the Prophet though, there also have been some examples heavily influenced by Christian theology, such as the illustrations in the famous "Jame3 Il Tawareekh" of the Prophet's birth, painted in the 13th century. The scene below is practically borrowed from Christian artistic tradition.

The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad

Fascinating isn't it? Both Jesus and Mohammad are semites, and yet Jesus is portayed as a blue-eyed arian angel and Mohammad is portayed as a Chinese or Sassanian figure.

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