Scholars Discuss Religious Iconography in Wake of Cartoon Violence
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
RAY SUAREZ: The 12 cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper sparked violent rioting across the Muslim world and controversy over religious imagery.
Today’s demonstration with 70,000 angry protesters in Peshawar, Pakistan, was the latest in a series of clashes that have killed more than a dozen people in the last two weeks.
The Koran doesn’t explicitly prohibit showing images of Muhammad but Islamic tradition does forbid the depiction of Allah, God, or the Prophet. Muslim mosques are barren of any representations of Muhammad, but there are some depictions of the Prophet in public places. Inside the U.S. Supreme Court, for one, an image of the Prophet is carved into a mural of 18 lawgivers, including Moses with the Ten Commandments.
The cartoons were offensive, in part, because of their content. One showed the Prophet wearing a bomb on his head. But some of the illustrations were not as inflammatory.
This also isn’t the first time religious imagery has raised the ire of the faithful. Catholics, whose churches are adorned with statues and paintings of Christ and the saints, were outraged in 1989 when an artist photographed a small, plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine.
And followers of Buddhism have been upset by the use of Buddhas on trendy clothing, for decorative art, and even as mascots for a Parisian bar.
RAY SUAREZ: Now two perspectives on the use of religious imagery. Ingrid Mattson is the director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program and professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut; and Father Terrence Dempsey is the director of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art and professor of art history and religion at St. Louis University.
Father Dempsey, do other religions have strictures similar to those in Islam about depictions of sacred persons or things?
REV. TERRENCE DEMPSEY: Ray, yes, they have. And you will always find an exception to that.
In Judaism, for instance, there is the very well known synagogue at Dura-Europos in the third century. It is in – Dura-Europos is in Syria near the Euphrates River. And they found a rather resplendent synagogue with scenes from the Torah throughout the walls. And these were done in Roman style, Greco Roman style. So these were a people who were Hellenized.
There’s always been this debate — in the West in Christianity there’s been a greater comfort with images than there has been in the East. If you notice that the icons developed in the East, the mosaics were developed in the East. And they tend to flatten out the image; they tend to put the image in a timeless environment.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, those are ancient forms you’re talking about in the case of the Dura-Europos dig. What about surviving till today in contemporary religion around the world apart from Islam, which religions have very particular rules on the depiction of persons?
REV. TERRENCE DEMPSEY: Well, I think in the recent years, those issues that have come to the forefront have been the – what — the perceived mishandling of sacred imagery.
We’ve had certainly in our own country a series of works of art, Andre Serranos’ photographs that were of the crucifix of the Christ photographed in the artist’s urine. And he also did one of the Virgin Mary statue in the artist’s urine. That created a huge sensation.
One of the things that hasn’t happened, we haven’t had the kind of mobilization that we are experiencing now in Islam and Muslim communities throughout the world because of the cartoons from the Denmark press.
RAY SUAREZ: Both Judaism and Christianity revere the Ten Commandments which include a prohibition against the making of sacred objects or representations that are meant to be sacred. How come now all these thousands of years later there is this relative comfort that you describe in Christianity?
REV. TERRENCE DEMPSEY: Well, Christianity, the Ten Commandments are part of the Old Testament. In Christianity with the coming of Jesus Christ among us — and Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God — He becomes an incarnational form of God walking among us as a human being and fully God also. And so that was one of the justifications for the use of images in the early Christian church.
RAY SUAREZ: But, Professor Mattson in Islam, is the prohibition against depictions of God or the Prophet Muhammad tradition or written law?
INGRID MATTSON: It stems from both. The Prophet Muhammad himself had told his followers to refrain from making images. And he himself ordered the destruction of graven images of idols that were used during his time.
Following that, the consensus generally among Muslims was that it was forbidden not only to make images of the divine but also of the Prophet Muhammad, although there have been fairly widespread exceptions to that particularly in the eastern Muslim world.
RAY SUAREZ: I was going to mention that in collections of Islamic art around the world there are depictions of Muhammad riding on his horse, Borak, and getting a glimpse of heaven, talking to the angel Gabriel and receiving the revelation of the Koran. What happened to those depictions? Were they shut away? Were they discouraged?
INGRID MATTSON: No. The medieval images that were depicted in manuscripts — primarily Persian and Turkish manuscripts — had a very limited circulation. They were generally used in a court setting. However, even in contemporary Muslim settings in Pakistan, India, even in Afghanistan, you find popular images of the heavenly creature Borak, and the Prophet Muhammad ascending into heaven on that creature.
You find these in a kind of folk art tradition on things like trucks and cars and depicted on walls of homes. But these images are, first of all, reverential. They’re not images that are meant to be used as part of worship, an act of worship but to remember and describe his journey.
Obviously in that respect they’re very different from caricatures that are demeaning or presenting a very negative image of the Prophet Muhammad.
RAY SUAREZ: Father Dempsey, have there been examples in the past — either the recent past or the more distant one — in other religions of a more explosive reaction to what might be considered profane depictions of revered persons? Anything else that might be compared to what we’re seeing now?
REV. TERRENCE DEMPSEY: Well, Ray, I know in the history of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries there was the iconoclastic controversies that essentially destroyed all images. A huge number of images were destroyed in the eastern empire.
We move into the Protestant reformation and you had Swingley and Calvin who viewed the statuary, the stained glass, the relics of the Catholic Church as idolatry. More political expression of destruction of Catholic properties happened under Henry VIII when he had the falling out with Rome over the annulment of Catherine of Aragon; then the monasteries were destroyed.
But you have this iconoclastic movement periodically throughout I think all religious history.
RAY SUAREZ: And when you say iconoclastic, that means literally what, busting up of icons, no?
REV. TERRENCE DEMPSEY: To break up icons, yes.
RAY SUAREZ: And so there was obviously some discomfort with showing saints, the Virgin Mary, Jesus of Nazareth, so on?
REV. TERRENCE DEMPSEY: Yes. And the word that would come to mind is idolatry. I know when Oliver Cromwell when he was the — in charge of the government of England in the 17th Century, in his Puritan background, he destroyed many of the great stained glass windows of the churches of England because of the fear of idolatry.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Mattson, Islam, has coexisted through history sort of on the borders of places, among other religions for much of its fourteen hundred years. Has there been cross-pollination interplay between the arts and the customs of depiction with Buddhism, with Hinduism?
INGRID MATTSON: There always is influence, mutual influence anywhere different people coexist, so we find in all different areas, for example, in the building of mosques a lot of cross-pollination. Anyone who looks at mosques with their beautiful domes is reminded of Byzantine architecture.
In the Far East of Islam, the mosques look like, very much like Buddhist temples, you know, if you look at mosques in Java.
However, there’s always a kind of Islamic version of those, meaning that certain things that are permitted in Islam or necessary in Islam will happen, so, for example, the prayer space will be open and there won’t be images, even though the architecture, the style, some of the themes and the mood will be similar.
So there’s always been interaction and not only that but within Islam, within the boundaries of Islamic jurisdiction, there were Christian communities who excelled at iconography. So they were allowed to exist with their own tradition within the bounds of Islam. However, they weren’t depicting, you know, Muslim images or figures or the image of the Prophet Muhammad. They were restricting themselves to their own tradition.
RAY SUAREZ: So, Professor, how do you explain in manner and degree the difference in this latest reaction with the cartoons that started out in the Danish newspaper?
INGRID MATTSON: Well, I think it’s helpful to look at which Muslim populations reacted in an extreme manner and which Muslim populations did not. If you look at the Muslim population in the United States, generally they’ve engaged in — engaged this issue through discussion, through writing because this is a Muslim population that feels comfortable in the society economically, socially; we don’t feel oppressed. We feel that we have avenues through which we can express our opinion.
The reality in many of these countries is that is not the situation. And many of these Muslim populations have felt really the pressure of discriminatory political legislation in recent years, and also there’s a sense, you know, to some degree that there is some hypocrisy on the people who are upholding the idea of free speech in Europe at the same time in recent years have severely limited the ability of many of these Muslim minority populations to express themselves in the ways that are meaningful to them. So I think it’s really the political dynamic that can help us understand the different reactions to this situation.
RAY SUAREZ: Father Dempsey, do you see this as Professor Mattson has suggested it, as something of a political reaction along with a religious one? Or do you see it as part of a long history of this kind of reaction to art and physical objects in the religious realm?
REV. TERRENCE DEMPSEY: I think, Ray, that Professor Mattson is right on with her remarks.
There was an article in last Sunday’s New York Times by Emron Karashi and it was called “Cartoon in Three Dimensions.” And he talks about this issue I think with great clarity and great sensitivity.
One of the things about freedom of speech is also a sense of responsibility. If we abuse people by coming up with stereotypes we see how divisive that is. That does tear at the fabric of our very society. We have to be aware of that.
And I think what is the greatest irony of this all and one of the saddest ironies is that people, if this continues now, people are going to be killed in the name of an all-loving God that Judaism, Christianity and Islam worship — the same God. And I think that’s the great tragedy and irony.
RAY SUAREZ: Father Dempsey, Professor Mattson, thank you both.
INGRID MATTSON: Thank you, Ray.
REV. TERRENCE DEMPSEY: Thank you.