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Thu Dec 27, 2012, 01:48 PM


Aisha's Cushion: Religious Art, Perception and Practice in Islam by Jamal J Elias - review

Does Islam forbid images of Muhammad or not?

Turkish miniature from the 16th century showing Muhammad and Abu Bakr in the cave. Photograph: Roland & Sabrina Michaud

David Shariatmadari
The Guardian
Thursday 27 December 2012 02.00 EST

In a simple house in 7th-century Arabia, a woman drapes an embroidered curtain with pictures of living creatures on it across a doorway. When her husband returns, he is displeased and pulls it down. But the material isn't wasted: the woman turns it into cushions, which remain in sight without causing further conflict.

This is no ordinary house, and no ordinary husband and wife. It is the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and his spouse Aisha, who related the story that has been passed down for nearly 1,400 years. And this seemingly trivial domestic incident has had huge ramifications, as part of a body of revelation and tradition on the question of images in one of the world's great religions. But it also demonstrates an important ambiguity. Muhammad's objection wasn't to images per se; in this case it was their prominence, which risked distracting him during prayer. As a covering for cushions, they were fine.

It is an ambiguity that hints at a more complex relationship to the realm of art and representation than is suggested by footage of exploding buddhas in Afghanistan, or riots sparked by cartoons and films showing the prophet. And it is the starting point for Jamal J Elias's erudite but unsatisfying study of Islam's attitude to imagery through history.

Anyone who has a more than superficial knowledge of Muslim cultures will be aware of what can seem like a contradictory approach to the issue. There are strong theological precepts against the creation of likenesses of living things, and above all of religious figures, especially Muhammad. And yet lush vegetation in mosaic form garlands the façade of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, devotional pictures of members of the prophet's family are common among Shias, and merchants in the Tehran bazaar sell pendants with Muhammad's portrait on them. Animals prance across carpets, and manuscripts and miniature paintings bustle with human activity. So what's going on – does Islam prohibit such images or not? How come the bazaaris can carry on plying their trade, while Danish newspapers get picketed?


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