There is no doubt that some of the Danish cartoons would be offensive to many Muslims, because of the nature of the caricatures. But showing any image at all of Mohammed is objectionable to many Muslims. Take for example the 14th century Persian painting above, which was to have been part of Robert Gardner’s 2001 Islam: Empire of Faith. The PBS show was screened for CAIR, which had this to say:
Following the screening, CAIR sent a letter to series producer Robert Gardner expressing concerns about the representation of the Prophet. In that letter, CAIR wrote in part: “CAIR…would like to see your program succeed in offering a positive image of Islam and Muslims. The inclusion of this image would only serve as an unnecessary obstacle to that goal.” Gardner passed on CAIR concerns to PBS, which then instructed Gardner to alter the image.
Here’s what Gardner did, via Islam Online:
Fortunately, Gardner avoided controversy by agreeing to alter a 14th century imaginary painting of the Prophet after a request from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The painting shows the Prophet helping to place the black stone at the Kaaba. Speaking to the Baltimore Sun on May 4th, Gardner said, “After talking to PBS and various scholars, what we agreed to was a small re-animation of one shot of a 14th century painting of Muhammad, so that you won’t see his face. But you will still see the Prophet. Basically, we’re just showing the image from a different angle”
So what is the standard for censorship? Is it an offensive image or Mohammed, or any image at all of Mohammed? Indeed, is any portraiture legal in Islam, not only of Mohammed, but of any man or beast, real or imaginary? Unfortunately, Islam appears to have no clear standards on what is permitted to be represented in painting or sketchwork, though the religion appears to have a clear prohibition of statuary of any kind. From Volume 22 of our 1988 Encyclopedia Britannica on Islam (p. 38), which by the way has a picture of Mohammed on p.41:
The Arabs before Islam had hardly any art except poetry…The most important principle governing art was anti-iconism, i.e., the religious prohibition of figurization and representation of living creatures…Hence in Islamic anti-iconism two considerations are fused together: (1) rejection of such images that might become idols (these may be images of anything), and (2) rejection of figures of living things.
And from our trusty Janson second edition at page 241 (it also has a picture of Mohammed at cp. 29):
Only from about 800 on do we find strictures against representation as such in Moslem religious literature…The chief argument now is not the danger of idolatry but of human presumption: in making images of living things, the artist usurps a creative act that is reserved to God alone, since only He can breathe a soul into living creatures. Theoretically, therefore, human or animal figures of any kind were forbidden under Islamic law. Yet in actual practice the ban was only fully effective against large scale representational art for public display.
There seems to have been a widespread conviction, expecially at the luxury-loving courts of the caliphs and other Moslem princes, that images of living things were were harmless if they did not cast a shadow, if they were on a small scale, or applied to objects of daily use such as rugs, fabrics, pottery. As a result, human and animal figures did survive in Islamic art, but they tended to become reduced to decorative motifs…
An article by an art professor in the Tribune of India sums up the situation today, consistent with the Janson and Brittanica entries:
[W]hat view does Islam take of painting? We spoke of this at some length, for a few things needed to be established, at least in outline. The making of idols, or offering worship to them, is of course taboo, but it is also clear that there is no Koranic injunction against painting: the objection surfaces only in the Hadith, ‘Traditional Accounts of things said by The Prophet or his Companions’. Therein it is stated that the maker of forms, who arrogates to himself a task that belongs only to Allah, shall on the day of judgement be made answerable, and, being obviously unable to infuse life into what he had made, shall be shamed, and sent to perdition. This might be a simplification, but broadly this is the view that orthodox Islam took in the early years. And yet one knows all too well how much painting was done in the Islamic world, and with what brilliance. Was all this then done in defiance of the law? Or did the wonderfully pragmatic view that emerged in later centuries – that you shall not make any images ‘that cast a shadow’, meaning sculptural forms, of course – come to prevail in most of the Islamic world? There are no clear answers. What is certain, however, is that the orthodox view was never truly abandoned, and every now and then objections even to painting were raised, and controversies raged.
So views of painting and human representation seem to vary over the centuries in Islam, but mostly not in a good way for art as it is currently understood in the Western world. We know that Muslims are outraged at caricatures of Mohammed, and they disapprove of showing any picture at all of Mohammed as did CAIR. Human portraiture appears to have had its moments in miniatures in Persia from time to time, but we find few examples from the Arab world. As for statues, the Buddhas of Bamiyan tell that sad story, as AFP reported at the time:
“Based on the verdict of the clergymen and the decision of the Supreme Court of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) all the statues around Afghanistan must be destroyed. All the statues in the country should be destroyed because these statues have been used as idols and deities by the non-believers before. They are respected now and may be turned into idols in future too. Only Allah, the Almighty, deserves to be worshipped, not anyone or anything else.”"Based on the verdict of the clergymen and the decision of the Supreme Court of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) all the statues around Afghanistan must be destroyed. All the statues in the country should be destroyed because these statues have been used as idols and deities by the non-believers before. They are respected now and may be turned into idols in future too. Only Allah, the Almighty, deserves to be worshipped, not anyone or anything else.”
Perhaps you think that this clearly anti-Islamic statue of Mohammed should be removed from the US Supreme Court to please the art connoisseurs on the streets in Ramallah and Damascus. Where will you draw the line?
The Enlightenment: let’s call the whole thing off.