I have been asked to weigh in on the Muhammad in cartoon bruhumhum. Oblivious readers can click here for a rundown of the event; curious readers can click here to see what the fuss is about; irate readers can click here to see the non-apology from Meninger Jyllands-Posten.
Medieval Europe’s fascination with Mahound (Old Ballad), Mahomet (Prideaux), and Mohammed (Dow, Mill, Lane) can be seen from Dante’s description of the Divine Comedy – Mohammad is in the 8th circle, bolgia 9 of hell, condemned for sowing “scandal and schism” – to Voltaire’s Mahomet: tragedie where he is the seditious imposter. A cursory look at the medieval European archive reveals frequent and vehement portrayals of Muhammad as ‘wicked’, ‘with a desparate stomach’, delighted with rapes and plunder, seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallied up to 666. For example, the first English translation, via French, of the Qur’an, in 1649, stated, “Good reader, the great Arabian imposter, now at last after a thousand years, is by the way of France arrived in England, and his Alcoran, or gallimaufry of errors (a brat as deformed as the parent, and as full of heresies, as his scald head was of scurf) hath learned to speak English”. Arberry, in his translation of the Qur’an, has more snippets from that introduction.
So, while on the one hand, the call for ‘artistic interpretations of Muhammad’ falls into a long tradition of ‘Muhammad the Other’, the hue and cry raised by Muslims also needs some correctives. The protestations that there is a strict ban on representations seem to be missing when the subject is alcohol or games of chance – activities banned in much more unequivocal tones. I don’t have the time or energy to go into it here, but the iconoclasm of medieval Muslims had more factors than simply the abhorration of any rendition of the human form. And more importantly, this iconoclasm always had its outliers – from the Deccan to Shiraz to Baghdad, painters and miniaturists found ample motivation to portray the human form. Sure the depiction of the Prophet’s facial features, by and large, remained taboo [the vast majority of portraits would have him in a veil or occluded] – but even there we have numerous examples from classical indo-persianate and ottomon traditions and many more mentions of such in the literature. See, for example, this 17th c. miniature of Muhammad with many diginitaries [Bilal on the extreme left]. The Shi’a hagiographical tradition has been a bit more tolerant of such depictions, like this Jesus-y one from Iran. Relatedly, read Pamuk’s My Name is Red. In short, if ‘any’ depiction of the Prophet is an assault on the sensibilities of the global Muslim, than we have more to worry about than bad Danish cartoonists.
The Danish editorial board wants to express their freedom of speech to cast Muhammad as a terrorists. Fair enough, it is their right. Just as the literal and figurative depictions of Muhammad in medieval and early modern Europe served a political and cultural purpose, these cartoons do the same. The debate, of course, is about Danish or French society and their efforts at dealing with that perennial invasion from the East [via immigration, now]. On the other hand, if Saudi Arabians want to ban Danish products and recall their Ambassadors, it is their right as well. I’d say there are way more offensive things for Muslims out there. Lack of democracy in their respective countries, being one obvious one. But, they will only get around to protesting that when they are done burning Danish flags or condemning bad postcolonial authors. A fact that has not escaped the notice of the Kings of Saudi or the Generals of Pakistan.