William Blake, The Ancient of Days, 1794
We are all concerned about the violent reaction of Islamic communities when westerners attempt to draw the likeness of Mohammad: the riots attending the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in Denmark, the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and now the backfired assault on the cartoon event in Garland, Texas. Evidently, fundamentalist Muslims completely lose their temper and their sense of proportion when the prophet is criticized or even depicted.
I can find much to like in Islam. It calls upon its practitioners to remember that human desire, will, and ingenuity are not the final arbiter in any situation. It leads them to a life of daily prayer and introspection. It invokes abstinence from alcohol and drunkenness. It promotes hospitality as a guest’s right rather than a gift, and requires its followers to treat generously those who are less fortunate. Islam leads people toward a mindful, disciplined life. It has turned both nomadic desert dwellers and African-American prison inmates away from lives of chaos and violence, toward lives of restraint and consideration. For this, the religion is to be praised.
I can also find much to despise in Islam, particularly its treatment of women, nonbelievers, and anyone the religion and its followers define as deviant. I’m also not in favor of sanctioned cleverness, like the taqquiya or dispensation to lie about one’s faith and perform otherwise blasphemous acts when one fears persecution, and kitman or paying lip-service to a powerful non-Islamic authority—again, for fear of persecution—while preserving mental reservations. Personal honesty is an important dimension of character, and a religion that fails to promote and require honesty from its practitioners loses ground in my estimation.
But the one injunction of Islam that seems to be karmically neutral is forbidding depictions of Allah and the Prophet. I think it’s a shame that this single prohibition—which is more of a cultural meme than a religious requirement—has become such a focus of ridicule and dissent in the West.
Delicacy about naming and depicting your deity as well as other religious figures seems to be a Semitic trait, because Arabs and the followers of Islam share it with the Jews. I think this goes back to the fundamentals of monotheism. When your god is the one true, supreme God, you don’t have to give it a name, particular attributes, a personal backstory, and a recognizable likeness. Where many gods compete for rule, you may get Baal, Dagon, Zeus, or Odin to distinguish the chief god from other, lesser immortals in the pantheon as well as other, equally powerful gods in the neighborhood. But if yours is the supreme God, accept no substitutes, then he, she, or it doesn’t need a name—or even gender—to identify or differentiate what or whom you mean. Just “God” or “All High” will do.1 Or your supreme being may even remain unnamed. The Jewish God is sometimes referred to as the Nameless, or identified as “Tetragrammaton” (in Greek) for the four letters, YHWH, which are a rendition of the Hebrew consonants in the words “I am”—following the introduction that Moses received from God on the mountain: “I am that I am.”
Similarly, trying to depict God with a face or characteristics would seem too personal and limiting. Go into a Jewish home or synagogue, and you don’t find pictures of God as a human image—even though we humans were supposedly created in His image. Neither will you find portraits of Abraham, Isaac, Moses or other figures from the Old Testament. Instead, you find symbols—the six-pointed star, the menorah—and inscriptions. This appears to be a cultural thing. If Christianity had remained a Jewish sect, we would not have had images of the crucified Jesus and the Madonna and Child, or statues of the saints. It was only when Christianity met the Greco-Roman world and its taste for statuary and mosaics, and for putting names and faces to its pantheon of gods, that the Christian churches adopted such imagery.
So in Islam, “Allah” in Arabic means just “God,” the one God, and is a cognate of the Hebrew “Elohim,” meaning “god.” Allah doesn’t need any more of a name or a face to be supreme. And it’s impertinent to try to depict Allah or his prophet Muhammad. In part, this is related to the Quran’s prohibition on idolatry. In part, it is a cultural distaste for creating images of any sentient being, whether human or animal. And so mosques are decorated with leaves or geometric patterns rather than faces.
Certainly, in this country, we have the right to free speech. And the First Amendment which defines that right also officially separates the state from the practice of any particular religion and, by extension, from any involvement in religion at all. So individual Americans and their freely accepted associations are granted the right to say, write, draw, carve, or otherwise depict anything they want, particularly with regards to religious feelings and testaments.
But having a right is not the same as having an obligation to exercise it. License to speak or act should not be the only condition or principle controlling our behavior.2
So I find it sad that, instead of criticizing Islamic traditions like the burkha and dhimmitude, which are karmically suspect, many people in the West pay much more attention to the prohibition on religious imagery. I think this is because, rather than simply noting a difference in philosophy or practice, raising an objection, or specifying a criticism, here the westerner can perform the religiously proscribed act, can do it publicly, and can thereby cause fundamentalist Muslims to exhibit anger, outrage, and incensed violence. This is perpetrating an offense with the sole purpose of getting a predictable political reaction.
While I believe strongly in the right of free speech as inalienable to the human condition,3 I also believe more strongly in other rules and injunctions on human behavior.
One would be old-fashioned courtesy. For example, a gentleman does not mock another man’s religion. One may disagree with it. One may reject its worldview and its premises. One may deplore its moral code and its effects on society. One may refuse to participate in its required actions or prohibitions. But mocking is not helpful, as it neither instructs nor offers the adherent a better way. Mocking is intended to divide people and create distrust and anger. It is not a nice response.
So, while I encourage a discussion of religious principles, and would like to see the West challenge the adherents of Islam over their treatment of women, nonbelievers, and those who are different, I am saddened and disgusted that people focus on the one aspect of Islam that should really be no one’s business but the practitioner’s—the signs of respect one shows to one’s own god.
1. Similarly, we humans need names to differentiate one from another, so that we may identify and call upon Bill or Bob or Frank, Mary or Martha or Susan. But if there were only one human being on the planet among a host of other articulate species, they would call this person simply “the human.”
2. However, since the Sixties, a cultural meme has grown up in some circles in America that mandates any right-thinking person to speak out against any perceived or observed act of wrongdoing or injustice. This has become the obligation to “speak truth to power,” no matter how rude or hurtful or inconvenient that speech might be. This stems from the notional obligation to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”—which in too many cases has degenerated into simply being rude and critical of people you don’t like. To me, this signifies a loss of tolerance and grace.
3. See Rights and Their Suppression from May 24, 2015.