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Iconoclasm And Iconophilia In Islam Religion Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 3273 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The purpose of this short essay is to examine Iconoclasm and Iconophilia within the Islamic context. First, the two terms will be defined, elucidating their meaning by also drawing upon other linking terminologies. Second, references from traditional sources, Quran and Sunnah (Hadith) will be discussed to highlight the debates on figural representation from a theological perspective. In relation to this, the next part will briefly discuss the umbrella terms 'Muslim Iconoclasm or Islamic Iconoclasm' and focus on the problematic aspects of such labelling. Subsequently, the last part will contextualise all the preceding arguments to understand and debate the Taliban destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in 21st Century. In the end pertinent conclusions will be drawn.


The point of departure for this essay will be to define the two terms Iconoclasm and Iconophilia and elucidate the duality of these concepts. Moreover, some of the terms associated and derived from these two concepts will also be highlighted.

According to wordiq [1] , an icon derived from Greek word, "εικων, eikon" which means an image. It is defined as "an artistic visual representation or symbol of anything considered holy and divine, such as God, saints or deities". A painting, sculpture as well as a mosaic classifies as an icon. The same source [2] defines the word iconoclasm, as literally destructing religious icons sacred monuments and images, for religious or political motives. This is primarily an action done by a person who attacks, breaks and destroys sacred monuments and religious images. Such people are called iconoclasts. This term also refers to a person who has a hatred for established religious institutions and dogmas and images for religious veneration.

gods-bull-breaking.gif An Image of an Iconoclastic man with a hammer, breaking a bull icon into pieces.

Courtesy of: Word Info image © Copyright, 2006.

As per contra, those individuals who venerate or revere any religious images are called iconodules. In addition, this is linked to the second term in discussion, Iconophilia. An iconophile, is understood as a connotation of images, pictures, engravings, illustrations on books or manuscripts. A person who has a fondness of such images and objects and one who loves these 'icons, illustrations and pictures' is defined as an iconophilist or an iconophil.

Moreover, someone who produces such images and pictorial icons is referred to as an Iconoplast [3] .

With an understanding of the key terms in question, the next part of this essay will discuss the act of destroying cultural and religious icons for obtaining abstraction and conversely by contra the act of making figural representation in light of Islamic tradition. The following part of the essay will first shed light on references from traditional sources that have been used for supporting prohibition of figural representation in Islam.

Instruction for Image prohibition in light of Quran and Sunnah (Hadith)

In Quran:

In the Quran, although there is no specific mention of figural representation/ painting, there are verses which indicate prohibition of idolatry, such as in the following verse, chapter 5, verse 90: "O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination, of Satan's handwork: eschew such abomination), that ye may prosper." [4] 

Another Surah from the Quran, chapter 21, verses 53-55 states:

"When he said to his father and to his people, 'What are these images to which ye pay devotion?' Said they,'We found our fathers serving them.' Said he, 'Both you and your fathers have been in obvious error'." This verse can be interpreted in various ways. One possible interpretation is that it forbids false idols, or another interpretation could be that it indicates that any form of imagery of God or his divine nature is condemned and prohibited. Therefore, this verse has had many interpretations done by theologians, who have used it to ban the act of drawing, painting as well as sculpting figures [5] . One may argue that this verse prohibits idolatry as supposed to figural representation.

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It is commonly argued that the Qur'an, as compared to the Hadith traditions, is not specific on the subject of figural depiction, however it nonetheless condemns "idolatry and uses the Arabic term musawwir ("maker of forms," or artist) as an epithet for God" (Figural Representatiom of Islamic Art, 2000), due to this sentiment, paintings with figures are made abstract and stylized, moreover, partially as a result of this religious sentiment, many incidents of destruction of figurative art took place (Ibid., 2000). Therefore, in the hadith (the recorded sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad, there are much clearer references to the prohibition of figural representation and painting. It is these hadith which are utilized by the theologians to support and elaborate on the meaning and intent of the above Quranic verse, and, it is from them that many Muslims derive legitimacy for their arguments against figural representation.

According to one of the related hadiths to this matter, A'isha, the wife of the Prophet reported that on seeing a curtain embellished with pictures of animals, the Prophet was enraged and tore the cloth to pieces, declaring, "The makers of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, 'Give life to what you have created.' "The Prophet added, "The Angels of (Mercy) do not enter a house in which there are pictures (of animals)." Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62:110. [6] Another source presents additional response by Prophet on the same incident saying "Such people as paint these pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection." [7] On another occasion Muhammad is supposed to have said, "Verily the most grievously tormented people on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures." [8] 

As for Iconoclastic activities in early Islamic tradition, there are early accounts of the prophet Muhammad's iconoclastic activities, for instance in the ninth-century Book of Idols which narrates that "When on the day he conquered Mecca, the Apostle of God appeared before the Kabah, he found the idols arrayed around it. There upon he started to pierce their eyes with the point of his arrow, saying, "Truth is come and false-hood is vanished. Verily, falsehood is a thing that vanish-eth (Quran 17:81 as narrated in Faris, 1952, p. 27)." It was after having said this, that he ordered for the idols to be knocked down and burnt (Ibid.).

According to another source, the same incident is narrated: "As told by Ibn Abbas:

'When the Prophet saw pictures in the Ka'ba, he did not enter it till he ordered them to be erased. When he saw (the pictures of) Ibrahim and Ismail carrying the arrows of divination, he said, "May God curse them (i.e. the Quraysh)! By God, neither Ibrahim nor Ismail practiced divination by arrows." (Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55:571, as quoted in Kheilen on Iconoclasm). [9] These hadith are however subject to various interpretations. It can be argued that this tradition prohibits figural representations in scared spaces, not just Kaaba but also in mosques as well, or it may be suggested that Prophet prohibited the specific 'cult' or set of beliefs that these idols presented, that is divination; a pre Islamic custom on Mecca.(Ibid. [10] )


According to one Hadith, the Prophet is also reported to declare that "Angels do not enter the house in which there are portrayals or pictures." [11] . Per contra, one of the oldest chronicles, that of Al-Azraqi, narrates that when the Prophet returned to Mecca victoriously, he found the Kaaba covered with 'fresco paintings' and he ordered that 'they be effaced but made an exception for one the them, executed on a pillar, which represented Mary and Jesus. (Besancon, 2000, P. 78-79). The ambivalence to figuration in textual tradition is argued by many scholars. This is also reiterated in Rubin (1986, p. 97) and Van Reenen, (1990, p. 40) who reiterate the above tradition by arguing that after the conquest of Mecca the prophet ordered the destruction of the paintings of prophets, angels, as well as trees that had decorated the interior of the Kaaba, whilst sparing an image of Jesus and Mary.

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Rubin (1986) further argues that although there is a general consensus in Hadith of forbidding representations, some interpretations by traditional schools of thought also 'go so far as to liken artists to polytheists' but these proscriptions may have been a used to promote aniconism (the eschewal of figural imagery) along with iconoclasm (the destruction or mutilation of existing figural imagery). However, he states that despite their efforts Islamic art varies to a great extent across different time and places (Ibid., p. 129-131).

Albeit contested and varying in form and interpretation, generally the removal of Meccan Idols in Kaaba upon conquest is deemed very symbolic by Muslims and this event holds great historical importance. It is due to this that generally Muslim societies refrain from figural representations in sacred spaces such as Mosques and Prayer halls. However, this opposition to depiction of living things and figural representation is not based on Quranic references but rather on various traditions present within the Hadith (Flood, 2002, p. 643-44).

Muslim Iconoclasm

In light of these traditional sources and their interpretation, the next part of the essay will briefly elucidate the concept of Islamic Iconoclasm or Muslim Iconoclasm in light of Muslim history. Among Muslims, it is clear and lucid to refrain from producing figures and life-like images of God, his Prophet, figures who are eminent in Islam as well as all living things. Several Classical traditions and religious sources are interpreted in light of prohibition of figural representation and from time immemorial; these sources are interpreted and used for various religious, as well as political Islamic doctrines. The disdain for figural representation, religious icons and images is often linked to idolatry. In popular literature this is referred to as 'Islamic Iconoclam and or Muslim Iconoclasm'. Note that these terms will be used interchangeably throughout the essay.

As noted above, one of the earliest Muslim Iconoclasm was in 630 upon the conquest of Mecca when the deities in Kaaba were destroyed; this holds true despite the presence of what may be an apologetic tradition, that Mohammad spared the statues of Mary and Jesus. This incident is also widely linked to the end of the Jahalliyah period in Mecca, and consequent end to idolatry in Arabia.

As for the concept of Islamic Iconoclasm, it is contested and argued by many scholars. According to Besancon (2000), Muslim iconoclasm is a 'result of the absence of a Covenant that is why the Koran does not take the trouble to positively prohibit the image'. He argues that for Muslims the notion of God is transcendent and beyond human comprehension, it is thus discouraging to any figural and imagery associations (P. 81).

Grabar (1975) describes the distinction between Byzantine and Islamic iconoclasm by suggesting that in case of Byzantine, Iconoclasm is usually spelled with a capital 'I' and In Islamic iconoclasm it is spelled with a small 'i.' He argues that such secondary typographical distinction demonstrate differences between a historical moments which are then capitalised later or they refer to an attitude or mode of behaviour, to the affect that he claims that for Islamic iconoclasm it is 'apparently too common to deserve capitalization'(Ibid., p. 45). Such a statement about Islamic iconoclastic acts are devoid of any historical context as it disregards the ample evidence of a tradition of figural representation throughout Muslim art history, and it is this lack of recognition that western authors tend to perceive and associate "a long, culturally determined, and unchanging tradition of violent iconoclastic acts" within Islamic tradition and Muslim history. (Flood, 2002, p. 641) However, this is not to overlook that in various Muslim denominations there is a continuation of iconoclastic agendas, along with much recent on-going controversy regarding the destruction of Meccan historic buildings(not images) by the Wahhabist authorities who claim that they fear that these buildings were or would become "the subject of polytheism and idolatry." (Howden, 2005)

According to Kjeilen, this opposition to figural representation and its influence on Muslim iconoclasm have been used many times in Islamic history in order "to destroy the representation of gods, divine figures or semi-divine figures of other religions", and the destruction of statues of Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 is the modern day example of this.

The destruction of the Buddha-statues in Afghanistan in 2001

The following part of the essay will incorporate the proceeding arguments and analyze the Taliban destruction of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001, so as to examine iconoclastic events in modern day Islamic state and develop a context to debate the preceding arguments.

Dupree (2002) describes the 'saga' of the Bamiyan Buddha destruction at Bamiyan as an aftermath of the debate at Supreme court and amongst its Council of Ministers who ordered Mullah Omar, to carry out investigation with the department of religious police (The Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue) regarding the 'appropriateness of the National Museum's holdings in Afghanistan. It was following these orders that incorporation of Shariah Law was done in order to carry out, what may be suggested here, a 'political exploitation'. The following events then unfolded leading to the total destruction; as narrated by Dupree (2002) specific orders were given to destroy any offending objects in the museum. A couple of weeks later, on the 26th of February, Mullah Omar gave an edict that mandated the destruction of all non-Islamic objects and subsequently on March 8 and 9th, the Bamiyan Buddhas were dynamited (Dupree, 2002, p. 986)

taliban-2.jpg Bamiyan Buddha Statue before and after destruction by the Taliban. Image Courtesy of Fortunecity [12] 

Biggs (2003) claims that this destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 is a reminder that "monotheism has its roots in the persecution of idolaters, and that the cultural expression of this violence was and remains acts of iconoclasm", however, his argument clearly falls into the frame of what Flood (2002) suggests as an 'ahistorical paradigm'. Flood's response to such interpretations is that they overlook the coexistence between the Muslim population and the Buddhas for over a millennium prior to the destruction by Taliban (King, 1985, as quoted in Flood, 2002, p. 654)

Bamian1.jpg A general view of the alcoves where the Buddha statues stood before the destruction, Image Courtesy of Embassy of Afghanistan [13] 

According to Flood's thesis, many of Taliban's own declarations in regards to Buddhas indicate that their destruction was a result of a political motive as supposed to theological, because since the statues were already faceless above chin level, then they would be meaningless in context of Islamic medieval iconoclasm (Flood, 2002, p. 651-655).

In addition to this Meskell (2002, p. 562) argue that the causal factors of this cultural heritage destruction is varying. He suggests that it could be due to the Taliban clerics' opposition to the pre-Islamic figures that were displayed in the Kabul museum or it may have been due to a visit by Italian Buddhists, the interest of UNESCO in preserving the statues paired with foreign delegation wanting to offer money to preserve these ancient work when millions of Afghan died of starvation (p. 563). Others sources cite various factors such as military operations, internal politics and international relationships (Gamboni 2001).

buddha_image.jpg Faceless Buddha statues, prior to Taliban destruction. Image courtesy of: www.deeshaa.org

Conclusion :

While a full discussion of this topic, incorporating a comprehensive argument on the theological sources, the contested debate on what qualifies as Islamic or Muslim Iconoclasm and the sectarian disputes between factions of different groups of Muslims lies beyond the scope of this short essay. It has nonetheless highlighted that opposition to figural representation is not based on the Quran, but rather on various traditions that are found within Hadith and that these interpretations are subject to interpretation and being utilised for reasons other than theological. The arguments in this essay resonate with Flood's (2002) understanding that the destruction of Budhaa was more political and a result of a power autonomy monopoly rather than theologian factor, and that it may have amounted to provoked affirmation of sovereignty by the Talibans, not just upon their territory and the people there but also upon the values that they upheld. This essay intended to use the destruction of Buddhas as an example, to highlight the political aspects of 'Iconoclastic moments' and elucidate that what is largely conceived as a theological impulse is not a timeless response to prohibition of figuration but that it may have been a cultural, social and political discourse of image representation at a particular moment in history.


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