Wikipedia and Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad: The Latest Inane Distraction

Recently, a new furore has been generated by the Wikipedia entry on the Prophet Muhammad which includes two images of artworks by Persian Muslim artists depicting the uncovered face of Muhammad and used respectfully in a historical context to illustrate two episodes from the life of Muhammad. These are images that are freely available to anyone who owns copies of the books in question or who visits a museum or online archives of images. Indeed, figurative depictions of the Prophet were a significant part of late medieval Islamic art, though generally limited to secular contexts and to the elite classes who could afford fine art.

A petition mentioned in blogs, articles and emails now has well over 100,000 signatures demanding the removal of these illustrations. The petition states: In Islam pictures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and other humans are not allowed…I request all brothers and sisters to sign this petition so we can tell Wikipedia to respect the religion and remove the illustrations.

What a crying shame it is that such non-issues are blown up out of all proportion into veritable firestorms by so many thoughtless Muslims, when there is such a need to discuss so many important issues in a thoughtful and intelligent way – among them, as Sheila Musaji of The American Muslim notes, The Common Word Statement and even the National Interfaith Statement Against Domestic Violence. Instead, these mechanical knee-jerk reactions are gifts to those who seek every opportunity to decry Islam and ridicule Muslims and can only exacerbate a situation in which Muslims and the Western media seem to be locked in an ever-descending spiral of ignorance and mutual loathing. This is only the latest in a series of lamentable pseudo-controversies which include, as Sheila Musaji notes, the Sudanese teddy bear incident, the Minnesota cab drivers who refused to carry blind passengers with guide dogs, the Malaysian court decision that Christians cannot use the word Allah, the Apple Mecca incident, and others. I could add to this the ban by Muslim taxi drivers on passengers carrying bags of duty-free alcohol at a US airport, and the refusal by Muslim checkout staff at an English supermarket to handle bottles or cans of alcohol (for the latter, see

Let us be clear that the Western media show equal alacrity in exploiting such follies and misunderstandings as Muslims seem intent on promoting them, and it is now the turn of the Archbishop of Canterbury to be the whipping boy. Here is a good, wise and gentle man intent on initiating an intelligent and thoughtful discussion about the serious question of how secular society can best accommodate the needs and views of religious communities, who is being viciously savaged in the British media because very few people really want to understand what he intended to say in his remarks about shari’ah law in Britain, but prefer to use the word shari’ah simply as an easy hook to hang every incendiary prejudice and every pernicious intention to stoke up a clash between communities.

But back to the question of the Wikipedia illustrations.

Let us be clear that the spiritual preference for abstract over naturalistic or figurative art in Islamic tradition (which is best expressed in the works of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Martin Lings, Titus Burckhardt and other “traditionalists” in this ayat as ‘idolatrous practices’, commenting that he believes the term in this context has been used metaphorically and “is meant to circumscribe all practices of an idolatrous nature – like saint-worship, the attribution of ‘magic’ properties to certain inanimate objects, the observance of all manner of superstitious taboos, and so forth” [4].

The complexity of the issue is also highlighted by the traditional story of the actions of the Prophet on entering the sacred enclosure after his conquest of Mecca. Having circumambulated the Ka’bah, and overturned, one after another, the 360 idols set up by the pagan Arabs, he entered the Ka’bah and ordered the destruction of all but one of the paintings adorning its inner walls. According to one source, the painting which the Prophet ordered to be preserved was a representation of the Holy Virgin and the infant Jesus. Protecting this icon with both hands, the Prophet instructed ‘Uthman that all the others should be destroyed, including pictures of Abraham painted by a Byzantine artist. It is worth noting, however, that Martin Lings, in his beautiful account of the life of the Prophet, prefers another source which records that the painting of Abraham was also exempted from destruction (Martin Lings, Muhammad, Islamic texts Society, 1983, p. 302). Lings also notes that yet other sources say that “all” the paintings were effaced without mention of any exceptions.

However, deliberations about the complexity of the issue can lead us away from the heart of the matter. The essential point, which is obscured by legalistic disputes about the extent to which prohibition of images is justified, is that the preference for abstract forms in Islamic art did not arise from the negative avoidance of figurative representations inherent in “iconoclasm” or “iconophobia” but is reflective of the “aniconism” which is central to the Islamic spiritual perspective.

As Burchkardt explains: “If the Ka’bah is the heart of man, the idols that inhabited it represent the passions, which invest the heart and impede the remembrance of God. Therefore, the destruction of idols – and, by extension, the putting aside of every image likely to become an idol – is the clearest possible parable for Islam of the ‘one thing necessary,’ which is the purification of the heart for the sake of tawhid, the bearing of witness or the awareness that ‘there is no divinity save God.’ “ [5]

It cannot be emphasised strongly enough that the basis of aniconism is not a negative avoidance of what is thought to be proscribed but is a positive affirmation of the supremacy and primacy of God. Figurative images of sacred subjects are avoided not because they are forbidden, but because pictorial representations of this kind are simply incapable of encompassing the dimension of the sacred. The Islamic artist therefore prefers “to leave the outer forms of nature (tajarrud) and the material world, and concentrate on the abstract, inner reality of things (mujarradat)” [6] .

The shortcomings of figurative images with regard to the depiction of sacred subjects is easily demonstrated even from the most revered paintings of the great Renaissance masters. When Michelangelo depicts God in The Last Judgement with the head of an old man attached to a young muscular body, he is trying to convey, in all sincerity, the co-existence of certain paradoxical attributes of God – that God is both the most wise and the most mighty. But it is only too evident to the unprejudiced eye that these particular attributes cannot be simultaneously translated in a literal form through the gross limitations of the pictorial medium, any more than it would be possible to depict the co-existence of other paradoxical, complementary and reciprocal attributes of God, such as those included in the traditional Islamic enumeration of the Ninety-Nine Names or Divine Attributes [7] : The Manifest (Az-Zahir) and The Hidden (Al-Batin); The Most Merciful (Ar-Rahman) and The Avenger (Al-Muntaqim); He Who Grants Life (Al-Muhyi) and He Who Brings Death (Al-Mumit); The Exalter (Ar-Rafi’ or the Fashioner and Shaper (Al-Musawwir) , but the more our right arm aches, so identified do we become with the literal reality of the limb itself. We cannot escape this limiting identification, because God is depicted with blatantly physical characteristics that we also possess in our limited bodily forms.

Such limitations also make it impossible to convey the co-existence and participation of other attributes of God in the act of Creation. For example, the attribute Al-Bari’ is also associated with the Name Ar-Rahman, the All-Merciful, for the perfect harmony invested in all things emanates from the One who wills infinite mercy and good for all creation. “My mercy covers everything” (Qur’an 7:156). The iconography of figurative imagery can never encompass the transcendent unity of diverse qualities, including those which are apparently antithetical, without lapsing into the grotesque. While it may be able to express a certain ambivalence (as, for example, in the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa), it cannot provide any unifying principle that can resolve such ambiguities and paradoxes. We are left at worst with absurd caricatures or at best with the speculative allure and fascination of unsolved riddles. In the case of the Mona Lisa’s smile, the riddle is still unsolved after half a millennium, and will doubtless continue to attract interminable and useless speculation.

It has been persuasively argued [9] that the adoption of perspective in Renaissance painting was far more than a technical procedure for conveying an impression of spatial extension in depth, but was symptomatic of a changing world view culminating on a global scale with the spatial discoveries of the world explorers such as Columbus [10] and Vasco da Gama. Such a world view espoused a number of radical new elements, including “a new interest in externalities” and “the point of view of a single observer, a human being, who no longer inhabits Eternity but time; no longer inhabits Infinity but space. … By the adoption of perspective the primal vision of unity is shattered beyond restoration….Pride in human reason takes the place of the paradigmatic universe created and inhabited by God and animated by His spirit” [10]. In Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ (1455-60), “light and space are outward, their domain no longer the inward journey of the spirit. Instead the physical space has been mapped, every form has been measured, every character made distinct and individual” and the figure of Jesus has been “relegated to the background – a mere counterweight to the three men in the foreground. This is a perfect symbol of the humanist cosmology.” [11]

This triumph of perspective in European naturalistic art is, in Islamic terms, the triumph of the gross visible world, the world of solid forms (‘alam al-khalq or ‘alam al-mulk wa shahada) , over the subtle, imaginal [12] realm, the world of analogies and similitudes (‘alam al-khayal or ‘alam al-mithal), which is also the angelic world, the kingdom of invisible forms (malakut), the intermediary mundus imaginalis perceived not by the senses but by the active Imagination, beyond historical time and space and beyond individualised portraiture.

It has been pointed out in a discussion of Persian miniature painting that “to conceive of space as more than physical space there must exist a discontinuity between the space created by art and the physical space in which man lives in his profane life”. [13] What enabled the miniaturists to suggest the imaginal world was the use of perspectiva naturalis, [14] which conforms to the two-dimensional nature of the surface, rather than the perspectiva artificialis of the European figurative tradition, which attributes to that two-dimensional space the illusion of three dimensions. The non-three-dimensional “qualitative” character of the space distinguishes it from the surrounding natural space and transposes the heroic scene to a “transhistorical world” imbued with mystical significance. In this way the figures, plants and animals depicted are not reproductions of natural forms representative of the outer shell of reality, the mulk, but images suggestive of the primordial, paradisal environment of the malakut…..

….Islam eschews figurative representations in sacred art not because of prohibitive dogma but because of the objective realisation that such representations, even those classified as masterpieces of European religious art, cannot generally depict or suggest any level of reality above the mulk and therefore hold people back from developing higher perceptions beyond a merely aesthetic and culturally conditioned mode of response. It may not be easy to appreciate that these higher perceptions also transcend the strong emotional responses evoked by much religious art in the European figurative tradition.

It goes without saying that the “imaginal” world beyond the solid and visible world is not synonymous with either the “imaginary world” or the “world of the imagination” associated with subjective fantasy or personal imaginings, but is an actual, existent world of original forms which is accessible to the heart (qalb). This is not the “heart” identified with emotion and split off from the “head”, the seat of reason, in Western psychology, but the faculty or organ in Islamic psychospirituality which is the source of vision, intuition and spiritual understanding, the locus where Knowledge and Being are combined, and which alone of all human faculties is capable of encompassing the Divine….

…..Burckhardt [20] explains that the contemplative function of Islamic art (its expression of “a state of soul that is open to the interior, towards an encounter with the Divine Presence”?FPRIVATE “TYPE=PICT;ALT=wink” , subsumes two other notable characteristics: it is typically devoid of any “individual impulse, such that “the artist is effaced in the work”; and it reflects beauty objectively, avoiding the “illusion and seduction” which comes about through the disorder and limitation imposed by human subjectivity and by “individual or collective emotion” (to the extent that man is “emotionally divinised” in Greek art of the Classical period). When art reflects beauty objectively, its serenity is not muddied, disturbed or tarnished by emotion and neither is it entrapped by individualism or contaminated by egoism, but “it penetrates beyond duality”, acting as “a bridge which goes from the tangible world towards God”.

The most objective expression of beauty, order and harmony and the higher states of knowledge and being reflected therein, lie utterly beyond the capability of direct representation, and can only be symbolised in the abstract and geometric forms characteristic of Islamic art and architecture. This insight emerges not from the domain of prohibitive dogma but from the domain of knowledge and verification. In the words of Ahmed Moustafa, “the not uncommon notion that religious interdiction prevented Islamic artists from depicting images from life and forced them into abstraction is unfounded and simply wrong. The fact is that Islamic civilisation found in Geometry a verification of its beliefs and a system which enabled artists to extend their creativity according to a law which is part of nature itself and offers an endless field of exploration. The direction and subsequent efflorescence of mainly abstract Islamic Art was the result neither of compulsion nor obligation but of choice.” [21]

For a proper understanding of Islamic art, and the place of Geometry as its bedrock, it is vital to realise that “its patterns, far from being mere abstract niceties, are nothing less than visual homage to God, expressed in His own immutable geometrical discipline.” [22] In other words, it is necessary to dispense with many wrong assumptions about the origins of Islamic art which can be found in conventional treatments of the subject and which betray no essential understanding of its scientific foundation, coercive governing principles and inviolable laws.

Many publications, in the absence of this deeper knowledge, tend to focus on superficial and incidental aspects of style and ornamentation, often within the context of chronological surveys compiled so as to present works according to historical periods and geographical provenance and illustrating supposed influences, developments and variations. Given this focus on the externalities of historicity rather than fundamental origins and governing principles, this approach has little or no explanatory power and one is merely left with vague philosophical and aesthetic statements that tend to be couched in flattering or obscure vocabulary, or the clutter of detailed references to artefacts, objects and museum pieces. Islamic art is not a merely decorative art derived from subjective preferences, but emanates from the certitude derived from exact and objective knowledge which is itself in conformity with the guidance revealed to all mankind in the Holy Qur’an and the prophetic traditions.

Many examples of the “historical” and “stylistic” approach could be given, but one will suffice. We may learn, for example, about the niceties of what Islamic art has supposedly inherited from Byzantine or Sassanian precursors. We may learn that 6th century Byzantine art was already moving away from naturalistic portraiture and figures modelled from life (as opposed to human figures shaped by the conventions of physiognomy) and that there was a corresponding preference for geometric and stylised vegetal decoration [23], but, informative as this is, it does not help us to understand the true origin of the preference for geometric forms, which is located not in human history but in a trans-historical dimension which reflects the innate affinity of the properly attuned human soul to harmony, balance and proportion.

Indeed, this attunement is an actual “tuning” in the Pythagorean sense, an objective mathematical relationship between ratio and concord. As a constituent element of the innate disposition (fitra) of the human being, it also extends far beyond a merely aesthetic level of response, but encompasses the intellectual, moral and spiritual nature of the man or woman in harmony with the Creator and everything that He has created.

Ibn Khaldun emphasises the educative role of geometry [24] in fashioning the intellect: “Geometry enlightens the intellect and sets one’s mind right…The mind that constantly applies itself to geometry is not likely to fall into error….the person who knows geometry acquires intelligence.” [25]

It is equally important to emphasise that in the tradition of scientia sacra the educative role of geometry is not solely an intellectual one, but is also a purifying activity which connects the perception of truth with the attainment of goodness. For Ibn Khaldun, “the correct proportion….used in a moral as well as aesthetic sense is what is meant by the term beautiful and good”26 and he likens the impact of the science of geometry on the intellect to the cleansing effect of soap on the garment. In the words of Plato: “There is a faculty in the mind of each of us which these (geometrical) studies purify and rekindle after it has been ruined and blinded by other pursuits, though it is more worth preserving than any eye since it is the only organ by which we perceive the truth.” And again, “[Geometry] has the effect of making it easier to see the form of the good. And that, we say, is the tendency of everything which compels the mind to turn to the region of ultimate blessedness which it must spurn no effort to see.”

Aesthetic and moral qualities are also equated in the Arabic word husn which encompasses not only the sense of beauty but also goodness, excellence and perfection. That beauty is also a manifestation of truth is expressed in those famous words from Ode on a Grecian Urn by the English poet, John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, although it has to be said that the source of Keats’ epigram is the refined poetic sensibility and somewhat languid aestheticism associated with his brand of Romanticism rather than any understanding of the objective connection between truth and beauty and their relationship to a single Reality.

In the Sophist, Plato equates lack of proportion not only with external ugliness but also with the derangement of the impulses in the soul which cause them to miss their mark.27

In his celebrated identification of the “truly good man” with the “faultless cube”,28 Aristotle brings happiness into the equation, making explicit the connection between the practice and contemplation of virtue, the stability of the happy man, who bears all the “chances of life” nobly and harmoniously, and the geometry of the perfect cube.

In this integrated conception of the human being, geometry is not merely a means of constructing pleasing patterns, nor even a pretty metaphor for the harmonious life, but is a healing and cleansing pursuit, a contemplative discipline and an objective science giving access to those glimpses of divine order, harmony and beauty and those higher states of knowledge and being which, to the Islamic “scientist of the art”, are incapable of being directly represented in figurative art. The same conception is evident in the guiding maxim of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the inspirer of the twelfth century architecture of the Cistercian Order: “There must be no decoration, only proportion.”

The four disciplines of the Quadrivium in Classical education (Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, and Music) were all concerned with the discovery of universal laws of order and harmony, and the ultimate goal of this education was not rational understanding but spiritual insight, the ability to perceive, with the inward eye, abstract heavenly patterns in concrete earthly forms. Many of the leading figures of the Renaissance including Leonardo da Vinci and Brunelleschi were instructed by Fra Luca Pacioli in the discipline of corpo transparente, the contemplation of Platonic solids made from transparent material and placed one within the other. This instruction had exactly the same purpose as the art of Islam – to facilitate the perception of the metaphysical truths behind all outer forms.

It is clear, too, that the “theory of human proportions” was seen in the Renaissance not only as “an expression of the pre-established harmony between microcosm and macrocosm” but also as “the rational basis of beauty”, to the extent that “The Renaissance fused, as we may say, the cosmological interpretation of the theory of proportions, current in Hellenistic times and in the Middle Ages, with the classical notion of ‘symmetry’ as the fundamental principle of aesthetic perfection.”29 Michelangelo’s dictum that “good painting is nothing but a copy of the perfection of God” is consonant with the Renaissance attempt to reinvest “even the practical theory of proportions” with “metaphysical meaning” and to “understand the work of art as a manifestation of the highest and most universal laws”, but, as I have already suggested in my earlier discussion of The Last Judgement, although the sincerity of his aim is beyond doubt, the figurative means at his disposal were actually incapable of addressing the subject of “the perfection of God”.


1. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination, New York, Random House, 1992, page 193.
2. Robert Irwin, Islamic Art, London, Laurence King, 1997, page 35, points out that the columns of the 7th Century mosque in the Iraqi town of Jufa were topped by Persian capitals looted from Hira that featured monsters’ heads, wings and other figurative imagery, and that this demonstrates that even in a religious context the Muslims at that time “were not troubled by the presence in art of past civilisations or pagan figurative images, or images of living things.”
3 Ibid. page 80.
4. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, Dar al-Andalus, 1980, page 162.
5. Titus Burckhardt, The Spirituality of Islamic Art, in Islamic Spirituality : Manifestations, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, SCM Press, 1991, page 511.
6. Fatimah Ali, Worldview, Metaphysics, and Islamic Art, in Knowledge is Light : Essays in Honor of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, edited by Zailan Morris, ABC International Group, Inc., 1999.
7. See The Attributes of Divine Perfection, London, The Book Foundation, 1998.
8. John Lane, The Living Tree: Art and the Sacred, Green Books, 1988, page 30.
9. It is instructive to note that the year 1492, the “discovery” of the New World by Columbus, and often taken as the beginning of modern history in the Western school curriculum, was also the year of the fall of Granada to the Catholic monarchs, and the final demise of Islamic civilisation in al-Andalus, a civilisation noted for its multi-cultural perspective, inclusiveness, spirit of enquiry, and openness to diverse sources of knowledge and learning. The symbolism in relation to the discovery and application of perspective is inescapable: a self-evaluation of the roots of modern Western history as a single viewpoint, a mono-cultural Eurocentric perspective, in which the perceiver is no longer God, or man as khalifa, but Promethean man attributing to himself the power and glory which rightly belongs to God.
10. John Lane, 1988, op. cit., page 30.
11. Ibid. pages 30-31.
12. With regard to the central importance of the faculty of imagination in understanding the significance of both religion and human existence, William C. Chittick quotes this statement of Ibn cArabi “He who does not know the status of imagination has no knowledge whatsoever” (al-Futuhat al-makkiyya II:313.2). Chittick comments that this only sounds extreme if we do not understand what Ibn cArabi means by “imagination”. See Chittick, Imaginal Worlds, State University of New York Press, 1994, pages 11-12.
13. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality, Ipswich, Golgonooza Press, 1987, page 178.
14. According to Nasr (ibid. page 178), perspectiva naturalis embodies “the geometric laws developed by Euclid and later by Muslim geometer and opticians such as Ibn al-Haytham and Kamal al-Din al-Farsi.”
20. Titus Burckhardt, ibid., page 506.
21. Ahmed Moustafa, Foreword to The Symmetries of Islamic Geometrical Patterns by S.J. Abas and A. S. Salman, World Scientific Publishing Company, 1994.
22. Ahmed Moustafa,ibid.
23. David Talbot Rice, Islamic Art, Thames and Hudson, 1975.
24. A recent article in the Times educational Supplement (August 10 2001) entitled “Plea for new angle on geometry study” reports the concern of mathematics education specialists about the decline of geometry study in British schools. A report for The Royal Society reports a “drastic reduction” in the study of shape, space and measures. While the report draws attention to the serious repercussions of this lack of understanding of geometric principles for students entering university courses in science, engineering and architecture (and on more general development of spatial intelligence), it may well be that, in the light of such statements by Plato, Ibn Khaldun and others on the indispensable role of geometry in the education of the human being as a whole, more profound repercussions will be felt on an ethical and spiritual level in the contemporary world.
25. Ibn Khaldun, Al Muqaddimah, translated by Franz Rosenthal, abridged and edited by N.J. Dawood, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1978, page 378. Quoted in Mathematics: The Islamic legacy by Q. Mushtaq and A.L. Tan, Noor Publishing House, Delhi, 1993, page 68.
26. Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Penguin, London, 1970, page 120.
27. See F.M. Cornford, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1970, pages 179-180.
28. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I. 11, sec. 11.
29. Erwin Panofsky, op. cit., page 119.