By Hussein Rashid
“What does Islam say about images?” It is a question that seeks to understand religion through unitary and static prescriptions.
At its core, the question is about what is “Islamic.” Such a question is problematic because a community of believers decides what the religion means. Because human beings are involved, there will be differences. While there are boundaries for who a Muslim is, such as belief in monotheism, the prophethood of Muhammad, and observance of certain ritual and legal obligations, there is a lot more that Muslims believe that is not universally agreed upon, thus generating difference.
The confusion starts because Muhammad played two roles within his community—religious and spiritual authority and polity leader. Like earlier Abrahamic prophets, the combination of the two roles was expected and accepted.
Folio from the Majma’ al-tawarikh (Compendium of history) by Hafiz Abru (d.1430); recto: The Birth of Muhammad; verso: text, Wet nurse Halima and her husband, Harith, taking care of infant Muhammad, 1426. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery #F2005.5.
Folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens) depicting Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey (c. mid 1550s-early 1560). Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1986.253.
As we move away from the time of Muhammad, he takes on different meanings for different Muslim communities and non-Muslim communities engage with Muhammad’s legacy, as well. We have memories of Muhammad that are preserved and represented in a variety of ways.
In the modern period, Muhammad is presented and remembered as the political leader and Islam is seen as a political movement or ideology. This perception is true amongst, both, Muslims and non-Muslims. While this view of Muhammad waxes and wanes, his prophetic character is a more important and more constant aspect of the way he is remembered.
For Muslims, Muhammad is the final prophet, who received the revelation of the Qur’an through the Angel Gabriel. By virtue of his prophetic status and by being the first Muslim, he is a figure of veneration and emulation for believing Muslims.
He is a gateway through which a believer receives blessings, forgiveness, and proximity to God. The Qur’an says that God and the angels pray for him, that he is granted the power of intercession, and that to make a promise to him to is to make a promise to God. They seek to become better Muslims by learning from and mimicking his actions and words.
As a result, for many Muslims, to know about Muhammad is an intrinsic part of faith. This focus on Muhammad generates emotional attachments of love, affection, and devotion for Muhammad and those closest to him.
Muhammad During His Life
Much of what we know of Muhammad’s actions and words are recorded in hadith. Within that, we have records of how people described Muhammad. Collected as shama’il (portraits) literature, we get a sense of how Muhammad looked and the feelings he generated.
One of the most well-known descriptions of Muhammad is attributed to his son-in-law and successor, Ali.
He was not too tall, nor was he too short, he was of medium height amongst the nation. His hair was not short and curly, nor was it lank, it would hang down in waves. His face was not overly plump, nor was it fleshy, yet it was somewhat circular. His complexion was rosy white. His eyes were large and black, and his eyelashes were long. He was large-boned and broad shouldered.
And another contemporary of Muhammad, Umm Ma’bad, says,
I saw a man, pure and clean, with a handsome face and a fine figure. He was not marred by a skinny body, nor was he overly small in the head and neck. He was graceful and elegant, with intensely black eyes and thick eyelashes. There was a huskiness in his voice, and his neck was long. His beard was thick, and his eyebrows were finely arched and joined together. When silent, he was grave and dignified, and when he spoke, glory rose up and overcame him. He was from afar the most beautiful of men and the most glorious, and close up he was the sweetest and the loveliest. He was sweet of speech and articulate, but not petty or trifling.
Veneration of Muhammad continued to evolve in ritual and artistic life. Poetry, a popular form of spirituality across Muslim cultures, is replete with devotional works to Muhammad, praising his qualities and seeking proximity to him. The poetic tradition lends itself to song and even Bollywood movies incorporate these devotionals into their repertoires. In addition to poem and song, which are still written, composed, and performed in the modern period, a strong tradition of painting Muhammad emerges.
Muhammad in Painting
The paintings of Muhammad depict his entire life, from his birth, to his call to prophecy, and beyond. Along with Muhammad, we see other figures who are important to the spiritual lives of Muslims, including figures like Salman al-Farsi and Muhammad’s closest family.
Read and view more on: https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/sacredmatters/2015/04/20/images-of-muhammad/