Devotion in pictures:
Muslim popular iconography

Introduction to the exhibition


Islam is the second biggest religion in the world, with the number of Muslims in the world estimated to be more than one billion. The history of the religion can be traced back to the Arab Muhammad ibn Abd Allah, who was born in Mecca around 570, and died in Medina in 632.

Muslims believe in one God, the Creator and Lord of the Earth and the human race. God, or Allah in Arabic, has revealed His will through prophets many times in the course of history. The last prophet was Muhammad, who was brought the word of God by the archangel Gabriel. All the revelations received by Muhammad were brought together in a book - the Koran - after his death.

The word "Islam" means to submit, and a Muslim is someone who has submitted to God, which is to say that he follows the word of God in the Koran. Previous prophets such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus have received and preached the same message as Muhammad. However, the writings of the Jews and the Christians no longer reproduce the words of the prophets correctly. This was why the Lord sent Muhammad to be the last prophet with his final revelations, which are reproduced correctly in the Koran.

There exists various tendencies within Islam. The most important distinction, which is age-old, is between Sunni and Shia Islam. The Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali to be his successor as the leader of the Muslims, and that the leadership is hereditary in Ali's kin via the children that he had with Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. When Muhammad died in 632 the leadership was given to other prominent men in the young Muslim community, and not until 656 was Ali elected Caliph, the representative of the Prophet. After his murder in 661, his closest descendents fought for power several times, but without success. The most famous of these was his son Hussein, who was killed in the battle of Kerbela in 680. Hussein is the Shia Muslims' most important martyr. He is commemorated every year on the day of his death with retellings of the Kerbela tragedy, funeral processions and passion plays.

Forbidden images

Islam is generally regarded as a religion that is hostile to images, and in which any representation of a living being has been forbidden since the time of Muhammad. This is an oversimplification of a complex question.

It is true that many Muslims have disliked, and still dislike, the use of figurative representations in art and architecture. It is also true that a number of Muslim authorities have claimed, and continue to claim, that figurative art is forbidden by the Koran and by the Prophet.

However, the world of Islam has always made use of pictures. Archaeological excavations of mosques erected in the latter part of the 8th century have shown that images of both humans beings and animals were used to embellish mosques and palaces. Pictures were also used to illustrate manuscripts. The art of painting miniatures was raised to a high level, particularly in the Turkish and Iranian linguistic region. There exist many examples not only of representations of living beings, but even of the holy persons of Islam. We can find images, for example, of the Prophet Muhammad as a new-born baby, as a boy and as an adult, as well as of other prophets.

What we are faced with is a number of different interpretations of the Koran. Nowhere is there an unambiguous prohibition of the use of images in the Koran. The later victorious point of view of theologians and legal experts that the use of images as embellishment is forbidden is based on the belief that the Prophet Muhammad spoke critically of the use of images, because they could result in cults of those who were pictured, i.e. deification.

In most of the Muslim world mosques lack figurative decoration. In its place, various calligraphic reproductions of citations from the Koran, of the name of God and the Prophet are used, as are a wide range of patterns made up of geometric figures. The holy space thus remains free of images.

But there are variations even here. In the first place it is not unusual to hang up pictures of Islam's holy places in mosques. In the second, it is not unknown for images of persons, specifically the Shiite imams, to hang in Shiite mosques and other religious meeting places, for example in Iran.

The exhibition

The actual use of images by Muslims, both in the past and in our own times, shows that the characterisation of Islam as a religion hostile to images needs to be modified.

The exhibition presents a selection of mass-produced Muslim religious pictures and posters. Their subjects are (for Muslims) easily recognisable persons, happenings or scriptures with clear relationships to the history of the Islamic religion. There are pictures with symbols for God, as well as representations of holy personages. We can see pictures of Islam's holy places: the holy mosque with the Kaba in Mecca, the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, the Prophet's grave, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the graves of saints. There are pictures of subjects taken from the holy history of Islam, and of pious people engaged in devoted prayer. And there are texts and calligraphic images with quotations from the Koran, and texts that describe the religious duties imposed by Islam.

Pictures of this sort are hung up in shops, coffee-shops and tea-houses, and we find them in people's homes, as decoration, for the edification of the family and as talismans for security. In Egypt, for example, families buy pictures or posters of this sort in order to win a blessing and to keep bad luck away. Posters are hung up at the entrance to the house, by windows, and on the walls of the living room. Pictures of the holy places of Islam are by no means the least popular. Pictures of the Kaba and calligraphies of the words "Allah" and "Muhammad" virtually serve as icons in both private homes and mosques.

The widespread dissemination of pictures of this sort means that people are continually reminded of important events in the religious history of Islam.

All quotations from the Koran are taken from M. A. S. Abdel Haleem's translation, The Qur'an, Oxford University Press, 2004.

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