The above image, portraying Muhammad as a boy, circulated widely in Iran throughout the later twentieth century and can read as a hadith in its own way. (Hadiths signify the sayings and actions of Muhammad or things said and done in his presence to which he did not object.) If you assumed that Muslims have always opposed the visual representation of living things and would absolutely never depict the prophet, and that the opposition to painting Muhammad represents an inescapably foundational Islamic value, this picture offers a lesson: claims made in always/never language rarely hold up to closer scrutiny, and no one within a tradition speaks for everyone else.
Though debates over images of Muhammad refer to various sources, the Koran itself is silent on the matter of art. A number of hadiths portray Muhammad condemning visual representation of living things, but the diversity of Muslim interpretive traditions produces a multiplicity of views. No less an authority than Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the head of state until his death ten years later, had reportedly named this portrait of a youthful Muhammad as his favorite visual representation of the Prophet. In Iran, iterations of the image became widely available at stores and in numerous products, including postcards, full-size posters, wall hangings, and key chains. It was only after a Danish newspaper’s publication of offensive Muhammad cartoons that Iranian authorities banned this popular image. As Christiane Gruber explains, the Danish cartoon controversy provoked an “inversion of tidal proportions” among global Muslims, in which “Muhammad had to be reclaimed rhetorically in Islamic spheres and, in Iran most especially, reinverted and reinvented at an iconographical level.” In the case of Iran, taboos against depicting Muhammad’s face were not merely representative of “traditional Islam” but just as much a modern response to a modern problem, emerging not in isolation from “the West” but in direct encounter with it. The question of drawing Muhammad’s face thus reveals the ways in which tradition often finds its definition while engaging forces from outside. Read More