If Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad should not be portrayed in any physical form as it goes against the principle of Islam, then must a painting not fall in the same category?
Several reports have mentioned an upcoming auction in Britain later in May where a “rare painting of the footprints of Prophet Muhammad will go under the hammer and is expected to fetch 10,000-15,000 pounds".
One understands that the Prophet left imprints of his bare feet on a number of stones and these were preserved “in mosques, shrines, and tombs of prominent Muslim figures".
They are ‘real', in as much as the devout have faith in their beliefs and what historians say. Why, then, is there reason to be confused? Muslims have found different ways to work around iconography and, whether they like it or not, it is not too different from the idol worship they seem to abhor. One might say that calligraphic verses of the Quran are different. They are, but if you stand before them, head bowed down, then you are indeed worshipping something other than 'one god'.
The art work that is to go under the hammer was made during the 18th century Ottoman Empire. Mullock’s auctioneer, Richard Westwood Brookes, said, "The painting is of the finest quality and an extremely important piece of Islamic heritage".
There is a range of such art and they form the legacy of how different parts of the Islamic world view their heritage.
However, the idea of an auction of what is a tangible aspect of the Prophet sounds incongruous to me. Who will bid for it? What if the person is not a Muslim — would it be looked upon as art or as heritage, and the importance granted to it? If the buyer is a Muslim — how would the person feel about competing with another and placing a price over what s/he considers holy? Would it be displayed as a piece of precious purchase or a pious investment? Now here, I am most certainly amused. Muslims say they do not believe in interest, but such a painting might be deemed an investment, its value could increase over a period of time.
Being born a Muslim, I was conscious of certain such 'elements' around the house. I particularly recall the 'ayatal kursi', a golden-rimmed black frame on which the words (from a verse that protects against evil) were etched in copper, its sheen less blinding than that of the brighter edge. It was hung above the door at a slight angle, so one did not miss it on the way out. However, it never became a matter of discussion.
After we moved house, it came along. One day, it fell because the plaster on the wall had dampened and the hook had come loose. There wasn't much fuss. It was not reframed.
On one of my visits to Pakistan, I was at the crowded Sadar bazaar. There were so many of these in different materials. I chose a wooden one that fell like a scroll. It hangs on the wall in the passageway.
I do not worship it, just as I do not worship the various gemstones I wear. They talk about aura, good vibes, positive energy. I do not know. I only understand that what does not harm is good. For goodness, we need to look within ourselves.
As I said earlier, I have been confused about the 'non form' aspect of Islam. In India, there are so many colourful images of deities. Christianity, too, has beautiful icons, my favourite being The Pieta. Yet, instinctively, and due to my own exploration of the ephemeral, I understood the spirit behind the proscribing of imagery in Islam.
Titus Burckhardt explained such aniconism:
"The absence of icons in Islam has not merely a negative but a positive role. By excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within the religious realm, Islamic art aids man to be entirely himself. Instead of projecting his soul outside himself, he can remain in his ontological centre where he is both the viceregent (khalîfa) and slave ('abd) of God. Islamic art as a whole aims at creating an ambience which helps man to realize his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an 'idol', even in a relative and provisional manner. Nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God. Thus Islamic art creates a void; it eliminates in fact all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world, and in their stead creates an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace." - (From 'Mirror of the Intellect: Essays on Traditional Science and Sacred Art')
Of course, my interest is beyond the faith aspect. In everyday life, the “primordial dignity" would in essence mean that we do not become slaves to images of ourselves. The invisibility of god — in my perception of enlightenment — makes it a constant search. One realises the value of the void when the search has no goal.
In the realm of religion, I do not see this happening. The profound truth is that god is the empty. Most believers would fail the test because they fear this state. Organised religion takes comfort in crowds, and objectifies faith.
Therefore, while people will rise in revolt over a bad depiction of their faith, they will go along with an auction of an artwork that contradicts the spirit of the faith.
More than who buys the painting and how much it fetches, I wonder what happens to it after it is bought. Someone well-shod might pay obeisance to the image of the Prophet's bare feet.
Such gestures stop us from walking and listening to the sound of our own footsteps.
© Farzana Versey