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How do Muslims feel about Idolatry?

The photograph that accompanies this blog is a close-up of a Muhammad sculpture taken by Franz Jantzen of the North Wall Frieze in the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. To my knowledge, this is the only image of Muhammad on public display in the United States. To most Muslims, this is a form of Idolatry. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with a comment from Abu Laith al Saudi, the nom de guerre of the Islamic State military commander back in 2015 in in Palmyra, Syria:

Concerning the historic city, we will preserve it, and it will not be harmed, God willing. What we will do is break the idols that the infidels used to worship.

If you remember, in Afghanistan, Taliban jihadists dynamited a pair of sixth-century statues known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. The Islamic State, during its short reign as a so-called caliphate, destroyed at least 28 religious buildings in Iraq, including Shiite mosques, tombs, shrines, and churches. Also, IS jihadis razed numerous ancient and medieval sites in Nimrud and Nineveh in present-day Iraq.

In man’s early history, the worship of “idols” was common practice. In Abraham’s time, circa 2000 B.C., the worship of other gods such as the Sun God and many others was typical. Even Abraham’s father, Terah, “worshiped other gods.” However, as the chapter of Genesis reveals, Abraham became the first to worship a singular god. This choice was the birth of monotheism, but polytheism still flourished. Moses, circa 1500 B.C., had problems dealing with the golden calf during the Jewish exodus from Egypt. In 700 B.C., King Hezekiah purged idols from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. The history of iconoclasm is multi-denominational, as well. History shows that Muhammad dealt with rampant idolatry during his years as the Prophet of Islam in the seventh century.

So, what exactly is idolatry? Strictly speaking, idolatry denotes a deity's worship in a tangible form, such as a picture, a statue, or even an altar to make sacrifices. These images are just symbols that represent a god in which a person believes. Their prophets have instructed Christians, Jews, and Muslims to worship the one true God. But pagans have found ways in which to worship their gods. Examples would be:

  • Nature worship, in which a sacred life force or animistic spirit is venerated in animals and plants, in topographic features like hills and rivers, and celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, stars, fire, and wind.

  • The idolization of great leaders and the exaltation of deceased ancestors.

  • Greek Gods such as Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite.

  • Roman Gods such as Jupiter, Neptune, Venus, and Mars.

  • Satan.

Advocates of Islam would expand the list to include:

  • Dead prophets and saints as expressed in statues and pictures (paintings and stained glass) and shrines.

  • Mary, mother of Jesus, as expressed in scripture, statues, and pictures.

  • Jesus as expressed in scripture, statues, pictures, and crucifixion symbols.

  • Muhammad, as expressed in scriptures, statues, and pictures.

Idolatry falls under shirk. Because of the strong emphasis on Allah’s absolute oneness in Islam, the greatest of all sins is called shirk or assigning partners to God. To Muslims, God and God alone is worthy of worship. There are no other divinities to be worshiped. Jesus, his mother Mary, angels, other prophets; there are no associates. God alone possesses the attributes of deity. To associate any being or any icon with God is a sinful act. The sin of practicing idolatry or polytheism is shirk. Shirk is considered the only unforgivable sin in Islam:

There are three other forms of shirk in the Islamic tradition that are worth mentioning. One type of shirk includes the worship of wealth, other material objects, and one’s ego. This type of glorification is like the tenth commandment in the Bible, which warns against coveting things that belong to others and the biblical warnings about excess pride.

Another form of shirk is to treat eminent religious scholars, monks, priests, or rabbis as Lord(s) in practice by obeying their doctrines and their rulings on what is lawful when it is at variance with the principles prescribed in the Qur’an or sunna.

The final form of shirk represents a design change for houses of worship. The tendency for most mosques is to display colorful designs and patterns, and verses from the Qur’an. There are no pictures or statues in the mosques. They are a temptation to the faithful who come to worship Allah. The Prophet himself was aware that people would soon start praising him if people saw his face portrayed in an image. He made it known that he did not wish his image depicted in paintings or statues. The Qur’an does not explicitly prohibit pictures of Muhammad, but there are a few hadith that do (Sahih al-Bukhari, 7.834, 7.838, 7.840, and 7.846).

An interesting story illustrates how Muslims abide by the Prophet’s wish to remain obscure, unseen. It begins with Voltaire, who wrote the play Mahomet, The Impostor, in 1742. During the Revolutionary War, the play was performed for the British in 1780 and the Americans in 1782. Voltaire’s knowledge of Islam was weak, and of course, much of what he wrote was untrue or incorrect, but he was known for insulting all the religions in his philosophical essays. The critical part of the play was a character who played Muhammad in the flesh. It was a radical insult to the prophet, but no Muslims were around to notice at the time. Fast forward to December 9, 2005, when the play was revived and scheduled for a public reading in a small French theatre near the Franco-Swiss border. Representatives from mosques of both countries formally protested but to no avail. The issue of free speech was considered paramount. Consequently, a small riot broke out the day of the scheduled presentation causing the theater to close temporarily. Fortuitously, Muhammad’s image remained in shadow.

The visual depiction of Muhammad that accompanies this blog was constructed in 1935, The U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. has a frieze decorated with a bas-relief sculpture of eighteen influential lawgivers. Located on the north wall, between Justinian and Charlemagne, is Muhammad’s image. In 1997, the Council on American-Islamic Relations petitioned the Supreme Court to remove the sculpture. Chief Justice Rehnquist refused to remove the Prophet's image, adding that to have the figure was a sign of honor and the sword, a universal symbol of justice.

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