by Yule Heibel on February 6, 2006

I just found this interesting page on Zombie Time called the Mohammed Image Archive. As an art historian, I’m fascinated by this as a resource. It includes historical images of Mohammed from the early 14th century through to the modern period. The early images are from Arab/ Muslim sources, putting the lie to the notion that Mohammed was never represented. As the Image Archive notes:

Controversy over the publication of images depicting Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has erupted into an international furor. While Muslims worldwide are calling for a boycott of Denmark and any other nation whose press reprints the cartoons, Europeans are trying to stand up for Western principles of freedom of speech and not cave in to self-censorship in the name of multiculturalism and fear.

While the debate rages, an important point has been overlooked: despite the Islamic prohibition against depicting Mohammed under any circumstances, hundreds of paintings, drawings and other images of Mohammed have been created over the centuries, with nary a word of complaint from the Muslim world. The recent cartoons in Jyllands-Posten are nothing new; it’s just that no other images of Mohammed have ever been so widely publicized.

This page is an archive of numerous depictions of Mohammed, to serve as a reminder that such imagery has been part of Western and Islamic culture since the Middle Ages — and to serve as a resource for those interested in freedom of expression. [More…]

Fascinating stuff. By the 15th-16th centuries (but not before), Mohammed’s face is blanked out in Islamic representations, in accordance with the ban on portraying him. European Medieval and Renaissance Images, as well as later 19th century images, on the other hand had no such restrictions. Thus, we see the image of Christian propaganda via a fresco by Giovanni da Modena in Bologna’s Church of San Petronio that depicts Mohammed being tortured in Hell. Particularly fascinating is the link to this 2002 Guardian story about the al-Qaida plot to blow the church up on account of this 15th century fresco.

Then there are the 18th and 19th century book illustrations, including ones by the abolitionist freedom-loving anarchist William Blake, who showed Mohammed with his entrails exposed, as was the iconographic custom when relating his tortures in hell. Apparently, that story was popularised by Dante’s Inferno, Book XXVIII, 19-42, where Mohammed is described as one of the “Sowers of Discord”: “The poets are in the ninth / chasm of the eighth circle, that of the Sowers of / Discord, whose punishment is to be mutilated. / Mahomet shows his entrails to Dante and Virgil / while on the left stands his son Ali, his head cleft / from chin to forelock.” Ok, I’ve said it before on this blog: I have never been able to get “into” Dante, and now I have another reason why. Pretty vile stuff. But obviously this was “good stuff” for artists: Gustave Doré, the 19th century printmaker who did such a brilliant job skewering the effects of industrialisation in London, also took on Mohammed in hell, as did Blake (another critic of modernity), as well as kissy-kissy Rodin, and Salvador Dali (no surprises here — if Dali wasn’t fixated on anuses and vaginas, it had to be trailing …entrails).

Then there were the later 20th century popular book covers featuring portrayals of Mohammed, including Tintin. (I can’t imagine that Obelisk & Asterisk left Mohammed untouched, either — there must be an example somewhere.) Yet none of these caused an uproar. There’s even a 1928 German advertisement for beef bouillion that features the archangel Gabriel guiding Mohammed…. One has to wonder. PR people are strange. Mohammed has also been profiled on South Park (a tv show) and on video/ computer games (Spke TV, wherein Mohammed defeats Joseph Smith, who is I believe the founder of Mormonism, who then in turn gets beaten by Moses…).

Don’t miss the section on modern satirical cartoons, either. There are some nasty examples in this section, much stupider than anything the Danish paper published, including a very offensive one of Mohammed as a pig, authoring the Koran — perhaps this was one of the illustrations taken to the Middle East by the Danish imams with the goal of whipping up anti-Western frenzy? But note that in regard to this illustration, Zombie Time notes the following: “In 1997, an Israeli woman named Tatiana Soskin drew this caricature of Mohammed as a pig authoring the Koran and tried to display it in public in the city of Hebron. She was arrested, tried and sentenced to jail.”

Others are funnier because they also skewer western Christianity, like the “What would Mohammed drive?” cartoon, which plays on the ubiquitous neo-Christian evangelical mantra of “what would Jesus do?” It shows Mohammed driving a Ryder rent-a-truck with a nuclear bomb sticking out the back. But as I noted, some of the later 20th century (early 21st century) cartoons are pretty stupid, the digital equivalent of toilet stall graffiti. For the really curious, Zombie Time does include the crap taken to Egypt and Afghanistan by the Danish imams, which really scrapes bottom, but which was never published in mainstream western media. Finally, at the end of the page are several below the belt illustrations that show what crass really means.

All in all, the page underscores (to my way of thinking) the political motivations behind the current “offense” taken over the Danish cartoons.


maria February 7, 2006 at 2:19 am

Great research, Yule… on the timelines and now the treasuure trove of images! I just hope that more people will read this and stop wringing their hands over the various meanings of “offense” and how they are all feeling about it all … and start thinking!

Anonymous February 7, 2006 at 7:21 pm

Are the jihadists really upset because it was just a little old timey bomb depicted in Mohammeds turbin instead of a real nuke like the “Christian” nations have?

As an American artist, should I depict Jesus with a nuke protruding out of his cloak?

Yule Heibel February 9, 2006 at 4:45 pm

How many rioters in the street had actually read Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses when the reactionary religious leaders issued a murderous fatwah on Rushdie? Almost none of them, practically no one, in fact. It’s enough to say that offence has taken place, it’s not necessary to “prove” it to get rioters out there. That’s something I find offensive.

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