[Reader-list] Religious popular art : posting #5

Yousuf ysaeed7 at yahoo.com
Wed Jun 23 15:30:28 IST 2004

Sarai Fellowship 2004: Muslim Religious Posters

What You See is What You Believe: 
The Tangible Versus Intangible Divinity

Among the common users of Muslim devotional posters
interviewed during this study, many are unclear and
sometimes confused about the nature of attitude and
status to be given to these images, unlike, say Hindu
devotees, who would use the image or idol of a deity
solely for worshipping. Since most of the devotees
(interviewed) came from poor or lower middle class or
rural areas, many were probably not familiar with the
concept of iconoclasm in Islam. They broadly knew that
idolatry is certainly unIslamic (this is what
differentiates them from the Hindus), but the images
of local saints, their tombs, other Islamic folklore,
and many symbols of composite culture ingrained in
their collective/folk memory, are openly accepted and
venerated, without drawing any lines between Islamic
and unIslamic – until someone with a Wahhabi/purist
bend of mind comes and tells them that what they are
doing is not right.

So, what exactly goes on in the minds and hearts of
the religious people who fall in the gray area between
iconoclasm and idolatry? We may begin by exploring
first what is Islamic iconoclasm. The prohibition of
religious iconography existed even before Islam.
Recently, when the world was crying on the demolition
of Buddha’s statue in Afghanistan’s Bamian by the
Taliban, somebody pointed out that one person who
would be happiest to see this demolition is Buddha
himself, as he was himself one of the first destroyers
of religious icons. 

Aniconism, or the opposition to the use of icons,
existed in Christianity too for a brief period, in
Byzantine, interestingly a century after Prophet
Muhammad had died in the not-so-distant Mecca. Some
historians have pointed out that the ideas of Plato,
Plotinus and other Greek philosophers, who dismissed
representative art as an “imitation of nature”, may
have influenced early development of Islam. Islamic
iconoclasm basically assumed that God is the sole
author of life and anyone else producing the likeness
of a living being seeks to rival God. Most devoted
Muslims stay away from iconography due to a tradition
(hadith) ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad that a
person drawing the picture of a living thing would be
asked on the Day of Judgment to fuse life into it. But
the Qur’an, interestingly, does not contain a single
line prohibiting the drawing of representative figures
– though it does taboo idolatry. 

But this prohibition did not stop the artists in most
Islamic societies to produce figurative art, whether
for religious or secular purposes. Miniature paintings
developed in Persian, Turkish and Indo-Muslim areas
throughout medieval period freely illustrated angels,
prophets, Qur’anic anecdotes, and the Prophet
Muhammad, including his family - their faces mostly
veiled. The Prophet or his companions are also shown
with halos or flames leaping out of their torso to
show their jalaal or spiritual radiance. Most of these
images were either a part of the illuminated
manuscripts or decorated in the royal palaces, but
seldom displayed in public. As a result, they neither
became the object of mass veneration nor mass
duplication. But one such scene that has regularly
been illustrated and circulated amongst the masses, is
the Prophet’s ascension to the heavens, called the
Mi’raj, riding the mythical creature, Burraq – a
flying horse with a woman’s head and a peacock’s tail.
Many Indian devotional posters, depicting Burraq in
local adaptations, are venerated by the faithful,
especially on occasions like Muharram or Shab-e Barat.
Though the original artists from central Asia who
conceived such an image may not have imagined it
becoming an object of adoration later.

Most cultures or religions, including Islam, which
adopted iconoclasm, did so after an evolved
realization that God or supernatural could be found or
invoked ‘spiritually’, within the sub-conscious of the
seeker, rather than by worshipping his material
manifestations that prevail in the culture. This might
be the basis of many mystical and reformist religious
movements that rejected icon-worship. In fact if you
went a step further, you could enter the realm of
atheism, which some reformists did. 

However, the concept of an unseen God, or no God,
could probably be grasped only by some evolved or
emancipated minds (not necessarily ‘educated’ ones).
The mind of an ordinary believer, embroiled in his
day-to-day tribulations of life, would probably feel
extremely uncomfortable or shaky in the absence of a
tangible sustenance-giver. Hence the need for idols,
sacred objects, and symbols that could provide the
believer a face-to-face communion with the divine. The
saints or holy men, (and their tombs or relics after
their death) also worked as worldly intercessors
between the believer and the God, and continue to do
so; though the purists in Islam vehemently oppose the
use of such mediators or symbols as ‘shirk’

An obvious question anyone may ask is, if Islam
prohibits iconic devotion, then what about Kaaba, the
cubical shrine at Mecca which every Muslim faces while
praying, and the black stone embedded in it, which the
pilgrims kiss? Frankly, it may be too complex an issue
to be answered satisfactorily in this forum. But in
short, Kaaba the house of God (though the God doesn’t
live in it, according to the Muslims), was constructed
by the Prophet Abraham (circa 2000 BC), and is being
visited by pilgrims since then, who circumambulate it
in a variety of rituals. The black stone, probably a
meteorite, is the only relic left now from Abraham’s
shrine, and Prophet Muhammad is attributed to have
kissed it, probably out of historical familiarity.
Pilgrims performing the tawaf or parikrama of the
Kaaba kiss or wave towards the black stone to mark
each round. When the Prophet re-entered Mecca in 7th
century AD and made his first Islamic pilgrimage
(Hajj), he demolished most of the idols, but retained
some rituals of the pilgrimage that were reminiscent
of the events from Abraham’s life, probably for their
importance to the Arab society. 

The Kaaba was made a qibla or pole to which Muslims
turn for prayers, so that everyone always faces the
same direction, rather than different ones – basically
a consolidation of the monotheistic attitude. Praying
towards Mecca, in principle, doesn’t mean worshipping
the cubical shrine – it is there only to discipline
the masses towards one God. (But isn’t that what
Hindus and other icon-worshippers too believe – idols
are not Gods themselves; they are only markers for
concentration or dhyana.) A pilgrim visiting the
various sacred sites in and around Mecca is supposed
to show only a respect or homage (as you would show to
a historical monument) rather than adoration or
veneration. But this is where the lines get blurred –
the ordinary pilgrims cannot differentiate between
respect and veneration. Everyday, when thousands of
crying pilgrims want to touch and kiss the wall or the
cloth cover of Kaaba, the Saudi police, the guardians
of iconoclasm, try to dissuade them forcefully from
doing so. In the graveyards in Mecca and Medina where
some of the most important historical personalities of
early Islam are buried, there are no identifiable
grave marks, to avoid them from becoming the objects
of adoration, as they do in much of south Asia or

Back in Delhi, while sitting in front of the tomb of
Amir Khusrau one evening, I noticed an old woman in
her white bottle-shaped burqa who had dropped herself
on the doorway of the grave and was crying loudly. She
or her family was obviously struck by some misfortune
in life. Out of those hysterical wails one could hear
her say, “You are the only one who can save us… please
take us out of this museebat (calamity)…” She went on
for quite some time, as many devotees do at these
dargahs. I couldn’t help be a bit amused, since I knew
that Khusrau, as it is known from his Persian poetry
and prose, was a courtier who indulged in all the
worldly pursuits of life, and could hardly be
recognized as a saint by the historians; though he was
closely associated with Nizamuddin Aulia who was a
saint. But my observation that evening was focused
more on the fact that this lady really needed a stone
grave or a doorway to have her catharsis which
involved an emotional flow, a direct prayer, and some
healing from the on-going crisis, something she
couldn’t achieve so effectively before an unseen God
at home or even inside a mosque. It didn’t matter
whose grave it was. (Or may be it did – who am I to

“Sajdah usee ka naam hai jab tum ho saamne,
Aisee namaaz kya jo barooay sanam naheen”

A prostration is that when you (my dear) are ahead;
What use a prayer if not facing the beloved? 

Yousuf Saeed


Imtiaz Ahmad, ed.: Ritual and Religion Among Muslims
in India, Manohar Publications, Delhi, 1984

Laleh Bakhtiar: Sufi, Expressions of the Mystic Quest,
Thames & Hudson, 1976

Desmond Stewart: Early Islam, Time-Life Books, New
York, 1967

Encyclopedia Britannica: Muhammad and the Religion of
Islam, Vol. 22, 15th edition


For those who missed the first 4 postings: this
project seeks to collect the contemporary religious
posters and calendar art, depicting Muslim themes,
mostly in north India, and analyze their content,
focusing on the symbols of multi-faith or composite
culture, besides studying briefly the industry and the
artists who manufacture and sell them, the devotees
who buy them, the milieu where they are adorned, and
the reverence they evoke.

This posting is only a section of the research and may
not represent the holistic picture or the
chronological sequence of the findings. More details,
updates and a colourful poster gallery of the project
can be seen at: www.alif-india.com/popart

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