The worship of Muhammad comes into focus in some unusual places. Consider the Islamic law regarding the image of Muhammad himself. Islamic law forbids that any representation of Muhammad be drawn, painted, or otherwise shown. Yet where does this prohibition come from? No verse of the Qur’an states that such representations of Muhammad cannot be made. Of course, the Hadith give more detail on what can and cannot be done within Islam. Strangely enough, when the Hadith are examined, no prohibition of drawing or painting an image of Muhammad is there either. Instead we find a general prohibition against any images of human beings whatsoever.
Sahih Muslim, Book 024, Number 5268:
Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created. [i]
So Islamic law maintains that the prohibition is extended to the representation of any person, not just Muhammad. Yet this Islamic tradition of not allowing images of people seems to get ignored with regard to the average person and amplified in relation to Muhammad, even though he is not singled out in any of the original Islamic texts. Then why do Muslims forbid any such representations of Muhammad? Muslim authors are quick to point out that the reasoning behind not having any images of Muhammad is to prevent later followers from worshipping him. That seems a fair statement, so let’s see where it leads and how it plays out in real life.
Many people have discussed this issue in relation to the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and the ensuing controversy, but here let’s move right past that to the road less travelled. In 1977, Anthony Quinn starred in a little-known movie called “Muhammad, Messenger of God,” or alternatively titled “The Messenger.” [ii] Directed by a Syrian born Muslim and approved by the renowned Al-Azhar university, the personage of Muhammad is never shown. It’s odd to watch an entire full-length feature film about Muhammad without ever seeing him. The movie shows the actions and movements of his followers and his enemies during the inception of Islam as a religion. Everyone else is represented, but not Muhammad. He is given unique status in that throughout the movie his character is never depicted on camera. In the movie’s introduction, the following reason is given,
“The makers of this film honor the Islamic tradition which holds that the impersonation of the prophet offends against the spirituality of his message. Therefore, the person of Muhammad will not be shown.”
Here again the irony of Islamic thought comes straight to the forefront. In an attempt to prevent the worship of Muhammad, he gets elevated to a special status no other character is given. He has been raised to a level beyond any other man. Just as God Himself cannot be seen face to face, so too Muhammad receives the same status from the cinematography point of view. What likely started with genuine concerns has had massive unintended consequence. The very attempt to prevent the worship of Muhammad has caused his undisplayed image to become an object of worship. Perhaps this seems a stretch to some readers, but consider how the Hadith describe Muhammad’s physical appearance,
Sahih Muslim, Book 030, Number 5772:
Al-Bara’ reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) had the most handsome face amongst men and he had the best disposition and he was neither very tall nor short-statured. [iii]
His likeness is deemed so amazing that it surpassed all other men. Again, while this isn’t technically worship in a strict theological sense, it sure comes across as such. Perhaps most striking is a line from the movie itself. As the movie unfolds where Muhammad goes unseen throughout, one of the characters aptly states, “The real god is unseen.” This author could not agree more.
Muslims grant Muhammad the same status as God Himself with regards to the representation of His image. In the Muslim attempt to avoid idolatry, they have inadvertently created a new and powerful unseen idol.
In the last installment of this series, more explicit Hadith will be unpacked which are nothing short of shocking.