Some years ago, I remember proudly showing a course pack I had put together on the history of Muslim-Christian interaction to a Muslim friend of mine. The booklet displayed on each page pictures I had culled from the Internet, from friends, and from my own collection of photos. Not being especially religious, my friend nevertheless surprised me with his reaction. "You're not seriously thinking about presenting this to any Muslim students, are you?" he asked.
His concern was primarily with the image on the cover, an Islamic depiction of Muhammad on a camel and Jesus on a donkey. I knew, of course, that caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish press had set off a firestorm of protest in 2006, but as this picture did not portray him in an unflattering way, I wasn't particularly concerned. My friend made me wonder if I wasn't being cautious enough.
Currently, I'm reading a collection of essays by Sidney Griffith, a scholar at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., about Christian writings in the early 'Abbasid period (roughly the years 750-900). The essays cover a variety of topics, and a few of them take up the controversy that images have caused in Muslim-Christian relations. Christian Melkite monks (those Christians who subscribed to the Council of Chalcedon in 451) found themselves having to defend their veneration of icons from Muslim claims that they were committing idolatry. Griffith quotes one particularly trenchant criticism from a Muslim writing in the ninth century:
"You extol the cross and the image. You kiss them, and you prostrate yourselves to them, even though they are what people have made with their own hands. They [the icons] neither hear, nor see, nor do harm, nor bring any advantage. The most estimable of them among you are made of gold and silver. Such is what Abraham's people did with their images and idols."
That last sentence refers to passages in the Qur'an (such as 21: 51-73) that tell the story of Abraham rejecting the idolatry of his father and breaking his idols to worship the one God. It's not a story you will find in Genesis, which says little more than that God called Abraham out of his country to go to the land where he would bless Abraham's descendants (12:1-3).
Christians in Muslim lands by and large defended their practice of venerating icons. Veneration, argued the theologian Theodore Abu Qurrah (d. 820), was not idolatry, but adoration of God. Both the Bible and the Qur'an at times referred to God with bodily metaphors, and as images were the illiterate man's words, what was wrong with icons using images of the body to bring praise to God?
Muslims, of course, have not been the only people to criticize icons. The Byzantine empire itself went through a period of 'iconoclasm' when the emperors banned the churches from displaying icons. And in the West, Protestants have demonstrated their own iconoclasm; think, for example, of the Scottish Reformers who stripped the Kirk (church) in Edinburgh of its stained glass windows. Even today, many Presbyterian churches have a spartan look about them. Indeed, I suspect many of us Protestants have a lingering suspicion of images and not much sympathy for the Eastern icon.
Yet I wonder, though, what we lose when we reject the opportunities that come with worshiping through image. Though I want to be sensitive to my Muslim friends, I am not so ready as many Protestants to reject what the icon represents. The Eastern church may have something to teach us yet. And perhaps this is a discussion worth having with our Muslim friends as well.
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