Aug 31 2010

Islamic Idol

One Merriam-Webster definition of “idol” is “an object of extreme devotion“. Wikipedia defines idolatry as the “worship of any cult image, idea, or object“. Idols can take many forms. These forms range from the revered icons  of a church/temple (e.g., Madonna and child, crucifix) to that of an adored entertainer (e.g., Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson). The leaders of the ancient Abrahamic tribes knew the power and danger of idolatry. Idols were powerful tools, divine simulacrums, foci for the spiritual energies (and devotion) of followers. The danger was that anyone able to create an idol was armed with a tool that could be used to manipulate the population and erode influence of the incumbent priesthood. The most famous example of this conflict is the “Sin of the Calf“. The golden calf is an interesting example because Aaron and the Sinners (rock band name?) weren’t necessarily abandoning the god of Abraham, they just wanted an image to follow and so adopted a form that the refugees were familiar with, the lunar bull. The practice is now called syncretism, but that’s an article for another day. So in review: sanctioned idols = good (i.e., ark of the covenant… unless you’re a Nazi), unsanctioned idols = bad (i.e., Aaron’s earring sculpture).

All of this is prologue of course. Let’s fast forward about 2,000 years. The year is 632 CE and a man named Muhammad ibn `Abdullāh (Peace be upon him) has died. His adherents call him the Messenger and / or Prophet (his youngest wife might have had other opinions, but again… another article). His greatest work (though never a New York Times Bestseller) is called the Qur’an but he can’t take full credit since he was really just a stenographer for the angel Jibrīl (i.e., Gabriel) over twenty-three years. Talk about a hand cramp! Apparently gods and angels can’t write their own stuff. Raining hellfire, flooding the world, and raising the dead are no problem… applying quill to parchment however, not in their bag of tricks. *shrug* Anyway, as a messenger of Allah, the Prophet is highly venerated (see Shahadah). Soon, the tradition (i.e., hadith) was adopted that his image should never be displayed for fear of it encouraging idolatry; he is after all, just a messenger. It is worth noting that this prohibition does not appear in the Qur’an. Fair enough… for a society that believes in all that. Fast forward another 1,300 some years and people are threatening death to anyone who draws a stick-figure Prophet. What happened?

I don’t want to use this article to bash Islam. I have a lot of friends that are Muslim. That being said, every religion has its nut-jobs. These are usually people who have clung to a particular idea or passage to the exclusion of all other evidence and ideas. You can’t judge all Protestants based on the rantings and pyrotechnic picnics of the Ku Klux Klan. I get that. What I don’t get (or accept) is any group that dictates what I can and cannot do, so long as no else is harmed. If you’re insulted, too bad. There’s a little thing called “free speech” (in the United States at least) that trumps your fragile sensibilities. Another thing I don’t get is the indignation and animosity generated by depictions of the Prophet, whether respectful or otherwise (see Everybody Draw Mohammed Day). The irony here is delicious. Many Muslim groups don’t want images created of Muhammad for fear of creating an idol, but in the process have imbued such power and passion into all images of the Prophet that they’re willing to kill in his name (Peace be upon him). Welcome to Islamic quality control.

As the world community grows and the influence of cultures come into contact like a global Peep Joust, there will be more and more of these conflicts. Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in the world (PBS’s “Islam Today” claimed over 1.2 billion followers in 2010), almost 1 out 4 people on the planet. Whether they admit it or not, those that take offense to images of Muhammad are imbuing them with power and meaning, thereby creating the same idols that their traditions forbid. Do not take that fact lightly. According to the Bible, the tribes of Abraham swept into Canaan in the 15th century BC and slaughtered untold thousands in the name of their god, carrying before them the ark of the covenant, the earthly representation of Jehovah’s will. For the time period, this was an extraordinarily bloody campaign. As the centuries advanced, so have the zeroes on the body count… When the next holy war erupts, don’t be surprised if one or more zeroes are added. So what should we do? Moses was on the right track, if not a little self-serving. We need to undermine the power of idols. “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” was a good step in that direction. Maybe an “Everybody Draw Zombie Jesus Day” would be a good follow-up? When they’re able to dismiss these demonstrations as trivial, the power and threat of their images will be diluted. It’s a small win but even small battles are worth winning.

“Religion is the greatest idolatry of all time and, in many ways, the most dangerous also.” – Diarmund O’Murchu