Art Historians Agree, Depictions of Muhammad Are Plentiful

Art historians agree that depictions of Muhammad are neither new nor rare:

These portrayals of Muhammad are not big or new or common. Most were made for the elite. And most were bound in books. These were lavish volumes that were political in purpose, and were designed to celebrate and dignify self-promoting rulers. What their paintings show is this: Once upon a time — in the era of the caliphs and the sultans and the shahs, when the faithful felt triumphant, and courtly learning blossomed — the prophet did appear in great Islamic art.

Old portrayals of Muhammad come from Sunni lands and Shia ones, from the Turkey of the Ottomans, the India of the Mughals, from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. The oldest that survive were painted circa 1300. The newest were produced about 200 years ago.

Three such pictures, from Turkey, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“Contrary to widespread assumptions today,” says a statement issued by that museum’s Islamic specialists, “the traditional arts of Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite, often did reverently depict the prophet, as abundantly attested by manuscript illuminations ranging in time from the 13th to the 18th century, and in space from Turkey to Bengal. Pictorial representations of the prophet remain accepted by many Shiites to this day, although they have been generally frowned upon by most Sunnis since about the 18th century.”

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