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Limitations of portraits

Posted September. 06, 2023 08:07,   

Updated September. 06, 2023 08:07


Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) was an Islamic theologian and Sufi mystic revered as a saint during his lifetime. He settled and lived in what is known as Konya of Turkiye today and led many disciples. Gurju Khatun was also one of his disciples. One day, she had to leave Konya and go to Anatolia because her husband, a general, changed his duty station. She wanted to take a portrait of her teacher, so she secretly asked a famous court painter to paint one for her.

The artist went to Rumi and asked for permission to paint his portrait. Rumi smiled and agreed, so the painter began to paint with joy. But when the portrait was finished, it didn’t look like Rumi. Embarrassed, the artist started drawing again. But he failed again. After twenty attempts, the painter could still not come up with a good portrait. He felt surprised, fear, and in awe. “If saints are like this, what would it be like for prophets?”

This story in ‘Masnavi,’ known as the Persian Bible, illustrates the difficulty of recreation and explains why Islam prohibits depicting the prophet in any form. Worshiping by drawing or carving is considered idolatry in Islam. It is an extension of the commandment not to make or worship idols, shared not only by Islam but also by Judaism and early Christianity. Christianity strayed from the path while it was promoted, but Islam adhered to it faithfully.

In 2005, a Danish cartoonist drew social attention by drawing a cartoon that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, violating the commandments of the religion. Muslims should not have responded violently, but drawing cartoons of the prophet they considered sacred was provocative and wrong. Though we live in an age where literally anything is replicated, there are cases where it is respectful that we should not do so.