Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Depiction and Desecration

Some logical-theological observations, amid all the Charlie Hebdo brouhaha:

It is not so much satirical caricature of the Prophet Muhammad that traditional Muslims object to (though of course that does add insult to injury), but the mere visual depiction.   Such a mode of thought is familiar to Jews and Christians: “Thou shalt make no graven images”, and the Iconoclasts.  Theologically, if you were to depict the Prophet looking like Charles Atlas, it would still be an offense.

The idea behind it has a couple of strands  -- on their own terms, both quite sound:
  (1) Do not attempt to compete with the Creator, in the ‘creation’ (depiction) of rational beings.
  (2) Do not deify  that which is not divine.

As a further application of (1), the Saudi authorities discourage even simple drawings of imaginary human beings.   I have seen KSA schoolbooks which -- necessarily depicting people in the course of instructing the very young -- yet conscientiously slice-away a jagged section of the neck, so as to spoil any alleged perfection, and not to infringe on the monopoly of God.  Again,  the idea is familiar from the Bible:  Man is made “in His image”.   To interpret that injunction as pictorial rather than (actually) functorial,  is primitive, but -- To Each, According to his Understanding.  
(We have ourselves diffidently put forth a subtler interpretation of “image” here:  Man as the homomorphic image of the ultimate, via a morphism in the sense of Universal Algebra -- a “quotient space” of the Creator:

The ban indeed goes beyond human depiction; a hadith transmitted by al-Bukhari and by Muslim  states:  “Angels do not enter a house which contains dogs or pictures.”

Point (2)  is the principle bone of contention between Islam and Christianity:  Muslims are down with Jesus (upon whom be peace), they just don’t think he’s God.  And within Islam itself, (2) has also become quite contentious of late, with Salafists skewering Shiites (sometimes literally) for exalting the Prophet (who, in the orthodox view, was purely and merely human) and `Ali ibn Abi-Tâleb, beyond their human due.   Thus, Yemeni al-Qaeda recently slaughtered a bunch of Huthis (including numerous schoolchildren) who had gathered to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday.   Salafists consider that idolatrous, like Christmas.
(As a kind of compromise, we ourselves celebrate Meinong’sbirthday.)


Taking the thought-stream up a notch:  
It is characteristic of Sunni Islam, to make a very sharp distinction between Man (whether prophets or street-vendors) and God (there’s just One of Him, mind).  And, further, in the culture in general, rather to deprecate images of any sort (even acoustic ones).   By contrast -- somewhat like Presbyterians, or the Gospel of St John -- Muslim theologians do truly exalt The Word.

Which means, in particular, with relevance to the present political context:
The amateurish drawings of the Jyllands-Posten or of Charlie Hebdo, snarky and uninsightful, do not really go deeply towards scratching the Islamic skin (though the populace, excitable and of limited understanding, may of course react violently).  The appropriate response of a Muslim of culture and understanding would be to take no notice, or to give a frown of distaste, as at the vulgarities of urchins in the street.   But the Word -- ah, that is quite another matter.

And in fact there have been such desecrations, which you can view on the Web if you know where to look, besides which  the sniggerings of the Charlies  pale:  provocations that -- the mirror-image of the ISIL beheading videos -- go out of their way to be the nec plus ultra of Vile.
(I have alluded to these indirectly, in earlier essays, but in the current climate, shall say no more.  Else literally, heads might roll.)

[Update 13 January 2015]  The post-attack cover of Charlie Hebdo  is actually quite affecting;  we reproduce it here  in all reverence.   As a Christian -- and one who sees the tale of Jean Valjean and the Bishop, as the pinnacle of world literature -- I bow my head -- nay, almost kneel -- before this highly unexpected headline,  “All is forgiven.”

Lacrimae mundi 

For that, compare the second-finest lines in all literature, from Faust:

   “Ist gerichtet.”
   -- “Ist gerettet !!!”

And yet and yet … alas, the point of our post is only too incisively verified.   This genuine olive-branch of a cover, since it does involve an image,  threatens to evoke yet further violence:

 Miserere nobis, domine.

[Update 14 January 2015]  Judiciously treading a fine line:

In Muslim-majority Turkey, the police stopped trucks of a pro-secular Turkish newspaper, Cumhuriyet, after it decided to follow the lead of a number of global newspapers and republish images from the new edition of Charlie Hebdo.
Turkish authorities finally allowed distribution, according to the Associated Press, after verifying it had not printed the newspaper's cover.

Oof, and this:

Ch’suis moi Charlie
(Banned in KSA)
The best American analogy to the horror of satirical depiction of the Prophet, is the matter of flag-burning.  At one point there was a serious effort to amend the Constitution to outlaw it.

[Update 11 March 2015]

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