Icons Images and Idols
Islam And Shirk
Muslims around the world, both in the mosque and in their daily prayers, chant the creedal statement: "God is most great. There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the Prophet of God." The Koran constantly speaks of God as the One, Al-Wahid, and the Prophet Muhammad's singular passion was to root out idolatry and the indigenous forms of polytheism in the Arab communities of his day. For Muhammad and for faithful Muslims ever since, the heavens and the earth are established on what we read in sura 112 of the Koran, "Say: He is God alone: God the eternal. He begetteth not, and he is not begotten; and there is none like unto him."
In the religious world of Islam any association of other beings with God or of any human attribute with what belongs to God alone is the gravest of sins. Shirk, this type of grave sin, finds its polar opposite in tawhid, the declaration central to Muslim belief and prayer of the unity of God, a unity declared in faith and lived out in private and public life.
Muhammad inherited the opposition to idolatry from the Judeo-Christian tradition and saw Abraham as the prototype of the faith in one God. Abraham's firstborn son Ishmael faithfully followed in his father's footsteps in his rejection of local idols. Considerable attention is given in the Koran to Abraham's destruction of idols and Moses' attempt to call his people back to the worship of the one God (sura 26:69–83; 21:53/52–70; 25:3–5/4; 7:134/138). The propensity to associate a god or gods with God represents the gravest human struggle and Islamic law is clear and absolute about its many dangers and manifestations.
Idolaters are to be shunned and Muslims are called to fight against them (sura 9:36). One must never marry an idol worshiper and one must protect children from their influence. Idolatry is an insult to God for only God is the creator of the world and God is beyond image or representation.
In the last half of the twentieth century, archaeological work at the third-century Jewish synagogue at Dura Europos in eastern Syria helped us appreciate that the absolute prohibition of images in the law of Moses did not deter Jews contemporary with early Christianity from painting sacred images in their places of worship. Carl Kraeling argues that the Dura synagogue was one of the finest synagogues in ancient Judaism and that its decorative paintings are a forerunner of Byzantine art. While this discovery has demanded that scholars of image, icon, and idol become more complex in their application of these terms, it remains the case that the cultural history and history of ideas in the West, in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim circles, has been significantly shaped by the debate on the nature and meaning of images. This debate continues in the contemporary Protestant church considering what decorative program to adopt, as it does periodically in public discussion when an art gallery or a film shows images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a prophet that deconstruct some of the public's expectations.
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Kraeling, Carl H. The Synagogue. 2nd ed. New York: KTAV, 1979.
Lossky, Vladimir. In the Image and Likeness of God. Edited by John H. Erickson and Thomas E. Bird. Repr. Crestwood, N.Y.: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985.
Moore, Albert C. Iconography of Religions: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.
Nicephorus, Saint, Patriarch of Constantinople. Discours contre les iconoclastes. Translated by Marie-José Mondzain-Baudinet. Paris: Klincksieck, 1989.
Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Translated by Robert Czerny, with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1978.
Theodore Studites, Saint. On the Holy Icons. Translated by Catharine P. Roth. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981.
Trubetskoi, Evgenii Nikolaevich. Icons: Theology in Color. Translated by Gertrude Vahar. New York: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1973.
Ward, Keith. Images of Eternity: Concepts of God in Five Religious Traditions. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1987.
David J. Goa
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