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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."


I had met the local Hindu priest on two occasions in the 1970s. He had walked me through his plans for a new temple to serve the eclectic community of people with roots in India who had come to live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and discussed how he planned to shape the sanctum sanctorum to accommodate the various devotions of a mixed community of Shaivites and Vaishnavites. Now we sat together in his home just to the right of his shrine to the Shakti, the Feminine Divine Energy and manifestation of Shiva, the deity that had captured his attention many years ago and come to shape his personal devotion. It was my first time in his home and our conversation had moved from his own spiritual formation in Ludhiana, India, through the trauma of the stillbirth of his first child and his entering the Shi Ramakrishna mission in England seeking solace for the loss of this child. He spoke of growing up under the influence of the Arya Samaj movement, of its iconoclasm as well as its place in the Vedic renaissance in India in the nineteenth century and how he came to devote himself to the ritual life centered on murti, the image of deities. He had talked affectionately about the worship of deities at some length and then, rather abruptly, turned to speak about the goal of the Hindu life: to finally come to worship the formless form, the Eternal Absolute beyond embodiment. This, he told me, would finally lead to moksha, the liberation that is the final release from the cycle of rebirth. After he had spoken for a considerable time on the formless form, distinguishing it from what he called "idol worship," I said to him that while this was a powerful idea I did not quite understand how it sat with his deep and faithful devotion to the beautiful embodiment of Shakti, a devotion he offered to her each morning and evening. What does the formless form have to do with her who is so beautifully formed and who has so completely won your affections? Tears filled his eyes. "In this life, in this round, all I hope for is just once to see her face. Just once to truly glimpse her beauty."

SOURCE: From the author's field notes.

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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David J. Goa

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to IncompatibilityIcons Images and Idols - Sacred Image, Icon As Revelation, Idol And Idolatry, Islam And Shirk, To See Her Face