The Prophet Muhammad Safeguards Jesus and Mary’s Icons in the Kaba

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January 9, 2018

Taymaz Tabrizi is currently Director of Research at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He holds a PhD from McMaster University, Canada from the Department of Religious Studies where he specialized in the anthropology of religion and Imāmī Islamic law. He also holds a doctoral diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research from McMaster University from the Department of English and Cultural Studies.

Traditions that can be traced back to the early formative period of Islam show reverence and not disdain towards Christian iconography, particularly icons of Jesus and Mary.

The iconography of Muslim saints was not controversial in all of Islam’s discursive traditions, particularly since the Mongol period. In some traditions like Shīʿism in the Safavid and post-Safavid era, the iconography of the Shīʿī Imāms and indeed the Prophet Muhammad gained momentum and common acceptance. Despite this acceptance, most Muslim discourses were wary of iconographies of Jesus and Mary as such artistic expressions were associated with their divinization which was anathema for most of mainstream expressions of Islam with the exclusion of some theosophic tendencies within Twelver, Ismāʿīlī and Sufi Islam.

This was especially true for formalized Sunnī Islam since the 11th century C.E yet the medieval Shāfiʿī traditionist Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (d. 748/1348) narrates traditions – without serious qualms – from the Prophet Muhammad that seem to counteract this historical attitude. The following is one of those traditions:

وفي الحديث عن ابن أبي نجيح، عن أبيه، عن حويطب بن عبد العزّى وغيره: فلما كان يوم الفتح دخل رسول الله ، صلى اله عليه وسلم ، إلى البيت، فأمر بثوب فبلّ بماء وأمر بطمس تلك الصّور، ووضع كفّيه على صورة عيسى وأمّه وقال: امحوا الجميع إلاّ ما تحت يدي. رواه الأزرقي

In the ḥadīth from Ibn Abī Najīh, from his father, from Ḥuwayṭab b. ʿAbd al-ʿUzzā and other than him, [it is narrated that]: when it was the day of Mecca’s conquest, the Messenger of God (s) entered the House of God [i.e. the Kaba] and commanded [that he be given] a garment. He made it wet with water and commanded that the images [inside the Kaba] be wiped out but he placed his hands on the image (ṣūrah) of Jesus and his mother and said: erase everything except for what is under my hands. Al-Azraqī narrated it.[1]

At the very least, the tradition (and those like it) can be traced back to the eight century C.E if not earlier as Abū al-Walīd al-Azraqī (d. ~250/837), one of the main sources of the tradition, had already compiled it by the ninth century C.E. It is significant as it demonstrates the multifaceted attitude and indeed acceptance of Christian iconography in the early phase of the formative period of Islam. In other words, it shows that whatever misgivings many Muslim groups might have had in later times, some Muslims and perhaps the Prophet himself might have revered the icons of Christ and Mary.

[1] Shams al-Dīn b. Muḥammad al-Dhahabī, Siyār Aʿlām al-Nubalāʾ, 21 vols., ed. Bashshār Maʿrūf (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risālah, 1981-1988), I, 68.

2018-01-29T23:15:44+00:00

Taymaz Tabrizi

Taymaz Tabrizi is currently Director of Research at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He holds a PhD from McMaster University, Canada from the Department of Religious Studies where he specialized in the anthropology of religion and Imāmī Islamic law. He also holds a doctoral diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research from McMaster University from the Department of English and Cultural Studies.
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