The Appellate Division Courthouse, overlooking Madison Square Park, from which a statue of Muhammad was removed 60 years ago in response to requests from three predominantly Islamic nations and from individual Muslims. The other statues of great lawgivers were shifted to reduce the visual impact. Zoroaster took Muhammad’s place at the corner of the building.Credit Bryan R. Smith for The New York Times
The question of whether it is ever appropriate to publish depictions of the Prophet Muhammad could not be more current or vexing, as the Public Editor’s Journal made plain on Wednesday.
“Mohammed Quits Pedestal Here on Moslem Plea After 50 Years” was the headline (with two instances of our earlier spelling style) on a front-page article published April 9, 1955, after the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan approved the removal of an eight-foot-tall marble statue of the prophet from the courthouse rooftop.
“ ‘Graven images’ of any human figure have been frowned upon through most of Islam since Mohammed founded the religion in the seventh century,” the article, by Ira Henry Freeman, explained to readers. “Figure paintings and sculpture are prohibited on public, religious and political edifices. They are sometimes permitted, however, in private apartments, as exemplified in the Alhambra at Granada. Pictures or statues of the prophet himself are particularly rare.”
Having said all that, the editors inexplicably printed a one-column photograph of the statue alongside the article. The gaze of the bearded man in a turban seemed to find the very paragraph that explained why he had no business being on the page in the first place — at least if it was The Times’s goal not to offend readers. There seemed to have been no repercussions, however.
It was a different story in 1974 when The Times published a reproduction of a 14th-century miniature painting, from the Jami’ al-Tawarikh manuscript, depicting Muhammad receiving a revelation from the Archangel Gabriel. A three-column photo of the painting accompanied an article about the history of the religion that ran as part of a special series, “Islam Today.”
Two days later, an editor’s note, set apart in a ruled box, appeared as the series came to an end. Its description of the image seemed to confuse the name of the manuscript with that of the author, Rashid al-Din. Its tone conveyed the newspaper’s contrition:
“Since it is an affront to Moslems to depict such likenesses, The Times expresses its regrets to those who were offended by the use of the photograph.”
Looking into the origins of the prohibition and the extent to which depictions offer offense (“Attack Raises Questions on Roots of Muslim Objection to Image-Making“), Rick Gladstone of The Times found far more complexity and nuance than has been commonly portrayed in recent days.
Accompanying another depiction of the revelation by Gabriel to Muhammad, from the 15th-century Majma’ al-Tawarikh, the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains: “Attitudes toward figural arts in the Islamic world varied according to time and place, ranging from totally aniconic — no images of people or animals — to entirely accepting of figural imagery in secular settings. The Qur’an does not prohibit the depiction of figures, but the Sayings of the Prophet (hadith) discusses the subject several times. The objections expressed there largely focus on the exclusive role of God as creator.”
Depictions of the prophet have been on the minds of Times editors for at least 60 years now. The issue is not easy to resolve. It will most certainly not disappear.
But they do not have any trouble with the elephant-dung Virgin Mary, displayed as “art”. Go figure.
See also from Gawker: 7 Offensive Images The New York Times Wasn’t Afraid to Publish. Not all these are equivalents. For example, NYT showed a cartoon from a Holocaust-denier site, in the context of discussing the Holocaust denier. That does not strike me as the same thing.