Aniconism is the absence of material representations of the natural and supernatural world in various cultures, particularly in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. This ban may extend from only God and deities to saint characters, all living beings, and everything that exists. The phenomenon is generally codified by the religious traditions and as such becomes a taboo. When enforced by the physical destruction of images, aniconism becomes iconoclasm. The word itself derives from Greek εικων 'image' with the negative prefix an- (Greek privative alpha) and the suffix -ism (Greek -ισμος).
Monotheist religions – Aniconism was shaped in monotheist religions by theological considerations and historical contexts. It emerged as a corollary of seeing God's position as the ultimate power holder, and the need to defend this unique status against competing external and internal forces, such as pagan idols and critical humans. Idolatry was seen as a threat to uniqueness, and one way that prophets and missionaries chose to fight it was through the prohibition of physical representations. The same solution worked against the pretension of humans to have the same power of creation as God (hence their banishment from the Heavens, the destruction of Babel, and the Second Commandment in the biblical texts).
Aniconism as a construction – Some modern scholars, working on various cultures, have gathered material showing that the idea of aniconism is in many cases an intellectual construction, suiting specific intents and historical contexts, rather than a fact of the tangible reality (Huntington for Buddhism, Clément for Islam and Bland for Judaism – see below in notes and references).
Buddhist art used to be aniconic: the Buddha was represented only through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, the Buddha's footprints, the prayer wheel). This reluctance toward anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha's sayings, reported in the Digha Nikaya, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body. Although there is still some debate, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction.
Although aniconism is better known in connection to Abrahamic religions, basic patterns are shared between various religious beliefs including Hinduism, which also has aniconistic beliefs. For example, although Hinduism is commonly represented by such anthropomorphic religious murtis, aniconism is equally represented with such abstract symbols of God such as the Shiva linga and the saligrama. Moreover, Hindus have found it easier to focus on anthropomorphic icons, because god Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 12, verse 5, that it is much more difficult to focus on God as the unmanifested than God with form, because human beings have a need to perceive via the senses.
There were two periods of iconoclasm, or icon-destruction, in the Byzantine Empire, in the mid eighth and early ninth centuries. The political aspects of the conflicts are complex, dealing with the relationship between the Byzantine Emperors, the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church councils, and the Pope. Theologically, the debate, as with most in Orthodox theology at the time, revolved around the two natures of Jesus. Iconoclasts believed that icons could not represent both the divine and the human natures of the Messiah at the same time, but separately. Because an icon which depicted Jesus as purely physical would be Nestorianism, and one which showed Him as both human and divine would not be able to do so without confusing the two natures into one mixed nature, which was Monophysitism, all icons were thus heretical. Reference was also made to the prohibitions on the worship of graven images in the Mosaic Law.
During the Protestant Reformation
Aniconism was also prevalent during the Protestant Reformation, when some Protestants began to preach rejection of what they perceived as idolatrous Catholic practices which filled its churches with pictures, statues, or relics of saints. The Reformed (Calvinist) churches and certain sects (most notably the Puritans and some of the Baptist churches) began to prohibit the display of religious images. A famous example of this comes from Oliver Cromwell, who expelled King Charles I, and who once destroyed a golden relic placed in his church.
Among Christians today
The Amish continue to avoid photographs or any depictions of people; their children's dolls usually have blank faces.
Among Jehovah's Witnesses, followers are prohibited from wearing religious themed jewelry displaying icons such as the cross, as idol worship is prohibited. Having images or sculptures of Jesus, Jehovah (God), and angels are also considered a taboo according to their interpretation of Exodus 20:4,5 and 1 Corinthians 10:14. Followers are also admonished to avoid any objects portraying depictions of the supernatural.
The Qur'an, the Islamic holy book, does not explicitly prohibit the depiction of human figures; it merely condemns idolatry (ex.: 5:92, 21:52). Interdictions of figurative representation are present in the Hadith, among a dozen of the hadith recorded during the latter part of the period when they were being written down. Because these hadith are tied to particular events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, they need to be interpreted in order to be applied in any general manner. Sunni exegetes, from the 9th century onward, increasingly saw in them categorical prohibitions against producing and using any representation of living beings. There are variations between religious schools and marked differences between different branches of Islam. Aniconism is common among fundamentalist Sunni sects such as Salafis and Wahhabis (which are also often iconoclastic), and less prevalent among liberal movements in Islam. Shi'a and mystical orders also have less stringent views on aniconism. On the individual level, whether or not specific Muslims believe in aniconism may depend on how much credence is given to hadith (e.g. Submitters do not believe in any hadith), and how liberal or strict they are in personal practice.
Aniconism in Islam not only deals with the material image, but touches upon mental representations as well. It is a thorny question, discussed by early theologians, as to how to describe God, Muhammad and other prophets, and, indeed, if it is permissible at all to do so. God is usually represented by immaterial attributes, such as "holy" or "merciful", commonly known from His "Ninety-nine beautiful names". Muhammad's physical appearance, however, is amply described, particularly in the traditions on his life and deeds Sira al-Nabi. Of no less interest is the validity of sightings of holy personages made during dreams.
Aniconism in practice
Religious core – In practice, the core of normative religion in Islam is consistently aniconic. Its embodiment are spaces such as the mosque and objects like the Qur'an or the white dress of pilgrims entering Mecca, deprived of figurative images. Other spheres of religion – schisms, mysticism, popular piety, private level – exhibit in this regard significant variability. Profane aniconism is even more fluctuating. Generally speaking aniconsim in Islamic societies is restricted in modern times to specific religious contexts, while its prevalence in the past wasn't enforced in numerous areas and during extended periods.
Present – Depending on which segment of Islamic societies are referred to, the application of aniconism is characterized with noteworthy differences. Factors are the epoch considered, the country, the religious orientation, the political intent, the popular beliefs, the private benefit or the dichotomy between reality and discourse. Today, the concept of an aniconic Islam coexists with a daily life for Muslims awash with images. TV stations and newspapers (which do present still and moving representations of living beings) have an exceptional impact on public opinion, sometimes, as in the case of Al-Jazira, with a global reach, beyond the Arabic speaking and Muslim audience. Portraits of secular and religious leaders are omnipresent on banknotes and coins, in streets and offices (e.g.: presidents like Nasser and Mubarak, Arafat, Al-Asad or Hezbollah's Nasrallah and ayatollah Khomeini). Anthropomorphic statues in public places are to be found in most Muslim countries (Saddam Hussain's are infamous ), as well as Arts schools training sculptors and painters. In the Egyptian countryside, it is fashionable to celebrate and advertise the returning of pilgrims from Mekka on the walls of their houses. Sometimes those who profess aniconism will practice figurative representation (cf. portraits of Talibans from the Kandahar photographic studios during their imposed ban on photography). For Shi'a communities, portraits of the major figures of Shi'ite history are important elements of religious devotion. Portraits of 'Ali – with veiled and unveiled face alike – can be bought in Iran around shrines and in the streets, to be hung in homes or carried with oneself, while in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh they notoriously ornate trucks, buses and rickshas. Contrary to the Sunni tradition, a photographic picture of the deceased can be placed on the Shi'ite tombs. A curiosity in Iran is a Orientalist photography supposed to represent Prophet Muhammad as a young boy. The Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Najaf in Iraq has given a fatwa declaring the depiction of Muhammad, the Prophets and other holy characters, permissible if it is made with the utmost respect.
Past – Neither is the representation of living beings in Islamic countries a modern phenomenon or due to current technology, westernization or the cult of the personality. Statues of humans and animals adorned palaces of the Ummayad era, while frescoes were common under the Ummayads, and later in many countries of Dar al-Islam, notably under the Safavids and various Central Asian dynasties. Figurative miniatures from Medieval Arabic countries, India, Persia and Turkey are one of the fleuron of Islamic Arts and a good deal of its attraction power for non-Muslim societies. Potent rulers like Shah Tahmasp in Persia and Akbar in India, patrons of some of the most beautiful figurative miniatures in arts from Islamic countries, migrated during their life between an extravagant 'figurative' and an extremist 'aniconic' period. During the 15th and 17th century representations of Muhammad (veiled, unveiled) and other prophets or Biblical characters, like Adam, Abraham or Jesus; and Solomon and Alexander the Great, became common in painted manuscripts from Persia, India and Turkey. Extreme rarities are an illustrated Qur'an depicting Muhammad and, in a Spanish-Muslim manuscript datable from the 16th century, five Ummayad and Abbasid caliphs. Iblis too is present in various illustrated manuscripts. There aren't, however, known figurative depictions of God.
Circumvention methods – Medieval Muslim artists found various ways not to infringe any prohibition of the image, while still representing living beings. It can be argued that since God is absolute, the act of depiction is his own and not that of a human; and miniatures are obviously very crude representations of the reality, so the two can't be mistaken. At the material level, prophets in manuscripts can have their face covered by a veil or all humans have a stroke drawn over their neck, a symbolical cut defending them to be alive. Calligraphy, the most Islamic of arts in the Muslim world, has also its figurative side due to anthropo- and zoomorphic calligrams.
A number of verses in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) refer to prohibitions against the creation of various forms of images, invariably linked directly with idolatry. The strongest over-all source is based on what Judaism counts as the second of the Ten Commandments:
- Do not have any other gods before Me. Do not represent [such] gods by any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land. Do not bow down to [such gods] or worship them. I am God your Lord, a God who demands exclusive worship. Where My enemies are concerned, I keep in mind the sin of the fathers for [their] descendants, to the third and fourth [generation]. But for those who love Me and keep My commandments, I show love for thousands [of generations]. (Exodus 20:3-6)
This prohibition is widespread. For instance, Leviticus 26:1 reads:
- [Therefore,] do not make yourselves false gods. Do not raise up a stone idol or a sacred pillar for yourselves. Do not place a kneeling stone in your land so that you can prostrate yourselves on it. I am God your Lord.
Similar injunctions appear in Numbers 33:52, Deuteronomy 4:16, and 27:15; in all cases, the creation of the image is associated with idolatry, and indeed, the words commonly translated as "image" or some variant thereof (פסל pesel, שקוץ shikuts) are generally used interchangeably with words typically translated as "idol" (e.g., אליל elil). (An important exception is צלם tselem, used in such verses as Genesis 1:26: "let us make man in our image". This word was not associated with idols.)
Based on these prohibitions, the Hebrew prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others, preached very strongly against idolatry. In many of their sermons, as recorded in the biblical books bearing their names, the prophets regarded the use of religious images as a negative sign of assimilation into the surrounding pagan cultures of the time.
Despite the semantic association with idols, Halakha ("Jewish law") as taught by the Shulkhan Arukh ("Code of Jewish Law") and still practiced and applied by Orthodox Judaism today, interprets the verses as prohibiting the creation of certain types of graven images of people, angels, or astronomical bodies, whether or not they are actually used as idols. The Shulkhan Arukh states: "It is forbidden to make complete solid or raised images of people or angels, or any images of heavenly bodies except for purposes of study". ("Heavenly bodies" are included here because the stars and planets were worshipped by some religions in human forms. Astronomical models for scientific purposes are permitted under the category of "study.")
Differences across media
Although the prohibition applies mainly to sculpture, there are some authorities who prohibit two-dimensional full-face depictions. Some base this upon their understanding of the Talmud, and others based it upon Kabbalah. Of note is the portrait of Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (known as "the Hakham Tzvi"), which is housed in the Jewish Museum in London. Based on his interpretation of this prohibition, the Hakham Tzvi refused to sit for his portrait. However, the London Jewish Community wanted a portrait, so they commissioned the portrait to be done without the Hakham Tzvi's knowledge. The Hakham Tzvi's son, Rabbi Jacob Emden, says it was a perfect likeness.
Additionally, there is one type of representation, namely, bas-relief or raised representation on a flat surface, that is particularly problematic. Rabbi Jacob Emden discusses a medal struck in honor of Rabbi Eliezer Horowitz that features Horowitz's portrait. Emden ruled this violated the injunction against depictions. Furthermore, many hold that such representations in the synagogue either violate this injunction or are not permitted, as they give the appearance of violating this injunction. Most notably, Rabbi David ibn Zimra and Rabbi Joseph Karo hold that carvings of lions (e.g., representing the Lion of Judah) are inappropriate in synagogues.
On the other hand, some authorities hold that Judaism has no objection to photography or other forms of two-dimensional art, and depictions of humans can be seen in religious books such as the Passover Haggadah, as well as children's books about biblical and historical personages. Although most Hasidic Jews object to having televisions in their homes, this is not related to prohibitions against idolatry, but, rather, to the content of network and cable programming. Hasidim of all groups regularly display portraits of their Rebbes, and, in some communities, the children trade "rabbi cards" that are similar to baseball cards. In both Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism, taking photographs or filming are forbidden on the Sabbath and Jewish holy days, but this prohibition has nothing to do with idolatry. Rather, it is related to the prohibition against working or creating on these days.
In modern times
Although, in biblical times, Jews were actively iconoclasts, physically tearing down and destroying idols of other religions located within their political jurisdiction, today there is more tolerance for other cultures. In the state of Israel, all religious sites, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are protected by law. Even though Jewish Law teaches that idolatry is forbidden to all of humanity as one of the seven Noahide Laws, Jews today combat it through discussion, debate, and education, rather than the physical destruction of statues and shrines. However, many traditional Jews still follow the prohibitions against entering places of idolatry, and will not attend functions held in buildings where there are religious statues.
In a refutation of the belief in an aniconic Judaism, and more generally in an underestimation of Jewish visual arts, the historian of ideas Kalman Bland recently proposed that the phenomenon is a modern construction, and that "Jewish aniconism crystallized simultaneously with the construction of modern Jewish identities".
In the Bahá'í Faith
For the followers of the Bahá'í Faith, the photographs and depictions of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, who are considered Manifestations of God, are considered very precious. They are viewed and handled with reverence and respect, and their existence itself is not considered offensive. However, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, stated that believers should only view the images when they can be treated with the utmost respect, and not let them be exposed to the public or displayed in their private homes:
- "There is no objection that the believers look at the picture of Bahá'u'lláh, but they should do so with the utmost reverence, and should also not allow that it be exposed openly to the public, even in their private homes."
- (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, December 6, 1939, republished in Lights of Guidance, p. 540)
Shoghi Effendi has also written in the Directives from the Guardian regarding the portrait of the Báb:
- "The portrait of the Báb should be regarded as an inestimable privilege and blessing to behold, as past generations were denied a glimpse of the Face of the Manifestation, once He had passed on."
- (Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 43)
In Africa aniconism varies from culture to culture from elaborate masks and statues of humans and animals to their total absence. A common feature, however, across the continent is that the "High God" is not given material shape. On the Germanic tribes, the Roman historian Tacitus writes the following: "They don't consider it mighty enough for the Heavens to depict Gods on walls or to display them in some human shape." His observation is not general to all German people as documentary evidence suggests (see Ardre image stones).
In Australian Aboriginal culture there is a prohibition and tribal lore and custom contravening the depiction of the newly or recently dead, including photographs, because it is believed that depicting them will inhibit their passage to the Great Dreaming of the Ancestors. This has led some Australian newspapers to publish apologies alongside obituaries.
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