Friday, October 28, 2016

Mother Mary's Islamic Robes

"There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." This statement, refereed to as the Shahada, is not one we would equate with Christendom, but history says otherwise. This transpires in a rather round-a-bout, obscure way, but I think you'll find it as fascinating as I did. 

I'm the middle of a course on the history of Iraq, and have learned several things that have challenged my previous ideas about Muslims and Islam, which is the whole reason that I started studying the Middle East in the first place. I wanted to share this particular subject of the Virgin Mary and her Islamic robes because it has some Da Vinci Code-like elements to it and it involves art history! To be clear, I do not believe in conspiracy theories about the Bible, and the artwork and history I'm going to tell you about is real, but I still can't resist an intellectual treasure hunt that might ruffle some feathers. That said, I am trying to present this in a historical light, rather than opening up conversations about what our personal beliefs are. 

Every wacky idea out there about both Islam and Christianity is probably held to be true by at least someone, but again, my intention here is not to feed the flames of what we (assuming most of my readers are from a Christian background) think particular Muslims or Muslims in general believe. Making statements about what other people believe always gets a bit dicey, in my opinion.

So, with that out in front of us...

During the golden age of Islam (which overlapped in part with the Dark Ages), Arabs far surpassed Europeans in almost every realm of knowledge and craftsmanship - medicine, literature, philosophy, architecture, textiles.... The Muslim world had streets full of bookshops open to commoners while Christian monks hoarded 4 or 5 books total. It was Arab doctors and scientists who discovered much about what we know about the human eye today, even performing surgeries to remove cataracts. They understood the basis of germs and segregated their hospital wards by ailment. They also wove the most beautiful fabrics available at the time, which Europeans coveted.

It was these fabrics which, on occasion, found themselves draped over models (or simply used for reference) in paintings of the Virgin Mary and other holy Christian figures (even Jesus!) in European paintings. Arab artisans often embroidered text on the hems of their fabric, which is how the Shahada finds its way into Christian paintings. In most instances, the Arabic text found in paintings is more accurately referred to as psuedo-Kufic because it is an imitation of Arabic script, painted by artists who could not read or write Arabic, and thus made numerous errors, or were simply trying to emulate the style without attributing any intelligible meaning to the text. You can read more about the specific time periods and artists who used psuedo-Kufic here (sorry it's Wikipedia!)

This other wiki page explains further:
It seems that Westerners mistakenly associated 13–14th century Middle-Eastern scripts as being identical with the scripts current during Jesus's time, and thus found natural to represent early Christians in association with them:[29] "In Renaissance art, pseudo-Kufic script was used to decorate the costumes of Old Testament heroes like David".[30] Mack states another hypothesis: Perhaps they marked the imagery of a universal faith, an artistic intention consistent with the Church's contemporary international program.[31]
Interestingly enough, Jesus is widely believed to have spoken Aramaic, which was a Syrian dialect. Aramaic script isn't too different from Arabic script, especially to someone (such as myself) who can't read either.

Since I can't read Arabic, I can not tell which paintings actually include the real Shahada (admittedly, more rare than the gibberish Arabic). I first heard about "the words of the prophet sometimes appear[ing] in shocking proximity to Christendom's holiest icons" from this video (around minute 39) which shows several examples of the paintings, but does not credit them or show detail of which ones use real Arabic, and which the pseudo Arabic. The wiki pages do mention that the more talented artists could copy the Arabic text exactly. Even I can tell that many of the paintings, though beautiful (I do love my gold calligraphy!), are not in any real language. In this painting (not pictured because it's kind of ugly) Jesus is all like, "mom, do you even realize what your headdress says?!" Typical baby sass.


(this one looks especially gibberishy)

One interesting bit of background to the Shahada is that Muhammad believed that his God was the same God of the Christians and Jews. Modern Arab Christians will often say the same, and to an extent, this does not conflict with my Christian beliefs. The term "Allah" existed before the birth of Islam, so strictly speaking Allah is God. As a Christian believer, I do not believe that following the teachings of Islam is a valid way of worshiping God/Allah. I see the Qu'ran as a historical document rather than scripture, which is how many non-Christians view the Bible. 

Muhammad had great respect for Christians and Jews, and the Qu'ran talks at length about "people of the Book", which include Christians and Jews. However, Muhammad considered Jews and Christians arrogant for discounting Islam as valid form of worship/following God.
And dispute ye not with the People of the Book except with means better (than mere disputation) unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say 'We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam). Qur'an 29:45-49  Surah Al-Ankabut (The Spider) (emphasis mine)
Muhammad believed that God had simply not revealed himself through a prophet to Arabs yet, as he had done through Moses to the Jews and Jesus to the Christians. Nor did Muhammad choose to be this prophet, according to history, but rather he received messages from God (that became the Qu'ran) that he could not control. 



If we were to consider the God of Christians to be the same God of Islam, as Muhammad did, there are some Qu'ranic verses that we could point to, such as 2:112 Surah Al-Baqarah (The Heifer):
Nay whoever submits his whole self to Allah and is a doer of good he will get his reward with his Lord; on such shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.
If you replace "Allah" with "God" (linguistically unnecessary, as I said) and interpret "submits whole self" as accepting salvation through Jesus Christ, then I believe in that statement. 

However, we quickly diverge when we come upon verses that are heretical to Christianity, such as 4:171  Surah An-Nisaa (The Women) 
O people of the Book! commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an Apostle of Allah and His Word which He bestowed on Mary and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Apostles. Say not "Trinity": desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son (emphasis mine)
which, to my understanding, claims that Jesus was not divine. Again in 5:17-19 Surah Al-Ma'idah (The Table Spread)
In blasphemy indeed are those that say that Allah is Christ the son of Mary. Say: "Who then hath the least power against Allah if His Will were to destroy Christ the son of Mary his mother and all everyone that is on the earth? For to Allah belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth and all that is between. (emphasis mine)
I wish I could track down the linguistic partial-reason for this discrepancy on the divinity of Jesus (it was explained to me via Skype, so I don't have a written record), but my rough memory of it is that there is misunderstanding over the term "son", and that Muslims will often think a Christian believes that Jesus is the result of God having had intercourse with a woman, which is blasphemous to both religions. Of course, upon explanation that the term "Son of God" is not fully literal does not wash away all differences between Christianity and Islam, but none the less, an important thing to clear up. 

Anyway, I hope you found this bit of art and religious history as interesting as I did. I think the presence of the Shahada on Christian iconography is funny, no disrespect to either religion, but I also think it opens the door to dispelling some misconceptions that we hold today, which is always valuable. 

Image credits: 1, 2, 3, 4

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