16 February 2015

A Real Fake: Blasphemy

noun  blas·phe·my \ˈblas-fə-mē\
1. great disrespect shown to God or to something holy.
2. irreverence toward God, religion, a religious icon, or something else which is considered sacred.

The first pass on my print for "A Real Fake" - a pale teal color

Most religions have some definition of blasphemy and some history of punishing people for it. Blasphemy in Christianity is viewed as a mostly medieval preoccupation, but there have been blasphemy laws on the books in various U.S. states since colonial times, some of which were not repealed until quite recently. In Judaism blasphemy is punishable by death in the Torah, but there are few instances of those laws being applied since Biblical times. Even in Buddhism, there are places in modern day southeast Asia where blasphemy charges have been leveled for misusing images of Buddha. But it seems to be Islam among all the religions that right now in the 21st century is most fixated on blasphemy. From Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 to the protests and murders in Europe against newspaper cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammed, mockery of Islam, actual or perceived, has been countered with violence by Muslims all over the world.

Second pass: a darker blue is printed in one area of the same block.

According to Wikipedia, Islamic writings define many types of blasphemy. Some examples include "insulting or cursing Allah, or Muhammad; mockery or disagreeable behavior towards beliefs and customs common in Islam; criticism of Islam's holy personages. Apostasy (abandoning Islam) or finding faults or expressing doubts about Allah (ta'til) and Qur'an, rejection of Muhammed or any of his teachings, or leaving the Muslim community to become an atheist is a form of blasphemy. Questioning religious opinions (fatwa) and normative Islamic views can also be construed as blasphemous. Improper dress, drawing offensive cartoons, tearing or burning holy literature of Islam, creating or using music or painting or video or novels to mock or criticize Muhammad are some examples of blasphemous acts. In the context of those who are non-Muslims, the concept of blasphemy includes all aspects of infidelity (kufr)."

There's a verse in the Quran that speaks of "those who annoy Allah and His Messenger" and there seem to be very many ways available to annoy them.

Third pass: a fleshy color is added to the hands using a second block. In some historical images of Muhammed, the hands are shrouded along with the face being veiled.

So what about my woodblock print of Muhammed? Is it blasphemous? From the list above, I would guess that my biggest problem in the eyes of Islam would be that I am non-Muslim and thus an infidel, probably making me unauthorized to depict the Prophet. Since I'm making a close copy of a historic Islamic painting, I can't be accused of creating a cartoon. The only other gray area might be in the realm of artistic intention. Do I intend to honor Muhammed and Islam or to find fault and question them? This is a thorny question, because if I don't answer it then how can you know? Not by looking at the image: I intend for the image to be a neutral reproduction. If I say that I intend to criticize Islam with my image, then it isn't the image that indicts me but my words about the image. Conversely, I can say that I intend to honor Islam with my image, but how do you know that this is true? How do you know, for example, that I didn't spit in the pigments I'm using?

There's another turnaround I've been contemplating as I've worked. This image may be blasphemous in a whole other way inside my own society and culture. The United States is "at war" with "terror," which most Americans interpret to mean at war with radical Islamists, and which some interpret as being at war with Islam itself. I know a number of people who might be quite offended by this image. They would likely not call my offense "blasphemy," but I think there's a kind of nationalism that would find my examination of an image of Muhammed to be unpatriotic or even some kind of treason, and isn't that just blasphemy in secular terms? There are also those who would take even more offense if they knew that I was making an image of Muhammed while listening to a chant praising Allah. I have the song below set to repeat in my iTunes and have now played it more than 60 times while I work. I like it a lot. It's sung here by a nine-member male vocal a cappella ensemble called Cantus. Click the play button to take a listen to this piece, called Zikr.


Hannah Skoonberg said...

On the subject of blasphemy. I just finished reading "My Name is Red" which follows a group of Islamic Book artists who are very worried about how their illustrations could be considered blasphemous. One of the primary arguments is that because the image is part of a story and not a portrait in isolation that it is about telling a story and not an image for warship. Because you have taken the image out of context of the story it could be considered more blasphemous than the original. I highly recommend the book to you, I think you would find it very relevant to your work.

Annie B said...

Thanks, Hannah. I'll check out that book. Your comment also makes me feel anxious, but this whole project makes me feel anxious so I guess that's just how it is.

Sharri said...

I can speak to Hannah's recommend of My Name Is Red. It is a great book and is haunting long after it's laid aside. You will enjoy Snow, by the same writer. Love the music - thanks for providing it - I almost got up enough gumption to dance around the kitchen island, robe a-swinging!

Hannah Skoonberg said...

I don't think you should feel anxious. I think it is an interesting idea that comes at a good time.

Annie B said...

The book is ready for me today at my local library.

Anxious is normal for me when addressing a controversial or difficult topic. It's a little more intense for me this time because various friends of mine keep saying things like "wow, you're so brave" or "are you sure?"

Sharri, glad you almost danced :)