Islamist attacks on images and image makers—whether the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the terrorist murders of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists—have shocked many people. But we should pause to consider the strong, sometimes violent iconoclastic tendency that runs through all the “religions of the book”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This map reveals the roots of iconoclasm while exploring specific instances—historical and present-day, religious and secular.
The divine mandate against making images was handed down near the beginning of the Abrahamic (i.e., Jewish-Christian-Muslim) tradition, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The second forbids the creation of idols. In the stentorian language of the King James Bible, God orders the Israelites, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). The Israelites promptly disregard the prohibition, fashioning a golden calf to worship. Enraged, Moses destroys it and orders 3,000 idolaters killed.
The Judaism that evolved from ancient Hebrew religion has hewed fairly closely to scripture’s aniconic (image-proscribing) edict. Not so Judaism’s offspring, Christianity. From about 200 A.D., Christian artists began portraying biblical scenes and religious figures, and a relatively standardized iconography (images of the Virgin and Child, the Crucifixion, etc.) gradually developed. So did a tendency among the Christian faithful to venerate icons—a practice that can be hard to distinguish from worship. Twice during the history of the Byzantine Empire, widespread icon veneration set off violent backlashes known as the Iconoclasms.
In Eastern Christianity, the eighth and ninth centuries witnessed furious debate over icon veneration and, indeed, over the orthodoxy of even representing sacred subjects in pictures. When the Iconoclasts—who viewed icons as violating God’s law—held political and religious power in the Byzantine Empire, from 726 to 787 and again from 814 to 842, debate gave way to persecution of icon “worshippers” and to defacement or outright destruction of icons. Throughout large portions of the empire, image-smashing fervor ran so high that relatively little pre-Iconoclast Byzantine religious art has survived.
Whether the Byzantine Iconoclasms were influenced by Islam is an open question, but the interaction between Byzantines and Muslim Arabs was frequent and intense, as Arab armies were then lopping off pieces of the empire. The prohibition against images, especially of God (Allah) and the Prophet Muhammad, has historically been strong, though not absolute, in Islam. Interestingly, although the Qur’an rails against idolatry, there’s nothing in it specifically forbidding image making. Denunciations of images appear in the hadith—stories about the Prophet and his companions, collected after Muhammad’s death—which form one basis for Islamic law.
Two of the religious and philosophical traditions influencing Christianity—Judaism and Greek Platonic philosophy—couldn’t be more different, yet they share a distrust of representational art. The biblical interdiction against graven images finds rough parallel in Plato’s negative view of human-created pictures. In both Mosaic law and some Platonic dialogues, images are wrong because they distract people from the truth. Of course, what’s meant by truth differs. According to Judaism, idols obscure the truth of God’s transcendence and oneness, while Plato held that pictures are imperfect imitations of perceived “realities,” which in turn are mere imitations of the transcendent Forms that are the proper object of philosophical contemplation.
One can’t help but wonder what Plato would’ve thought of some modern art—not just nonrepresentational work but especially art that iconoclastically plays with the question of what an image is. One such creation is Erased de Kooning Drawing, which is exactly what its title says: a drawing by abstract-expressionist master Willem de Kooning [who is pictured on this CultureMap] that a cheeky young Robert Rauschenberg painstakingly erased. An object of veneration for Rauschenberg fans, this nearly blank page hangs in a gilt frame in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Many devout Muslims, not just extremists, consider any image of the Prophet to be blasphemous. So how much more offensive is a depiction of Muhammad that pokes mean fun at him? In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons mocking Muhammad that set off violent protests across the Muslim world. In 2006 the French weekly Charlie Hebdo—whose very purpose is iconoclastic in the modern sense of attacking political and religious establishments—poured gas on the fire by republishing the Danish cartoons and adding some of its own. Sued by several French Muslim groups for promulgating racist hate speech, which is illegal under French law, the magazine’s publisher was eventually acquitted. Then, in 2011, Charlie Hebdo upped the ante, publishing an issue with Muhammad as “guest editor”; the cover featured a sobbing Prophet complaining, “It’s hard being loved by jerks.” The night after the cover appeared on the magazine’s website, Charlie’s offices were firebombed. Undeterred, Charlie continued to print caricatures of Muhammad, including several depicting him naked. Although the January 2015 attack by Islamist terrorists on Charlie’s offices—in which 12 staffers were killed—is in no sense justifiable, it’s difficult to argue that it was unprovoked.
In the history of Islam, rules forbidding images, even of sacred persons, were not always or everywhere in force. Although representations of Allah appear nowhere in Islamic art, depictions of Muhammad are not unknown. They turn up, for example, in Persian miniature painting, where the Prophet is sometimes portrayed with a veil covering his face or with his face or entire body obscured or surrounded by fire—a symbol of holiness equivalent to a halo. Shia Islam today permits and to some extent encourages respectful depictions of Muhammad and other religious figures, but the general tendency within Sunni Islam has always been anti-image.
The proscription has extended, in some Muslim cultures, not just to images of Allah and Muhammad but to all representations of living creatures, human or animal. The theological basis for the ban is twofold: to avoid idolatry and to acknowledge that only God can create animate life. During its rule of Afghanistan (1996–2001), the Taliban enforced an extreme version of Islamic law that included this totalizing prohibition. This led the group to commit an unspeakable crime against the world’s cultural heritage—the 2001 demolition of the two colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan.
The Taliban banned TV in Afghanistan, yet the Taliban iconoclasts who blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan couldn’t resist videotaping their wanton act. The two monumental statues, which at approximately 175 and 120 feet were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world, had been built by Buddhist monastic communities that flourished in the Bamiyan Valley, a Silk Road way station, in the centuries before the coming of Islam. Though damaged by previous Muslim rulers (a Mughal emperor, a Persian king and an Afghan emir), the colossi had survived largely intact for nearly 1,500 years before being fitted with explosives and, over the course of a few days in March 2001, reduced to rubble. In a Taliban video documenting one of the explosions, you can hear the perpetrators shouting “Allāhu akbar!” (“God is great!”) as the blast occurs.
The Arabic phrase Allāhu akbar—called the takbīr—is used in many Islamic contexts, including prayer. But it’s also the favored triumphal cry of jihadists, and it echoed through a Paris street on January 7, 2015, during another attack on images (and image makers): the massacre carried out by two gunmen at the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The detonation of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley Buddhas was hardly the first incident of iconoclasm against Buddhist images. In China, periodic state-sanctioned campaigns to destroy Buddhist art occurred during the dynastic period and under modern communist rule. Nor was the Bamiyan incident the first time iconoclastic anger was unleashed against monumental statuary. The Great Sphinx of Giza is famously missing its nose because a pious 14th-century Sufi Muslim, outraged that local Egyptian farmers were making offerings to the Sphinx in hopes of a better harvest, chiseled the nose off.
The most extensive iconoclasm targeting large statues took place on Easter Island (Polynesian name: Rapa Nui) sometime between 1722 and 1868. Facing environmental catastrophe after they had deforested the island and decimated its bird life (a vital food source), Rapa Nui’s clans began fighting one another and toppling their rivals’ moai, huge stone figures representing ancestral spirits. Not one of the 887 known moai remained standing by the time Peruvian slavers, Christian missionaries and a French land baron arrived on the island, quickly eradicating what was left of Rapa Nui culture—and almost all of Rapa Nui’s people.
The Taliban’s destruction of the Afghan Buddhas was an extraordinarily prodigious act of vandalism, but vandalizing artworks isn’t uncommon. Some of the world’s masterpieces—Michelangelo’s David and Pietà, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa—have been attacked. The victim of repeated assaults, Mona Lisa now smiles from behind bulletproof glass, though this hasn’t stopped people from throwing things at her.
Most people who physically attack works of art are mentally ill, but art vandalism has also been committed by (presumably sane) artists. Such acts are more common than you may think. A group of radical artists decapitated Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue in 1964. Graffiti artist Tony Shafrazi sprayed Picasso’s Guernica with red paint in 1974. And in 2014 artist Maximo Caminero smashed an ancient vase that Chinese avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei had painted over—an especially fascinating incident, since a photograph of Ai himself dropping and smashing a Han Dynasty urn was hanging on the museum wall directly behind the piece Caminero destroyed. By contrast, Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of a Willem de Kooning drawing can’t really be considered vandalism, since de Kooning actually gave the younger artist permission to do the iconoclastic deed.