I Spent a lot of time looking at art, the year before I became a Muslim.
Completing a degree in Philosophy and Fine Arts, I sat for hours in
darkened classrooms where my professors projected pictures of great
works of Western art on the wall. I worked in the archives for the Fine
Arts department, preparing and cataloging slides. I gathered stacks of
thick art history books every time I studied in the university library. I
went to art museums in Toronto, Montreal and Chicago. That summer in
Paris, “the summer I met Muslims” as I always think of it, I spent a whole
day (the free day) each week in the Louvre.
What was I seeking in such an intense engagement with visual art?
Perhaps some of the transcendence I felt as a child in the cool darkness
of the Catholic Church I loved. In high school, I had lost my natural
faith in God, and rarely thought about religion after that. In college,
philosophy had brought me from Plato, through Descartes only to end at
Existentialism-a barren outcome. At least art was productive-there was
a tangible result at the end of the process. But in the end, I found even
the strongest reaction to a work of art isolating. Of course I felt some
connection to the artist, appreciation for another human perspective. But
each time the aesthetic response flared up, then died down. It left no basis
Then I met people who did not construct statues or sensual paintings
of gods, great men and beautiful women. Yet they knew about God,
they honored their leaders, and they praised the productive work of
women. They did not try to depict the causes; they traced the effects.
Soon after I met my husband, he told me about a woman he greatly
admired. He spoke of her intelligence, her eloquence and her generosity.
This woman, he told me, tutored her many children in traditional and
modern learning. With warm approval, he spoke of her frequent arduous
trips to refugee camps and orphanages to help relief efforts. With profound
respect, he told me of her religious knowledge, which she imparted to
other women in regular lectures. And he told me of the meals she had sent
to him, when she knew he was too engaged in his work with the refugees
to see to his own needs. When I finally met this woman I found that she
was covered, head to toe, in traditional Islamic dress. I realized with some
amazement that my husband had never seen her. He had never seen her
face. Yet he knew her. He knew her by her actions, by the effects she left
on other people.
Western civilization has a long tradition of visual representation. It
no longer need more from such art than a moment of shared vision with
an artist alive or dead, I can appreciate it once more. But popular culture
has made representation simultaneously omnipresent and anonymous.
We seem to make the mistake of thinking that seeing means knowing,
and that the more exposed a person is, the more important they are.
Islamic civilization chose not to embrace visual representation as a
significant means of remembering and honoring God and people. Allah is
The Hidden, veiled in glorious light from the eyes of any living person.
But people of true vision can know God by contemplating the effects of
his creative power:
Do they not look to the birds above them,
Spreading their wings and folding them back?
None can uphold them except for The Merciful.
Truly He is watchful over all things (Qur′an, 67:19).
If God transcends his creation, it is beyond the capacity of any human
to depict him. Indeed, in Islamic tradition, any attempt to depict God with
pictures is an act of blasphemy. Rather, a Muslim evokes God, employing
only those words that God has used to describe himself in his revelation.
Among these descriptive titles are the so-called “99 Names of God,”
attributes that are recited melodiously throughout the Muslim world: The
Merciful, the Compassionate, the Forbearing, the Forgiving, the Living, the
Holy, the Near, the Tender, the Wise.... Written in beautiful script on lamps, walls, and pendants, each of these linguistic signs provokes a profoundly
personal, intellectual and spiritual response with each new reading.
Deeply wary of idolatry, early Muslims with few exceptions declined to
glorify not only God, but even human beings through visual representation.
Historians, accustomed to illustrating accounts of great leaders with their
images captured in painting, sculpture and coin have no reliable visual
representations of the Prophet Muhammad. What we find, instead, is the
Prophet′s name, Muhammad, written in curving Arabic letters on those
architectural and illustrative spaces where the sacred is invoked. Along
with the names of God and verses of the Qur′an, the name Muhammad,
read audibly or silently, leads the believer into a reflective state about
the divine message and the legacy of this extraordinary, yet profoundly
human messenger of God.
Words, written and oral are the primary medium by which the
lives of the Prophet and his example have been transmitted across the
generations. His biography, the seerah, has been told in verse and prose in
many languages. Even more important than this chronological account of
the Prophet′s life are the thousands of individual reports of his utterances
and actions, collected in the Hadith literature. These reports were
transmitted by early Muslims wishing to pass on Muhammad′s tradition
and mindful of the Qur′an′s words: “Indeed in the Messenger of God
you have a good example to follow for one who desires God and the Last
Day” (Qur′an, 33:21). Eager to follow his divinely inspired actions, his
close companions paid attention not only to his style of worship, but also
to all aspects of his comportment-everything from his personal hygiene
to his interaction with children and neighbors. The Prophet′s way of
doing things, his Sunnah, has formed the basis for Muslim piety in all
societies where Islam spread. The result was that as Muslims young and
old, male and female, rich and poor, adopted the Prophet′s Sunnah as a
model for their lives, they became the best visual representations of the
Prophet′s character and life. In other words, the Muslim who implements
the Sunnah is an actor on the human stage who internalizes and, without
artifice, reenacts the behavior of the Prophet. This performance of the
Sunnah by living Muslims is the archive of the Prophet′s life and a truly
sacred art of Muslim culture.
I first realized the profound physical impact of the Prophet′s Sunnah
on generations of Muslims as I sat in the mosque one day, watching my
nine year old son pray beside his Qur′an teacher. Ubayda sat straight,
still and erect beside the young teacher from Saudi Arabia who, with
his gentle manners and beautiful recitation, had earned my son′s deep
respect and affection. Like the teacher, Ubayda was wearing a loose-fitting white robe that modestly covered his body. Before coming to the
mosque, he had taken a shower and rubbed fragrant musk across his head
and chin. With each movement of prayer, he glanced over at his teacher,
to ensure that his hands and feet were positioned in precisely the same
manner. Reflecting on this transformation of my son, who had abandoned
his normal grubbiness and impulsivity for cleanliness and composure, I
thought to myself, “thank God he found a good role model to imitate.”
In my son′s imitation of his teacher, however, it occurred to me that there
was a greater significance, for his teacher was also imitating someone.
Indeed, this young man was keen in every aspect of his life to follow the
Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. His modest dress was in imitation of
the Prophet′s physical modesty. His scrupulous cleanliness and love of
fragrant oils was modeled after the Prophet′s example. At each stage of the
ritual prayer he adopted the positions he was convinced originated with
the Prophet. He could trace the way he recited the Qur′an back through
generations of teachers to the Prophet himself. My son, by imitating his
teacher, had now become part of the living legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.
Among Muslims throughout the world, there are many sincere pious men
and women; there are also criminals and hypocrites. Some people are
deeply affected by religious norms, others are influenced more by culturewhether
traditional or popular culture. Some aspects of the Prophet′s
behavior: his slowness to anger, his abhorrence of oath taking, his
gentleness with women, sadly seem to have little affected the dominant
culture in some Muslim societies. Other aspects of his behavior, his
generosity, his hospitality, his physical modesty, seem to have taken firm
root in many Muslim lands. But everywhere that Muslims are found,
more often than not they will trace the best aspects of their culture to the
example of the Prophet Muhammad. He was, in the words of one of his
companions, “the best of all people in behavior.”
Living in America, my son′s role model might have been an actor,
a rap singer or an athlete. We say that children are “impressionable,”
meaning that it is easy for strong personalities to influence the formation
of their identity. We all look for good influences on our children.
It was their excellent behavior that attracted me to the first Muslims I met,
poor West African students living on the margins of Paris. They embodied
many aspects of the Prophet′s Sunnah, although I did not know it at the
time. What I recognized was that, among their other wonderful qualities,
they were the most naturally generous people I had ever known. There
was always room for one more person around the platter of rice and beans
they shared each day. Over the years, in my travels across the Muslim
world, I have witnessed the same eagerness to share, the same deep belief that it is not self-denial, but a blessing to give away a little more to others.
The Prophet Muhammad said, “The food of two is enough for three, and
the food of three is enough for four.” During the recent attacks on Kosovo,
there were reports of Albanian Muslims filling their houses with refugees;
one man cooked daily for twenty people domiciled in his modest home.
The Prophet Muhammad said, “When you see one who has more,
look to one who has less.” When I was married in Pakistan, my husband
and I, as refugee workers, did not have much money. Returning to the
refugee camp a few days after our wedding, the Afghan women eagerly
asked to see the many dresses and gold bracelets, rings and necklaces
my husband must have presented to me, as is customary throughout the
Muslim world. I showed them my simple gold ring and told them we
had borrowed a dress for the wedding. The women′s faces fell and they
looked at me with profound sadness and sympathy. The next week, sitting
in a tent in that dusty hot camp, the same women-women who had been
driven out of their homes and country, women who had lost their husbands
and children, women who had sold their own personal belongings to buy
food for their families-presented me with a wedding outfit. Bright blue
satin pants stitched with gold embroidery, a red velveteen dress decorated
with colorful pom-poms and a matching blue scarf trimmed with what I
could only think of as a lampshade fringe. It was the most extraordinary
gift I have ever received-not just the outfit, but the lesson in pure empathy
that is one of the sweetest fruits of real faith.
An accurate representation of the Prophet is to be found, first and
foremost, on the faces and bodies of his sincere followers: in the smile that
he called “an act of charity,” in the slim build of one who fasts regularly, in
the solitary prostrations of the one who prays when all others are asleep.
The Prophet′s most profound legacy is found in the best behavior of his
followers. Look to his people, and you will find the Prophet.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study
of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and Professor of Islamic Studies
and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT.
Dr. Mattson earned her Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University
of Chicago in 1999. Her research is focused on Islamic law and society;
among her articles are studies on slavery, poverty and Islamic legal theory.
Dr. Mattson was born in Canada, where she studied Philosophy at
the University of Waterloo, Ontario (B.A. ′87). From 1987-1988 she
lived in Pakistan where she worked with Afghan refugee women.
In 2001 Dr. Ingrid Mattson was elected Vice-President of ISNA and
in 2006 she was elected President of the organization. Dr. Mattson is the
first convert to Islam and the first female to lead the Islamic Society of
North America (ISNA), the largest Islamic Society of North America.
“In the summer of 1987, I was riding the train out to British Columbia
to start a tree-planting job in the mountains. I had just finished my
undergraduate degree in Philosophy and had only recently begun my
personal study of Islam. I came across Fazlur Rahman′s Islam in a
bookstore a few days before my trip. Reading that book as I traveled
across the Canadian prairies, I made the decision to apply to graduate
school in Islamic Studies. His book sparked in me a keen desire to study
the classical heritage of Islamic theology and law. Going a step further,
I wrote a letter to Rahman (this was before we all used email) describing
my situation and inquiring if I might be able to study with him. I dropped
the letter in a post box somewhere in the Rockies and forgot about it
until I returned east in August. There I found a hand-written note from
him, inviting me to come to the University of Chicago to study with him.
Rahman died before I arrived in Chicago, but it was his book and his
encouragement that inspired me to start on the path to scholarship that I
have found so rewarding.”