The Economist explains Why Islam prohibits images of Muhammad

SHARE

SHAFAQNA – LOOK upwards in the magnificent place of worship in Istanbul now known as the Hagia Sophia Museum (pictured), and you will see two different ways of approaching the divine, reflecting different phases in the building’s history. There are Christian mosaics, among the finest ever made, of Jesus Christ, his mother and other holy figures; and there is swirling Islamic calligraphy, which reflects the idea that God speaks to man through language, whether spoken or written, rather than through pictures or anything physical. For most of its history, Islam has had a deep aversion to the lifelike portrayal of animate beings, especially human beings, and above all to the representation of Muhammad, the messenger of God—or indeed any of the preceding prophets, such as Nuh (Noah) or Isa (Jesus). For an artist, only trying to depict the Deity could be more impious than drawing Muhammad. Why?

Such beliefs are rooted in Islam’s horror of idolatry, and generally of anything that could come between man and God, or compromise the uniqueness and indivisibility of God. The Koran does not specifically condemn representative art, but it has a lot to say about paganism and idolatry; and Islam is correspondingly wary of anything that could become an idol or detract from the worship of God alone. The text most often cited in defence of the ban on representation is a hadith, one of the vast lore of sayings about the deeds and words of Muhammad. He is reported to have spoken harshly to a man who made his living through art. “Whoever makes a picture will be punished by Allah till he puts life in it, and he will never be able to do that.” This is taken to mean that for a human, to try “making” a new being is usurping God’s role—and is in any case doomed to fail.

The belief is most strongly held by the Sunnis who form the great majority of the world’s Muslims, especially the more puritanical and zealous groups such as the Wahhabis who dominate Saudi Arabia. Shia Islam is much more open to the depiction of human beings, up to and including Muhammad himself. This difference fuels the zeal of violent Sunni groups like Islamic State who have destroyed Shia shrines and images, claiming in doing so to be purifying their religion of idolatrous accretions. By contrast the leading figure among the Shias of Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, has said the depiction even of Muhammad is acceptable, as long as it is done with proper reverence.

To illustrate that the ban on depiction has not been absolute, it is often pointed out the portrayal of human figures, including Muhammad, was a central feature of Persian miniatures, under both Sunni and Shia rulers. In more modern times, the theological ban on human depiction has been challenged in many Muslim countries by the ubiquity of human images in films, on television and in political propaganda posters. In Arab countries, ingenious compromises between depiction and non-depiction are sometimes found; on road signs, for example, a headless human figure will show pedestrians where to walk. At a slightly higher theological level, it is sometimes asserted (in the course of Christian-Muslim debates, for example) that Muhammad’s aversion to images had exceptions. According to one version of his life, he went into the Ka’aba—the original place of worship in Mecca—and found it full of idols, which he destroyed; but there were two images which he allowed to remain, albeit hidden from public view: those of Jesus and Mary.

IN THE world of central banking, slow and predictable decisions are the aim. So on January 15th, when the Swiss National Bank (SNB) suddenly announced that it would no longer hold the Swiss franc at a fixed exchange rate with the euro, there was panic. The franc soared. On Wednesday one euro was worth 1.2 Swiss francs; at one point on Thursday its value had fallen to just 0.85 francs. A number of hedge funds across the world made big losses. The Swiss stockmarket collapsed. Why did the SNB provoke such chaos?

The SNB introduced the exchange-rate peg in 2011, while financial markets around the world were in turmoil. Investors consider the Swiss franc as a “safe haven” asset, along with American government bonds: buy them and you know your money will not be at risk. Investors like the franc because they think the Swiss government is a safe pair of hands: it runs a balanced budget, for instance. But as investors flocked to the franc, they dramatically pushed up its value. An expensive franc hurts Switzerland because the economy is heavily reliant on selling things abroad: exports of goods and services are worth over 70% of GDP. To bring down the franc’s value, the SNB created new francs and used them to buy euros. Increasing the supply of francs relative to euros on foreign-exchange markets caused the franc’s value to fall (thereby ensuring a euro was worth 1.2 francs). Thanks to this policy, by 2014 the SNB had amassed about $480 billion-worth of foreign currency, a sum equal to about 70% of Swiss GDP.

The SNB suddenly dropped the cap last week for several reasons. First, many Swiss are angry that the SNB has built up such large foreign-exchange reserves. Printing all those francs, they say, will eventually lead to hyperinflation. Those fears are probably unfounded: Swiss inflation is too low, not too high. But it is a hot political issue. In November there was a referendum which, had it passed, would have made it difficult for the SNB to increase its reserves. Second, the SNB risked irritating its critics even more, thanks to something that is happening this Thursday: many expect the European Central Bank to introduce “quantitative easing”. This entails the creation of money to buy the government debt of euro-zone countries. That will push down the value of the euro, which might have required the SNB to print lots more francs to maintain the cap. But there is also a third reason behind the SNB’s decision. During 2014 the euro depreciated against other major currencies. As a result, the franc (being pegged to the euro) has depreciated too: in 2014 it lost about 12% of its value against the dollar and 10% against the rupee (though it appreciated against both currencies following the SNB’s decision). A cheaper franc boosts exports to America and India, which together make up about 20% of Swiss exports. If the Swiss franc is not so overvalued, the SNB argues, then it has no reason to continue trying to weaken it.

The big question now is how much the removal of the cap will hurt the Swiss economy. The stockmarket fell because Swiss companies will now find it more difficult to sell their wares to European customers (high-rolling Europeans are already complaining about the price of this year’s skiing holidays). UBS, a bank, downgraded its forecast for Swiss growth in 2015 from 1.8% to 0.5%. Switzerland will probably remain in deflation. But the SNB should not be lambasted for removing the cap. Rather, it should be criticised for adopting it in the first place. When central banks try to manipulate exchange rates, it almost always ends in tears.

Source : http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/01/economist-explains-12

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here