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Art of Faith

Local Muslims find a middle path through cartoon controversy

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There is no art on the walls in the prayer hall of Oakland's Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. In fact, there is not much to signal that this is a prayer hall at all, except for a gazebo-like pulpit against the eastern wall.

But in an hour, several hundred men will stand on these lines on the floor, praying silently, alternately bending from the waist, kneeling, and placing their foreheads on the floor. This is Friday afternoon prayers on Feb. 10, a Sabbath day for Muslims. But it is a Sabbath of little rest, thanks to the controversy surrounding the Danish cartoons that depict the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban.

I have never attended Muslim prayers, so -- apart from the congregant in the Steelers cap -- why does this scene look so familiar? Oh yeah: I've seen it a thousand times on television, illustrating Middle Eastern turmoil.

The resulting unholy blend of violent imagery and pictures of piety can't help but leave some in the West mixed up. I can only imagine what our own bombs, extremists and public devotions must look like from the East. One of my hosts today, Farooq Hussaini, calls the cartoon controversy a "clash of the uncivilized" -- on both sides. "Moderate Muslims, which is the majority of Muslims, are in a bind" over two undesirable paths, he says. As are non-Muslims.

I have come to talk about idolatry. In the West, we are very free with images of the sacred, including depictions of God. Perhaps too free, says Hussaini, who does interfaith outreach for the Islamic Center.

"Koran says you can't comprehend God," he said as we sat on folding chairs at the border of the men's and women's prayer sections. "If you think about God, that's not God. The beautification or artistic expression of God is beyond us."

It is divisive, too -- even within religions. "Let's just take Jesus," Hussaini says. "African friends of mine always think Jesus was black. My friends from Italy ... or Britain think that he was white. If you go into places like the Philippines" -- well, Jesus looks a bit Filipino.

"Depictions create tension, even among the people who worship Jesus."

That has indeed been the case, says David Wilkins, professor emeritus of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Byzantine Empire saw the iconoclasts -- those who banned images of the sacred -- lose the battle to the image-loving iconodules. The Byzantine Catholic Church accepted icons -- "the idea that an image can have a kind of magical potency," in Wilkins' words -- and credited them with victory in actual battles. Even after the Protestant Reformation, as new sects pushed aside traditional symbols including the crucifix, the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent suggested using religious images to help people keep the faith.

"There has not been a complete denial of this on the part of Islam," Wilkins says, pointing to Persian and Moghul Indian manuscripts that depict Mohammed. And as Farooq Husseini acknowledges, some Shia Muslims employ pictures of Mohammed and other prophets.

"The whole question of how you represent ineffable majesty has been a problem for artists," concludes Wilkins. "It seems to be less of a problem if you have lots of deities."

But, of course, people's impulse to seek lots of deities has been the ultimate challenge for monotheism. And the effort to promote a sole God has not always been peaceful.

The prohibition against graven images in the Ten Commandments, variants of which all three religions share, has been repeated by every prophet of Islam, including Mohammed, says Islamic Center spokesperson Nusrath Ainapore. Clearing 360 idols from Mecca was part of Mohammed's work of declaring that there is no god but God.

That work continues today. In Europe and elsewhere, there has been rioting, deaths, the destruction of property.

But here in Pittsburgh, the Islamic Center quietly sets another example. With its lack of adornment, Farooq Hussaini's prayer hall reminds me of nothing less than my old synagogue. There, the only image of God was a small, constant flame. And the Center's summons to prayer -- a beautiful, modulating call in a minor key -- is also art. And also oddly familiar.

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