Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum

Article excerpt

He turned his head like an old tortoise in the sunlight. "Is it true that there are many images in the Wonder House of Lahore?" He repeated the last words as one making sure of an address. "That is true," said Abdullah. "It is full of heathen bits. Thou also art an idolater."

"Never mind him," said Kim. "That is the Government's house and there is no idolatry in it, but only a Sahib with a white beard. Come with me and I will show."-Rudyard Kipling, Kim

In other words, the unique value of the "authentic" work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty.-- Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"1

There can be little doubt that the recent destruction of the monumental rock-cut Buddhas at Bamiyan by the former Taliban government of Afghanistan will define "Islamic iconoclasm" in the popular imagination for several decades to come (Figs. 1, 2). To many commentators, the obliteration of the Buddhas seemed to hark back to a bygone age, reinforcing the widespread notion that Islamic culture is implacably hostile to anthropomorphic art. Even those who pointed to outbursts of image destruction in medieval and early modern Europe saw these as stages on the road to Western modernity;2 the persistence of the practice in the Islamic world seemed to offer implicit proof of an essential fixation on figuration fundamentally at odds with that modernity.

Common to almost all accounts of the Buddhas' demolition was the assumption that their destruction can be situated within a long, culturally determined, and unchanging tradition of violent iconoclastic acts. Collectively or individually, these acts are symptomatic of a kind of cultural pathology known as Islamic iconoclasm, whose ultimate origins, to quote K.A.C. Creswell's telling comment, lie in "the inherent temperamental dislike of Semitic races for representational art."3 The iconoclastic outburst of Afghanistan's rulers thus confirmed the status of that country as out of time with Western modernity, by reference to an existing discourse within which image destruction indexed the inherently medieval nature of Islamic culture.4 As Carl Ernst has noted recently, the traditional one-dimensional portrait of Muslim iconoclasm "does not acknowledge its subjects as actors in historical contexts."5

The conception of a monolithic and pathologically Muslim response to the image, which substitutes essentialist tropes for historical analysis, elides the distinction between different types of cultural practices. It not only obscures any variation, complexity, or sophistication in Muslim responses to the image but also a priori precludes the possibility of iconoclastic "moments" in Islamic history, which might shed light on those complex responses.6 To use a European analogy, it is as if the destruction of pagan images by Christians in late antiquity, the mutilation of icons in ninth-century Byzantium, the iconoclastic depredations of the Reformation, and the events of the French Revolution could all be accommodated under the single rubric Christian iconoclasm.

The methodological problems stemming from the naturalization of historical acts need hardly be highlighted, and they are compounded by three further aspects of traditional scholarship on Islamic iconoclasm. The first is the idea that Islamic iconoclasm is the product of a specific theological attitude, with only secondary political and no aesthetic content. A second, closely related assumption is that the iconoclastic acts of medieval Muslims were primarily directed at the (religious) art of the non-Muslim "other."7 The third, and most striking, peculiarity of the existing discourse on iconoclasm in the medieval Islamic world is that, remarkably for a practice that concerns the physical transformation of material objects, such discussions are almost always confined to texts, making only passing reference to surviving objects, if at all. …