Statues Must Fall But Life Must Be Preserved

11th June 2020

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

1. I, along with some or many Muslims, am uncomfortable with *all* statues of people or animals because of the Islamic tradition against images that echoes the basic Torah commandment against “graven images” since these can lead to idolatry.

(More on the Christian tradition of images/statues from an Islamic perspective below, and on the wider issue of the memory of historical figures.)

2. The Islamic tradition on this is found in many hadiths, whereas the Qur’an affirms that Prophet-King Solomon had statues or images (tamathil) engraved – Surah Saba or Chapter: Sheba, 34:13. But the traditional Muhammadan Law restored the Mosaic Law on this matter via numerous hadiths.

3. This is why mosques have no statues or pictures, and consequently the Islamic arts were dominated by calligraphy, floral patterns, the mathematical tessellation of artistic tiles, geometry and architecture, producing stunning mosques, homes, palaces and madrasahs.

[Late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century mathematicians proved that there are exactly 17 ways of filling a two-dimensional space with tessellated tiles. All 17 examples are said to be found in the 13th-century Alhambra Palace in Granada, although some authorities dispute this, limiting the Alhambran patterns to thirteen or fourteen.]

The only statue of a Muslim hero I’ve come across is the striking, horse-mounted one of the great Salahuddin (Saladin) in Damascus – but even that was created under French influence I believe, and it is deeply incongruous in its location near the Umayyad Mosque. It is a European-style statue, out of place in an ancient, Middle-Eastern city. There is also said to be a bust of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), placed by Christians near the Cordoba Mosque. The small, lion statues in the “Court of Lions” in the Alhambra Palace in Granada are also deeply incongruous, for similar reasons. Also, in Picardie I came across a striking sculpture of the eventual surrender of Emir Abdulkader (Amir Abdul Qadir) to the French, after 15 years of military jihad-resistance to colonial rule.

(This is also why the Stalin-inspired statue of Saddam in Baghdad was also deeply incongruous, and it was a good thing that it was toppled.)

4. It is an irony that in contemporary Andalusia, the scattered statues of men in turbans, beards and robes are those of Jewish scholars from Islamicate times, put there recently by Jewish historical societies. The Islamic scholars of the time outnumber the Jewish ones by factors of hundreds or thousands, but contemporary Andalusians have very little knowledge of this and traditional Muslim groups will not erect statues of the great Andalusian Muslim heroes there.

5. For all these reasons, despite being a Western-Eastern Muslim, I’m uncomfortable with statues. Heck, I’m even uncomfortable with the statue of Thierry Henry in “that pose” outside the Emirates Stadium, despite the fact that it celebrates one of his finest moments, a great goal against our Jewish cousins-rivals’ football/soccer club. And with the statues of Bobby Moore and comrades in an Eastend town centre near where I live.

6. However, in Western societies, with a combination of Greco-Roman, pagan and Christian influences, statues are ubiquitous. From an Islamic perspective, Ibn Arabi observed that forms and images are important in Christianity because, as affirmed in the Qur’an (Surah Maryam or Chapter: Mary 19:17-19), the Holy Spirit (Archangel Gabriel) came to Mary in the form or image (tamaththala) of a handsome man in order to bestow on her the gift of a pure, young man (Jesus Christ).

7. So, statues are ingrained in the Western psyche, although Jewish, Islamic and even Christian traditions, both Protestant and Catholic, still worry about graven images and idolatry. My first visit to St. Peter’s in Rome was with a liberal Catholic scholar, who said he objected to all the statues of the various Popes there, because this verged on idolatry!

8. Accordingly, I welcome the toppling of *all* statues, although this should only be done legitimately and democratically. And where there is no consent, people defacing e.g. the Westminster statues of Lincoln or Churchill should realise that this will anger most other people who revere these figures. And I wonder whether the puritan Oliver Cromwell would have approved of his own statue in Westminster?

9. For the above reasons of democracy and legitimacy, I initially agreed with Sir Keir Starmer that mob rule should not prevail, with the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol. But Professors David Olusoga and Kate Williams’ excellent Twitter threads and articles show how this toppling was long overdue.

10. Of course, the memory of historical figures is preserved in a much wider way than statues, another reason why the latter should not be emphasised too much. Naming places, streets, buildings and, above all, people, after revered historical figures is a universal, human practice. The knee-jerk renaming by a UK university of a building named after Gladstone, a Great British Prime Minister, is ludicrous.

11. And to put things into perspective, and to remember that all these protests were triggered by the killing of an unarmed civilian by armed police, here is a famous saying attributed to the Prophet, although more likely to be saying of his companion, Abdullah Ibn Mas’ood: “The destruction of the Kaaba is less serious before God than the murder of a believing soul.”

(Since early Islam, Sufis have been extending such teachings to all of humanity, e.g. the Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s famous line, “Break all sacred objects and idols, but never break someone’s heart.”)

 London, 11th June 2020 (18th Shawwal 1441)