In 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed in central Afghanistan, and the world was left in shock. Many strict Muslims, but also the pious among the Islamic community, believe that there cannot be any depiction of faces in art, so not to venerate human beings. However, in audiovisuals as on photographs, most Islamic leaders do do allow for human representation.
When Islam was founded, the number of religious creeds whom the early Muslims came into contact with was limited. Many believers in the religious scriptures predating Islam were Christians or Jews, who – after the Muslims had won wars in the Middle East and later North Africa, but also after campaigns of peaceful proselytism – lived in harmony with the Muslim majority overall.
Even today, in Iraq and Iran, the creed of Zarathustra is formally recognized as a viable religion. And not to forget, today’s configuration in many nation-states with a Muslim population is such that there is a progression towards post-modernism and technology, with part of the local Ummah mixing Islam with socialist elements. Such borrowings have always existed.
Despite purism of and in some Islamic circles, one should ask whether monuments such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan should not have been demolished but should have served as a permanent contrast of what was reformed by way of Islam. What to be afraid of? Islam, for instance, borrowed from Greek thinker Archimedes and others bestowed with wisdom by God in ancient times. In addition, learning science is explicitly encouraged by Islamic traditions.
Therefore, it should be the task of Islamic scholarship, as in other religions, to analyze cultural differences constructively. That which has been loses its role as an example of imperfection, according to many conservative voices in Islam, when nullified. There is no longer any argument to divine unity when no-one other lives out life in a different way – as is the will of God just as it was to reveal the Islamic religion.
What is more, there are ways to recognize the Oneness of God in concepts of religions whose followers did not come in contact with Muslims during revelation, i.e. during the time of Prophet Mohammed, and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs or the early Shiite autorities. It follows that there must be a conscious and rules-based but tolerant religious engagement in the form of Fatawa as to matters which the first, and those seen as the best of, Muslims could not know. That has to be reflected in education. For too long, what has been taught in madrassas and universities to aspiring Islamic scholars has been simplified.
There are, thus, concepts in religions other than Islam which translate to Tawheed, or the Unitary nature of God. This could be emphasized better in sessions of interreligious dialog and in daily Muslim life, for the sake of preserving the valuable remnants of cultures before Islam.
Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
27 May 2023