Although consistently associated with aniconism and iconoclasm in the European imagination, Islam in fact lacks anything with the clear proscriptive force of the Biblical Second Commandment. This gap between perception and proscription is one of a number of paradoxes associated with the idea of an “image problem” in Islam. This lecture traces a history of paradoxes in both emic and etic representations of Islam’s relation to the image across the longue durée. It will suggest that the instrumental use of images in the contemporary polemics of both Islamists and secularists – from the literal iconoclasm of the Taliban and Islamic State to the figurative iconoclasm of the Danish caricatures – depends on obscuring many of these paradoxes.
Finbarr Barry Flood is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University. Among his recent publications are an essay on the ingestion of images and words in the edited volume Sensational Religion (Yale, 2014), a discussion of Islamic figurative art in the International Journal of Middle East Studies (45/3, 2013), and a short essay on anthropomorphism (Art Bulletin 94/, March 2012). His books include The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture (2000), and Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (2009), awarded the 2011 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. He is currently a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, completing a book provisionally entitled Islam and Image: Polemics, Theology and Modernity.