In Western civilization, there is a commonly-held belief that ‘seeing is believing' and the importance that is attached to a person runs parallel to the extent to which they are known; however, this view is no more than an illusion. It is possible to know someone without seeing them, as Muslims set a good example by laying an emphasis on seeking the results rather than illustrating the means.
Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary and President of the Islamic Society of North America, compares the attitudes of Western and Islamic civilizations towards visual representation and relates to us how a perfect representation of the Prophet can be found among Muslims.
|Perhaps some of the transcendence I felt as a child in the cool darkness of the Catholic Church I loved. In high school, I had lost my natural faith in God, and rarely thought about religion after that. In college, philosophy had brought me from Plato, through Descartes only to end at Existentialism-a barren outcome|
Ingrid Mattson, after completing a degree in philosophy and fine arts, spent a great deal of time studying visual arts the year before she converted to Islam: "I sat for hours in darkened classrooms where my professors projected pictures of great works of Western art on the wall. I worked in the archives for the Fine Arts department, preparing and cataloging slides. I gathered stacks of thick art history books every time I studied in the university library. I went to art museums in Toronto, Montreal and Chicago. That summer in Paris, "the summer I met Muslims" as I always think of it, I spent a whole day (the free day) each week in the Louvre."
After being deeply involved in visual arts, Mattson began to wonder why she was desperately pursuing visual arts. She frequently asked herself what she was trying to discover. "Perhaps some of the transcendence I felt as a child in the cool darkness of the Catholic Church I loved. In high school, I had lost my natural faith in God, and rarely thought about religion after that. In college, philosophy had brought me from Plato, through Descartes only to end at Existentialism-a barren outcome."
Mattson seemed to be looking for the innermost meaning of art. However, in the end, she realized that following the visual footsteps of art was not rewarding enough for her. "At least art was productive-there was a tangible result at the end of the process. But in the end, I found even the strongest reaction to a work of art isolating. Of course I felt some connection to the artist, appreciation for another human perspective. But each time the aesthetic response flared up, then died down. It left no basis for action."
Then Mattson met Muslims who were clear about God, treated their leaders with respect and were aware of the fruitful effort and abilities of women; but surprisingly she saw that they do not form icons or charming paintings of human beings. "They did not try to depict the causes; they traced the effects."
With a striking example, Mattson sheds light on the long tradition in Western civilization of visual representation and narrates how the West is conditioned to judge people from the outside: "Soon after I met my husband, he told me about a woman he greatly admired. He spoke of her intelligence, her eloquence and her generosity. This woman, he told me, tutored her many children in traditional and modern learning. With warm approval, he spoke of her frequent arduous trips to refugee camps and orphanages to help relief efforts. With profound respect, he told me of her religious knowledge, which she imparted to other women in regular lectures. And he told me of the meals she had sent to him, when she knew he was too engaged in his work with the refugees to see to his own needs. When I finally met this woman I found that she was covered, head to toe, in traditional Islamic dress. I realized with some amazement that my husband had never seen her. He had never seen her face. Yet he knew her. He knew her by her actions, by the effects she left on other people."
|In Islamic tradition depicting Allah visually is not permitted and is regarded as an act of blasphemy; Allah and people are glorified through words instead of visual representation. The "99 Names of Allah," include the titles that Allah uses to describe Himself in His revelation and so the Muslims ‘evoke' Allah through these words|
In Islamic tradition depicting Allah visually is not permitted and is regarded as an act of blasphemy; Allah and people are glorified through words instead of visual representation. The "99 Names of Allah," include the titles that Allah uses to describe Himself in His revelation and so the Muslims ‘evoke' Allah through these words. Allah is The Hidden and seeing Him is beyond the capacity of any living person. Following the evidence of Allah in every aspect of the whole universe and mediating on His creative power will cause people to become closer to Allah and know Him better.
Do they not look to the birds above them,
Spreading their wings and folding them back?
None can uphold them except for The Merciful.
Truly He is watchful over all things (Quran, 67:19)
In retrospect, it is not possible for historians to find any credible visual representations of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), because it is the written and oral words that have been use to represent Allah in the Islamic tradition. The biography of the Prophet (theseerah) is narrated in a written form in many languages and thousands of individual accounts of His sayings and actions have been compiled in hadith literature. Early Muslims, who were highly conscious of the words of the Quran, made an effort to hand on the Prophet's way of doing things, his Sunnah: "Indeed in the Messenger of God you have a good example to follow for one who desires God and the Last Day" (Quran, 33:21). Every aspect of the Prophet's behavior is examined and followed carefully and thus, over the centuries, his style of living has served as a basis for Muslims all over the world. Muslims walk along the path of Islam by following in the sacred footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), thus growing into perfect visual representations of the Prophet's character and life. "This performance of the sunnah by living Muslims is the archive of the Prophet's life and a truly sacred art of Muslim culture."
Ingrid Mattson first became conscious of the greatness of the influence of the Prophet's Sunnah on Muslim generations while reflecting on her nine year old son's imitation of his young Quran teacher. She was feeling fortunate as her son was following a good role model instead of imitating an actor, singer or an athlete, something that was very possible, but what is more significant was that his teacher was also taking someone as a model in every aspect of his life, from the way he dressed and his cleanliness to his way of performing the ritual prayer. Undoubtedly, the path this young man was following was the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. Thus, by taking his teacher as a model, her son was also following in the footsteps of the Prophet.
|Before her conversion to Islam, Ingrid Mattson was fascinated by the wonderful manners of the West African students, who were the first Muslims she met. In addition to other distinctive virtues, she was deeply affected by their incredible and exceptional generosity and their great eagerness to share, in spite of living under poor conditions on the margins of Paris|
There is a diversity of people from different cultures throughout the world and while religious norms have a much greater influence on some people, others are strongly affected by traditional or popular culture. In some Muslim societies, some aspects of theSunnah of the Prophet are more dominant, while other aspects are carried out by other Muslims, due to the influence of the mass culture of that society. All the Muslims on earth, regardless of the country in which they live, will naturally attribute the most excellent forms of their culture to the model of Prophet Muhammad, who was in the words of one of his Companions, "the best of all people in behavior".
Before her conversion to Islam, Ingrid Mattson was fascinated by the wonderful manners of the West African students, who were the first Muslims she met. In addition to other distinctive virtues, she was deeply affected by their incredible and exceptional generosity and their great eagerness to share, in spite of living under poor conditions on the margins of Paris. This benevolence was what she later witnessed during her several trips across Muslim societies. It has been reported that during the recent attacks on Kosovo Albanian Muslims sheltered refugees in their houses and cooked for many people. As Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, "The food of two is enough for three, and the food of three is enough for four."
Mattson was also deeply affected by the sensitivity of the Afghan women in the refugee camps, who had the great ability to empathize and sympathize with others: "When I was married in Pakistan, my husband and I, as refugee workers, did not have much money. Returning to the refugee camp a few days after our wedding, the Afghan women eagerly asked to see the many dresses and gold bracelets, rings and necklaces my husband must have presented to me, as is customary throughout the Muslim world. I showed them my simple gold ring and told them we had borrowed a dress for the wedding. The women's faces fell and they looked at me with profound sadness and sympathy. The next week, sitting in a tent in that dusty hot camp, the same women-women who had been driven out of their homes and country, women who had lost their husbands and children, women who had sold their own personal belongings to buy food for their families-presented me with a wedding outfit. Bright blue satin pants stitched with gold embroidery, a red velveteen dress decorated with colorful pom-poms and a matching blue scarf trimmed with what I could only think of as a lampshade fringe. It was the most extraordinary gift I have ever received-not just the outfit, but the lesson in pure empathy that is one of the sweetest fruits of real faith."
Prophet Muhammad can be best found in Muslims who follow his sacred footsteps diligently and candidly. The reflection of Prophet Muhammad's Quranic morality can be seen in his sincere followers; they start eating with right hand, say bismillah, sleep on the right side, perform the tahajjud prayer and strive to spread the Islamic greeting among Muslims, always smiling.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Professor of Islamic Studies and Director of the Islamic Chaplaincy at the Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT. Dr. Mattson is also the President of the Islamic Society of North America.
Dr. Mattson was born in Canada, where she studied philosophy at the University of Waterloo, Ontario (B.A. '87). From 1987-1988 she lived in Pakistan, where she worked with Afghan refugee women. In 1995 she served as advisor to the Afghan delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
During her graduate studies in Chicago, Dr. Mattson was involved with the local Muslim community, serving on the board of directors of Universal School in Bridgeview and as a member of the Interfaith Committee of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.
Dr. Mattson earned her Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago in 1999. Her research is focused on Islamic law and society.
Dr. Mattson lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children.