Voices of Faith offers perspectives from religion columnists. This week’s question: Why do faiths have widely divergent views on religious imagery?
Images are ‘an aid to worship’
Arvind Khetia, engineer and Hindu:
The Hindu way of life is rich not only in its religious and spiritual philosophy but also in its religious imagery of art, architecture and iconography. These symbols and rituals are deep with spiritual meaning.
Hinduism recognizes many paths to realize the divine based on one’s level of spiritual development. Those advanced along the spiritual path may succeed in bringing the finite mind to the level of the infinite, the transcendental reality called Brahman.
For a layperson, the personal God of name and form is the most accessible manifestation of Brahman. Sometimes this is misunderstood as “idolatry” by others. Mahatma Gandhi correctly observed that, “Idol worship is part of human nature. We hanker after symbolism. Images are an aid to worship.”
These symbols, rituals and images are seen only as a means to an end. The important prerequisites for true worship of the divine are purity of heart, speech and deeds, and the essential virtues of nonviolence, self-control, compassion, forgiveness, spiritual knowledge, austerity, meditation and truthfulness.
Huston Smith, the author of the book “The World’s Religions,” says it well: “It is obtuse to confuse Hinduism’s images with idolatry and their multiplicity with polytheism. They are ‘runways’ from which the sense-laden human spirit can rise for its ‘flight from the alone to the Alone.’”
God cannot be illustrated
Mohamed Kohia, Rockhurst University faculty and Muslim:
As you walk to church on a Sunday morning, dressed up in your best clothes and ready for the communion, the first sight that catches your eyes are the colorful little specks of sunshine reflecting on the floor. You look up to see a large, beautiful mosaic of glass with an image of Jesus Christ.
Along with mosaics are many other images that can be found all around a church that depict God and other religious figures. In a Muslim mosque, however, you will never come to find such images.
As Muslims, we believe that God, especially, is he that cannot in any way be represented or illustrated. God is beyond the minds or imaginations of us humans, and therefore, drawing an image of him would be doing him no justice. No one has ever seen God, and there is almost no visual description of him in the Quran.
He is the Creator, and the Creator does not create something that can compare to him.
In addition, we believe that the visual representations of prophets are forbidden. Prophets cannot be drawn as a matter of honor and dignity. Paintings and pictures did not exist during their times, and therefore, we have no accurate representation of what they may look like. An artist would be required to use his/her imagination, which may result in a mistake.
To avoid these issues, Muslims shy away from religious imagery and forbid its use. Furthermore, we believe that these images make way for the despised act of idolatry.
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