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Compulsory worship of national symbols is the sure sign of a culture in decline | Nesrine Malik

Those who think our flags and statues must be protected from blasphemers have taken a step down a sinister road

Though we often hear that depictions of the prophet Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, artworks bearing his image can be found in museums in Europe and the United States. He is on a bronze medallion in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, holding a book. He is in a Persian miniature in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, ascending to the heavens on a horse. And he is in many carefully curated private collections of Islamic art, appearing from time to time in the catalogues of prestigious auction houses when these artworks change hands.

The prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how anodyne, is widely accepted today – but, as these examples show, it is a distinctly modern edict. The religious justification for the ban is far less clear than its proponents believe: there is no such instruction in the Qur’an. There is, of course, a pre-Islamic aversion to idol worship shared by all the monotheistic religions, and over the centuries this aversion gradually wore away depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art. But this was only a prelude to the modern charge of blasphemy – which arrived only in the 20th century, after the Muslim world had fractured into nation-states.

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