The Masonic Muhammad: Modern Franco-Iranian Visual Encounters in Prophetic Iconography

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Lecture with Christiane Gruber (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

While premodern Persian images most often represent the Prophet Muhammad as a bearded and mature adult embarked on his prophetic career, a notable corpus of images of the so-called “Young Muhammad” emerged in Iran during the early 20th century. In a number of paintings, postcards, posters, and even carpets, Muhammad is shown as an adolescent boy, at times standing and holding a banner. While some Persian texts identify the image as a Byzantine icon, this presentation will prove that its iconographic source is in fact a 19th-century European print. This print was adopted and adapted in Persian pictorial carpets of the “Great Men of the World,” which were produced in Kirman during the first two decades of the 20th century. These carpets provide heretofore unstudied evidence for the manner in which the Prophet was imagined and depicted in Iran at the height of the Constitutional Revolution. In addition, these Persian carpets may have been used in Iranian Masonic lodges as well as in the private homes of revolutionary leaders who often were members of secret societies with close connections to French Freemasonry. Within these global revolutionary milieus, the Prophet joined the ranks of other eminent world leaders, in which his youth and vitality came to embody the French and Iranian revolutionary slogans of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” As a result, the Iranian urge to panegyrize and pantheonize the Prophet captures this highly dynamic moment in world history, in the process catalyzing a new heroic pictorial image of the Prophet that might be best called the “Masonic Muhammad.”

Christiane Gruber is Professor and Chair in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her scholarly work explores figural representation, depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, and ascension texts and images in Islamic traditions, about which she has written three books and edited half a dozen volumes. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts, codicology, and paleography as well as modern and contemporary visual and material culture. Her most recent publications include her single authored book The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images and her edited volume The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World, both published in 2019.

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Published: Monday, November 16, 2020