al-Biruni treats Hindu idolatry like ancient Greco-Roman idolatry

By the early eleventh century, Greco-Roman thought was much more respected and eagerly studied in the Islamic world than was Hindu thought.  One obstacle to Muslims engaging with Hindus was Muslims’ perception that Hindus worshiped idols. In his monumental work on India, early-eleventh-century Muslim scholar al-Biruni described Hindu idolatry as similar to Greco-Roman idolatry.  Greco-Roman idolatry caused little intellectual and religious concern to Muslims.  In al-Biruni’s view, Hindu idolatry likewise should cause little intellectual and religious concern to Muslims.

While both Christians and Muslims were adept at recasting ancient Greeks as proto-coreligionists, al-Biruni showed more respect for the fullness of truth. Al-Biruni described ancient Greek belief in “the First Cause,” which can be analogized to belief in the one God of Islam.  Al-Biruni declared that Plato wrote:

God is in the single number; there are no gods in the plural number.[1]

Nonetheless, al-Biruni also reported that the ancient Greeks believed in spirits that ruled the world in various ways: “they called them gods, built temples in their names and offered them sacrifices.”  According to al-Biruni, Galen, who was the leading medical authority in the ancient Islamic world, described Asclepius and Dionysos as divine beings.  Al-Biruni also transmitted Galen’s story of a stone statue of Hermes.  That stone statue spoke to its maker in a dream and declared, “Now I am no longer a stone.”  Al-Biruni also noted that the ancient Greeks used the word apotheosis “which has a bad sound in the ears of Muslims.”[2]  Greco-Roman non-Christian religion had largely vanished by the time of the coming of Islam.  Greco-Roman idolatry was thus easy for Muslims to ignore.  Al-Biruni, in contrast, described many Greco-Roman beliefs and practices that would offend Muslim beliefs.

Sol Invictus, an idol of the late Roman Empire

Hindu beliefs and practices, in al-Biruni’s view, were much like those of the ancient Greeks.  Al-Biruni described Hindus as recognizing seven classes of spiritual beings who continually quarrel and fight. They occasionally had intercourse with human beings.  Al-Biruni observed:

If you compare these {Hindu} traditions with those of the Greek regarding their own religion, you will cease to find the Hindu system strange.  We have already mentioned that they called the angels gods.  Now consider their stories about Zeus, and you will understand the truth of our remark. … {Zeus} married certain women one after the other, doing violence to them and not marrying them, among them Europa, the daughter of Phoenix, who was taken from him by Asterios, king of Crete.  [3]

Those stories attribute to Zeus “anthropomorphisms and traits of animal life.”  Moreover, according to al-Biruni, “Brahman {apparently meaning a Hindu god} is described in the same way as Zeus by Aratos {Aratus}.”[4]  Al-Biruni’s accounts of Hindu gods and Greeks gods aren’t coherent.  But al-Biruni’s primary point is that both Hinduism and ancient Greek religion fall short of Islam in similar ways.

Al-Biruni emphasized the importance of elite beliefs.  The Greek scholars and Greek philosophers that Muslim scholars translated and studied were Greek elites.  Al-Biruni directed attention away from popular Indian practices, towards learned Hindu thinking:

The educated among the Hindus abhor anthropomorphisms of this kind, but the crowd and the members of the single sects use them most extensively. They go even beyond all we have hitherto mentioned, so as to speak of wife, son, daughter, of the rendering pregnant and other physical processes, all in connection with God. They are even so little pious, that, when speaking of these things, they do not even abstain from silly and unbecoming language. However, nobody minds these classes and their theories, though they be numerous. The main and most essential point of the Hindu world of thought is that which the Brahmans think and believe, for they are specially trained for preserving and maintaining their religion. [5]

Indian elite texts described in detail the construction of idols.  In al-Biruni’s view, these texts illustrate “how the crowd is kept in thraldom by all kinds of priestly tricks and deceits.”  Al-Biruni reported that these elite tactics had great effects:

When the ignorant crowd get a piece of good luck by accident or something at which they had aimed, and when with this some of the preconcerted tricks of the priests are brought into connection, the darkness in which they live increases vastly, not their intelligence.  They will rush to those figures of idols, maltreating their own figures before them by shedding their own blood and mutilating their own bodies.[6]

Such idol-worship al-Biruni excused more than condemned.  It indicated common, ignorant persons being exploited.

Al-Biruni saw economic exploitation of idols and idol-worshiping as preferable to some other alternatives.  When Islamic warriors invaded Sicily in the mid-seventh century, they captured “golden idols adorned with crowns and diamonds.”  The (Muslim) Caliph didn’t destroy the idols.  He ordered the idols to be sent to India to be sold there.  Al-Biruni approvingly observed:

for he thought it best to sell them as objects costing sums of so-and-so many denars, not having the slightest scruple on account of their being objects of abominable idolatry, but simply considering the matter from a political, not from a religious point of view. [7]

Similarly, when Muslims conquered the Indian city Multan about 712, they didn’t destroy Multan’s main Hindu idol, which attracted many visitors and much money.  Instead, the Muslims took a share of ongoing revenue from the idol. About 986, an Ismaili army seized control of Multan in battle among Muslim forces.  The new, Ismaili ruler of Multan destroyed the idol.  Al-Biruni described this new ruler as “the usurper” and approvingly noted that “the blessed Prince Mahmud swept away their rule.”[8]  Al-Biruni seemed to regard economically exploiting an idol to be preferable to destroying it.

Al-Biruni favored ignoring idols intellectually.  Al-Biruni reported ancient Greek devotion to more than one god and ancient Greek use of idols as mediators and embodiments of gods.  Such practices encompassed Plato and Galen, Greco-Roman thinkers highly respected in the Islamic world.[9]  Al-Biruni’s solution to this troubling strand of Greco-Roman thought was Aristotle’s wisdom, taken from legends of Alexander the Great. According to these legends, Alexander the Great sought help from Aristotle in addressing a Brahman’s criticism of Greek idolatry.  Aristotle reportedly answered the Brahman for Alexander:

If you maintain that some Greeks have fabled that the idols speak, that the people offer to them and think them to be spiritual beings, of all this we have no knowledge, and we cannot give a sentence on a subject we do not know.

“I don’t know” is truly a classic legal defense.  Al-Biruni warmly approved this Aristotelian wisdom:

In these words he {Aristotle} rises high above the class of fools and uneducated people, and he indicates by them that he does not occupy himself with such things.[10]

Al-Biruni wanted Muslim scholars to treat concerns about Hindu idolatry according to Aristotle’s wisdom, and to study Hindu thought as seriously as they studied Greco-Roman thought.

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[1] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) p. 35.

[2] Id. pp. 34, 35, 124, 36.

[3] Id. pp. 91, 95, 96.

[4] Id. pp. 95, 97.

[5] Id. p. 39.

[6] Id. pp. 122, 123.

[7] Id. p. 124.  Lavish, pre-Islamic venerating of statues is important for understanding Byzantine iconoclasm.

[8] Id. pp. 116-7.  Muhammad ibn al-Qasim was the initial Muslim conqueror of Multan.  According to al-Biruni:

he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s-flesh on its neck by way of mockery.

Id. Hanging cow-flesh on a Hindu idol probably would have destroyed its revenue-generating potential in attracting Hindu pilgrims.  Elsewhere al-Biruni noted:

they {Hindus} never desire that a thing which once has been polluted should be purified and thus recovered, as, under ordinary circumstances, if anybody or anything has become unclean, he or it would strive to regain the state of purity.

Id. p 20.  The claim about hanging cow-flesh on the idol may have been a fiction intended to assuage Muslim concern about economically exploiting the idol rather than destroying it.  The ravaging of India by Mahmud of Gazna (“blessed Prince Mahmud”) seems to have generally appalled al-Biruni.  For more on the temple of Multan, see Friedmann (1972).

[9] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) pp. 123-4.  Al-Biruni quotes loosely from Plato’s Laws (Bk. 4) and closely from the surviving Arabic translation of Galen’s De Moribus (Ethics), which al-Biruni calls De Indole Animae.

[10] Trans. Sachau (1910) p. 124.  A Hebrew text written in fourteenth century France — one of the many, different, surviving manuscripts of the Alexander legends — has the Brahman King Dindimus write to Alexander:

We, the Brahmans, do not slaughter sheep and oxen for the glory and honor of the gods. We do not build temples in order to place images and idols of silver and gold in them. We do not do as you do.

Trans. Bonfils & Kazis (1962) p. 140.  Similar to the wisdom that al-Biruni records from Aristotle is part of a fourth-century saying of the desert monk Abba Sopatras:

Do not get involved in discussions about the image.  Although this is not heresy, there is too much ignorance and liking for dispute between the two parties in this matter. It is impossible for a creature to understand the truth of it.

Trans. Ehrman & Jacobs (2004) p. 306.


Bonfils, Immanuel ben Jacob, and Israel Joseph Kazis. 1962. The book of the gests of Alexander of Macedon: a mediaeval Hebrew version of the Alexander romance. Cambridge, Mass: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Ehrman, Bart D., and Andrew S. Jacobs. 2004. Christianity in late antiquity, 300-450 C.E.: a reader. New York: Oxford University Press.

Friedmann, Yohanan. 1972. “The temple of Multan: a note on early Muslim attitudes to idolatry.” Israel Oriental Studies, 2, 176-182

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

ibn Sina's Treatise on Love is about money

Ibn Sina was one of the greatest scholars the world has ever known.  He was a Muslim from Central Asia who lived from about 980 to 1037.  Ibn Abi Usaybiah’s comprehensive history of physicians written in mid-thirteenth-century Damascus referred repeatedly to ibn Sina as “Grand Master Ibn Sina.”  Its section on ibn Sina begins:

He is so well known that there is no need to introduce him, and his merits are so renowned that they need not be recorded. [1]

Ibn Sina wrote about 450 volumes on a wide variety of topics.  In the fourteenth century, Dante included ibn Sina (known in western Europe as Avicenna) in limbo along with other leading scholarly and literary non-Christians such as Plato, Socrates, and the twelfth-century Andalusian Muslim polymath Averroes (ibn Rushd).  Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine (Qanun) was probably the most widely distributed medical book ever written.  Ibn Sina finished his Canon of Medicine in 1025 in Iran; within a century a beautiful copy of the work was in southern Spain.[2]  In the history of medicine in western Eurasia, ibn Sina ranks along with Hippocrates and Galen as the leading figures.

Despite his brilliance, ibn Sina struggled to achieve personal safety and financial support.  He moved frequently in search of patronage.  Occasionally he had to flee from powerful persons who sought to harm him.  Ibn Sina’s Treatise on Love (Risalah fi’l-‘ishq) hints at his personal challenges.  This treatise begins with a dedication:

O Abdullah ‘l-Ma’sumi, the lawyer, you have asked me to compose for you a clear and brief treatise on love.  In reply let me say that with the following treatise I have done my utmost to win your approval and satisfy your desire. [3]

As a scholar would be expected to do in polite society, ibn Sina advocated rational and spiritual love, and upheld Islamic law regarding sexual relations:

Rational love can, therefore, not be pure except when the animal faculty is altogether subdued.  With respect to the desire for conjugal union, it is fitting that a lover who entices the object of his love with this purpose in mind should be suspected, except if his need has a rational purpose, i.e. if his purpose is the propagation of the species.  … It is permissible and may find approval only in the case of a man with either his wife or female slave. [4]

One of ibn Sina’s friends, who wrote a sympathetic biography of him, noted that ibn Sina “did not take care of himself, being over-indulgent with regard to sexual intercourse.”  The friend observed:

The Shaikh {ibn Sina} was vigorous in every respect.  Of his physical powers, sexual potency was the strongest and the best developed.  He exercised it most freely, and not without effect upon his state of health. [5]

Ibn Sina’s sexual behavior was not rational.  He did not take seriously the contents of his Treatise on Love.  Ibn Sina’s rambling, vague discussion in his Treatise on Love suggests that he wrote that treatise quickly and relatively thoughtlessly for a monetary commission.

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[1] HP p. 565.

[2] HP p. 655.  Ibn Abi Usaybiah’s history of physicians includes 40 references to ibn Sina’s Qanun, mainly in descriptions of other scholars’ study of it and commentaries on it.

[3] Ibn Sina, Risalah fi’l-‘ishq (Treatise on Love), trans. Fackenheim (1945) p. 211.

[4] Id. p. 222.

[5] HP p. 578.


Fackenheim, Emil L. 1945.  “A Treatise on Love by Ibn Sina.” Mediaeval Studies. 7 (1): 208-228

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

men in elite discussion of paternity testing

Elite discussion of paternity testing shows contempt for men.  On the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National Law Report, a professor worried that paternity testing might constrain women’s sexuality:

I wonder whether the DNA testing is a bit like the modern-day chastity belt, it’s another way for men to control women’s sexuality and guarantee biological paternity in a way that they might once have done through the chastity belt.  And so the support for DNA testing might be seen as kind of a modern-day equivalent to support for the chastity belt in medieval times. [1]

The authors of a peer-reviewed scholarly article concerning false paternity beliefs (which they call “paternal discrepancy”) suggested possible benefits of paternity testing:

The availability of paternity testing kits themselves may also be used to convince some men that carefree sex and denial of paternity is no longer a viable option. [2]

Put those two views together and you get today’s simple picture.  Repressing women’s sexuality is bad and reactionary.  Repressing men’s sexuality is good and progressive. Paternity testing should be allowed only if it doesn’t repress women’s sexuality and does repress men’s sexuality.

Scholarly discussion of biological paternity remarkably devalues truth.  According to the best available evidence, about 5% of children in high-income democracies live under false biological paternity beliefs.  Authors of one of the few studies of the extent of false paternity beliefs advocated more research on the implications of correcting false paternity beliefs, because decisions about what to do with true information “must be informed by what best protects the health of those affected.”[3] The logic of such a position, if supported and applied more generally, could transform the whole scholarly enterprise.  Astrophysical research could affect popular, deeply held astrological and religious beliefs and the mental health of many persons.  Should more research on such effects be undertaken before astrophysicists are allowed to reveal scientific truths?

Paternity is imposed on men with little regard for biological truth.  In the U.S., legal processes of paternity establishment support false biological paternity beliefs through undue influence, misrepresentation, and mis-service.  Yet that issue is scarcely a matter of concern in legal scholarship.  For example, in a law review article in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, a scholar emphasized “the best interests of children” and the importance of re-enforcing the current structure of family law.  More specifically, the scholar argued that the state should impose specific monthly monetary transfers to the mother of a child from a man who, as a result of the mother’s fraud, falsely believed that the child was his biological child.[4]  Perhaps in some cases that might be appropriate.  But the big picture of paternity establishment is social pressures creating a conspiracy of silence or, even worse, inducing deliberate falsity.

Criminal laws have been enacted to prevent men from acquiring the truth about their biological paternity.  In 2002, the Chair of the Human Genetic Commission in the U.K. stated:  

DNA testing is very simple, but there can be very serious repercussions. It is not only terribly difficult for the child and the mother, but also for other siblings, who suddenly find that all the things that they understood about their family become different.

We already know that in the United States fathers, on access visits, are taking their children’s DNA without consent for testing, and we need to prevent that happening here. [5]

The claim that “fathers, on access visits, are taking their children’s DNA without consent for testing” is revealing.  A man with parental responsibility for a child normally has authority to make decisions on behalf of that child.  Non-consent here implicitly means without the consent of the mother.  The U.K. Human Tissues Act of 2004 made “non-consensual” paternity testing a criminal offense entailing possible punishment of up to three years of imprisonment.[6]  The Chief Judge of the Family Court in Australia similarly proposed to criminalize fathers seeking true paternity knowledge.[7]  With the growing importance of genetics to medicine, such criminal laws will need to expand continually to encompass new medical information and circumstances. Whether criminal law and elite moralizing can succeed in keeping men in ignorance about their biological paternity remains to be seen.

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[1] Michael Gilding, Sociologist, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia, on Law Report, “Paternity and Child Support,” broadcast 24 April 2001.  While good statistics are not available, almost all medieval peasant women probably never wore a chastity belt. The share of medieval women who wore chastity belts is probably much smaller than the current share of unmarried Australian men who have had legal fatherhood forcibly imposed on them.  The abstract of Gilding (2005) declares:

There is a common view that misattributed paternity is widespread in Western societies, between ten and 30 per cent of all births. Such estimates are an urban myth. The actual evidence suggests that the true extent of misattributed paternity is closer to one per cent, and not more than three per cent.

Gilding’s estimate isn’t well-documented.  Nonetheless, given the great importance of biological paternity, even 1% of children living under false biological paternity belief seems quite significant.  Moreover, according to the best available evidence, about 5% of children in high-income democracies have false beliefs about who their biological father is.

[2] Bellis et al. (2005) p. 753.  This quote implicitly refers to imposing large financial obligations on men for doing nothing more than having consensual sex of reproductive type.

[3] Id.

[4] See Jacobs (2004).  Id. emphasizes “functional parenting.”  State-determined financial obligations (“child support”) have nothing to do with father-child emotional attachment and undermine non-monetary functional understandings of fatherhood.  In the Matter of Shondel J. v. Mark D. (2006) is a leading case for the state imposition of financial obligations on men in circumstances of fraud, no biological paternity, and limited social relation.

[5] Lady Kennedy (Helena Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws), Chair of the Human Genetics Commission, quoted in Bentham & Fraser (2002). For relevant analysis, see Pearson (2002).

[6] See Human Tissues Act of 2004, Part 3, Ch. 45.

[7] Schwartz (2002).


Bellis, Mark A., Karen Hughes, Sara Hughes and John R. Ashton. 2005. “Measuring paternal discrepancy and its public health consequences.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health  59: 749-754.

Bentham, Martin, and Lorraine Fraser, “Move to outlaw secret DNA testing by fathers.” The Telegraph (UK), 19 May 2002.

Gilding, Michael. 2005. “Rampant Misattributed Paternity: The Creation of an Urban Myth.” People and Place 13(2)  pp. 1-11 (associated press release).

Pearson, Barry. 2002.”‘The truth is out there’: Commentary on ‘Move to outlaw secret DNA testing by fathers’.” Child Support Analysis.

Jacobs, Melanie B. (2004). “When Daddy Doesn’t Want to be Daddy Anymore: An Argument Against Paternity Fraud Claims.” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 16: 193-240.

Schwartz, Larry. 2002. “Paternity: stop DNA by ‘stealth’.” The Age (Australia), May 26, 2002.

understanding Byzantine iconomachy: venerating icons preceded Islam

Iconomachy, a battle over the authoritative status of icons, occurred in the Byzantine Empire from the mid-eighth to the mid-ninth centuries.  Icons are figural paintings that, in the sense of the believer, function as media for sacred communication and action.  Historical accounts created after Byzantine affirmation of icons present Byzantine iconomachy as an irruption of iconoclasm within an well-established practice of venerating icons.

Recent scholarship asserts that venerating icons was not a well-established Byzantine practice before Byzantine iconomachy.  Compared to relics and pilgrimages, icons provided a scalable, cost-effective means for extraordinary contact with God.  Recent scholarship argues that Christian veneration of icons largely began about 680 in response to Islamic successes and Byzantine failures.  According to that view, Byzantine empowering of icons in response to Islam led to elite political conflicts and Byzantine iconomachy.  The traditional history of Byzantine iconoclasm is interpreted as merely the winning icon-supporters’ construction of a threatened tradition of icon veneration.[1]

Despite this recent scholarship, good evidence and reason exists for believing that Christians widely venerated icons prior to Islam.  Early in the eleventh century, the Muslim scholar al-Biruni was far from any constructed Byzantine tradition of icon veneration.  Al-Biruni lived in Central Asia and did not read Greek.[2]  As a pious Muslim, al-Biruni abhorred idols.  Practices like venerating icons al-Biruni described as “foul and pernicious abuse” among “common, uneducated persons”; justifying those practices were “mad raving” and “ludicrous views.”[3]  A Byzantine constructed history of venerating icons would fit neither al-Biruni’s milieu nor his scholarly and religious interests.

Al-Biruni described pre-Islamic Arabian Christians using idols as sacred media.  In Al-Biruni’s study of India, a chapter describing the beginning of idol-worship observed:

When the heathen Arabs had imported into their country idols from Syria, they also worshipped them, hoping that they would intercede for them with God. [4]

Christians lived and prospered in the ancient Islamic world.  However, the statement “heathen Arabs had imported into their country idols from Syria” is inconsistent with a Muslim writer describing Christian Arabs living as dhimmi in an Islamic caliphate.  “Their country,” the country of the “heathen Arabs,” is most plausibly Arabia prior to the Islamic conquest of Arabia.[5]  Early Christians prayed especially to Mary, the mother of Jesus, for intercession with God.  Syria was near the center of early Christianity.  Al-Biruni’s statement, plausibly coming through early Arabic sources, suggests that early Christians in Syria and Arabia venerated Marian icons. The importance of Mary in Arabia at the coming of Islam is consistent with the prominence of Mary in the Qur’an.[6]

Al-Biruni provides more detailed description of Marian figural statues in Sicily about 670.  Al-Biruni reported:

that idols are only memorials, was also held by the Caliph Mu’awiya {reigned 661 to 680} regarding the idols of Sicily.  When, in the summer of A.H. 53 {675}, Sicily was conquered {other sources date the conquest to 652}, and the conquerors sent him golden idols adorned with crowns and diamonds which had been captured there, he ordered them to be sent to Sind {India}, that they should be sold there to the princes of the country [7]

Historical records aren’t entirely consistent about the date of the brief Muslim conquest of seventh-century Sicily, but all are before 680.[8]  The First Council of Ephesus of the Christian Church in 431 declared Mary to be “Mother of God.”  That title naturally led to the Marian title “Queen of Heaven.”[9]  The captured “golden idols adorned with crowns and diamonds” are most plausibly Marian figural statues that were objects of lavish veneration.  Such statues occupied well-known destinations for pilgrimages in medieval western Europe.[10]

Between 608 and 630, the Ka’ba in Mecca contained images of Jesus and Mary. After being destroyed in a fire in 608, the Ka’ba was rebuilt. The ninth-century historian al-Azraqi, whose family had lived in Mecca for hundreds of years, conveyed reports of images in the rebuilt Ka’ba. These reports indicate that a fresco of Jesus and Mary existed when the Prophet of Islam entered the Ka’ba in 630. One report also described an image that might have been a statue:

I have heard that there was set up in al-Bayt {the Ka’ba} a picture / statue (timthāl) of Maryam {Mary} and ‘Isa {Jesus}. {Ata} said: “Yes, there was set in it a picture / statue of Maryam adorned (muzawwaqan); in her lap, her son ‘Isa sat adorned.” [11]

Reports conflict on whether the Prophet ordered the images of Jesus and Mary to be destroyed. Those conflicting reports suggest tension about the function of those images.[12]

Other considerations also favor Christian veneration of icons prior to Islam.  Icons typically feature starkness in figural depiction and direct gaze to the viewer.  The hodegetria iconography, which may predate Islam, exemplifies these features.  These iconographic characteristic are associated with sense of presence.  Moreover, extra-representational response to images is common across cultures and throughout history.  In light of that broader evidence, the right prior belief for evaluating how early Christians related to images is that they probably related to them like the ancient Greeks did or like Hindus have for thousands of years.  Convincing evidence that early Christians did not venerate icons is necessary to make that the more probable belief.

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iconomachy in India?


[1] Brubaker & Haldon (2011).  On the new attitude to icons from about 680, see id. pp. 58-60, 777.  Noble (2009) also finds little credible evidence of a cult of images among the Carolingians prior to the Byzantine iconoclasm controversy.  See id. pp. 8, 30, 35, 40-44.  Early Christians attributed mediating power to biblical figures (especially Mary, mother of Jesus, the mediatrix), saints, and marytrs, as well as to relics associated with those persons.  One type of relic was an image not made by human hands, such as an image of the face of Jesus thought to have been created through contact with Jesus.  The technical term for such images are acheiropoieta.  Three acheiropoieta are attested to have existed in the second half of the sixth century  Brubaker & Haldon (2011) p. 35.  Icons, in contrast to acheiropoieta, are human-made images with mediating power.

[2] He didn’t know Syriac either.  Sachau (1910) p. xli.

[3] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) pp. 111, 112, 122, 124.

[4] Id. p. 123.  Brock (1977) argues that Monophysite, who were prevalent in Syria before Islam, were not iconoclastic. Id. p. 56 observes:

Incidental references to icons or figurative painting and mosaics are not common in Monophysite literature up to the end of the Iconoclast period, but the few that there are suggest that no offense was taken of them. …  In all there might be a dozen such references belonging to the sixth to eighth century available in Syriac sources.

[5] That’s clearly the context of  “in the times of Arab heathendom. … Among the heathen Arabs” in Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) pp. 108-9.

[6] The hymn Sub Tuum Praesidium, surviving in a Greek papyrus dated to the third century, shows petitioning to Mary:

Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one.

The Qur’an refers to “worshiping” Mary:

Allah will say:
“O Jesus the son of Mary!
Did you say to men,
“Worship me and my mother
As gods in derogation of Allah?”
He will say, “Glory to You!
Never could I say
What I had no right {to say}

Qur’an 5:116, trans. ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (I’ve modernized the English). The Qur’an frequently mentions Mary, and Sura 19 (Maryam) bears her name. While honoring Mary, the Qur’an opposes treating Mary as a god. Prayers to Marian icons might easily be regarded as treating Mary as a god. That was a matter of bitter dispute over Mary in sixteenth-century England.

[7] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) p. 124.

[8] The historical records contain some confusion about the date.  See Davis-Secord (2007) pp. 96-99. The account of Persian historian al-Baladhuri (d. 892) is consistent with al-Biruni’s account, but is less detailed.  See trans. Hitti (1916) p. 375.

[9] See Council of Ephesus, Second and Third Letters of Cyril to Nestorius, and Twelve Anathemas Proposed by Cyril and accepted by the Council of Ephesus (anathema 1).  Corippus, in 566 in a hymn to the Virgin as guardian of Constantinople, described Mary as “queen of heaven” (excelsi regina poli). See Cameron (1978 ) p. 82.

[10] See, e.g., Our Lady of Walsingham in England.

[11] Al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makka, vol. 1, p. 167, trans. King (2004) p. 221. Peters (1994), p. 48, translates timthāl as statue. Daniel (1997), p. 209, states: “Muhammad ‘called the Christians deviators because he thought they adored three gods as well as images.'” The quoted text is cited as “Annotator, ad Az. I; MS (CCCD 184, right margin, high) and Bibl. p. 224.” That may be an annotation to a manuscript of al-Azraqi’s text.

[12] Cf. Qur’an 5:116 (see note [6] above).


Brock, Sebastian. 1977.  “Iconoclasm and the Monophysites.”  Pp. 53-57 in Anthony Bryer and Judith Herrin. Iconoclasm: papers given at the ninth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, March 1975. Birmingham, Eng: Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham.

Brubaker, Leslie, and John F. Haldon. 2011. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (c. 680-850): a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, Averil. 1978. “The Theotokos in Sixth-Century Constantinople.” The Journal of Theological Studies. XXIX (1): 79-108.

Daniel, Norman. 1997. Islam and the West: the making of an image. Oxford: Oneworld.

Davis-Secord, Sarah C. 2007. Sicily and the medieval Mediterranean: communication networks and inter-regional exchange. Thesis (Ph. D.)–University of Notre Dame, 2007.

Hitti, Philip K. 1916. Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyá Balādhurī.  The origins of the Islamic state. New York: Longmans, Green.

King, G. R. D. 2004. “The Paintings of the Pre-Islamic Ka’ba.” Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World XXI: 219-230.

Noble, Thomas F. X. 2009. Images, iconoclasm, and the Carolingians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Peters, F. E. 1994. The Hajj: the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and the holy places. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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