Descendants of Abraham/Ibrahim Still Struggle with Idols

Review of Aaron Tugendhaft, The Idols of Isis: From Assyria to the Internet
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020)

This is a hard book to review because the temptation to quote verbatim from the text is almost irresistible. The prose, accessible and compelling, draws the reader in from the opening lines of the Prologue: 

SOMETHING IS WRONG. It’s February 26, 2015, and Iraqi-born art historian Zainab Bahrani has just completed a lecture at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. From the audience comes a voice, asking with some urgency what can be done to save Mesopotamian antiquities from destruction. What has provoked the question? I retreat to a corner to check my phone, and there it is: a video of men smashing sculptures in Iraq’s Mosul Museum, posted repeatedly on my feed. A bearded man dressed in the black taqiyah and white thawb of a devout Muslim addresses the camera. He stands before a fragment of a large Assyrian sculpture known as a lamassu— a protective deity that combines a bull’s body, an eagle’s wings, and a human head. “Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of God,” the man explains in Arabic, with the poise of a museum docent. “The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did when they conquered lands. Since God commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey. We do not care what people think or if this costs us billions of dollars.” 

When the man finishes speaking, the video zooms in on the violent acts being committed in “real time” against idols that are thousands of years old: 

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For two and a half minutes, these images of destruction are interspersed with shots of decimated sculptures strewn across the floor— often rendered in slow motion, lending the sequence a lyrical quality…The video, I realized, bears an uncanny resemblance to a carved relief from the ancient Assyrian palace at Khorsabad, a town just north of Mosul. Both the video and the relief depict three men with sledgehammers smashing the toppled sculpture of a king (pp. 1-3).

At this point, Aaron Tugendhaft considers that these two images are “separated by more than twenty-five hundred years yet only fifteen miles…Why this persistent drive to destroy images— and to make other images showing their destruction?”

He might have added what is equally striking: that whereas for most contemporary western observers, the statues are inert testaments to an age in which they were invested with supernatural powers, today’s iconoclasts are clearly imputing some kind of power to these ancient idols or they wouldn’t bother to smash them. If they would acknowledge the obvious fact that the idols cannot eat or move or speak, they would have to explain why they are so threatened by them.

When we stop to think about it, though, that is exactly what Jewish and Muslim traditions attributed to the prophet Abraham/Ibrahim in one of the earliest recorded acts of iconoclasm. Many of us will recall the tale we learned in religious school about Abraham or Ibrahim, newly converted monotheist, smashing the idols in his father’s workshop, but leaving the largest statue intact. Ibraham is called before his father and his people: 

They asked, “Was it you, Ibrahim, who did this to our gods?” He said, “No, it was done by the biggest of them— this one. Ask them, if they can talk.” . . . They said, “You know very well these gods can’t speak.” Ibrahim said, “How can you serve what can neither benefit nor harm you, instead of God? Shame on you and the things you serve instead of God. Have you no sense?” (Qur’an 21:52– 67; quoted in Tugendhaft, pp. 10-11; see also Gen. Rabbah 38:13). 

Many generations later, tradition tells us, Muhammad rid the Ka’ba of those icons that had somehow infiltrated the holy site after Ibrahim’s death. Clearly, these stories, going back to the earliest flexing of the monotheistic muscle, have never become obsolete. “Like Ibrahim, determined to cleanse the world of idols—violently, if necessary—ISIS would pay no heed to contemporary censures,” Tugendhaft writes, documenting the latest iterations of these ancient impulses (p. 12).

When he begins to connect the dots in an attempt to answer his initial questions—“Why this persistent drive to destroy images— and to make other images showing their destruction?”— Tugendhaft’s professional and personal identities intersect. As scholar of ancient civilizations with a focus on political theory, he has a purchase on intersecting histories of idolatry and iconoclasm, and the internecine conflicts that attend them, in both the ancient and the modern near east. But as scion of Babylonian Jews, he also has, so to speak, skin in the game: 

This book grew out of a personal connection to the latest events tearing apart Iraq. My grandfather was born in Baghdad in 1910, eleven years before establishment of the modern state. He belonged to a Jewish community that had called the banks of the Tigris home since antiquity, and he grew up among the bookstalls and literary cafés that now survive only in memoirs… This was a world in which Iraqi Jews lived side by side with Iraqis of other religions. They shared a common language and actively participated in shaping the new Iraq. But my grandfather also lived through the Farhud, the June 1941 pogrom that left nearly two hundred Jews dead and precipitated my family’s departure— first to Tehran, then Tel Aviv, and eventually New York. The unraveling of Iraqi pluralism that began with the departure of the Jews has continued to intensify. In the aftermath of the 2003 American-led invasion, Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods gave way to rigorous segregation between Sunni and Shia. The forces of purity spread further when the Islamic State conquered Mosul in June 2014: Shia shrines were demolished; minority communities were butchered, enslaved, or made to flee their homes. The region seemed headed toward a homogeneity that it had not known since before the Tower of Babel (p. 4).

Which brings us to the biblical site and story that precede that of Abraham/Ibrahim in “Ur”:  the Tower of Babel, which was putatively located “on the plains of Shinar, not far from modern Baghdad” (p. 4). From these sites flow millennia of commentary, as societies continue to strive for greater harmony or unity that inevitably descends into sectarian strife and repression. What is important about the story, Tugendhaft tells us, is that the builders of the Tower weren’t constructing a “polis” or a “political” space—a place that, as we have learned from Aristotle through Weber, Habermas, Arendt and Soja, has to balance the conflicting interests of different groups and individuals: “Their city would be, not a political arena, but an infrastructure for enforcing unity,” Tugendhaft reminds us; “Babel’s builders built in the hopes of securing a world without politics” (p. 5).

Since the public space is never “unadorned,” cultivating political space always entails “understanding images.” And that is what this little volume, just over 100 pages long, attempts to do. The most fundamental principle is that in order to function without violence, politics needs “both images and a citizenry capable of evaluating them critically” (p. 5). The world of ISIS, as their adherents articulate it in their official magazine, is one with no “gray zone”—no room for pluralism, doubt or even skepticism, no room for what Arendt called “the public realm” (p. 6). Remember that the “gray zone” in Primo Levi’s universe was that space where the individual had to choose to participate—or not—in the evil hierarchy of the concentration camp. In the ISIS pamphlet it is, rather, the space of encounter, and discretion, politics without violence: the very ingredients that they have vowed to suppress. 

Back to the earlier texts. Moving from the dawn of monotheism to the covenantal moment, we all “remember” that while Moses was speaking with God “face to face,” his brother Aaron was busy crafting the Golden Calf to keep the ragtag children of Israel from revolting (although Aaron claims that all he did was to throw the gold into the fire, and “hineh yatza ha-egel”—out came the Calf! Ex.32). But “men like Moses know that such images are the work of human hands” (p. 7)—while his own subservience to a Higher Power makes even his political and ethical decisions contingent, at least as they’ve come down to us in Scriptures. Tugendhaft brings Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aaron” to illustrate that image-making is common to both brothers—Aaron’s may be visual, but Moses’ verbal imagery is at least as potent—witness the power released in his breaking the first set of the Tablets. (On this subject and the power of visual anthropomorphic language, much ink has been spilled over the centuries, of course, the most influential coming from the quill of Maimonides.) What is as significant as those “first acts” of iconoclasm, as recorded in monotheistic traditions, is that they have to be repeated in every generation. So, some thirteen centuries after Muhammad smashed the idols in the Ka’aba, the Taliban are still reenacting the first acts of their leader; indeed, while they were smashing the statues in the Mosul museum, and recording their acts, quotations from the relevant passages in the Qur’an appeared on the screen. 

The book’s three chapters, after the Prologue, are devoted to “Idols,” “Museums” and “Videos”: idols as sculptures to be destroyed, museums as spaces to display what is left of the images, and the videos that document their destruction. 

In the first chapter of this book, the acts of ISIS are presented as a reprise of Muhammad’s smashing of idols, which is itself a reprise of Ibrahim’s original act—and part of the contemporary Islamic State’s attempt to return to “an original time of purity” (p. 9)—a “reenactment of a reenactment” (p. 10). Abraham/Ibrahim is the epitome and model of the non-idolater, the “muslim” or submissive one who is more pious than any Jew or Christian. 

In foregrounding the inexorable connection between religion and politics, in teasing out the political dimensions of idol-smashing, Tugendhaft views Ibrahim as not only “criticiz[ing] the people’s theology [but also as subverting] their politics. He is calling for regime change” (p. 12). Ultimately, since no regime can function without images, “what is unsettling about Ibrahim is not his opposition to [Babylonian king] Nimrud’s regime so much as his denial of politics.” Without recourse to politics, as flawed as it might be, there is no possibility for justice; “Rule without images implies rule by force alone” (pp. 20-1).

It is not just idols, then, but images generally that this tradition is railing against so vociferously in its most repressive moments: “All images are false”; therefore, “any politics grounded in images will be idolatrous” (p. 13). The paradox, however, is that “Ibrahim’s ‘regime without images’ could only come into being if it used images to cultivate a commitment to its law of no images” [p. 18]. Tugendhaft surveys the key aniconic or iconoclastic moments in Islamic thought and practice in all their complexity, from their earliest through their most recent iterations. Medieval Muslim thinkers like Al-Farabi (9th-10th century) were conversant with ancient Greek philosophy and the political underpinnings of prophetic religion. Since, as Al Farabi emphasized, “it is through images that we come to identify with what the law stands for and protects… prophetic images [create a] common world of shared expectations and aspirations, [making] political life possible” (p. 17). Truth may be unembodied, universal, but political order demands specific forms, which leads to the legitimacy of multiple religious communities with multiple systems of images.

The aniconic force is far more uncompromising in Islam than in Judaism, which, as Kalman Bland showed in The Artless Jew, countenanced images in many spaces, including illustrated manuscripts and ritual items, as well as in modern art. Even if “Greek philosophers and Israelite prophets preferred to speak or write their minds rather than paint or sculpt their ideas…they nevertheless found visual images irresistible and visual metaphors indispensable” [The Artless Jew, p. 5]. And more than that: Bland argues convincingly that the strict versions of Jewish aniconism stem more from 19th century polemic between Christians and Jews, than from the long history of Jewish representation that preceded and succeeded it. 

In a similar vein, Tugendhaft countenances softer versions of iconoclasm even within the Islamic world. He includes non-representational, non-mimetic expressions such as the “arabesque design and the muezzin’s call” among the necessary imagery and apparatus of cultic life.

The museum in which the ISIS video was taken is itself a sign of secular values. Tugendhaft’s second chapter, “Museums,” examines the significance of that museum in the drama of destruction captured in the video—and of museums generally in both preserving the past and challenging ‘true believers.’

The outcry in the West against the destruction, broadcast “live” in February, 2015, pitted the concept of cultural “heritage” against ongoing war with what Muslim fanatics view as idolatry.  The terms used by representatives of museums, art historians and archaeologists in the West are “civilization” vs. “barbarism.” The conflict between the two is “fundamentally different from a war between political enemies,” writes Tugendhaft; it is a dynamic concept of humanity itself as a universal category that is being defended here (pp. 34-5). And, ironically enough, Mesopotamia is considered by western scholars and political liberals to be the cradle of human civilization. But as a student of ancient civilizations, Tugendhaft knows that “one must wear special blinders for Mesopotamian images to appear as apolitical as the European Association of Archaeologists wants them to be” (p.36). He gestures toward the complex intricacies of enmities in the Middle East over the centuries to highlight the simplicity of contemporary western attitudes. It is a real tour de force to review in one chapter the history of museums conceived originally as “neutral spaces,” as “universal” or civilized bastions against the “barbarians,” and to expose their own cultural imperialisms. 

Such insights are not new, but they are presented in a most compelling and succinct way. Recapitulating the history of western discovery and appropriation of Near Eastern antiquities, starting with the mid-nineteenth century search for the ancient city of Nineveh, and tracing the evolution of the modern museum’s presentation of artifacts, in which the British took the lead in competition mainly with the French, Tugendhaft exposes their goal of celebrating the present through a contemplation of the ancient past, with the museums imitating the churches in scale, grandeur and reverence. And the museum in Mosul reflects the Ottoman Empire’s own construction of such institutions to attract tourists from the West. The debate over the artistic values of this art vis-à-vis the classical influences on western art is an ongoing one and presented here in the most enticing ways. 

And, always, it is the fanatics who grab public attention. Tugendhaft takes us through the labyrinth of modern Muslim radicalization to help explain the most recent turn—from 19th century reformers through Egyptian-born Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who joined the Muslim Brotherhood, spent most of his adult life in prison, and was eventually executed. His influence is felt in one of the most chilling images of the past half century: a painting from 1968 of “Saddam Hussein receiving Iraqi cultural heritage [a palm sapling] from a Mesopotamian deity” (p. 53). As ISIS and its allies demand the “repatriation” of plundered images from the past displayed in western museums, such as the stele of Hammurabi, the intersection of religious, artistic and political forces becomes increasingly chilling, even for those of us who lived through the events. In their propaganda film, ISIS adds “the statues of America and its clan” to their targets. The connection between contemporary America and ancient Mesopotamian idol-worship may seem tendentious, but the ultimate idol-smashing from that time is the famous toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad after the American-led invasion of 2003, with the help of the U.S. Marine Corps. In the many newsreels that documented that moment, “nobody complained,” writes Tugendhaft, “about the destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage” (p. 66). 

This is where this little book hits home in the most unexpected ways. Americans will be reminded of the ongoing debates around statues to Confederate soldiers or Generals. Perhaps they are not invested with supernatural powers by either side, but a kind of aura attends such monuments and renders them radioactive to the contending parties. There is, then, something familiar and pervasive about these scenes, even for those far removed from more violent religious conflicts, ancient and modern.

“No one who has viewed the Mosul Museum video can experience ancient Mesopotamian sculpture in quite the same way again,” Tugendhaft observes towards the end of the third chapter. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of Tugendhaft’s exposé: the way he treats the world that is more familiar, and therefore more directly threatening, to us than that of the Taliban: the world generated by “algorithms,” which create echo chambers for like-minded acolytes. Interactive with humans the way the ancient idols could not be, algorithms are as dumb as they were, but even more pernicious. Technology, as we all know, allows us to escape the world of direct human encounters. It has been a blessing during these endless months of COVID isolation, but it also reinforces the paranoid and xenophobic tendencies that had already undermined the diversities of the public square where real interactions can, in the best case, breed tolerance and compromise. Because it is so “tempting to flee the demands of politics by abnegating responsibility to a superior force—God, History, the Market, and now the Algorithm”—the iconoclast’s “hammer” remains very powerful. This final chapter looks at the video itself as “a kind of replacement image”: films of the destruction spawned video games and replays on an endless cycle, immortalizing forms of “American imperialism”; these have reportedly been used in recruitment of tech-savvy youngsters to the ranks of the “Islamic State.” “Life within a video game resembles Ibrahim’s regime without images,” Tugendhaft writes; “a life of unmediated obedience to the programmer’s all-encompassing law.” Their aim is to produce obedient subjects who “do not conceive of themselves as political beings” (p. 89). What we call “iconoclasm” is, then, not so much the removal of images as the generation of new ones.

What I love most about The Idols of Isis and the controversies it touches is that not only am I learning about things I didn’t know but also that I am finding a thicker context for those things that I did. The succinct and reader-friendly prose is accompanied by a series of images that itself presents a kind of history of images over the centuries, from ancient temples to modern museums, intersecting always with cultural and political developments in and between the West and what was once unabashedly referred to as the “Orient.” From al-Farabi to Mark Zuckerberg, we have, argues Tugendhaft, perfected the art of manipulation. “Facebook [with its data-driven algorithms]…is the perfect prophet.”  

During the Hanukah season especially, it is tempting to think of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum as a cross between the museological display of icons and the documentation of their destruction. Portraying Roman soldiers carting off the items from the sanctuary—famously, the seven-branched Menorah, the shewbread table, silver trumpets, etc.—these bas-reliefs from the late first century (circa 81 C.E.) are also the only physical evidence we have of the cultic items of the Temple in Jerusalem that Herod refurbished and that Vespasian and his son Titus destroyed. We may go so far as to conclude that the Arch of Titus is like the ISIS video, which was meant originally to shock its viewers, but may actually help us to examine our own cultural assumptions. And what of the Maccabees recapturing and “purifying” the Temple by destroying Hellenistic icons? In that vein and in this season, it may not sound strange to think of this book as an appropriate Hanukah gift. Surely the idolators and the iconoclasts in our midst are not limited to the ancient Seleucids, the Maccabees, or even to contemporary ISIS.

Tugendhaft concludes by embracing the soft iconoclasm that Nietzsche offered in Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1889). Recommending “tapping” with a “tuning fork” rather than destroying the icons of others with a hammer, the philosopher provides an alternative to acts of violence:

Had [Ibrahim] tapped [the idols] lightly as with a tuning fork, they might have divulged something to [him] and his neighbors about the regime they were living under and its possible alternatives [writes Tugendhaft]. Political life vitally depends on shared images that allow us to envision how we want to live together. We will live with images for as long as we remain political beings. To be free citizens, we need to think about how our political images arose, why they were chosen, and what they leave out. In that way, we become aware of our images’ incompleteness without denying our need for them or pretending we didn’t make them. We don’t have to smash them or submit to them. We can tap them instead (pp. 97-101).

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