The Victoria and Albert museum has attempted to conceal its ownership of a devotional image of the prophet Muhammad, citing security concerns, in what is part of a wider pattern of apparent self-censorship by British institutions that scholars fear could undermine public understanding of Islamic art and the diversity of Muslim traditions.
Similar images have been shown in exhibitions across Europe and America without prompting outrage, much less protests or a violent response. Made by Muslim artists for fellow Muslims, they come from a long but often overlooked tradition.
British museums and libraries hold dozens of these images, mostly miniatures in manuscripts several centuries old, but they have been kept largely out of public view. Fear of displaying them is apparently driven by controversy about satirical or offensive portraits of Muhammad by non-Muslims, despite the huge difference in form and purpose.
When the V&A was asked if it held any images of Muhammad after the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, it said there were none. A US expert later provided a link to a poster in its collection, with the inscription “Mohammad the Prophet of God”. That page in the database was deleted last week, but can still be found in a cached version. A spokeswoman said their original response was “an honest error”.
“Unfortunately we were incorrect to say there were no works depicting the prophet Muhammad in the V&A’s collection,” a spokeswoman, Olivia Colling, said in an email, adding that the image had subsequently been taken down because of security concerns. “As the museum is a high-profile public building already on a severe security alert, our security team made the decision that it was best to remove the image from our online database (it remains within the collection).”
The museum has many items that are not on display but form an important part of its educational and cultural mission. Colling declined to say whether the museum had consulted Muslim communities about who might consider the image offensive, or whether it had received any threats directly related to the poster, created in Iran around 1990.
There was not a single complaint when another contemporary Iranian image of Muhammad was included in a 2013 exhibition in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, hung next to a Christian icon, as part of an exhibition on cross-cultural encounters.
“We knew it might be controversial, but decided to take the risk because the story is important to tell,” said Mirjam Shatanawi, an Islamic art specialist and the Tropenmuseum’s curator for the Middle East and North Africa. “These images are a real eye-opener, a powerful example of Islam being different and more diverse than many imagine.
“If Muslims feel offended by images made by other Muslims out of reverence for the prophet, I’m not sure if the museum should decide not to show them. It seems like choosing one interpretation of Islam over the other. These images are not made to disrespect but – on the contrary – to honour the prophet.”
The Muslim Council of Britain declined to comment on whether it considered the images offensive, or whether it would object to their display.
Other British institutions with images of Muhammad in their Islamic art collections show some on websites, but have shied away from exhibitions. Edinburgh University Library last year celebrated a manuscript that contains many images of Muhammad, but none was included in the display. The university declined to say why.
The poster owned by the V&A shows an Iranian artist’s view of Muhammad. Photograph: PR
“There is no artistic reason whatsoever why those folios should have been left out,” said Christiane Gruber, an expert in images of the prophet at the University of Michigan. “The paintings of Muhammad are superb and form a significant part of the manuscript’s pictorial programme. I worry that our institutions of culture and learning are muting these significant Islamic works of figural art due to a variety of fears. This is a real shame and a terrible loss for our shared global artistic heritage.”
The British Library included one image of Muhammad in its 2007 Sacred exhibition, but his face is veiled. None of the other UK libraries and museums that hold pictures of the prophet could provide details of any time they had been on public display.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art features one in its Islamic art galleries, and several were shown in Paris at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2011 with no negative response.
“As a historian of religion, I think it is very important to put such images on display. They provide valuable information about the richness of Muslim devotional life,” said Ingvild Flaskerud, an expert on Shia devotional culture at the University of Oslo. “By not displaying the images, we give privilege to certain understandings of Islam and marginalize others. This is not simply a scholastic issue; it is also a democratic matter.”