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A Look At What Idolatry Is Religion Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 2804 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Iconoclasm and Idolatry have played important phenomenon in the past to represent the power of images. The trend is continuing to the present day to study images and its significance. Idolatry is belief of certain religions to believe in the power of God through images. Some of the religions condemn the thought whereas some religions believe idol worship. Idolatry is not believed by certain religions and in these cases idolatry leads to deliberate Iconoclasm resulting in degradation of sentiments (Encyclopaedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 2001). People engaged in these activities are termed as iconoclasts and people opposing in this context or who indirectly encourage idols as power of images are termed as iconophiles or iconodules (Encyclopaedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 2001).

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Power of images in terms of idolatry is restricted to preferences of the religion and related to special sacred places. Some examples of the sacred places include tabernacles, synagogues, and churches (Abott and John, 1974). In these places, God is believed to be present by religious followers and they believe that these images possess sacred powers. The architecture of these sacred places and the images create additional belief in the power by evoking emotional senses (Abott and John, 1974). The associated rituals create additional mental presence of divinity through the divine performances. There are many examples which vary according to the religion to study the power of images. Some of them are described below.


Judaism Idolatry: In this religious approach, idolatry is strongly prohibited. Judaism preaches that divinity doesn’t pertain to idol or picture worship and extends to use of artistic representation of God or any means of representing God as means of worship. Judaism strongly prohibited all these forms of Idolatry and considered that all the representations of idolatry serve as mediators between self and almighty. The following recommendations are recorded in the section of Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Avodah Zarah). Jewish theories preach that Idolatry is considered as insult to God to worship his idols rather than him in his original form. In addition, Noahide laws preach that the non-Israelite and non-Jewish world to worship absolute creator and not any of his forms, considering it as a sin. Judaism possesses characteristic religious beliefs which are controversial with many Jewish theories of idolatry which is the main cause of Iconoclasm in them.

Christian Idolatry: Christians view is divided in to two groups, Catholic view and Fundamentalist view. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe in idols and worship of idol as representation of God. However, the Fundamentalist Protestants blame them for idolatry (John, 1977). They support Judaism thoughts and restrict themselves from worshiping images or religious objects. There are findings recorded where Catholic Christians use religious representations like Icons, crosses, Vestments, Candles to worship Jesus. They believe that these two dimensional and three dimensional forms are filled with God’s grace and power and worshipping them is equivalent to the original form of God (John, 1977). The Catholics cite St.John of Damascus to support the use of idols and its representations.

On the other hand, Protestants avoid worshipping images and idols. Rarely some images are seen in Protestant churches which only form a basis for representation however they are not worshipped anytime (John, 1977). They are against idolatry and follow the Ten Commandments which say that Christians shall have no gods before Christ (John 1977).

The thoughts of Christians reflects the power of images in broader view and reveals that Jesus took birth in form of flesh and particularised himself to the external world through physical things. They feel worshiping physical things are closer to worship of Jesus (Geoffrey, 1982).

Islam Idolatry: Islamic religion considers Idolatry as a sin and this sin is termed as Sirk. Polytheism is restricted in Islam and is considered as unforgivable crime. Idolatry is considered similar to Polytheism in Islamic context and is preached to worship God only in one form (Kamoonpuri, 2001).

Hinduism Idolatry: Hinduism consists of wide range of beliefs and it neither preaches nor prohibits idolatry. Hinduism is divided into many sects and different sects have different opinions about idols. According to Sri Krishna in Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 12, Verse 5), focus on God could be difficult without manifestation. He tells it is easy to focus by senses of man in form of idol manifestations.

Hindus do not consider Idolatry as a sin and rather consider idol worship as a means to achieve moksha or salvation. There are many forms of icons and idols worshipped by the Hindus and Polytheism is greatly extended throughout Hindus (Salmon and Noel, 2004). They believe image worship as a form of original forms of God and consider worshipping these icons in religious places and divine centres. Hindus Iconography consists of rich use of symbols and idols which are considered as divine attributes of Brahman. They worship various gestures, murtis and icons of animals as a divine form of God and their preaching is considered to be on a path to obtain salvation (Salmon and Noel, 2004).

History of Idol worship in Hindus is traced back to Vedic period and meditating to perceive image of divine power within themselves is one of the common practices observed. Idol worship is considered as the first step of worshiping divine power in their original form. Hindus consider idols to be direct representation of God and believe the divinity to be hidden in form of various religious icons (Jeane Fowler, 2001).

Being the largest religious sect in favour of idolatry, Hinduism has paved way to many controversial theories against power of images. Professor of Anthropology, Christopher John Fuller condemns Idols as equation to a religious deity and concludes that image could not form an object of worship (The camphor flame). Various Abrahamic religions condemned idolatry of Hindus in 11th centaury resulting in rejection of anthropomorphism (Al-Biruni study). The rule of Islam in India caused religious wars against idolatry and caused way for many Hindu reformist movements during 18th and 19th centuaries (Salmon and Noel, 2004). As a result, Brahmo samaj and Arya samaj were established calling back the ancient teachings and preachings of God in different forms (Salmon and Noel, 2004).

Idolatry in Sikhism: The main scripture and Guru of Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib is against Idolatry and strongly opposes worship of God in form of images. It is preached in Sikhism that the only way to reach salvation of divinity is through meditation (Deific representation). The Tenth Guru of Sikh, Dasam Granth also opposes Idol worship strictly. Sikhs criticise use of any idols and idol representations as a means of worshipping God (Chisholm and Hugh, 1911).

Various religious theories of Idolatry have been discussed in the section above and it is observed that majority of Hindus and class of Christians believe in Idolatry whereas others oppose Idolatry. Idolatry is believed to polytheism in certain religions and hence considered as a sin. In contrast, Hindus believe in Idols and believe these idols to posses divine qualities, equivalent to those of supreme power.


Iconoclasm is considered as a destructive activity towards Idolatry. Iconoclasm is seen either by result of clashes between people of different religion or sometimes even result by the disputes of people within the same religion. Below are some examples given to describe power of images in terms of Iconoclasm.

Byzantine Iconoclasm: In the 8th and 9th centuries, Byzantine Iconoclasm outbreaks were recorded. The main issue of the dispute was use of images. The first period was recorded during 70-787. Increase of images overwhelmed during this period, resulting in break-up of iconoclasm (Cormack, 1985). This war was agitated between Justinian II and Caliph, Abd al Malik. Justinian II incorporated the image of Jesus on the gold coins in circulation during that period and this caused the Muslim counterpart, Caliph Abd al-Malik to stop adopting coin types and considered lettering on Islamic coinage. This took place in 695 and marked the beginning of Iconoclasm. During 726-730, The Isaurian Byzantine Emperor, Leo III began idol removal campaign of Jesus and replaced it with cross. This act led to severe agitations by many iconodules and pope also condemned this activity and referred iconoclasm to be heretical and against law (Mango, 1977).

The second war took place in 787 and this time, there was agitation caused due to restriction of Iconoclasm by Constantine VI and Pope. The resistance was created due to the soldiers who believed in Iconoclasm as one of the faithful activity towards Constantinople (Mango, 1977). Though, initially it was resisted, the council met again to make some reformations and observe the power of images. The council recommended that images, icons and any religious material which could form a means of representing Lord should never be disturbed and the act should be encouraged to remember Lord every time during worship. They declared the traditions in the past regarding iconoclasm to be freed and disregarded in the name of Lord (Tanner et al, 2005). Additionally, they also expressed that the more frequency of these images observed, the more people tend to remember and practice compassion and harmony (Tanner et al, 2005).

Some of the issues raised in Byzantine iconoclasm are largely based on iconodules. The main issues recorded were:

Iconoclasm was against creation of lifeless images like painting or statue to represent Lord or any saints. This was supported by the church fathers and they rejected all means of Idolatry. They even commented that the painters intending for this evil act would be punished during reincarnation by the Lord himself and declined rights to make images by painters (Tanner et al, 2005).

They believed worship of the lord in its original form and no other means and considered that the power of lord reduces by worshiping material things. They considered Eucharist, consisting of blood and body as the only means of icon of worship (Tanner et al, 2005).

They prescribed Iconoclasm in case they represent the true image of Jesus and its divinity which was impossible task for any creative painter to do. The other main issue recorded in these circumstances was that by creation of lifeless images creatively, the divine nature is being separated by human nature as the image is representation of human form and the divine form could never be represented by an ordinary man. This activity was considered a crime and is termed as nestorianism. The activity also paved path for creating wrong belief of merging both divine and human forms and this is considered as monophysitism (Tanner et al, 2005).

The practice of using icons of Lord in the church was severely condemned and a request was made to refrain from the evil activity of worshiping the icons (Tanner et al, 2005).

The power of images was criticised highly and believed that Images could not be considered as a true representation of the Lord to worship.

Muslim Iconoclasm: The beginning of Muslim Iconoclasm was marked by the removal and destruction of icons at Kaaba by Muhammad in the 11th centaury. This is marked of great importance and believers tend this activity as religious act (Flood, 2002). Further Muslims do not encourage depiction of human and animal forms in holy places of worship like mosques and madrasahs. These practices are based on the traditions present in their holy book, Hadith and not Quran. This muslim activity was not spread to the outer world initially and was rather secured to the secular sphere of Muslims although Muslim art was in existence (Flood, 2002).

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There were many iconoclastic activities recorded in the past and the first of these iconoclastic activities was recorded in 630.This act destroyed Arabian deities present in houses of Kaaba in Mecca. They put an end to the belief of Muhammad sparing Mary and Jesus (Flood, 2002). This iconoclastic act intended to end activity of idolatry which is originally considered as sin or Jahiliyya. Although the Muslim deities were destroyed, the worship of idols among other religions communities in Mecca spared. Later on Umayyad caliph Yazid II issued Edict which led to destruction of icons, crosses and images pertaining to Christianity in holy places and hoses of Christians. Investigations by archaeological surveys supported the fact (King, 1985).

Idolatry however was not put to an end since the successors of Yazid were not in particular about this act. It is during this time that, idolatry continued and created influence over other religions (King, 1985).

There were many iconoclastic activities done by the Muslims and these activities included the destruction of nose by Sufi Muslim fanatics on Sphinx of Giza (Flood, 2002). There were examples of conversion of religious places in history after destruction. One such example mentioned is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul which was converted into a mosque after destruction of idols and plastering of icons. This local temple was used as museum later on by American Byzantine Institute to enable restoration activity in 1932 (King, 1985). Muslims activities also spread to high iconoclastic activities in India which caused the destruction of Hindu and Buddhist temples during the reign of Muslim rulers. Examples of such cases of erection of mosques are Qutub complex, Babri Mosque in famous Hindu places of worship. Mughal destruction of idols at Varanasi and Mathura were some other noticeable incidents recorded in the past (Grabar, 1984). Controversies over Muslim Iconoclasm are many which are continuing from the past. Destruction of Wahhabist authorities of Mecca of historical buildings is a good example. This was performed to release fear of Idolatry (Islamica magazine).

The destruction of Giant Buddha by Taliban’s was another activity recorded in the recent times which attracted protests from many people all over the world. This Muslim activity was not supported by many Muslim organizations. However Taliban government overlooked the matter by considering the activity as a part of figural destruction (Flood, 2002).

Muslim activities of Iconoclasm are widely protested in the recent times for their meaningless destructive activities spoiling the history and one such example quoting this is the Muhammad Catoon Contraversy , 2005 and very recently arrest of certain protestants at Jyllands-Posten in december 2010 (Flood, 2002).

Reformation Iconoclasm: There are many reformist activities signifying iconoclasm by removing idols and icons of Christ in many Churches of Protestants. These activities paved way to destroy the phenomenon of Idolatry. Examples of such activities were rewcorded in Zurich, Copenhagen and Munster (1530).

Political Iconoclasm: This kind of Iconoclasm is described in situations of destroying political images with advent of rule by a successor or a new emperor (Lary, 1974). This kind of Iconoclasm is popular during medival times to study power of rulers in administration.


There are various theories proposed in the past and present which study Idolatry. Idolatry is still continued in present times in various religions and political reforms. However increased idolatry causes serious effects to the self and the nation resulting in mania towards self religion.

Iconoclasm was started in the past as a means of destroying Idolatry, but inversely resulted in destroying many historical and political properties. It resulted in many controversies and wars in the past and many take place till present times.

The power of images can be studied through various theories of religious Idolatry as discussed above and many activities of Iconoclasm describe this tendency. Modern theologises study these aspects as a positive approach to study power of divinity and rule. Many theories study these destructions as aggressiveness of religious followers against another popular religion with the support of government. Balance between these activities should be monitored regularly to avoid regional wars towards religion. Practice of compassion and divinity should be encouraged by religious leaders all over the world.


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