In ‘Among School Children’, W B Yeats wrote that ‘Both nuns and mothers worship images’, a line calculated to send shudders of outrage down the spine of any zealous dogmatist, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim. To worship an image is to engage in idolatry; it is to see a divine presence embodied in an object made by human hands. Nevertheless, as Jamal J Elias shows in considerable detail in Aisha’s Cushion, his engrossing study of figural representation in the Islamic tradition, the issue is far more ambiguous and nuanced than Biblical or Koranic condemnations of idolatry might suggest. In fact, even these condemnations are not always what they seem to be. Are idols to be smashed because they are false gods or because they are the ‘wrong’ gods – that is, gods in competition with the ‘right’ god? With regard to the subtler and more intricate subject of icons, are these to be seen as spiritual ‘windows’ opening onto a transcendent realm, and to be venerated as such, or are they idols in camouflage, worshipped for their own sakes (and not only by ‘nuns and mothers’)? As Elias rightly notes, in the end, and perhaps perversely, it is the iconoclasts themselves who ‘are the ultimate affirmers of the power of images’.
Though he draws on an abundance of sources, both visual and textual, and in a very wide range of languages – Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu as well as French and German – Elias’s focus is consistently on the peculiar nature of representation itself. He sees sacred images – whether