So there’s a new film coming out: “Gods of Egypt.” Is it just me, or are we seeing a lot of movies come out over the past few years dramatizing idolatry and portraying mythological gods as heroes? We might think it’s just cheap entertainment and has no larger significance, but some people really believe this stuff and we cannot take for granted the symbolic impact on the collective societal consciousness of films and imagery that popularize idols and paganism. This is especially true for films that portray these gods as protagonists.
From the synopsis of this “Gods of Egypt” film, it’s about one deity taking control of Egypt and another deity named Horus trying to regain power. The character Horus in the movie has only one eye and in ancient Egyptian iconography, Horus was represented by a symbol of an eye called the Wedjet, also known as the Eye of Horus.
It is interesting that, unlike other religions, Islam does not have iconography or sacred symbols. Arabic calligraphy, for example, is not sacred in itself. It is just art, and an artist can stylize the writing of the Quran in different ways. The form of that writing has no special significance. The crescent and star symbol also has no religious significance. It originated with the Ottoman empire as a national seal and today is more of a conventional marker for Islam used by non-Muslims.
Symbols are man-made. They are only considered sacred because that is what people have decided for themselves. But God has not authorized these symbols or given them any special significance or power. Rather than symbols, in Islam, we have ayat and ashrat. These are signs and indicators from God. Ayat include the verses of the Quran and numerous aspects of the natural world and our own selves that point us to Allah and increase our belief in and awe of Him. We cannot see Allah but we can see His signs: “We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth” (Quran 41:53).
Secularism and atheism, of course, also claim to not accept the validity and significance of symbols. But we as Muslims should not conflate the secular mainstream’s rejection of religious symbols with our own reasons for not putting stock in symbols, charms, and superstitions. Because we still believe in signs and ashrat. The difference is, Allah has told us to look for signs and indicators in the world around us, signs that will lead us to the truth, namely the reality of God and His dominion. But superstition and symbology is man-made and is shirk because Allah has put no authority in these entities and they have no power to benefit or harm.
We might think paganism and shirk are things of the past, things that the modern mind has transcended, but popular media has been bringing back these symbols and icons and it will continue to have an impact on our society. Imagine what Musa (as) would think if he found out that the specific gods of Firawn and the mushriks of his time would be revived in people’s minds thousands of years later!