The culture depicted in the novel is devoutly Muslim, and the characters are all concerned with questions of virtue and sin. Most of the characters believe in an absolute sense of morality, meaning that there are universal rules which dictate what is virtuous and what is sinful. In other words, it’s black and white: on Judgment Day, “the guilty [will be] separated from the innocent.”
Despite this common preoccupation with virtue and sin, though, there is little agreement within the world of the novel about what is sinful and what isn’t. Strict clerics condemn popular features of Istanbul’s culture, such as dervish lodges, coffee, dogs, and manuscript illumination, while other characters find all of these things to be culturally and spiritually acceptable. The followers of the fundamentalist Hoja of Erzurum, nicknamed Erzurumis, are particularly zealous about chasing after these supposedly-sinful phenomena, and they murder patrons of a coffeehouse—including the storyteller—as a result. This raises questions about the relative offensiveness of different sins. Even if it is a sin to drink coffee, is it not worse to murder someone? In his own chapter, Satan clarifies that some believers are overzealous in their condemnation of sin, arguing: “Even the Almighty couldn't find anything evil in passing wind or jacking off.” However, it is perhaps unwise to trust the word of the devil in this matter, particularly given that he also admits: “I work very hard so you might commit grave sins.”
Satan is insightful, though, in his argument that humans are too quick to blame him for their sinful behavior. He clarifies that most people commit sins on account of their own free will, not because they have been led astray by him. This statement hints at the fact that many people are less virtuous then they would like to believe, an idea further emphasized by the murderer. Shortly after killing Elegant, the murderer watches strangers in the street and thinks: “Many of them believe they’re innocent because they haven’t yet had the opportunity to snuff out a life… Only imbeciles are innocent.” The words of Satan and the murderer suggest that everyone is capable—and perhaps guilty—of committing sin, due to the fact that they have free will. This in turn raises one of the major conundrums in the history of religious ethics: if God gives people free will, is it sinful to use this faculty to question and push against religious teaching?
A similar question arises in the context of artistic representation. At one point, Stork asks the question of whether the blind and the seeing could be equal, and Olive thinks to himself: “Was he implying that even though what we saw was obscene, the pleasure of sight that Allah had bestowed upon us was glorious?” Like the problem of free will, this question grapples with how a talent given by Allah (such as artistic skill) could be automatically sinful when put into practice. Indeed, the miniaturists at times make fun of the denunciation of their work as sinful, such as when Stork signs his name as “the Sinning Painter Mustafa Chelebi.” Ultimately, this moral ambiguity means that each character decides for themselves what is virtuous and what is sinful, aware that they will not be able to know for certain until the Day of Judgment.
Virtue vs. Sin ThemeTracker
Virtue vs. Sin Quotes in My Name is Red
I heard tell that this Husret Hoja, taking matters even further, declared with spittle flying from his mouth, "Ah, my devoted believers! The drinking of coffee is an absolute sin! Our Glorious Prophet did not partake of coffee because he knew it dulled the intellect, caused ulcers, hernia and sterility; he understood that coffee was nothing but the Devil's ruse. Coffeehouses are places where pleasure-seekers and wealthy gadabouts sit knee-to-knee, involving themselves in all sorts of vulgar behavior; in fact, even before the dervish houses are closed, coffeehouses ought to be banned. Do the poor have enough money to drink coffee? Men frequent these places, become besotted with coffee and lose control of their mental faculties to the point that they actually listen to and believe what dogs and mongrels have to say.
Nevertheless, being a murderer takes some getting used to. I can't stand being at home, so I head out to the street. I can’t stand my street, so I walk on to another, and then another. As I stare at people's faces, I realize that many of them believe they're innocent because they haven't yet had the opportunity to snuff out a life. It's hard to believe that most men are more moral or better than me simply on account of some minor twist of fate. At most, they wear somewhat stupider expressions because they haven't yet killed, and like all fools, they appear to have good intentions.
After I took care of that pathetic man, wandering the streets of Istanbul for four days was enough to confirm that everyone with a gleam of cleverness in his eye and the shadow of his soul cast across his face was a hidden assassin. Only imbeciles are innocent.
Not one could approach my mastery in imbuing illustrations with the poetry of the soul, not even in gilding. I'm not bragging, but explaining this to you so you might fully understand me. Over time, jealousy becomes an element as indispensable as paint in the life of the master artist.
When a God-fearing man like myself unexpectedly becomes a murderer, it takes time to adjust. I've adopted a second voice, one befitting a murderer, so that I might still carry on as though my old life continued. I am speaking now in this derisive and devious second voice, which I keep out of my regular life. From time to time, of course, you'll hear my familiar regular voice, which would've remained my only voice had I not become a murderer. But when I speak under my workshop name, I'll never admit to being "a murderer." Let no one try to associate these two voices, I have no individual style or flaws in artistry to betray my hidden persona. Indeed, I believe that style, or for that matter, anything that serves to distinguish one artist from another, is a flaw––not individual character, as some arrogantly claim.
He was frightened because he suddenly understood––and perhaps desired––that Islamic artistry perfected and securely established by the old masters of Herat, would meet its end on account of the appeal of portraiture.
"However, it was as if I too wanted to feel extraordinary different and unique," he said. As if prodded by the Devil, he felt himself strongly drawn to what he feared, "How should I say it? It is as if this were a sin of desire, like growing arrogant before God, like considering oneself of utmost importance, like situating oneself at the center of the world."
“Why did they all believe that painting would bar them from the gates of Heaven?"
"You know quite well why! Because they remembered Our Prophet's warning that on Judgment Day, Allah will punish painters most severely."
"Not painters," corrected Enishte Effendi. "Those who make idols. And this is not from the Koran but from Bukhari."
"On Judgment Day, the idol makers will be asked to bring the images they've created to life," I said cautiously. "Since they'll be unable to do so their lot will be to suffer the torments of Hell. Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, ‘creator’ is one of the attributes of Allah. It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He."
I believe in myself, and, most of the time, pay no mind to what's been said about me. Tonight, however, I've come to this coffeehouse to set my miniaturist and calligrapher brethren straight about certain gossip, lies and rumors.
Of course, because I'm the one speaking, you're already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I say. But you're smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true, and though you might doubt me, you're astute enough to take an interest in my words: You're well aware that my name, which appears in the Glorious Koran fifty-two times, is one of the most frequently cited.
All right then, let me begin with God's book, the Glorious Koran. Everything about me in there is the truth. Let it be known that when I say this, I do so with the utmost humility. For there's also the issue of style. It has always caused me great pain that I'm belittled in the Glorious Koran. But this pain is my way of life. This is simply the way it is.
This chamber was red, tinged with the color of the velvet cloth, carpets and kilims hanging on the walls. With due reverence, I considered how the accumulation of all this wealth was the consequence of wars waged, blood spilt and cities and treasuries plundered.
"Frightened?" asked the elderly dwarf, giving voice to my feelings. "Everybody is frightened on their first visit. At night the spirits of these objects whisper to each other."