Fill in the blanks exercise – Islamic art

Here is something a bit different for you – a cloze, or gap, test.

The idea is to listen to the speech and fill in the gaps with one or more words that are grammatically correct and match the content and style of the piece.

This is a good exercise for many reasons:

  • it helps you with anticipation. You won’t be able to fill in every gap before hearing the following few words, but some of them can be guessed immediately because they’re part of a collocation, set phrase, or idiom, or because they make sense in context.
  • it helps you work on reformulation: some of the gaps have many possible solutions. How many can you think of?
  • it’s a good listening exercise. You need to concentrate really hard to follow the speech’s thread, so that you can fill in the blanks.
  • it’s a good reminder that we work at the level of ideas, not words. Imagine if you were interpreting the speech from English into your A language: you could make a good guess at the missing words; so if they were unknown words, you would still be able to follow the meaning in most cases.

Audio file – Islamic art

This is quite a challenging text. You will need to draw on your background knowledge and logic, as well as your English skills, to fill in the blanks successfully.

You can find the recording here.


I won’t go through every blank, but I thought it might be useful to discuss a few of the blanks where there were several possible solutions.

  • depictions of the prophet Muhammad are……. in Islam: you could say forbidden, or banned, prohibited.
  • The prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how …….., is widely …….. today . There are many ways to complete this sentence, especially as it is ambiguous: does the adjective following ‘no matter how’ refer to ‘images of the prophet’, or to ‘prohibition’? Depending on what you think, you could say ‘the prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how innocuous, is widely accepted’, or ‘the prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how harmless, is widely criticised today’, or ‘the prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how dangerous, is widely accepted today’. You need to think carefully about what has been said so far, and your background knowledge about this issue.
  • there is no such …….. in the Qur’an: this could be instruction, or prohibition, ban, or edict.
  • Islam was the only common …..: could be religion, factor, or denominator.
  • ruling elites ……. Islam as a binding agent: there are several solutions, depending on meaning. You could say used or exploited; or fastened on tolatched on to; or saw, perceived.
  • decade of economic pain and social …..: this could be decline, problems, tensions, or fracture.

Speech transcript

Here’s the transcript of the speech. I have highlighted the missing words in bold.

Though we often hear that depictions of the prophet Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, artworks bearing his image can be found in museums in Europe and the United States. And he is in many carefully curated private collections of Islamic art, appearing from time to time in the catalogues of prestigious auction houses when these artworks change hands.

The prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how anodyne, is widely accepted today – but, as these examples show, it is a distinctly modern edict. The religious justification for the ban is far less clear than its proponents believe: there is no such instruction in the Qur’an. There is, of course, a pre-Islamic aversion to idol worship shared by all the monotheistic religions, and over the centuries this aversion gradually wore away depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art. But this was only a prelude to the modern charge of blasphemy – which arrived only in the 20th century, after the Muslim world had fractured into nation-states.

The modern majority-Muslim nation-state is a weak and unwieldy creature. Across Africa and south Asia, colonial forces lumped together disparate tribes and languages, drew boundary lines around them, and then abruptly decamped to Europe. For many citizens of these new nations, Islam was the only common denominator. In the absence of any coherent political programme beyond the maintenance of their own power, ruling elites fastened on to Islam as a binding agent. From there it was an easy step to pick out some sacred icons, such as the image of the prophet, and to draw arbitrary theological red lines, useful for dispensing with political opponents. The story of blasphemy in contemporary Islam isn’t about doctrine. It is about decline and dictatorship.

There is a lesson in this tale for all of us: the more that a society is preoccupied with its symbols, the more insecure it has become. In the UK, the Conservative government and its court press have seized upon the veneration of national symbols as a consolation for a decade of economic pain and social fracture.

And then, of course, there is the flag, the latest icon to be invested with a sanctity that demands it be flown longer and larger. The government has decreed that after the summer the flag should fly over official buildings every day rather than 20 days a year. No longer is it just jolly bunting on special occasions. This is the endpoint of a journey that began when Nigel Farage took a small union flag and placed it in front of him at the European parliament. In all its absurdity, that moment comes closest to representing what the flag has come to symbolise today – a false but potent claim of liberation from fictional oppressive forces.

Over the past few months, Tory MPs have tried to burnish their political credentials by posturing more and more aggressively about the flag, demanding that it be compulsory in all schools (and that anyone who has concerns can be “educated” into compliance). It is an even shorter distance between that public, official intimidation and private citizens taking matters into their own hands. Earlier this year, one mayor in Cornwall received death threats for removing flags that had been put up without the council’s permission.

“You can’t eat a flag,” said John Hume, one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process. When Muslim countries erupt with rage over images of Muhammad, I see governments who cannot feed their people, or provide them with dignity or democratic rights, so they feed them false pride instead. The images we see on the news from Cairo or Khartoum of protests against cartoons or authors, are pictures of astroturfed anger, whipped up and bussed into town squares in government vehicles. Some of that anger seeps into corners that then become impossible to scrub. The worship of icons, whether flags or statues, may seem like a harmless performance on the part of a government that has little else to offer. But behind it lurks the threat of something much more sinister.

I hope you enjoyed this exercise!

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