Many Muslims upset by the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, argue that the issue is not about free speech but about the insult to a religious figure revered by roughly a quarter of the world’s population.
Less clear are the precise origins of the Muslim objection to visual depictions — insulting or otherwise — of the prophet and holy persons of any faith.
That objection, which Islamist militants have cited in justifying their deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris last week, has some roots in the Quran, which discourages image-making as a form of idol worship that demeans God.
But Islamic scholars and legal experts say the Quran does not explicitly prohibit image-making, and while the act is considered sinful in some branches of Islam, in others it is not — and certainly not one deserving of death. Moreover, these experts point to a rich history of Islamic art forms that include celebratory depictions of Muhammad.
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The objection to images of the prophet — positive or negative — and all depictions of any being with a soul, animal or human, has evolved over time and has been interpreted in diverse ways.
It is based on the Hadith, a collection of traditions that contain Muhammad’s sayings and practices, and other Islamic principles, legal opinions and literature that helped form Shariah, the code of behavior that guides many aspects of Muslim life.
The prohibition emerged from scholars as early as the 9th century and came from reported sayings of Muhammad, in some of which he refused to enter a room with such depictions or challenged their creators to breathe life into them. The presumption was that such art would suggest man can emulate God’s powers of creation; there were worries that statues in particular could encourage idolatry.
There have been exceptions. A rich tradition of depicting Muhammad emerged in miniatures and illustrations for manuscripts from around 1200 to 1700. The art is mainly from Turkey and Iran, where pictorial traditions were stronger than in the Arab world. The paintings often show traditional stories from Muhammad’s life, such as his journey to heaven, though in some the prophet’s face is obscured by a veil or a plume of flame.
Abed Awad, a New Jersey lawyer and Rutgers University law professor who is an expert in Islamic law, said the objection on imagery is far from absolute but is strongest within the Sunni branch of Islam.
“The modern Sunni argument for prohibition is that the portrayal of the prophets may contribute to demeaning them, undermine their dignity and integrity and could be utilized as an excuse to ridicule and mock them,” he said. “The prophets are to be revered and respected, this includes Jesus, Moses and other prophets.”
The Shiite branch of Islam, Awad said, is more flexible on this question, and does not explicitly forbid the depiction of the prophet in positive images and in film.
But mockery of Islam can be considered blasphemous, as seen in the assassination order proclaimed in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the Shiite supreme leader of Iran, against Salman Rushdie, the author of the novel “The Satanic Verses.”
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington civil-liberties advocacy group, said the prevailing view among Muslims is that all imagery of the prophets, regardless of their religion, is offensive because it promotes the idolatry discouraged by the Quran. “It’s an established cultural and religious norm,” he said.
Western sensitivity to the Muslim objections has a mixed history. In New York, for example, an 8-foot-tall marble statue of the prophet, created by the Mexican sculptor Charles Albert Lopez, adorned the roof of a courthouse adjoining Madison Square Park for more than 50 years until it was quietly removed in 1955.
But a coalition of Muslim advocacy groups failed in a 1997 effort to seek the removal or alteration of a frieze containing a likeness of Muhammad on the north wall of the U.S. Supreme Court’s main chamber. The prophet is among 18 revered lawgivers decorating the court’s interior. “It was a respectful presentation and nobody doubts that,” said Hooper. “We just felt duty-bound to raise it.”
While no one knows Muhammad’s true appearance, followers of the relatively modern, ultraconservative Salafi movement in Islam seek to emulate him as closely as possible, including in what they believe to be his physical features and dress. Hard-core Salafis wear a beard without a mustache, have long hair, line their eyes with kohl or wear robes stopping around mid-shin, contending that was the prophet’s manner.
There is a thriving production of religious TV series in the Arab world depicting the times of the prophet. But Muhammad and his companions are never shown. At times, a white light stands in for Muhammad in the films or in movie posters — and when they are addressing Muhammad, the actors usually speak into the camera.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.