Why do Muslims object to depictions of their prophet?

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The French magazine Charlie Hebdo came out yesterday in France with what many Muslims see as a provocative cartoon of Muhammad on the cover, crying and holding up a sign, Je Suis Charlie. You can see the cartoon of Muhammad here. Though on NBC Nightly News last night, and in the New York Times, the image was not shown; and some readers have objected to that self-censorship.

Sadly, most outlets have failed to explain to readers why Muslims find such representations objectionable. Today I see the Times has now done the story, saying that Islam is diverse on the issue, and that in some traditions, the prophet is depicted. That story suggests that Muslims will evolve on the matter.

While I am no expert on religious ideas, I have gleaned that the prohibition represents mainstream Muslim belief. You may or may not agree with these Muslims, you may regard such proscriptions as antediluvian. But here are some responses.

The Council on American Islamic Relations had a press conference on the cover art yesterday, urging tolerance toward the publication but criticizing it. “Just as Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish, we have the right to peacefully challenge negative portrayals of our religious figures,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. And per CNN:

“That the depiction appears benign is of little consequence because it will be seen as offensive and deliberately provocative,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s communications director, said to me, “Generally this is a cultural and religious issue throughout the Muslim world: no depictions of religious figures.” The prohibition reflects a bar on idol worship. “And when you have those physical representations, it tends in that direction.”

Hooper says that coverage has made Muslims out to be sensitive and prejudicial, reflecting a general lack of awareness about Muslim beliefs.

“We have found very low levels of knowledge, and that contributes to stereotyping and bias. That we’re just irrationally against physical depictions of the prophet Muhammad. But we have the same objections to depicting Jesus and Moses.”

The Koran contains no explicit bar on representing the prophet, but hadith (subsequent religious reports of Muhammad’s beliefs) state that he must not be drawn, says this article on Wikipedia, citing the prohibition of idolatry. Wikipedia says that the bar is similar to Jewish historical bans on depicting religious figures, resulting from the Ten Commandments’ proscription of “graven images.” The article also states that Sunnis are more resolved on this issue than Shi’a, and that Wikipedia has refused to defer to a large petition drive to keep it from posting images of Muhammad to illustrate the article, saying Wikipedia “does not censor itself for the benefit of any one group.” It also picks up a New York Post report from 2010 that the Metropolitan Museum of Art removed three images of Muhammad from its exhibits of Islamic art in New York out of concern for offending Muslims. According to this Wikipedia article, the US Supreme Court resisted calls in 1997 from the Council on American Islamic Relations to remove Muhammad’s sculpture from a marble frieze of great lawgivers, as being offensive to Muslims.

The Times has reported too that a statue of the prophet on an appellate courthouse in New York was removed out of sensitivity to Muslim belief 60 years ago.

This Wikipedia entry on Muslim art explains that Muslim theologians generally have “categorical prohibitions against producing and using any representation of living beings.” That piece quotes Titus Burckhardt, a 20th century Swiss scholar of religion, saying that the prohibition reflects spiritual wisdom, that if human beings are portrayed, people tend to project themselves on to an idol rather than to make their own souls the center of their being. Burckhardt:

“By excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within the religious realm, Islamic art aids man to be entirely himself. Instead of projecting his soul outside himself, he can remain in his ontological centre … Nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God. Thus Islamic art creates a void; it eliminates in fact all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world, and in their stead creates an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace.”

The issue in media coverage is how much respect there is for these ideas. The scholar and former CIA analyst Graham E. Fuller says that we should respect Muslims’ sensitivity about the matter as we would respect say, sensitivity about other cultural touchstones– not satirizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s private life in the context of Ferguson or not satirizing the Jewish belief in chosenness.

In the American Southwest I have noticed husky young Latinos walking along the streets with t-shirts bearing the image and name of “La Virgen de Guadalupe.” The Virgin of Guadalupe is an iconic symbol of Mexican culture and religion, especially for indigenous peoples in Mexico. In areas of tense race relations between minority, often disadvantaged Latino populations, and whites in the US, would an Anglo think about mocking the mythical story of the miracle of the vision of the Virgin by a Mexican Indian? In the wrong setting it could get you beat up, maybe killed. You would have dissed a major focal point of parts of Mexican identity.

Katie Miranda, cartoonist and Muslim, also says that context is important:

It’s a cultural tradition rather than a religious mandate. There’s a large body of Persian miniatures depicting Muhammed and that’s not a problem. It turns into a controversy when occupiers, Islamophobes and colonizers do it to intentionally provoke.

James North, who prompted me to do this piece two days ago, adds that the coverage of the issue has portrayed Muslims as backward.

The tone is, Muslims are sensitive about this, and if we’re patient, they will overcome this as we Christians have. Maybe that’s true, but my question is, How do they feel right now about it? And why should I gratuitously offend them?

I’d like to hear Muslim friends interpret their feelings upon seeing the prophet depicted in terms that will foster an equivalent reaction in me so I can understand how they feel. Even the Times story treats it as a primitive superstition. It’s not really in the Koran, it says, but that doesn’t convey how people feel.

I think some of the coverage is a form of unconscious imperialism. When in fact I know that I’m a mixture of logic and prejudices and feelings, and other people have a combination of these things too, and what triggers them is going to be different from mine. And I have to recognize that as a starting point.

I wouldn’t publish the cartoon. Not because I’m afraid, or I don’t believe in free speech. But because I feel that it would insult readers and potential readers unnecessarily.


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Does the Qur’an prohibit all people from making graven images, or only prohibit Muslims from doing so?

Graven images, photos, cartoons, etc.: are they permitted except for religious figures?

How can anyone know that the cartoon on the most current C-H is a cartoon of Mohammad? It doesn’t say so.

But I guess everyone knows already that C-H is working overtime to offend susceptible Muslims, who therefore “know” whom the cartoon is a likeness of.

Tout n’est pas pardonne A large part of what’s offensive about CH’s cover cartoon is that it’s completely undeserved self-forgiveness. I could see circumstances in which depiction of a tearful Prophet under the very same banner (tout est pardonne) would be shocking but not offensive in the same way. If, say, Mohammad were forgiving some 7th century offense for which some 21st century Muslims had just killed some other 21st century Muslims, it would be… Read more »

Good piece, Phil.

So what if muslims do take offense? There is no right to not be offended.

Seems like this is the collision of Islam, that is to say, a fascist political ideology, with its anathema, true unfettered freedom of speech.

Blasphemy laws exist in backwards places. They have no place in a post-enlightenment world, and certainly not in the enlightened West.

The equivalent to the modern situation concerning religious images was the French Wars of Religion in the late 16th Century. The Calvinists believed that the images in the Catholic churches constituted idolatry and in the 1560s the Calvinist vandalized churches throughout Europe. For example, this print of the Calvinist Iconoclast riot of 1566. #mw-jump-to-license http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beeldenstorm The Frence War of Religion resulted. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Wars_of_Religion The first instances of Protestant iconoclasm, the destruction of images and statues in… Read more »