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Perils of Depicting the Prophet

2 minute read
Bobby Ghosh

Protests erupted across the Muslim world last week after European newspapers, out of concern for freedom of the press, reprinted controversial Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

Why the big reaction? For devout Muslims, even benign images of the Prophet are considered blasphemous. And many Muslims viewed the Danish cartoons–one of which depicts him wearing a bomb-shaped turban–as an attempt to equate their faith with terrorism.

Does the Koran forbid images of the Prophet? Not explicitly, but some passages are interpreted as a ban. The Hadith, a compilation of Islamic traditions, specifically forbids the depiction of God and his prophets–including Jesus. Scholars through the ages have argued that such images encourage idolatry, which is regarded as a grave sin. Shi’ite Muslims make an exception for Muhammad’s cousin Ali, who they believe was his rightful successor, so Ali’s image is common in Shi’ite areas like Iran and Iraq.

Does Islamic art ever include images of Muhammad? Almost never. On rare occasions, he is depicted as a figure with a veiled face. In the Middle East, even movies and TV programs about the Prophet never show his visage. Early in Islamic history, his face was shown in Persian paintings and tapestries, many of which have since been defaced.

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