Prophet Muhammad images draw varied reactions within Muslim community

Last week’s attacks in Paris have reinforced the perception that Muslims find all images of the Prophet Muhammad blasphemous. But the reality is that depictions of the Prophet draw varied and complex reactions from many Muslims who do not necessarily find such images offensive, Islamic scholars say.

Centuries-long tradition of Islamic art included depictions of Muhammad and other prophets

Tunisians hold up old copies of Charlie Hebdo on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis during a gathering in solidarity with those killed in the attacks. There have been increasing discussions among Muslims who say their community must re-examine their faith to modernize its interpretations and sideline extremists. (Hassene Dridi/Associated Press)

Three million copies of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s first edition since last week’s deadly attacks went into circulation in 16 languages around the world today.

On the cover is a cartoon image of the Prophet Muhammad shedding a single tear and holding a sign with the phrase “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.”

Above Muhammad is a line that reads, “All is forgiven.”

News of Charlie Hebdo's intentions prompted warnings from some European Muslim leaders who said the move could stoke a violent backlash from millions of Muslims who adhere to conservative schools of Islam, which view any representations of the Prophet as blasphemy. 

But the reality is that depictions of the Prophet draw varied and complex reactions from many Muslims who do not find such images offensive and blasphemous in and of themselves, Islamic scholars say. 

Long artistic tradition

“The range of reactions from Muslims is wholly dependent on the type of Muslim that you happen to be speaking with,” says Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center at Duke University.

Safi points to the centuries-long tradition of Islamic art that depicted Muhammad and his companions as evidence of the deeply nuanced perspective most schools of Islam take on iconic representations of the Prophet. 

Around 1000 AD, powerful and wealthy sultans and caliphs within the Muslim centres of power, particularly in modern day Iran and Turkey, began patronizing painters and sculptors to produce images and physical icons of Muhammad.

A girl holds a sign during a rally by members of the Muslim community of Madrid in solidarity with the victims of the Paris shooting. Many Muslims in Europe feel marginalized within their countries. (Juan Medina/Reuters)
These works of art frequently appeared in the rulers’ courts, were used in religious devotions or were sent to far-flung corners of expanding empires to teach newly conquered subjects about the history and traditions of Islam.

As interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith — a supplementary holy text that translates as “Sayings of the Prophet” or “prophetic traditions” — evolved over time, so too did the depictions of Muhammad.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, artists started going to great lengths to avoid drawing Muhammad’s face, often opting to depict him  as veiled or simply as an amorphous shape with a halo.

Sometime in the mid-19th century as particularly conservative brands of Sunni Islam began to take hold in various Muslim-majority regions artistic renditions of the Prophet began to fade from popular culture.

Images not explicitly forbidden

But the very existence of the artwork, says Safi, supports what most contemporary scholars agree upon — nowhere in the Qur’an or Hadith are figural depictions of the Prophet expressly forbidden.

What is clear, however, is that early Muslims, including the Prophet himself, were deeply concerned with idol worship. When Muhammad conquered the holy city of Mecca with his early followers around AD 630, polytheism and idol worship were commonplace.

“[The Qur’an] castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula,” wrote Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art history at the University of Michigan, in a recent Newsweek article.

According to Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, it’s not physical depictions of the Prophet that some Muslims find offensive, but rather representations that “desecrate his image.”

“There is a long, long history of satire and jokes in Muslim society,” he says. “But there are boundaries that the satire and the jokes cannot amount to defaming the image of the Prophet.”

In many Muslim countries, such offences are punishable by death.

Gaze of satire

The sensitivity toward images of Muhammad and other prophets is almost entirely limited to cases where they are shown in a way that maliciously impugns their character.

“If you put a positive depiction of Muhammad on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow,” Moosa says, “the reaction would be almost entirely supportive.”

Another critical element of the reaction to satirical images, particularly in Europe, is that many Muslims already have a sense of disenfranchisement in their respective countries, Safi says, and they perceive the work of publications like Charlie Hebdo as forcing them further to the edge of society.

“If the point of political and religious satire is to speak truth to power, then why would you turn the gaze of satire on the very community that is the most marginalized in your nation?” Safi says.