The taboo on picturing the prophet
A series of newspaper cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad have caused widespread anger in the Muslim world and sparked a fierce debate – among Muslims and non-Muslims alike – on the limits and responsibilities of free speech.
At the core of the row is the Islamic tradition which holds that any depiction of the prophets is sacrilegious.
Muhammad plays a central role in the faith of more than 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. His status as a messenger of God makes him second only to Allah himself within the faith.
While the Quran, the Islamic holy book, does not explicitly prohibit the depiction of human figures, Muslims understand certain Quranic verses as meaning that Allah and His prophets cannot be captured in an image by human hand – such is God’s grandeur.
Any such attempt, the understanding goes, only leads towards idolatry, where the representations themselves can become the object of worship.
There are also references in the Hadith (the sayings of the prophet) prohibiting pictorial art or any depiction of the Divine.
Within Islamic history there have been periods when certain pictorial representations existed or even flourished.
During the Sunni Ottoman empire, for example, many artists depicted the prophet but with his face covered, either with a veil or as featureless and emanating light.
In the current furore – aside from the pictorial representations of the prophet – what has caused grave offence to Muslims are attempts to equate him and Islam as a whole with terrorism.
One cartoon, for example, shows an image of Muhammad with a bomb tucked into his turban.
While in history, such as during the Crusades, there have been numerous cases of insulting depictions of the prophet, modern times have seen a greater tolerance and respect for Islam and its followers.
In the current climate and in particular during the “war on terrorism” – which has polarised relations between Islam and the West – depictions of the prophet, and abusive images at that, have lead to what many argue is an inevitable backlash.