Earth & Conservation

Why Are Pictures of Muhammad Forbidden In Islam?

The French offices of Charlie Hebdo were recently attacked by extremists over the magazine's controversial illustrations of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Why are depictions of the spiritual figure prohibited in Islam?

This week's attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine known for cartooned depictions of Muhammad, is the latest incident of its kind. Just in 2011, the magazine's offices were firebombed after it announced Prophet Muhammad as its "editor in chief" and published a cover with a caricature of the prophet. No one was injured in that attack, but it is triggering a renewed discussion around Islam's attitude toward depictions of Muhammad, previous media portrayals of him, and whether or not mainstream news organizations should publish such depictions at all.

Today, the world's Muslim population is somewhat divided when it comes to how Muhammad should be portrayed (if at all) in art. Sunnis, who make up the largest branch of Islam, tend to adamantly believe that any paintings of Muhammad will drive people to worship objects-an act that contradicts one of the fundamental principles of Islam, known as Tawhid. Many Muslims say Islam prohibits depictions of living creatures altogether, citing the Hadeeth, which is a record of the teachings of Muhammad.

Shia Muslims, on the other hand, do not object to images of Muhammad nearly as much. In Iran, where the majority of Muslims are Shia, it's common to see hand-painted miniature Muhammad figures. Elsewhere in Central Asia, there are often images of Muhammad with some sort of artistic obscuration around his face.

Nevertheless, there's a history of artistic representations of Muhammad sparking intense, often violent reactions:

-In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the Norwegian Magazinet published a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb inside his turban. Protests across the Middle East ensued and the newspapers received multiple death threats against its staff. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Denmark.

-The same year as the Danish cartoon, a major Berlin opera house decided to cancel all performances of Mozart's Idomeneo, which included a scene in which King Idomeneo presents Muhammad's severed head (as well as the head of Jesus, Buddha, and Poseidon).

-In 2007, Swedish artist Lars Vilks presented a sketch of Muhammad at a Stockholm seminar in which the prophet's head was on the body of a pig. The top Iraqi leader of al-Qaeda called for the murder of Vilks as well as the editor of a Swedish newspaper that published his art.

-In 2010, Comedy Central removed all references to Muhammad from an episode of South Park. Though the show is well known for its satirical depictions of Christianity, Judaism, Scientology, and other cultural groups, the network censored all images of the prophet. It's worth noting Muhammad had made an appearance in two previous episodes.

-In 2012, a low-budget video titled 'The Innocence of Muslims' was posted on YouTube, depicting Muhammad as a homosexual, womanizer, child molester, and a criminal thug. The video sparked widespread protests, leading to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.

This is forcing news organizations and media outlets to decide whether or not to publish Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Is there a journalistic obligation to show the cartoons that prompted armed men to kill 12 people? Or is it more right to avoid any potential future attack and not show them? Let us know what you think.

Learn More:
What Muslims Really Believe About Cartoons Of Muhammad (via ThinkProgress)

Q&A;: Depicting the Prophet Muhammad (via BBC)
"Why the depictions have caused such offence."

The Story of a Picture: Shiite Depictions of Muhammad (via Leiden University)
"In spite of the relative prohibition of graphic representation of living beings, especially members of the Prophet's family,1 as expressed by religious authorities in the Islamic world, colourful paper prints showing Ali, son-in- law of Muhammad, and his sons Hassan and Hussayn, even the Prophet himself, are not rare in contemporary Iran."

Egypt Bans Movie 'Exodus' (via CNN)

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of NY: A History of the Courthouse (via New York State Unified Court System)
Placement of the original 1955 exterior sculptures.

Images of Muhammad, Gone for Good (via The New York Times)
1955, 1974, and 1977 incidents explained.

Why Islam Does (Not) Ban Images of the Prophet (via FaithStreet)
"Contrary to popular belief, Muslim artists over the centuries produced works of devotion, illuminated by faith, and imbued with a deep sense of love."