Pages Navigation Menu

The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

The Offense: A huge cultural divide goes back centuries.

The Offense: A huge cultural divide goes back centuries.

In the News

The Offense: A huge cultural divide goes back centuries.

By Andrew Maykuth (Feb. 03, 2006)

Images of the Prophet Muhammad’s face are rare in Islamic art. If Muhammad is depicted at all, his face is often obscured. But it was not the caricature of Muhammad by a Danish cartoonist that triggered protests across the Muslim world in recent days.



It was the way in which the prophet was depicted, wearing a turban that appeared to be a bomb. “It’s not just that it was an image,” said Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub, a professor of Islamic studies at Temple University. “It was that Muhammad was portrayed as a terrorist.”



To be sure, extremists eager to portray the West as anti-Islamic have egged on the protests. But the outrage also reflects the huge cultural chasm between the Muslim world and the secular West, where freedom of _expression is tolerated, even if the ideas expressed are blasphemous.



“It has a lot to do with the difference in belief about freedom,” said Ayoub, a native of Lebanon. “The essential difference is how freedom is understood. I believe that my freedom ends where the dignity and respect for all the prophets begins.”



Islam’s holy book, the Koran, does not specifically prohibit artistic depictions of Muhammad. But the Islamic tradition that developed in the centuries after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632 includes several bans against the depiction of any human figure on the grounds that it might lead to idolatry, the worship of the object. As a result, traditional Islamic art incorporates geometric patterns or Arabic script rather than figures.



As Islam spread, the ban on figures was relaxed – miniature Persian art from the 12th century depicts birds, animals and even Muhammad, though his face is almost always hidden or obscured. And most modern Muslims do not have problems with human photography or figure paintings.



“Some very conservative schools of thought, such as the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, don’t permit any pictures of human beings,” said Radwan Masmoudi, director of the Center for Study of Islam and Democracy near Washington. “That’s not the position of most Muslims.”



But Muhammad is off-limits.



“In general, Muslims don’t want the prophet depicted in any fashion, even if it’s positive,” Masmoudi said.



The controversy is similar to the incident that erupted last year after Newsweek reported that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo had desecrated copies of the Koran. The magazine retracted the story, but not before anti-American politicians organized riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere.



Some scholars say the insulting cartoons are a recruiting tool for extremists, who portray the West’s war on terrorism as a campaign against all Muslims.


“The extremists will say, ‘See, they’re even making fun of our prophet,’ ” Masmoudi said.



The reaction among American Muslims has been muted. “On the one hand, we understand the basic principles of freedom of _expression,” Masmoudi said. “On the other hand, as Muslims, we do feel offended when the insult goes to the root of Islam, Muhammad himself.”



Temple University‘s Ayoub knows some Lebanese academics who are atheists but for whom Muhammad represents a great figure of Arab civilization.  “I think even secularized Muslims would react badly to this,” he said.


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or 

Inquirer Staff Writer



Posted on Fri, Feb. 03, 2006

Receive exclusive policy, publication, and event updates in your inbox

Thank you. You have successfully subscribed.