Why Cartoons of the Prophet Insult Muslims

There were more protests Wednesday over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. In Afghanistan, police shot four protesters to death as a crowd tried to march on a U.S. military base there, even as Afghanistan's top Islamic group called for an end to violent protests.

Many Muslims are angry not only at how their prophet was depicted, but the fact that he was depicted at all. In Islam, it is forbidden to depict the prophet Muhammad in any way — a prohibition that dates back to the very birth of the religion, in 7th-century Arabia. At the time, paganism and idol worship were widespread. The new religion of Islam charted a different course, one based on the monotheism laid out in the 10 Commandments.

"So when it says you are not to worship graven idols, that's what scholars call iconoclastic — it's against images," explains Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. "The fear was, both in Judaism and Islam, that if you represented a holy figure like a prophet who had discussions with the divine, there would be a danger of people worshipping the image."

Over the centuries, Muslim clerics declared it a sin and an unforgivable offense to draw the prophet Muhammad or depict him in any way. This presented challenges to Muslim artists who wanted to express religious devotion — and, more recently, to Muslim filmmakers who wanted to capture the birth of their religion.

Case in point: the 1976 film The Message, directed by Moustapha Akkad and starring Anthony Quinn. It recounts the life and times of the prophet Muhammad — yet, in keeping with Islamic law, viewers don't see Muhammad or even hear his voice. Even a well-intentioned rendering that portrays the prophet in a positive light is forbidden under Islamic law.

The Danish cartoons, of course, went a step further. They not only depicted the prophet, but did so in an extremely unflattering light. One drawing in particular that has angered Muslims shows Muhammad wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb.

"To criticize the prophet Muhammad is as direct an attack as mocking or attacking the Koran, which is seen as the word of God or the sacred Scripture," says John Esposito, a professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. "Muhammad is seen as the living Koran. His life Muslims are to emulate." The name Muhammad, in fact, is the most common first name in the world.

Historically, some Muslims have taken this prohibition a step further by opposing the depiction of any living creatures. That's changing, though, and today only the most doctrinaire of Muslims (such as the Taliban, the former rulers of Afghanistan) believe it is wrong to paint portraits or take photographs.

Over the years, a few Muslims have even violated the ban on depicting Muhammad. Persian artists once painted pictures of the prophet, and those portraits still exist today. This differing interpretation of Islamic law explains some of the tension between Islam's two main sects, the Sunni and Shia.

Some observers see clear parallels between the Danish cartoons and the firestorm that erupted in 1988 over Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie used words, not cartoons, to paint the prophet Muhammad in what some Muslims perceived to be a negative and insulting light. Violent protests broke out, and Rushdie went into hiding for years.

"I think we see this repeated here," says Mark Levine, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Irvine and author of Why They Don't Hate Us. Extremists have hijacked the debate, he says, while those urging "cool heads" are "finding it increasingly difficult to have their voices heard."

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