ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And, as he says, there was more of that violence elsewhere today as angry Muslims demonstrated against the cartoons.

In Afghanistan, police shot dead four protesters outside a U.S. military base to stop escalating violence there. As NPR's Eric Weiner reports, Muslims are angry not only at how the Prophet was depicted, but that he was depicted at all.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

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, Islam, charted a different course; one based on the monotheism laid out in the Ten Commandments.

Professor JUAN COLE (History, University of Michigan): So, when it says that you're not to worship graven idols, that's what scholars call iconoclastic, that it's against images.

WEINER: That's Juan Cole, a professor of Middle-Eastern history at the University of Michigan.

Professor COLE: The fear was, both in Judaism and Islam, that if you represented a holy figure like a prophet who had discussions with the divine, that there would be a danger of people worshipping the image.

WEINER: And so, over the years, Muslim clerics declared it a sin, an unforgivable offense, to depict the Prophet Muhammad. This presented challenges to Muslim artists who wanted to express religious devotion, and more recently, to Muslim filmmakers who wanted to recount the birth of their religion.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (in film clip) So it was. Muhammad took no revenge, and allowed none.

WEINER: This 1976 film, The Message, was directed by Moustapha Akkad, and stars Anthony Quinn. It's about the life and times of Muhammad, yet viewers don't see Muhammad, or even hear his voice. Even a well-intentioned rendering, one 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 has angered Muslims. It shows Muhammad wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb.

John Esposito is professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

Professor JOHN ESPOSITO (Islamic studies, Georgetown University): To criticize the Prophet Muhammad is as direct an attack as it would be to mock and attack the Koran, which is seen as the word of God, or the sacred scripture. Muhammad is seen as the living Koran.

WEINER: The name Muhammad, in fact, is the most common first name in the world.

The ban on showing Muhammad is not universally observed, especially in Muslim countries beyond the Arab world. Mehdi Khalji, an Islamic scholar from Iran, remembers how his father, an Ayatollah, kept a favorite painting of Muhammad.

Professor MEDE KAHLEEJI (Islamic scholar): It's a picture of the Prophet when he was very young, but they found it in Morroco, this picture. And my father was keeping this picture on his desk always.

WEINER: Kahleeji's family is Shiiad, and its differing interpretation of Islamic law explains some of the tension between Shiiad and Sunni Muslims.

For some, the protests over the Danish cartoons echo the firestorm that erupted over Salman Rushdie's book, the 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, Rushdie went into hiding.

Michael Levine is professor of Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Professor MICHAEL LEVINE (Islamic studies, University of California, Irvine): And I think we see this repeating here. At precisely the moment when we need cool heads, and we need reasonable people, we see the immaturity of all our cultures coming out, and we see everyone on each side who stands to benefit in any way from stoking the hatred.

WEINER: More reasoned voices, he says, are drowned out by all of the noise.

Eric Weiner, NPR News.

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