It’s a known fact that illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad are banned in the Islamic faith, though some might be wondering why — especially in the wake of the deadly terror attack on Charlie Hebdo, a weekly newspaper in France — this prohibition exists.
The investigation into the motivation for Wednesday’s attack is ongoing, though early reports indicated that the gunman yelled phrases like “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet,” indicating that opposition to controversial cartoons the outlet has published might have played a motivating role.
Charlie Hebdo, a satire outlet, had incited anger in the past over its depictions of Muhammad.
Dr. Akbar Ahmed, chair of the Islamic Studies department at American University in Washington, D.C., told CNN that bans against picturing Muhammad are intended to prevent prophet worship.
Unlike Christianity, in which Jesus is considered God’s son and, thus, worthy of worship, Muhammad is considered a mere man and is not entitled to that level of adoration, he said.
“It’s all rooted in the notion of idol worship. In Islam, the notion of God versus any depiction of God or any sacred figure is very strong,” Ahmed explained. “The prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him. So he himself spoke against such images, saying ‘I’m just a man.'”
There tends to be an overarching ban on showing all prophets as well — not just Muhammad, according to Mohamed Magid, an imam who spoke with CNN. He explained that Moses, Jesus and others who are revered as prophets are also not intended to be shown through imagery.
The ban on images of Muhammad, though, comes not from the Koran, but from the hadith, which is described by Encyclopedia Britannica as a “record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, revered and received as a major source of religious law and moral guidance.”
Of course, this isn’t to say that Muslims, themselves, haven’t sometimes bent the rules. Telegraph columnist Christopher Howse wrote in 2011 that some Persian art from the 13th and 14th centuries, in particular, included images of Muhammad.
“In some cases, Muhammed’s head is surrounded by a flame, and in later examples, flames were painted in place of his body, or the head was concealed by a veil,” he wrote at the time.
Overall, though, the use of these images, even by Muslims, is considered a violation based on some of the revered hadiths, though the Associated Press reported in 2006 that the portrayal of the prophet by non-Muslims is “the ultimate sort of insult” in the eyes of many Islamic adherents.
When a cartoon, then, takes satirical aim at Muhammad, it becomes an added offense in the eyes of believers, considering that the very image of the prophet in a non-comedic sense is disallowed. Outrage has unfolded time and again in the past when these images have been composed and published.