Beliefs Culture The 'Splainer The 'Splainer

The ‘Splainer: Why does Islam ban images of the Prophet Muhammad?

The ‘Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at a cocktail party.

(RNS) On Sunday (May 3) in Garland, Texas,, two gunmen opened fire at a “draw the Prophet Muhammad” contest sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, listed as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Police shot and killed the two gunmen. A security guard was injured. Most Muslims consider images of the prophet highly offensive, as Islam prohibits them. The attack comes almost four months to the day that four cartoonists at the French weekly Charlie Hebdo were killed by extremists offended at the magazine’s satirical depictions of the prophet.

Why do images of the founder of Islam — even cartoons drawn by amateurs — incite so much anger in some people that they are motivated to violence? Let us ‘Splain . . .

Officials of the Slidell City Court in Louisiana have erected more than a dozen pictures of historical lawgivers, including Islam's Prophet Muhammad, alongside a portrait of Jesus. The ACLU had sued over the Jesus portrait, saying it is unconstitutional. Religion News Service photo by David Grunfeld/The Times-Picayune

An image of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Religion News Service photo by David Grunfeld/The Times-Picayune

Q: Why does Islam ban images of its founder?

A: The Quran does not specifically forbid images of the Prophet, but some point to a verse in which Abraham asks his people, “What are these images to which you cleave?” There are hadith — stories about Muhammad and sayings attributed to him — that forbid visual representations of Allah or the prophets. That includes Abraham, also considered the founder of Judaism, and Jesus, the founder of Christianity. Prohibiting such images is called “aniconism.”

The ban stems from the idea that images of Muhammad, Abraham and Jesus might encourage worship of them instead of Allah. But there are images of Muhammad in 12th- and 13th-century Persian manuscripts currently held by libraries in London, Paris and Edinburgh, Scotland. And in some early Islamic texts, Muhammad’s body is shown, but his head is a flame.

Q: Do other religions ban images of their prophets or of God?

A: Yes and no. Judaism bans “graven images,” thus the scarcity of human figures represented in synagogues. And some Christians get upset over more extreme representations of Jesus — remember the protests surrounding photographer Andres Serrano’s  “Piss Christ?”

Q: Why do some Muslims consider this worth killing over?

A: Because Islam bans such images, it’s considered blasphemous to create them. Plus, the images published by Charlie Hebdo were not complimentary portraits, but satirical criticism of Islam. Still, many Muslims have condemned the attacks. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria and Qatar all issued harsh statements. A French organization of 250 Muslim groups condemned the killings, as did the Muslim Council of Britain. Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford and a progressive Muslim, said on the television program “Democracy Now“: “This is just a pure betrayal of our religion and our principles.”

Q: Is this the first time Western journalists have been targeted for publishing images of Muhammad?

A: No. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of Muhammad, which led to mostly peaceful protests by local Muslim groups. More violent protests sprang up in other countries; at the time, The New York Times reported that as many as 200 people were killed in the violence.

In 2012, at least 50 deaths worldwide were attributed to protests of a trailer of “Innocence of Muslims,” a film that criticized Islam and featured an actor’s portrayal of the prophet. In Benghazi, Libya, protests linked to the trailer may or may not have led to the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

And Charlie Hebdo had been the target of extremists before. That’s why two police officers were stationed there to protect the journalists. In 2011, the newspaper claimed that an issue was “guest-edited” by Muhammad, and the cover featured a cartoon of him promising “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.” The paper’s offices were firebombed in response.

Q: If the journalists knew they were in danger, why did they continue to publish cartoons?

A: We’ll let Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, one of the slain cartoonists, answer this one. Asked that question, he said: “I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no kids, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.”


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Click here to post a comment

  • A true religion does not encourage the murder of ANYONE! What these terrorists did was misuse religion in the name of whatever “god” they say they worship.

    “…for violence is an enemy to justice.”

  • A true religion does not encourage the murder of ANYONE! What these terrorists did was misuse religion in the name of whatever “god” they say they worship.

    “…for violence is an enemy to justice.”

    (Please note my CORRECT name! It’s a shame there isn’t an edit function for the comment section).

  • Looks like my previous attempt at a comment didn’t go through, unless you’re holding it for moderation. Here goes again:

    From the first, I’ve been troubled by the name of this column, The ‘Splainer. I’m old enough to have seen the original broadcasts of “I Love Lucy” from which originated Ricky Ricardo’s comment, “Loo-sy, you got some ‘splaining to go.” When delivered by comedian Desi Arnaz as a Latino spoofing his own accent, the line is funny, but when used in a mainstream context the line appears to me to be culturally insensitive, if not outright racist.

    I wonder if RNS tested this column title with any Latino or Hispanic readers to get their reactions. Might be a good idea.

  • Let me make it clear that I don’t condone violence of any sort, but is there really such a thing as unlimited freedom of speech? Doesn’t all speech come with inherent limitations and consequences based on its veracity or the listener’s receptiveness? Witness the legions chastened in America lately for what’s considered “politically incorrect” speech. You can say it, but you run the risk of a negative outcome. As for extremism, why do I not hear the word applied to Charlie Ebdo, which showed no judgment whatsoever and, in fact, went out of their way to ridicule various institutions including Islam? What was the moral imperative? Where was their sensitivity? Has the pursuit of sales overcome what used to be called good taste? Hypocrites. They demanded unconditional consideration of their views but offered none to the other side. The only heroes there were the two slain policemen assigned to protect these pompous asses.

  • Among other things, some points about protected speech. To be protected, essentially, something has to be worthy of protecting. In society, that can cover a wide range, but there are some things that are not protected by their nature. Protected speech must be pure, based on a good conscience, done in good will. It can be no less than innocuous. Which means that something done for vicious, malignant purpose, to harm others, to create gratuitous violence is not protected. To know where a car went off the road and give the police a completely wrong location is not “free speech”!

  • The actions of Jyllands Posten, AFDI and other similar malimgerers is not intended for good purpose. They are not trying to promote free speech. If that was truly their goal, they could have approached the issue of the depiction of Mohammed by providing a respectful, dignified representation. But they’re afraid of Muslim lack of agitation! They want to promote the Final Solution of the Arab Problem. Their actions are those of individuals who would welcome Americans dying so they could “justify” genocide of the Arabs. They give every appearance of deliberately trying to engineer Americans being killed! They are the danger! They condemn Muslims for killing for the sake of Mohammed, but they are willing to see people killed for “free speech”!

  • As with so many diseased “principles” espoused by so many Americans, drug addiction being a desirable condition; embracing mental damage created sexual deviances; discounting humans still in the womb and chopping them to pieces for convenience; treating those with fewer weapons with abuse, there is another important point to mention. All call for a form of mentality that extends no further than the nose, a sentiment, founded in inanimate philosophy that says there is nothing beyond the immediate and physical. Anything is right, as long as you don’t get caught. And their sentiments come from the nature of the “believer”. In this case, arrested development misfits and freaks, stealing money from their mothers’ purses for drugs, making false 911 calls to interfere with competitors on online games, no matter who dies as a result!

  • Nothing done by the targets of the terrorist in Garland, Texas justifies the actions of the two Islamic Terrorist who attempted to kill them. Does Sharia Law call for the death of non-Muslims who live in a country that does not observe Sharia Law when they violate Sharia Law? I have lived in an Islamic nation under Sharia and while I was there I respected the laws of that country but also expect Muslim visitors to the US to respect our laws. Muslims could have protested peacefully as the organization behind the contest did when Muslims had an event in the same venue last January.
    As far as Protected Speech being worthy of protection, who decides what is worthy? You? Free Speech has to extend to speech we don’t like or it’s meaningless. Your example of lying to police to hurt someone is not the same as AFDI’s event in Garland.

  • @Sister,

    “A true religion does not encourage the murder of ANYONE!”

    For the record:
    “Better that he be drowned with a millstone around his neck….” – JESUS (Matt 18:6)

  • Max,

    Jesus wasn’t encouraging anyone to be murdered in the passage you quoted (as you probably know quite well). He was using a figure of speech to show how heinous a crime corruption of the youth is.

  • @Bob in Maryland,

    All the innocent people who were burned to death as witches
    will be relieved to learn it was accidental – Jesus didn’t really mean what he said:

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and EXECUTE THEM IN FRONT OF ME” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)
    “I shall kill her children with Death” – JESUS (REV. 2:23)
    “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed!” (1 Corinthians 16:22)

    The way to become an Atheist is to read the Bible very carefully.