Tragedy stuck France this morning when three masked men stormed the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and began spraying bullets at journalists, killing at least 12.
Although the gunmen are still on the loose and their exact motivation is unclear, many suspect that their attack was fueled by religion — particularly Islam. Witnesses reported hearing the shooters yell religious chants such as “Allahu Akhbar” (“God is greatest”) and “We have avenged the prophet” during the attack. Given these context clues, many speculate that the killings were in retaliation for Charlie Hebdo’s history of angering Muslims by depicting the prophet Muhammad in their political cartoons.
If the cartoons do prove to be the motivation for the attack, it wouldn’t be the first time an image of Muhammad has sparked a hostile response, as cartoons and videos depicting Islam’s greatest prophet have angered many Muslims over the past few years. As French citizens scramble to make sense of the tragedy, many are asking: what is the deal with Muslims being upset about cartoons of Muhammad?
Here are a few answers to frequently-asked questions on the subject:
Where does the Qur’an forbid depictions of Muhammad?
Well, technically, it doesn’t. There is no verse in the Qur’an that formally prohibits depicting Muhammad. In fact, many historical Muslim rulers in India, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Central Asia actually commissioned artists to paint the story of Muhammad’s life — complete with pictures of Muhammad himself — in centuries past.
But while the Qur’an doesn’t strictly forbid it, creating an image of the prophet is arguably condemned in various iterations of the hadith — i.e., collections of the teachings, actions, and sayings of Muhammad that many Muslims use an interpretive guide for Islamic life. Many modern Sunni Muslims, who represent the largest single branch of Islam, are sympathetic to this belief.
Shia Muslims, however, are far less troubled by religious images, if at all. Depictions of Muhammad can be found throughout the marketplaces of Iran, for instance, which is a majority-Shia country. In 2010, Omid Safi, the Iranian-American Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, penned an op-ed entitled “Why Islam does (not) ban images of the Prophet” in which he described his personal attachment to a picture of Muhammad, which he describes as a kind of family heirloom:
I was born in the United States, but raised as a child in Iran during the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. In 1985, we had to leave Iran, and had to do so quickly. I still remember the six of us packing what we could into two suitcases. Most of what we packed were the expected clothing items. The one exception was a beautiful image, an icon of sorts, of the Prophet Muhammad that had always adorned our home in Tehran. It had graced the dining room in our home, and it seemed unthinkable to me to either leave it behind or move into a new home where meals would not be presided over by the image of Muhammad. So I carefully tucked the image away, and I have carried it with me to each home I have lived in over the last few decades.
Okay, so only some Muslims are against depictions of Muhammad. But why?
Muslims, generally speaking, have long been opposed to placing pictures of living things in houses of worship, as they are thought to lead to idolatry. Beginning roughly in the 9th century, the hadith’s general antagonism towards images was expanded by various Muslim — particularly Sunni — theologians to include a broader ban on religious imagery, shunning pictures and statues of both Muhammad and other prophets such as Noah and Abraham. This tendency partly explains Islam’s rich history of calligraphy and geometric art, as the beautification of shapes and holy scripture was seen as a positive alternative to depicting human beings or religious figures.
Does that mean Muslims who hold this belief are required to respond to depictions of Muhammad with violence?
Absolutely not. Obviously much of religion is an exercise in interpretation, but the decision to brutally murder journalists over a cartoon flies in the face of most historical interpretations of Islam. In fact, it’s telling how many prominent Muslim leaders have been quick to condemn today’s attacks. This includes Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the Great Mosque of Paris, who said: “I want to denounce the horror and the unspeakable and show our compassion. We condemn what just [happened] in the name of all Muslims. This is an act of war in the middle of Paris.”
Similarly, Al-Azhar — the most prestigious Islamic school in Sunnism — decried the attack, noting that “Islam denounces any violence.” The Arab League also spoke out against the shooters, and many Muslims have taken to Twitter to blast the killings as an affront to free speech.
Is Islam the only faith group to resist depictions of religious figures?
Nope. The prohibition against depictions of religious beings or individuals, also known as aniconism, exists in multiple religions. Early schools of Buddhism, for example, believed that Buddha instructed his followers not to depict his body after his death, leading to a clever artistic tradition where the famous faith leader was implied — but not technically rendered — through indirect depictions such as a footprint, an empty chair, or a riderless horse.
In addition, various strains of Christianity have also forbid depicting God — or even religious art in general — for the same reason as some Muslims: fear of idolatry. By taking a hard-line interpretation of the biblical commandment to refrain from creating “graven images,” iconoclasm rocked the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries, when Christian emperors forbid the use of images in Eastern churches and had depictions of God destroyed. Several centuries later, John Calvin, an influential theologian during the Protestant Reformation, wrote passionately about how the human mind can be a “factory of idols,” and criticized the use artwork in churches. In his landmark work “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” he wrote, “God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.”
Many modern-day orthodox Calvinists are still deeply influenced by this belief, and worship in stripped down, almost barren churches.