Muhammad, satire and blasphemy: In wake of Charlie Hebdo attack, exploring what Muslims really believe

The Charlie Hebdo attack has put a focus on what Muslims believe concerning visual depictions of Muhammad, Islam's chief prophet and central figure.

New York Times rundown of threats and acts of violence over blasphemy and insults to Islam notes:

People of many faiths have committed violent acts in the name of religion and issued threats over insults. In Islam, though, there are strict prohibitions on the rendering of images of the Prophet Muhammad and other religious depictions.
In a number of countries where Islam is the prevailing religion, such insults are crimes. Some are punishable by death.

Of course, these same blasphemy laws also affect other issues in the news. Just think of all of those stories about converts to other faiths, usually Christianity, facing legal threats or even death sentences. There are many ways for unbelievers (including "moderate" Muslims) to insult Islam, but the alleged ban on images of Muhammad is the key here.


USA Today features an op-ed from a "radical Muslim cleric" who suggests:

In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, "Whoever insults a Prophet kill him."

At The Wall Street Journal, a Middle East columnist reports:

CAIRO — Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad such as those published by Charlie Hebdo have long been seen in the West as something ranging from an exercise in free speech to an indulgence in bad taste. But, just as in Inquisition-era Europe, they are still viewed as blasphemy in many Muslim nations—a capital crime with the capacity to unleash murderous passions that the rest of the world often struggles to comprehend.
It isn’t just ultra-rigid Saudi Arabia or the Iranian theocracy that, with the full force of the law, still put blasphemers to death. Ridiculing the faith and its prophet is considered a serious crime in most of the Muslim world.
Execution for blasphemy is on the books in relatively secular Egypt, with seven participants in a low-budget YouTube video about the Prophet Muhammad sentenced to die in absentia in 2012.

But does the Quran, the Muslim holy book, require death for blasphemers? 

More from the Journal:

To a large extent, this divide is rooted in real-world grievances rather than theology: a sensitivity caused by many Muslims’ perceptions that they are under attack by the West, and that their societies are in a seminal economic and cultural decline that started with European colonization centuries ago.
“The issue of blasphemy is about the political insecurity of the Muslims, and about the Muslim public reaction to the so-called injustices committed by the West,” said Raza Rumi, the editor of Pakistan’s Friday Times newspaper who survived an assassination attempt by Islamist extremists last year and is now a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington.
“The ironic thing is that in the Quran, there is no punishment for blasphemy at all. It is a political law, based on what Islamic jurists said many centuries after the prophet.”

And do all Muslims believe that Islamic teachings forbid showing images of Muhammad? (See past GetReligion posts on that question here, here and here.)

Over the last 24 hours, two of the best reports I've seen on what Muslims believe have come, not surprisingly, from Godbeat pros.

At CNN's revamped "Belief Blog," Daniel Burke provides historical context:

The prohibition again illustrating the Prophet Mohammed began as a attempt to ward off idol worship, which was widespread in Islam's Arabian birthplace. But in recent years, that prohibition has taken on a deadly edge.
A central tenet of Islam is that Mohammed was a man, not God, and that portraying him could lead to revering a human in lieu of Allah.
"It's all rooted in the notion of idol worship," says Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at American University. "In Islam, the notion of God versus any depiction of God or any sacred figure is very strong."

However, Burke points out:

But there have been historical instances of Muslims depicting the prophet, especially in non-Sunni branches of Islam, says Omid Safi, a religious studies professor at Duke University.
"We have had visual depictions of the prophet in the form of miniatures and pictures in the Iranian context, the Turkish context, the central Asian context," says Safi, author of the book "Memories of Mohammed."
"The one significant context where depictions of the prophet have not been image-related has been in the Arab context."
"As you go farther east, away from the Arabian Peninsula, you find depictions of the prophet in art," said Johari Abdul-Malik, the imam for Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. He noted that images of the teachings of the prophet were sometimes used to bridge gaps in illiteracy.

And at the Huffington Post, senior religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem also delves intelligently into the controversy: 

Images of the Islamic prophet are not banned by the Quran. But the hadith -- a record of orally-transmitted sayings and actions of the prophet and his companions that many Muslims follow -- frowns upon the practice. Many Islamic scholars have historically viewed depictions of the prophet as potentially leading to idol worship and reverence of him as a god instead of a man.
Concern about violent responses to satire of Islam and depictions of the prophet has made headlines globally in recent years, most infamously after protests in dozens of cities after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons in 2005 poking fun at the Islamic prophet. Years later, the “The Innocence of Muslims,” a YouTube video, ignited protests and was blamed for helping spur the attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Maajid Nawaz, the London-based founder of Quilliam, a counter-terrorism organization made up of former members of Islamist organizations, called on Muslims to reconsider Islamic views on insulting its beliefs and prophet. “Yes this is about victims. It’s also about how how our communities reform and abolish blasphemy codes,” he tweeted. Nawaz, a former member of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, also encouraged for Muslims to speak out that satirical cartoons don’t faze them.

What other coverage — good and bad — have you seen? Please provide links below or tweet us at @getreligion.

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