Are all images of Muhammad offensive?

The question divides scholars, but there is a rich history of Muslim artists depicting the prophet

Does Islam forbid depictions of the Prophet Muhammad?

Scholars are divided on the question. In the Quran, Abraham scolds his people for persisting in their worship of images. They tell him their ancestors worshipped them, and Abraham responds that they were error. Elsewhere, he asks God to save him and his offspring from worshipping idols.

Some have interpreted this as a warning that depicting God or prophets may lead to idolatry, or the worship of a physical object.

Some hadith, or records of Muhammad’s teachings, are more explicitly prohibitive, but here, too, there is controversy. Some Muslims are opposed to any depictions of people or animals. This historically has contributed to the prevalence of geometric patterns and calligraphy in Islamic art. But many Muslim artists have drawn the line, so to speak, elsewhere, and have freely depicted people, including prophets. Sometimes when the Prophet Muhammad is drawn or painted, it is with his face veiled or obscured, or he is represented by flames.

Is he ever depicted clearly?

Yes. There is a rich tradition, dating back centuries, of Muslim artists depicting Muhammad—in prayer, on horseback, ascending to heaven.

Is this more common in the Shia Muslim tradition than in the Sunni one?

Yes, but not exclusively so.

What about modern days?

Depictions of Muhammad in Muslim countries are far less common today. A large mural showing Muhammad with his face veiled was installed in Tehran in 2008.

Are there Muslims today who argue that it should be acceptable to depict Muhammad?

Yes. Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist and now a liberal Muslim activist and aspiring politician in Britain, received death threats last year after tweeting a cartoon of Muhammad and Jesus greeting each other. In a recent column, he said that, as a Muslim, he was not offended by the cartoon “because my God is greater than that.”

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