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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 February 2006, 01:45 GMT
Cartoon row highlights deep divisions
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab Affairs analyst

The publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad has caused deep divisions across the world.

For some, they are a transient form of entertainment, for others, an attack on Islam.

No-one knows what the Prophet Muhammad looked like.

A Palestinian woman holding up a copy of the Koran
The cartoons are seen as an attack on Islam by the West
Images of him that can be found today were produced within a few hundred years of his death in the 7th Century.

These tend to be exalted representations of a human figure, and nobody can say to what extent they are a realistic portrayal of a historical figure.

A great deal of the Islamic literature about Muhammad is hagiographic - that is, unstinting in its praise.

It elevates the founder of Islam to a unique level of perfection and infallibility.

"His life was the reflection of Allah's Words. He became the Qur'an in person," a cleric wrote recently, in response to a question about the "noble character of the Prophet" sent to the "Fatwa Bank" section in the popular website, IslamOnline.

Although other scholars might not agree with this description, it broadly reflects the popular perception of Muhammad.

Two traditions

Such close identification between the Prophet and the Koran itself explains the adulation many Muslims express towards their prophet.

But at the same time it stands in sharp contrast to another Islamic tradition, based on the following Koranic verse: "Say: 'I am but a man like yourselves'."

Despite the Koranic emphasis on the fundamentally human nature of Mohammed, the hagiographic tradition continues to dominate perceptions of the Prophet.

That explains the veneration and high esteem in which he is held by Muslims.

There seems to be a confusion between two issues: the Islamic ban on any pictorial representation and respect for the character of Muhammad

But that does not explain why the cartoons in themselves were so offensive, since no-one could seriously claim that he or she recognised the features of the Prophet in any of the images drawn by the Danish cartoonists.

There seems to be a confusion between two issues: the Islamic ban on any pictorial representation and respect for the character of Muhammad.

It is the satirical intent of the cartoonists, and the association of the Prophet with terrorism, that is so offensive to the vast majority of Muslims.

Islam bans pictorial representations of humans or animals to discourage idolatory.

It goes without saying that this ban covers the Prophet, his companions, and major figures of the two other Abrahamite religions considered sacred by Muslims as well.

The ban seems to have been based on the perception that cultures which consider animals or their statues to be sacred literally worship these animals, rather than a complex set of meanings and values that these creatures symbolise.


The row over the Danish cartoons would probably have remained a local dispute between some Muslims and a Danish newspaper had it not been for three factors:

  • the rise of violent political Islam
  • America's war on terror
  • modern transnational media

America's war on terror is still largely perceived in the Arab world as a war on Islam - a perception reinforced by the fact that it is happening exclusively in Muslim countries, namely Iraq and Afghanistan.
US soldiers in the Iraqi city of Fallujah
Issues such as the Iraq war are seen as catalysts in the row

Parts of the Arab media describes it as a modern crusade. Many Arab columnists often speak of a campaign to distort and discredit Islam.

For them, the row over the Danish cartoons is yet another confirmation of this perception.

But long before the 11 September attacks and America's war on al-Qaeda, Islamists were aggressively promoting their world view and attacking liberal secular values, not only in the West but across the Arab and Muslim world as well.

The best-known example in the West is the row caused by Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, which culminated in the notorious death fatwa against its author by the late Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeyni.

In Egypt, the Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz, survived a knife attack in 1994 for allegedly insulting Islam in one of his novels.

Another prominent writer, Farag Fouda, was gunned down in Cairo for alleged apostasy.

The internet and satellite broadcasting are being diligently used by Islamist activists across the world to drum up support for the doctrine of a universal Muslim nation up against an aggressive and imperialist West.

A local Danish dispute is thus quickly elevated to the level of a global conflict.

Culture clash

The row over the Danish cartoons is yet another dramatic illustration of the huge gap between secular liberal values in the West and the predominantly religious outlook of Middle Eastern societies.

But for Muslims living in Europe it poses anew the same old dilemma about integration and cultural identity.

There is a consensus in the West as to what constitutes offensive material, for example, child pornography, or dead soldiers.

Some of these issues are even regulated by law.

But part of the Western consensus is that poking fun at religious figures is acceptable.

It seems that some Muslim activists living in Europe are determined to redefine the boundaries of that consensus.

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