While France and other Western democracies affirm the concept of “freedom of expression” against Muslim religious sensibilities, all are agreed that depicting Mohammed in any form is contrary to Islamic law.
In truth, however, the facts about Islam are much more complex. Scholars of the history of Islam point out that no such prohibition against images of Mohammed appears in the Quran or in early Islamic legal codes. Beautifully illuminated manuscripts and books dating to the eleventh through fourteenth centuries include illustrations of Mohammed, especially the Persian texts of that period. With the exception for the Arabian Peninsula, other Muslim regions freely disseminated books with images of Mohammed without controversy. Some, however, began to cover the face of Mohammed with what was to be called “the Golden Veil.”
Remarkably, it was not until the birth of the Taliban that an absolute ban on portraying Mohammed in any form became routine. Under pressure from this extremist version of Islam, other, largely religiously conservative expressions of Islam, were compelled to follow suit. Thus today any depiction – complimentary or otherwise – of Mohammed is labeled “blasphemy.”
Some observers of the evolution of Muslim attitudes towards artistic representations of Mohammed claim that the emergent ban on imagery was a reaction to Christian enthusiasm for depicting Jesus in art. In other words, either out of resentment or antagonism, Islam shifted towards a ban on imagery as a socio-political – more than a religious – statement. This phenomenon is not unknown in Jewish history. For instance, early Palestinian synagogue art as demonstrated by several mosaic floors included human images, later excluded as Christianity superseded Greco-Roman influence.
In short, scholarship reveals that there is nothing close to what might be called a uniform and universal ban on depicting images of Mohammed until very recently. And yet, this does not matter. While scholarship can help evaluate the claims of Islam, it is only Islam itself that can pass judgment on the observance of Islam. Today, most Muslims are horrified at the publication of satirical images; not because the material is insulting (though I cannot help but think this doesn’t help) but merely because any image is forbidden.
The argument with those who hold this view is not that it is historically mistaken. The argument with those who legitimately claim that for Islam the publication of images of Mohammed is blasphemous is that one religion’s sensibilities cannot be imposed on other religions or on the public. It is not the right to poke fun at others that should be defended. That is a coarse – even vulgar – understanding of “freedom of expression.” It is the right to be free from religious coercion that must be defended. It is a right, by the way, that is enshrined in the Quran.