Analysis: Middle East - France

Islam’s never-ending debate on depiction of the prophet

Mohammed, David and Solomon depicted in the 1436 Book of the Ascension of the Prophet
Mohammed, David and Solomon depicted in the 1436 Book of the Ascension of the Prophet BNF/ Wikimedia Public Domain

For several days the question of the depiction of the prophet Mohammed has been widely debated thanks to the front pages of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. Although Muslims seem to be agreed that depicting the prophet is forbidden, no such rule is clearly mentioned in any religious text.


To many Muslims depicting the prophet is an assault on their deepest beliefs.

In 1976 Syrian film-maker Moustapha Akkad released his film Mohammad, Messenger of God, starring Anthony Quinn.

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The character of Mohammed is never shown in this feature telling the prophet’s life story so as to observe the Muslim tradition of not representing him.

“In Islam there is a theological, not to say existential, basic principle,” says Mehdi Mozaffari, former head of the Centre for Research into Islamism and Radicalism and Iranian-origin political analyst now living in exile in Denmark.

“There is one creator and that is Allah. No living being, human or animal, may be depicted because they are the creations of Allah. If an artist paints them, they become the creation of another creator.”

So if a human makes a sculpture of another living being he can claim to have created. And there is only one creator.

“That’s why Mohammed had all the idols in Mecca destroyed and why the Taliban destroyed the buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan,” Mozaffari, who signed a manifesto describing Islamism as religious totalitarianism published in Charlie Hebdo in 2006, adds.

But “nowhere in the Koran is it written that you may not depict the prophet”, explains Islamologist Ghaleb Bencheikh.

The same goes for tradition, he says.

In fact “the ban on depicting the prophet is a common usage of Muslims today”, says religious anthropologist Malek Chebel, asserting that there is no definitive text ruling on the issue either in the Koran, nor in tradition, nor in the hadiths, the reports of Mohammed’s teachings, deeds and sayings.

In fact the ban on all depiction of the prophet dates from much later.

What is punished according to the texts is idolatry and the profusion of idols that profane God’s nature as a single being.

The original interdiction of statues, statuettes and figurative images appears to date from the Byzantine era in the eighth and ninth centuries.

“It was through contamination that Muslims came to forbid the depiction of the prophet,” the anthropologist says.

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