Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Lost in the furor over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad is the fact that his likeness has long been portrayed in the collections of some of the world’s greatest museums and libraries without exciting alarm or comment.

While rare in the 1,400 years of Islamic art, depictions of Muhammad are found in the collections of such institutions as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris and the Edinburgh University library.

Muhammad has been portrayed in the work of revered Muslim artists and of such Western figures as William Blake, Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dali — as well as the creators of the cable-TV cartoon series “South Park.”

None of those depictions aroused the anger seen in reaction to a set of satirical cartoons that appeared in Danish and other European newspapers — a violent response that continued to roil the Muslim world yesterday.

Three Afghans were killed and dozens wounded in a firefight with NATO peacekeepers in southern Afghanistan. Demonstrations also took place in Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, the Philippines and the Palestinian territories.

In Washington, President Bush called Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to express “solidarity and support.”

Alan A. Godlas, who teaches Islamic studies at the University of Georgia, said Islam has long frowned on depictions of the prophet out of a concern that any images of Muhammad or other religious figures could lead to idolatry and detract from worship of Allah.

But, he said, “The reason these cartoons sparked such a reaction has more to do with the tensions that were already there between the Islamic world and the West, and because in the age of the Internet, what goes on anywhere in the world is heard and seen everywhere.”

Many of the best-known Islamic portrayals of Muhammad are miniatures done in the 14th and 15th centuries by mystical Persian artists who argued that their small, imperfect efforts could never be taken for the actual prophet, and thus were not blasphemous.

The famous “Book of the Assumption of Muhammad,” thought to have been painted around 1436 in Herat, Afghanistan, shows Muhammad mounted on a human-headed horse being led by the Archangel Gabriel on a tour of Paradise and Hell. The original is in the collection of the French Bibliotheque Nationale.

Even more plentiful are miniatures showing scenes from the life of the prophet with his face and hands covered or his features purposely obscured.

“Nothing in the Koran is as categorical as the condemnation of imagery in the Hebrew Bible” found in Exodus and Deuteronomy, said French art scholar Alexandre Papadopoulo in his massive 1979 survey, “Islam and Muslim Art.”

But Islamic art scholars say the prohibition against portraying Muhammad has hardened over the centuries, based on sayings attributed to the prophet, on the absence of figurative religious art in the earliest mosques and on interpretations by Muslim theologians.

“One should not represent any religious image because it would ridicule the figure of God, and it would be idolatrous to depict the faces of the prophets and saints of Islam, particularly in mosques, where they ran the risk of becoming objects of veneration or prayer,” Mr. Papadopoulo wrote.

Mr. Godlas compared the Islamic opposition to portraying Muhammad to the reaction of many Protestant churches against the religious imagery and the worship of saints in the Catholic Church.

The great divide in Islam between Shi’ite and Sunni interpretations is reflected in attitudes toward art, said to Islamic scholar Ibrahim Moussawi in Beirut.

“For the most part, Shi’ite Islam has no problem portraying the prophet Muhammad in a respectful manner,” he said. “Much Shi’ite art depicts the revered Imams Hussein, Ali and others.”

But, he said, “More conservative strains of Sunni Islam prohibit idolatry in any form, including, in some cases, prohibitions of showing the human form at all.”

In Sunni-majority Egypt, television serials recounting the founding days of Islam will not show Muhammad or any of his closest companions.

“The ultimate problem here is that this [Danish] portrayal was a cartoon and was perceived as disrespectful,” Mr. Moussawi said.

• Mitchell Prothero in Beirut contributed to this report.

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