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Depictions Of Muhammad Aren't Explicitly Forbidden, Says Scholar


The cartoonists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have become targets of this week's attack, apparently because of their depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims find any depictions of the prophet offensive, let alone the sometimes crude drawings in Charlie Hebdo. But not all Muslims feel that way - far from it. Earlier, I spoke with Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and the author of "No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, And Future Of Islam." Reza, welcome to the show.

REZA ASLAN: Thanks for having me.

RATH: I've seen and heard conflicting things when it comes to Muslim sensibilities about depictions of Muhammad. You know, there's this sense that it's forbidden, but I know that I've seen historical depictions from, like, classical India showing the Prophet. So what are the rules?

ASLAN: Well, there are no Koranic prohibitions against depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. And even among the six or so authorized schools of law, there's all kinds of disagreements about whether you can and how you can show the Prophet Muhammad. It's certainly a cultural taboo, but that taboo arose organically and through a long period of time, which is why, precisely as you say, the history of Islam teems with thousands and thousands of images of the Prophet Muhammad from his childhood, various scenes from his biography, all the way, really, to the end of his life. It's a very common thing that we see throughout Islam's history.

RATH: If there are no fixed rules, can you explain the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

ASLAN: Well, partly it has to do with the fact that these cultural taboos have become fixed in the minds of particularly Sunni Muslims who adhere to a puritanical, ultraorthodox brand of Islam. So, for them, any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is insulting. But let's be clear. These weren't just depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. They were quite deliberately provocative images of the Prophet Muhammad. They were intended to provoke a kind of response, not a violent response, but a kind of negative response from Muslims in Europe. And in many ways, the editors of Charlie Hebdo would say, quite unapologetically, that the purpose of these images is to act as a kind of test for Europe's Muslims. Can you bear to have the Prophet Muhammad caricaturized in this way? If you can't, then you don't belong here.

RATH: Reza, you and I roughly the same age, and I feel like I've seen a change in sensibilities and sensitivities over our lifetimes. I think back to the Salman Rushdie controversy in the late '80s. I had a Pakistani friend who said to me at the time, you can buy "Dante's Inferno" in Karachi, which has Muhammad in the eighth circle of hell with his entrails hanging, and they banned satanic verses. What's going on?

ASLAN: I think that there is a fundamental source to what has become a kind of virus of radicalism across particularly the Sunni Muslim world. And that source is Saudi Arabia. We have to understand that what we are faced with is a ultraorthodox, puritanical strain of Islam that arose in the 18th century - the end of the 18th century in Saudi Arabia, often referred to as Wahhabism, and which became the official religion of the Saudi state in 1932. Over the last 25, 30 years or so, the Saudi government has spent somewhere along the lines of about $100 billion promoting this kind of puritanical strain of Islam across the world. And this Saudi Wahhabism is unique in that it takes this notion of iconoclastic behavior to its extreme. I mean, one of the first things the Wahhabis did when this movement began is they went around destroying any tomb or any sacred space in Saudi Arabia that was associated with the Prophet or his family. They even tried to destroy the Prophet's tomb itself in Medina. Now, $100 billon buys you a great deal of traction. I mean, at this point, there is really not a Muslim community anywhere in the world that has not been affected by this strain of Saudi puritanism. And it's created an enormous shift among Muslims towards this kind of Arabocentric, ultraorthodox, puritanical strain of Islam.

RATH: Reza Aslan is a scholar of religion. His latest book is "Zealot." It's a biography of Jesus Christ. Reza, thank you very much.

ASLAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.