Mohamed: the messenger of Allah

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Images of the Prophet Mohamed have long been discouraged in Islam. The West has little understanding of why this should be so - nor of the intensity of the feelings aroused by non-believers' attitudes to the founder of Islam.

To historians, Mohamed was a prophet and religious reformer who united the scattered Arabian tribes in the 7th century, founding what went on to become one of the world's five great religions. To Muslims, he was the last in a line of figures which included Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but which found its supreme fulfilment in Mohamed.

They believe that he was visited by the Angel Gabriel who commanded him to memorise and recite the verses sent by God which became the Koran - and that he completed and perfected the teaching of God throughout history.

Because Muslims believe that Mohamed was the messenger of Allah, they extrapolate that all his actions were willed by God. A singular love and veneration thus attaches to the person of Mohamed himself. When speaking or writing, his name is always preceded by the title "Prophet" and followed by the phrase: "Peace be upon him", often abbreviated in English as PBUH.

Attempts to depict him in illustration were therefore an attempt to depict the sublime - and so forbidden.

More than that, to reject and criticise Mohamed is to reject and criticise Allah himself. Criticism of the Prophet is therefore equated with blasphemy, which is punishable by death in some Muslim states. When Salman Rushdie, in his novel The Satanic Verses, depicted Mohamed as a cynical schemer and his wives as prostitutes, the outcome was - to those with any understanding of Islam - predictable.

But understanding of Islam is sorely lacking in the West. The culture gap has its roots in the fact that Christianity - like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism - is essentially an iconographic religion. In its early years, the Christian world took the statues of the old gods and goddesses of Greece and morphed them into images of the Virgin Mary and the saints, which were venerated in all the churches. Muslims, like Jews, take a polar opposite view. Islam and Judaism are religions of the word, not the image.

Islam has traditionally prohibited images of humans and animals altogether - which is why much Islamic art is made up of decorative calligraphy or abstract arabesque patterns.Throughout history Muslims have cast out, destroyed or denounced all images, whether carved or painted, as idolatry. Despite that prohibition, hundreds of images of Mohamed have been created over the centuries. Medieval Christian artists created paintings and illuminated manuscripts depicting Mohamed, usually with his face in full view. Muslim artists from the same era depicted Mohamed too, but usually left his face blank or veiled.

Sixteenth-century Persian and Ottoman art frequently represented the Prophet, albeit with his face either veiled, or emanating radiance. One 16th-century Turkish painting, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, shows Mohamed in very long sleeves so as to avoid showing even his hands.

The ban is not absolute. Today, iconic pictures of Mohamed are sold openly on the street in Iran. The creation, sale or owning of such images is illegal, but the regime turns a blind eye (Muslims in Iran are Shia not Sunni).

Two things are different today. The cartoons published first in Denmark and now more widely across Europe set out not to depict but to ridicule the Prophet. And they do so in a climate in which Muslims across the globe feel alienated, threatened and routinely despised by the world's great powers.

The combination of this with Islam's traditional unhappiness at depictions of any human form, let alone of their most venerated one, was bound to be explosive. The affair is an example of Western ignorance and arrogance combined. We have lit a fire and the wind could take it a long way.