Controversial Prophet cartoons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am

A five-minute primer on an issue making headlines

Deaths, burned embassies, mass boycotts and worldwide anger: derogatory cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed have sparked an unprecedented reaction.

What do we know about the Prophet?

Historians suggest the Prophet Mohammed was the founder of the religion we now know as Islam, but Muslims believe he is the last in a line of messengers dating from Adam. They revere all of them, including Jesus. The Prophet was born in AD570 in Mecca and became a deeply spiritual man who spent a lot of his time meditating on Mount Hira. It is said that one night during meditation he was visited by the angel Jibreel, or Gabriel, who commanded him to memorise and recite verses sent by Allah - the Arabic word for God. The Prophet understood these to be the words of God and they came to form the text of the Koran, the Muslim scripture.

How did the Prophet become a messenger of Allah?

The Prophet took the angel's commands to mean that he had been chosen as God's messenger and began to preach what had been revealed to him. People flocked to hear him, and it was not long before his popularity was seen as a threat by Mecca's elite. In AD622, he left Mecca and went to Medina, a journey now known as the hijrah, or migration. Within 10 years, the Prophet had so many followers he returned to conquer Mecca. AD622 is the year in which the Islamic calendar begins, and it is from this time that the Prophet was generally accepted as the true messenger of God.

How important is the Prophet to Muslims?

Muslims believe all his actions were willed by God, so a singular love and veneration is attached to him. When Muslims refer to the Prophet Mohammed, they always precede his name with the title and add the phrase, 'peace be upon him'.

Criticising him must be pretty offensive?

No, it's hugely offensive. Just ask Salman Rushdie. In his novel The Satanic Verses he depicted the Prophet as a cynical schemer and his wives as prostitutes. Rushdie spent years in hiding as a result of a fatwa issue by late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

But why is there so much controversy over the cartoons?

Depicting the Prophet is off-limits. This is to eschew idolatry, in this case praying to the Prophet. Muslims worship only God. While worshipping images of gods are an important part of religions like Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, that is not the case for Muslims. Although nothing in the Koran expressly forbids images of Allah or the Prophet, a couple of passages have led Muslims to believe that neither can be captured in an image by human hand, such is their beauty and grandeur.

And is this restriction confined to Allah and Mohammed?

No. Islamic tradition prohibits images of the prophets of all major religions.