Muhammad and the power of religious imagery

The world learned a potent lesson about the power of religious imagery in 2005 when violent and deadly demonstrations erupted over European newspaper cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. Similar demonstrations occurred in 2012 after a video attacking Muhammad and Islam was viewed on YouTube millions of times. These episodes underscore how little many non-Muslims know about Islam, and the importance of having media outlets that are able to cover this world religion with insight and sophistication.

Why it matters

Since the attacks of 9/11, non-Muslims’ dearth of knowledge about Islam has been thrown into sharp relief. Violent protests over the cartoons in 2005 showed that while knowledge of Islam has grown among Westerners, the sensitivities of different groups within Islam are still little-understood and potentially explosive.

Questions for reporters

  • How did members of your  local Muslim community react to the Muhammad cartoon controversy? How did this compare to reactions after the so-called “Innocence of Muslims” controversy in 2012?  Along with academics, talk to local imams and local Muslims in order to get a more well-rounded view.
  • How have non-Muslim clergy in your community reacted to such controversies? Have interfaith groups taken on these issues?
  • What did these depictions represent and why did they incite such reactions? Experts note that many cultural and geo-political factors fuel these uproars, but it is clear that religious sensibilities are often at the heart of the furor.


The images, published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on Sept. 30, 2005, depict Muhammad, whose life, deeds and teachings are well-known to Muslims but a mystery to most of the West, including Americans. Many non-Muslims misidentify Muhammad as the founder of Islam. To Muslims, Islam has always existed and Muhammad was its greatest and final prophet – the end of a line of prophets that includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus – and not its founder. This illiterate merchant whose life straddled the sixth and seventh centuries was chosen by Allah to hear and pass on the words of the Quran.

In contrast to Jesus, there is a wealth of information on the man who turned Islam into one of the greatest forces in world history and one of the three great monotheistic religions in the Abrahamic tradition, along with Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad was probably the first religious leader to rise up in the full glare of history, according to Omid Safi, assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Colgate University. Contemporary accounts of his life are voluminous. They include such mundane details as how he brushed his teeth in addition to basics on his birth, death and family. The life of Muhammad — orphan, merchant, husband, prophet, warrior and statesman — is taught to Muslims at an early age.

While Christians must reconcile the divinity of their savior with the earthly concerns of a man who walked the earth, Muslims are not faced with the same dilemma. Muslims believe that Muhammad was not the word of God made flesh but a human messenger of God who lived the Quran, according to Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion at Temple University.

Scholars offer several points for reporting on these depictions and future uproar:

  • Islam sternly prohibits images of God and his prophets. Islamic scholars say, however, that images of Muhammad can be found in markets in Shiite Iran, Egypt and South Asia, and that recent controversies have more to do with the characterization of Muhammad. (The Bible contains a prohibition against “graven images” in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:4). offers a comparison of the Ten Commandments in the Bible with similar passages in the Quran.)
  • Religious scholars say Muhammad himself has seldom been a source of controversy within Islam or between Islam and other religions in recent centuries. Islam’s controversies have primarily arisen over interpretations of the Quran – the words revealed by God to Muhammad – and over issues of who has authority to speak for Islam.
  • Debate also arises over sayings of Muhammad outside the Quran. Historian Bernard Lewis noted in his 2002 book The Crisis of Islam that there is a saying attributed to the prophet that not all scholars believe is valid: “If anyone insults me, then any Muslim who hears this must kill him immediately.” Osama bin Laden’s belief that Muslims have a duty to kill Americans was based partly on this saying, coupled with his belief that all Americans insult Muhammad because of the actions of the U.S. government and the nature of U.S. society, scholars say.
  • Starting with Muhammad, who experienced success as a merchant, warrior and statesman, Islam has had a history of inspiring followers to feel bound by religious fellowship that transcends national loyalties.

News articles

National sources

Listings and institutions

  • Muslim-Christian Relations

    The Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut has this page with links on Muslim-Christian relations.

  • The Islam Project

    The Islam Project is a multimedia effort aimed at schools, communities and individuals who want a clearer understanding of Islam. The project is partially funded by the Carnegie Corporation. It offers this background on Muhammad.


    The Sabr Foundation, a nonprofit religious educational group offers this history of Muhammad.

  • Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement

    The University of Southern California’s Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement has an online resource for Jewish and Islamic religious texts.

  • Muslim Students Association

    The association seeks to provide a forum for the unification of Muslim students from diverse backgrounds. Its website contains a list of the association’s chapters on college campuses across the country. Contact through the form on the website.


Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Natana Delong-Bas

    Natana Delong-Bas is an associate professor of theology at Boston College. She teaches courses on Islam, environmentalism and Muslim women.

  • Roy Mottahedeh

    Roy Mottahedeh is the Gurney Professor of Islamic History at Harvard University. His major work is on the premodern social and intellectual history of the Islamic Middle East. He is also the faculty adviser of  The Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review.

  • Jamal J. Elias

    Jamal J. Elias is a professor of religious studies and South Asia studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written on visual religious art in Islam.

  • Abbas Amanat

    Abbas Amanat is director of the Iranian Studies Initiative at Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and former chairman of the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He is author of Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi’ism (2009).

  • Rashid Khalidi

    Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and Literature at Columbia University in New York.

  • Yvonne Y. Haddad

    Yvonne Y. Haddad is professor of the history of Islam and Muslim-Christian relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She co-authored Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today and Educating the Muslims of America. Her scholarly interests include Muslims in the West, Islamic revolutionary movements, 20th-century Islam and the intellectual, social and political history of the Arab world.

  • Ervand Abrahamian

    Ervand Abrahamian is a professor of history at Baruch College in New York City. He is an expert on Islamic history.

  • Patricia Crone

    Patricia Crone is a professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey. She is an expert in Islamic history and religion.

  • Francis E. Peters

    Francis E. Peters is a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University. He wrote Muhammad and the Origins of Islam (SUNY Press, 1994).

  • Michael Cook

    Michael Cook is a professor of near Eastern studies at Princeton University in New Jersey. He is the author of Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and numerous other publications.


  • Omid Safi

    Omid Safi is a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University, where he also directs the Duke Islamic Studies Center. He edited Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism.

  • Hamid Dabashi

    Hamid Dabashi  is an Iranian-American Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City. He is the author of several books, including, The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism.

  • Muqtedar Khan

    Muqtedar Khan is an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. He has written about Islamic political thought and about the rise of political Christianity, through the Republican Party, in the United States. His books include American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom and Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West. Khan has said that Shariah is based on the same principles that shape Judeo-Christian values.

In the South

  • Gordon Darnell Newby

    Gordon Darnell Newby is a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian studies at Emory University in Atlanta. He wrote The Making of the Last Prophet: A Reconstruction of the Earliest Biography of Muhammad (University of South Carolina Press, 1989).

  • Brannon Wheeler

    Brannon Wheeler is director at the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He co-edited the Historical Dictionary of Prophets in Islam and Judaism. He has said that the Quran does not take a moral view of good and evil, but rather views the terms in relationship to people’s obedience to God’s commands.

  • Carl W. Ernst

    Carl W. Ernst is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He wrote Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World and edited Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. He is affiliated with the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

  • Herbert Berg

    Herbert Berg is professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His area of expertise is Islam.

  • Timothy Furnish

    Timothy Furnish is an expert in Islamic and Middle Eastern history and Islamic fundamentalism as well as Mahdism (Islamic messianism. He is the author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Praeger Publishers, 2005).  He is a former military Christian army chaplain.

  • Bruce Lawrence

    Bruce Lawrence is professor emeritus of  religion at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is author of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (Verso, 2005). He is an expert on comparative fundamentalism and Muslim networks.

  • Vincent Cornell

    Vincent Cornell is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, and he has taught in numerous academic centers of Islam in the U.S. His expertise ranges widely, including Islamic thought, Sufism, philosophy and Islamic law.

  • Claudia Liebeskind

    Claudia Liebeskind is an associate professor of Middle Eastern History at Florida State University. She teaches on South Asian history, Islam, and world history.

  • Norman Stillman

    Norman Stillman is professor and Schusterman/Josey Chair in Jewish History at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He is an expert in medieval and modern Jewish and Islamic History.

  • David B. Cook

    David Bryan Cook is an associate professor of religious studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He specializes in the origins and historical development of Islam. He has written several books on historical and contemporary Islamic writings about the apocalypse and has taught a course titled “Jihad and the End of the World.”

  • Nelly van Doorn-Harder

    Nelly van Doorn-Harder is a professor of Islamic studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

In the Midwest

  • Mohammed Ayoob

    Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at James Madison College at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He researches the intersection of religion and politics in the Muslim world. He is the author of The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World (2007).

  • Geneive Abdo

    Geneive Abdo is a Middle East fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and a nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She researches contemporary Iran and political Islam and has written about extremism in the Middle East.

  • Fred M. Donner

    Fred M. Donner is a professor of near Eastern history at the University of Chicago. He wrote Seeing the Origins of Islam in Historical Perspective.

  • Alam Payind

    Alam Payind is director of the Middle East Studies Center at Ohio State University in Columbus.

In the West

  • Daniel C. Peterson

    Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Arabic and currently serves as editor-in-chief and director of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative at the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

  • Mark R. Woodward

    Mark R. Woodward is an associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. One of his areas of research interest is Islam.

  • James E. Lindsay

    James E. Lindsay is an associate professor in the department of history at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. His area of expertise is Medieval Islamic history.

  • Zayn Kassam

    Zayn Kassam is professor of religious studies at Pomona College in California. She is an expert on Islamic society.

  • Joel S. Fetzer

    Joel S. Fetzer is a professor of political science at Seaver College at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. He co-wrote Muslims and the State in Britain, France, and Germany (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  • Amir Hussain

    Amir Hussain is professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is a former editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

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