Some Thoughts On Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Controversy

In September 2005, The  Jyllands-Posten right wing conservative newspaper publish 12 cartoons, including some of Prophet Muhammad. These images are deeply offensive to Muslims, since most of them portrayed him as being the cause of terrorism or violence.

The Cartoons

While some of the images are fairly neutral, some are indeed very offensive. The most offensive images are:

  • Showing him as the typical Hollywood evil Arab with menacing features, with his turban as a bomb about to explode.
  • Showing him as a man who has a halo that is also two horns, associating Muhammad as a devil or as Satan.
  • Showing him as a bushy browed, unruly beard and with two veiled woman (implying polygamy). This also has the stereotypical menacing evil Arab look, and holding a scimitar.
  • Showing him at the gates of heaven telling incoming suicide bombers "Stop! Stop! We ran out of virgins".

These images are very offensive to a Muslim, since they mock a person held in high regard and central to the religion. They are more offensive since they directly associate contemporary terrorism and violence with the prophet himself, saying indirectly that  he is main cause of Muslims being uncivilized savages, barbarians, ...etc. rather than attributing terrorism to its real root causes.
The Jyllands-Posten newspaper insisted that it is a Danish tradition to lampoon religious figures, and that they would do that to any religion, despite recent revelations that they refused to publish cartoons of Jesus.

Muslims organizations in Denmark complained to the paper, then to the government. Since they got no satisfactory responses, some of them took the pictures to various dignitaries in the Middle East, including The Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar and other religious and civil institutions. Several Muslim countries asked to meet Danish officials, then decided to withdraw their ambassadors.

Before the whole matter erupted, some minor newspapers republished the cartoons, for example El Fagr in Egypt did so in October 2005, without anyone noticing. This can be attributed to many factors, such as the low circulation of such newspaper (which I have never heard of before), trying to create a controversy to boost its redistribution. Also, the context is different: a local newspaper can do so to show locals what "The West" has done, while in France, Norway, Italy and other places, newspapers did so in a defiant and arrogant context more like "let us show these Muslims".


This was in parallel with a grassroots boycotts of all Danish products, specially in the Gulf region. The boycotts severely affected large Danish companies such as Arla Foods, which does some $400US million per annum in the Gulf region.

This is the first time in recent memory that a grassroot call for boycott has indeed produced results. Boycotts of American goods have been ongoing for several years, but does not seem to hurt the American economy since it is too large.

In my view, boycotting companies for the doing of one newspaper is not right. This is collective punishment, which is unethical. A boycott should be directed at the offending entity only, and not the government, the people or companies not concerned with the matter. In this case, it should have been directed at the newspaper, for example, asking the companies that advertise in it to withdraw their support, and escalating the boycott against those companies if they refuse.

In a way, this collective boycott and punishment justifies things Muslim detest and have been complaining against for sometime, such as sanctions against a whole country, or invading and bombing civilians in the name of rooting out terrorism, or ousting a dictator (e.g. Afghanistan 2001/2002, and Iraq 2003 being the most recent examples).

Many Danes have expressed these points to a columnist at Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper

Demonstrations and Riots

Meanwhile, starting with Gaza, streets in various Muslim countries erupted with rage. Offices of the EU were taken over by gunmen in Gaza. Later,

Many Muslims have asked the Danish government to apologize. From a Western perspective, this is very odd. To someone in an Arab country, this is quite reasonable, since they are used to governments owning or controlling the media. The concept of independant media that is not answerable to the government is completely alien in the region, and hence --  to many Muslims -- the refusal was yet another sign of Western arrogance.

In London, a group of Muslims played into the hands of this provocation, and marched with signs like "Kill the Kafir (infidel)", "Europe, remember 9/11", "freedom go to hell", "Butcher those who ...", "Islam will conquer Europe", "Whoever insults a prophet kill him",  "democracy go to hell", "Europe you will pay, fantastic 4 are on their way". It is an irony that those marching were doing so because of democracy and freedom in the UK. I can't help but think that these are the same bunch of the so called Al Muhajiroon group, headed by radicals like Omar Bakri Muhammad, and Abu Hamza Al Masri, who are used to provocative publicity stunts, such as celebrating the anniversary of the September 11th attacks a few years back.

In Lebanon and Syria, the Danish embassies were torched by a mob. In the TV footage that was shown (at least in Canada), showed Muslim clerics trying to stop demonstrators from causing damage to property, and Jordanian and Iranian clerics urged worshippers not to cause damage to diplomatic missions.

BBC's respected John Simpson wrote an article on the reaction to the cartoons, which is fairly balanced.

The Bush administration wasted no time trying to up the pressure and score points, with Condoleezza Rice blaming Iran and Syria for fanning the flames in this controversy.

What Would Muhammad Do?

On the other hand, we see some Muslim organizations given a lemon, trying to make a lemonade. For example, CAIR has published a What Would Muhammad Do? article, taking a line from the What Would Jesus Do? ads a few years ago. Another Muslim organization published a What Would Muhammad Do? article as well. Both articles and many others have highlighted the fact that prophet Muhammad during his lifetime was ridiculed, mocked, insulted, defamed, abused, and theatened with death. After Mecca was conquered without any fighting, he gave unconditional pardon for all Meccans who hurled these insults, and waged war against him for more than two decades.

Even some non-Muslim authors have written mostly favorable articles about prophet Muhammad, such as this Profile of a Prophet article in the Globe and Mail by Paul William Roberts, despite some inaccuracies (e.g. current Hijri year is 1384, instead of 1427 because of the lunar/solar different, reliance on Amir Taheri and Stephen Schwartz's oversimplistic and mostly wrong assertions, claims that images of prophet Muhammad are widespread in museums in Muslim countries).

Republishing in other countries

To make matters worse, other newspapers in other countries have republished the cartoons, in the name of freedom of expression, as well as in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten.

This was seen by Muslims as more arrogance and provocation, along the lines of "let us show these Muslims ...". 

In France, the newspaper LeSoir published the cartoons, but the editor was fired by the owner, Raymond (Rami) Lakah, who is an Egyptian Roman Catholic tycoon in exile. Some have attributed this move by Lakah as due to his sensitivity to Muslims having lived among them for most of his life. Others are more skeptical, and say that he fears for retaliation against his family back in  Egypt. Yet other extremist right wing see him as a shady businessman doing "Islamo-nazis and Islamo-fascism's bidding".

To make matters worse, some right wing conservative web sites even offer T-shirts with the prophet's cartoons on them, making money out of offending the sensibilities of 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide. This is again taken by Muslims as pure arrogance and a determinition to insult.

Freedom of Expression or Freedom to Insult?

While freedom of expression is widely viewed as a basic rights in Western countries, it does have its limits. The classic example is that one does not have the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre With freedom comes responsibility, and consequences. One has to be mindful of where his words will lead, not only upon him, but upon others. Most importantly, one has to do so with respect and be sensitive to others. 

Depictions of the prophet

Throughout most of Islamic history, depictions of all prophets (Muhammad included) have been prohibited, not because they are sacred, but rather because of the fear of idolatry, which is strongly opposed by Islam's strict monotheism. Most depictions of the prophet were in Persian, Turkish and Mogul miniatures in the last few centuries that accompany earlier literary work such as epics, history, biographies and such. In these depictions, the faces of prophets are obscured, and shown with fire around the head, similar to the halo in Christian art. You can see one such example of the prophet's ascension to heaven dating 1550 C.E, and this picture from a 16th century miniature. While the vast majority of miniatures followed the prohibition, some like this manuscript of Zubdat Al Tawarikh ("The Cream of Histories") at a Turkish museum, did not follow this, showing prophets with faces. Here is a collection of images where the face of Prophet Muhammad was intentionally obscured. The same site has a list of images where the prohibition was not followed.

It should be noted that even in movies, Muhammad was never represented by an actor. Even the movie The Message (1976), by director Moustapha Akkad and starring Anthony Quinn, never showed the prophet. The same goes for the animated Muhammad: Life of a Prophet (2004). In an interview, Akkad says that he got approval from Al Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt on the script, only to have the movie banned in Egypt since it depicts the prophet's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn in the English edition).

What did Prophet Muhammad look like? 

All the images above, and those in other Medieval and Western sources do not rely on any historic contemporary source. The same applies to Jesus as well, where you have very different depictions over the centuries.

However, in Muhammad's case, we do have detailed descriptions of how he looked. 

Many classical authors have dedicated portions of their biographical works on the prophet to how the prophet looked like. Some, like Al Tirmithi (Tirmizi b. 209 d. 279 A.H. = 880 C.E.) in his Shamail Al Mustafa ("Description of the Prophet" شمائل المصطفى للترمذي) collected all the sayings of contemporaries in a separate compendium.The original Shamail in Arabic is available online, as well as an English version as a Word document. It is also available in print at  Other authors also followed suit, such as Judge 'Iyad القاضي عياض in his Al Shifa fi Shamil Al Mustafa الشفا في حقوق المصطفى.

Who is to Blame?

In Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, the search for scapegoats already started with blame being placed on "radical Imams" who mixed cartoons from the newspaper with others from web sites, and presented them to officials in Muslim countries.

I have mentioned above how the Bush Administration is trying to shift the blame to Iran and Syria, since they are on the Axis of Evil.

To me, the original blame has to lie with Jyllands-Posten for commissioning the cartoons in the first place, and publishing so many of them that conform to the current terrorist stereotype. Blame should also be placed on those who burned embassies, though this is probably due to herd mentality, and mob dynamics where events are spontaneous and driven by emotions and not reason.

It seems that Fleming Rose, the editor of the Jyllands-Posten who started this whole thing is in close alliance with notorious right wing neo-conservative Islamophobes like Daniel Pipes, as described in John Sugg's article on CounterPunch. The Washington Post has said that the cartoons "were published as a calculated insult last September by a right-wing newspaper in a country where bigotry toward the minority Muslim population is a major, if frequently unacknowledged, problem."

Others have conspiracy theories, such as blaming Saudi Arabia for setting the whole thing in motion, without much evidence. It is true that some repressive Arab regimes sometimes exploit any emotions to lay the blame on any external entity to distract from internal problems, but that is after the matter erupted, not pre-planned.

Casualities So Far

Initially, the outcry was mostly peaceful, with calls for boycotts. This took a turn to torching of property, then people started dying in protests. So far, 11 people have lost their life over this, and unspecified property damage has been made to embassies in Beirut, Damascus, Gaza and elsewhere.

Deep Islam vs. West divide

This incident, in my view, have a more serious victim. It shows the deepening of the divide between Islam and the West, which accelerated since September 11, 2001. Each side is eyeing the other with more suspicion, Westerners blaming Islam and Muslims for terrorism, and Muslims blaming the current West for everything from the Crusades to Colonialism, and more.

Each side fails to understands the other side, and casts their own actions in light of its own standards and principles. Each side fails to extend a hand reaching out for understanding.

The Malaysian Prime Minister has said that the Islam-West divide is growing deeper. BBC's Maged Abdelhadi, who is often contrarian and out of touch from mainstream Arab opinion, agrees that the cartoon row highlights a deep divide, although his analysis is flawed and ignores other factors I have discussed above.

On the other hand, Professor John Esposito of The Christian Muslim Understanding Center at Georgetown University, and Gallup Senior Scientist has an article on Muslims and the West: A cultural war?

I hope that this changes soon ... 

Closing Notes

No wonder, one of the original cartoons says in Persian: "The Jylland-Posten are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs". Another photo has a blond dane with a turban holding a wire figure. The author's turban correctly says "PR Stunt".

Indeed ... 





Fantastic roundup of the whole problem.

I think you have just presented everything in a very clear and honest way.

Thanks and I do agree with you totally.

Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.

Excellent, neutral observation of the issue.

It places a good accent on the Muslim sensitivity of showing the face of the prophet, and the blasphemy of linking him with terrorists.

The one thing that might be a bit unjust is the remark about cartoons of Christ.

Not only you see thousands of cartoons of Christ in the Western world, but even movies (like the Life of Brian) by Monty Python's crew and the last temptation of Christ. Which were not very flattering towards the figure of Christ.

But otherwise, I think the article is well researched and well written


Dear Dr. van Custem,

Thank you for your comments.

Regarding your point about Jesus, I think there is a distiction that has to be made.

I agree with you that Western media regularly makes fun of Jesus, god and other religious figures. Anyone who watched the movies you mentioned, or Saturday Night Live would know that.

However, my comment here was directed to Jyllands-Posten's own attitude, not the general Western media. The newspaper editors have refused to publish Jesus cartoons, but commissioned ones about Muhammad. So, the newspaper itself have a double standard, or is being hypocritical, not the media in the West at large.
Khalid Baheyeldin

Jyllands-Posten in context - hypocrisy or not?

First of all, thanks for a pretty well thought out perspective on the debate. I didn't catch any glaring misinformation which is quite a success under the circumstances ;-)

Now you wrote about Jyllands-Posten:

The newspaper editors have refused to publish Jesus cartoons, but commissioned ones about Muhammad. So, the newspaper itself have a double standard, or is being hypocritical

There are two reasons why this is not hypocritical. Firstly, the drawings were sent unsolicited, so there could be no expectation of publication. Of course, they were rejected partly because they'd cause "an uproar" so we can at least establish that JP does in some cases edit to respect religious beliefs. You can see them in the last page of this PDF document - the strip at the bottom is the artists usual strip in this paper (of the UniCopenhagen).

Secondly (and IMO more important): There is no Danish tradition of self-censorship regarding Jesus. While JP may take care not to offend Christians, many other publishers don't, so there's no lack of representation. Contrast that with the background for the Mohammed cartoons: It was not possible to find a single artist who would put their name on portraits of Mohammed for a childrens book. (AFAIK the book was not intended to be offensive). Now, making illustrated childrens books about famous persons is a long-standing tradition in Danish culture, and I think this tradition should be continued and respected, especially since it's very informative and relatively harmless. In this case there is a need to establish that Mohammed does not enjoy any special privilege not to be portrayed or caricatured, and that's why JP commissioned the drawings.

Now I can see how many Muslims can be offended by several of the drawings, especially since they associate Islam with terrorism and in that case I agree with your distinction between reasonable and unreasonable forms of protest. Still, even the more offensive images can be interpreted in ways that are less provocative than immediately assumed.

Of course the whole thing has been blown vastly out of proportion. The normal Danish way of handling it would have been a vicious debate in the papers for a couple of weeks, then slowly dying out which is how it started but apparently it suddenly became an issue that was useful for many political purposes all over the world. I pin the blame for this on the Danish imams who did everything they could to have this escalate and I hope that they're now ostracized from any serious debate for a long while. (Or until they apologize, but that will hardly be relevant).

Oh, in case you didn't guess: I'm danish. (Where can I get official Victimhood Membership Cards?)

Thank you

Thank you for taking the time to comment, and for your kind words on the article.

I can see your point of view, but most Muslims would see what you described as intentional provocation, since the cartoons were indeed commissioned, not unsolicited, like the ones about Jesus.

The lack of a self-censorship tradition in Denmark also makes the attitude of the JP appear more bigoted (because they went against a norm in the country and refused Jesus picture, yet commissioned something offensive and stereotypical to Muslims).

Please note that I added two links to the article under the who is to blame section about the whole matter being possibly pre-planned by neo-conservatives.

As for the Danish Imams, I cannot comment one way or the other, since I do not have enough information on them. In general though, they would have been severly offended, and from what I heard, they tried to talk to the JP, then to the Prime Minister, and were brushed off. It was then that they took the matter abroad to gain support and diplomatic pressure. This snowballed beyond anyone's imagination.

I spend more than a month in Denmark once, and have fond memories of the people being very cordial and nice. I hope that has not changed. I have an article planned on that for the last few years, but never got to it. Perhaps I should dig out my draft and start writing.
Khalid Baheyeldin


Thank you for this excellent and balanced response. I fear that voices like yours are mostly ignored, and increasingly marginalized.

One note though - I am an Indian and a few years ago, the state of Gujarat in India exploded into violence following an incident when a train carrying a group of Hindus was allegedly burnt by a muslim mob (this version of events is highly contested).

Following this incident, most of the state of Gujarat turned against the muslim population and thousands of muslims were killed - the Gujarat government which was complicit in this genocide claimed that the violence was 'spontaneous' and was sparked by 'strong emotions' - quite the same language you are using to describe the reason for the violence in many nations against the Danish embassies. I must strongly disagree with this attempt at trying to justify the violence of a mob, no matter how emotional it may be.

Except for this one complaint, I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the situation. Thanks a lot.


Hello Prem

Thank you for your response.

People often blur the difference between "explanation" and "justification" or "excuse".

When someone is trying to probe deeper for the causes, it is often seen by some that he is attempting to justify what is done.

This is not the case. For example, see my section on terrorism. I try to ask why terror happens, and go beyond the superficial self serving "good vs. evil" or "they hate freedom and democracy". In no way is this saying that terrorism is right, or is justified.

To be clear: embassy burning is wrong in this case.

As for mob behavior, please read my earlier article on it.
Thanks again.
Khalid Baheyeldin