"Among ancient lawmakers including Moses, Solomon and Charlemagne featured in a marble frieze on the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. stands the Prophet Muhammad, dressed in long robes and carrying a sword.
His inclusion caused a controversy in 1997, six decades after the panel was carved, when Muslim groups called for the likeness to be sanded down, arguing the portrayal was sacrilegious and defined their faith as one of violence. In response, a top Islamic law scholar instead declared the sculpture an honor bestowed by non-Muslims.
The dispute shows how Islam’s opinions on images of the prophet have rarely been monolithic. The view that all representations of Muhammad are banned, not just those deemed blasphemous, obscures a more nuanced past, before the rise of the militant strains of Islam that ultimately influenced the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo magazine.
Simply depicting Muhammad “has become such a sensitive issue because of the political context and as part of the perceived conflict between Islam and the western world,” said Silvia Naef, a professor of Arab studies at the University of Geneva. “Earlier, it wouldn’t have been such a problem.”
There’s no explicit ban on making or possessing images of Muhammad in the Koran. Attitudes have varied according to time, place and interpretation, said Naef, author of the 2004 book “Is There a Question of Imagery in Islam?”"
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