What a snowman in Saudi Arabia has to do with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

Snow is rare in Saudi Arabia so when freezing temperatures resulted in snow falling many used the opportunity to build things, including snowmen and even a snow camel. However, a cleric responding to a question after the event said building replicas of living things is not allowed.

The instruction to not build snowmen is based on the same religious teachings that don’t allow for images of the prophet Mohammed.

In the teachings used alongside the Quran, there is a Hadith which warns that statues and images of living things could lead to idol worship. As there is only one God in Islam, worshipping idols is not allowed and so neither is the creation of objects that could become idols.

This is the basis for banning all representations of living things in Islam. It is also why shapes, patterns and writing features so prominently in Islamic art and decoration. Given the importance of Mohammed to Islam, creating an image of him is even more problematic.

But then it gets complicated. There are images of Mohammed that have been created throughout history both by followers of Islam and those that are not. Sometimes he has been depicted with his face covered by a veil or as a flame-like halo. One reason for the variation is that Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims differ on how strictly this needs to be applied. Sunni Muslims make up the majority of Muslims and are most spread out geographically which means the most Muslim communities would not want any images of Mohammed to be published.

The further aggravating factor is that the occasions most recently when depictions have been published, they have also been negative. The combination of these three factors has drawn anger and criticism from Muslims and the response certainly from people who don’t accept or understand why it is an issue has been further antagonism.

This is an element of a larger issue about how Islamic communities respond to the measures various countries have taken against Middle East countries under the banner of combatting terrorism even though significant civilian casualties have not succeeded. Some may argue it has sustained or even increased the chance for future terrorist acts.

This is not intended to resolve the debate about freedom of expression, justify the beliefs of Islam or comment on how to combat terrorism. It is hopefully a first step in inviting further reading and discussion about a complex subject.

Sources: Snow Story http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/12/us-odd-saudi-snow-idUSKBN0KL15N20150112

Snow Picture credit http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/saudi-arabia/saudi-fatwa-banning-snowmen-triggers-heated-debate-1.1439821

Wiki entry on images of Mohammed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DepictionsofMuhammad

A piece on the “ban” of images of Mohammed following the Danish cartoons publication http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2010/05/06/why-islam-does-not-ban-images-of-the-prophet/2383

Hadiths http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadith

An imam responds to questions about the depiction of Mohammed http://o.canada.com/news/charlie-hebdo-depictions-of-prophet-muhammad-574875

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