Prohibitions in the Islamic world against depicting the prophet Muhammad springs from concern that even well-intentioned images could lead to idolatry or show disrespect for a figure Islam considers the model of human perfection.
Still, Islam's holy book does not forbid such depiction, most clerics agree. Instead, the unwillingness to show Muhammad's image stems from sayings of the prophet and custom that have grown up over centuries, reaching the status of Islamic law in many Muslims' minds.
The outrage sparked by caricatures of the prophet published in European papers is the result of this devotion.
"Out of respect for the prophet, we don't want him shown in a manner that doesn't befit him," said Amin al-Kerdy, head of Islamic Affairs at Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon's highest Sunni Muslim religious authority. "We believe he was perfect in looks and morals, so we need to preserve that perfection."
No one knows what Muhammad looked like, so any image is likely to be wrong, "leaving in people's minds a certain impression of the prophet that's not accurate," he said.
There are exceptions. Some clerics and scholars, mostly Shiites, say Muhammad could be depicted if the artist's intentions are sincere and the drawings follow the general descriptions of the prophet in religious books.
Among Shiites in Iran and Iraq, images of Ali and Hussein, the sect's most revered saints, have been reproduced on key chains, rugs and posters. Some Muslims in Iran's provincial towns and villages even carry drawings said to be of the prophet.
"Legally, Shiites don't see anything against the depiction of the prophet if the picture is honorable and based on historical books that describe him," said Fawzi al-Saif, a Shiite cleric from the Saudi town of Qatif.
"However, there's a difference between respectful drawings and those aimed at degrading people, such as the ones that appeared in the (Danish) newspaper and which constitute an aggression against the feelings of Muslims worldwide," he added.
The issue of the prophet's depiction came into focus after the publication of 12 caricatures of Muhammad in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten in September. They were recently reprinted in media in Europe and elsewhere.
Some of the pictures satirized Muhammad as violent — particularly one that showed him wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse.
Many Muslims say the ban is part of Sharia law. The Quran does not mention anything about depicting the prophet, though its verses set idolatry as one of the worst sins in Islam and enjoin the faithful to respect Muhammad.
The holy book is not the only source of Sharia. The hadith — sayings and behavior of the prophet — as well as other traditions have a role as well.
While no hadith directly bans depicting Muhammad, there are several that frown on depictions of any living creature, animal or human, on the grounds that it could lead to idolatry and that it presumes man has the same creative power as God.
As a result, Islamic art has historically focused on calligraphy and graphic design — though in the modern age, pictures, photos and cartoons are everywhere without complaint.
The debate raging among Muslim-Americans on college campuses, the Internet and in Islamic media has its own unique flavor because of this country's constitutional commitment to free speech.
Many are embarrassed by the violence that has accompanied some demonstrations but are adamant in exercising their First Amendment rights to protest the drawings peacefully.
Because the cartoons constitute what he considers hate speech, the issue is not "black and white," said Junaid Ahmad, a student at the College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe Law School in Williamsburg, Va., who is active in national Muslim organizations.
"The principal issue here is not freedom of speech, but the Islamophobic context in which such a caricaturing of the prophet is taking place. I think that's the issue here," Ahmad said.
The Council on American Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and other American Muslim groups have condemned the violent reactions to the cartoons and have urged Muslims to protest peacefully, write letters or take part in boycotts. For their part, CAIR, MPAC and other groups have met with European officials in Washington to explain why Muslims were offended by the cartoons. To some U.S. Muslims, the cartoons of Muhammad are more a question of racism than blasphemy.
"The cartoons border on hate speech. If people depicted Jews in that light, people would be very upset. If you look at them, they are very similar to cartoons drawn of Jews in Nazi Germany," said Dega Muna, 40, a Somali-born Muslim who grew up mostly in the U.S. and Canada and who coordinates a "progressive Muslim" group that meets weekly in New York City.
"I agree it's free speech, but with free speech comes responsibility, and knowing the consequences of your actions. They were provoking ... and this is the reaction they got. Unfortunately, it kind of proves their point, that Muslims are violent."
There are several traditional legal interpretations within Islam regarding blasphemy, said Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic legal scholar at UCLA Law School. The most extreme Muslims believe that blasphemy is punishable by death unless the perpetrator apologizes, while other schools of thought recognize the right to blaspheme, referencing Quranic verses that suggest that men need not seek retribution for defamation or mockery of Muhammad because God is his protector, El Fadl said.
In fact, books are sold in Egypt, Syria and other Muslim countries that are critical of Muhammad, but these don't spark protests, El Fadl said. Perhaps that is because the cartoons are seen by Muslims as the latest in a long line of Western crimes against them, he said. As examples, he cited colonization and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims as well as more recent images of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and perceived western Islamophobia.
"These disparaging drawings were like the straw that broke the camel's back," said El Fadl.