While lethal riots persist in the Middle East and American cartoonists and editors wring their hands over what it means to publish pictures of Muhammad, the Western world's curators of Islamic art whisper and wonder.
As they understand it, the Koran does not forbid representations of Muhammad, though other revered texts have led millions of Muslims to scorn the idea. They know that many Islamic artists have taken on the subject. And they know that pictures of Muhammad -- not caricatures, but respectful representations, executed by and for Muslims, sometimes with the prophet's face shrouded by a veil, sometimes not -- can be found in museums throughout Europe and North America.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's collection includes two portrayals of Muhammad and one "verbal portrait" full of ornate calligraphy and rich colors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has three. The Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art has four. The largest collection of such images, experts say, is probably that of the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.
By happenstance, curators say, none of the artworks at LACMA, the Freer or the Met were on public display when protests erupted late last year following publication in Denmark of a dozen newspaper cartoons lampooning Muhammad. But most of the museum-held portrayals of Muhammad can be accessed through the museums' Internet sites, along with some explanatory text.
This, curators acknowledge, could be a "teachable moment," a chance for museums to help visitors better understand the history and variety of Islamic culture and Muhammad's role in it. But as the toll of dead and wounded in the Middle East, Asia and Africa continues to mount, who wants to stand before the blackboard? And how will this lesson go?
First, said Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art for the Freer Gallery, "everybody needs to calm down a bit."
At LACMA, Islamic art curator Linda Komaroff said: "We've always known about these images, and no one's ever had a problem, because they are respectful.... I wish this whole issue would go away because it's so incendiary."
Farhad said she has considered putting together a lecture series, as she did in the aftermath of 9/11, but scoffs at the idea of a museum display.
Nevermind that exhibitions usually take six months or more to organize, Farhad said; the larger problem would be delivering information thoughtfully and respectfully in such a politically charged environment.
The Freer had two images of Muhammad on display as part of an exhibition on another subject two years ago and drew no criticism, Farhad said, but "I don't want to just put up an image of the prophet just to say\o7, 'Here\f7.' There has to be a reason."
In other words, maybe this just isn't a teachable moment.
"It's definitely a tricky situation," said Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles.
Although "there's no monolithic perspective on this depictions issue" and some American Muslims are comfortable with respectful depictions of Muhammad, Lekovic said, any added emphasis on the subject in a non-Muslim venue "could very well backfire" and bring complaints.
Once the current tensions ease, she said, "I actually look forward to museums and other institutions using this as a teachable moment, because that mirrors the efforts being made by the Muslim American community. Many mosques and other organizations are forging new educational programs around the prophet Muhammad and his life and his contributions to civilizations."
At LACMA -- which was honored by the Muslim Public Affairs Council three years ago for its portrayals of Islam -- Komaroff said she plans neither lectures nor other changes. But next week she'll fly to Boston to join a museum professionals' roundtable discussion on exhibiting Islamic art in a post-9/11 world.
The best that museums can do, she plans to say, is give visitors a chance to "appreciate the inherent and perhaps at times extravagant beauty of Islamic art" and hope that leads them to "pick up a book, enroll in a class or buy a plane ticket."
Even before the cartoons were published, she said, the handling of Islamic art has been a hot topic in the museum world. LACMA, the Met and the Louvre in Paris will be reorganizing their Islamic holdings in the next few years, which means curators will be deciding not only what works to show but also what to say about the 1,500-year-old religion that has shaped a culture yet comes in as many flavors as Christianity and Judaism do.
Just as the Old Testament's Second Commandment scorns graven images because they could lead to worship of false idols, Muslims have long rejected most public portrayals of Muhammad.
But, Islamic art experts say, portrayals of Muhammad have often been made to illustrate larger narratives in literary works or "to teach Muslims about the life of the prophet" -- and they have usually been made in manuscripts for elite patrons, not in public settings.