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How a Mohammad Statue Ended up at the Supreme Court

The other day, Will and Jason told me about a Mohammad statue at the Supreme Court they heard about on This American Life. This was their way of saying, "We're curious, so you should go do a bunch of research on it. Let us know how that goes."

When I hear about depictions of Mohammad, I picture Muslims burning Aqua* CDs in the streets and boycotts of Danish"¦danishes.

But much to my surprise, the Danes aren't to blame this time around. The statue in question is, in fact, right in our very own Supreme Court building.

Let's start at the beginning.

A Court to Call Home

Despite its stature in the country's political and cultural landscape, the Supreme Court was something of a vagabond in its early years. When New York City was our capital, the Court met in the Merchants' Exchange Building, and when the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the Court set up shop in Independence Hall, and then City Hall. When the federal government went off to Washington, the Court used the Capitol Building as a flophouse, but got bounced to a new chamber six different times during their stay.

Finally, in 1929, Chief Justice William Howard "I got stuck in the White House bathtub" Taft decided enough was enough and persuaded Congress to authorize the construction of a permanent home for the Court. Construction on the Supreme Court Building was completed in 1935, and the Court finally had a home to call its own after 146 years of existence.

supremecourt.jpg

Sculpture figures prominently in the Corinthian architecture of the Court Building. One chamber features a frieze decorated with a bas-relief sculpture by Adolph A. Weinman of eighteen influential law-givers. The south wall depicts Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius and Octavian, while the north wall depicts Napoleon Bonaparte, John Marshall, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, Louis IX, King John, Charlemagne, Justinian and, you guessed it, Mohammad.

Objections

Things were all well and good for a few decades, with no documented controversies over the sculpture that I could find. But then, in 1997, the fledgling Council on American-Islamic Relations brought their wrath to the Court, petitioning then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist to remove the sculpture. CAIR outlined their objections as thus:

1. Islam discourages its followers from portraying any prophet in artistic representations, lest the seed of idol worship be planted.

2. Depicting Mohammad carrying a sword "reinforced long-held stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant conquerors."

3. Building documents and tourist pamphlets referred to Mohammad as "the founder of Islam," when he is, more accurately, the "last in a line of prophets that includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus."

Rehnquist dismissed CAIR's objections, saying that the depiction was "intended only to recognize him [Mohammad] ... as an important figure in the history of law; it was not intended as a form of idol worship." He also reminded CAIR that "words are used throughout the Court's architecture as a symbol of justice and nearly a dozen swords appear in the courtroom friezes alone."

Rehnquist did make one concession, though, and promised the description of the sculpture would be changed to identify Mohammad as a "Prophet of Islam," not "Founder of Islam." The rewording also said that the figure is a "well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Mohammed, and it bears no resemblance to Mohammed."

The reasoning behind Rehnquist's rejection? For one, he believed that getting rid of any one sculpture would impair the artistic integrity of the frieze, and two, it's illegal to injure, in any way, an architectural feature of the Supreme Court Building.

Other Depictions of the Prophet

While the Qur'an forbids idolatry, it doesn't expressly forbid depictions of the Prophet. The prohibition on such depictions that we often hear about comes from hadith (oral traditions that supplement the Qur'an). Muslim groups have differing opinions on the prohibition, with Shi'a Muslims generally taking a more relaxed view than Sunnis. That said, there are more depictions of Mohammad in art out there than we'd think, from the US to Uzbekistan. Until the 1950s, there was even a statue of the Prophet at the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, right on the front steps.

* Yes, they're the most famous Danes I could think of...

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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iStock

Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Space
More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in own solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last week, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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