Wikipedia's entry on Muhammad was first published on November 8, 2001. It was eleven sentences long. Over the next few years, several thousand new words were added and edited, but it wasn't until 2005 that an image of Muhammad was attached: A 16th-century painting depicting the Islamic prophet. Two hours later, the painting was pulled down. The next day, the original uploader reinstated the art, along with a note for the editor who'd removed it: "Pls. explain yourself."

Things would go on like that for a while.

Islam traditionally, though by no means universally, frowns on pictorial depictions of its prophet. Since the fatal shooting of 10 cartoonists and two police officers at the Paris offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo—which had on several occasions published pointedly offensive cartoons of Muhammad—debates about news outlets' responsibilities have raged in editorial meetings and in columns and articles.

But they've got nothing on Wikipedia. "The Free Encyclopedia" has an entire FAQ page dedicated to the issue, complete with detailed instructions on how to block all of the encyclopedia's Muhammad images from appearing in your browser. Over the years, the Muhammad article's "Talk" page—the public venue where editors discuss how to make a given article adhere more closely to Wikipedia's guidelines—has become so rife with heated arguments that it now comes with a warning: "Important notice....Discussion of images, and of edits regarding images, MUST be posted to the images subpage."

Today, that image-specific subpage is home to 26 pages of discussion, each tens of thousands of words long. In 2008, a letter-writing campaign to Wikipedia about Muhammad depictions merited coverage in the New York Times.

The site's community of editors can be a squabbling, neurotic bunch of nit-pickers and obsessives, and it's tempting to dismiss their spats as inchoate arguing for the sake of arguing—much of the time, that's exactly what it is. But its outcome is important. Wikipedia is the seventh-most popular website on the internet, and the first source most web-savvy people check when they're catching up on a particular subject or trying to recover some since-forgotten piece of trivia. Even if you don't go directly, you'll usually wind up there—Wikipedia pages are at the top of so many Google searches it often feels as though the site is an extension of the search giant, if not vice versa. More than newspapers, or explainer sites, or its leather-bound predecessors, the free encyclopedia is the source people turn to for assimilating new facts about the world around them. Its editors have the keys to one of the world's greatest tools for disseminating knowledge, and despite all that inchoate squabbling, they often do a decent job of handling it.

Reading an argument launched two days after the Charlie Hebdo shooting is a good introduction to the culture of Wikipedia discussion—and a window onto a set of arguments about religion and speech that are increasingly finding home on the internet. On one side, a group of editors stands firmly behind using images, citing "Neutral point of view," a central tenet of Wikipedia, as its defense. To censor themselves for the sake of those who find Muhammad images offensive, they argue, would be to sacrifice the neutrality that makes Wikipedia what it is. On the other, a lone dissenter argues that depicting Muhammad isn't "neutral" at all; it's actively anti-Islamic. After several paragraphs of the matter-of-fact rhetoric that is the Wikipedia editor's native tongue—neutered, polite, and absolutely convinced of its own correctness—each group is even more entrenched in its position than it was when it started.

Emin Čamo, an editor who identifies himself as Muslim, and who appears to have created a Wikipedia account solely to argue about Muhammad pictures after the shooting, raises the issue: Wikipedia shouldn't show the prophet, he says, if not for the sake of sensitivity, then to avoid another Charlie-style attack. This is the same logic several news outlets appeared to use in their Charlie shooting.

It sounds more logical that a website which focuses on making articles from a neutral point should know that having a successful policy requires a certain amount of respect towards religious, social and similar traditions. Also considering that these depictions have caused a lot of riots within the Muslim World, do you not think that this is violent propaganda? Since it ,consciously, is hurting the adherents of Islam. Furthermore, images, unlike links and claims supported by evidence, do not affect the article itself at all, rather I'd say they are useless in this context. Regarding Muhammad though, they're not just useless, they're also offensive. So I think the smart move in the end of the day would just be to remove the pictures. Just a thought.

Next, Amatulić, an editor whose user page advertises an adherence to "Precisionism"—one of the dozens of codified Wikipedia philosophies, each with its own name and associated dogma, that have multiplied like pre-Nicaean Christian theologies since Wikipedia's founding—counters with the argument that Wikipedia should never be censored.

Wikipedia is not censored for the benefit of any particular group. That is a policy. The subject here (Muhammad) is treated with respect. Plenty of Muslims have no problem with the images...No matter what you put in an article, you will always find somebody who will be offended by it...You clearly haven't reviewed any of the archived discussions on the matter...All of what you say has been discussed before. If you have any new arguments to offer, you are welcome to present them.

Emin Čamo retorts by going ad hominem, referring—probably not unjustly—to "the arrogance of the editors on Wikipedia."

Actually the matter of the fact is, the arrogance of the editors on wikipedia is too big for a normal discussion. I find it a great hypocrisy and contradiction due to your previous statements (which I will mention) how Muhammad is now depicted right at the beginning of the page. All that Muslims asked was not to depict Muhammad, and yet everybody including wikipedia, which is meant to maintain it's neutrality, does it.

Then, two more editors weigh in to accuse Čamo—again, not unjustly—of an apparent desire to tailor an encyclopedia that's supposed to be for everyone to the preferences of a particular group.

Ok, we have heard your opinion. Be aware that Wikpedia is WP:NOTAFORUM. We do not change articles to please adherents of a religion (any religion) and we certainly do not change articles just because someone feel offended.

"I am a Muslim myself, and I find the depictions of Muhammad offensive...." Nobody cares; being unoffended isn't a right. You are given instructions at the top of this page on how to prevent the images form being displayed when you are browsing this site. Your views and opinions do not apply to anyone else.

And so on.

In the end, Emin Čamo was no match. Wikipedia, like another famously male-dominated and insular internet community, will always take the side of "free speech" when it's pitted against "sensitivity"—even when it's unclear that "free speech" and "sensitivity" are really what's at stake.

Not without near-daily bickering, the Muhammad page currently displays a calligraphic representation of the prophet in its most prominent image slot, with several illustrations of the man himself below. This can be seen as a concession to those who'd rather not see Muhammad images at all—and indeed, Wikipedia's most zealous "anti-censorship" crusaders would like to have the calligraphy exorcised in favor of a picture—but Wikipedians have accepted it as the status quo. As an erudite and moderate editor named Elmo iscariot puts it:

Anti-censorship atheist here. I quite like the calligraphy in the infobox, because it illustrates the most common means of representing the subject. Visual illustrations also exist, and excluding them from Wikipedia for the sake of a religious injunction would be unacceptable, but the calligraphic representation immediately grounds the subject in his own context, which is what the infobox illustration should seek to do. We have to resist censorship of images that some groups would like to suppress, but that doesn't mean we're required to put those images in every place they could possibly go.

As an aside, it's worth noting one bizarre and apparently short-lived solution to the controversy: Photoshop. Currently, under "Childhood and early life," a circa-1315 illustration of the prophet setting the black stone in the Kaaba shows his face and body in full. But editors have also submitted uncanny versions of the same work—now hosted on various international Wikipedia sites—in which his features are digitally removed.

Compared to earlier disputes, the recent blowup was tame. In December 2011, a month after the first time Charlie Hebdo's office was attacked over Muhammad cartoons, the question of depicting the prophet reached Wikipedia's highest echelons.

Theoretically, the site's editorial operation has no hierarchy. Anyone with internet access can update an article in whatever way they see fit, and it's up to the community to reach a consensus on what stays. (See an early version of the Muhammad page that refers to him as a "notorious pedophile" whose followers "preach murder terrorism and polygamy" for the pitfalls of this approach.) If an argument gets big enough, however, there are mechanisms in place to officiate it.

One such mechanism is the Arbitration Committee, an elected board of volunteers that heard the Muhammad case in 2011. Also known as ArbCom, the committee functions as a kind of Supreme Court for Wikipedia disputes: Its first members were appointed by Jimmy Wales himself, and when it reaches a decision—often after months of deliberation—that decision is considered final. Last week, the male-dominated current incarnation of ArbCom made headlines when it preliminarily decided to topic-ban a group of feminist editors after a dispute over Gamergate.

ArbCom's proceedings over Muhammad are astonishingly lengthy and arcane, full of Wiki jargon and references to past fights. (One section header: "Ongoing RfC on adopting as guideline part of the WMF resolution dealing with controversial material, namely the principle of least astonishment.") For all the bluster and gravitas, however, the decision wasn't particularly far-reaching: one editor was banned for a year, others were reminded to play nice next time they got into a disagreement, and the community was asked to come to please, please find a reasonable consensus. (ArbCom is meant to resolve conduct disputes, not to decide on the content of Wikipedia pages, so it's not surprising that it avoided prescribing a solution.)

The community is asked to hold a discussion that will establish a definitive consensus on what images will be included in the article Muhammad, and on where the images will be placed within the article. As with all decisions about content, the policies on verifiability and the neutral point of view must be the most important considerations. The editors who choose to participate in this discussion are asked to form an opinion with an open mind, and to explain their decision clearly. Any editor who disrupts this discussion may be banned from the affected pages by any uninvolved administrator, under the discretionary sanctions authorised in this decision. The decision reached in this discussion will be appended to this case within two months from the close of the case.

Four years removed from that plea for peace, the infighting continues. Three days after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, an editor named Andrew J.Kurbiko removed the calligraphic image, replacing it with a 15th-century portrait. "Its logical step to show His face after lastest (sic) Paris events," he argued. "Is consistent with the policies of Wikipedia. everyone has a face."

Kurbiko's image was up for just over an hour before another editor removed it.

[Image via Wikipedia]