Egypt asks: Does Coke insult Islam?

CAIRO, Egypt - Hend Saeed's eyes widened at a rumor that made her set down her bottle of Coca-Cola. Seconds later, with a look of absolute longing, she snatched it up again.

"I won't give this up," Saeed, 21, said as she slurped down a healthy gulp. "It's a work of nature. God made it. It's water."

Saeed, her hair covered with a scarf in accordance with a modest dress code for Muslim women, put an end to her trauma over a rumor abounding in Egypt: that an insult to Islam is woven into Coke's century-old logo.

Buried in the script's curls, rumor has it, is "No Mohammed, No Mecca" in Arabic - blasphemous words about Islam's prophet and the Muslim world's holiest city, which millions turn toward daily for prayer. The rumor became prominent enough to prompt scrutiny from a religious leader and a panel of Islamic scholars.

Whether there is any accuracy to the whispers of secret writing in the logo is another matter.

A reader would have to add a few strokes where they shouldn't be, lose a few others and squint hard to straighten out those robust English letters. Flipped upside down, or reflected in a mirror, someone looking to pick a fight could find blasphemy in the swirls.

"They have a lot of imagination," Coca-Cola spokesman Mahmoud Hamdi said of whoever started the rumor.

The rumor did not damage sales, Hamdi said. But it so disturbed consumers and vendors that the company secured a religious edict clearing Coke from Egypt's mufti, the top religious authority.

The mufti, Nasr Farid Wasel, scrutinized Coca-Cola's logo. The question was put to committees of Islamic scholars, masses of Muslims visiting the House of Fatwa headquarters in Old Cairo and to a meeting headed by the mufti himself.

On May 10, he concluded, "there was no defamation to the religion of Islam from near or far." Those who spread false claims, the mufti's edict reminded the pious, "will be plunged into hell for 70 autumns."

In a similar case, Nike recalled 38,000 pairs of shoes in 1997 because its flaming "Air" logo resembled the word "Allah" - or "God" - in Arabic.

Hamdi concedes that when looking at it reversed or upside down, the words "Mohammed" and "Mecca" seem to appear.

But, as he points out, the Arabic word for no - "la" - clearly lacks its second letter, an "alif." Further, he notes that Coca-Cola's hyphen flowing over the tail of the "a" in "Coca" completely alters the Arabic script, turning the last letter in "Mohammed" into a "thal" instead of a "dal."