Did Johnny Hart -- the beloved creator of "B.C." and one of the most widely read cartoonists on Earth -- sneak a vulgar defamation of Islam into the comics pages last week?

The question was raised yesterday by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based civil rights group, in an e-mail to its membership.

Hart and his syndicate say no -- that a simple, straightforward joke is being misconstrued. That may well be true, but the 73-year-old cartoonist's history of evangelizing his Christian beliefs through his comic cavemen have left many people doubtful.

The cartoon, which appeared Nov. 10 in more than 1,200 newspapers worldwide -- including The Washington Post -- shows a caveman entering an outhouse at night, and then saying, from inside, "Is it just me, or does it stink in here?"

The first public questioning of this cartoon arose in a washingtonpost.com chat Tuesday, when a reader noted that the cartoon seemed to make no sense, except metaphorically. The reader noted that the cartoon contained six crescent moons -- three in the sky, and three on the outhouse door -- and wondered if this might have been a veiled slur on the world's 1 billion practicing Muslims.

The CAIR e-mail mentioned the moons, and also noted that Hart had drawn a prominent sound effect -- "SLAM" -- between two frames to accompany the closing of the outhouse door. The SLAM was stacked vertically, in the shape of an I, and could be seen to signify "Islam." The cartoon appeared on the 15th day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

In the past, Hart has gotten into trouble for religious-themed strips -- most notably on one recent Easter Sunday when his strip showed the seven candles of a Jewish menorah being extinguished, one by one, with each image accompanied by one of Jesus Christ's last utterances. As the last flame disappeared, and the words "It is finished" appeared, the menorah became a cross.

Many Jewish readers were outraged, claiming Hart was making the argument that Christianity had extinguished Judaism as a "better" religion. Hart denied it, protesting that the cartoon was intended to honor both religions. To many, his explanation seemed hollow.

Asked about the outhouse strip this week, Hart denied that it was about Islam at all. He said that interpretation stunned him.

"My goodness. That's incredible. That's unbelievable!"

He said it was just a "silly" bathroom joke, wrapped around the cliche "Is it just me, or . . . ?" According to Hart, the joke was about the ambiguous authorship of a bad smell. The SLAM, Hart said, was simply there to show that the caveman had walked into the outhouse. The crescent moons were there to indicate it was nighttime, and because outhouses have crescent moons.

"This comic was in no way intended to be a message against Islam -- subliminal or otherwise," he said. "It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people's beliefs. If you should have any further silly notions about malicious intent from this quarter, you can save yourself a phone call."

Richard S. Newcombe, the president of Creators Syndicate, said any religious interpretation is "reading too much into it."

Hart, he said, often uses sound effects in his strips, and crescent moons to indicate nighttime. Plus, he has never been at all subtle in his religious strips, Newcombe said; "Why would he suddenly become Hercule Poirot, secretly planting clues?"

A fair question. Maybe because he had never tried anything this incendiary before?

Nonsense, Newcombe said. To suggest there was a bigoted hidden message in this strip, he said, would be "race baiting."

"Why is the door slamming? You don't slam an outhouse door."

This is Marshall Blonsky, professor of semiotics at the New School in New York. Blonsky is an expert in the interpretation of signs and symbols. The first thing he said, on seeing the cartoon, is that he didn't get the joke. The second thing he said was that the outhouse is clearly serving some metaphoric purpose: "It represents something that stinks in the world." And the third thing he said was that there was something very puzzling about that SLAM.

"It's inappropriate," he said. "You gently close an outhouse door." One does not ordinarily enter an outhouse in anger or with a melodramatic flourish, he said. One utilizes this particular convenience in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

Blonsky said the cartoon seemed in some way manipulative -- constructed in "a polysemic fashion, to supply multiple meanings that would deliberately evade interpretation." When told of the religious interpretation, he said that in this light, the cartoon suddenly made logical sense. The coincidences were simply too great to ignore, he said.

The Washington Post asked six well-known cartoonists -- all admirers of Johnny Hart -- to look at the strip. Most said they had no idea what the joke was supposed to be. When the religious interpretation was suggested, five of the six thought it was probably right, even given Hart's denial.

"It's highly, overwhelmingly, incontrovertibly suspicious," said Berkeley Breathed, creator of "Bloom County" and the new Sunday-only strip "Opus." "There's no explanation for that gag without Islam. It's meaningless."

"That vertical SLAM is completely unnecessary to whatever surface gag is there," said Jef Mallett, creator of the nationally syndicated cartoon "Frazz." The cartoon would work equally well, and far more efficiently, Mallett said, without the prominent sound effect. "And other than the excuse to add three more crescents, there was no need to set the scene at night. I'll be among the first to complain that the comics are too sterile. But the last thing we need to spice things up is some secret jihad."

Bob Staake, author of "The Complete Book of Humorous Art," an analysis of contemporary cartooning, calls it "as fascinating as it is suspicious. When you dissect it, as a cartoon, it flat-out doesn't work, and you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what it means. But it doesn't take a conspiracy freak to see it as an odd, twisted, inappropriate slam at a quirky religion."

Only Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau demurred.

"We cartoonists are simple folk. We don't write on that cryptic a level. Leave Johnny alone."

It could be argued that Johnny Hart often does write on a cryptic level. He has used symbols ingeniously, particularly when his cartoon is about religion. Once he drew an elegant cartoon decrying the commercialization of Christmas, in which a cross seen through a window turns out to be the ribbon on a giant Christmas present.

Like many cartoon strips, Johnny Hart's "B.C." often has pedestrian, cliched jokes. But every once in a while he shows brilliant moves -- sometimes accompanied by lamentable social insensitivity. Just two days after the SLAM cartoon, he published one in which two prehistoric ants walk out of a cave marked "School of Linguistics." One says to the other, "My dad sells ice machines." And the other ant replies, "Cool." Then the first ant says, "My dad is out of work." And the second ant says, "Bummer."

Hart is revealing both his fascination with wordplay and an old-fashioned disconnect with some societal niceties. He is equating the state of being unemployed with the state of being a "bum." Certainly clever, if politically incorrect.

In analyzing this cartoon, semiotician Blonsky cautions against succumbing to the Intentional Fallacy: In criticism, he says, it is a mistake to give much weight at all to the artist's stated intention. For one thing, it discounts the strength and influence of the unconscious mind, he said. All that matters in artistic criticism, he said, is the effect of the art on its viewers: the way people interpret it. In other words, even if Hart intended no offense, the offense is there.

For non-academics, though, the issue is intent and intent only. If Hart did not intend to slur Islam, then he is absorbing some terribly unfair criticism. But what if he did intend to slur Islam? You need only read the Constitution to conclude that Johnny Hart had every right to express whatever views he has. But was it right to do it subversively, in what would amount to an act of intellectual sabotage?

Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's spokesman, underscored the stealth: "I think the reason there might not have been initial complaints is that it's so cryptic. If you know who the cartoonist is, what he's done in the past, then it becomes clear. Otherwise, it's just an unfunny joke."

Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.

Johnny Hart says his "B.C." cartoon, above, "was in no way intended to be a message against Islam."A "B.C." strip from last week, typically mixing wordplay with out-of-fashion humor; here an unemployed person is equated to a "bum." Below, one of Hart's Christian-themed strips; right, the cartoonist in his Nineveh, N.Y., studio.