The offensive editorial cartoons published in a Danish newspaper started a controversy that eventually led to protests all around the world. However strange it may sound, the editors of the paper claimed that they desired to test the extent to which freedom of speech could be exercised in their country. The Muslim minority of Denmark, who was not satisfied by their explanation, demanded an unequivocal apology. An apology was extended by the paper long after the protests had spread to the global scale. Danish Muslims felt that the issue was not about freedom of the press, but was rather yet another expression of “Islamophobia” or “anti-Islamic prejudice” in Europe, a sentiment that was also shared by Muslims at large.
It is not the intention of this article to speculate on the true motivation behind the printing of the blasphemous cartoons that derided and insulted the blessed memory of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Rather this article is intended to provide the reader with succinct answers to some frequently asked questions that were raised in the aftermath of the event.
It would be appropriate to point out first that mocking sacred religious figures is not a practice initiated by the Danish newspaper in question. Prophets of earlier generations were constantly targets of mockery and derision. The following verse from the Qur’an, for example, attests to this fact:
Ah! Alas for those servants! Every time there has come to them a Messenger, they have but mocked him. (Yasin 36:30)
There are explicit Qur’anic references to the ridicule that certain individual prophets were exposed to, but this general verse should be enough to prove the assertion.
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was no exception. He became a subject of mockery in his time after he started to communicate the message revealed to him, as indicated in the following verse, as well as in many others:
Whenever they see you, they take you for nothing but an object of jest, (saying): “Is this the one whom God has sent as a Messenger?” (Furqan 25:41)
For the pagans of Mecca, they thought that if the long-awaited prophet were to appear among them, then the notables of their tribes were more worthy to be chosen than the orphan of Abdulmuttalib, peace be upon him. The Prophet constantly had to endure similar ridicule and other hardships in his time.
He also suffered derision from the people of the scripture, as the Qur’an points out in a few verses. For example:
(O Messenger!) Say: “O People of the Book! Is it not that you dislike us only because we believe in God and what has been sent down to us and what was sent down before, and because most of you are transgressors?” (Maidah 5:59)
By asking this question without providing the answer, the Qur’an leaves the answer to the conscience of the audience. Muslims believe in one god, Allah. The Aramaic and Hebrew names Eloah, Elah, Eloi, Elohim are also from the same root as the Arabic word Allah. Muslims believe in the messengership of all the holy figures cited in both the New and Old Testaments. Is the problem with the final message that Muslims believe in that it came after the others? But note - if one and a half billion Muslims hold Moses, Jesus, and Mary, peace be upon them, dearer than their own lives, it is because of this last message.
Another common question that was brought up in the wake of the cartoon crisis was about the depiction of the Prophet. It should be mentioned that there are few authentic traditions that place some reservations on representative arts in general, and discourage making the images of living creatures.
In order to understand the wisdom behind these reservations, the following aspects of the methodology of Islamic jurisprudence should be remembered. A general principle stipulates that all acts are judged according to their consequences; if the consequences are evil and detrimental than the act is considered unlawful, otherwise it is lawful. Another principle states that anything that helps or leads to what is unlawful is also unlawful.
Islamic faith is based on pure monotheism, and Islam is very strict against the manifestations of polytheism and idolatry in any form. No one possesses perfect, infinite, or absolute divine attributes other than the Almighty Creator himself. However great they may be, the created do not have a share in the divine attributes of the Creator.
Prophets are no exception to this rule. Islam, therefore, takes necessary precautions to ensure that all ways that could lead to idolatry in the form of hero worshipping are not practiced in the religion.
The following quote from the works of a renowned twentieth century Islamic scholar, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, summarizes this and the wisdom that lies behind the restrictions imposed on images.
Just as the Qur’an forbids in a severe fashion the worship of idols, so too does it forbids the worship of forms, which is a sort of imitation of idol-worship. Yet civilization counts forms as one of its virtues, and desires to dispute the Qur’an on this matter. But forms, whether images or concrete, either embody tyranny, or embody hypocrisy, or embody lust; they excite lust and encourage man to oppression, hypocrisy, and licentiousness. [25th Word]
In summary, making images for educational and other lawful causes is permitted. If the image is made for the purposes of or may lead to idolatry, or if it encourages oppression, hypocrisy, or excites lust, then it is not permitted.
It should be stressed that such restrictions on representative arts are not specific to Islam. Several Biblical verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy, for example, forbid making images. In fact, the second of the Ten Commandments stipulates this.
Moreover, the explanations given above should be enough to make it clear that these restrictions were placed for a specific purpose and they do not, in any way, imply that Islam is an adversary to the arts. As a matter of fact, Islamic civilization has produced the finest works of art in architecture, calligraphy, decorative arts, music, etc. In this matter the reader is referred to the numerous references available on Islamic art.
Muslim artists used calligraphy to depict a non-visual, thus acceptable, image of the Prophet. They have been commemorating his blessed legacy by depicting verbal images or “calligraphic portraits” of him. Such beautiful artwork that inscribes a description of the prophet in words is known as the hilya al-saadat and is very common, especially in Turkish calligraphy.
The protests in the Islamic world, notwithstanding the normative teachings of the Qur’an, may have given an impression that Islam gives little or no value to the freedom of expression. On the contrary, Islam holds that the attribute of speech is a valuable gift bestowed upon mankind as expressed in the following verse:
The All-Merciful. He has taught the Qur’an (to humanity and, through them, to the jinn); He has created the human; He has taught him speech. (Rahman 55:1-4)
Man is the vicegerent of God on earth. Compared to the rest of creation, the divine attributes of God are manifested in the most perfect way in human beings. The sounds that an animal make can never be described as speech. In that sense, the attribute of speech and the freedom to exercise that power is what makes us truly human.
Numerous passages in the Qur’an, the eternal message of God, quote the words spoken by unbelievers. The objections and suspicions they raised are then refuted by Qur’anic evidence and truth. If nothing else, this alone should be enough to establish the significance of freedom of conviction and freedom of speech in Islam.
Every type of freedom is associated with a certain set of responsibilities and ethics that prevent its abuse. Freedom of speech, in particular, should be exercised with respect for all members of the society. Needless to say, ridicule, insults, and harassment do not fall into the category of freedom of expression.
Among several verses in the Qur’an that teach the ethics of speech, the following is related to the main topic of this article:
O you who believe! Let not some men among you deride others, it may be that the latter are better than the former; nor let some women deride other women, it may be that the latter are better than the former. Nor defame one another and therefore your own selves, nor call one another by nicknames (which your brothers and sisters do not like). How evil is calling one by names that connote transgressions after one has embraced faith, and how evil it is thereby to be marked with transgression after being marked with faith. Whoever does not turn to God in repentance and give up doing so, such are indeed wrongdoers. (Hujurat 49:11)
The Qur’an also teaches the errors that can be made in speech and the etiquette of responding to such errors. It is important to stress that the violence witnessed in the protests in Muslim countries that followed the publication of the cartoons in no way reflects the normative teachings of the Qur’an. Read, for example, the following verse:
The true servants of the All-Merciful are those who move and act on the Earth gently and humbly, and when the ignorant, foolish ones address and treat them (in a way that originates from their ignorance and foolishness), they simply continue, wishing peace on them. (Furqan 25:63)
As a general principle, the Qur’an teaches to repel evil with good and encourages forgiving others:
(But whatever they may say or do,) repel the evil (done to you and committed against your mission) with the best of what you can do. We are best aware of all which they falsely attribute to Us. (Muminun 23:96)
However, it should be noted that, The recompense of an evil deed can only be an evil equal to it; but whoever pardons and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God. Surely He does not love the wrongdoers. (Shura 42:40)
Islamic scholars commented on the cartoon crises, denouncing the defamation perpetrated by the editors of the Danish paper as well as the protests that followed. The following excerpt is taken from a transcribed speech of a renowned Turkish scholar, Fethullah Gulen, who also serves as the honorary president of the Writers and Journalists Association based in Turkey:
Freedom of expression does not authorize anyone to defame others. There is certainly a freedom of disseminating one’s thoughts, but if you do not take others’ thoughts into consideration you will leave them with no freedom. There should be boundaries between freedoms.
Bigotry is present in every country and we have seen many examples. In the face of all this foolishness, we still should act upon reason. Our religion does not cause us to disregard other religions; (on the contrary) it causes us to feel respect toward them. Our religion encourages us to get together with everyone, it desires that we open our doors to everyone, and we do open our hearts to everyone. You must be respectful to everyone.(1)
The media is invariably seeking the sensational, and is reluctant to tune in to the moderate voices. As a result, an incurious and indifferent member of the audience is exposed to only one side of the story. Contrary to the expected outcome of telecommunication technology, on occasion the media serves as an agency of disinformation. It is therefore crucial for a world citizen to apply to multiple media outlets in order to attain a balanced view of events on a global scale.
Another important scholar of Egyptian origin and the head of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, said:
The sabotage done by some Muslims in some capitals in response to the offensive cartoons is unacceptable and should be denounced.
The final quote is taken from a joint statement issued by the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and his colleagues:
We fully uphold the right of free speech. But we understand the deep hurt and widespread indignation felt in the Muslim world. We believe freedom of the press entails responsibility and discretion, and should respect the beliefs and tenets of all religions. But we also believe the recent violent acts surpass the limits of peaceful protest.
What could be more erroneous than depicting Prophet Muhammad-God forbid the thought-as a supporter of violence or of terror? Such a claim is nothing but an expression of strong prejudice and hatred. In reality, he was the embodiment of mercy and compassion.
It is impossible to do justice to the compassionate disposition of the Prophet in a short article. Various biographies have devoted chapters in praising his merciful character and there are many books written specifically on this topic. The few traditions quoted below are included for the sake of completeness and are intended to give the uninformed reader a first impression. Anas bin Malik, who was honored in serving the Messenger for ten continuous years, said: “I’ve never seen a man who was more compassionate to his family members than Muhammad.”(2) An insane woman pulled him by the hand and said: “Come with me and do my housework.” He complied with her request.(3)
Such traditions clearly show that he was compassionate by nature and embraced his immediate family as well as other members of his community with abundant mercy.
The Battle of Uhud was a significant turning point in the history of Islam. God’s Messenger was wounded on his blessed face and one of his teeth was broken. As many as seventy companions of the Prophet were killed in the battle. Among the martyrs was his noble uncle, Hamza, whose body was mutilated in revenge by Meccan unbelievers. All these severe circumstances did not prevent him from praying: “O God, forgive my people, for they do not know.”(4)
Does this sound like a description of a man who would support violence and destruction? His mission was to save mankind, not to destroy it. His profound compassion was not restricted to his friends and companions, but was extended to his staunchest enemies. The next few examples show this to an even greater extent. He was full of mercy for all of creation. It is reported that he once said: “Pity those on earth so that those in the heavens will pity you.”
We again hear from him that a prostitute was guided to the truth by God because she gave water to a dog dying of thirst. He noted that another woman was sent to Hell because she confined a cat without food and it subsequently died of hunger.
Did not the Qur’an describe him as an embodiment of mercy? Read:
We sent you not, but as a Mercy for all worlds. (Anbiya 21:107)
It is, in general, not thought proper to describe Islam using restrictive terms. Statements like “Islam is a religion of peace,” “Islam is a religion of reason,” etc. reflect only certain aspects of the religion. However, it may be a comprehensive description to call Islam a religion of balance. Islam establishes a fine balance between the faith and good deed, between this world and the Hereafter, between the material and the spiritual, between the peace and use of force, etc.
Although this is not an article on the Islamic concept of peace and just war, it would be proper to contrast the use of force with universal mercy.
The Messenger Muhammad was a prophet who had to fight for his message and may be compared to previous prophets like Moses. Abraham, according to the Bible, also waged war against his enemies. It is permitted in Islam to take up arms under certain circumstances: in self defense, in defense of the oppressed and in defense of the freedom of conviction. The first verse revealed on this issue in the Qur’an stipulates:
The believers against whom war is waged are given permission to fight in response, for they have been wronged. Surely, God has full power to help them to victory. (Hajj 22:39)
Conflict is a reality of social life, and it may not always be resolved in peaceful ways. Taking up arms to end injustice, for example, is an act of mercy shown for the oppressed. War is seen as an exception in Islam, a religion that gives the utmost value to human life, as explained in the following verse:
He who kills a soul unless it be (in punishment) for murder or for causing unrest and spreading corruption on the Earth shall be (considered) as having killed all humankind; and he who saves a life shall be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind. And, indeed, there came to them Our Messengers again and again with clear Revelations (to convey to them such directives so that they might be revived both individually and socially) and signs-miracles-(proving their Messengership). Yet, notwithstanding all this, many of them go on committing all kinds of excesses on the Earth. (Maidah 5:32)
Finally, it may be instructive to give a count of casualties in the battles of Prophet Muhammad. The chart below shows that the total number of casualties did not exceed 400 in the entire 23 years of his lifetime as a prophet.
This supports the general principle of Islam that the use of force is allowed when it is absolutely necessary and to the extent that it is absolutely necessary. In contrast, it may also be instructive to remember the terrible atrocities perpetrated in the twentieth century all over the world, which have claimed the lives of millions and millions of innocent people.
It is true that anti-Islamic prejudice is more widespread in the West than it has ever been before. On the other hand, it is also true that many intellectuals, philosophers, members of the clergy, Eastern and Western alike, both
in the past and in the present have voiced their opinions against such bigotry. Many have praised the prophetic and personal qualities of Prophet Muhammad emphatically. Here are few examples from the past:
Lamartine deemed it proper to ask, in his Historie de la Turquie, whether there was any man greater than Prophet Muhammad in regards to all the standards by which human greatness may be measured. Sir Bernard Shaw stated, in The Genuine Islam, that, in his opinion, Prophet Muhammad must be called the savior of humanity. Michael H. Hart, in The 100, stated that Prophet Muhammad’s unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence entitled him to be considered the most influential single figure in human history.
Thomas Carlyle, in his Heroes and Hero Worship and The Heroic in History, grieved the lies heaped round Prophet Muhammad, and labeled them as a disgrace. Gandhi, in Young India, expressed his strong conviction that it was not the sword that conquered lands for Islam, but it was the Prophet’s noble character that won hearts.
Indeed, millions of Muslims travel to Mecca every year to show their love and devotion to God and their gratitude and respect to the rose of their hearts, Prophet Muhammad. It was he who illuminated the lives of billions with the knowledge of God. It was he who taught his followers how to prosper both in this world and in the next. It was he who brought the message of universal mercy and it was he who lived up to it. It is incumbent on every person, whether Muslim or not, to learn more about the pride of mankind. May God shower His boundless mercy, peace, and blessings on him at all times.
It would be fit to conclude this article with the words of M. Fethullah Gulen:
If only mankind had known Muhammad, peace be upon him, they would have fallen in love with him, as Majnun fell in love with Layla. Whenever his name is mentioned, they would tremble with joy and their eyes would be filled with tears.
2. Muslim, Fada’il, 63.
3. Qadi Iyad, al-Shifa, 1:131, 133.
4. Muslim, Jihad, 101; Bukhari, Anbiya, 54.