Who Is Really Insulting the Prophet?: The Way Forward

Concerning Cartoons, Insulting the Prophet and the Way Forward

Muslims’ Love for the Prophet ﷺ

For a Muslim, the act of loving, honoring and cherishing the Prophet ﷺ is an inseparable part of one’s faith and one’s identity. Historically, the Muslim Ummah has unanimously agreed that a Muslim must follow the Prophet ﷺ in all affairs; indeed, one cannot obey God unless one obeys His Messenger.[1] Muslims understand that their Islam rests upon the central figure of the Prophet ﷺ: one cannot worship God unless he worships Him in the same manner that His Messenger ﷺ worshipped Him. For this reason, Muslims hold the Prophet ﷺ as a beloved central figure, and they know that their faith is incomplete unless he is more beloved to them than anyone else in existence.[2]

Given this background of the centrality of love for the Prophet ﷺ, Muslims may be confused when they have to deal with the following scenario: what should we as Muslims do when the Prophet ﷺ, who is more beloved to us than all of humanity combined, is insulted, mocked and denigrated? For a lover, there is nothing more painful than to hear his beloved’s name be insulted.

The Legal Position of Muslims Living in Non-Muslim Lands versus Muslim Lands

All Muslims living in non-Muslim lands must abide by the law of the land in which they reside. Muslims are not permitted to break the law in the land in which they reside. If the Prophet ﷺ is insulted or mocked by non-Muslims in non-Muslim lands, Muslim citizens in such lands should resort to other means, such as political influence, protests, education of others, etc., in order to combat attacks and satire against the Prophet ﷺ. They can and should exercise the rights afforded to them within that non-Muslim land, such as freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of assembly, to make their voices heard. If they feel the law of a given land does not allow them to practice their religion, then they must no longer reside in that land. With this understanding, it is important for us to reiterate that Muslims do not ever condone or justify the use of violence by private citizens in non-Muslim lands under the banner of protecting the religion or the Prophet ﷺ.

This should be a well-known fact, but since reading comprehension is not what it used to be, it should be restated in clear and unequivocal words: violent acts by Muslims living in non-Muslim lands are not sanctioned or permissible by Islamic Law.

As for Muslim lands, if the Prophet ﷺ is insulted or mocked by any group of people, then it is considered as a crime against the state itself. However, it is not the duty or the prerogative of private citizens to take such matters into their own hands. Muslim citizens cannot play Batman – crimes must be dealt with by the existing legal authority, and private enterprises to deal with criminals are considered to be illegal as well. Rather, it is the duty of the Muslim legal system, vetted by a Muslim government, to implement the official process of apprehending such criminals for blasphemy, bring forth a due legal process, and mete out punishment if a remorseless guilty verdict has been reached (including up to the death penalty). As Muslims, we do not apologize about the extent of these punishments that are applicable in Muslim lands. A government has the right to implement whatever laws it wishes to implement within its own borders—for people not living within that land to insist that a Muslim government follows another law is arrogance of the highest and most pathetic order.

The Freedom of Speech Issue

We must also understand that the term “freedom of speech” has been grossly misunderstood by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Our faith encourages us to speak out against oppression and injustice, and we should support the rights of human beings everywhere to be able to speak freely on such matters. However, just because someone can say something doesn’t mean they should say something, especially when that speech is emotionally hurtful to 1.5 billion human beings. Freedom of speech affords an oppressed group of people to speak up without fear of reprisal; it does not mean that a group already in power further humiliate their defeated opponents by attacking the symbols they hold dear—that is simply rubbing salt into the wound.

For example, a person has the right to use the “N” word, but it doesn’t mean that a cultured and intelligent American citizen would use this term to refer to black-Americans. It is a term filled with racism, denoting hatred and signifying the humiliation of numerous generations of a historically cultured people; in short, it is the ugliest word in the English language. Similarly, insulting the Messenger of God ﷺ is even more hurtful to Muslims; we should not apologize about feeling emotionally upset by such statements. We have every right to respectfully yet passionately voice our opinion on this matter.

It is troubling, therefore, to see some Muslims adopt the position of “je suis Charlie”. While we will not stop the rights of non-Muslims in non-Muslim lands to say things, we will not and must not voice our acquiescence that this is a good thing—the mantra these days seems to be that if you are a “moderate Muslim”, you will utter this phrase in solidarity. As Muslims, we must be nuanced in our stance on this matter. Just as we would not stop non-Muslims from drinking alcohol, gambling or committing adultery in their own lands, we also would not encourage or support people doing such things. For example, if there were plans to build a casino in my neighborhood, I would politically oppose this proposition to the fullest of my legal ability, but I would not violate the local laws in order to bring about my goals. Similarly, even though they must not take such matters into their own hands, Muslims cannot support the alleged “rights” of people to denigrate and mock the Prophet of Islam ﷺ. Supporting such a stance would be tantamount to abandoning the very faith that he brought.

The Spiritual and Moral Position of Muslims in All Lands

While we may become understandably upset when the Prophet ﷺ is mocked or insulted, we should also take solace that any attempt to insult him is ultimately futile. Allah has promised to protect the Prophet ﷺ, so he can never be insulted, even if all of mankind were to gather together and attempt to insult him.[3] Since Allah has said that He will protect him ﷺ, Muslims must believe that Allah’s Words are true. If Muslims believe that any attempts to insult the Prophet ﷺ have succeeded, then they must be wary lest they commit a theological crime: in essence, if you feel that the Prophet ﷺ has been insulted and need to violently do something to defend his honor, then you are saying that Allah isn’t doing a good job at protecting him, so you have to get involved. And when that happens, the irony of defending the Prophet ﷺ by breaking the very Law he brought and violating the very rights of that Creator that he sought to reconnect us with is indeed mind-boggling.

A useful side discussion is for Muslims to ask: if we are angry that the Prophet ﷺ is insulted, why are not similarly angry when Allah is being insulted by similar foul speech and actions? Modern times are filled with countless and unfortunate examples where God is mocked and ridiculed on a daily basis. Millions of people sin against God and deny His Religion, yet Allah doesn’t obliterate these people. The greatest human enemy of Allah, the Pharoah of Musa, went so far as to declare himself as God. Allah didn’t immediately destroy him; instead he sent to him a Noble Messenger (peace be upon him), with the instructions to speak a “kind word” to him.[4] This is the patience of God before He executed His Plan; Muslims must take solace that Allah is not “asleep” at the post, and He will continue protecting His Messenger ﷺ in the manner in which He deems best.

We should also understand that this is not the first time the Prophet ﷺ has been insulted. A cursory reading of the Prophet’s ﷺ biography has dozens of examples of insults, abuse and attempts at humiliation that were carried out by his enemies. We have not read properly read the Sīrah if we think that this is the first time he has been insulted. In each of these situations, he dealt with these insults with compassion, displaying a dignity that was more damaging to his opponents than any weapon. For example, when the Quraysh, in their clever attempts to insult him, decided to refer to him as “Mudhammam” (one who is blamed/scorned), a word play on his name instead of “Muhammad”. When he heard this, he replied with joy that Allah was protecting him: “Are you not amazed at how Allah turns the insults and curses of Quraysh away from me? They insult Mudhammam, they curse Mudhammam, and I am Muhammad!” [5]

The Prophet’s ﷺ Tradition in the face of attempts to insult is one of self-restraint and contentment with God’s Protection. The epitome of this is found in the famous incident when the Prophet ﷺ and Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) were sitting near the Ka`bah and some of the Quraysh began to insult him. The Prophet ﷺ remained silent and said nothing. Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) could only restrain himself for so long as his Beloved was being insulted, so he got up and defended the Prophet ﷺ. Shortly thereafter, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ walked away from the area. Later on, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) asked him why he went away; the Prophet ﷺ replied that while Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) had been silent, the Angels were protecting him, but when he began defending the Prophet ﷺ, the Angels left, so the Prophet ﷺ left as well.

Historically, Muslims have been respectful to academic and intelligent refutations against the Prophet ﷺ and Islam. For example, John of Damascus (d. 749), a Christian monk living in Muslim lands, was a scholarly opponent of Islam and felt that the Prophet ﷺ was a false Prophet.[6] Muslim scholars did not condemn him, but instead engaged in respectful academic debate with him. As for disrespectful insults towards the Prophet ﷺ, Dante Alighieri’s (d. 1321) Inferno is but one historical example of mockery against the Prophet.[7] At a time when the Muslim empire was the dominant superpower in the world, there were no calls for Dante’s head or emotional public outcries. Muslims were sophisticated enough that they knew they had other matters to attend; they were content that God would deal with those who mocked His Beloved ﷺ. It is useful for us to reflect upon the same.

Can He Really Ever Be Insulted?

We must first affirm to ourselves that the Prophet ﷺ can never truly be insulted by any enemy of Islam. When Allah has declared Himself as his Protector, what other protection does he need?[8] Can he whose name is inscribed on the Throne of God ever truly be insulted? Can he whose very name means “one who is highly and excessively praised” every truly be insulted? Can he for whom God and His Angels send prayer and salutation upon ever truly be insulted?

In the previously mentioned Mudhammam example, we should remind ourselves that the name Muḥammad (including the guttural ḥā) has only one meaning. Thus, when we hear the enemies of Islam say his name as “Ma-ham-med” (or some other pronunciation), we should rejoice that they’re referring to someone else, and that Allah is protecting His Prophet ﷺ by not allowing his enemies to even properly refer to the object of their attempted derision. How pathetic is that: they’re not able to succeed in their evil intent because they can’t even say his name properly.

As for caricatures and cartoons, these imply that a real image exist in the first place. This is the beautiful wisdom in there being no real image of the Prophet ﷺ in existence. What can mere paper hope to capture of the beauty of the best of creation; he who was more beautiful than the full moon[9]; and he who was so handsome that had the women of Zulaykhah seen him, they would have cut out their very hearts?[10] Thus a cartoon image that allegedly depicts the Prophet ﷺ can never be considered as depicting him; it is as close to representing him as a stick figure representing a human being. Muslims should be secure that their Prophet’s ﷺ beauty, honor and legacy can never be tarnished by his enemies. When no real image exists, no caricature can exist.

The way forward for Muslims begins with asking ourselves this very important question. Instead of being preoccupied with the question, “how dare they insult the Prophet?”, we should ask ourselves, “how dare we insult the Prophet?” We should ask ourselves if we have been insulting the Prophetic legacy through our speech and actions long before any cartoons. We should feel that our sins and inadequacies are more embarrassing and hurtful to the Prophet ﷺ than any cartoon. We should know that every Muhammad the liquor store owner, Muhammad the wife-beater or Muhammad the fraudulent businessman is more insulting to the Prophet’s ﷺ name than any satire. And we should feel guilty that our failure to uphold his beautiful legacy in our practice, speech and thoughts is more offensive to him than any picture could be. In short, let us not think that this attack on the Prophet ﷺ started with these recent cartoons; the insult to his legacy began long ago. They didn’t start the fire; we did.

The Real Issue at Hand: Cartoons and Spiritual Toddlers

It is ironic that cartoons, a form of entertainment for children, can elicit such anger among the Muslim community, turning adults into worse than unruly children. Perhaps this is more a reflection of our collective spiritual toddler state, indicating we have much ethical and moral self-reform work to do if we ever hope to grow up. The childish actions of some Muslims in response to childish actions of others betrays a larger sense of political impotence that Muslims have in the current global state of affairs. Just as children learn lessons from certain events in their childhood, we as Muslims should collectively learn and move forward from events such as this.

Our first order is to recommit ourselves back to honoring the legacy of the Prophet ﷺ. This starts with learning about his life story, his physical description (shamā’il) his characteristics, his likes/dislikes and his practices, implementing as many of these as we possibly can. We must learn about the lives of his family, his Companions and the inheritors of the Prophetic Legacy, and appreciate how they practiced this—spiritually, socially and politically—throughout Muslim history. Only by learning, can we start practicing, and only by practicing, can we renew our goal of honoring the Prophet rather than tarnishing his legacy.

Finally, it is said that revenge is a dish best served cold. The aim of those who attempt to insult the Prophet ﷺ is to take people away from him and hate him. We must counter this aim by telling others about the Prophet ﷺ, the Perfect Human Being who taught us how to be human beings. If Muslims can use such events to spread his message, in our speech and in our actions, in such a way that more people come to this religion (and in turn, more people love him ﷺ, then we have done our job. We must enthusiastically re-dedicate ourselves to this task, so that we have some proof before God that we at least tried to do something, and we at least have some excuse with the Lord of Muhammad ﷺ. They want to make people hate him; we, by God’s Permission, will make more people love him.

What greater revenge do we want?

[1] Surah al-Nisā’, Verse 80.
[2] Paraphrased from the well-known ḥadīth: On the authority of Anas b. Mālik, the Prophet ﷺsaid: “None of you have complete faith until I am more beloved to him than his children, his parents and all of mankind combined (Kitāb al-Īmān, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim).
[3] Surah al-Mā’idah, Verse 67.
[4] Surah Ṭā Hā, Verse 44.
[5] Narrated by Abū Hurayrah, recorded by Imam al-Bukhārī.
[6] John of Damascus authored a famous work, The Fountain of Wisdom, of which the second section, Concerning Heresy, primarily deals with refuting Islam. For example, he wrote: “From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven. He had set down some ridiculous compositions in this book of his and he gave it to them as an object of veneration.”
[7] Dante went so far as to place the Prophet ﷺ in Hell along with the Schismatics. For details, see Canto 28. It should also be noted that Dante suffered much humiliation later in life, spending most of his later years in exile, before dying of a fatal infection.
[8] Sūrah al-Taḥrīm, Verse 4: “…then indeed Allah, He is his Protecting Friend, and Jibrīl, and the righteous believers; and furthermore, the Angels are his helpers.”
[9] Narrated Jābir b. Samurah: “I saw the Messenger of Allah ﷺ on the night of the full moon, and he was wearing a red cloak. I began to look at him, and I began to look at the moon, and indeed he was more beautiful to my eyes than the moon (al-Dārimī).”
[10] The Mother of the Believers, `Ā’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) famously wrote a couplet that if the companions of Zulaykhah had seen his beautiful face, they would have cut out their hearts instead of their fingers.


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