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Response to the Cartoon Controversy: What is Right and What is Wrong | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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“The Muslim Fury”, one newspaper headline screamed the other day. “The rage of Islam sweeps Europe,” said another. “The clash of civilisations is coming,” warned one commentator.

As you might have guessed, all that refers to the row provoked by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper four months ago. Since then a number of demonstrations have been held, mostly in the West, and several Danish and other Scandinavian embassies and consulates have been attacked.

But how representative of Islam are those demonstrators?

The “rage machine” was set in motion when the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a political and not a religious organisation, called on its sympathizers in the Middle East and Europe to take the field. A” fatwa” was issued by Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a Bortherhood sheikh with a programme on the Al Jazeera television channel which is owned by the Emir of Qatar. Not to be left behind some of the Brotherhood’s rivals, including the Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) and the Movement of the Exiles (Ghuraba) also joined the foray. Believing that there might be something in it for themselves the Syrian Ba’athist leaders abandoned their party’s 60-year old secular pretensions and organised the attacks on the Danish and Norwegian embassies and consulates in Damascus and Beirut.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s position, put by one of its younger militants, Tareq Ramadan, who is, strangely enough, also an advisor to the British Home Secretary, can be summed up as follows:

• It is against Islamic principles to represent the imagery not only of Muhammad but all the prophets of Islam.

• The Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion.

Both claims, however, are false.

There is no Koranic injunction against images, whether of Muhammad or anyone else. When it spread into the Levant, Islam came into contact with the Arian version of Christianity which was militantly iconoclastic. As a result some Muslim theologians, at a time that Islam still had a theology, issued “fatwas” against any depiction of the Godhead. That position was further buttressed by the fact that Islam acknowledges the Jewish 10 Commandments, which include a ban on depicting God, as part of its heritage.

The issue was never been decided one way or another and the claim that a ban on images is “an absolute principle of Islam” is a political statement.

Islam has only one “absolute principle” and that is the Oneness of God.

Trying to invent other absolutes is, from the point of view of Islamic theology, nothing but “sherk ” which means bestowing on the Many the attributes of The One.

The claim that the ban on depicting Muhammad and other prophets is “an absolute principle” of Islam is also refuted by history. Many portraits of Muhammad have been drawn by Muslim artists, often commissioned by Muslim rulers, throughout the centuries.

There is no space here to provide an exhaustive list. But here are some of the most famous:

• The miniature by Sultan Muhammad-Nur Bokharai (d-1520) showing Muhammad riding Buraq, a horse with the face of a beautiful woman, on his way to Jerusalem for his M’eraj or nocturnal journey to Heavens.

• The painting showing Archangel Gabriel guiding Muhammad into Medina which became the Prophet’s capital after he fled from Mecca. (Probably 16th century.)

• The Timurid miniature showing Muhammad and his disciple Abu-Bakar hiding in a cave after fleeing Mecca while their Meccan enemies watch but do not see them.

• Portrait of Muhammad, his face covered with a mask on a pulpit in Medina. (16th century).

• The Isfahan miniature depicting the prophet with his favourite kitten Hurairah (17th century.)

• Kamaleddin Behzad’s miniature showing Muhammad contemplating a rose produced by a drop of sweat that fell from his face. (19th century).

• The 19th century painting called “Massacre of the Family of the Prophet”, showing Muhammad watching as his grandson Hussain is put to death by the Umayyads in Karbala.

• The painting showing Muhammad and seven of his first followers. (18th century).

• Kamal ul-Mulk’s portrait of Muhammad showing the prophet holding the Koran in one hand while with the index of another hand he is pointing to the Oneness of God (19th century).

Some of the above could be seen in museums within the Muslim world, including the Topkapi in Istanbul, in Cairo Museum, in Tehran, Bokahra, Samarkand, and Haroun-Walat (a suburb of Isfahan). Visitors to other museums, including some in Europe, would find miniatures and book illuminations depicting Muhammad, at times wearing his Meccan niqab ( mask) or his Medinan burqaa ( cover). There have been few statues of Muhammad, although several Iranian and Arab contemporary sculptors have produced busts of the prophet. One statue of Muhammad could be seen at the building of the United States’ Supreme Court in Washington DC where the prophet is honoured as one of the great “lawgivers” of mankind.

In addition to miniatures, drawings and paintings of Muahmmad, the Janissaries, the elite of the Ottoman armed forces, carried a medallion stamped with the head of the prophet as “ the Greenmantle” (sabz qaba). Their rivals, the Persian Qizilbash, had their own icon, depicting the head of Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law and the first Imam of Shiism. As for images of other prophets they run into millions. Perhaps, the most popular is Joseph who is presented by the Koran as the most beautiful human being created by God.

Now to the second claim by the Muslim Brotehrhood sheikhs: that the Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion.

That is true if we restrict the Muslim world to the brotherhood and its siblings in the Salafist movement, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

But these are all political organisations masquerading as religious groups. They are not the sole representatives of Islam just as the Nazi party was not the sole representative of German culture or, indeed of European civilisation. Their attempt at portraying Islam as a sullen culture that lacks a sense of humour is part of the same discourse that claims “suicide-martyrdom” as the highest goal for all true believers.

The truth is that Islam has always had a sense of humour and has never called for “ chopping heads” as the answer to satirists or clowns. Muhammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him in numerous qasidahs (ode) for more than a decade. Both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of “laughing at religion”, at times to the point of irreverence.

Again, offering an exhaustive list is not possible. But those familiar with Islam’s literature know of Ubaid Zakani’s “Mush va Gorbeh” (Mouse and Cat) which has little to envy Rabelais when it comes to mocking religion. Then there is Sa’adi’s eloquent soliloquy, on behalf of Satan, mocking the “dry pious ones.” And what about Attar’s portrayal of the hypocritical sheikh who, having fallen into the river Tigris, is choked by his enormous beard? Islamic satire reaches its heights in Roumi where a shepherd conspires with God to pull a stunt on Moses; all three end up having a good laugh.

We also have a mass of stories built around the character of Mullah Nasreddin, a jovial cleric with a sharp sense of humour which is often directed against those who pretend to be more pious than others.

It would be wrong for the West to be deceived by political groups masquerading as representatives of Islam as a religion. Islamic ethics is based on “limits and proportions” which means that the answer to an offensive cartoon is a cartoon, not the burning of embassies or the kidnapping of people designated as enemy. Islam rejects guilt by association. Just as Muslims should not blame all Westerners for the poor taste of a cartoonist who wanted to be offensive, those horrified by the spectacle of rent –a- mob sacking embassies in the name of Islam should not blame all Muslims for what is an outburst of fascist energy.