The publication, in Europe, of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad has created quite a storm. It is not so much the representation of the Prophet which is at issue, as what is implied by the images: Muhammad was apparently a man of violence. Burning topic. Let us tackle it!
The Prophet and the cartoons
Last September Jyllands Posten, a Danish daily that most of us had never heard of, published twelve cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad—one showing him with a burning fuze sticking out of his turban. Three months later, in December, the Danish Islamic community sent a delegation to the Middle East to alert their religious brethren to this sacrilege. Then, on 10 January 2006, a Norwegian newspaper published the same cartoon. France Soir, with a flagging readership here in France, did likewise although this action led to the dismissal of the Editor-in-Chief by his Director. On 8 February it was the turn of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly, to publish the offending cartoon along with a number of other unpublished caricatures of its own, tripling its print run for this issue. Charlie Hebdo’s provocation was supposed to have been a counter-attack, yet at the beginning of February, fully five months after the original publication in Denmark, the Muslim masses rose up in anger. There were violent demonstrations on the West Bank and in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Nigeria and as far away as Indonesia, and Danish products were boycotted on the Arabian Peninsula. Finally, on 17 February, there were demonstrations outside the Italian Consulate in Benghazi following one of the Italian reform minister Roberto Caledori’s customary pantomimes. Between riots and the maintenance of law and order, the death toll so far is forty.
To understand this Islamic rage, we must take stock of the offence caused. The reason we were first given, that Islam prohibits any representation of the Prophet, is a feeble one. There is not a trace of this prohibition in the scriptures: the Koran doesn’t say a word about it any more than it addresses representations of living beings. The most one could argue is that in several verses the holy book speaks of God as musawwir (he who shapes)—the unique creator and shaper whom humans cannot challenge. Unsurprisingly, the hadiths (narrations on the Prophet’s life) are as in all things more verbose on the subject. For example, when an artist is bemoaning his source of revenue to a companion of the Prophet, the latter replies, ‘Woe on you! If you don’t want to stop doing this work, you can still paint all that does not have a soul’.(1) Of course, any discussion on quite how to represent the all-powerful God comes up against the same prohibition as in the Jewish religion, a prohibition which underlines the difficulties raised by such a discussion. How, then, to represent He who cannot even be named? Christianity does not have this problem since for Christians, God was made man through the incarnation. One could probably sustain the argument that, in the same way as Christ, the man Muhammad had a human form, and that therefore his image can be represented. Throughout the history of Muslim art we see a lot of this, particularly in Persia, and the Prophet appears in the illumination of numerous manuscripts. It should also be added that, while a ban can be imposed on believers, it cannot be on infidels unless they are at the same time banned from eating pork.
All of which goes to show that this first motive for the indignation is pretty mediocre even though it kicked up a lot of fuss. The baton was quickly passed to another motive, no better than the first but particularly interesting in its ambiguity: that it was seeing the Prophet represented as a terrorist (the turban as a bomb) which rightly—so we are told—provoked the anger in the streets. Muhammad was clearly not a terrorist in the modern sense of those from Iraq or Palestine who plant bombs, but it is a falsehood to argue that he was not violent, albeit such a line of argument is strongly promoted in this country today. Muhammad was violent, often and in many ways. If we have to put the behaviour of ‘the Enunciator’ into the context of the difficult beginnings of a disturbing religion, so be it. If we have to take into account the severity of Arab and Bedouin society in the seventh century, so be it. If we have to remember the lack of respect for life and suffering all over the world at that time, so be it. If the Prophet often showed his compassion, so be it. The fact remains that he took refuge in Medina, became head of his community and acted as such in both peace and war.
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