MUSLIMS ALL OVER the world are deeply hurt by the caricatures of our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in several Western publications. Every now and then, some Western media outlets provoke Muslims by insulting the Prophet ﷺ. The baiting often succeeds in eliciting Muslims’ outrage and sporadic violence.
Respecting the Limits of Free Expression?
The smear campaign started with a Danish newspaper’s caricature portraying Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a terrorist. To add insult to injury, Norwegian, French, German, Dutch and a few other newspapers reprinted the defamatory cartoons to “defend”—they claimed—the freedom of expression.
The real issue is not the freedom of expression. Free speech is not and was never meant to be absolute. There are laws in the West that ban certain kinds of speech, including those that incite anti-Semitism, racism and violence. Moreover, some countries have laws against blasphemy and defamation. To Muslims, banning blasphemy against Allah and Prophet Muhammad ﷺ has a higher priority.
Pushing the Envelop
For the European newspapers to reprint the offensive cartoons to show solidarity with their Danish counterpart seems akin to the plot the leaders of Quraish had hatched to assassinate Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
The masterminds had figured that including representatives from major tribes of Makkah in the heinous plot would make it impossible for the Prophet’s clan, Banû Hâshim, to avenge. But Allah willed that the Prophet ﷺ would migrate to Madinah unscathed while the plotters laid siege to his house.
The West also underestimates the Muslims’ reverence for their beloved Prophet and is, therefore, startled by the fierce Islamic reaction to an insult against him. Few in the West know that for Muslims loving their Prophet more than themselves is a matter of faith, not choice.
Further, the depiction of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a terrorist is a falsification of history. He was considered “Al-Amîn,” the trustworthy, by the people even before he received the Prophethood. Once, when asked by some of his followers to invoke Allah’s wrath on the enemies, he refused saying he had been sent as a mercy unto mankind.
Objective Western intellectuals have acknowledged the superior character of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. In his The 100, a Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, Michael H. Hart ranked Prophet Muhammad No.1 because “He was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels.”
Alphonse de Lamartine, renowned 19th Century French writer, had this to say about the Prophet Muhammad: “As regards all standards by which human greatness may be measured, we may well ask, is there any man greater than him?”
Taking the Bait! Or, Taking the High Road?
Unfortunately, some Muslims forget that loving their Prophet means following him. Attacking Western embassies, as they did in some Muslim countries, to avenge the insult to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is a complete disservice to him. Our violent reaction only plays into the hands of those who wish to reinforce the negative stereotype about Muslims.
Do Muslims need reminding that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ forgave the people of Ṭâif who had rejected his message of monotheism and pelted him with stones, bloodying him? Islamic tradition has it that when Archangel Gabriel sought his permission to punish the perpetrators, the Prophet ﷺ instead prayed that someday the inhabitants of Ṭâif would leave their idols and worship Allah alone. Within a few years they did.
Prophet Muhammad’s servant once noting his forgiving disposition said:
I served the Prophet for ten years, and he never said ufff (a word indicating impatience) to me and never blamed me by saying, “Why did you do so or why didn’t you do so? (Bukhâri and Muslim)
Prophet Muhammad’s archenemies hated his message and hurled malicious insults at him, to which he responded with forbearance. Years later when he returned as victor to Makkah, his city of birth which he had been forced to leave, he asked its awed citizens:
What do you think I am going to do to you?” They said: “You are a noble brother, son of a noble brother; we expect only good from you.” The Prophet responded with a general amnesty.
How Do Freedoms Work?
Let Muslims not forget that the Prophet ﷺ encouraged freedom of expression. In the Battle of Badr, he changed the battlefield against his own opinion due to the passionate advice of some young soldiers.
Part of the West’s success today is the freedom—of expression, of thought, of religion—that draws Muslims to it from their oppressed societies. For that, Muslims should be thankful to the West. After all, freedom is an Islamic value that the West has embraced while Muslim societies have forsaken.
Defending the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ requires allowing freedom of practicing compassion and forgiveness, like he did. In his lifetime he bore insults with magnanimity and devoted his time to spreading the message of Allah. In fact, he never avenged anyone for a personal offence. Can we really respect him by violent retaliation?
Freedom to Insult?
Muslims should turn these extremely painful episodes into something positive, by teaching the world what the Prophet ﷺ means to us and what his life was like.
As for the West, there really is a need to reexamine the notion of free speech. Without safeguards, the exercise of this freedom can be lethal, as we have seen. One may ask, is it morally defensible to provoke violence, cause death, and create a civilizational conflict for one cartoonist’s freedom of expression.
The West already has laws to protect religious freedom, which Muslims and other peoples of faith admire. What it now needs to do is protect this freedom from being trampled by unbridled free speech. No one should have to insult Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, or Moses to speak freely.
Reversing the Cycle through Education
We can turn these negative, malicious cartoons into something positive by learning about the Prophet, by following him, and educating others about his teachings.
Allah described the Prophet ﷺ thus:
And verily, you (O Muhammad) are on an exalted standard of character. [Sûrat Al-Qalam, 68:4]
In another âyah Allah said:
Indeed in the Messenger of Allah there is a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much. [Sûrat Al-Aḥzâb, 33:21]
By a divine decision, the status of Muhammad was raised for ever:
And (has Allah not) raised high your fame? [Sûrat Al-Inshirâḥ, 94:4]
Muslims were commanded to keep their voices low in the presence of Muhammad, out of respect:
O you who believe, raise not your voices above the voice of the Prophet, nor speak aloud to him as you speak aloud to one another, lest your deeds be rendered fruitless while you perceive not. Verily, those who lower their voices in the presence of Allah’s Messenger, they are the ones whose hearts Allah has tested for piety. For them there is forgiveness and a good reward. [Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât, 49:2-3]
While other prophets were sent to their own people alone, Muhammad was appointed as the messenger to all mankind. And as such he was asked to declare:
Say (O Muhammad): ‘O mankind, verily I am sent to you all as the Messenger of Allah – to Whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth.’ [Sûrat Al-Aᶜrâf, 7:158]
On the Day of Judgment he will be the only messenger to intercede with Allah to seek forgiveness for the wrongdoers.
The Good of It is in Allah’s Hands
As blasphemous as the drawings are, we believe that behind all events there is Allah’s pre-decree and wisdom that mortal beings fully understand only in hindsight. In the end, these deeply hurtful incidents would be seen as benefitting the image of the Prophet ﷺ.
A case in point is the verse: Verily, We have given you (O Muhammad) a manifest victory [Sûrat Al-Fatḥ, 48:1]. When this verse was revealed, even some of the most exemplary Muslims could not understand how being prevented from performing pilgrimage by the enemies could be a manifest victory. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ had just signed a treaty with non-Muslims of Makkah that imposed unfair restrictions on Muslims.
The Prophet ﷺ swore by Allah that no matter how restrictive this treaty seemed, it was a clear victory for Muslims. Within a few years, the victory became abundantly clear when Muslims marched into Makkah, not just as pilgrims but as victors.
Doing Our Part
Our love for Prophet Muhammad ﷺ cannot be expressed except by following him. If we do that, we will see how Allah can change these painful episodes into a great opportunity for the Islamic cause.