The world recoiled in horror over the brutal death of a teacher who was beheaded for showing his pupils cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
We at the European Muslim League extend our heartfelt sympathies to the family, friends and colleagues of teacher Samuel Paty and to all those at College du Bois d’Aulne in Conflans-Saint-Honorine near Paris, who must be traumatised by his recent death.
Islam teaches and promotes peace, tolerance and understanding and while all Muslims feel a natural compulsion to defend The Prophet of Islam, this act of sheer violence and brutality carried out on the teacher bears no relation whatsoever to our great Faith.
However, the horrific death of Mr Paty has raised all sorts of uncomfortable issues and questions which must be addressed by Muslims. Today EML, while in no way condoning or justifying this atrocity, will at least try and address some answers to the serious questions raised by Mr Paty's murder for the benefit of people of all faith and none in the article below.
Dr Alfredo Maiolese, President of EML
CARTOONS, CARICATURES & IMAGES IN ISLAM
By Dr Yvonne Ridley, Secretary General of EML
Islam has a strong tradition of promoting aniconism which shuns the drawing of human and animal figures relating to senior religious personalities and prophets as well as God. To paint, sculpt or create any images, for instance, depicting the Prophet Muhammad, would be considered blasphemous by most Muslims.
As a result, humans and animals are absent from the vast majority of visual Islamic art and architecture and the strictest adherence to this rule can be evidenced inside mosques, masjids, and Islamic prayer rooms where Muslims gather to worship. All these buildings are empty of human imagery but many contain beautiful representations of flowers and gardens or geometric shapes and calligraphy.
Depending on which school of thought a Muslim may follow, and what evidence he chooses to believe, there are those who think all images, photographs, and statues of humans and living creatures should be strictly forbidden while others are more relaxed.
Sunni Muslims, for instance, had decisively rejected images of the Prophet Muhammad well before the 18th-century emergence of Wahhabism reflecting a very real fear that Islam’s final messenger was slowly being turned into a demi-god. Adherents wanted fellow Muslims to focus more on the content of the Qurʾān and hâdîth rather than fall into the trap of iconising and worshipping the founder.
The Prophet Muhammad himself would be the first to admit to being nothing more than a human being and there are references to this in the Qurʾān to remind followers that he could not perform miracles, predict the future, or was anything other than a man. They are set as such:
Say [O Muhammad], "I do not tell you that I have the depositories [containing the provision] of Allah or that I know the unseen, nor do I tell you that I am an angel. I only follow what is revealed to me." Say, "Are the blind equivalent to the seeing? Then will you not give thought?” 6:50.
Say, "I hold not for myself [the power of] benefit or harm, except what Allah has willed. And if I knew the unseen, I could have acquired much wealth, and no harm would have touched me. I am nothing except a warner and a bringer of good tidings to a people who believe” 7:188.
Say, "I am only a man like you, to whom has been revealed that your god is one God. So whoever would hope for the meeting with his Lord––let him do righteous work and not associate in the worship of his Lord anyone” 18:110.
His constant reminder to others that he was an ordinary man was to avoid the cult-like veneration given previously to idols. This sort of treatment is exactly the opposite of how he wanted to be remembered by others which could further explain why he was so against any depiction of him in art or sculpture.
Clearly fearful of being turned into some sort of deity his anxieties are expressed in several hâdîth such as 5831 in Salih Muslim and narrated by Rafi' ibn Khadij when he saw people in Medina grafting palm trees and advised against it. Sometime later the same people told him that the trees were producing fewer dates. His response was: “I am a human being, so when I command you about a thing pertaining to religion, do accept it, and when I command you about a thing out of my personal opinion, keep it in mind that I am a human being.”
According to Hâdîth 281 in Salih Muslim after overhearing people quarrelling he intervened and said: “I am only a human being and litigants with cases of disputes come to me, and maybe one of them presents his case eloquently in a more convincing and impressive way than the other, and I give my verdict in his favour thinking he is truthful. So if I give a Muslim's right to another (by mistake), then that (property) is a piece of Fire, which is up to him to take it or leave it."
This explains the fear of any sort of imagery, statues or paintings of him since the most central tenet of Islam is the worship of God alone. While there’s nothing specific in the Qurʾān which prohibits portraits of the Prophet Muhammad, it does discourage––like the Hebrew Bible's Ten Commandments––the worshipping of any graven images.
One of the most significant prophets of all three Abrahamic faiths is the Prophet Abraham who was universally known for his hatred of false gods and idol worship. In Islam it is said he was inspired by God to smash the idols on display at his home in his father’s workshop in Babylon. Abraham or Ibrahim as he is known to Muslims, is the common link to Judaism, Christianity and Islam and he is regarded by Muslims as one of the chain of prophets beginning with Adam and culminating in the Prophet Muhammad.
So, while there is no direct mention of aniconism in the Qurʾān it does make clear to all Muslims that the worshipping of idols is strictly forbidden. “And verily we have sent among every Ummah [community, nation] a Messenger [proclaiming]: ‘worship Allah [alone] and avoid Taghut’ [false deities, i.e., do not worship Taghut besides Allah]”.
Another hâdîth quotes him saying: “Whoever makes a picture in this world will be asked to put life into it on the Day of Resurrection, but he will not be able to do so.” The restrictions on certain art forms come from the hâdîth collections like this in Al-Bukhari and Muslim, narrated by Abu Talhah. In another example The Prophet Muhammad said: “The angels do not enter a house in which there is an image.” Further explanations of his companions reveal that he was referring to images of creatures that have souls.
It is something Muslim artists down the centuries have grappled with as they set about creating works of art while avoiding using the images of humans or animals. Instead many turned to geometric aniconism. Muslim artists of the 21st century include the calligraffiti adherent Aerosol Arabic who is known for his combination of calligraphic elements, political slogans and inspirational messages.
The author Eva Wilson’s Introduction to Islamic Designs for Artists and Craftspeople explains that most Muslim artists use geometric foundational grids and patterns to create their work. “These fundamental methods, in addition to ornamental and functional calligraphy, enable Muslim artists to avoid figurative representations and employ sacred geometry to represent the Divine as they understand Him.”
“In this way they keep away from prohibited actions to prove their obedience to Allah and His Messenger Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Aniconism is central to historical and contemporary Islamic Art and Architecture and will remain so as long as Muslims are educated about the core precepts of their religion,” she wrote.
Artists who have drawn or painted the Prophet Muhammad do so with his face veiled, or symbolically represent him as a flame or incorporate other subliminal images to hide any facial features or expressions. While he has been painted on a few rare occasions depictions of the founder of Islam barely exist today outside of museum archives. There is a five-storey government-commissioned mural in the heart of Tehran featuring him and some revolutionary street art emerged in Cairo during the Arab Spring but his face was obscured in both murals.
In a 1976 film called "The Message," which was about his life and distributed widely around the Muslim world in the 1970s and 1980s, the Prophet of Islam was never depicted to avoid any public confrontation or objections on the grounds of blasphemy. The film chronicles the origins of Islam and the life of Prophet Muhammad and was made in two versions: one starring the American-Mexican actor Anthony Quinn and an Arabic version featuring Egyptian actor Abdullah Gheith.
However, despite not portraying the founder of Islam in any shape or form, its release in America was suspended after members of an extremist group staged a siege in Washington, taking hostages and killing two people. The group had mistakenly believed that Quinn played the role of Muhammad on film. After being banned for more than four decades in the conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia it was finally given its first commercial screening in June 2018.
The controversy subsided once it became known that the Syrian-American director and producer, Moustapha Akkad, had worked around religious sensitivities which meant The Prophet of Islam was never shown or heard. Instead, his presence is suggested when other characters speak to the camera directly. And they repeat his words.
Discussions about portraying him subsided and became a non-issue until the so-called Cartoon Crisis erupted on September 30, 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen crudely drawn images, the majority of which portrayed The Prophet Muhammad in a critical light. The newspaper defended its decision to publish the hostile cartoons saying it was merely opening up the debate about free speech and the right to criticise Islam as well as question the apparent self-censorship imposed by Muslims after the Danish writer Kare Bluitgen complained he was unable to find an illustrator for his children's book about The Prophet Muhammad because he said no one dared draw his image.
As a response the newspaper invited cartoonists to "draw the Prophet as they saw him.” The gesture, designed to promote free speech and reject what the media saw as unreasonable pressure by Muslim groups to respect their sensitivities, ignited global outrage from Muslims. Far from achieving an enlightened debate, the publication of the cartoons unleashed street demonstrations and riots in a number of Muslim countries which resulted in more than 200 deaths as well as attacks on Danish and other European diplomatic missions, attacks on churches and Christians, and a major international boycott.
The Jyllands-Posten commission was viewed by many as an invitation to be deliberately provocative towards Muslims and this was borne out by some of the content of the images; one portrayed The Prophet Muhammad carrying a fuse-lit bomb in the shape of a turban on his head decorated with the Islamic creed which was drawn by Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard.
There is little doubt that collectively, the publication of the cartoons was designed to provoke the Muslim community and one writer, Ziauddin Sardar, drew parallels with the anti-Semitic images published in Europe in the 1920s and 30s aimed at the Jewish community. He said the drawings and the issue were clearly designed to target and demonise Muslims as being violent and primitive.
"Freedom of expression is not about doing whatever we want to do because we can do it," he wrote in the Independent on Sunday. "It is about creating an open marketplace for ideas and debate where all, including the marginalised, can take part as equals.”
Michael Muhammad Pfaff, of the German Muslim League, said: “Press freedom shouldn't be used to insult people. We Germans need to know our history,” adding that the "blasphemous" cartoons were reminiscent of the caricatures of Jews published by the Nazi propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.
A group of Danish clerics and scholars headed for the Middle East to appeal for an intervention from leaders there, after they tried and failed to raise the issue with their own government officials in Denmark who bluntly refused to meet any of them or intervene in the case in an official capacity.
Within the first two months of 2006 the media coverage intensified to such a degree that it led to global protests. For many non-Muslims, especially those who were hostile to Islam, this was viewed as an attack on free speech and in response the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers in France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Spain and Italy.
Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Copenhagen while Syria recalled its chief diplomat, and Libya closed its embassy. Armed Palestinian men from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade briefly occupied the EU's office in the Gaza Strip, demanding an apology from Denmark.
Roger Köppel, the editor-in-chief of Die Welt in Germany, said he had no regrets and told The Guardian newspaper: “It's at the very core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire. If we stop using our journalistic right of freedom of expression within legal boundaries then we start to have a kind of appeasement mentality. This is a remarkable issue. It's very important we did it.”
The Arab League joined in the widespread condemnation of the cartoons as Muslim communities from East to West were polarised by unfolding events. Similar controversies emerged in Paris when the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published new cartoons of The Prophet Muhammad in addition to the 12 it republished from Jyllands-Posten. Subsequent legal actions failed and the magazine returned to the subject again stoking more controversy in 2011 which resulted in its offices being firebombed.
By 2012 the world’s Muslims were further challenged when a short, anti-Islamic movie called “Innocence of Muslims” was uploaded to YouTube in July and by the September two versions were dubbed in Arabic under the titles “The Real Life of Muhammad” and “Muhammad Movie Trailer”. It emerged that the anti-Islamic content had been added in the film’s post production stage by dubbing, without the actors' knowledge.
The anger invoked during the Cartoon Crisis was once again resurrected prompting demonstrations and protests across the Arab and Asian world causing the deaths of more than 50 with hundreds more being injured. There were similar outcries among Muslims in the West who felt that once more their beloved prophet was being attacked.
Four people, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in Libya when extremists used protests against the film to attack US interests on 11th September, 2012. The US President Barak Obama made reference to the crisis when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on 25th September, 2012. He said: “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied”.
Internationally known journalist Mehdi Hasan wrote an open letter to the Muslim world urging restraint: “My Islamic faith is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy; it revolves around the Qurʾānic verses ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (2:256) and ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,’” (109:6) he said.
Normally a staunch defender of the Muslim world he was critical of the response and accused Muslims of losing self-control. “Your fanatical counterparts on the Christian evangelical right have a phrase they often deploy: ‘WWJD’, or ‘What would Jesus do?’ Perhaps you and your fellow protesters should ask ‘WWMD’: what would Muhammad do?
Would the Prophet endorse your violent attacks on foreign embassies and schools, on police stations and shops? We both know the answer. As a child, you will have been taught, like me, about how Muhammad was verbally and physically abused by the pagan worshippers of Makkah––but never responded in kind. The Qurʾān calls him a ‘mercy for all of creation.’”
Continuing in the same vein he added: “You say you love the Prophet and cannot bear to see him abused, yet in Saudi Arabia the house of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadija, was flattened to make way for a public toilet, while the house where Muhammad was born is now overshadowed by a royal palace. Where is your rage against the Saudi regime? Or is your self-professed love for the Prophet just a cynical expression of crude anti-Americanism?”
If his words were meant to ease tensions they failed as Charlie Hebdo once again stoked the flames of hate by publishing a series of satirical cartoons of The Prophet Muhammad with some images showing him naked. The publication in the same month came a few days after the series of attacks on American embassies in the Middle East and North Africa said to be in response to the film “Innocence of Muslims”.
However, a more violent and shocking event unfolded on 7th January, 2015 when two French brothers of Algerian descent burst into the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine killing 12 people. As they made their getaway they shouted: “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have killed Charlie Hebdo.”
Six months later, in July 2015 the editor Laurent Sourisseau announced there would be no further cartoons or drawings of The Prophet Muhammad. During an interview with the German magazine Stern he said: "We have drawn Muhammad to defend the principle that one can draw whatever one wants. It is a bit strange though: we are expected to exercise a freedom of expression that no one dares to. We've done our job. We have defended the right to caricature.”
It is increasingly clear that The Prophet Muhammad’s concerns about drawings had little to do with freedom of expression or speech and everything to do with how Islam’s followers worshipped God. He obviously feared that his prophetic message could be overlooked and ignored while images of him might create a pathway to idolatry.
As the debate continues one thing is clear: excessive veneration of The Prophet Muhammad is not acceptable in Islam just as violence as a way of showing devotion to him is also forbidden. He himself warned against all kinds of exaggerated behaviour and is reported to have said: “Do not exaggerate about me as was exaggerated about `Isa (Jesus) son of Maryam Say: the slave of Allah and His Messenger.”
I feel confident in the belief that Muhammad would have been shocked, angered and dismayed at the pointless death of the French schoolteacher a few days ago, especially since the act was carried out to allegedly defend his honour. Islam has no room for this sort of meaningless violence which does more to harm the reputation of Muhammad than restore any honour.
* The original version of this article can be found in the recent book written by Dr Yvonne Ridley called, The Rise of the Prophet Muhammad: Don't Shoot the Messenger and published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in the UK.