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Bonfire of the Pieties

  • AMIR TAHERI

Islam prohibits neither images of Muhammad nor jokes about religion.

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"The Muslim Fury," one newspaper headline screamed. "The Rage of Islam Sweeps Europe," said another. "The clash of civilizations is coming," warned one commentator. All this 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 — though not exclusively — in the West, and Scandinavian embassies and consulates have been besieged.

But how representative of Islam are all those demonstrators? The "rage machine" was set in motion when the Muslim Brotherhood — a political, not a religious, organization — called on sympathizers in the Middle East and Europe to take the field. A fatwa was issued by Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood sheikh with his own program on al-Jazeera. Not to be left behind, the Brotherhood's rivals, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) and the Movement of the Exiles (Ghuraba), joined the fray. Believing that there might be something in it for themselves, the Syrian Baathist leaders abandoned their party's 60-year-old secular pretensions and organized attacks on the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and Beirut.


The Muslim Brotherhood's position, put by one of its younger militants, Tariq Ramadan — who is, strangely enough, also an adviser to the British home secretary — can be summed up as follows: It is against Islamic principles to represent by imagery not only Muhammad but all the prophets of Islam; and the Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion. Both claims, however, are false.

There is no Quranic injunction against images, whether of Muhammad or anyone else. When it spread into the Levant, Islam came into contact with a version of Christianity that was militantly iconoclastic. As a result some Muslim theologians, at a time when Islam still had an organic theology, issued "fatwas" against any depiction of the Godhead. That position was further buttressed by the fact that Islam acknowledges the Jewish Ten Commandments — which include a ban on depicting God — as part of its heritage. The issue has never been decided one way or another, and the claim that a ban on images is "an absolute principle of Islam" is purely political. Islam has only one absolute principle: the Oneness of God. Trying to invent other absolutes is, from the point of view of Islamic theology, nothing but sherk, i.e., the bestowal on the Many of 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. There is no space here to provide an exhaustive list, but these are some of the most famous:

A miniature by Sultan Muhammad-Nur Bokharai, 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 (16th century); a painting showing Archangel Gabriel guiding Muhammad into Medina, the prophet's capital after he fled from Mecca (16th century); a portrait of Muhammad, his face covered with a mask, on a pulpit in Medina (16th century); an Isfahan miniature depicting the prophet with his favorite 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); a painting, "Massacre of the Family of the Prophet," showing Muhammad watching as his grandson Hussain is put to death by the Umayyads in Karbala (19th century); a painting showing Muhammad and seven of his first followers (18th century); and Kamal ul-Mulk's portrait of Muhammad showing the prophet holding the Quran in one hand while with the index finger of the other hand he points to the Oneness of God (19th century).

Some of these can be seen in museums within the Muslim world, including the Topkapi in Istanbul, and in Bokhara and Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and Haroun-Walat, Iran (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 burqa (cover) or his Medinan niqab (mask). There have been few statues of Muhammad, although several Iranian and Arab contemporary sculptors have produced busts of the prophet. One statue of Muhammad can be seen at the building of the U.S. Supreme Court, where the prophet is honored as one of the great "lawgivers" of mankind.

There has been other imagery: the Janissaries — the elite of the Ottoman army — carried a medallion stamped with the prophet's head (sabz qaba). Their Persian Qizilbash rivals 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 Quran as the most beautiful human being created by God.

The truth is that Islam has always had a sense of humor and has never called for chopping heads as the answer to satirists. Muhammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him for more than a decade.

Now to the second claim, 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, Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda. But these are all political organizations masquerading as religious ones. They are not the sole representatives of Islam, just as the Nazi Party was not the sole representative of German culture. Their attempt at portraying Islam as a sullen culture that lacks a sense of humor 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 humor and has never called for chopping heads as the answer to satirists. Muhammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him 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), a match for Rabelais when it comes to mocking religion. Sa'adi's eloquent soliloquy on behalf of Satan mocks the "dry pious ones." And Attar portrays a hypocritical sheikh who, having fallen into the Tigris, is choked by his enormous beard. Islamic satire reaches its heights in Rumi, where a shepherd conspires with God to pull a stunt on Moses; all three end up having a good laugh.

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 the 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 sackings of embassies in the name of Islam should not blame all Muslims for what is an outburst of fascist energy.

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Acknowledgement

Amir Taheri. "Bonfire of the Pieties." The Wall Street Journal (February 8, 2006).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All rights reserved. 

The Author

Amir Taheri has published eleven books some of which have been translated into 20 languages. In 1988 Publishers' Weekly in New York chose his study of Islamist terrorism, Holy Terror, as one of The Best Books of The Year. Another of his books The Cauldron: The Middle East Behind The Headlines has been used as a textbook in various colleges in Britain and Canada. Amir Taheri is the author, most recently, of L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes. He is a member of Benador Associates. Read other articles by Amir Taheri here.

Copyright © 2006 Wall Street Journal
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