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Mohammad The Unquestionable

Paolo Bassi  

2006/02/27

In the quieter moments of the world-wide protests against the cartoons of Mohammad, first published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Muslims have argued that Islam has been insulted since no depiction of founder Mohammad is allowed. Islam claims that any picture or statute of Mohammad in fact of any living thing may encourage idolatry. Although this fear seems extreme on its face, given the pre-Islamic pagan past in Arabia, it may have been a real concern at Islam's beginnings and Islam is not alone in this (Sikhism for example rejects praying at shrines and tombs for fear of idolatry). Despite the religious feelings the cartoons have inflamed, it must not be forgotten that Islam's ban on depicting Mohammad does not nor should bind non-Muslims. Most significantly, in free secular societies neither are Muslims bound.

The real reason for the outrage over the Danish cartoons is not fear of idolatry of course but the feeling that Mohammad has been insulted and linked to terror. Muslims by tradition are used to referring to Mohammad only in purely hagiographic, laudatory terms. Any criticism of Mohammad is likely to result in a charge of blasphemy with severe consequences. Traditionally, Islam regards Mohammad as the mouthpiece of God and, although mortal, the most perfect of humans and therefore, the best example of Muslim morality. The Koran, although believed to be the literal word of God as revealed to Mohammad, alone does not regulate Muslim life. The gap is filled by Mohammad's life itself. Mohammad is so central to Islam that his sayings and acts or "hadith" form the basis of Islamic "sharia" law. Mohammad is quite simply the standard of conduct for Muslims, to be imitated and copied, even in matters as trivial as dyeing the hair a tawny orange color as Mohammad did. In this respect, Mohammad is far more dominant in the daily lives of Muslims than Jesus is to Christians.

It stands to reason then that if the West wants a more meaningful, honest relationship with Islam, it must seek to understand the moral basis of Islam and for that the books must be opened on Islamic law and Mohammad himself. This is easier said than done for several reasons. Firstly, despite his centrality to Islam to the lives of over one billion people, little is known, or discussed in the West about Mohammad 's life. Secondly, there is a politically correct reluctance on the part of western scholars to offend Muslims, such that any critical evaluation is almost impossible under the current conditions. The contradiction is that western scholars and universities freely, and without fear, discuss and dissect every other faith and religious leader. If a religious text promoted slavery for example, we would have no problem in denouncing it as contrary to modern humanistic values. By the same standards, if the West is to promote an open relationship with Islam, Mohammad 's beliefs and actions as they pertain to tolerance, freedom and equality, as expressed in Islamic law, must be studied to see how they fit with modern democratic practices. The real Mohammad must be brought of his safe cocoon. Finally, since Islam is a political faith, and Islamists state their desire to spread Islam in the west, it must expect to be questioned about its real beliefs just like anyone seeking political power. Whether the west has the intellectual and moral courage to engage with Islam in this way as western tradition demands is of course another matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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