This weekend, Texas police killed two gunmen who attacked an anti-Muslim exhibition featuring drawings of the prophet Muhammad. The event has riled up the usual debates over free speech versus hate speech. But before you jump into a debate at your next dinner party, do yourself a favor and brush up on the basics of why Islam bans drawings of the prophet in the first place. Unicorn Booty contributor Devin Bannon takes a closer look — you’re welcome.
When two Islamist terrorists killed 11 people during their attack on the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper early this last January, it wasn’t the first time a paper had gotten backlash for printing the image of the Prophet Muhammad, but it was the first time people at the offending paper had been killed for it.
In 2006, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten faced backlash in the form of violent protests across the Muslim world for publishing a series of cartoons featuring the Prophet resulting in an estimated 50 deaths. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo was hacked and fire-bombed in response to an announcement that they’d be running their next front cover with a cartoon image of Muhammad.
The image of the Prophet Muhammad isn’t the only image you’re not supposed to create – the list is long and includes you and me – but it certainly is the most offensive image of all.
In fact, according to scripture, Muslims are not supposed to create images of any living beings. See, there’s an unspoken but understood sort of pyramid, if you will, ranking the offensiveness of depicting all living things (except plants) based on how close each being is to Allah. Animals are at the bottom of the pyramid under unbelievers, who sit under Muslims, who sit beneath religious leaders, who are themselves under holy figures such as Muhammad’s family, and at the very top sits the Prophet himself. This practice of religiously (or otherwise) banning depictions is called “aniconism”.
Here are just some of the items that “idol” refers to in the Quran, organized in rank of no-no factor. In other words… might as well avoid drawing all these too, just to be safe:
The Prophet Muhammad (bingo!)
Other Muslim Prophets
Messengers of God
Servants of Islam
Other False Gods
All Other Humans
Jinns (Spirits Neither Human Nor Divine)
…And the list goes on…
Of course, there are existing depictions of figures in Muslim art, ancient and contemporary, some even of the Prophet, that do fly under the radar. Do these not offend as well? They do, but for most Muslims sensitive on the subject, they fall into a much more acceptable category of controversy due to two factors: First, they were created by Muslim artists. Secondly, they were created expressly as artistic explorations and not as religious icons. These factors make all the difference.
One reason it’s so touchy is because aniconism is kinda fundamental to Islam as a religion.
If aniconism is the law and depiction is the crime, idol worship is the perceived negative effect of the crime happening that the law is trying to prevent. Muhammad believed that a religion that focused worship into pictures and artifacts would elevate the people depicted and the artifacts themselves, forgetting the most important teachings of the church, and forgetting the division between mankind and the divine, which could lead to a slow dissolution of the entire religion.
Also, remember how Islam started with Christianity as an inspiration but then took a pretty hard turn in a different direction? Turns out aniconism also plays a pretty major role in that split too…
He criticized Christianity for going down the path of idol worship, warning that the church was setting themselves up for future mistakes by elevating humans too much and even considering a select few humans to be divine themselves. See, the key difference is that in Islam, no man is divine, not even the Prophet himself. He believed this line between the Creator and humankind needed to be crystal clear in order for their religion to be truly monotheistic, and aniconism was his idea of how to keep it that way forever. So when non-Muslim Westerners print depictions of Muhammad, many in the Muslim world consider this a direct mockery of their entire religion.
Now, what it says in the Qur’an about idol worship is kinda vague. For one, it’s not in just one place but scattered throughout. Secondly, the mentions are ambiguous at best.
[31:13] Recall that Luqmaan said to his son, as he enlightened him, “O my son, do not set up any idols beside GOD; idolatry is a gross injustice.”
[4:48] GOD does not forgive idolatry, but He forgives lesser offenses for whomever He wills. Anyone who sets up idols beside GOD, has forged a horrendous offense.
[39:65] It has been revealed to you, and to those before you that if you ever commit idol worship, all your works will be nullified, and you will be with the losers.
Seems pretty open-ended, right? I mean, if you really boil it down, all it really says… is that you shouldn’t worship other gods, which seems pretty par for the course, right?
Yeah, no. Let’s turn it up a notch, shall we?
Remember that list of forbidden images? There’s another item on that list that’s particularly tricky… Sects. Here’s a paradox for you…
Sects are forbidden in Islam. Despite this, the modern Islamic world is divided into sects.
Believe it or not, sects, or anything that would divide the followers of Islam, are expressly forbidden in the Quran, and the language on this topic is actually pretty clear for a change.
But wait, there’s more: Guess what the Quran calls those who participate in sects? Yep – you guessed it: idol worshippers.
[30:31-32] You shall submit to Him, reverence Him, observe the Contact Prayers (Salat), and – whatever you do – do not ever fall into idol worship. (Do not fall in idol worship,) like those who divide their religion into sects; each party rejoicing with what they have.
The existence of sects (like Sunni and Shia) does not mean that Muslims in sects who have a problem with images of the Prophet are committing the very crime they’re upset about.
Those who belong to sects are considered idol-worshippers in the Quran. But idol worship is not the crime these extremists are reacting to, and it’s not the sin which is punishable by death. The gunmen who killed the staff at Charlie Hebdo were lashing out in response to what they perceived to be an act of defamation of the Prophet, which, on the other hand, is a crime worthy of execution… in their interpretation (which is not the interpretation of most Muslims).
In Islam, just as in Christianity and many other religions, there’s a hierarchy of sins; they are not equal in severity nor in punishment. Additionally, many Muslims don’t acknowledge the division of sects anyway. Many don’t believe there are sects, or at least they don’t publicly say they do. All Muslims, according to the Quran, are part of one faith.
For devout Muslims to act so sensitively to one rule and so liberally with another, it would appear to outsiders to be a serious double-standard. But that’s not how Muslims see it.
In most Muslim texts, the word “sect” is avoided when describing the differing sub-groups of Islam. If they must, they use the words “branches” or “denominations.” In fact, most Muslims seemingly try to draw as little attention to these divisions as possible, perhaps for all the above reasons.
However, if forced to recognize or confront their religious disagreements, Muslims are free to refer to this little loophole rule found in the Hadith (the add-on texts to the Quran which have been carried down through oral tradition, but are widely considered the word of the Prophet), which states that it is actually forbidden for one Muslim to be angry with another Muslim, no matter the reason, for more than three days. It is known as the sin of “forsaking”:
“It is not permissible for a man to forsake his Muslim brother for more than three days, each of them turning away from the other when they meet. The better of them is the one who gives the greeting of salaam first.” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 5727; Muslim, 2560).
One reason there was so much variation in the Islamic response to Charlie Hebdo is because the depiction of the Prophet is not just a violation of one tenet of Islam, but two, and the Quran’s instructions on how to respond to each violation is quite different.
According to the Quran, idol worship is bad. And don’t get it twisted; bad here means very bad. It’s even referred to in the Quran as “The Unforgiveable Sin.” Still, it isn’t a crime most consider punishable by death… However, insulting the Prophet is considered worthy of death… by some.
Creating an image of the Prophet is therefore a double-whammy of sin, because it’s idol worship (the worst sin) and it’s insulting the Prophet (worthy of death). And thus it is a recipe for a very serious confusion with possibly deadly consequences.
By a huge margin, most Muslims across the world don’t feel compelled to do anything in response. But according to some far-right Islamic leaders, such as Saudi senior cleric Shaikh Abdul-Ramanh al-Baraak, “it is essential to respond” to the defamation of the Prophet for anyone who calls him/herself a true Muslim.
Though it does not specifically say anywhere in the Quran that people who create these images need to be killed, a combination of things it does say lead some to that interpretaton.
Modern interpretations vary on how the Quran directs Muslims to respond to either crime, and it says nothing about how to respond to both crimes, exacerbating an already tense situation by leaving devout Muslims with a conundrum: On the one hand, one must respond. On the other, there is seemingly no consensus among experts on an appropriate response.
For many, it means the right to send an insult back to the offender. For al-Baraak, it means execution.
But how can it be so unclear? Well, for many Muslim individuals, the answer is likely to be that it isn’t unclear. The answer is in the text. For all confusions life may present, if the Quran is the first and primary source of all knowledge, then it is impossible that the answer is not in the text.
So that leaves one only course, which is to interpret the text as best as one can, and as with many of life’s mysteries and challenges not specifically detailed in the Quran, to try to follow it as closely as possible as one believes one can. This creates a rainbow of reactions, just as we see in the way those who self-identify as Christian have vastly diverse interpretations of the Bible.
While much of the contemporary Muslim world does not avoid the depictions of living things, (including television, movies, the Internet, photos and print media), idol worship still remains the ultimate sin – it just has a different meaning today.
As a rule, when it comes to pretty much any question about Islam, it’s wise to avoid using sweeping catch-all phrases like “the contemporary Muslim world.” We are talking about 1.5 billion people across dozens of countries. The views of Muslims on this particular issue are as diverse as they are on just about every topic.
Many contemporary Muslims believe that idol worship means putting something or someone on a higher level of importance in your life than God, and that part of it is no joke. It is, after all, still known as “The Unforgiveable Sin.” It’s the one sin that God will not forgive.
And what’s worse, according to the Quran, most are committing idol worship all the time, many without even knowing it. How’s that? To not commit idol worship, everything you do must be in service of God. Anything you do that is not in service of God first and foremost must in theory be for purposes more important to you than God, so unless you can justify every action as being done in service to God, you are guilty.
But wait — there’s some pretty important fine print too, though: “…if maintained until death.” So you might wanna make sure to repent before you go, just to be safe.
If you leave with nothing else, here is your two-minute takeaway:
Yes, the murder of innocent people is bad. Yes, we must defend free speech. But also it’s not so black and white. There’s a third undeniable ingredient here called The History of Islamophobia in the West.
With the major wars we are still fighting in the Middle East that have left thousands dead and cities destroyed, the countless indignities committed towards Muslims in our culture seemingly without justice, those of us in the Western (and White) World really shouldn’t point fingers when talking about the deaths of innocent people, especially Muslims.
So even though the actions of Charlie Hebdo and the Texas “Draw Muhammad” event did not warrant killing those involved, it’s still ignorant, provocative, and dickish of us to paint this as a one-sided situation.