By Tamim Faruk
We know this story all too well. Every couple of years, anti-Islamic sentiments flare-up in the form of nauseating, satirical depictions of the Prophet ﷺ. Those who engage in this vile practice range from anyone heading particular media institutions, ex-Muslims looking to cause a stir, and even Lahabbite teachers sitting in Western public schools, aiming to enculture students to debase religion. Consequently, the Muslim community, out of its deep protectiveness, devotion and veneration towards the Prophet ﷺ, rises up to defend his honour through various means, including methods like organized protest, and media commentary to garner support.
Amid these occurrences, the mainstream media doesn’t hesitate to depict the Muslim community as backwards, unreasonable, and ill-tempered. Of course, many non-Muslim Westerners, quite often being firm nationalists towards their country, or devout atheists, begin to proudly parade their allegiance to secular-liberal ideology. They audaciously remind us that Muslims are not ‘Western’ enough, that we are not progressive or modern enough, that we do not belong here, and that if we live here, we ought to follow “Western” values, whether they be French, British, American, etc.
In response to this, many Muslims may feel a need to compensate, and some may end up apologetic for their convictions. Muslims who are susceptible to secular-liberal assertions might even look down on the rigor that our community has in defending the honour of the Prophet ﷺ.
Sadly, secular-liberals generally have a difficult time comprehending the level of devotion we have for Allah and His Messenger ﷺ, because they have discarded the sacredness of their own historical traditions and symbols. For instance, Christian pastors, let alone comedians, routinely desecrate their idea of God through crude jokes. Profanity is so widespread in this society, that people will often make obnoxious sexual comments about each other’s sisters, wives, or mothers- sometimes even in front of them in a gathering, and all in the gathering will laugh. “It’s all fair game if its humour,” they’ll tell us. The concept of honouring parents has disappeared – elderly parents are often placed in retirement homes to wither away in their loneliness.
This is not to say that secular liberals don’t sanctify anything – as we will see, they do, but to serve as a reminder for us as Muslims - we are not the ones who are backwards. Those who devote themselves to ignorance, heedlessness, and egoism, as is rampant in our society, are the ones who are backwards and disgraceful.
One of the most prominent, pseudo-intellectual arguments by secular liberals to shame Muslims is that one should question the validity of a religion that refuses to open itself to satire, mockery or question – “if a religion is true, it will be able to withstand that.” Apologists within the Muslim community might seem to soak up this thinking, further shaming our community for not being up to par in open-mindedness with our Western overlords. And yet a bit of critical thinking reveals many obvious flaws to this statement.
For one, this claim falsely conflates mockery with scrutiny. However, if Islam didn't tolerate a scope of scrutiny, it wouldn’t have been able to establish itself as the truth against all other religions. We also generally wouldn’t have seen historical tolerance between Muslims and the non-Muslims inhabiting their lands. There is compelling evidence that non-Muslims were able to relate and defend their beliefs in written works and public settings. For example, after the Abbasids moved their capital to Bagdhad, Christians were often involved in munazarat - debates held at the court of the Caliph, where they had the opportunity to defend their views, and engage in discussion with Muslim scholars in the Caliph’s presence . A similar phenomenon is seen with regards to the Muslim encounter and interactions with other traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism, where scholars from these traditions were invited to Bagdhad to translate their treatises from Sanskrit to Arabic .
We also wouldn’t have seen so much freedom to ask questions and debate matters of creed within Islam. For example, despite the heresies of the Muʿtazilah, and the consequent atrocities they committed, Ahlul Sunnah did not excommunicate them from the fold Islam when they regained power, but instead classified them as ahl-bida’. Ahlul Sunnah studied their methods of rational enquiry, refuted certain creedal positions of theirs and continued to repurpose the underlying Hellenistic philosophical tradition taken from the Greeks.
Second and more importantly, the primary flaw of the statement is that it is an unsubstantiated value claim-the claim is subject to the fallacy of begging the question. Begging the question refers to a statement that assumes its conclusion is already true without providing reasonable evidence. An assertion like this is really just a shame-tactic and it's important that Muslims don’t feel intimidated by it. Instead, we simply put the onus back on the claimant: Who said that allowing mockery and satire or an indicative of truth-value of an idea? This is a question that secular liberals simply won’t be able to answer because their reliance on subjective morality can never justify why their values are true, or more valid than anyone else’s. On top of this, the connection between mockery and truth is just absolutely absurd. Insinuating that an idea is not true because it doesn’t tolerate mockery is analogous to calling someone a pushover because they stood up for themselves when being bullied.
On the other hand, Muslims are bestowed their values by the Creator of all of creation, Allah, whom is the Arbiter of Truth and Justice. Unlike the secular-liberal, all our moral commitments come from an objective source, not one that we merely believe in, but one that we have good reason to defer to as the basis of all of our rights. And as part of these moral commitments, it is because Islam holds truth and justice hand-in-hand that it doesn’t tolerate mockery. Not because Islam has something to be afraid of. Rather, if the truth is violated through mockery and satire, then justice is likewise violated. We hold the Prophet ﷺ as the paragon of all virtue and truth, and so if one is to mock him, they are committing an enormous evil. This commitment is measured by our love for the Prophet ﷺ, which is so essential to our faith, that any attempt to denigrate or insult him is worse to us than to do so towards our skin colour, our cultures, our families.