While righteous anger when the Prophet ﷺ is mocked or insulted is integral to faith, we Muslims need to invest greater efforts into adhering to the actual obligations and duties instated by faith – be it in our acts or worship; our ethics and behaviour; our relationships; or our social contracts and transactions. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘All my followers will enter Paradise except those who refuse.’ On being asked who refuses, he said: ‘Those who obey me will enter Paradise, while those who disobey me have infact refused.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7280]
While debating whether one should have the right to gratuitous offence or not, or the limits to freedom of speech (for it does indeed have limits and restrictions), this is as good a time as any to take stock of our own commitment to the life and teachings of the Prophet ﷺ and how much we exemplify it or not in our daily lives and conduct: So let those who contravene his command beware lest an affliction befall them or a painful punishment smite them. [24:63] In contrast: Whoever obeys God and His Messenger, they are with those whom God has blessed, of the prophet and the truthful [highest] saints, and the martyrs, and the righteous. What fine company they are! [4:69]
While pointing out the inconsistencies, double standards or blatant Islamophobia in and among the Je suis Charlie voices (both in France as well as elsewhere), we need the voices of our scholars to give us clearer guidance on how and why we cannot take the law into our own hands in the democracies in which we live and consider home, even when Islam’s sacred symbols have become open game: You will surely hear much that is offensive from those who were given scripture before you, and from idolaters. But if you persevere patiently and fear God, such are weighty factors in all affairs. [3:186]
While we call into question the commitment to freedom of speech of many heads of state who marched so sanctimoniously against the disgraceful Paris killings, it is time we questioned how committed we are to the revealed truths of our din – individually and collectively – and how deep our convictions in them really run: Lose not heart, nor grieve. For you shall prevail, if you are truly believers. [3:139] That we prevail not, but are prevailed over, says something very troubling about our collective commitment to religion and revealed truths.
While we still feel the reverberations of the Paris murders and sense more than a little hypocrisy in how the French Republic selectively enacts its freedom of expression, it’s important to also hold ourselves to account and weed out hypocrisy from our actions and persona: ‘The signs of a hypocrite are three, even if he prays and fasts and claims that he is a Muslim: when he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he reneges on it; and when he is entrusted, he betrays his trust.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.33; Muslim, no.107] A far more serious form of hypocrisy is highlighted in the following verse: And when it is said to them: ‘Come to that which God has sent down and to the Messenger,’ you see the hypocrites turn away from you in aversion. [4:61]
While mainstream Muslims denounce such crimes, dismissing them as acts of fringe extremist with troubled pasts, political grievances and little religious learning, we also admit that such acts of lawlessness are now a growing concern within and outside the House of Islam. And yet, as angry and enraged young souls trample over traditional Islamic teachings and ignore established leaders and scholarship, we Muslims need to each play our part in quelling this rising tide of religious anarchy that was foretold to us in this next hadith: ‘God does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’ [Bukhari, no.100; Muslim, no.2673]
While freedom of expression currently forbids insulting race and ethnicity, it has no such qualm when it comes to pouring scorn upon beliefs and ideologies – religious or otherwise. Free speech is deemed to be the core value of democracy: a precondition to progress and the guarantor of liberty. The only constraints on it are things like libel, slander, hate speech, obscenity, incitement to violence, and severe and specific threats to public safety. All else is taken to be fair game. And yet Charlie Hebdo didn’t occur in a vacuum. The cartoons come at a time when scorn, bigotry, discrimination, physical violence, mosque burnings as well as a growing host of legal handicaps are day-to-day realities for European Muslims. In what way do such cartoons not serve to further the xenophobic contempt for a community already ill-protected, maligned and under significant social siege?
While much of the West has shown its outrage for the attack on the cherished value of free speech, Muslims will do well to recall that denigrating the Prophet ﷺ – whom they cherish more than any other, for they believe him to be a prophet of God and the epitome of piety, purity and goodness – is a capital offence under classical Islamic law. In a Muslim land where such law is sovereign and applicable, and after investigation, trial and the due process of law, it is the state’s prerogative to carry out the sentence of blasphemy: a crime punishable by death. Just how outraged the Western world may feel about this should be neither here nor there. As for vigilante killing in non-Muslim polities, where neither Islamic law nor its jurisdiction applies, we should recognise it for what it is: criminality and murder. It neither has the validation of classical Islamic law, nor the endorsement of any established, living scholarly authority.
While many see in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy the symbols of the moral superiority of Western values and civilisation, others may ask: How can there be civilisation without civility? And how can there be civility when gratuitous offence is allowed for nothing more than its own sake? Of course, Muslims should understand that those outside of their faith are free, and should be free, to criticise Islam; question its teachings; and challenge its beliefs, laws and ethics; and even reject it out of hand, if they so choose. If some Muslims feel slightly queasy about that, they simply need to get thicker skins: There is no compulsion in religion, is what the Qur’an says. [2:256] What most Muslims, I suspect, are trying to say is this: If for nothing more than community cohesion and peaceful coexistence, let’s avoid senseless provocation and gratuitous offence merely for its own sake. Let’s learn to be a tad more civil.
W’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.