Insulting Islam: What Should Our Response Be?
The latest provocation against Islam takes the form of a crude film personifying and vilifying the Prophet, peace be upon him.
A trailer of this otherwise unknown movie was posted on YouTube in July, attracting very little attention until last week when a version dubbed into Arabic was posted on the same YouTube channel, after which it was copied and viewed tens of thousands of times over. The film has sparked outrage among many Muslims who, over the last few days, have taken to the streets in angry and violent protests in places like Egypt, Libya and Australia.
This isn’t the first time in recent years that Islam and its Prophet, peace be upon him, have been denigrated and insulted; nor is it likely to be the last time. The way certain Muslims have responded to such provocations tends only to reinforce the very same negative stereotypes of Islam and the Prophet such protests were meant to counter! So rather than being guided by unrestrained religious zeal, rage, frenzy, the desire for vengeance or, in some cases, political shenanigans, let us recall some of the Quranic wisdoms and prophetic counsels as to how we should best respond in such matters. For it has rightly been said, we cannot defend the Prophet by offending his teachings. Here are ten points on how to help us best respond – and God alone is the granter of grace:
1. The Qur’an forewarns the believers that they will be subjected to much vilification, taunt and mockery from those who do not share their faith: 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] As faith takes root in the surroundings soil of unbelief, there will always be stiff opposition to it; particularly in the form of verbal abuse and false propaganda. The key, however, is to bear such hurts with patience, restraint and continued fear of God, and conviction that all is unfolding according to the Divine plan.
2. The best way to deal with any attacks against the faith and its revealed truths is by actualising the following command: Repel evil with what is better; you will see that one between you and whom there was enmity shall become as a friend. [41:34] Thus, let evil be repelled by what is best; let bigotry and abuse be repelled by patience; ignorance by tolerance; hardened attitudes with persuasion; and evil with forgiveness and caution.
3. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘None of you truly believes until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.13; Muslim, no.45] No less than Imam al-Nawawi wrote: ‘It is preferred to understand this in terms of universal brotherhood, so that it includes the non-Muslim and Muslim. Hence he wants for his non-Muslim brother what he wants for himself, that is his converting to Islam; just as he wants for his Muslim brother to remain in Islam. This is why it is recommended to supplicate for guidance on behalf of the non-Muslim.’1 So rather than curse the non-Muslims or desire their destruction, one should earnestly pray for them to be guided aright.
4. Praying for their guidance and welfare not only applies to friendly non-Muslims; it applies to those who are hostile and belligerent too. Once, in the thick of battle when the non-Muslims army was seeking to kill the Prophet, peace be upon him, and with blood gushing from a wound inflicted on him by the enemy, he uttered the prayer: ‘O God! Forgive my people, for they know not.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3477; Muslim, no.1752]
5. Not to act unjustly, even in the midst of hostility and ill-will: Let not hatred of any people make you swerve from justice. Be just; that is closer to piety. [5:8] As demanding as this duty may be, the sublime standard of conduct expected of believers asks of them nothing less. So where do deplorable acts of violence or vengeance fit into all of this? How does the killing of police and diplomats, or the burning of foreign embassies tally with Islam’s teachings? Such acts are, no doubt, categorically forbidden by the shari‘ah. One hadith declares: ‘I swear by God that were it not that ambassadors are not killed, I would have cut off your heads.’ [Abu Dawud, no.2761] Furthermore, those killed were in no way responsible for the making of this vile film.
6. Protesting against evil is mandated in Islam: ‘Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; if he is unable to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’ [Muslim, no.49]. But such protest must be carried out within the bounds of the law, ensuring no greater harm or evil arises as a result and that no greater benefit is forfeited. Since large, angry crowds can often descend into behaving like the reckless herd, our learned urge caution and restraint, and to never loose sight of the greater goal.
7. We must keep in mind the Rule of Consequences. The Qur’an says: Revile not those to whom they pray besides God, lest they wrongfully revile God through ignorance. [6:108] The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘It is one of the greatest sins that a man should curse his parents.’ It was asked how does a man curse his parents? The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘A man abuses the father of another man, so the latter abuses the former’s father; or abuses his mother, so he abuses his mother.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5973] And although in this case it is others insulting Islam and the Prophet, peace be upon him, we are still accountable for the consequences of our actions and the harms they may lead to. Attacking embassies, or flag burning, or insulting the objects of devotion venerated by others tends only to harden the attitudes of those with whom dialogue is needed, or further fuels the flames of vilification.
8. We must not play into the hands of the media or Islam’s enemies. Responding with blind rage, curses or violence only serve to justify negative media portrayals of Islam and the blessed Prophet. Such demonstrations then become self-defeating. Islam has many shrewd enemies who are only too adept at manipulating political events. What we need, then, are cool heads, courageous hearts, long term vision and goals, and a proactiveness that rises above immediate knee-jerk reactions. Must we react to every provocation? Did we have drum up so much attention to an otherwise obscure film? These are questions we need to seriously ask ourselves.
9. In the discourse concerning the limits of free speech (and even liberal nations must accept some restrictions on free speech), we should insist on responsibility in speech. Criticism is one thing, but speech to simply offend or outrage another is damaging to social cohesion and human harmony.
10. The best way to defend the Prophet’s honour, peace be upon him, is to revive our connection to him, his Sunnah and his sirah; to live out his teachings, character, ethics and spiritual conduct in our daily lives; acquainting others with such noble teachings. To plough through hours of political discourse or activism without raising our hands to God in sincere and earnest supplication would, in all likelihood, be an affront to such teachings. Only when we are prepared to put aside our egos’ pretensions, can we expect the divine hand to be responsive with His help and protection.
Allahumma’hfaz ‘alayna’l-din ya rabba’l-‘alamin
wa hayyi lana min asbabi’l-nasr.
1. Sharh al-Arba‘in al-Nawawiyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 59.