Please don’t draw the Prophet (pbuh)

So I still haven’t submitted my thesis, but I have received an extension.  And since procrastination and completion are nearly the same thing, I am breaking my hiatus.  Partly because I have more free time now, but mostly because many of the reactions to the tragic deaths in France last week have made me feel incapable of remaining quiet.  In particular, I’ve seen a disturbing number of people online suggest that, like with the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) a few years ago, the best response is another “Draw Muhammad Day.”  I’m strongly against this, and would like to take this opportunity to explain why.  [Trigger warnings: I’m not going to post any depictions of the Prophet or link to any, but I am going to describe what some of them look like.  Also there’s some discussion of terrorism and mass murder.]

But, to start with, it’s worth pointing out (as many people on the internet have) that it is true that the Qur’an does not specifically ban depictions of the Prophet (pbuh).  The practice of not depicting the Prophet (pbuh) stems from the Qur’anic conception of graphic images, and the various ways that Islam has formulated the meaning of graphic images is way too big a topic to cover here.  Maybe I’ll do a separate post about it.  But the fact is that while the ban of depictions arises primarily out of the hadith and the early history of the Islam, and is not practiced universally in Islam, that doesn’t make it any less a religious practice for some Muslims.  To put this in perspective, I can make a solid case that the Bible provides no basis for the concepts of heaven (as a place where humans go), hell (as a place of punishment for sinners), or the soul (as an immortal aspect of all humans), but that doesn’t make these concepts any less integral to Christian theology.  That’s because Scripture doesn’t work like a cookbook – you don’t just read it and do what it says.

To turn Western depictions of the Prophet (pbuh) as artistic and/or political statements, first off, your depiction of the Prophet (pbuh) is probably not going to be original.  If you’re an artist looking to push boundaries, this is pretty much the exact opposite of that.  Non-Muslims have been producing depictions of Muhammad (pbuh), both in written works and as pictures, since their first interactions with Muslims.  Many of these depictions are negative, painting Muslims as mindlessly violent and terrifyingly evil.  The root of this meme is not hard to find – many of these works come from communities who were at war with the Muslims, whether due to Muslim incursion, as during the Islamic expansion, or due to Western incursion, as during the Crusades.  In either case, non-Muslims have routinely produced works of art that depict Muslims as evil, and Christian works in particular like to present Muhammad (s’lm) as the devil or the Antichrist.  Drawing a cartoon of him carrying a bomb is just a modern twist on a 1400-year-old artistic tradition.

Even if you have come up with something more creative than the Prophet (pbuh) as Devil trope, if you’re aim is to satirize Islam, either as it’s experienced in other countries or as it’s experienced by Muslims in the West, it’s really unlikely to be successful because it’s incredibly difficult to satirize a foreign country or culture.  This one kind of makes sense – satire is meant to be a short, pithy observation about everyday life, often relying on juxtaposition to create cognitive dissonance in the viewer or listener.  So for Westerns wanting to satirize Islam, there is a lot of ground to cover.  If you’re trying to skewer people in foreign countries, you would need some kind of access to them as an audience, as well as intimate familiarity with their culture.  If you live in the US – do you know if foreign papers are running political cartoons about the US?  Do you care?  From having lived overseas, I know they are, but I don’t think most people seek out foreign jokes about their country, and would probably be deeply disappointed if they did, as they’re liable to be wildly off base.  Case in point: one of the most common jokes in Britain about Americans is that most Americans don’t have passports, something unthinkable in Europe, where the countries are tiny, but something relatively neutral in America, where our country is massive.

For attempts at satire about Muslims in the West, the case is even more complicated, because the joke would need to succinctly demonstrate an understanding of some aspects of Islam as a global culture and an understanding of how the intermixing of that global culture with the local Western culture can create conflict, and it needs a quick and easy way to present this information to people who may have no experience of either of these things.  Which is probably why so much really great comedy about Muslims in the West comes from Muslims who live in the West, like Aziz Ansari, Dean Obeidallah, and Sadia Azmat.  They grew up knowing the first two things, so all they had to do was figure out how to present their experiences in a humorous way to an uninitiated audience.

So for one thing, I think it’s going to be very difficult for non-Muslim Western artists to create something original about Islam, especially if the intention is satire.  But beyond the questions of interpretation and expression, I do believe there needs to be an ethical consideration about drawing the Prophet (pbuh), as well.  In all of the discussions about the attacks in Paris, it feels like people are forgetting that criticism is not the same thing as censorship.  Censorship is a government or other body of authority preventing something from being visible or accessible publicly.  For example, in the US, there is religious censorship which prevents the use of “Jesus Christ” as an expletive in some forms of media, in order to protect the religious beliefs of some Christians that this qualifies as taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Freedom of speech and of the press are important for preventing censorship, and although people have already pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the world leaders who marched for freedom of the press in Paris while denying it in their own countries, I think it’s also important to point out that criticism and even violent backlash against art is NOT censorship because it does not come from a position of authority.  It’s exactly the existence of freedom of speech and the press that gives people the right to publish things that may be deeply hurtful to others, and criticism is vital in that system to address how that art functions, why it’s hurtful, and whether that hurtfulness comes from a place of bigotry and racism, which I would argue for most non-Muslim Westerners who want to draw the Prophet (pbuh), it does.  Absolute freedom of expression without thought to consequences is guaranteed to end in violence because no one enjoys being insulted over and over again – as the Pope pointed out, if you insult someone’s mother, you’ll get punched in the face.

There’s also the fact that what art a society holds in esteem says a great deal about the opinions of that society, what they deem important and what they don’t.  In the case of Charlie Hebdo, by focusing on this single event as a clash of ‘Islam and the West,’ we risk implying that this is the only way in which that clash is manifested.  This is dangerously untrue – on the one hand, there has been a horrible re-emergence of nationalist zenophobia in Europe in the last several decades, and Muslims living in France today have suffered truly terrifying levels of oppression and abuse, including 16 Muslim places of worship being vandalized or attacked in just one 48-hour period.  On the other hand, extremism in the name of Islam is an international problem, and communities outside of the West face far worse effects of it than Westerners, as evidenced by the horrifying attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria in the same week, in which somewhere between 150 and 2000 people were murdered.  Terrorism and religious extremism are not just, or even predominantly, Western problems, and treating them as such, and expecting the world to jump to our aid when the West is attacked, is a disgustingly imperialist idea.

Finally, I would argue that it has to be morally wrong to intentionally try to make some violate their private religious practices.   Choosing not to depict the Prophet (pbuh) or to look at depictions of him is not forcing your beliefs on others, and asking for images of him not to be present in public spaces is no more religion invading the public realm than having churches, crosses, or manger scenes visible in public spaces.  If someone was running around trying to trick Jews into eating pork, most people would probably consider that person a jerk, even if they labeled their action as performance art.  Similarly, although there’s plenty of room for debate as to whether using “Jesus Christ” as an expletive is blasphemy, it would still be wrong to start “Blasphemy Day,” where people run around trying to shout it in Christian’s faces as many times in 24 hours as possible.  Religion is personal, but it can’t always be private – people inhabit public spaces, and religious people have as much right to those spaces as nonreligious people.  Asking for consideration is not the same thing as demanding censorship because it doesn’t take away anything from anyone else.

I am absolutely not in favor of censorship, but again, consideration and criticism are not the same thing as censorship, and, I would argue, are actually incredibly necessary to make good art.  Part of any piece of art is thinking about how it will be experienced and what message it will send to its audience, and I can’t see what message drawings of the Prophet (pbuh) send except a big middle finger to Muslims.  It won’t be shocking to a non-Muslim audience because we have no preconceived notions about images of the Prophet (pbuh) for it to attack.  It probably won’t be shocking to Muslims because I’d guess most are aware that depictions of the Prophet (pbuh) exist; they just choose not to look at them.  As far as I can tell, the absolute best outcome that can come from papering newsstands with images of the Prophet (pbuh) will be that it will hurt Muslims, but that they will choose to accept that hurt, and bear it privately, rather than asking for consideration and respect for their beliefs.  Which is exactly what Muslims are choosing to do.  And that’s a beautiful statement about them as people, but still doesn’t validate the art.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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