France is in the throes of a bloody struggle with what seems like the whole Muslim world. The reaction to President Emanuel Macron’s speech on the need for an enlightened Islam provided evidence enough of this. Within days of his speech, schoolteacher Samuel Paty was beheaded on the street for showing the iconic 2015 Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad to his class. And on 29 October, a 21-year-old Tunisian refugee killed three churchgoers in Nice, while shouting Allahu Akbar and holding a copy of Quran. Meanwhile, the imams and leaders of the Muslim world have called for the boycott of French products and denounced freedom of speech.
It seems that whenever we encounter crises of this kind, the Muslim world’s predominant reaction is defensiveness: it denies the threat of Islamist terrorism and vilifies the West. There is never an earnest interrogation of Islam, never a look in the mirror. I am a Muslim who loves Islam. It is my love of Islam that moves me to raise questions about Islam, and even to disbelieve in Islam. If we keep evading such questions, our religion is doomed.
Why do we need to defend the honour of the prophet? Perhaps a move away from an honour culture would make for a healthier society. After all, both the west and Islam seem to have agreed that duelling to the death is no longer the mark of a gentleman.
Isn’t there a difference between Muhammad the man and Muhammad the prophet, and shouldn’t we separate history from legend? Must one literally believe in Islam—must one truly believe that the Moon was split in two—to be a good Muslim? Or would we rather have a religion that casts out honest thinkers?
Honour and Humiliation
Postcolonial critics view the current crisis as a reckoning for France’s past crimes, and this has also been the popular Muslim response. Arabic-language talk shows and social media have reminded everyone of France’s brutal colonial past. In a lengthy debate hosted by Al Jazeera on 6 October, journalist Ahmad Al-Hawas shook with rage as he listed a litany of colonial crimes, even including the murder of Native Americans by the US to make a point about western imperialism in general.
On 29 October, an Egyptian talk show opened their discussion of the beheading of Samuel Paty with a historical anecdote about French General Gouraud’s conquest of Syria. Upon entering Damascus, Gouraud allegedly kicked the grave of the legendary Muslim general Salahuddin, rival of Richard the Lionheart and hero of the Third Crusade. Gourard is said to have yelled, “Wake up, Salahuddin, we are here!” Another Egyptian talk show presented a history lesson about how filthy Paris used to be before they had sewage drains, reminding us that Muslims taught Europeans to bathe.
It is telling that the popular Muslim reaction is so defensive, as this suggests an insecurity that has deeper roots than colonialism. From the moment that Muhammad promised the defeat of Rome, Islam has seen the west as its main rival. Hence no one has burned effigies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite the fact that at least one million Uyghurs have been sent to indoctrination camps.
But the backlash has not only come from former French domains: the issue extends beyond colonial grievances. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proclaimed that Macron needs mental help and urged Turks not to buy French products. In Pakistan, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken a stand against freedom of speech, complaining that the “publication of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam and our Holy Prophet has been allowed” in France. In the Muslim consciousness, an attack on Muhammad is an attack on Muslim honour. Even under Imran Khan, blasphemy is still punishable by death in Pakistan.
One common argument is that the prophet is dearer to us than our mothers and our fathers. (This idea is canonical in Islam—the companions of Muhammad regularly used to claim this, even using the claim as a form of greeting to Muhammad.) What would you do, we are asked, if your mother were insulted? One popular Egyptian imam posed this question to his Friday congregation on 23 October. The implied answer was clear from his tremulous voice.
A man in the west is not expected to display this kind of anger as proof of his virility. Consider Jimmy Kimmel’s running jokes about his wife sleeping with Matt Damon and having a baby with Tracy Morgan. In one skit, Kimmel dresses up as a pig. To most Americans, these are jokes, even though Kimmel himself is the butt of them.
The photoshopped images of Macron as a dog or pig are not as deeply insulting to westerners as those who share them might imagine. Were it not for the accompanying threats of violence, they’d be rather cute.
Muhammad the Man and Muhammad the Legend
This honour culture, when evoked in connection with someone as glorified as Muhammad, is a bomb rigged to explode at the slightest touch. Muhammad’s name cannot be mentioned without all in earshot having to recite his praises. Muhammad himself cursed him who does not praise him upon hearing his name, saying “May his nose be rubbed in the dust.” And he ordered the assassinations of several people who had insulted him, including poets. This cult of personality is treated as an inspiring devotional story now, but it would be considered downright insane were the events taking place in the present day.
In Muslim eyes, Muhammad is the perfect man, sent by God as a mercy to the world. He is the seal of the prophets, the heir of Abraham, God’s most beloved. By all accounts, he was also breathtakingly good looking. It is of course forbidden to depict Muhammad, but the age-old songs about him emphasize the perfection of both his form and character: “More beautiful than you has not met my eye, and more perfect than you no woman has given birth to,” as a famous thirteenth-century poem by Al-Busiri puts it.
Muhammad lived at a time in history when miracles were growing scarcer, because records were better kept. It was harder to become a hero in the style of Moses. The splitting of the moon is the most dramatic of Muhammad’s signs—it is vouchsafed by the Quran. But the earliest records merely describe the moon as appearing on both sides of a mountain, and Muhammad as being one of the observers in a caravan. We can still separate Muhammad the man from Muhammad the legend.
So, do we have to have a literal belief in Islam to be good Muslims? I do not, and it is not for lack of sincerity. During Ramadan, I have prayed by night at a tomb of the Prophet’s family in the City of the Dead in Cairo. I have whirled and chanted with Sufis. There is no music that moves me like the music that celebrates God and Muhammad, especially the qawwali performed at my family’s court in an India that I have never seen. I have a verse of the Quran ready at my lips for any occasion. It is my epic. I speak classical Arabic like a mother tongue. Am I not Muslim?
If you cast me out, you must be ready to cast out thousands like me, and maybe many thousands more, who cannot or do not care to speak up. Do you want a religion like that? If you disavow criticism as hate, if you reject disbelief as disloyalty, then your Islam cannot last. Islam is a beautiful tradition under which many cultures have matured over the ages, and it is worth saving. But to save Islam from itself, we must ask ourselves as Muslims who or what the real enemy of Islam is. It is not Macron, and it is definitely not liberalism. And it is most definitely not me.
If we can come to see religion as story, we open the door to a more viable spirituality. In stories, suspension of disbelief allows for purpose and meaning, endowed by their authors—especially if we imagine the author to be God. We do not have to believe that Muhammad the man was a prophet to believe that Muhammad the prophet rode to meet the Almighty himself on a steed of light.
There is grandeur in a faith not contingent on belief or on shows of vitriol and bloodshed when the believer’s ego is threatened—in a faith that is not threatened by a cartoon.
Editor’s note from Iona Italia: There have been requests that Areo display the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in articles related to this topic. I have vetoed these requests. This is not because I disapprove of blasphemy or wish to pander to the easily offended. It is purely and simply because I am afraid of being killed myself or of putting others in mortal danger.