What Would Muhammad Do About “That Video”?
I received lots of feedback from Western Christians to my article “What Just Happened? A Former Muslim’s Thoughts on the “Muhammad Video””. Most of the messages were asking the same question: Why are Muslims behaving this way about the Muhammad video?
To my Arab Muslim background mind it is clear why many Muslims have to act like this. Let us say that I was programmed like these angry Muslims to certain Islamic standards and an important one of them is this: do not think, and do not do the unthinkable. In this case, the unthinkable is to ridicule Muhammad and mock him in any form especially visual presentation.
Sunni Muslims do not allow actors to play the role of Muhammad in any video or audio production that tells his story from the Islamic perspective. You never could see or hear Muhammad. This also extends to drawing Muhammad—you cannot even draw him, nor have a portrait of him, in Sunni Islam.
Now, this “insulting” video is made with an actor portraying Muhammad in a ridiculous and mocking way. Many Muslims who have never before seen their prophet being portrayed by an actor and then see him for the first time in such a shameful presentation will be greatly enraged. This also extends to any funny drawings (caricatures) of him.
So, the issue we have here is a double anathema: first, representing Muhammad by an actor or a drawing; and second, insulting him.
It did not occur to me to write this article at first. After several Westerners inquired about why Muslims acted in this way, I fell back on my comfort zone excuse of “cultural differences.”
What finally made me write this article was a message from a close friend, who is an Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern Christian who knows a lot about Muslims and Islam. He sent me this:
So to sum up; a bad biased clip full of unproven assumptions caused riots and the death of tens of people in several countries. As much as I disagree with the movie the question that remains is: how far is the Islamic mentality willing to go until it can deal with critique? Till when do they think we should be dealing with their ultra-sensitive ego issues? What king of sick narcissism, or should I say lack of self-confidence is it that leads them to such acts? Why have other nations found ways to deal with critique, but they think we should wear silk gloves if we touch any of their holy (sub)objects? They feel attacked, humiliated and discriminated, that may be the case. Across history many nations have dealt with worse and were able to overcome it.
That woke me up. If he couldn't understand why, even though he speaks the language, has been around Muslims, and has been involved with them for a great part of his life, then I cannot just say “cultural differences” anymore.
So, how could I explain this issue?
One thing that came to mind was this: What would Muhammad do about this insulting video if he were around?
Interestingly enough, Muhammad himself was humiliated and ridiculed by several non-believers during his time as a prophet. So, let's examine how Muhammad, according to generally accepted Islamic sources, dealt with people who insulted him.
Mecca is the town where Muhammad grew up, married and worked, and where he first claimed to be a prophet. But he was rejected by its people, they did not accept his claims to be a prophet of God and eventually he left with a small group of followers to another place (Medina) where he gained acceptance and a larger following.
During that second period Muhammad had several military clashes with the people of Mecca. He definitely had enemies among them and there were several people who mocked him and insulted him there. But those mockers were out of his reach in a sovereign city.
Muhammad was eventually able to conquer Mecca. Most Muslims cite this event as an example of Muhammad’s tolerance and mercy, since he told most of the people of Mecca: Go, you are free.
But that general pardon did not extend to several of Muhammad’s enemies. Muhammad ordered a few people to be executed wherever they could be found, even in the sacred space of the Kaaba where nobody should be hurt.
It is interesting to see that most of those who he ordered to be killed were people who insulted him. Let’s investigate some of these cases (more instances are discussed here):
1- Abdullah Ibn Sa’ad Abī Al-Sarḥ Al-Ammerī1 (converted). This man was a trusted Muslim as he had been Muhammad’s scribe. He used to write for Muhammad the inspired message of the Quran that Muhammad had received.
Ibn Abī Sarḥ was a "creative" scribe; he used to change what Muhammad dictated to him. For example, if Muhammad dictated a verse in the Quran ending with the phrase, “all hearing, all knowing”, Ibn Abī Sarḥ would change it to “all knowing, wise”.2 So when Ibn Abī Sarḥ read back to Muhammad what he already wrote, Muhammad agreed on the written version (which had been changed) and did not challenge the changes Ibn Abī Sarḥ had made.
Over time that made Ibn Abī Sarḥ believe that either he is a prophet like Muhammad receiving inspiration from Allah or that Muhammad is a liar and he was just making up this Quran. So, Ibn Abī Sarḥ renounced Islam and returned back to Mecca and scandalized Muhammad by telling the story of his experience with him.
Muhammad ordered him to be executed when he conquered Mecca, but he had a good relationship growing up with one of Muhammad’s closest followers, Uthmān (who later became the third Caliph after Muhammad’s death, and who is also Muhammad’s son-in-law twice). Uthmān took Ibn Abī Sarḥ to Muhammad and asked Muhammad to pardon Ibn Sarḥ.
Muhammad was silent, while Uthmān kept repeating his request for pardoning Ibn Sarḥ until Muhammad accepted.
When Uthmān and Ibn Abī Sarḥ left, Muhammad turned to his followers and said to them: “what prevented you from standing up and killing this dog (or evildoer)?”3 Here we have the real reason for Muhammad’s extended silence. When he was asked to pardon Ibn Abī Sarḥ, he was hoping one of his followers would stand up and kill the man before he publicly had to pardon him.
The story continues that one of Muhammad’s followers responded that he was waiting for a signal from Muhammad to kill Ibn Abī Sarḥ. Muhammad responded that prophets do not kill with signals.
2- Abdullah Ibn Khaṭl4 and his two women slaves Fartana and Qarībah5 (killed in the Kaaba, with one of the woman slaves killed too, while the second one converted). Ibn Khaṭl was a Muslim and he was sent to collect Zakāt (religious tax) with another Muslim and his slave (not clear if the slave belonged to Ibn Khaṭl or the other Muslim).
Ibn Khaṭl killed the slave because he ordered him to cook for him and when he woke up he did not find the food. Al-Waqidī's narrative is different, he says that Ibn Khaṭl killed the other Muslim freeman who was from Khuza’a tribe. (notice: Al Waqidi doesn't mention a slave). It is strange that Ibn Khaṭl also killed the other freeman though he did not cook for him. A freeman at that time and culture is not a slave of another.
So I think that Al-Waqidī was trying to exaggerate the crime, as freemen do not usually get sentenced to death for killing slaves (a property). So according to this story, Ibn Khaṭl was scared to return back to Muhammad because he would kill him for killing the slave (or the freeman). So he took the Zakāt money and went back to Mecca and denounced Islam.6
I believe this next portion is what really caused Ibn Khaṭl’s death. The man started to write insulting poems about Muhammad7 and make his two women slaves sing them; the poems or recite them to the non-believers of Mecca while they were drinking wine (i.e. partying).
3- Sārah (killed) was another woman slave. The Sirah books (biography of Muhammad) mention that “she used to hurt Muhammad in Mecca”.8 But al-Waqidī explains this “hurt” by saying that she used to sing poetry to the people of Mecca which was insulting to Muhammad.
He also adds to her crimes that she may have tricked Muhammad into aiding her financially and then went back to Mecca (Quraīsh) “and she is still in her religion”9 (that mean she did not convert to Islam and remained in her Meccan religion). So Muhammad ordered her to be killed, and it was carried out.
4- Al-Ḥawīrth Ibn Naqiẓ (killed). Though most of the sources say “he was one of those who hurt Muhammad in Mecca,” they did not explain how. Ibn Hisham mentioned that Ibn Naqiẓ assaulted Muhammad’s daughters, Fatima and Um Kulthūm, while Muhammad’s uncle al-Abbas was carrying them (travel with) from Mecca to Medina. The story said that the girls fell on the ground.
The word used for hurt here is yū’ẓī10 which means not only physical harm but also could suggest insult as we saw in the case of the woman slave Sārah (she also hurt Muhammad). So again there is a suggestion of insulting Muhammad and maybe bullying him and his followers.
5- Ikrima Ibn Abī Jahl (converted). There is no exact mention of his crimes against Muhammad, maybe because the man converted to Islam and died as a martyr in a battle later. So his old record of crimes was somehow removed.
6- Miqīas Ibn Ṣababā (killed). He was a Muslim and his brother was killed by mistake in a battle by another Muslim. Ibn Ṣababā received Daīah (a compensation) but still he killed his brother’s killer and went back to Mecca and renounced Islam.
Al-Waqidī leaves us with a suggestion that the guy was also saying insulting poetry about Muhammad. He says: “he escaped (ran away from Medina to Mecca) [and became] an apostate, unbeliever and writing poetry”11 But it is not exactly clear, except for this suggestion.
7- Habār Ibn Al-Asūad (converted). His crime was that he bullied Muhammad’s daughter with other non-believers and he hit her (or caused her to fall, in other narratives) so she had miscarriage (other sources say she became sick and died of it years later).
Muhammad gave the order to his armies that when they go in a military campaign they should burn Ibn al-Asūad alive if they caught him. Later he retracted this order “because only Allah, the god of [hell] fire punishes with fire”12 and ordered them instead to cut off the man’s feet and hands then execute him.13
So he was on the wanted list when Muhammad conquered Mecca. He escaped and later came and faced Muhammad and submitted to Islam and confessed the Shahada14 (becoming a Muslim). He said: “Muhammad, insult the one who insulted you and hurt the one who hurt (past tense) you”.15 So Muhammad had to let him go as the man became a Muslim and publicly cornered Muhammad with his shame-honor tactic (shame if Muhammad hurt him after he admit doing wrong and came to him in weakness, and honor as he admit that Muhammad won and that he is his subject now).
Interestingly enough, I do not see him apologizing for bullying Muhammad’s daughter, her miscarriage, and later death. He was only apologizing for insulting Muhammad.
8- Waḥshī (converted). He killed Muhammad’s uncle Ḥamzah in the battle of Uhud. The man was a slave and simply a hit man ordered by a noble woman from Mecca (Hind the wife of Abu Sufīān) to kill Muhammad’s uncle in the battle as a revenge for Ḥamzah killing her uncle in an earlier battle. He escaped and came back announcing that he became a Muslim in order to return back to his community.
There is no doubt that insulting Muhammad was a big enough crime to be punished by death. Several people in Muhammad’s time who insulted him were killed for insulting him as we saw from the above examples.
Those who have been pardoned were “forced” to convert to Islam and submit to Muhammad, as there is nothing more humiliating to them than confessing publicly that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s prophet, something they fought against in the past and the thing for which they insulted and ridiculed Muhammad. It is obvious that these “pardoned” people who converted to Islam were scared of being killed and had to endure such humiliation in order to avoid such punishment. So, I could comfortably say they were “forced” to convert by the terror of the impending death sentence.
Though Muhammad wished he hadn’t pardoned some of them and they had been killed instead (i.e. Ibn Sarḥ), there were cultural tactics used to extract that pardon, as we saw in the case of Ibn al-Asūad.
As Julian Pitt-Rivers puts it: “the de facto achievement of honour depends upon the ability to silence anyone who would dispute the title”.16 Muhammad’s honor was restored by silencing those who disputed his rightful status as the prophet of God. This was done either by executing them or by their public confession that he is a prophet, which takes back everything they said about him in the past.
I believe if Muhammad was alive today, he would order his followers to execute the makers of this insulting video. I even think he may not pardon them, as the crime they committed was not just “writing insulting poetry and singing it” as his opponents at his time did, but depicting him in ridiculous acts and showing even his wives in degrading and shaming ways.
I hope this clarifies why many Muslims will be enraged over such a video.
Nevertheless, that does neither justify nor excuse their violent reaction to criticism nor does it mean that they have the right to bully the world into submission or terrorize them to make Islamic symbols untouchables by anyone, Muslims or non-Muslims.
It is difficult to give a prescription on how to deal with such a mentality, and it is equally difficult to predict when Muslims will be able to take critique without resulting into violence. I will try to address these two issues in a separate article later.
We have examined Muhammad's response to insult and mockery. I recommend you also look at how Jesus Christ responded to the same in Mockery & Honor: Muhammad and Jesus and Being Mocked: The Essence of Christ's Work, Not Muhammad's. If you have questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Ibn Saīd Al-Nās, ́Aīūn Al-Athar Fī Funūn Al-Maghāzī Wa Al-Sahmāʾil wa Al-Saīr, goo.gl/LyScj last accessed 23 Sep. 2012
Al-Suhaīli, Al-Raūdh Al-ʾAnif, goo.gl/EOs8D
Ibn Isḥāq, Al-Saīra Al-Nabaūīa, goo.gl/7RuSI page 530-534 PDF, last accessed 23 Sep. 2012
Pitt-Rivers, Julian, Honour and Social Status, in HONOUR AND SHAME: THE VALUES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN (J.G. Peristiany ed. 1966). Also online at goo.gl/iPHPU