How Not to Respond to the Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

In the aftermath of the Paris shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices the world is up in arms again about the concept of free speech, drawing cartoons degrading the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and the so-called battle between Islam and the modern world. The newspaper itself has decided to continue printing images of the Prophet Muhammad and its first publication after the massacre has such an image on the cover.


Many people look at the images on the covers of this newspaper and think that it really isn’t all that bad. The cover is only a small portion of what is actually inside. NPR discussed this in some detail when explaining why they decided not to publish the cartoons. There is no doubt that such images are disrespectful and offensive to Muslims, in fact they should be offensive to more than just Muslims considering the graphic and unbecoming nature of them. However, the banner of free speech has been raised (as hypocritical as it is) and emotions are flared up, so it’s not likely that we are going back.


So a question arises as to how Muslims should respond to this kind of thing. I started a discussion on this from the positive angle in a previous article. Here I want to address it from the other side: What should Muslims not do in responding to this kind of thing?


There is an overarching principle in Muslim thought that underpins this whole discussion and motivates people to want to respond, “Harm shall be removed.” This principle is one of five legal maxims that are agreed upon by all legal scholars of Islam.[1] As simple as it is, it is often misunderstood. Many take this principle and combine it with the hadith about removing harm with one’s hand to come to conclusions that don’t make any sense. The problem with that approach is two-fold: (1) It ignores the limits of authority that we have over other persons. Human beings have a level of sanctity and dignity that cannot be overstepped by someone who does not have the authority to do so. To put it very plainly, you don’t spank someone else’s kid. (2) There is another maxim that helps to understand this one, which is forgotten: “Harm is not to be removed by an equal or greater harm.”


All of this makes sense, in part because these rules are logical deductions from a large body of texts from the Quran and Sunnah, but sometimes people stop thinking when they deal with issues like how to respond to cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. So let’s look at the situation.


In the wake of these attacks there have been over 50 anti-Muslim incidents in France alone. That does not include the increase in attacks that are surely happening in other places around Europe and North America. That is the short-term. However, the increase in anti-Muslim sentiment will also have long-term consequences. Imam al-Shatibi once said, “The wise scholar answers questions while looking towards their future consequences.” There is no doubt that this model of responding to negative cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is a failed one. There is a need for Muslims to respond and there is sensitivity towards the reputation and honor of the holy Prophet. That response just needs to be such that it brings about a greater good.


Killing “journalists” does not help the situation, it makes it worse. Protests with lots of screaming and burning flags do not help, they make it worse. Yelling and screaming about the holiness of a man others do not believe in does not work.


As I said before, these are principles to guide us in knowing what not to do. Knowing what to do is a bigger discussion and one that I started here.


DISCLAIMERS: My basing this discussion in the realm of harm and benefit does not mean in any way that the actions of the Paris shooters would be acceptable if it was deemed that there was a greater benefit in them. It is simply arguing that even within that frame of thinking it was a wrong move.

Also, just because someone says that they drew cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) doesn’t mean they did. The cartoons bear no resemblance and have nothing to do with the holy Prophet.


[1] For more on this see Dr. Umar Abdallah’s paper, “Living Islam with Purpose.”

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