Depicting images of God and the Prophet (pbuh) are strictly forbidden in Islam. The rationale for the prohibition of depicting the image of God is because He is beyond human perception. The rationale for the prohibition, inter alia, of depicting the Prophet (pbuh) is that he was too sublime to be truly portrayed. Furthermore, attempts at portraying him could result in his image being distorted. There are therefore no records of any authentic image or portrait of the Prophet (pbuh) anywhere in the world, from any period of Islamic history, which is a significant point to note.
Two things are wrong with the cartoon. Firstly, any attempt to depict him in illustration is an attempt to depict the sacrosanct, which is not allowed.
Secondly, the nature of cartoons is to satirise and trivialise. This is clearly not acceptable in the case of a personality who is held in the highest esteem by over a billion people globally.
In this particular cartoon, the insinuation is that the Holy Prophet (pbuh) is in need of psychiatric help – an idea which prejudiced and hostile Orientalists have always attempted to project in their works. This dimension of the cartoon adds insult to injury and serves to rub the proverbial salt deeper into the wound.
When Muslims object, the stock response is that they do not appreciate freedom of expression. The media and others view this as an infringement of the right of freedom of speech. So it is made out, George Bush-style, that you are either for freedom of expression or against it! However, one aspect that is often overlooked is that no right is absolute; there are inherent limitations. Every right is counterbalanced against other rights. Every right comes with responsibility. And responsibility was certainly not displayed by the publishers of this cartoon.
Irrespective of what the motive was for publishing the cartoon – whether it was a cheap publicity stunt, a gimmick to boost waning sales, a deliberate provocation, or sheer ignorance – it was grossly offensive and highly insensitive.
The worldwide anger and protests following the publication of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet (pbuh) made it amply clear that Muslims will not accept his depiction as a caricature or a cartoon figure.
The media has a duty to act responsibly in respect of sensitive issues and not to push the right to freedom of expression to such ridiculous levels, where the lines of distinction between the profound and the profane are virtually obliterated.
Sensible leaders around the world, including the pope, issued strong statements condemning the inflammatory Danish cartoons when they appeared.
A spokesman for the US State Department, Kurtis Cooper, was equally strong in his condemnation: “These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims.
“We all fully recognise and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.”
Muslims, for their part, accept the principle of wholesome and constructive freedom of expression, but not the freedom to wantonly insult, which is sometimes deviously and deceptively masqueraded as freedom of expression. True freedom of expression is freedom from insult, not freedom to insult. Freedom to insult has ultimately resulted in hatred, bigotry and even destruction. Studies indicate that reckless use (or rather abuse) of freedom of expression contributed to a great extent to the genocide in Rwanda, as an example, leaving over a million dead.
Muslim outrage is often simplistically misconstrued as a lack of humour and over-sensitivity. Yet the idea that Muslims do not appreciate humour is far from the truth.
The Holy Prophet (pbuh) himself would indulge in light heartedness and humour with his companions, which is clearly recorded in his biography. But humour should not descend to the point of gratuitous and senseless belittling of the religion of another. Humour that is disrespectful, insensitive and offensive, is not humour, but is in fact hubris.
Each faith community feels a deep-rooted emotional attachment to the symbols and personalities it reveres. Muslims are no different.
The value system of Islam is underpinned by respect and reverence – reverence for God, for all the Messengers of God – including the prophets Abraham, Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them all), the angels, the holy scriptures, the holy cities, religious symbols and places of worship, and respect for elders, teachers, leaders, religious scholars, parents, relatives, all of humanity and the creation as a whole.
In our country, which has just emerged from the ugly era of racial segregation, cartoons or writings that perpetuate stereotypes and promote prejudice are unacceptable, as they malign sections of the community. Our beloved country desperately requires bridge-building exercises, and not the breeding of animosity and distrust, especially in the wake of the recent xenophobia and racial tensions.
With the World Cup barely a few days away, it was utterly irresponsible to publish the offensive cartoon. The anger this would provoke in the Muslim community was more than predictable. Was there a deliberate attempt to evoke a negative reaction from Muslims at this very crucial juncture? On the eve of an unprecedented international event in our country, an act such as this engenders a negative atmosphere, which certainly does not serve our national interest.
Despite this, the appeal from all Muslim religious bodies to the Muslim community is that they should not allow this provocation to lead to irresponsible action, for that is not what the Holy Prophet (pbuh) himself would have approved of. Although Muslims are outraged, it is important that any contemplated protest action be carried out responsibly, through legitimate channels, and that Muslims continue to remain a law-abiding community. The Prophet (pbuh) was the subject of vilification, abuse and mockery in his lifetime, but he always tolerated, forgave and displayed magnanimity, even to his sworn enemies, a fact which is recorded and attested to by every one of his biographers.
Muslims and non-Muslims alike can take a leaf out of his sublime example!
Mufti Zubair Bayat is the director of the Darul Ihsan Islamic Services Centre in Durban.