Islam and Perceived Insults to Its Prophet, or “Zeal for thy head will consume me,” with apologies to Ps. 69:9.

Islam does not take kindly to criticism of any kind. As far as I can tell, this is due to inherent factors in its theological claims to perfection, and to the example of its prophet recorded in its sacred traditions. According to Islamic law (sharia’), built upon these traditions and seen by Muslims as perfectly encapsulating Allah’s will for all humanity, any actions rising to the level of blasphemy are punishable by death in this life and eternal fire in the hereafter. Blasphemy may be defined as any action that intentionally demeans Allah or his prophet Muhammad or his sacred word, the Quran. Some examples of this would be:

  • speaking of Allah as a false god, or one of many gods
  • depicting Allah in visual form
  • associating the written Arabic word “Allah” with anything “unworthy”
  • casting aspersions on the character of Muhammad
  • accusing Muhammad of gross sins
  • depicting Muhammad in visual form (this is a more recent ruling; there are examples in early Islam of the prophet being drawn with a face)
  • tearing, burning, or mistreating Quran in any way
  • challenging the full inspiration or truthful nature of the Quran.

Even in regions of the world where sharia’ law is not in place, Muslims seek special protection for the matters they consider most sacred, expecting non-Muslim governments to take forceful action against any non-Muslims who commit blasphemy as defined by Islam. Many take to the streets in peaceful or not-so-peaceful demonstrations, or turn to defacing, ransacking or burning non-Muslim establishments, especially churches, and to injuring or killing non-Muslims as a dramatic expression of their displeasure.

Recently we have seen renewed evidence of this tendency even here in the USA. A few weeks ago a group seeking to challenge worldwide Muslim demands for special exemptions against freedom of expression regarding Islam convened a conference in Garland, TX, dealing with the various visual depictions of Muhammad down through history. In conjunction with this, they held a contest offering a prize for the best cartoon drawing of Muhammad. The winning cartoon was itself a commentary on the challenge to free speech inherent in Islam. It pictures an angry Muhammad facing the cartoonist as he is being drawn, with upraised sword and searing words, “You can’t draw me!” The cartoonist, even as he continues to sketch Muhammad, responds, “That’s why I draw you.”

As this conference was under way, two Muslims from a mosque in Phoenix drove the 1078 mile distance armed with significant ordnance to kill large numbers of conferees, so as to underscore with “the blood of the guilty” that one may not make fun of Islam’s prophet, regardless of the laws of the land. Fortunately they were killed by law enforcement after they had opened fire but before they could commit any significant mayhem. But their actions brought back to mind the deadly attacks at the Charlie Hebdo office in France, the assassination of Theo van Gogh, the riots following publications of “Muhammad cartoons” in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper, and the death fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie back in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini. And these are merely a sample from among a much larger pool unknown to or ignored by the Western press.

After this attack, some moderate Muslims went public with denunciations of the actions of the would-be jihadists. Others did not. Why not?  Because Islam by its very nature requires Muslims to defend the honor of their prophet, using force if necessary. Let me explain.

Theologically, Islam claims to be the perfect religion, revealed by the one true God. Since God is perfect, what He has revealed is perfect. Hence the Quran is by definition unassailable. Likewise, the man chosen and destined by God to be the deliverer of this revelation is also perfect, or at least he is the perfect exemplar of humanity — the Arabic title ascribed to Muhammad, al-Insan al-Kamil, means literally “the perfect human,” the ideal toward which every other human being is to strive. To attack the perfect God, or his perfect revelation, or his chosen prophet is to commit a most grievous sin, and the only earthly punishment harsh enough for such an act is death by execution. In Muslim societies, this is carried out as a matter of course. In non-Muslim societies, if anything is to be done about it to assuage Muslim sensitivities, it must be done by a Muslim willing to “sacrifice himself for the cause.”

“Wait a minute,” some might say, “Jesus is insulted within our culture on a daily basis by people who take his name in vain, or depict him as an active homosexual, or who use his image in scurrilous art simply to draw attention to themselves or their cause. Yet, Christians do not riot, rampage or assassinate in response to such insults.” This is true, in large measure due to the example of Jesus himself, who “when reviled did not revile in return,” or worse.  Muhammad’s behavior, though, is another story.

As Muhammad gained power and renown in his day, he also faced a growing list of enemies. Many of these used the old tribal ways of dealing with enemies — creating poems and turns of phrase to mock, scorn, ridicule and taunt their opponent. Muhammad apparently had rather thin skin in this regard, and so we find in the traditions (both ahadith and early biographies) numerous stories where Muhammad seeks or commands the death of those who have insulted him. Here are a few examples:

‘Uqba bin Abu Mu’ayt was an early and vociferous opponent of Muhammad in Mecca, having accosted and insulted him several times before the prophet finally fled to Medina in 622. He had earned Muhammad’s enduring, personal wrath. In 624 during the first major military contest between the Muslims and the Meccans, the Battle of Badr, ‘Uqba is captured as a prisoner of war. Muhammad sentences him to death, even though the vast majority of prisoners are ultimately released after ransoms are paid by the Meccans. ‘Uqba pleads for mercy, saying his family needs him. Muhammad is not moved.

…‘Uqba said, “But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?”

“Hell,” he said….”[1]

With no delay, ‘Uqba’s head is severed from his body by one of Muhammad’s Ansari soldiers.

Soon after the Battle of Badr, an Arab Jew from Medina named Ka’b bin al-Ashraf heard of the death of a number of his friends among the fallen fighters from Mecca. Leaving Medina, he stayed with friends in Mecca to share their grief and to compose derisive poems about Muhammad and his followers. Upon his return to Medina, he compounded his offenses by composing suggestive and insulting poems about the Muslim women in town. One day Muhammad groused to his companions, “Who will rid me of Ibn al-Ashraf?” A man named Muhammad bin Maslama stepped forward, declaring, “I will deal with him for you, O apostle of God, I will kill him.” The prophet responded, “Do so if you can.” After a few days of frustration, unable to come up with a good plan, the would-be assassin came back before the prophet confessing his uncertainty of success. Muhammad told him, “All that is incumbent upon you is that you should try.” The man replied, “O apostle of God, we shall have to tell lies,” (i.e., in order to lure the target to an area where they could attack him easily). Muhammad’s declaration of absolution was, “Say what you like, for you are free in this matter.” So Muhammad bin Maslama with a small group of conspirators cooks up a plan, and indeed lures Ka’b from his fortress to an open area where the armed conspirators are waiting. They hack him to death with swords, then return to Muhammad and report to him as he finishes his morning prayers that they had killed God’s enemy.[2]

Since the prophet of Islam is so concerned about his own reputation and stature that he is willing to countenance executions as well as deceptions leading to assassination of enemies, how could his loyal followers of today sit back and allow their prophet’s honor to be tarnished by cartoon-drawers or Quran-burners or those who speak ill of him for his other immoral acts?

The savagery we are seeing today against the West from many core Muslims finds its principal roots not in income inequality, joblessness, Western cultural hegemony, American foreign policy or any other factor external to Islam. At heart, this violence is shaped and fueled by the religious zeal of Muslims following the example of their prophet and his earliest companions.

[1] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of the Prophet, p. 308.

[2] Ibid., p. 368.

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2 Responses to Islam and Perceived Insults to Its Prophet, or “Zeal for thy head will consume me,” with apologies to Ps. 69:9.

  1. Jay Norton says:

    I remember not so long ago, George W. Bush was mocked for his “they hate our freedom” response to a question on why terrorists attacked us. It was considered simplistic, jingoistic, and naive. But the more we learn about “radical” Islam-as-true-Islam, it doesn’t sound so simplistic to me anymore.


    • mateenelass says:

      As you know, Jay, I agree. That is why core Islam and true democracy can never coexist. For Islam, any societal sets of laws, even democratically determined ones, are satanic (i.e., anti-God) if they differ in any way from what sharia’ dictates, because they are setting human will above divine will, from a Muslim vantage point. From their mindset, Western freedoms are rebellion against Allah.


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