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ARTICLE WRITTEN FOR CHURCH OF ENGLAND NEWSPAPER. 7th Feb 2006

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ARTICLE WRITTEN FOR CHURCH OF ENGLAND NEWSPAPER. 7th Feb 2006

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Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, has said that he wishes to see Muhammad protected from insult or disrespect.

Interestingly, he did not make this remark in the context of the current furore over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. He said it much earlier, in a debate on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze on the subject of legislation to ban incitement to religious hatred. Sacranie’s hope was that the new law once passed would be used to protect Muhammad from any negative criticism.

Sacranie was greatly disappointed with the form in which the religious hatred bill was eventually passed on 31st January, and complained of injustice and impediments to the promotion of a cohesive and harmonious society in Britain. However, he may soon find his hopes for the protection of Muhammad are fulfilled in the wake of the international response to the Danish cartoons of the Islamic prophet, a response which appears to have been not only orchestrated but deliberately aggravated.

The worldwide responses to the cartoons have raised two questions. (1) Why are Muslims, even “moderate” Muslims, so passionate in the defence of Muhammad from any kind of slight? (2) Why do British politicians and church leaders feel the need to tread so delicately around Muslim sensibilities?

The answer to the first question lies in the veneration of Muhammad. This is a paradoxical aspect of Islam, which in theory affirms the believer’s direct access to God without the need for any intercessor. Accordingly, Muhammad should be viewed by Muslims as simply a human channel for God’s revelation. In practice, however, Muhammad’s figure towers over Islam not just as its founder, but as the “perfect man” who was divinely inspired not only in his Qur’anic revelations, but in all his sayings and deeds. He is considered infallible, free from sin, and serves as the supreme example which all Muslims are obliged to emulate in every small detail. Muhammad is also seen as the intercessor with God who can change the divine decrees and admit those he intercedes for into paradise. Love for Muhammad (and his family) is deeply inculcated into most Muslim children. Many Muslims, especially in the Indian subcontinent, hold that Muhammad was created from an eternal heavenly substance (Muhammadan light) that pre-existed with God. He is a logos-like figure similar to Christ – a sinless saviour, mediator and intercessor.

A main concern of Muslims is the person of Muhammad who must be protected from any criticism or slight. Protecting his honour is an obligation on all. Any suspected denigration of Muhammad immediately creates disturbances and riots in many Muslim countries and communities, more so than blasphemy against Allah himself.

The antipathy towards pictures of Muhammad stems from several of his own comments, as recorded in traditions which Muslims call hadith. An example is his statement that “angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture” (Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith 5.338). However, this has not been taken as an absolute prohibition in all kinds of Islam at all times, as witness the numerous examples of Muslim paintings of Muhammad in earlier centuries.

Many Muslims have vocalised their outrage that the Danish cartoons could be interpreted as suggesting that Muhammad was a “terrorist”. Here too is a paradox. For these Muslims seek to portray Muhammad as a Jesus-figure, a peace-maker and channel of God’s mercy, motivated by a profound love for humanity, who treated his enemies with forbearance, even kindness. They say that Muhammad (himself) never killed anyone. Yet Muhammad was a general who led his army in wars of conquest against non-Muslims, and under whom brutalities were committed against some of his opponents. His words and example are cited by the most militant of Muslims today as the justification for their violence which others would call terrorism.

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