French Cartoons of Prophet Muhammad: 4 Things To Consider

by Ustaz Dr Muhammad Haniff Hassan 2020-11-02 • 10 min read
Research Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
2020-11-02 • 10 min read

The Muslim response to provocation

french cartoon prophet muhammad

Issues and events that provoked Muslim emotions are not new. The Danish caricature and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are among the materials that Muslims found to be offensive and regard as an insult to our venerated figure - Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. It is unlikely these incidents will not occur again. While many of us continue to work towards promoting peaceful co-existence and mutual respect, there are those who continue to promote hate and stir emotions.

Responses towards the caricature incident saw Muslims expressing themselves in various ways, from violence like rioting, arson, and death threats to non-violence like petitions and economic boycotts.

Given the circumstances, a few questions may be asked. How should Muslims all over the world respond to such provocations? What are the guiding rules that can be discerned from Islamic teachings that could help Muslims respond to future provocations? How do we ensure that the commendable position taken by Singaporean Muslims is sustained in the future or continue to be founded on a firm foundation?

Here are some considerations:

Four guiding rules

There are four guiding rules. 

1) Engage only in peaceful or non-violent response

france boycott reason

The reason behind this is the very belief held by Muslims that Islam means peace and tranquillity. The best way for Muslims to manifest their belief is through deed and action. Hence, any act of aggression and violence would not only be inconsistent with their own belief but a disservice to the religion.

2) Uphold the rule of law

france boycott islam

This is because Islam places great emphasis on orderliness in every matter. This can be seen from how various rituals in Islam would be nullified should Muslims fail to observe them in their correct order. Also, Islam prohibits the transgression of any rule.

تِلْكَ حُدُودُ ٱللَّهِ فَلَا تَعْتَدُوهَا

These are the limits set by Allah, so do not transgress them.

(The Quran, 2:229)

Although the verse specifically prohibits transgression of the Syariah, its application in the context of the existing legal system is just as relevant if the laws do not contradict the teachings and principles of Islam, such as in observing traffic regulations. Admittedly, some legal systems do not share the philosophy of Islam. Nevertheless, this is not a justification to totally reject all existing laws or to live in total disregard of the laws. Failure to operate according to the laws will cause lawlessness in society, which is greater harm and invites negative perceptions towards Muslims.

3) Do not generalise 

macron islam cartoons

This means that any response should be directed only to the protagonist, not others. This is because, in Islam, we are reminded in the Quran:

وَلَا تَكْسِبُ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ إِلَّا عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌۭ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ 

And whatever any human being commits rests upon himself alone; no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden

(Surah Al-An’am, 6:164)

Targeting non-protagonists is unjust and contradicts the fundamental pillar of justice in Islam. Even in responding to the protagonist, violence is prohibited and goes against the Prophetic values. 

4) Proportionality

Prophet Muhammad cartoon france beheading

The Quran says, 

وَجَزَٰٓؤُا۟ سَيِّئَةٍۢ سَيِّئَةٌۭ مِّثْلُهَا ۖ فَمَنْ عَفَا وَأَصْلَحَ فَأَجْرُهُۥ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّهُۥ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ

The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah” 

(The Quran, 42:40) 

Islam allows Muslims to repel evildoing but the religion does not allow them to do it in a way that will cause an equal or greater evil or injustice. A disproportionate response is both a transgression and extremism that are forbidden in Islam.

In light of these rules of response to the caricature incident, Muslims could then question the appropriateness of punishing a French company for an act committed by other members of their society. The economic boycott could be seen by some as legitimate means of action and it is used by many civil societies all over the world. But in the context of the recent cartoon incident, Muslims could ask, how could Islam be seen as a “mercy for the universe” (The Quran, 21:107) by boycotting a dairy product company, if such an act could result in the loss of income for thousands of unrelated individuals who have families and children to support and feed? It is clear that being French does not make one a legitimate target for retaliation.

Muslims should also understand the nature of freedom of expression in the French context where the media outlets are generally independent of the state intervention. To punish the French community as a whole for the provocation raises the question about the proportionate and discriminate response.

Non-violence is not the only criterion for action. As has been described above, a non-violent response can still be regarded as illegitimate in Islam if it is not in accordance with the law of the land or is discriminatory and disproportionate.

Four options – must it be “an eye for an eye”?

Islam allows a range of responses to provocation and insult depending on its gravity. However, “an eye for an eye” is never the one and only available option.

1. Islam enjoins Muslims “to respond (evil) with what is better”. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:

وَلَا تَسْتَوِى ٱلْحَسَنَةُ وَلَا ٱلسَّيِّئَةُ ۚ ٱدْفَعْ بِٱلَّتِى هِىَ أَحْسَنُ فَإِذَا ٱلَّذِى بَيْنَكَ وَبَيْنَهُۥ عَدَٰوَةٌۭ كَأَنَّهُۥ وَلِىٌّ حَمِيمٌۭ

“Good and evil cannot be equal. Respond (to evil) with what is best, then the one you are in a feud with will be like a close friend.”

(Surah Fussilat, 41:34)

ٱدْفَعْ بِٱلَّتِى هِىَ أَحْسَنُ ٱلسَّيِّئَةَ ۚ نَحْنُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا يَصِفُونَ

Respond to evil with what is best. We know well what they claim

(Surah Al-Mu’minun, 23:96)

2. The Quran also calls to “forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds)” 

فَٱعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَٱصْفَحْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُحْسِنِينَ

So, forgive them and forego. Indeed, Allah loves those who are good in deeds.

(Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5:13)

3. Sometimes a response can be to “turn away from the ignorant” or in other words to ignore the act.

خُذِ ٱلْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِٱلْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ ٱلْجَـٰهِلِينَ

Be gracious, enjoin what is right, and turn away from those who act ignorantly

(Surah Al-Araf, 7:199)

4. Lastly, of course, is to “retaliate with the like of that with which you were afflicted”

وَإِنْ عَاقَبْتُمْ فَعَاقِبُوا۟ بِمِثْلِ مَا عُوقِبْتُم بِهِۦ ۖ وَلَئِن صَبَرْتُمْ لَهُوَ خَيْرٌۭ لِّلصَّـٰبِرِينَ

“If you retaliate, then let it be equivalent to what you have suffered. But if you patiently endure, it is certainly best for those who are patient.”

(Surah An-Nahl, 16:126).

The above four options are not in any order of priority. Each should be chosen based on the context and other considerations. But the point is that Muslims should not see their response in just one particular way but to have a strategic view by considering various options or a combination of these options which would provide greater benefit to them.

Debates relating to the current cartoon incidents do unravel existing gaps in understanding between the Muslim world and the French. Closing this gap could not be achieved by asking the French to understand Muslims and Islam only. Responses on the street to the provocation do show that Muslims also need to understand the West and the changing international environment objectively.

The above article is an improved version of the author’s article published in The Straits Times (Singapore), titled “Provoked? Four rules to guide Muslim response”, 25 March 2006.

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