A Jewish Perspective on Cartoons Controversy

The Jewish Week - (02/10/2006)
The Respect Of A Cousin
Edward Miller

After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad were republished in European newspapers, riots erupted in Damascus, Gaza, Beirut and elsewhere throughout the Muslim world. The violence is an extreme manifestation of the deep hurt felt by virtually all Muslims.

As we condemn the violence on the streets, perhaps we should take a moment to understand the hurt in the hearts of the great majority of Muslims who did not engage in violence.

For Muslims, the mere rendering of an image of Muhammad is sacrilege. The portrayal of Muhammad in a pejorative fashion is to them an inconceivably offensive desecration, on the level of what would be for us the defilement of a Torah scroll. Because it was done in newspapers across Europe, it was a slap in the face repeated thousands of times.

Perhaps it’s a question of respect, not freedom. Freedom of expression theoretically protects the right of a non-Jew to desecrate a Torah scroll. Yet we would all view freedom of expression as a hollow defense to such a vile act.

Some say Muslims can’t take criticism and simply don’t understand freedom of the press. In my own limited experience, that has not been the case. For the past year I’ve written a column in a Muslim newspaper, Muslims Weekly, in which I’ve criticized suicide bombing, the treatment of Jews under Islamic rule, the anti-Jewish rantings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even Muslims Weekly’s own reporting about Israel. But it was all done with respect, an informed appreciation of the wonderful benefits that Islam conferred upon the Jewish people, along with a willingness to look at our own imperfections together with those of the other.

Regardless of whether or not the European press was constitutionally free to publish the offensive images, the act was a blatant and vulgar act of disrespect to Islam. Such insults no doubt contribute to the frightening specter of a clash of civilizations.

What can we do as Jews to lessen the hostilities? Perhaps, just perhaps, a little respect would help. Rather than ripping the wounds wider with editorial musings extolling freedom of speech and condemning violent protests, is it not time for a bit of healing?

The pages of this Jewish newspaper present a place for a small start by showing Muslims right here that though we too have the freedom to say anything we like, we choose to convey respect to our Muslim cousins. Printing something positive about Muhammad best does this.

There is a space between romanticizing the past and vilifying it. There is a time to focus on the dark side of history and a time to view the other in the best light. There is a time to cull from our rabbinic writings the good our sages saw in Islam and there is quite a bit of such sentiment recorded. We Jews need to learn to be more flexible, pursuing the claims of Jews expelled from Arab countries and criticizing anti-Jewish TV programs and cartoons in the Muslim media, while at the same time displaying gratitude for all the good Islam did for us. There is a time to jump over our pain and see the humanity of the other. That time is now. Let us start:

There is a Hadith (oral tradition concerning the words and works of Muhammad) recorded by Bukhari in the name of Amer Bin Rabiha that reads as follows:

“A funeral procession passed us and the Prophet stood up for it. We said, ‘but Prophet of God, this is a funeral of a Jew.’ The Prophet responded, ‘rise.’ ”

One can search the writings of the ancient non-Jewish world for a more powerful example of a public display of respect for the humanity of the Jew. There simply is no more powerful statement than the single word uttered by Muhammad nearly 14 centuries ago.

Some readers will bombard this newspaper with reams of material showing a darker side to Islam, as if it were just too much for them to hear one good thing. But it is there, it is a sacred part of their tradition, it is good and we should hear it and respect it.

When you give respect you get it. When you take criticism, you earn the right to give it. Perhaps this article will be republished in Muslim newspapers, compete with its critical comments about the pain we feel in the face of anti-Jewish cartoons and worse in Muslim media. Muslim readers may come to understand that an article by a Jew, in a Jewish newspaper, was one of respect, telling its audience: “We know that the one mocked in newspapers in Europe is the one who had the humanity to tell his companions to rise for the funeral procession of a Jew.” n

Edward Miller, a local attorney, is active in efforts to reconcile Jews and Muslims.
Special To The Jewish Week


JMJ said…
Very nicely done blog!! My compliments to you!
I commented on a post about 2 or 3 down from here and was not able to get a response. So in case it "got lost" as sometimes happens, I have copied and pasted it here.
E Mullah has really helped me to understand Islam in a completely different light. I thank him for this! I think he is a good and honorable man! But unfortunately, he is also very busy with his dissertation and I feel I am keeping him from this very important work.


I still have some misunderstandngs re: Islam so, if you don't mind, I have just a few questions for my education about Islam and the cartoon controversy.
"First, it is against Islamic principles to represent in imagery not only Mohammed, but all the prophets of Islam. This is a clear prohibition."

1. Is this "Islamic principle" found in the Quran or any of the other Islamic holy books? This seems to be a very important question that no one seems to be willing to answer for me. Especially since so much of the uproar that has occured recently is because of this very issue.

I have been endlessly asking Muslims this question and no one will quote me the verse(s). I would really appreciate it if I could get the verse in its full context as well as an accurate translation from Arabic. Please can you help me with this Matan?.
2. Is it forbidden to depict Mohammed in a respectful way?
3. Is it forbidden to depict Allah in a respectful way?
Again, anything in the Quran would be helpful.

Thank you so much!

Hassan Abbas said…
Thank you JMJ for your questions. I will specifically check with a few scholars, but here is my tentative assessment:
1. Koran is a book of principles and guidance - and it never claims to embody all specific instructions on all religious issues. On this issue (of Prophet's caricatures), it is easy to deduce from some basics notions mentioned in Koran. For instance, there are specific verses telling Muslims to respect and revere the Prophet more than anything else - more than parents, family and kids. So it can be inferred that anything (expressions, writings, pictures) through which the Prophet is disrespected is forbidden for Muslims.
In case of Allah (God), Koran clearly forbids adherents of Islam from even deliberating on the shape and form of Allah. I will be able to find the verse in this regard soon.
As mentioned earlier, I will check with a Islamic scholar and respond to you in detail. You may also find the following article relevant to your query:

JMJ said…
Thank you for your reply! I briefly looked at your suggested article and I find it very interesting. Thank you! I will need to study it further.

I am most interested in your scholar's feedback.
"For instance, there are specific verses telling Muslims to respect and revere the Prophet more than anything else - more than parents, family and kids. So it can be inferred that anything (expressions, writings, pictures) through which the Prophet is disrespected is forbidden for Muslims."

Being a non-Muslim, could I bother you for the actual verses mentioned above?

I would have to say that the word that causes me some hesitation is "inferred". Could not the conclusion that results from this inferrence not vary from person to person or even scholar to scholar? I speak only of depictions shown in a respectful way.

I understand you are aware of some of the western influences here in the US. You live in the eastern US? I can only assume that you are aware that it is not uncommon for our western scholars to differ in opinion regarding areas of shared expertise.

What I am really trying to "tease out" is the actual and specific reference to a picture.
I understand that respectful pictures of Mohammed are allowed in Shia Iran. I assume you must be Sunni?
I look forward to furthering this discussion with you!

If you know or are in contact with E Mullah, please wish him well for me! I have only just met him but my sense is he is an honorable and good man.

He was the one who helped me find your site. :)

emullah said…
JMJ is a decent and honroable man and he is very enlightning however, you can only experience more of his intellectual side in direct communication through emails as copared to Blog :)

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