In the wake of the offensive “Innocence of Muslims” trailer that depicts Muhammad as a sex-offender, a womanizer, a child-abuser, a violent fake prophet, and worse, we have heard from many different people.
We have of course heard from the con-artist, porn-producing, Islamophobic producers of the “film” who hold that “Islam is a cancer”; we have heard from Muslims who have demonstrated peacefully; and we have heard from the far, far fewer number of Muslims who have reacted in a violent manner. We have heard from American Coptic authorities, and we have heard from President Obama and Secretary Clinton. Everyone has had an opinion about what this film says about Muhammad, and how people should response.
So… What would Prophet Muhammad have said about this "film" himself?
This question is not as far-fetched as it would seem at first glance. Granted, Muhammad himself does not live in our age. However, for the majority of his 23 years as a prophet, he confronted almost constant assault, insult, persecution, exile, defamation, attempts at his life, and even stoning. He was called a madman, demon-possessed, a threat to the social order, and many other hateful and offensive names. Those insults, and Muhammad’s responses to them, are a matter of readily available historical record. As such, it is not much of a stretch to ask: How might Muhammad have responded to the “Innocence of Muslims” so-called “film”? And what is the relevance of his response for Muslims who are so offended by this “film” today?
I spent a few years of my life researching Muhammad’s life, teaching, and legacy. The following is a selection from the resulting book, titled Memories of Muhammad: Why The Prophet Matters Today. I hold that looking back over how Muhammad handled insults and persecution in his lifetime holds a particular relevance for us today.
It’s good to keep in mind the context of the episode below. Muhammad and his community had been a beleaguered, persecuted community for some 13 years in the city of his birth, Mecca. They had been exiled from their homeland. The weakest of Muhammad’s community had been beaten and tortured—some even killed. After 10 years in another city (Yathrib, renamed Madina), Muhammad had the opportunity to return triumphantly to the city of his birth, Mecca. Mecca, where the temple devoted to the One God built by Abraham was located, was about to be redeemed.
It was Muhammad’s choice whether to exact revenge on those who had persecuted him, or seek another path.
Muhammad chose mercy.
Muhammad decided that the redemption of Mecca, and the citizens of Mecca, had to be one bathed in mercy.
The mercy of the return home would be shown in ways large and small. On the way toward Mecca, Muhammad saw a female dog that had given birth to a new litter of pups. Concerned that the commotion of an army of ten thousand might disturb them, Muhammad bid one of his own followers to stand guard over them, sheltering them. After all, the Qur’an states that Muhammad was sent as a mercy to all the cosmos, all the creatures, and all the universes [Qur’an 21:107]? These creatures too followed God’s will, and Muhammad was sent as a mercy to them as well.
The mercy that Muhammad showed the dogs of the desert—typically the most despised of all animals in Arabia—he also showed the Meccans who had persecuted him and his followers for a generation. By both Arab and Biblical tradition he reserved the right to march into Mecca and slaughter all the men and take their women as slaves. Yet Muhammad declared general amnesty for all, establishing a paradigm for forgiveness in the moment of his utmost political power.
It is one thing to preach nonviolence and forgiveness when one is politically inferior, entirely another to mercifully forgive when one has the power to demolish.
On the way to Mecca, one of Muhammad’s companions named Sa‘d who had been chosen as a standard-bearer began rejoicing that this was “a day of war, and sanctuary no more.” Muhammad ordered Ali to take the flag from Sa‘d to make a point about the merciful nature of this day.
His old nemesis Abu Sufyan who had risen up against Muhammad so many times in war feared for his safety, and yet Muhammad specifically declared Abu Sufyan’s house a sanctuary. There is a time to win people over in war, and there is a time to win people over by the charm of one’s personality. This was a time for mercy.
The law of revenge and retribution was laid aside, for as Muhammad said: “This is the day of mercy, the day on which God has exalted Quraysh.” On this day, Muhammad even forgave an ex-follower who had apostatized and return to paganism.
The rest of the conquest of Mecca, the Opening of Mecca was also a tale of forgiveness and amnesty. Muhammad recited to them this merciful passage in the Qur’an:
God forgives you, and He is the Most Merciful of the merciful.
It is one thing to forgive a faceless enemy, another to have to reconcile with those who have persecuted us and our loved ones. Muhammad came face to face with Hind, who had devoured the liver of Muhammad’s uncle Hamza. When she declared her intention to embrace Islam, Muhammad simply said to her: “Welcome.” When the son of his former nemesis Abu Jahl entered the area, Muhammad bid his companions to not speak ill of Abu Jahl, for “reviling of the dead gives offence to the living, and reaches not the dead.”
[Omid Safi, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters, pages 149-151 ]
This example of Muhammad’s forbearance in the face of insults has been well remembered in the Islamic devotional tradition. One particularly touching example is the story of an old woman who encountered an unknown young man on a path. The old woman was carrying a heavy load, and the young man offered to carry it for her. As they walk down together, she unloads another burden on him: she is distraught by the impact that a new prophet, a certain Muhammad, has had on her town. She is concerned that this Muhammad is attracting young people to him with his message of the Oneness of God, instead of the worship of the traditional polytheistic gods. She implores upon her young co-traveler time and again to “Don’t talk to me about Muhammad, and we’ll get along just fine.” As they reach their destination and the young man returns the heavy load that he has been carrying all along on her behalf, the woman goes to thank the polite and silent young man about his identity. It is only then that he reveals himself to be the very Muhammad that she has insulted during their whole journey. Overcome by his example of forbearance, she has a changing of heart, and this time she asks the young man to “talk to me about Muhammad.” This story is recapitulated in a touching Islamic devotional song (“Nasheed”) that you can listen to here.
So where does that leave us today?
For the moment I wish to direct my remarks primarily to Muslims, particularly to those of us whose spiritual paths bear the fragrance of the very being of the Prophet. No, I will not be one of those frankly silly and out of touch Muslims who will argue that Muslims should just “chill” or “stop being so sensitive.” Far from it. I get it. I get it that as the Qur’an says, the Prophet is closer to us than our own selves. I get it that for us as Muslims, our relationship to the Prophet is through a love, a devotion, a preciousness, and an honor that is worthy of the one that we acknowledge to be God’s Beloved and the last Messenger of God’s guidance for humanity. Rather, my message is simple:
A handful of hateful zealots have produced a few minutes of rubbish insulting and mocking a person that they say to be our blessed Prophet. Yet we know our Prophet, and we know that what they mock is a figure of their own imagination. Simply put, these producers of hate don’t know Muhammad like we know Muhammad.
These extremists want to lay a trap before Muslims, beginning another cycle of violence that will end with blood on all sides. Let us not fall into this trap.
The Prophet is beloved to us, as the Qur’an says, closer to the faithful than our own selves. He is the very mercy sent to this world, and to all the worlds. [Qur’an 21:107]
Naturally, each and every Muslim in the world has the right to be outraged at this deliberate provocation.
Yet we know that our Prophet himself was the target of repeated assaults and mockery, and even in his moment of triumph when he had the power to punish, he chose to forgive his enemies and set a higher moral example.
We invite Muslims from every country to raise their voice and be heard, and yet to do so in a way that honors the very example of the manners, the ethics, the path, and the being of the Prophet that we so adore.
Let us live out the true meaning of our creed.
Let us be worthy followers of the Prophet, the real Muhammad, not the figment of the hateful zealots’ imagination.
And let us keep the possibility that by exemplifying the beautiful model of Muhammad, we will have more than a few of our neighbors asking us, as the old woman in the song did, “talk to me about Muhammad.”
It’s not just what Muhammad would do.
It’s what he already did, over and over again.