Why Are Muslims So Concerned with Muhammad?

Following the recent violence in Libya and the storming of the U.S. embassy in Egypt, many media outlets will report that Muslims find portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad—images, videos, movies—to be blasphemous and offensive.

While many Muslims (especially Sunnis) find portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, and other sacred religious figures (Jesus, Mary, Moses, etc.) to be offensive in and of themselves, this doesn’t quite explain the degree of offense Muslims feel when the Prophet Muhammad is mocked. As was the case in “The Innocence of Muslims,” that film that is supposed to offend me but, based on the 14-minute trailer, only embarrasses me… and leads me to ask two desperate questions: How is it that a $5 million budget can buy you so little? And, who produces a 14-minute trailer? That’s just offensive.

In Islam, the Qur’an is the literal word of God, and Muhammad represents the embodiment of those words of God. If you want to know what Islam is in text, go to the Qur’an; if you want to know what Islam is in action, study Muhammad’s life. That’s what Muslims do. They study it, debate it, and investigate it obsessively. Muslims believe the road to goodness, to moral excellence and success in the afterlife, comes through an emulation of the Prophet (though that doesn’t mean humans don’t have an innate moral compass). As such, mocking the Prophet is offensive for several reasons (to say nothing of the long history of Western intervention in the Middle East and the traumatic aftereffects of colonialism, which could be a whole article itself). For one thing, Muhammad is dear to Muslim hearts in the way Jesus is to many Christians: He brought us enlightenment.  

But Muhammad is also dear to Muslim hearts because Muslims strive to be like him, to the extent of looking like him (and his close family and companions, with some differences between Muslim sects.) Muslim men grow facial hair because Muhammad did. They dress in certain ways, eat in certain ways, and behave in certain ways, based on how Muhammad did. This isn’t to say there isn’t tremendous disagreement over these behaviors, and many Muslims struggle over whether to emphasize the spirit and the form of the action, as many others do—indeed, we have the same debate over the American Constitution up till the present. But to say Muslims are offended by portrayals of Muhammad is missing the point… many Muslims are busy making themselves, internally and externally, into Muhammads.  

And it is a mark of faith to believe no one can approximate his character entirely.

To mock Muhammad, then, is to mock what Muslims aspire to be, throughout their lives. Muhammad is not a divine or infallible figure in Islam, but he is the “mercy to all the worlds,” the best of God’s creation. As such, it deserves stressing that the reaction of a minority of Muslims to offensive portrayals of the Prophet, while inseparable from the present political climate, still does a massive and embarrassing disservice to Muhammad’s image—their actions are far more offensive than the efforts of silly filmmakers with unintentionally hilarious scripts. I recall learning in a conservative Sunday school how, time and again, Muhammad would forgive his enemies, and even inquire after them when they didn’t show up to mock him, abuse him, or even dump their garbage on him.  

Muslims see Muhammad as the last in a line of Prophets, all of whom must be believed in—Muhammad isn’t very different from Jesus, stressing, time and again, reconciliation and cooperation. It is hoped that this latest spasm of violence can be understood in this larger context. Hopefully we can take this moment to think about how Islam is frequently portrayed, and use this as an opportunity to learn a little bit more.

moghul@gmail.com'

RD Senior Correspondent Haroon Moghul is a Fellow both at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Haroon is completing his doctorate at Columbia University and is the author of The Order of Light (Penguin, 2006). He's been a guest on CNN, BBC, The History Channel, NPR, Russia Today and al-Jazeera.