Monday, February 06, 2006

Cartoongate: Déjà vu all over again?

Sometime in February 1989, about a dozen or so Muslim community leaders from around the country met in New York City to discuss the controversy caused by Salman Rushdie’s postmodern screed called The Satanic Verses. After long discussion, delegates crafted a statement affirming “the freedom of thought and expression guaranteed to all people in this country,” yet claiming that “it is hightly imprudent and inconsiderate for an individual to completely ignore the religious sensitivities of his fellows in humanity while exercising his freedoms.” The statement went on to say that Islam “does not condone violence or the incitement to violence directed against [The Satanic Verses’] author and those associated with its publication.” This meeting, I was told, was an idea thought of and largely paid for by a wealthy businessman.

Sometime afterward, a committee was formed to further discuss the essence of the Rushdie controversy. After a couple of weeks of occasional conference calls, the committee concluded that the person and life of Prophet Muhammad was not very well represented in the English language and that the impact The Satanic Verses would potentially have on the public understanding of the Prophet and Islam in general is empowered to a large degree by this dearth of relevant literature. The available body of literature in English on the life the Prophet, besides the incendiary portrayals in many public school history texts, was either of orientalist vintage (mostly academic and crusading in tone) or of Muslim-world vintage (mostly third-world in production, menancingly weak in language and style, and long on sermonizing, short on soul and depth), the notable and peerless exception being Martin Lings' biography of the Prophet, which many committee members never heard of. I was on this committee. And its “findings” were hardly stunning, uneffecting the earth’s rotation. But the solution the committee prescribed—to produce authentic source materials about the Prophet Muhammad—unearthed for all to see a more important, if not pathetic, “finding,” namely, the existence of an authoritarian notion that a committee can come to a conclusion, push a button, and expect the faithful to run to their word processors and write a book or books—produce literature, in other words.

While this committee focused on the Prophet, the attitude, as I have seen it throughout my Muslim committee life, pervades deeply through a generation of Muslim institutional leadership that is, thank God, starting to dissipate. Meanwhile, the impact on the literary front is remarkably stunting. I felt then, as I feel now, that my brothers on the committee were living with a contemptible notion of the relationship between religion and culture. Like a snowflake in Hell, the committee evaporated. Nothing was accomplished. The sun rose as expected.

Now cartoonists have had their day. The cartoons are indeed disfigurements of the Noble Prophet. So they offended a lot of Muslims. Because these Muslims were offended that someone would carelessly associate the Prophet with violence, many Muslims went out and made violence. Now, it could be me, but I find that odd.

The overreactions to these cartoons that I have seen show an unsightliness that is antithetical to the personality and message of Prophet Muhammad. But what the intense dudgeon does reveal is a funk uncovered by the cartoons, a funk perhaps associated with a variety of things, like economic and political cul-de-sacs systemic in the Muslim east. The intelligentsia of the Muslim world needs to honestly unpack the meaning of the reactions to these cartoons because clearly something else is afoot.

Nearly every Muslim knows that disparagement of the Prophet of Islam is hardly new. Just as Medieval Europe created fear-fantasies about Jews, “Christ-killers” who apparently ate children, so too did they produce a miasma of animus directed toward the Prophet Muhammad.

Karen Armstrong points out, in her biography of the Prophet, that the energy against the Prophet Muhammad was not so much as a reaction to the marshal and political prowess of the world Islamicate as it was a theological quandary: “How had God allowed this impious faith to prosper? Could it be that he had deserted his own people.” An explanation was required as to how this religion could have been so triumphant, producing a civilization of incomparable breadth that was at once prayerful and cosmopolitan.

Eighth century “biographies” of the Prophet Muhammad appeared at the outset of Islam’s spread. The polemics kept coming, penned along the way by such venerable names as Dante, Voltaire, and, more recent, translators of the Muslim scripture, such as Rev. Rodwell. If the polemics failed to reach the level of theology, they at the very least have become a cultural meme that has survived to this day. Armstrong says, “In the West we have a long history of hostility towards Islam that seems as entrenched as our anti-Semitism, which in recent years has seen a disturbing revival in Europe. At least, however, many people have developed a healthy fear of this ancient prejudice since the Nazi Holocaust. But the old hatred of Islam continues to flourish on both sides of the Atlantic and people have few scruples about attacking this religion, even if they know little about it.”

The Muslim response to the Medieval venom was, in the main, intellectual, secure, and civil -- a reaction that reflects not weakeness but "psychological invincibility" of Muslims of the time, as the late Prof. Fazlur Rahman (University of Chicago) so aptly observed in his book Islam. The violent reactions to these cartoon today reflect, I’m afraid, vincibility.

Now this needs to be explored.


Anonymous hamid m. said...

Wow. When I originally heard of this topic I thought it was going to blow over quickly. Now it seems it will be far reaching. As you mention in your blog entry the Muslim response is complicated by nationalist and local politics. Juan Cole has some insightful comments on this.

Interesting that you mention Dante as a critic of Muhammad. I think it is somewhat ironic that Dante placed Averroes among the ancient philosophers but condemned Muhammad. However, I admit that I am also perplexed by Martin Lings' appreciation for Dante on this matter, considering he himself was a Muslim. Perhaps esoteric appreciaion transcends my limited understanding.

2/07/2006 11:33 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Hamid, I'm not puzzled by Lings' appreciation of Dante, who is widely known for his literature as well as religious expressions. At a certain level, one can appreciate part of something or all of it as a whole, even if there are lesser abominations. I'm not saying I'm up for that.

2/07/2006 2:10 PM  
Blogger Baraka said...

It would be great if instead of leading to useless anger this sort of thing made us pause for reflection & then flower into myriad, beautiful creative responses on an individual & larger scale through film, media, art, philosophy, spirituality, etc.

I know it's happening...I just wish it were deeper & wider.

2/07/2006 6:45 PM  
Anonymous hamidm said...

Point taken, Fromclay. Ultimately, the quest for the Divine renders "the lesser abominations" as mere artifacts of human existence. Nevertheless, I'm left with a bad aftertaste.

Baraka, consider that a minority of Muslims are actively engaged in the violence shown on tv. "Moderate" voices are drowned out both by extremists and corporate sensationalists. So much for responsible media.

2/07/2006 8:28 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Yep, well said, Baraka. Someday.

2/07/2006 8:28 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Thanks for your thoughts, and for putting the link up on the Chicago Law blog. I will look for the Ling bio.

Out of curiosity, could I persuade you to provide some abbreviated explanation of the roots of the prohibition on representations of the prophet? I've assumed to this point that it was analogous to the prohibition of idol-worship or more generally to a mandate against casting sacred subjects in profane forms, but I've no scholarly basis for that assumption.

2/07/2006 11:54 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

I'll do my best, Phil, with an asterisk that I'm not an expert on Islamic sacred law. The prohibition is a majority position of scholars of this day and days before. They base it mainly on statements of the Prophet himself who made statements that appear to proscribe image-making in general, especially sculptures. The hadith (statements and deeds of the Prophet) are considered collectively a source of sacred law, second only to the Quran. The Quran does not contain a lot of legal content, but the hadith is different. The hadith is considered to be an elaboration and explanation of paradigms and general ethics mentioned briefly in the Quran. But there have been, even in the classical age, drawings produced in the Muslim world, Persian miniatures, for example. But when these drawings "showed" the Prophet, they did not show the face. They were actually story-telling kinds of drawings that depicted one of the many important events in the Prophet's life. The proscription does have idolatry as its main concern, but there is something else involved, which I once explained this way (for what it’s worth): “It is true that religion does not fare well when confined to an abstraction. We are charged to believe in the Unseen, not the unfelt. Whenever religion alights someplace, religious culture and art usually follow. In the Islamic tradition, however, this art shies away from depictions of humans, relying on what is arguably a more powerful and authentic spiritual effulgence: the voice, architecture, calligraphy, intricate patterns (with symmetry and without), poetry, interior design, gardening, and the like. Islam, in general, has a problem with human depictions and the customs that lead people to find solace in them. One suspects that the issue exceeds concern about idolatry. Rather, Islam attaches greater importance to the inner habiliment of spirituality, often referred to as the "inner eye," that is meant to engender degrees of certitude that stand like oaks. Images of humans (even spontaneous ones) and their role in spirituality have presented problems in the past because people ultimately depend on them and their ephemeral natures, thus impairing the more rewarding and durable qualities hidden within us all.” The issue with cartoongate is more about the message of the cartoons than the drawings themselves. I’m absolutely certain that had the drawings been complimentary, no one would have heard of them. Finally, the proscription applies to all the Prophets as well, which makes things difficult when “The Ten Commandments” comes on TV. I kind of like the movie.

2/08/2006 4:55 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

More than I'd hoped for. Thanks again.

2/08/2006 10:01 AM  

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