Figure of Speech

I have been asked to weigh in on the Muhammad in cartoon bruhumhum. Oblivious readers can click here for a rundown of the event; curious readers can click here to see what the fuss is about; irate readers can click here to see the non-apology from Meninger Jyllands-Posten.

Medieval Europe’s fascination with Mahound (Old Ballad), Mahomet (Prideaux), and Mohammed (Dow, Mill, Lane) can be seen from Dante’s description of the Divine Comedy – Mohammad is in the 8th circle, bolgia 9 of hell, condemned for sowing “scandal and schism” – to Voltaire’s Mahomet: tragedie where he is the seditious imposter. A cursory look at the medieval European archive reveals frequent and vehement portrayals of Muhammad as ‘wicked’, ‘with a desparate stomach’, delighted with rapes and plunder, seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallied up to 666. For example, the first English translation, via French, of the Qur’an, in 1649, stated, “Good reader, the great Arabian imposter, now at last after a thousand years, is by the way of France arrived in England, and his Alcoran, or gallimaufry of errors (a brat as deformed as the parent, and as full of heresies, as his scald head was of scurf) hath learned to speak English”. Arberry, in his translation of the Qur’an, has more snippets from that introduction.

So, while on the one hand, the call for ‘artistic interpretations of Muhammad’ falls into a long tradition of ‘Muhammad the Other’, the hue and cry raised by Muslims also needs some correctives. The protestations that there is a strict ban on representations seem to be missing when the subject is alcohol or games of chance – activities banned in much more unequivocal tones. I don’t have the time or energy to go into it here, but the iconoclasm of medieval Muslims had more factors than simply the abhorration of any rendition of the human form. And more importantly, this iconoclasm always had its outliers – from the Deccan to Shiraz to Baghdad, painters and miniaturists found ample motivation to portray the human form. Sure the depiction of the Prophet’s facial features, by and large, remained taboo [the vast majority of portraits would have him in a veil or occluded] – but even there we have numerous examples from classical indo-persianate and ottomon traditions and many more mentions of such in the literature. See, for example, this 17th c. miniature of Muhammad with many diginitaries [Bilal on the extreme left]. The Shi’a hagiographical tradition has been a bit more tolerant of such depictions, like this Jesus-y one from Iran. Relatedly, read Pamuk’s My Name is Red. In short, if ‘any’ depiction of the Prophet is an assault on the sensibilities of the global Muslim, than we have more to worry about than bad Danish cartoonists.

The Danish editorial board wants to express their freedom of speech to cast Muhammad as a terrorists. Fair enough, it is their right. Just as the literal and figurative depictions of Muhammad in medieval and early modern Europe served a political and cultural purpose, these cartoons do the same. The debate, of course, is about Danish or French society and their efforts at dealing with that perennial invasion from the East [via immigration, now]. On the other hand, if Saudi Arabians want to ban Danish products and recall their Ambassadors, it is their right as well. I’d say there are way more offensive things for Muslims out there. Lack of democracy in their respective countries, being one obvious one. But, they will only get around to protesting that when they are done burning Danish flags or condemning bad postcolonial authors. A fact that has not escaped the notice of the Kings of Saudi or the Generals of Pakistan.

22 Replies to “Figure of Speech”

  1. There is a famous saying, actually a hadith which would suffice what you really want to say to the western media, ‘ If you have no shame, do as you wish’.

    I admire your diplomacy, however, can’t help not to feel a certain lack of dignity.

    May Allah reward you for your intentions!

    salaam.

  2. It is very unfortunate that no one in Muslim countries is teaching the Muslims about the tradition of the Prophet rather they are catering to the sensibilities of the illiterate masses.

  3. Super post. I was expecting to read some sorry, tepid mix of the same ideas from the various sides in this issue. But you tricked me! You quickly sailed through the facts most readers should already be familiar with and then, with confidence and intelligence, set up far more interesting lines of debate, disagreement and conversation. I am reading more chapati mystery from this day on!

  4. Good post. I linked to it on my blog. Your trackback thingy isn’t working (what’s new, it wasn’t working on your MT installation either!)

  5. The historical context is appreciated, but there needs to be more political contextualization of this controversy specially as ‘europe’ moves further away from the benign facade of multiculturalism to a more exclusivist position… It seems to me that 21st century EU identity will be fashioned in opposition to the “fanatic muslims”, or more “objectively” those who cant understand principles of ‘freedom of speech’.

    What pisses me off in this game of secular righteousness is how the idea of free speech is being exercised and defended as a high moral principle when similar caricatures of other communities will be condemned for intolerance, hate speech, for example you will not find homophobic, anti-semitic, anti-black representation, cartoons (that were staple of humanist secular Europe until fairly recently) in Europe today. Perhaps such caricatures might even be prosecuted under hate speech laws in UK and Germany. I am not interested in whether those who published these cartoons had the right to do so, of course they did as they have the right to publish racist cartoons about other communities.

    If these cartoon illustrators/publishers are exercising free speech then why not the same rights for Holocaust revisionists… I am only using this example to say that free speech is in fact not free but an exercise of power. ‘Free speech’ is largely (but not fully) a noble fiction given how money, corporate, geo-political interests, racial prejudice, moral imperatives shape public discourse …and good luck finding the figure of Iraqi casualties in American media or for that matter Pentagon Arm‚Äôs sales dictatorships throughout the world.

  6. the burning of embassy in a damascus where every move is centrally managed worths a lot closer look.
    and dear sinster, you are hereby tagged for a guest post on CM [on your own schedule, of course].

  7. While I understand how it can found offensive, the reactionary manner in which people are behaving is something that just irks me beyond belief. (If you want a piece on khusras or hijras though, don’t be shy about asking!)

  8. Having seen your comments on my son, Zakaria’s blog, I have been visiting your blog for the past some years. I may not agree with you but somehow like your way of dealing with a topic. I do not like to enter in the present issue because, in my opinion, after we put our own house right then we will be able to tackle others.

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