Hating Muhammad echoes of a medieval polemic
Speaking at a lecture on Muhammad titled The Hero as Prophet, Scottish satirist Thomas Carlyle noted: “Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor…that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to anyone. The lies which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man are disgraceful to ourselves only”.
It’s a strange irony of fate that Muhammad, having shown the utmost respect in his lifetime for Jesus, is today the object of fear and loathing by some Christians. As sketchy details surface about one person who has been alleged on a US website to be the director of Innocence of Muslims, and a recent French cartoon depicting Muhammad in a postmodern satirical form, both filmmaker and cartoonist join a long list of Muhammad-baiting Islamophobes, and in my opinion are guilty of resurrecting familiar prejudices of the Middle Ages about Muslims.
Having read and studied the works of Orientalists, I believe much of the character assassination of Muhammad in cinema and literature is rooted in the anti-Muhammad archives of Europe that have echoed for millennia. The historical trail of European fables present Muhammad-or ‘Mahound’ the bogey man-as an archetypal whipping-boy. A licence to be defamatory towards Muhammad could be found in the Spanish Reconquista movement of the 9th century and the same motifs influenced the intellectual ferment across the European continent.
In later centuries, we find Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which speaks of encountering Muhammad in the 8th circle of hell, informing a vast European readership. Voltaire also courted controversy with his play Mahomet ou le Fanatisme, depicting Islam’s founder as a bloodthirsty savage and conniving despot. For centuries, monastic libraries and chronicles preached child-sex, brigandage and forced conversions as hallmarks of Muhammad’s prophethood. Everyone from Protestant reformer Martin Luther to Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant chimed in with trademark invectives towards him, and this medieval polemic has survived the ages.
It’s widely accepted that the portrait of Muhammad as a brute was borne out of a fear among European Christendom that the Byzantine Empire was being overrun by the Muslim monolith. The Turkish triumph in Constantinople refocused Christian discussions on whether Muhammad was in fact the Antichrist spoken of by St Paul and St John. Owing to the clergy’s fear-mongering which took gone with the wind proportions, many Christians felt their faith was teetering at the edge of an abyss. With the Ottoman capture of Gallipoli and their advancement into the southern shores of the Mediterranean signalling the presence of Muslim rule in Europe, the spectre of Islam extending its sphere of influence across the continent haunted the western conscience, and does so today.
I think it’s reasonable to claim that the recent provocations against Muhammad were contained by the very dominating frameworks that compelled terrified and credulous Europeans to castigate the Prophet of Islam. It would be naïve of me to believe that the assumptions inherited by the cartoonist and the filmmaker were borne out of an authentic study of Muhammad’s life. The trending art of lampooning Muhammad to gratuitous effect is likely to have derived inspiration from the biased biographical accounts of his life that held sway for centuries, almost always admitting no source for its prejudice.
The charges of rape, extortion and unlimited concubinage were used unsparingly in the anthology of western writings that sought to stigmatize Muhammad to the core. This, I feel, is the common thread lurking beneath the malicious propaganda of Muhammad satirists. Like the fictitious image of Muhammad constructed by fearing Christians of the past, the unchanging portrayal and legacy of mistrust towards a resurgent Islam still prickles the conscience of some westerners. History repeats itself as Muhammad once again becomes a casualty in this warring context and Islamic history converted into a theatre for modern western representations of the other.
I don’t see why reading events of the past week in light of this medieval backdrop is a historical misrepresentation. As Edward Said opined, large chunks of history is filled with Eurocentric falsehoods about Islam, where the idea of Christians recovering their strategic inheritance from Muslims enjoyed an unchallenged popularity. But Said also reminds us of the ‘hidden elements of kinship’ which identified sympathetically with Muslims. And I would rather we reach a stage in our perceptions of Muhammad and Muslims by engaging the voices of Mozart and Napoleon Bonaparte, who were favourably disposed to the Orient.
Mozart flatteringly depicted Turkish idioms in his symphonies and didn’t capitulate to imperial ambitions of empire and Napoleon showed adulation for Muhammad’s statesmanship and civilising mission. We find English apologists like George Sale also locating a magnanimous form of humanity in Muhammad. Resurrecting these pioneering reappraisals of Muhammad’s life by parting with clichés is crucial for a sober reading of the Orient. Maybe then the medium of film can be used to mitigate and not open hostilities.
But efforts to arrive at a dispassionate inquiry will not succeed if we insist on indulging the age-old bigotry. I cannot see us making the least headway in bridging the Occident-Orient divide vis-à-vis Muhammad, unless we divest ourselves from the old heritage. Otherwise, things will continue to be lost in translation, with often fatal consequences as recent events illustrated. I like many Muslims, have no qualms if Islam is critiqued with nuance and integrity. For me, a religion can only benefit from a respectful dialectic, where self-censorship need not enter the discussion at all. But I can’t swallow the suggestion that caricatures of Muhammad as a demon-possessed paedophile are penned with the intention of including Muslims in a satirical tradition and not excluding them. The responsibility is ours to ensure a wilful distortion of Muhammad’s life never rears its ugly head like it did so tragically.Tagged in: innocence of muslim, islam, Islamophobia, Mohammed, Muhammad, muslim
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