Draw Muhammad Day: A Defense of Free Inquiry & Expression
Posted by mattusmaximus on May 3, 2010
Lately the news of threats against Matt Stone & Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, for displaying a likeness of the Muslim prophet Muhammad have gotten a lot of press. And I’ve decided to post my views on the matter. Usually, mostly because I am surrounded by it, when I talk about religious woo & stupidity I am referring to Christian fundamentalism. But this post is going to be dedicated to taking on what is becoming increasingly obvious to me – the creeping influence of politically-correct arguments made on behalf of fundamentalist Islam with the intention of shutting down any & all criticism and/or free inquiry regarding that religion. I have a pithy two word response to this notion: F%@k that!
Bottom line: when dealing with fundamentalist religion, especially when faced with a brand of fundamentalism so whacked out that it preaches violence against critics (such as the modern-day radical “Islamists”), in my view you have but one of two choices:
1. Cater to the fundamentalists and watch your liberty slowly slip away, or
2. embrace your fundamental freedoms – such as the freedom of inquiry & expression. This means you’re going to have a fight on your hands.
Guess which one I choose?
I won’t go into a long screed on how I think the South Park guys are just totally badass for having the guts to take on, well, everyone’s goofy beliefs and poke fun at them (even hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins). I also won’t waste time pillorying the weak-kneed panzies over at Comedy Central for capitulating to a bunch of idiotic radical Muslims who should be, if anything, basically ignored. I won’t even take more than this line to point out the obvious: if you cannot handle your religious beliefs being questioned and, sometimes, being ridiculed by non-believers, then you have deeper issues that need to be addressed and should go live on an island in the middle of nowhere.
In the spirit of fighting back against this creeping notion that “we cannot criticize the religious beliefs or take a chance on ‘offending’ anyone who holds such belief”, specifically regarding Islam, I want to pass along a really great idea I stumbled upon a few days back: Draw Muhammad Day (DMD).
May 20th, 2010, will mark the first DMD – despite the fact that the cartoonist who originally came up with the idea decided to back out. It’ll happen regardless, because now the whole idea of DMD has gone completely viral on the Internet. No doubt that some people will take this opportunity to draw the prophet Muhammad in a less-than-glamorous light, such as outlined by this image…
… and I’m sure that some jerks will come up with many much more offensive images than that which are specifically designed to offend. Fine by me – being a jerk is well within the bounds of free speech; but, in my view, being a jerk isn’t what DMD should be about… it should be about promoting free inquiry/expression. What is bothersome to me, more than anything, is the notion among some of these radical Muslims that any depiction of Muhammad is somehow offensive, and that to spare them from “offense” everyone else (including many moderate Muslims) should cater to their whims. It is also worth noting that the image of Muhammad has been depicted countless times over the course of history, even by various Muslim cultures – this is an important detail the radicals would rather have you not know!
For example, take a look at this page which outlines a series of images of Muhammad in various contexts (none of which label him as a terrorist, btw). My favorite is the depiction of Muhammad as one of the traditional law-givers on the frieze of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC…
Not to mention the various depictions of Muhammad by a wide variety of Muslim artists over the centuries. In 1999, Islamic art expert Wijdan Ali wrote a scholarly overview of the Muslim tradition of depicting Muhammad, which can be downloaded here in pdf format. In that essay, Ali demonstrates that the prohibition against depicting Muhammad did not arise until as late as the 16th or 17th century, despite the media’s recent false claims that it has always been forbidden for Muslims to draw Muhammad. Until comparatively recently in Islamic history, it was perfectly common to show Muhammad, either in full, or with his face hidden. Even after the 17th century, up to modern times, Islamic depictions of Muhammad (especially in Shi’ite areas) continued to be produced. Here are some examples (all captions were copied from the source site)…
Illustration showing Muhammad (on the right) preaching his final sermon to his earliest converts, on Mount Ararat near Mecca; taken from a medieval-era manuscript of the astronomical treatise The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries by the Persian scholar al-Biruni; currently housed in the collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Manuscrits Arabe 1489 fol. 5v).
Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh (literally “Compendium of Chronicles” but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.
This Iranian site contains a photograph of a mural which appears to depict Muhammad (sixth picture down) on a contemporary building in Iran. The mural shows Buraq (the animal that carried Muhammad on his Night Voyage, described as being white and having the face of a woman and the tail of a peacock, which this creature is and does) carrying a figure who could therefore only be Muhammad. A word-for-word transliteration of the Farsi caption to that picture is (according to this automated translation site), “The Messenger mounted mainland shiny door village (yzdlaan) (kvyry) village blinds to ascension wine river,” which obviously doesn’t translate well but which does make mention of “The Messenger,” a traditional epithet for Muhammad (as the messenger of Allah). Note: this image is hosted on the Web site of the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, which is sponsoring a contest of cartoons about the Holocaust as an outraged response to the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in the West. Yet the newspaper itself is currently displaying this depiction of Muhammad. (This image also on the newspaper’s site appears to be a different modern image of Muhammad as well.) [UPDATE: All the images linked to in this caption have now been taken offline by the Hamshahri newspaper, apparently after having been exposed here; the search-engine caches for the pages have also now expired, meaning that the small photo shown above is the only known surviving image of this unusual contemporary Muhammad depiction.]
This 17th-century mural on the Iman Zahdah Chah Zaid Mosque in Isfahan, Iran is identified by various sources as depicting either the assassination of Ali (Muhammad’s cousin) in 661 A.D., or Ali receiving a blow at the Battle of the Camel five years earlier in 656 A.D. Either way, it seems that the veiled figure holding up the wounded Ali is Muhammad himself, or at least his spirit. His facial features are clearly visible beneath the veil.
Muhammad (far right) and the Archangel Gabriel standing in front of a giant angel. From the Miraj-name, Tabriz (c. 1360-70). In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.
And there are plenty of other examples available. My whole point here is that it seems the modern-day Islamic radicals are on a crusade to crush dissent, free expression, and free inquiry not only among the secular critics of Islam in the West, but also those whom would dissent within Islam itself! It is my profound hope that this coming DMD, May 20th, the numerous & varied depictions of Muhammad which will spring forth over the Internet shall encourage those brave folk within the Islamic world to take up the torch of free inquiry and push back against the fundamentalists who are destroying their religion and their world.
**Aside: It looks as if some people are getting a head start on DMD. For example, see how a group of University of Illinois students are already attempting to broaden the discussion. Hat tip to Phil over at Skeptic Money for this news! :)