For the past decade Islam has been suffering from fear almost everywhere you look. Arab countries are afraid of being invaded by the U.S. in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. Sunni Muslims are nervous about the rise of Iran to a nuclear state dominated by Shiites. But on a far more personal level, everyone is afraid to say anything about Muhammad that would inflame the faithful. I’ve experienced this recently myself. On tour for a book about Muhammad — one that I wrote primarily to tell Westerners that the Prophet led an exciting, inspiring life — the first word that comes up in every interview is fatwa. The first question is “Aren’t you afraid to write this book?”
Every religion takes sole possession of its founder. That’s what makes it strong. That and claiming that your version of God is the only correct one. But nobody who writes books about Jesus or Buddha does so in fear. The irony is that the stronger the faith, the more open it is to intolerance. Fundamentalist Christians believe that everyone else is an outsider to the true faith, including other Christians. But Islam has become locked down to an extraordinary degree. Those of us who want to write as sympathetically as possible about Muhammad, without giving in to official hagiography, are warned off. We are made to walk on eggshells. Saddest of all, those Muslims who are pleased to see a novel about Muhammad’s life scan it nervously to make sure that nothing is out of place.
Isn’t it time to make Muhammad a safe topic? The Danish cartoonist who lampooned the Prophet stepped into taboo territory since Islam forbids any physical depiction of him. But Islamic art over the centuries has come to terms with the strictures against painting portraits and taking photos of people’s faces. Adaptation means survival, and those forces in Islam that don’t want to adapt, far from preserving their faith for eternity, are endangering it.
The irony of the situation is double, actually. Muhammad recognized Jews and Christians as people of the Book, along with Muslims. They are not outsiders but fellow worshipers. Islam was meant to be an umbrella that includes them and tolerates their faith. So the fundamentalist streak in Islam isn’t true to the spirit of the Prophet. The very notion that the Koran should never be translated from the Arabic and never commented upon was born (so far as I can ascertain) among his followers after the Prophet’s death. As a result, the other people of the Book have passed through reform movements and adaptations that have been denied to the Muslim faithful.
Surrounding the Prophet with veneration is one thing. We can all understand and respect that. But surrounding him with threats, a kind of theological barbed wire, is another thing. It isn’t acceptable to the outside world, and moderate Arabs would be well served to speak out against it. I don’t mean to dictate to anyone how they should follow their religion. But we’ve come to an impasse if no one is allowed to speak the truth about Muhammad or comment upon his life. As long as freedom of thought is considered the enemy, the Islamic world will be embroiled in fear forever.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle