Sat 22 Sep 2012
The manipulated political fury expressed in religious rhetoric over a pathetically provocative anti-Islamic film trailer buried among the millions of needles in the haystack that is Youtube continues, now with a focus in Pakistan. It is not surprising that most Muslims should find the film’s absurd claims offensive. Yet, despite the media images of angry rock throwers holding signs in English, this does not drive the vast majority into the streets or trespassing into Western consulates. If all the cameras stopped rolling, the riots would stop cold. But, of course, now the cameras never stop and any bit of footage can appear on Youtube in a nanosecond. What should we do?
My friend Omid Safi posts on a commentary blog he calls “What Would Muhammad Do?” In his comments on this controversy, he notes that there is enough textual information to reconstruct what Muhammad did when he was insulted:
Yet we know that our Prophet himself was the target of repeated assaults and mockery, and even in his moment of triumph when he had the power to punish, he chose to forgive his enemies and set a higher moral example.
We invite Muslims from every country to raise their voice and be heard, and yet to do so in a way that honors the very example of the manners, the ethics, the path, and the being of the Prophet that we so adore.
There is no way, other than by religious faith in sacred writings, to know what the real Muhammad would do in the modern world, all those hadiths notwithstanding. So in effect Omid and everyone else must argue for what they would expect Muhammad to do if he did live today. But he doesn’t, and neither does Jesus or Moses or any of the revered prophets of the three major monotheisms. In a sense all of the commentary on the reaction to the film is WWWWMTD “what we would want Muhammad to do.”
WWMD is, of course, a take off on WWJD. Since J (as in Jesus) happens to be a revered prophet in Islam as well as Christianity, in principle a Muslim can accept that Muhammad and Jesus would do the same thing morally as guided prophets of the same God. Thus, “turn the other cheek” and the call to forgive someone “seventy times seven” complement the message of Islam, as shown in the way Omid reads the life of Muhammad. While we hear angry shouts of Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest) on Youtube and the nightly news, it is bismillah al-rahman al-rahim that defines what makes Allah great: the Lord of mercy and the Giver of mercy.
The inflammatory film trailer is cinematic trash and most of those protesting have only heard about it rather than actually seen it. A Muslim would have to choose to view it, if it can still be found in his or her country on Youtube. Any Muslim who would distribute it or encourage others to watch it would be as guilty as the “infidel” making the film. But in the wake of the film protests comes a seemingly innocent academic claim that an early Coptic manuscript suggests Jesus had a wife. Despite the imprecise wording in the document and the fact that such a claim does not make it a historical reality, the media has jumped all over this story. A Fox News “Father” weighed in that this is no big deal because Jesus was women-friendly all along. After all..
The Catholic Church’s two thousand year-old tradition of a male-only priesthood is rooted in a determination to imitate Jesus’ will as we see it in the Gospel. Jesus was a man and he chose twelve men by name to be his Apostles (the first priests and bishops). While there have been other leadership positions in the Church besides priesthood (and, in my opinion, there should be many more both locally and in the Vatican) Jesus called twelve men and their successors to serve the Church as spiritual fathers. The Church does not have the authority to reinvent history.
Really? If the Church does not have the authority to reinvent history, who does? Indeed, all religious history is invented and not what actually happened, so it must continually be reinvented and it is. There are no protests against Harvard for housing a professor unearthing this document, nor are there likely to be. I suspect that many Christians would be relieved to know Jesus really was fully human and had sexual desires. Traditional interpretations of Jesus have been insulted over and over again, so it is not surprising that some Islamophobic commentators use examples like these two to denigrate Islam as a backwards and violent religion and Christianity as enlightened. However, the broader issue is not Islam vs Christianity but skeptics who find religion delusional vs any traditional faith. In this, conservative views of Islam and Christianity are easy targets for skeptical abuse.
I grew up in a Fundamentalist Baptist church in which a very cultural understanding of scripture was taught as “this is what Jesus said and did”. For old-style Fundamentalists and their transformation into newer style Evangelicals, the ongoing belief in the Bible as “the” guide to life for all in all ages is intellectual quicksand. As the philosopher David Hume argued (and he was hardly alone), if it makes more common sense not to believe in a miracle than to accept the dogma of a miracle, then use common sense. A century and a half after Darwin’s epic On the Origin of Species, a literal Adam and Eve cannot escape the label of myth and Noah’s flood did not cover Mt. Everest or gorge out the Grand Canyon. Neither is the sun revolving around the earth or the earth flat. Most people (Christian or not in name) in the “West” today do not see a cataclysmic clash between modern science, contemporary social morals and evolving ideas about religious faith. Europe survived its religious and ideological wars to create a secular safety net (shaky to be sure but still largely non-violent for its citizens) for society. Nor do most Muslims who have an opportunity for education beyond the regulated courses of the madrasa reject the modern world. The problem is that most journalists do not consider the majority of Muslims and what they do as newsworthy as the ones who take to the streets and shout slogans.
But here is my suggestion, whether you know little or a lot about Islam as the religion of a billion and a half of your fellow inhabitants of this planet: when you hear Allahu Akbar shouted in anger at a ridiculous film, remember that every day all Muslims begin their prayers by acknowledging that Allah is rahman and rahim. Beyond WWMD and WWJD, the important thing is WWYD with this knowledge; yes, that’s “you.”