Growing up as a Moslem in Iran in the religiously tolerant atmosphere of the 1970s we were taught at school about the Prophet Mohammad’s exemplary kindness, especially towards those who insulted and injured him. Religious education was part of our syllabus and in the first year of secondary school one of our text-books included the story of an old woman living in Mecca during the burgeoning days of Islam who hated the Prophet Mohammad to such an extent that she waited for him to pass by everyday so she could pour ashes over his head from her window. This was considered the deepest insult in that culture at that time.
The story went on to say that one day the prophet passed by and noticed that the woman was absent from her usual post. Inquiring after her, he found out that she was ill in bed. Visiting her, the Prophet offered her his sympathy and help. The woman was so overwhelmed by this kindness that she converted to Islam and became a devout follower of the Prophet.
At that time as young students we were taught that the best way to spread the truth of our faith was to impress others with our own exemplary conduct. In the poisonous political atmosphere leading to the Iranian revolution this tolerant, forgiving side of Islam was all but forgotten. Islam became a violent weapon for removing the Iranian monarchy and from then on an effective tool for the perpetuation of political power by the theocratic regime.
All those in the West who point to the enraged reaction in Moslem countries towards a few cartoons as symptomatic of an inherently violent and intolerant religion should remember that Islam is being used here as a tool for the manipulation of the masses in Iran and other dictatorships in the Islamic world. They should keep in mind the irony that this mindless violence is being perpetrated in the name of a Prophet whose holy book commences every verse in the name of an Allah who is described as compassionate and merciful.
From all we know about the Prophet Mohammad’s life and teachings, we cannot imagine him being offended by the publication of these pictures if he was present here today. He who tolerated the most humiliating insults and injuries and saw human life in the light of an eternal order would not have felt at all threatened by a handful of tasteless caricatures of himself in a few European newspapers.
No thoughtful Moslem who can read his Koran and marvel at its profound message of justice, humanity and forbearance will waste his or her time worrying about such banal and unimportant issues, let alone show his or her own outrage by destroying life and property. In this situation the real blasphemers to Islam are those whose violent and irresponsible reaction has made a mockery of the teachings of the Prophet.
Throughout the ages Moslems have contributed to the advancement of philosophy and science by their ability to reason and dialogue. The unleashing of raw emotions and throwing overboard all self-control and restraint cannot be described as anything but absolutely un-Islamic. A lack of understanding in the West about Islam has also contributed to the problem.
The current view in the Western world of Islamic faith and culture is very shallow and overlooks its highly civilized and humanizing achievements. It is axiomatic that the Danish cartoonists are not the only ones who think of the teaching of the prophet Mohammad as an unmitigated manual for violence and holy war. No doubt a superficial reading of Islamic history can leave one with such an impression.
What should be kept in mind however is that the Prophet Mohammad was not a one-dimensional person. In that primitive and ferocious time when he was leading his followers, he could not have survived to implement his mission through purely peaceful means. He was the political leader of his people and had to make political decisions with one eye on heavenly justice and another on the political reality of what he had to deal with in the middle of the formidable Arabian Desert.
Prophet Mohammad showed great mercy and compassion when he declared a total amnesty after his victorious entry into Mecca. He declared an era of peace and justice and forgave his most virulent enemies. He also was forceful and decisive in other instances when his foes threatened the lives and property of Moslems. Let us not forget that Christ too with all his reputation for love and forgiveness when necessary was capable of wielding a whip to drive the money changers from the temple.
The Western media perhaps anxious to find a rational explanation for this mad outburst has partly attributed the indignation of the Moslems to the supposed Islamic taboo of creating a facial presentation of the prophet Mohammad. This at least is not the case as far as Shia Iran is concerned. In many Iranian homes one can find paintings of the prophet Mohammad. Strolling through Iranian bazaars one can see many shop windows adorned with a picture of Mohammad, his long hair flowing and a copy of the holy Koran in his hand.
Sometimes the Prophet's picture is placed side by side with the picture of Imam Ali, the Shia saint holding on to his famous double-edged sword. Furthermore satirizing religion has never been taboo in Iranian culture and literature. There are many books, notably by the celebrated modern Iranian novelist Sadegh Hedayat that could be interpreted as highly insulting to Islam and its founder. His writings, although disappeared from bookstore shelves after the Islamic revolution, never have been denounced as sacrilege.
On February 7, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that these cartoons were the conspiracy of Zionist Israelis upset with the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election. We ought to ask the Ayatollah if portraying the Prophet Mohammad wearing a bomb in place of a turban gives a false image of the Islamic faith, then should not also Hamas’s agenda of terror and suicide bombing as an Islamic group supported by Iran be a misrepresentation of what Islam stands for and an insult to the followers of the Prophet? Statements made by leaders of the Islamic Republic however have nothing to do with logic and everything to do with the manipulation of religious sentiments of the population.
Ultimately when Moslems sit down and deliberate upon whether the outrage caused by these cartoons is justified or not, they should ask themselves: which Prophet Mohammad is in question here? Is the Prophet in question the humourless, unforgiving man who was the inspiration of the vengeful Ruhollah Khomeini upon his return to Tehran? Is he the Mohammad who would wish only mullahs and their terrorist supporters to rule over the lives and destiny of Moslems? Is he the just, strong and compassionate Prophet who commanded his followers to be kind not only to their fellow human beings, but to all living creatures, a man of great patience and tolerance who refused to be provoked, preferring rather to show kindness and magnanimity to those who had wished him ill? Which one of these images best befits God's last messenger?