Images of the Prophet and Freedom of Speech

The ban on images of the prophet muhammed

This blog post contains an image of the Prophet Muhammed and criticisms of religion (religion in general, not just Islam) if this offends you then stop reading this article now!

Almost all Muslims say that images of the Prophet Muhammed are forbidden but actually there is no verse in the Koran which explicitly forbids such images.  The ban actually came about because of the Hadiths, the stories about the life of prophet Muhammed written after his death.

If all images of the Prophet are totally forbidden then someone should have a word with the Iranian government.  There are historical scriptures from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with images depicting the prophet and drawn by Muslim artists.  The majority of these images relate to one particular Night Journey and the alleged ascension to Heaven.  The prophet is depicted as being on horseback.

I do not expect that Jihadi gunmen to go storming into the museum to burn the books and shoot the curator.  The Iranians, Shia Muslims, seem more relaxed about images of the prophet than their Sunni counterparts.

So when did this ban on the images arise?

It is hard to say when exactly the ban came into existence, it seems to have been a gradual process moving from disapproval during the sixteenth century to an explicit ban during the eighteenth century.  The driving force behind this was probably the invasion and colonisation of some Muslim countries by Europeans during this time.

One of the reactions of the Muslim religious community was to emphasise the differences between Islam and Christianity.  The iconography of Christianity was denounced as being improper and that is when depictions of the prophet within Islam were purged.

For a proportion of Muslims the antipathy to these images has extended to the image of any living being, human or animal.  One of the main factors in this comes from the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab an Arab scholar.  His teachings were an effort to purify Islam by returning Muslims to what, he believed, were the original principles of that religion.  He denounced the veneration of anything other than God, including the Prophet Muhammed.

Should the ban on images of the Prophet Muhammed apply to non Muslims?

If images of the Prophet Muhammed are prohibited to Muslims does that prohibition also forbid non Muslims from showing or looking upon images of the Prophet?  I don’t think it should.  An image of the Prophet has no special significance to me as I am an Atheist.

There is a tradition in most western democracies that people have the freedom to express their opinions even if their opinions are offensive to others as long as they do not break the law (by for example committing slander or libel or by exposing state secrets).  Most of the advances in western society have come about because of someone offending the hegemony and most of the failures of social democracy have been preceded by a curtailment of the right to express views which deviate from the orthodox.

I may not agree with the views expressed in Charlie Hebdo but I would defend their right to express their views freely.  If people preparing articles for newspapers or magazines, blog posts, songs and writing books are afraid to express themselves freely for fear of reprisals by religious extremists then the extremists have achieved what they set out to achieve.

Nobody is forcing Muslims to buy Charlie Hebdo, if they don’t like the images in the magazine then they should boycott it.

Respect for religious beliefs?

The following comments apply to all religions, not just Islam.

There is a wider question here.  People often say that we should respect other peoples religious beliefs but I would ask the question “Are religions worthy of respect?”  I am not advocating that we should go out of our way to be offensive to people but if their beliefs have an impact on our lives then should we be forced to change our behaviours in order to respect their views?

In my opinion peoples religious beliefs should command no more respect than their choice of political party or their choice of which football club to support.  It would be silly to demand that a political party be shown respect merely because it is a political party.  So why are religions considered special?

I do not believe that we should give people special treatment or any kind of immunity because they have a religious faith.  Let’s be clear what faith is.  Faith is belief without any proof, as simple as that.  In religious circles faith is treated as if it were a virtue, it is not, it is ignorance.

There are two ways of saying that you don’t know how the universe was created, the first is by saying that we don’t know, but we are working to find out.  The second is to say that a fairy godfather created it all and that’s all you need to know.  At which point all scientific discovery stops.

Faith does not provide any answers, that is not it’s purpose.  It’s purpose is to stop you from asking questions.

Of course everyone should be free to believe what they want to believe, provided that they do not try to force their beliefs on others or harm or kill others because of their beliefs.  Nobody should have the right to impose their own choice of morality or practice on those who do not share their beliefs.

People who have religious beliefs might counter this argument by saying that they have the immoral views of the general population thrust upon them in on the internet, on television, in advertising and on the magazine stands, but these are optional, you can switch the television to a different channel, you can ignore the advertising, you don’t have to browse those websites which offend you, and if a picture of your favourite prophet appears on the cover of a satirical magazine then don’t buy it!

Those people who say that they are offended by criticism or ridicule by people who do not share their views and who try to silence these criticisms by violence are wrong.  They seek to undermine the fundamental values of free speech.  No other civil liberties are possible without free speech.

These people would claim special treatment on the grounds that they have chosen one particular set of religious beliefs which do not have any proof and would insist they everyone who does not share their beliefs treats them in ways that inherently accept their beliefs as being true.

Pretending that something is true does not make it so.


Prophet Muhammed

This is a picture of the ascension of the Prophet Muhammed, it is taken from a historical scripture from the sixteenth century.  It was drawan by an Islamic artist.

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