Occasionally this blog features a series called “Mommy, What’s That?” — aimed at giving secular parents some simple, straightforward and open-minded ways to describe religious concepts. We’ve covered Satan, souls, the Bible — you know, run-of-the-mill Judeo-Christian stuff.
But a couple of months ago, I began thinking about a particularly tricky (and uniquely Islamic) concept that seems to be ever-present in our public dialogue right now — the controversy over drawing Muhammad.
I sat down and typed “Mommy, Can I Draw Muhammad?” but then I stopped.
I found myself struggling — primarily because this wasn’t solely a religious concept in my mind; it was a political concept. And while I’m highly tolerant of people’s religious beliefs, I’m not at all tolerant of civil rights abuses, religious discrimination, gender inequality or shooting cartoonists who are exercising their freedom of speech.
So I decided to step aside and ask some of my fellow bloggers here at Patheos what they would say to their own kids. The result is a rather wonderful “virtual roundtable” discussion on the issue of drawing Muhammad. I’m immensely proud of the wisdom these writers have shared with me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.
To keep the piece as brief as possible, I’ve categorized the comments into five main pieces of advice — a step-by-step guide, if you will, to discussing Muhammad with kids. It should be noted that some writers emphasized sensitivity and respect, while others emphasized free speech — but all of them, without exception, indicated that the real question isn’t whether children can draw Muhammad, but whether they should — and why they would want to.
Members of the roundtable are as follows: Dilshad Ali (Muslima Next Door), Ryan Bell (Year Without God), Neil Carter (Godless in Dixie), Dale McGowan (Secular Spectrum), Kaveh Mousavi (On the Margin of Error) and Qasim Rashid (Islam Ahmadiyya).
Here we go:
Step 1: Tell kids that Muslims have a “rule” not to draw Muhammad — and then tell them why the rule exists.
Dale: “This is where it gets interesting, because most people don’t know the reason. They usually say it’s disrespectful, or that Muhammad is considered too holy to be depicted in a drawing. The real reason is almost the exact opposite. As Islam developed, there was concern that Muhammad, who was Allah’s prophet but still only a man, might become the focus of idolatry and worship — not that any other religion has done THAT — and that such worship would distract from the worship of Allah. But even the best of intentions can’t keep us from turning great teachers and leaders into demigods, and the prohibition achieved exactly what it was designed to prevent.”
Dilshad: “Worshipping someone or something other than God is one of the biggest no-no’s for Muslims. In fact, the shahada, or declaration of faith that Muslims believe in, says that there is only one God, and that the Prophet Muhammad is His messenger. One of the biggest things about Islam is that we believe that only God is divine, and all the Prophets (we believe and honor all the Prophets, not just Prophet Muhammad) were holy messengers. But, they are not to be prayed to or worshipped as a God-figure. So Muslims are taught to love the Prophet Muhammad because he brought Islam from God to the people and because he is the best of men. But he is not God, nor should we ever look up to him in that way.”
Step 2: Explain that this rule may seem strange, but that it’s important to a lot of people.
Dilshad: “It’s kind of hard to understand why many Muslims believe that we should not draw or create images of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). I mean, many of us have been drawing faces and taking photos of each other as soon as we learned how to draw… Unfortunately, though, the line between drawing something or saying something that is very upsetting or even hateful to another group of people, and saying (or drawing) whatever you want because you have the right to do so is debatable. I think it’s just as disrespectful (to Muslims) to draw the Prophet Muhammad as it is (to people of other faiths) to make artwork that puts down other faiths or religious figures.“
Neil said he talked to his children (ages 15, 14, 11 and 7) about the rule against drawing Muhammad, and found it helpful to liken it to Biblical rules with which his kids were already familiar. (Although Neil is an atheist, all four of his children are Baptist.)
Neil: “I explained to [my kids] that Muslims believe it is blasphemy to visually depict Muhammad in any way. They scratched their heads a bit until I reminded them how big a deal it was in the Old Testament that the Hebrews were never to depict people or animals for fear that they would revert into idolatry.”
I have a small addition to make to this one: I suggest telling kids that, in some areas of the world, drawing Muhammad is illegal; you can be thrown in jail or even killed for it. And if you’ve been taught your whole life that drawing Muhammad is an awful, awful thing, you may not question that. It may seem strange to you that other people don’t think of drawing Muhammad as an awful thing.
Qasim: “Before you draw anything or anyone, you should ask yourself a few questions. Will I help people feel better with my drawing? Will my drawing show how much I love someone, or will it make them think I don’t like them? As you live your life, remember that there are plenty of things you can do, but maybe shouldn’t, because doing them might make others feel bad and might make you look mean. Don’t only ask if you can or can’t do something. Instead, ask if you should or shouldn’t do something. If your actions will help create love and peace among all people, then it is probably a good idea and you should go on and do it. But if your actions will create anger and hurt among people, then you should think twice.”
Ryan: “You are free to draw a picture of Muhammad if you want to, but some people might get upset. You should understand how seriously some people take that. It would be like one of your classmates making fun of me. You’d probably feel very hurt and upset by that. That’s how some people feel when people draw Muhammad, especially when they want to make fun of the Muslim religion. So, you might decide not to draw Muhammad because you don’t want to upset your Muslim friends. We always taught you to be respectful. Being kind to others and respectful of their differences is a wonderful way to live together.”
Not all writers touched on this. But some did — and rightly so. In my opinion, free speech must play role in our conversations about drawing Muhammad. The way free speech must play a role in our conversations about flag-burning or book-burning. Yes, some things are deeply offensive, but people should still have the right to do and say them.
And sometimes, as Ryan points out here, people might have valid reasons for drawing Muhammad. They are making statement that they think are important to make. Others may not agree with those statement, but they are still protected by our freedom of speech.
Ryan: “In the wrong hands, the Muslim religion, like all religion, can be harmful to people. Some extremist Muslims, for example, teach women that they aren’t as important as men or that people who aren’t Muslim should be punished. So some people decide it’s worth upsetting some people by drawing a cartoon of Muhammad because it helps [audiences] see how religion can hurt lots and lots of people. It’s their way of expressing themselves.”
Step 5: Tell kids that some people have been threatened, harassed and even killed for drawing Muhammad — but that most Muslims would never do that. And then remind them that all bullying is wrong.
Dale: “Most Muslims are sickened by that kind of insanity, even if they would rather not see Muhammad depicted.”
Kaveh likened those who threaten, hurt or kill people who exercise free speech as “bullies” — which I thought was the perfect word to use in this context.
Kaveh: “There are some people who don’t want you to draw him, but you know what we call people who come to other people’s homes and tell them what they can draw and what they can’t draw? We call them bullies. And you never have to listen to the bullies. There are some people who think Prophet Muhammad was delivering the messages of their god. In their religion, they can’t draw Prophet Muhammad for many reasons. So you should never go to their homes and ask them to draw someone they don’t want to draw. If you draw Prophet Muhammad you shouldn’t make them see it. You can pin it on your fridge. But if you like to draw Prophet Muhammad, it’s none of their business. If they want to tell you what to draw and what not to draw then they’re bullying you. And you don’t need to care for what they say.”
The bottom line?
Dilshad: “If you ask me if you should draw the Prophet Muhammad, I’d say I would prefer you do not. Why do something, say something or draw something that a large group of people would not like?“
Ryan: “My hope is that you would always stand up for what you believe is true and good, even if it offends some people. And try not to offend people if you don’t have to.”
Neil: “[My children] simply put themselves in the other people’s shoes and said that just as they wouldn’t want to see their friends or family mocking Jesus in any way, if they were Muslims they would want their friends to respect their wishes and avoid doing something that upset them.”
Dale: “The answer is ‘yes,’ because ‘No, you can’t draw that’ isn’t a phrase that trips off my tongue. And I could leave it at that because I trust my kids to assess risks and rewards, and I know that not one of them would do it for spite or just to hurt someone else’s sensibilities. Add information to their existing judgment and empathy, and I find I don’t often have to say much of anything — including drawing Muhammad.”
Kaveh: “Some people have paid dearly for drawing Muhammad. Some people have gone to prison, and some people have died. That’s because they knew the most important thing: You shouldn’t let bullies win.”
Qasim: “You can draw whatever your heart desires. And if you live to help others and love others, then you’ll be sure that what your heart desires is something that promotes peace on Earth.”
All bloggers are “solo artists,” to a certain extent, and solo artists have much to offer. But often the greatest music is created when we bring our voices together and harmonize a bit. I’m humbly grateful to each and every one of these folks, who took time out of their busy weeks and contributed to this particular composition.