On a spring day in 1929, a young Muslim man by the name of Ilam Din burst into a bookstore in Lahore, in the British colony of India, and stabbed the owner, a Hindu man named Mahashay Rajpal, in the chest. The knife pierced Rajpal's heart, killing him instantly.
Ilam Din had planned the murder for some time. Like many Muslims in the colony, he was incensed by an infamous pamphlet Rajpal had published a few years earlier. The Colorful Prophet was a satirical tale that detailed the sexual deviance and general chicanery of its main character, the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Backed by powerful Hindu fundamentalist political groups, The Colorful Prophet was translated into several South Asian languages and spread across the vast British colony, stoking riots and violent protests as it went.
After the stabbing, Ilam Din yelled loudly and repeatedly that he had taken revenge for the prophet. Fresh riots broke out the next day, injuring a hundred people. “Feeling has been whipped to white heat here,” the New York Times reported, noting that “British troops and armored cars” had been called into the city.
The carnage at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, where Muslim gunmen claiming to defend their prophet’s honor murdered a dozen people, has left many in the West grasping for understanding. Why do some Muslims act out violently in response to unflattering depictions of their prophet? Here, an obscure colonial episode may be illuminating. Most Muslims imagine Muhammad as a wise and inspiring prophet—the perfect human being. Many non-Muslims have long held him as a sexually deviant fraud. Historically the Western depictions of that Muhammad often haven't arisen from benign or secular impulses, to put it gently.
The chasm of perception gives extremists of all types fertile ground for cultivating conflict. Since the massacre in Paris, dozens of attacks have fallen on Muslims and their community sites in France. In several German cities, right-wing anti-immigration rallies have attracting tens of thousands of people. An American TV personality proudly proclaimed himself “an Islamophobe” in the days that followed. In Karachi, police shot four people during protests organized by Islamic political groups against the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, which placed an unflattering image of Muhammad on the cover again. Ten people died in Niger during similar protests, and the French cultural center along with 45 churches were set ablaze around the country.
Nearly a century ago, Mohandas Gandhi seemed to appreciate this danger. “I have asked myself what the motive possibly could be in writing or publishing such a book except to inflame passion,” he wrote in a 1924 essay after reading The Colorful Prophet. “Abuse and caricature of the Prophet cannot wean a Musalman from his faith, and it can do no good to a Hindu who may have doubts about his own belief.” The pamphlet “had no value,” Gandhi wrote. “The harm it can do is obvious.”
Muslims enjoy a relationship with their prophet that is exceptional. For many Muslims, Muhammad transcends boundaries between religion and history and even familial bloodlines in a way that has no real equivalent in other major religious traditions. As critics of Islam like to point out, Muslims even kill for Muhammad, in many parts of the world, at many times.
The extraordinary attachment to Muhammad, at least in part, led Ilam Din to murder the Hindu publisher in Lahore in 1929, just as it led a man named Muhudiin Geele to charge, with an axe and a knife, the home of the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who had drawn cartoons of Muhammad for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. This relationship roused Amir Cheema, a young Pakistani PhD student studying textile engineering in Germany, who marched with a knife into the offices of a newspaper that had republished the Danish cartoons and attempted to stab the editor. It was deep devotion with which a 16-year-old Turkish high school student, of his own admittance, shot dead a Roman Catholic priest from Italy as revenge for those same cartoons that insulted his prophet.
Political, social, and economic contexts matter in all these cases. But, significantly, none of these men proved to have any links to organized terror groups. They were moved to act on their own. Muhammad was for them a dear and inspirational figure—a model of a human being to be emulated and, if his honor is under threat, defended. The power Muhammad's memory exerts on some Muslims is truly awesome.
Images of Muhammad have a tendency to come into focus during particularly tense political moments. Yet we're surrounded by these images. You can see the prophet’s face at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or tucked away in libraries all around the world, or among great "lawgivers" in a frieze at the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent days, some in the American media have set out to correct the common misconception that Islam includes some doctrinal ban on such imagery. A New York Times article on the subject says that limitations in figural artistic traditions in Islamic cultures have “evolved over time and [have] been interpreted in diverse ways.” Christine Gruber, an art historian at the University of Michigan, writing for Newsweek, presented a long, rich and complex history of paintings and drawing of Muhammad from within Muslim civilizations.
To the West, though, Muhammad casts a longstanding villain in art and literature. Montgomery Watt, one of the most important Western scholars of Islam, explained that Muhammad became an important figure in Christian thought from the beginning of Islam, and that he came to be defined overwhelmingly by three particular qualities: dishonesty and insincerity, violence, and self-indulgence, “especially in the sexual fields.”
As the narrator of Dante's Divine Comedy relates his journey through the heavens and purgatory, he finds Muhammad in the eighth ring of hell, reserved for sowers of scandal and schism. There Dante presents the prophet naked, being gutted repeatedly from groin to chin by the devil.
Centuries after the last of the crusades, Voltaire, an architect of the Enlightenment, didn’t break much from this Church-inspired vision of Muhammad. In a letter to the Prussian king to detail his five-act play Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete, Voltaire wrote that Muhammad “was whatever trickery can invent that is most atrocious and whatever fanaticism can accomplish that is most horrifying.” Muhammad, he wrote, “cuts the throat of fathers and rapes daughters.” While not considered among Voltaire’s best, the play did win him praise from Pope Benedict XIV, who wrote “his dear son” to congratulate him on his “admirable tragedy of Mahomet.”
In the 19th and 20th centuries, some of the West’s most celebrated artists (Salvador Dali, Auguste Rodin, William Blake, Gustave Dore, et al) found inspiration in Dante's work from the Middle Ages and depicted Muhammad being torn apart in the depths of hell. A decade before The Colorful Prophet was published, the Italian silent film L'Inferno captured scenes of Muhammad’s torture for the first time in motion picture.
Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel Satanic Verses featured a central character Mahound (the name can be found in medieval European literature as a reference to the prophet) who finds the prostitutes in a notorious brothel share the names of his many wives. Riots and the murders of two translators of the novel followed. After the attacks of 9/11, the spread of twelve Danish cartoons presented the “Face of Muhammad,” one with a lit fuse bomb nestled in his turban, another with him angrily wielding a scimitar as two terrified women watch. The Innocence of Muslims YouTube video, which led to riots in 2012, played on most of the themes borrowed from ancient Christendom, as did many cartoons of Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo over the years.
These more contemporary depictions of Muhammad as a lying, misogynistic, sexual deviant mostly come from Westerners who identify as enlightened, secular and modern, whose stated goal is often to blur the sacred and the profane. But to Muslims at the blunt end of the satire and profane comedy, these images are dead serious and steeped in hate—direct echoes of Muhammad's earlier depictions in Christendom.
Taboos don’t always travel. Recall the cringe-worthy video from 2009 in which Harry Connick Jr. guest-judged a variety show called "Hey Hey It's Saturday" on live Australian television. One act calling itself the Jackson Jive entailed five tuxedoed men in blackface and afro wigs jumping and snapping through a medley of Jackson 5 tunes.
The performance ended after what felt like forever. Connick, unsettled but trying to play cool, scored the performance a zero. “Man," he said, "if they turned up looking like that in the United States, they’d be like ‘Hey, hey, there’s no more show.'” The Australians in the audience seemed confused as to the American's problem.
The West has at least since the Enlightenment recognized and defended the right of artists, writers, comedians and satirists to do their job. As a result, white Australians are free to don blackface and “look like buffoons,” as Connick commented, if they so choose. (Likewise, the people in the live audience are free to find it funny or not, just as you are free to slap your forehead in dismay, or not.) And artists and satirists have the right to ridicule Muhammad. But merely provoking an audience doesn't mean creative work is thoughtful or even worthwhile. Even if the aim is not to provoke, art so sloppily constructed and oblivious to its historical and political weight is nothing to celebrate: It can be malicious at worst, irresponsible at best. Sometimes it's a hard call. Other times, contemporary Western depictions of Muhammad—as clumsy, thoughtless and tacky as the Jackson Jive—easily fall beyond the pale.
It's dishonest to ignore the divisive and often odious history of Western depictions of Muhammad, when the danger today is the threat Gandhi identified: With passions stoked, extremists on both sides win. After 9/11 and the resulting American-led wars in Muslim countries, political and militant groups and terrorist organizations have had predictable success dredging up insulting Western images of Muhammad to rally Muslims. Al Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula has now claimed responsibility for the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Meanwhile, racist and violent xenophobic groups in the West, rallying under slogans of free speech, eagerly encourage artists to insult the Islamic prophet. Both sides feed the others' worst expectations, reaping a collective windfall of violence.
While Muslims in the West work on developing a thicker skin against this raw taboo, Muslims elsewhere, those in Asia and Africa, may choose never to ease on the norms around Muhammad's image. For their part, Western non-Muslims might someday view offensive images of Muhammad with the same disdain they heap upon symbols of ugly pasts—blackface in America, for one, or any number of stereotypical representations of Africans, Asians, or Jews.
Revolutionary thinker that he was, Gandhi had his approach to combating the extremes after he read The Colorful Prophet. To bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, he suggested distributing “clean literature instead, showing tolerance for each other’s faiths.” So here’s a truly daring and controversial idea for a brave Western artist. Create a work depicting Muhammad, face and all, but let it elevate the historical figure, and truly celebrate the prophet of Islam. That, at least, is free expression sure to offend extremists on all sides equally.