Is Islam Really Against Satire?

An American convert to Islam issues a passive-aggressive death threat against an American icon — South Park — and presto, we have our very own Muhammad-cartoon controversy, with Comedy Central running for cover and otherwise intelligent bloggers demonstratively parading their courage with a chorus of knee-jerk “fuck you’s.”

The South Park ruse of not showing Muhammad by having him hidden in a bear suit, to emerge in the end as Santa Claus, was definitely on the gentle side of satire.  But what’s left unsaid is how un-Islamic intolerance of satire actually is.  In fact, tolerance of it is built into the Quran.

The Quran is nothing if not repetitive.  Again and again, it refers to Muhammad being mocked, sneered at, taunted, laughed at, and derided by his opponents in Mecca and Medina.  It continually cites previous messengers of God, from Abraham down to Jesus, being similarly mocked and derided.  Such mockery becomes almost an honorable tradition, a kind of inverted proof of the truth of the message.

This obsessive harping on the issue is a way of comforting Muhammad, telling him to persevere.  With the same obsessiveness, he is told to “be patient,” to ignore those who mock him, and to “turn away” from his tormentors.  Their punishment will come on the Day of Judgment, God tells him.  Punishment is God’s to wield, not Muhammad’s.

But since the Quran is as contradictory as any other religious text (the first two chapters of Genesis being a prime example), it also contains the infamous “sword verse,”  telling believers to “strike the unbelievers wherever you find them.”

If you’re a literalist, you don’t even care that there’s a historical context for this verse, which is a response to Muhammad’s followers asking if they are allowed to fight within the sanctuary of the city of Mecca.   So you ignore the qualifications — and the Quran is full of them.   Yes, you can cut off the hands of thieves, but if they repent, forgiveness is better.  Yes, you can kill Meccan opponents, but only if they try to kill you first, and only if they’ve broken an existing agreement with you, and even then forgiveness is better.   It’s as though Muhammad — or God, depending on your point of view — was searching for a way to ease the transition from traditional tribal law to the radical new post-Christian law of Islam for his seventh-century followers

Some of his twenty-first-century followers are clearly far less sophisticated, especially new converts eager to prove themselves more Roman than the Romans, as it were.  Selective and literalist reading is the modus operandi of all violent fundamentalists, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.  But while we’re under no illusion that fanatical West Bank settlers represent Judaism, or doctor-killers represent Christianity, we still tend to understand Islam solely through its most ignorant proponents — and through its most conservative, humorless, and soul-less interpreters.

13 Responses

  1. Hi Lesley –

    Many people do understand Islam through its most ignorant proponents the same way that many people continue to believe that
    Obama was born on foreign soil. Though all the claims made by the “Birthers” that Obama is a foreigner have been shown to be patently absurd and false time and time again, the birther movement continues in its mad campaign to discredit the president. Just as some Middle Eastern scholars have taken the stage to provide an alternative view of an Islam dominated by mad Jihadists, so too has their message fallen on deaf ears. The majority of the public continues to think of Muslims in the narrow bandwidth of terrorism and holy war.
    Why? The answer is that public discourse is no longer governed by critical thinking. People are entitled to their opinions but not to their own “facts.” The American public has outsourced the truth to such propaganda outlets as FOX news.

    Many rational and reasonable arguments have been made -mainly in the alternative media – trying to present a more moderate and complex portrait of the Muslim world but to no avail. As Al Gore pointed out, we are living in an age that has mounted an assault on reason. Which brings me to my next point. Ultimately, we should be questioning the very foundations of religious belief rather than arguing that it’s just the fundamentalists who have hijacked religion and are now running away with it.

    Religious moderates will argue that it is not faith, but rather man’s baser instincts that inspire terrorism and violence. But could even the most blinkered religious believer contend that the Inquisition or the Crusades would have occurred and persisted in the absence of their mythical foundations? Sam Harris writes, “Even ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or to celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe”


    George P. Walczak

  2. Everybody Draw Mohammed Day will be on May 20.

  3. What I appreciate, Lesley, is the background you provide in the way of historical, social and cultural foundations for the religious dogma that is propounded today. Your perspective is valuable to those of us who have only a superficial understanding of the Koran and, perhaps, only slightly more knowledge of Christian biblical texts, &c.

    As for fundamentalists of any sort, it doesn’t feel to me so much like religious fervor as prescriptions for thinking for those who can’t do it for themselves.

  4. So, Lesley- my question about the whole thing relates to the prohibition against representing Muhammad- where is it and what’s the context?

    I keep reflecting that there’s a tradition of avoiding pictures, and I have this nagging suspicion that it’s probably written to prevent people from worshiping Muhammad, rather than Allah. But that’s an assumption I can look up easier than finding the “why”.

  5. Ok, I think I answered part of my question- it’s just religious arbitrariness. The addition of later rules- since pictures of any person or animal are forbidden by the hadiths but not the Quran… And there are large groups with posters of their favorite heroes… and their horses and various birds, etc.

    Still- the context is interesting: what’s the justification?
    The poster-makers can’t “breath life” into their creations (sounds like someone was jealous of others artistic abilities) any more than the illustrator of Muhammad.

    • Lavrans — Some speculate that the word ‘religion’ is rooted in the Latin for ‘to bind oneself’. It’s interesting that as religions develop, they bind themselves around with rules. Maybe that’s how they survive. And sometimes they bind themselves literally, as with orthodox Jewish men laying tefillin, which are straps they bind around their forearms and heads. Will think more about this and maybe post on it. Thanks — Lesley

      • Re-reading, I didn’t need the “jealous” part- I suspect that would (rightly) be taken as a little too far.

        I read an article a while back looking at people- people working in customer service specifically- and how they would do things that they personally thought would help the company, even though it may be directly against company policy. Generally they would stall and attempt to prevent returns of bad product or broken items, wouldn’t file dissatisfied customer reports, etc. When questioned later almost all stated that they did it for the good of the company; to save money or the company’s image. Upon follow ups with the same people, even after retraining and being refreshed on company policy, most continued the same actions.

        I see something of the same thing in religious rules that evolve around the basic texts- rules that seem to be attempts to do something for the benefit of the religion, even though they may be against its core tenets. Some probably made a lot more sense when they were formulated than through our modern eyes.

        It’s sometimes hard to understand why a custom should be respected, and often they need to be for no other reason than the believer’s comfort. Some seem like they could go away without much damage, but change is hard I guess.

  6. Hi Lesley,

    The issue you raise here is a symptom of ignorant and agenda driven individuals. It is fermented by people who thrive on dividing people and creating social discord. They are intolerant and their bigoted views are nauseating to say the least.

    It is sad that during this age information, when people have access to such a wide variety of opinion and sources, they still choose to restrict their indulgence to what gives them comfort. As a result we find that people often begin with conclusions and then seek out all the facts to support their conclusions without confronting and attending to the issues and the evidence that challenge that perspective or belief.

    The time for a new debate is upon us. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we encourage and promote respect and tolerance for all people and their beliefs, irrespective of how ridiculous they may seem.

    I commend you on starting this blog and I am confident that this platform will go a long way to promoting respect and tolerance.

  7. Wow I’m literally the only reply to this incredible writing!

  8. Allah Protect you Lesley Hazleton.
    I love your Blog.
    Thanks for the truth you share

  9. O my God you are just wonderful!
    Each time I watch your video on youtube and i see how you explain the Truth of Koran my thears drop, I wish my english was better than this to write to you and explain how i feel (without using google translator).
    Best for you

    قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِى الّذينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَ الّذينَ لايَعْلَمُونَ إنّما يَتَذَكَّرُ اُولُوا الألْبابِ. (Zomar: 9)
    بگو: «آيا كسانى كه مى‏دانند با كسانى كه نمى‏دانند يكسانند؟ تنها خردمندان متذكر مى‏شوند.
    قُلْ رَبِّ زِدْنى عِلْما. (Taha: 114)

  10. So- reading Zizek when he made an interesting point about the responses to those cartoons: most of the Muslim world never saw the cartoons. So the uprising wasn’t about the cartoons, per se, as much as the concept that another would do something.

    What’s interesting there is that one will never know if everyone would have actually been offended by the cartoon(s) as much as by the idea that the West (as a big “Them”) would dare to do such a thing; and takes as fact the reporting of the few who did see them.

    So, truth only comes from the familiar, and the object of that truth doesn’t even have to exist as more than a concept. Face value is good enough.

    Of course, everyone’s guilty of that, not just Islam.

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