In October 2020, France was put on hold after a French history teacher, was beheaded near a school in Paris. A mere two weeks prior, two journalists were stabbed outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices, a media outlet known for their satirical cartoons. These offices were the stage for an earlier attack in 2015, when two Muslim brothers forced their way into the very same building and shot 23 people, of whom 12 died. These assaults all relate back to a wider trend, namely the depiction of religious figures within Islam and subsequent responses my Muslims.
Within Islam, oral and written descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad are accepted by all traditions. However, the generally accepted tradition is one of aniconism; the absence of material representation of the (super)natural.
Although it is unofficially prohibited to display the Prophet, there are certain differences within factions of Islam. In Sunni areas, there is hardly any pictorial representation of the Prophet, but more widely there is hardly any depiction of living creatures in general. However, in Shia Muslim tradition, this is vastly different. As images have been used throughout history, so too were they used in Shia areas such as Turkey and Iran, where there are many examples of representations of living beings, but even of holy persons such as the Prophet Muhammad during various stages of his life. According to Hassan Yousefi Eshkavari, who is a former Iranian cleric, images of Muhammad are omnipresent across Iran, with many Iranians actually having pictures of Muhammad in their homes or shops.
The argument supporting aniconism in Islam often lies in a verse in the Quran about Abraham, in which he talks about images being worshipped, and this is a manifest error. However, according to professor Mona Siddiqui from Edinburgh University, there is no specific mention in the Quran that forbids the depiction of the Prophet. She states that people often misinterpret the meaning of verses within the Quran, combining what is said with their own view of something. These are the same people that would go so far as to kill in the name of Islam, thereby viewing themselves as martyrs. The argument of this piece is as follows: the perpetrators of these attacks, and any person that opts to kill after seeing such an image is not acting in line with the rules of Islam – let alone becoming a martyr.
In early 2013, the Yemen-based branch of Al-Qaeda published a hit list of several people who were “wanted, dead or alive for crimes against Islam”. One of the people featured on this list was Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, as he was accused of insulting the religion.
One of the attackers referred to himself and his accomplices as defenders of the Prophet Muhammad, ready to avenge the injustice done to him, while also claiming that they were ready to die as martyrs.
The perpetrator of the second attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in 2020 reiterated this claim, when he wounded two people with a meat cleaver, in order to “avenge the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad”.
According to Islamic tradition, there are several levels of response when someone defames the Prophet, depending on the religious background of this person and the location in which it occurs. If a Muslim hears someone defaming the Prophet, the Muslim should denounce him, and he has the right to insult him because the defamer is the one who started. The Muslim should report this person to the authorities who can carry out a fitting punishment. Often heard rebuttal towards this claim relates to (Western) authorities not having the backbone to punish someone for such an offense, therefore, requiring the Muslim to take matters into his own hands.
However, should there be no authority to punish such an individual, then the Muslim has to do whatever he can, but only if it does not lead to harm against other people. The last section of this phrase refers back to the Shar’i principle which states that “means are to be judged by the outcomes to which they lead, and that the means that lead to something haram, even if they are permissible, become haram, if they lead to evil.” This principle is one that perpetrators of such attacks have clearly omitted from their judgment, as they appear not to care about the harm their actions do to other people, including fellow Muslims who will be asked to denounce these actions and will be put in a bad light. Furthermore, when engaging in such actions, it is clear from the get-go that it strokes with every principle adhered to in Islam, as the outcome of their actions, as well as the means they use to achieve this outcome are both haram. Even if the attackers were to claim they only targeted those who
insulted Islam, they might forget that they also shot police officer Ahmed Merabet, a fellow Muslim who was on patrol in the area. Even if one interprets Islam in the strictest possible sense, shooting and killing a fellow Muslim who is doing his job in defending his city against threats is never permissible.
Within Islam, to die a martyr is one of life’s greatest honours, with rewards so sublime and superior granted to the martyr. But dying as a martyr does not mean that a weapon must be raised, as loss of life and bloodshed are not the goals of a Muslim. Islam is a religion of peace, with peaceful and noble people worshiping Allah sincerely who are meant to live an upright live. Being a martyr in Islam does not depend on the way in which a person dies, but rather on the way in which this person has lived his life. Islam is based on various core values such as sincerity, selflessness and gratitude, which require continuous proactive efforts. If these people live a life of hate, and subsequently harm others because of this hate, then such a person is far from living those values and even farther from being a martyr; such does not adhere to the true message of the Quran and does not live like an upright Muslim.
Message from the author
A fair point of criticism to this piece would be that, as I am not a Muslim, I lack in- depth knowledge of the specific principles of Islam. Furthermore, I do not have the right to engage in Takfir, thereby denouncing someone as a bad Muslim. However, one does not have to be a follower of the religion to see that individuals that engage in violent attacks under the false claim of defending the Prophet are no true believers.