While we can argue about the merits of freedom of speech vs. responsible journalism, and peaceful vs. violent protests, lost in this debate is the persona of the individual who has been insulted and depicted in a most vulgar way. What would he have done and why does he evoke passions that we in the West have a hard time understanding? Why is this fury equally intense among disparate people whether they are Arabs, Indonesian, Afghan, European or American Muslims?
Even after 1,400 years, to the average Muslim, whether Shiite or Sunni, Muhammad continues to be the object of love, respect, reverence and honor. His name means “the praised one,” and Muslims send salutations on him as part of their five daily prayers.
Muslims do not attach divinity to Muhammad, or any other prophet for that matter. To them, his greatness was that he was just another human being. Every step of his life is recorded in great detail from the time he was an orphan who grew up and married a widow 15 years his senior to his prophethood. His recorded actions (called Sunnah) are a how-to addendum to the Koran, and his sayings (Hadith) are referenced in discussions on how to solve daily problems.
The goals in the lives of Muslims are set relative to his actions. To them, his life is a shining example of attainable perfection, whether it be in matters of family, business or the community.
When their ultimate goal becomes an object of vilification and ridicule, some feel that their very existence is being called into question, and to them nothing in life becomes more important than protecting this ideal.
His ability to forgive is much needed today and a reminder especially to our fellow Muslims around the world. For example, when a neighbor who used to throw garbage on his path every day did not do so one day, he went to inquire about her health. Similarly, when visiting a nearby city, he was stoned till he bled severely and was driven out, but when asked to make a wish, he prayed for their salvation, instead of their destruction. He even forgave those who tortured and abused him and those who planned his murder.
We can all benefit from the Koran verse that says: “Goodness and evil cannot be equal. Repel (evil) with something that is better. Then you will see that he with whom you had enmity will become your close friend. And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint.” (Koran 41:34-35)
The vast majority of people understand the deep love Muslims have for their prophet and would not denigrate him even in jest or in a cartoon. Thomas Carlyle in his 150-year-old book “Heros and Hero Worship and the Heroic History” reminds us that “The lies which well-meaning zeal has heaped around this man (Muhammad) are disgraceful to ourselves only.” We may not agree on whether freedom of speech is absolute or if there are limits of decency. But we can agree on one thing: that we must take all measures to avoid a clash of civilizations. The only way to do this is to learn about each other and build bridges of understanding.
RAZI MOHIUDDIN is the president of the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara, one of the largest mosques in the United States. The association is holding an open house Feb. 19 from 2-4 p.m. to explore the life and teachings of Muhammad and its meaning to Muslims.