In a recent interview, the head of religious programming at the BBC, Aqil Ahmed, says that a lack of knowledge of religious scripture means modern British audiences 'are baffled by Biblical references in Monty Python's film The Life of Brian'
He then says the following about Islam, Muhammad and comedy:
"Ahmed also claimed that a key reason that Islam is not the subject of more humorous discussion is that the life of the Prophet Muhammad is poorly understood by large sections of the British public. “How can anybody tell a joke about Muhammad when they don’t even know how to spell his name, let alone anything about his life? The day we have people standing up and telling detailed jokes about Muhammad and have the audience understanding that humour, then we will have come a long way in society and we will have a lot more religious literacy about a major world figure.” link
Aqil Ahmed is being remarkably disingenuous in his comments, to put it mildly.
We pointed out on twitter the early context of how satire about the prophet was to be dealt with. Ibn Ishaq & Ibn Sa'd both tell of how Muhammad ordered the killing of a female poet. Asma bint Marwan wrote satirical poetry about the founder of Islam. He became outraged and asked "Who will rid me of Marwan's daughter?" Tradition says that Asma bint Marwan was murdered by a follower of Muhammad as she was suckling her child. He slaughtered her with a knife. After he heard the news, Muhammad said "No two goats will butt together about her".
Many Muslims contest this account, embarassed by how it depicts the prophet. But it is rooted in primary sources of Muhammad's biography, and the truth remains that satire, mockery and criticism of Muhammad has a violence and death taboo around it. In that sense, Asma bint Marwan's fate illustrates a reality.
Some of the reasons around this issue are examined in a post from our forum which was written after Aqil Ahmed produced a two part documentary for the BBC in 2011 called The Life Of Muhammad
It addresses discussions of the prophet of Islam, how it is hard to have a truthful conversation about him when fear prevails, and how this issue is avoided, elided, denied and sometimes misrepresented, as Aqil Ahmed has done in his recent comments.Why Can't We Tell Jokes About Muhammad?
There is an elephant in the room, isn't there?
The problem is that anything other than a reverential piece that submits to the general taboos of Islam, and that is therefore effectively a kind of propaganda for Islam, would result in severe repercussions for those who produced the documentary.
(1) Why is there a violence / murder taboo around the criticism of Muhammad?
(2) How can a true appraisal of Muhammad take place when scrutiny and criticism of him is governed by fear of that murder / violence taboo?
Islam is a prosletysing religion that makes totalising truth claims, asserts that Muhammad is insaan-al kamil, the perfect man for eternity, whose life is exemplary, whose perfection is immutable, and to whom all Muslims (and eventually, through conversion, all non Muslims) should revere and submit to following the 'sunnah', or divine way, of.
Muslims, in fact, are enjoined to make a beneficent uttering after even speaking his name - 'Peace Be Upon Him', 'Sallahu alayhi wa salam'.
These are utterly extraordinary claims, and they are being made in the context of a religion that does assert its moral authority and message as a programme for organising society and the lives of individuals.
But the questions that should be asked about Muhammad are wider than the facts of his life and conduct, many of which are in their own right cause for criticism and alarm.
The BBC and some other parts of the media feel in some ways an impulse to 'explain' Islam as a corrective to the extremities of the faith, and the supposedly misguided or distorted image of the religion that this produces.
The problem arises when in doing so, they produce hagiography, and effectively produce a piece of religious propaganda.
Islam is an evangelical religion that makes very bold claims for itself. It asserts a need for 'dawah', or prosletysation as central to the life of the faith. And sometimes its difficult to tell where a hagiography of Muhammad ends and where 'dawah' begins.
Ultimately though, the overarching questions remain. How can a truthful discussion take place, when there are such severe taboos against critical scrutiny of the figure?
This also goes beyond the visceral nature of the fear inculcated by the violence taboo; it also manifests in the accusation of 'Islamophobia' that is too often made when an opinion about an aspect of Islamic practise, Islamic politics, tradition, or history that contradicts the 'accepted line' is made. This is another elephant in the room.
When these taboos, and when this fear hangs in the atmosphere, how can any appraisal of Muhammad, that takes place bounded by this fear, that is circumscribed by these taboos, and possibly even this 'dawah' impulse, be taken seriously?
Its not only that people resent being lectured to and being told what is acceptable to think and feel about a religion or a religious figure.
Its not just that we must respect Muhammad despite our own free conscience, and the ethical opinion we can form of him independently.
It is that hagiography of Islamic subjects is so often rarely even challenged, and that too often, Islam, and those who praise Muhammad, seek authority and make audacious self-claims, in an atmospherics of fear created by a taboo against criticism, because of a violence and slander taboo that overhangs the whole subject.
It is the sense of a kind of brazen 'one way street' of a prosletysing religion that demands respect 'or else', and asserts a projection of its own taboos against criticism and refutation onto others.
It makes it feel like a slightly sinister, coerciveness is at play. And rather than placating suspicions of Muhammad or Islam, it amplifies them.
Finally - if in any other walk of life, you were told that criticism or scrutiny of a living man or historical figure is taboo, that there has to be boundaries observed to any consideration of him, and that violence and threat and fear genuinely overhung this figure when any such scrutiny was made, it would be the most natural reaction of our free-thinking minds to identify an urgency to that scrutiny, to look at exactly what is being 'protected' by these taboos.
It is a sign of how much fear is at play, that so many people are too circumspect, self-censoring, and fearful to even point this out when it comes to Muhammad.