Monday, February 06, 2006

On symbolism

Well, I am back after giving my senses a break from the computer. Now I think I have given you enough of a break, so here it goes.

I am always amazed about how much people attach to symbolism. Of course, the latest eruption of Muslim anger over cartoon drawings of the Prophet Mohammad is not the only case. In the US, the issue of flag burning is a good example. People often burn the US flag in demonstrations. The issue has become so big that a constitutional amendment was proposed in order to ban the burning of the American flag. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, although the issue highlighted the debate between free speech advocates and those who would ban "unacceptable" forms of expression, in a way which would contravene the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the first amendment of the US constitution.

Therefore, the issue of the preservation of the sanctity of symbols is not limited to Moslems or Arabs by any stretch of the imagination. Danes were offended by burning of their own flag.

What one should remember that attaching too much importance on symbols is inherently illogical. A flag, after all, is just a piece of cloth. Now, I would be offended by the burning of a Jordanian flag, and I would be the first to admit that this is basically illogical. I am willing to live with the fact that people, including myself, can be illogically attached to a low priced inanimate object or representation. However, having accepted one's own illogic, must be aware of this and place his or her reaction within the context of the entire framework of the situation, so that the response will be proportional to the offense and the context.

Attacking symbols is a way of eliciting visceral responses. It is certainly not a gateway to dialog, and does not contribute to civilized discussion of differences. Having said that, one should ask some questions that might a proper frame on the issue of what would be a reasonable response:

  1. Why were the cartoons published? It is important to answer this question, as this should guide the reaction. Was the purpose to offend Moslems, or defend free speech? It turns out that the same newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) refused to publish cartoons in the past that would be offensive to Christians. So, Even if one were to take the newspapers assertion that it is defending freedom of speech at face values, this freedom is only there to offend Moslems, and not Christians or Jews. So, according to the actions of Jyllands-Posten, the feelings of Moslems are less important than those of other religions. Therefore, Moslem anger at the newspaper is justified.
  2. Does the Danish government have the authority to ban or control the editorial content of the press in Denmark. The answer is no.
  3. Does the publication of these cartoons reflect a prevailing anti-Islamic attitude in Denmark? The demonstrations that political parties have organized in Denmark show that there is a variety of opinions, but important components in Danish society reject the purposed insulting of Moslems. It is interesting that the US administration is sympathetic with the Moslem protesters on this.
  4. The most important question now: What do we want? In any struggle, there should be clearly defined objectives in order to decide when to stop. The Egyptian ambassador in Denmark has said that Jyllands-Posten should apologize. This is a good objective, and the newspaper has issued an apology here. I am inclined to think that the civilized boycott of Danish goods was more instrumental in this than the mobs burning the Danish embassies in Beirut and Damascus.

Moving beyond the issue of the cartoons, one should think about how we want to deal with Denmark and Europe in general. In other words, after all is said and done, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries are generally friendly to Arab and Moslem causes. Would it be useful to make enemies out of them?

A final thought has to do with the reason this became such an issue. The cartoons were published last September. It is important to keep our eyes on the ball instead of letting our regimes (and the US administration) channel our frustration to issues like this instead of focusing on the real issues that face the Arab and Moslem world. The Jordanian government seems to have jumped at the chance to prove that heavy-handed restrictions on freedom of the press are justified. What is this issue going to cost us in the long run?


At 12:02 AM, Blogger Oleander said...

yeslam fommak.

At 12:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post.

At 12:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wise man called Arthur C. Clarke once said: "There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum." :)

At 1:52 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

What one should remember that attaching too much importance on symbols is inherently illogical.

I agree with this, but not this:

A flag, after all, is just a piece of cloth.

All concepts in the world are in our heads, and they are valued in our heads. A flag is not a piece of cloth and a human being is not a pile of dust-atoms.

Actions are not evil, but intentions are. As you say, we have to find the real intention & cause of the cartoons. Keeping symbolism at its right level will allow us to see the intentions.

besides that... I mostly agree with you. Nice & thoughtful post.

At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Khalaf, this is a very interesting post to reply to :D

While your thoughts on symbolism were very well articulated in your post that managed to display the kind of logic that I believe everyone should agree with, there is still one problem:

the prophets (peace be upon them) are not just symbols!

At 11:54 PM, Blogger Mai Daader said...


Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a mercy to all human beings, regardless of their religious background. We, as his followers, must live and spread this message today at a time when hatefulness and ugliness towards each other has become the norm.

The statements of the world well-known personalities about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), like Sir George Bernard Shaw, Michael H. Hart, Encyclopedia Britannica, Thomas Calyle, Mahatma Gandhi, Lamar Tine and Prof. Rama Krishna Rao etc.


".... A mass of detail in the early sources show that he was an honest and upright man who had gained the respect and loyalty of others who were like-wise honest and upright men." (Vol. 12)

Sir George Bernard Shaw in 'The Genuine Islam,' Vol. 1, No. 8, 1936.

"If any religion had the chance of ruling over England, nay Europe within the next hundred years, it could be Islam."

"I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion, which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence, which can make itself appeal to every age. I have studied him - the wonderful man and in my opinion far from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the Savior of Humanity."

"I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness: I have prophesied about the faith of Muhammad that it would be acceptable to the Europe of tomorrow as it is beginning to be acceptable to the Europe of today."

He was by far the most remarkable man that ever set foot on this earth. He preached a religion, founded a state, built a nation, laid down a moral code, initiated numerous social and political reforms, established a powerful and dynamic society to practice and represent his teachings and completely revolutionized the worlds of human thought and behavior for all times to come.

"HIS NAME IS MUHAMMAD" May Peace of God Be Upon Him (pbuh) He was born in Arabia in the year 570 C.E. (common era), started his mission of preaching the religion of Truth, Islam (submission to One God) at the age of forty and departed from this world at the age of sixty-three.

During this short period of 23 years of his Prophethood, he changed the complete Arabian peninsula from paganism and idolatry to worship of One God, from tribal quarrels and wars to national solidarity and cohesion, from drunkenness and debauchery to sobriety and piety, from lawlessness and anarchy to disciplined living, from utter bankruptcy to the highest standards of moral excellence. Human history has never known such a complete transformation of a people or a place before or since - and IMAGINE all these unbelievable wonders in JUST OVER TWO DECADES.

MICHAEL H. HART in his recently published book on ratings of men who contributed towards the

benefit and upliftment of mankind writes:

"My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world's most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels." (M.H. Hart, THE 100: A RANKING OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSONS IN HISTORY, New York, 1978, p. 33) Lamar tine the renowned historian speaking on the essentials of human greatness wonders:

"If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astounding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad? The most famous men created arms, laws and empires only. They founded, if anything at all, no more than material powers which often crumbled away before their eyes. This man moved not only armies, legislation, empires, peoples and dynasties, but millions of men in one-third of the then inhabited world; and more than that, he moved the altars, the gods, the religions, the ideas, the beliefs and souls.... his forbearance in victory, his ambition, which was entirely devoted to one idea and in no manner striving for an empire; his endless prayers, his mystic conversations with God, his death and his triumph after death; all these attest not to an imposture but to a firm conviction which gave him the power to restore a dogma. This dogma was two-fold, the unity of God and the immateriality of God; the former telling what God is, the latter telling what God is not; the one overthrowing false gods with the sword, the other starting an idea with the words.

"Philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of rational dogmas, of a cult without images, the founder of twenty terrestrial empires and of one spiritual empire, that is MUHAMMAD. As regards all the standards by which Human Greatness may be measured, we may well ask, IS THERE ANY MAN GREATER THAN HE?"

(Lamar tine, HISTOIRE DE LA TURQUIE, Paris, 1854, Vol. II, pp 276-277)

The world has had its share of great personalities. But these were one-sided figures who distinguished themselves in but one or two fields, such as religious thought or military leadership. The lives and teachings of these great personalities of the world are shrouded in the mist of time. There is so much speculation about the time and place of their birth, the mode and style of their life, the nature and detail of their teachings and the degree and measure of their success or failure that it is impossible for humanity to reconstruct accurately the lives and teachings of these men.

Not so this man. Muhammad (pbuh) accomplished so much in such diverse fields of human thought and behavior in the fullest blaze of human history. Every detail of his private life and public utterances has been accurately documented and faithfully preserved to our day. The authenticities of the record so preserved are vouched for not only by the faithful followers but also even by his prejudiced critics.

Muhammad (pbuh) was a religious teacher, a social reformer, a moral guide, an administrative colossus, a faithful friend, a wonderful companion, a devoted husband, a loving father - all in one. No other man in history ever excelled or equaled him in any of these different aspects of life - but it was only for the selfless personality of Muhammad (pbuh) to achieve such incredible perfections.

MAHATMA GANDHI Speaking on the character of Muhammad, (pbuh) says in YOUNG INDIA:

"I wanted to know the best of one who holds today's undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind.... I became more than convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for his pledges, his intense devotion to this friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle. When I closed the 2nd volume (of the Prophet's biography), I was sorry there was not more for me to read of the great life."

THOMAS CALYLE in his HEROES AND HEROWORSHIP, was simply amazed as to:

"How one man single-handedly, could weld warring tribes and wandering Bedouins into a most powerful and civilized nation in less than two decades."

"The lies (Western slander) which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man (Muhammad) are disgraceful to ourselves only."

"A silent great soul, one of that who cannot but be earnest. He was to kindle the world, the world's Maker had ordered so."


"Muhammad was the soul of kindness, and his influence was felt and never forgotten by those around him." (D.C. Sharma, THE PROPHETS OF THE EAST, Calcutta, 1935, pp. 12)

EDWARD GIBBON and SIMON OCKLEY speaking on the profession of ISLAM write:

"'I BELIEVE IN ONE GOD, AND MAHOMET, AN APOSTLE OF GOD' is the simple and invariable profession of Islam. The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the honor of the Prophet has never transgressed the measure of human virtues; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion." (HISTORY OF THE SARACEN EMPIRES, London, 1870, p. 54) Muhammad (pbuh) was nothing more or less than a human being. But he was a man with a noble mission, which was to unite humanity on the worship of ONE and ONLY ONE GOD and to teach them the way to honest and upright living based on the commands of God. He always described himself as, 'A Servant and Messenger of God,' and so indeed every action of his proclaimed to be.

The famous poetess of India, SAROJINI NAIDU says:

"It was the first religion that preached and practiced democracy; for, in the mosque, when the call for prayer is sounded and worshippers are gathered together, the democracy of Islam is embodied five times a day when the peasant and king kneel side by side and proclaim: 'God Alone is Great'... I have been struck over and over again by this indivisible unity of Islam that makes man instinctively a brother." S. Naidu, IDEALS OF ISLAM, vide Speeches & Writings, Madras, 1918, p. 169)

In the words of PROF. HURGRONJE:

"The league of nations founded by the prophet of Islam put the principle of international unity and human brotherhood on such universal foundations as to show candle to other nations." He continues: "The fact is that no nation of the world can show a parallel to what Islam has done towards the realization of the idea of the League of Nations."

The world has not hesitated to raise to divinity, individuals whose lives and missions have been lost in legend. Historically speaking, none of these legends achieved even a fraction of what Muhammad (pbuh) accomplished. And all his striving was for the sole purpose of uniting mankind for the worship of One God on the codes of moral excellence. Muhammad (pbuh) or his followers never at any time claimed that he was a Son of God or the God-incarnate or a man with divinity - but he always was and is even today considered as only a Messenger chosen by God.

K. S. RAMAKRISHNA RAO, an Indian Professor of Philosophy in his booklet, "Muhammad, The Prophet of Islam," calls him the "PERFECT MODEL FOR HUMAN LIFE." Prof. Ramakrishna Rao explains his point by saying: "The personality of Muhammad, it is most difficult to get into the whole truth of it. Only a glimpse of it I can catch. What a dramatic succession of picturesque scenes! There is Muhammad, the Prophet. There is Muhammad, the Warrior; Muhammad, the Businessman; Muhammad, the Statesman; Muhammad, the Orator; Muhammad, the Reformer; Muhammad, the Refuge of Orphans; Muhammad, the Protector of Slaves; Muhammad, the Emancipator of Women; Muhammad, the Judge; Muhammad, the Saint. All in all these magnificent roles, in all these departments of human activities, he is alike a hero."

Today after a lapse of fourteen centuries, the life and teachings of MUHAMMAD (pbuh) have survived without the slightest loss, alteration or interpolation. They offer the same undying hope for treating mankind's many ills, which they did when he was alive. This is not a claim of Muhammad's (pbuh) followers but also the inescapable conclusion forced upon by a critical and unbiased history.

The least you could do, as Muslims or non-Muslims, as thinking and concerned human beings, is to stop for a moment and ask yourself: These statements/comments sounding so extraordinary and revolutionary come from renown and intellectually honest and internationally recognized persons of their times who were not Muslim. Isn't it time for all Muslims and non Muslims to respond to this tremendous challenge and put in some effort to know him, follow him and emulate him in our day to day life? It will cost us nothing but it may prove to be the beginning of a completely new era in our lives.


Courtesy: Abdullah AM []

Compiled, edited and adapted by Khalid Latif

At 11:55 PM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Hi Hamzeh: The prophets are not symbols, but cartoons and drawings are. They are representations of what the artists feel about them, which is completely different than how Muslims feel.

At issue is not the status of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) or the other prophets. No Muslim feels that the status of the Prophet has been lowered by some cartoons. At issue is the perceived status of Moslems themselves, who feel the demeaning of the Prophet is demeaning to them. The drawings are just drawings if all of this symbolism is taken away.

At 12:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Khalaf, of course no one will believe that one man's insult will change another man's status. But that doesn't mean that these cartoons were an insult to a great man that once lived on this Earth and who has a great following. The cartoons weren't an insult to an Islamic symbol, they [the cartoons] might now be considered symbols of western lack of understanding of Islam, but the issue that's driving most muslims towards reacting today is an insult to a specific person, a man with very specific deeds.

That's why your words on "people's attachment to symbolism" apply perfectly to the burning of their nation's flag, but I don't think they apply to these cartoons, because they were an attack on a person, a human being like you and me.

If I insulted you now and your friend came to your defence, would I say he was strongly attached to symbolism? No, he would be defending you not because he's defending the friendship, but because he will love you as a person.


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