When terrors attacks take place that put Muslims once again in the spotlight, or when vicious smears are published about the Prophet, peace be upon him, or when media commentators and pundits voice over and over talking points like “the problem is with the religion itself,” “Islam predisposes its followers to violence,” “Muslims are taught to fight and kill the infidels” – it is natural that Muslims desire to correct the inaccuracies and to change the narrative to one that is productive and based on authentic Islamic teachings. A good starting place in changing the narrative is to make sure that the narratives in our own minds – what we tell ourselves about these denigrations of Islam and dishonoring of the Prophet – is properly couched within the framework of Islamic teachings.
Putting things in perspective starts with the Quran. Allah SWT says, “Repel evil with something that is better. We are well-acquainted with the things they say” (23:96). The verse is referring to things that some people say about God, that He begot a son, that there are other gods besides Him – certainly things considered blasphemous. The same instruction, to do good in return for evil, is expressed in 13:22 and 41:34. In the commentary on 13:22 provided by Muhammad Assad in his translation of the Quran, he says, “…the great majority of the classical commentators hold that the meaning is ‘they repay evil with good’; thus Al-Hasan al-Basra (as quoted by Baghawi, Zamakhshari and Razi): ‘When they are deprived [of anything], they give; and when they are wronged, they forgive.’ Tabari’s explanation is very similar: ‘They repel the evil done to them by doing good to those who did it’; and ‘they do not repay evil with evil, but repel it by [doing] good.’”
Some Muslims might think “Oh, that’s when evil is done to me or to any other person. But the cartoons and other defamations are aimed at the Prophet (pbuh). That’s not so easy to tolerate or forgive.” The answer to that argument is that the Quran and ahadith provide ample evidence of the proper response in all cases. First, verse 23:96 quoted above, as noted, refers to the beliefs and utterances of those who associate other gods with Allah SWT. Certainly blasphemy against God is the highest offense. Then offense against the Prophet and then against any other person. So even when the offense is against God, we are instructed to return the evil with something good.
A story has been reported by the media which illustrates responding to an offense with something of goodness. A Muslim family, the Hiders, were traveling on a Delta flight on February 2 when another passenger was upset by the behavior of the Hider children. The woman turned to Darlene Hider, saw her headscarf, and said, reportedly in a mean-spirited way, “This is America!” Hider said afterward about the incident, “It was really difficult to be belittled and spoken down to because someone saw a piece of cloth on my head.” She added, “And it was so hurtful for my kids to watch.” The flight attendant, according to reports, dealt with the issue by asking the Hider family to sit in the back of the plane and when other passengers tried to defend the Hider family the attendant threatened that either they comply with moving to the back of the plane or they would be kicked off the flight. Hider has told the press that while she wants an apology from Delta, she is ready to forgive, and she forgives the woman who harassed her and her family. In fact, Hider said that while she was made to feel extremely uncomfortable and berated as a Muslim, she remembered how the Prophet (pbuh) would respond whenever he was mocked or disrespected or even attacked – that he would exhibit patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.
One well-known incident took place when the Prophet (pbuh) went to preach in Taif, roughly 19 miles from Makka and he was rebuffed in his dawah to the chiefs of the town. He then tried to talk with people he encountered in the streets and none was receptive to him, and many asked him to leave their town. As he left to return to Makka with Zayd ibn Harithah who had accompanied him, a crowd of townspeople followed them, shouting insults and throwing rocks. They were both wounded and bleeding and as they walked toward Makka, Allah SWT sent the angel Jibril to the Prophet, asking him if he wanted the angels to exact revenge on the people of Taif. He answered, “I rather hope that Allah will raise from among their descendants people who will worship the one God and will not ascribe partners to Him’’ (Bukhari and Muslim).
In another incident that shows that the Prophet (pbuh) did not respond with anger when treated roughly and disrespectfully by others, Anas (RAA) reported: “I was walking with the Messenger of Allah who was wearing a Najrani cloak with a very thick border when a Bedouin happened to meet him. He took hold of the side of his cloak and pulled it violently. I noticed that rough jerking had bruised the neck of Messenger of Allah. The Bedouin said, ‘O Muhammad! Give me out of Allah’s wealth that you possess.’ The Messenger of Allah turned to him and smiled and directed that he should be given something’” (Bukhari and Muslim).
Ibn Mas`ud (may Allah be pleased with him) reported: “I see the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) like one of the Prophets of Allah whose people beat him and make him bleed while he is wiping the blood from his face and supplicating, ‘O Allah, forgive my people because they know not’’’ (Bukhari and Muslim). The stories are many that describe the torments that the Prophet and his followers endured. They also detail the forbearance that the Prophet showed to his abusers.
One aspect of the harassment and persecution was contempt expressed through mockery. The Quran tells us that mockery is certainly ignorance (2:67), but that we are to pay no attention to foolish people (7:199) and when an ignorant person addresses a believer, the believer is to reply “Peace” (25:63). In many verses in the Quran, Allah cautions Muslims to exercise patience when others say false or critical or mocking things about the religion and its prophets and followers: “And incline not to the disbelievers and the hypocrites. Disregard their noxious talk, and put your trust in Allah. Allah is sufficient as Trustee” (33:48). Again, Allah SWT instructs the believers to stay away from those who mock: “And, indeed, He has enjoined upon you in this divine writ that whenever you hear people deny the truth of God’s messages and mock at them, you shall avoid their company until they begin to talk of other things – or else, verily, you will become like them” (4:140).
A Test of One’s Faith
A familiar theme becomes apparent in verse after verse – that among those who do not believe in Islam there are some who say negative, critical, disparaging things about the religion and its followers, but the point is to know full well that it is part of the testing of one’s faith: “You shall most certainly be tried in your possessions and in your persons; and indeed you shall hear many hurtful things from those to whom revelation was granted before your time, as well as from those who have come to ascribe divinity to other beings beside God. But if you remain patient in adversity and conscious of Him – this, behold, is something to set one’s heart upon” (3:186).
In fact, at those times when confronted by people who disparage the religion, one has opportunity to come closer to Allah: “Hence, bear with patience whatever they [who deny the truth] may say, and extol thy Sustainer’s limitless glory and praise Him…” (20:130). It is also an opportunity to purify the soul and elevate one’s character by practicing virtue: “Many of the followers of previous books wish that they could turn you back into disbelievers after you have believed, but you should pardon and forgive” (2:109).
One distinction is important to make. Some individuals mock, insult, and are quick to offend Islam and Muslims in various ways. They are distinct from those who are followers of another religion or who are atheist but are willing to engage in mutually respectful and dignified discussion and debate about Islam and religion in general. The Quran tells us with regard to these people: “Invite to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful exhortation; and argue with them in the most kindly manner: for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His Path and those who receive guidance” (16:125).
The Quran is full of stories about how God, prophets, and followers of religion are mocked and tormented by those who don’t believe: “Ah! Alas for [My] servants! There comes not a messenger to them but they mock him!” (36:30). And the Quran points out about the rejecters of Muhammad’s claim of receiving divine revelation, that they called him a fabricator of verses (16:102), a madman (15:7), a mad poet (37:36), a sorcerer (38:4); and he was called a liar like other prophets before him (35:4). The Quran also states, “Verily, as for those who affront God and His Apostle – God will reject them in this world and in the life to come; and shameful punishment will He ready for them” (33:57). These verses make it clear that God’s message and His messengers have always been roundly rejected and condemned and made out to be false by a number of the people.
Some Muslims point to cases in which the Prophet (pbuh) called for the killing of those who offended him. In fact, there are two hadith that record the killing of a man, Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, and all the men of the Banu Qurayzah, a tribe in Medina. In both instances the Prophet’s decision to have them killed revolved around their support of the Quraysh who were in ongoing, open hostilities against the Muslims. A good argument can be made that their crimes were acts of treason during wartime rather than acts of insult or offense; that their deeds were breaches of allegiance to the ruling authority in Madinah by aiding and abetting the enemy, rather than personal offenses against the Prophet. The death penalty in these two cases was applied. In similar fashion, the U.S. and many modern states have punishments for treason that include the death penalty.
A narrative is, simply put, a story and human beings love stories. It is a great way to bring to life the point you want to make about the Prophet (pbuh)
An Opportunity to Share Narratives About the Prophet
When someone brings up in discussion erroneous or even defamatory information about the Prophet (pbuh), it is the perfect opportunity to share narratives about his life and character. A narrative is, simply put, a story and human beings love stories. It is a great way to bring to life the point you want to make, or the defense you want to forward about the Prophet. If someone says that he was violent, for example, if I respond that Islam is a religion of peace and the Prophet was sent as a mercy to humanity, it can come across as a talking point and very likely the person has heard that many times before. If instead, one shares a story about him like some of the hadith cited above, it is far more likely to make an impact. Imagine being in a college class or with colleagues at work and the subject of terrorism comes up. Someone makes the statement, “Well, it’s not hard to understand why so many Muslims commit acts of terror since Muhammad was an angry, violent man.” One could answer, “Actually, he was the most gentle of men. His wife said that he was the last one to ever get angry and the man who worked in his household said that he never expressed any sentiment of dissatisfaction. One time a rough Bedouin man came and urinated inside the mosque, the house of worship. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was there with some of his companions and one of them harshly scolded the man. The Prophet told his companion to leave the man alone. When the Bedouin had finished urinating, Prophet Muhammad called the man over and told him that this was a place for the remembrance of God and for prayer and not appropriate to urinate there. The Prophet then asked one of the people to pour a bucket of water where the man had urinated in order to clean the area. The biography of Prophet Muhammad makes it very clear that this is how he dealt with people, all people, in the most kind and gentle way. He taught that a person who is not kind and gentle is lacking all virtue. He also said that the strong man is not the one who can wrestle someone to the ground but the person who restrains his anger. So whoever told you that the Prophet was an angry, violent man just doesn’t have the facts.”
The point here is that changing the narrative about Islam can very effectively include Muslims sharing narratives about the Prophet of Islam that discredit the untruths that are spread about him. And one of the most effective ways to illustrate just how benevolent and elevated his character was is to tell stories about his life. This is much more effective than making generalized statements about him (pbuh).
When Confronting Insult, Mockery, or Hate
To summarize the points made so far, based on verses from the Quran, we can list the following:
God’s religion and His prophets have been mocked and belittled throughout history.
The messengers of God have been insulted and otherwise verbally abused by adversaries.
God is well aware of this and will punish those who deserve it on the Day of Accountability.
Mockery is the talk of ignorant, foolish people.
Believers are to avoid the company of those people, but if addressed they should return greetings of peace.
Upon hearing hurtful things about God, His Prophet, the religion, or Muslims, we are to put our trust in Allah, remain patient and conscious of Him and extol His glory; we are to pardon and forgive the unbelievers and if it is necessary to respond to their calumnies, we should repel the evil with something good.
In encounters with non-Muslims who are sincere and willing to engage respectfully with Muslims, one is to discuss with them in a wise way, with beautiful exhortation, and to engage in augmentation that is kind, respectful, and gracious.
Words that mock and insult are like dead wood – fallen branches or stumps of trees that no longer hold the flowing sap of life, roots torn up from the loam and left to shrivel upon the surface of the earth, fruit-bearing vitality long gone. In response to those whose utterances offend and disparage, Muslims can return that evil with words that confer dignity and respect.
“Do you not see how God sets forth a parable? A good word [is] like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches [reach] to the heavens. It brings forth its fruit at all times, by the permission of its Lord. So God sets forth parables for people, in order that they may receive admonition” (Quran, 14:24-25).