Why are pictures of Prophet Muhammed forbidden in Islam?


I want to make it clear from the outset that pictures of the Prophet and revered figures in Islam are offensive to the Muslim community. My article below addresses the treatment of the event and school culture. This is a very sensitive subject and one I hope I have managed with respect and empathy.


The recent news surrounding events at Batley Grammar School has sparked a wave of outrage and controversy across Muslim communities and the media. For those of you who don’t know, a teacher was suspended pending an investigation into the alleged use of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his lesson, which has offended Muslim community members and students.


As a teacher, when I first heard this on the news I personally was not offended, I was intrigued. I was then perplexed as to whether I should be offended as a practicing Muslim. In any case, there are three things I want to clarify:

  • Idolatry and depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and other prophets are prohibited in Islam as they are ‘’infallible’ and revered figures, and ‘according to the Islamic faith […] should not be presented in any manner that might cause disrespect for them.’ (Dr Azzam Tamimi to the BBC in 2015);

  • A teacher has every right to spark learning and engagement within the parameters set out by the UK teaching standards, their experience, knowledge and understanding of their students;

  • In no way are death threats and aggressive behaviour a reflection of Islam.




WHY ARE PICTURES OF PROPHET MUHAMMAD FORBIDDEN?


This is a pretty fully loaded question and let me start by saying the accuracy here is only as good as Google and the references I have sought. Also, as a practicing Muslim, I don’t feel comfortable tagging archives and historical documents of Islamic images here.


There are apparently no transparent references as to why pictures of Muhammad are forbidden in the Quran. However, in the Hadith (quotes, events and experiences from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)) it is said that the idolatry and the creation or worship of images is prohibited – it is deemed disrespectful as stated above and the only One able to create is Allah (swt). Of course, Islam dates back to the 7th century, and there are plenty of historical artefacts and pictures where you will often find the Prophet with no facial features. From the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire (13th century) to colonialism tearing through the world, there were fewer and fewer depictions of the Prophet too – whatever way you look at it, whether it be from the perspective of power, history or religious instruction, this is followed by a large majority of Muslims if not all and it dates back to religious scriptures and historical narratives.


I haven’t answered this question in its entirety as it’s not something I know enough about. However, it is something I respect as a practising Muslim, just like I respect the principles and truth of all other faiths too. I may not agree or follow them, but I respect them and I would never want to knowingly offend anyone or any faith. And, I really don’t think the teacher in question did either.


TEACHING AND LEARNING THE UNCOMFORTABLE

In previous blog posts and in the many conversations I have had since launching School Should Be, I am constantly reminded of the glaring gap in our education system when teaching the uncomfortable. Whether that be racism, prejudice, classism, sexism…in this case, religion, adults seem to have a deafening problem with students learning about the uncomfortable. It’s interesting; when I googled ‘learning the uncomfortable’ I was presented with a range of articles from Forbes, Harvard Business Review and a few more all concluding that ‘being uncomfortable’ is the key to success.


These articles all link uncomfortable learning to a new skill and pushing outside the ever-cliched and demonised ‘comfort zone’ (which, I love by the way). As a teacher and a student, I’ve realised the uncomfortable isn’t a new skill, it’s the courage to address, discuss and explore taboo and socially accepted norms that remain unchallenged because of fear.

What this teacher tried to do was teach and enable learning. What the community are doing is in defence of their faith, perhaps triggered by a history of damaging criticism. What the media did was present an angle of Islam tinged with negative bias.

What the school now choose to do is up to them – however, it just goes to show the world how multifaceted the role of a school is in the lives of young people, teachers and communities. And as a previous Head of Department and experience on senior leadership, I really do empathise with the decisions they are having to make.


I think back to my time in teaching and the many roles I’ve held in education (including this one at School Should Be). I taught a wide variety of things: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, a variety of Shakespeare, Austen, Chaucer, alongside writing to argue, writing to persuade, creative writing….all the fun stuff, some might say. There is a great deal in all of these texts that is offensive, but how we manage and respond to that offence is another question entirely – death threats and aggressive behaviour isn’t the answer, unlearning, compassion and allyship is.

It is a teacher’s responsibility to be mindful of the different beliefs in their class. It is also one massive feat.

Should this teacher maybe have checked with parents beforehand, addressed it with their line manager, considered the consequences of displaying this image, and the context of recent events? Probably. Do they deserve to be threatened, cancelled and potentially used as a scapegoat? Absolutely not. There are now several articles reporting on this event and I’ve read through a few too many of them. What I’ve concluded is that this teacher is sincerely apologetic, did not mean to be provocative, in no way wanted to offend anyone and if anything, wanted to encourage a healthy debate.


Was the teacher’s use of the image offensive? For Muslims, yes. As a practising Muslim student and parent however, I would’ve liked to have been consulted and perhaps discussed the images as opposed to presenting them on the board. Bottom line is we all make mistakes in our professional careers and I hope this teacher is supported by their school and given the chance to learn and reflect on this experience. Islam is a forgiving and compassionate religion; in my opinion, this teacher deserves that.


NEGATIVE BIAS AND ISLAM

Death threats, aggression and threatening behaviour are in no way reflective of the Islamic faith or any faith for that matter. Someone once said to me, religion is only as good as the people who practice it. I think that’s a very weak argument, but one that is valid as it just comes from a different lived experience. As a practicing Muslim, the truth of my religion is more powerful than any individual or ‘people’ – those choosing to practice it in ill faith, or in my opinion, use the religion to front their aggression are the problem, not the religion.


Unfortunately, the images of the protestors and the response from community leaders have been presented in a negative light. I won’t lie, when I first saw the video footage and images, I was disheartened by yet again another media debacle, which only serves to fuel the negative bias around Islam. However, I can equally sympathise with the protestors – and I really hope you have the patience to reserve judgment until the end of this piece.


My earliest recollection of my religion in the media is the event of 9/11. I’m not going to go into detail, but ever since several reports, films and the like have always presented Islam and Muslims in a rather negative light. I’m not going to explain why or how, or go into the nuances, because frankly, it’s exhausting to constantly justify the way a POC feels – or in this instance, a person of faith. I’m not somebody who is easily offended, but I am someone who cares and is deeply compassionate. If you are too, then please understand that although the threatening behaviour is absolutely wrong, the hurt and anger around the events at the school come from a place of historical exhaustion and pain.


Many Muslims may have seen the teacher’s actions as another way of presenting Islam in a negative light. Why that image? Why not just a discussion? Why were parents not consulted? I am in no way condoning the threatening behaviour, but I think if we all want to live in a peaceful world (the idealist in me can only hope) we have to at least try and see where people are coming from and figure out a way to live in harmony with different viewpoints – not continue to antagonise and polarise.


When it comes to schooling, teaching and learning, approaching education with an open mind, without fear and I guess, with the knowledge you may cause some form of discomfort and controversy is important. Is it possible to cause offence? Of course! However, being offended and how you respond to offence is something to learn too.


I don’t want students to be scared of asking questions, to rely on social media for knowledge or to live in fear of their opinions. If anything, it’s important to just approach all discussions from a place of empathy, compassion…and sometimes (if not most), sheer common sense.


References:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30814555

https://hbr.org/2019/08/learning-is-supposed-to-feel-uncomfortable

https://www.forbes.com/sites/sujanpatel/2016/03/09/why-feeling-uncomfortable-is-the-key-to-success/?sh=bb7104719133

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/16/how-images-of-the-prophet-muhammad-became-forbidden/

https://nypost.com/2010/01/10/jihad-jitters-at-met/