Offensive depiction of the Qur’an’s sacred text

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Ramadan 11, 1430 2009-09-01

News & Analysis

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 7, Ramadan, 1430)

Why do people in the West think they have a right to insult the most sacred texts and personalities of Islam under the rubric of freedom of expression and speech? Hardly a week passes by without some offensive cartoon, artwork or piece of written material targeting Islam appearing in the media or other forum in the West. Muslims are all too familiar with the offensive Danish cartoons of September 2005 that erupted in worldwide protests in January 2006. These continue to reverberate around the Muslim world with Denmark subjected to fairly severe boycotts.

Now comes another offensive against the Muslims. An American artist, Sandow Birk, has come up with something he calls the “American Qur’an” — like the American Bible, that is full of violent and obscene images depicted on almost every page. Birk uses only English text but he makes no attempt to hide his hatred of Islam. For instance, one page has the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre burning in the background; a second shows a half-naked woman while a third has a pregnant woman depicted as part of his illustration. Liquor stores are also shown on some pages. Armed soldiers and tanks are widely used, clearly intended to create the impression that the Qur’an promotes violence. There is no shortage of violence in the world but most of it originates in the US or through its surrogate, the Zionist State of Israel.

Birk’s exhibition is to open in Calif-ornia at the beginning of this month. A number of art galleries in California — Culver City and San Francisco, for ins-tance — are displaying his exhibition including one inVancouver, British Columbia in Canada. No gallery would entertain such offensive material targeting other religions. For instance, no gallery anywhere would allow an exhibition ridiculing the Holocaust. Why are Islamic sacred texts open to such deliberate ridicule and distortion?

Muslims have naturally expressed concern over this latest assault on the Islamic sacred text. In the past, distortions related to misrepresentation of the words and meanings of the Qur’an; often Islam-haters also deliberately quoted Qur’anic passages out of context. Birk’s is a more vicious attack and designed to create hatred against Muslims at a time when Islamophobia is rampant and Muslims are officially targeted through US policies. In the wake of 9/11, racial profiling has become common; thousands of Muslims were arrested for no other reason than being Muslims. Masajid throughout the US face surveillance by FBI agents without even making an attempt to hide their identity and Muslim charities have been targeted and shut down.

Now Birk’s so-called “American” Qur’an takes this campaign of vilification several notches higher. There is no such thing as an “American” Qur’an; there is only one Qur’an and that is the revealed Word of Allah that Muslims carry with them and have done so for 1400 years. It is preserved and protected by Allah Himself as the Qur’an affirms authoritatively (15:09). There is also no such thing as an “American”, “European” or “Saudi” Islam. True, Muslims have used the expression “American Islam” to expose those Muslims that follow the American agenda in contradiction to Allah’s commands but to call the divine Book the “American Qur’an” is a deliberate distortion meant to cause offence and to insult.

Muslims also categorically reject any depictions of human or animal faces in the noble Book. Its pages are adorned with intricate calligraphy with passages from the Qur’an itself or geometric patterns but never images of humans or animals. Birk’s work depicts urban street life, office workers in their cubicles and pregnant couple in their front yard. Others highlight the smoking towers of the World Trade Center and a funeral with a casket draped in a US flag serving as background to pages of the Quranic text in English. Both the Qur’an and more particularly hadith literature expressly forbid images of humans or animals. One of the galleries, Koplin Del Rio in Culver City, tried to deflect criticism by saying “American Qur’an is not to be considered a ‘Holy Qur'an’ in that it does not contain the original text in Arabic.” This is a feeble attempt to downplay the magnitude of the offence.

The question that must be asked is: why are people in the West obsessed with insulting Muslims by attacking their sacred symbols? True, most people in the West have lost respect for religion but that does not mean Muslims too must follow this path. Muslims do not insult the religious sensitivities of other people; in fact, Islam enjoins great respect for the noble Prophets Moses and Jesus, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon them, yet some Christians and Jews think it is their right to insult Islam’s sacred texts and personalities and insist that Muslims must put up with them.

Birk’s work, even under the rubric of art, is unacceptable. He ought to learn and grow up.

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