Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The “Teddy Bear” Crisis

Imam Zaid, December 09, 2007

The recent “Teddy-Bear” crisis in the Sudan in some ways illustrates the failure of many Muslims to understand a painful fact; one that if left misunderstood will probably lead to a lot of unnecessary bloodshed in the Muslim world, and destroy the opportunity for many western, non-Muslim people to benefit, at a mass level, from the many positive aspects of Islamic teachings. That fact is that the strategic preeminence of the Muslim world is long gone, possibly forever.

Were it not for oil, only three Muslim nations, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia would be among the world’s fifty largest economies, in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Turkey, a nation of 70 million people, ranks nineteenth. However, its GDP is equaled by Sweden, a nation of 9 million people. Egypt, which ranks fifty-first, also has 70 million people. Its GDP is smaller than that of New Zealand, a nation of 4 million people. The twenty-two Arab states combined have a GDP smaller than that of Spain.

In strategic terms, it is certainly true that Muslims have proven to be dogged guerrilla fighters able to wear down and expel invaders in debilitating wars of attrition. However, the ideologically-driven conflicts of the twenty-first century, unless current trends are drastically changed, will not be guerrilla wars. They will be conventional wars, which may involve tactical nuclear weapons used against Muslim peoples and their armies. These wars will not be wars of occupation. Rather they will be wars whose purpose is to utterly destroy what will be presented as an irrational, imperialistic force that poses an existentialist threat to the West, Israel, or India. In this latter type of warfare, Muslims have been systematically routed in recent history, and the strategic gap between Muslims and any potential rivals in the Twenty First century, in this regard, is rapidly widening.

How does the “Teddy Bear Crisis” fit into this discussion? It could be viewed as an attempt on the part of an embattled Sudanese government to project power vis-à-vis the West. As that power cannot be realistically projected in a strategic sense, it was exercised against a hapless Western citizen, Ms. Gillian Gibbons, who could be viewed as an inadvertent symbol of western hegemony. That pathetic exercise of power, which here in the West only generated more hatred, misunderstanding, animosity, and in some quarters just pain pity towards Islam and Muslims, represents a failed opportunity to present western people a view of the loftier legal and ethical teachings of Islam. Such teachings are increasingly lost as our community, globally, becomes ever more deeply entrenched in a stultifying literalism and an empty legalism that drains the religion of its ability to speak to a global audience at a higher, ethical level.

Were the Sudanese government not trapped in such legalism there would not have been a crisis. Fundamental principles of our religion and its law would have prevented such a sad episode. First of all, while we are bound to protect the honor of the Prophet, peace upon him, we are also taught that actions are judged based on the intention accompanying them—Al-‘Amalu bin-Niyyat. In the case in question no insult was intended, particularly on the part of the teacher. The fact that the idea to name the teddy bear Muhammad, came from the children in the class, and not from the teacher, along with the fact that they were trying to honor the toy by choosing the best possible name for it, clearly bears that out.

Secondly, ignorant people are not held accountable for actions they undertake while not knowing that they are forbidden. Such individuals are to be pardoned and educated, not punished and castigated. God mentions in the Qur’an, The servants of the Merciful walk with reverent humility across the earth, and when the ignorant address them they respond, peace. (25:63) Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi mentions that one of the meanings of the ignorant in this verse is “non-Muslims.” [1] Imam Tabari comments, “When they are addressed by those ignorant of God concerning the things He dislikes of reprehensible speech, they respond with good speech, and an appropriately upright level of discourse.” [2] Imam Ibn Kathir adds:

When ignorant people speak foolishly to them with foul language they do not respond in kind. Rather, they pardon and overlook [those slights] and only speak well, as was the case with the Prophet, peace and mercy of God upon him, the abuse of the ignorant only increased him in forbearance [3].

Ibn Kathir mentions the prophetic example. This is very important, for the Prophet, peace upon him, responded very differently to those who intentionally ridiculed and defamed him with the objective of undermining and belittling the prophetic office, and those who abused and insulted him out of ignorance. In the former cases his response was firm and stern, while in the latter case he was gentle and forbearing. One of the clearest examples of this is the instance when a desert Arab approached the Prophet, peace upon him, grabbed his cloak and pulled it so hard that its edge scratched the top of the Prophet’s shoulders, peace upon him. The man then said, “O Muhammad! [4] Order that I be given charity from the wealth God has deposited with you!” The Prophet, peace upon him, turned to him, smiled, and ordered that he be given something from the public treasury. [5]

Although this issue does not get to the heart of the matter at hand, it sheds light on the spirit that should govern how we understand the law in such instances. To merely see the law as a set of strictures that must be dogmatically enforced under all circumstances is to make a travesty of the law and mockery of the religion. The above narration and similar ones also gives us insight into what the Prophet, peace upon him, might have done is such situations as the one we are commenting on.

A related issue is the fact that in many areas of the law new Muslims are exempt from certain rulings. In many different issues we will read the caveat, “…and he/she knows of the prohibition [of a certain action].” If he/she does not know then they are not liable for their actions. If that is the case for a new Muslim, what then should be the case of a non-Muslim?

Muslim authorities, even more than individual Muslims, have to think of the long-range consequences of their actions. One of our legal principles is considering the implications and ramifications of our actions—an-Natharu ila al-Ma’alat. In this case, the actions of the Sudanese government have created a situation where a stark contrast can be drawn—a contrast amplified by skillful journalistic techniques—between the principles and compassion of Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Muslims are presented as so uncompassionate and inconsiderate of any higher human virtues that they will victimize an unwitting innocent person in an effort to uphold the law and allegedly defend the honor of the Prophet, peace upon him. The non-Muslim is presented as so principled and compassionate that she will forgive those who have actually oppressed her, and plead for understanding and empathy for Muslims. The impact of such a contrast on unsuspecting non-Muslims, and increasingly many Muslims is extremely unsettling.

In a global village where the real battle is the battle for hearts and minds is this the best Islam can offer? I think not. However, as long as we continue to prioritize politics and strategic affairs, our decided weakness, over principles and prophetic ethics, our potential strength, we are going to move from shameful crisis to shameful crisis and we will find our religion floundering in the wake of frantic mobs, massacred civilians, and non-issues elevated to the status of definitive statements of our commitment to the defense of our Prophet, peace upon him, and our religion.

At the end of the day, in light of contemporary global realities, our best defense of the Prophet, peace upon him, will never come through the mindless enforcement of a sterile legal code divorced from the principles that give it real meaning and substance. Rather it will come through living lives that reflect the fullness of the prophetic teachings and using those teachings to shine rays of light on an increasing dark and troubled world.


[1] Al-Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn Al-‘Arabi, Ahkam Al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, nd), 3:451.
[2]Imam Ibn Jarir At-Tabari, Jami’ Al-Bayan Fi Ta’wil Al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1997/1418) 9:408.
[3] Imam Abu Al-Fida’ Isma’il B. Kathir, Tafsir Al-Qur’an Al-‘Adhim (Beirut, Sidon: Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 1996/1416), 3:305.
[4] Addressing the Prophet by his first name as opposed to an honorific title is an insult to him. Appropriate addresses would be terms such as O Prophet! O Messenger of God! God has commanded the believers in the Qur’an; Do not address the Prophet as you address one another (24:63). In other words use proper and honorific terms of respect for him. When the desert Arab in this tradition behaved contrary to this advise, the Prophet, peace upon him, only smiled and gave him what he wanted.
[5] Sahih Al-Bukhari, #5809, Muslim # 1057

Imam Dr. Zaid Shakir is amongst the most respected and influential Muslim scholars in the West today.

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