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Insulting Prophets: Between Islamic Totalitarianism and Tolerant Pluralism 

By Leo Igwe
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The arrest Mubarak Bala has compelled a revisit of the issue of insulting prophets. Some muslims filed a petition complaining that Mubarak Bala insulted the prophet of Islam. They are asking the police to investigate and prosecute him. Others are threatening to kill him.

From time to time, Muslims have given the impression that they are the only religious constituency whose prophet could be insulted or whose sensibilities could be offended. Muslims have accused other Muslims or persons from other religious or philosophical traditions of saying or writing things that defamed the prophet of Islam. By the way, when Muslims say the prophet, they usually refer to Muhammad, not Isa or other messengers. These allegations of insulting the prophet are usually forms of death sentence and lead to violent protests and bloodshed.

In the light of Mubarak’s arrest including the death threats that he has received from members of the Muslim community in Nigeria and beyond(See attached photo), it is pertinent to take a critical look at this frequent allegation of insulting the prophet of Islam.

Islam is not the only prophetic religion. Is it? There are others-other religions and other prophets. There are personalities from various traditions that people cherish just as Muslims respect the prophet, Muhammad. Judaism, Christianity, and Bahai have their prophets, which they treat with uttermost regard. In fact, in the case of Christianity, Jesus Christ is not seen as a prophet as Muslims believe. Jesus is designated as the son of God and savior of the world.

Strictly speaking, Islam speaks to a foundation that detracts from Christianity and disrespects Jesus, the Christian savior of the world.

Even those who do not espouse a religious faith, atheists, and freethinkers have philosophers, sages, and scholars that they reckon with as Muslims reckon with Muhammad. So, Muslims are not the only ones who have prophets. People of all cultures have ‘prophets’ that they respect and cherish. Societies have personalities, dead or alive, that they hold dear as Muslims hold the prophet of Islam.

Take for instance Nigeria’s Sat Guru Maharaji. He claims to be the latest manifestation of prophethood, a successor to Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, and others. As their greatest messenger, the devotees treat him with the highest regard; they respect him as Muslims respect Muhammad. However it would be shockingly strange for devotees of Guru Maharaji to expect non-devotees to treat and revere Guru Maharaji the way that they do. It will be utterly insane for them to kill or threaten to murder those who say disparaging things or entertain other views about Guru Maharaji.

Unfortunately, this is the lunacy, the viciousness that drives the insult-the-prophet-and-be-killed form of Islam, which is pervasive in Northern Nigeria.

Muslims are using threats and intimidation to foist censorship on everyone. They are using violence to silence critics and stop people from expressing their views about the prophet of Islam. Meanwhile, Muslim individuals and scholars go about promoting their religion and criticizing other religions and traditions. Islamic clerics travel across the country preaching and saying whatever they like about other religions and prophets including statements that could provoke or anger non-muslims. But no one has accused them of insulting their prophet.

Muslims should not expect that all persons would say things about the prophet that would always be respectful. That amounts to Islamic totalitarianism. And totalitarian ideologies are incompatible with norms and canons of a free society. In a free society, people may have to say and write things that could hurt others. Muslims should learn to live and co-habit in pluralistic settings where diverse views and notions of the prophet apply. They should not expect everyone to revere the prophet of Islam the way that they do. They should know that in a multicultural society some people will say, write or post comments that are offensive. Yes Muslims should learn to tolerate offensive remarks from others. Just as other persons have learnt tolerate offensive remarks from Muslims. That is tolerant pluralism.

More especially, Muslims should realize that Muhammad is the prophet of Islam, not of Christianity, traditional religion, or atheism. Muhammad is not the prophet of the world. The prophet of Islam has many sides and could be seen from various prophetic and non prophetic perspectives. Thus diverse views and opinions about the prophet of Islam exist. In the light of Mr. Bala’s arrest and persecution, Muslims in Nigeria must choose whether they want to go the path of Islamic totalitarianism and extremism or they want to embrace tolerant pluralism and peaceful co-existence with persons of other faiths or none.