Why riot?

You don’t have to be a foreign affairs expert to see that there are political reasons for the Innocence of Muslims-inspired protests around the Muslim world in what has been termed “the video incident.”  America’s recent wars in predominantly Muslim countries have heightened tensions.  U.S. support for Israel also contributes.

But this can’t be just about politics.  The video offended Muslim sentiments.  If these protests were really about politics, why were they not more widespread and why did they not take on a more explicitly political guise?

Americans find it difficult to understand the religious justification for these protests.  Either they are reduced to cultural relativism (“things are different in the Muslim world”) 0r they wonder if Muslims are so weak in their faith that any offense to their prophet pushes them to mass violence.  Neither produces interesting answers.

What Westerners fail to appreciate is the cultural milieu in which Islam originated and propagated. Islam emerged from a pre-existing oral tradition of poetry.  The influence is apparent in the Holy Qur’an, which often reads like poetry:

Say, “I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind,
The Sovereign of mankind,
The God of mankind,
From the evil of the retreating whisperer –
Who whispers [evil] into the breasts of mankind –
From among the jinn [spirits] and mankind.”  (Surat an-Nas 114)

Recitation of the Qur’an is art, and those with the Qur’an memorized are respected.  In early Islam, that was the only way to experience the Qur’an.  It is believed Muhammad was illiterate, so when he received the Qur’an from the Angel Gabriel he memorized it and taught it to his followers.  The sunnah, or the large body that encompasses the words and actions of the Prophet and some of his close followers, was also initially memorized and passed along orally.

Memorization and oral transmission were the privileged modes of gaining and disseminating knowledge.  How was it to be determined whose oral transmission was legitimate?  What would be done if two people remembered something differently?  In the case of the sunnah an incredibly complex system developed for evaluating the legitimacy of different ahadith (pieces of the sunnah, particular stories about things the Prophet said or did).  Was it possible that a certain transmitter could have had contact with another in order to pass along a hadith?  Did both transmitters live in the same era and were they known to have traveled in the same region?

The issue of legitimacy also brought into question each transmitter’s character.  Ignoring other variables, one might trust what one transmitter said the Prophet did over another if the first had a reputation for honesty while the second was known to lie.  The legitimacy of the information a transmitter passed along was intimately connected to the transmitter’s reputation:  how honest he was, how often he prayed, whether his teachings were consistent.  Character is vital to legitimacy in the Islamic tradition.

The connection between the legitimacy of the content and the character of the content’s originator or transmitter implies that criticism of the latter calls the former into question.  If a transmitter is not of high moral standing, there are implications for whether the ahadith he transmitted are considered legitimate.  Insulting the Prophet, the original transmitter, calls into question his message, or all of Islam.

In the Shi’i tradition a religious leader’s character is very important, especially in a Muslim’s choice of Ayatollah.  Because of the occultation of the last imam, Ayatollahs are selected to demonstrate how a Muslim should live her life until the last imam returns.  The importance of an Ayatollah modeling good character is captured in the title given to a well-respected Ayatollah, marja-e-taqlid, which translates as “source of emulation.”

This is strange from the Judeo-Christian perspective, which privileges text.  Jews are exigent about error-free copying of the Torah.  Western culture worries about plagiarism.  Improperly expropriating text undermines an author’s credibility and may call into question everything she has written.  We have little need to worry about an author’s character to decide whether a text is valid or not.

It is therefore not surprising that the Judeo-Christian tradition includes insulting, teasing, or at least recognizing the faults of religious leaders without it negatively reflecting on their mission.  In the Jewish tradition, many of the prophets are far from moral perfection, but their character flaws do not affect the sanctity of their purpose.  Most Christians had a good laugh at the late-night TV jokes about Jesus’ possible wife.  The ancient Greeks often mocked the gods.

There is of course no justification for the killings associated with the recent demonstrations.  But the importance of transmitters in preserving the Islamic tradition provides some insight into the anger a number of Muslims are feeling around the world, an anger that so many in the West cannot begin to understand.

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3 thoughts on “Why riot?”

  1. Leila Austin, my colleague who runs the global politics and religion initiative at SAIS, writes:

    With all due respect, I will stand my ground against cultural explanations. The manipulation of Muslim sentiment is unfortunately a reality but it has little to do with theology or doctrine. The fact that Islamists can easily mobilize a small minority (of mainly their own extremist followers) to protest something they most likely have not even seen, is more due to the fact that religion has been used by all sides to frame their own political narrative, hence leading to great volatility around religious issues. Unfortunately, without guaranteed individual rights, a non-existent secular civil society, and no democratic channels for contestation, inane religious issues become central means of mobilizing popular support for Islamist ideologues. This is especially true at times of transition where political struggles are persistent and everyone wants a piece of the pie. How come we don’t see protests in Saudi Arabia – the supposed guardian of Islam and Muslim holy sites?

    The media’s hyper coverage of a couple of hundred protesters is also to blame. The most tragic aspect of the hullaballoo over the idiotic trailer is that it distracts from calls for genuine democratic reforms – playing right into the hands of extremists groups whose main goal is to derail them. The good news is that this whole affair has started a dialogue within the Muslim World regarding the extent and definition of Muslim identity. It’s always good news when you see blogs and tweets from the region making fun of their own “Muslim Rage.”

    Sorry to be so long winded but I feel strongly about this issue.

  2. I have seen these types of protest in ex-communists protest. It was some type of mutant, composed of communism, nationalism and religion. In Islam world, with the exception of Pakistan where could be found sentiment for SSSR only in the context of its role in fighting Talibans, communism will not evoke nostalgia. I liked this post because explanation on the role of character in Islam however there is nothing surprising in seeing rage unleashed against the US and/or stronger western democracies in a transition period. I would look for cooperation moderate among both, nationalist and religious forces. I had some information that Nada Zohdy reported that Common Salafi in Cairo work against intolerance and that are complaining on how they are being treated in western media. We know that western media looks for clear and simplified image of bad vs. good for their viewers however middle east is all but that. I would make only one criteria when choosing with whom to work in middle east. How moderate he is, and by that I mean how much is he prepared for tolerance.

  3. “I have seen these types of protest in ex-communists protest.” – typo, it should state “…ex-communist countries.”

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