South Park and Mohammad: Blasphemy and Violence
[The prophet as holy warrior that appears in the Islamic text Jami'al-Tawarikh, dated 1314-5. Is this image blasphemy? ]
they created a storyline in which Muhammed, though never seen, is purported to be inside a cartoon bear suit. Ever since a series of Danish political cartoons portraying and satirizing the Prophet Muhammad appeared, there have been worldwide protests and threats by Muslims. At issue, it seems, is that contemporary Islam regards any perceived insult to the Prophet, even the implication of him being invisible, yet present within an illustration, to be tantamount to blasphemy.
If only Internet death threats were to sum of it. Embassies and businesses have been burned, bounties have been offered against the artists and journalists connected to the cartoons, and dozens have died. Such events leave us puzzled by Muslim notions of what is “holy,” which in turn invites us to think about holiness as a concept.
The 20th Century German philosopher Rudolph Otto defined what is “holy” as the “numinous” -- that which fills us with fear and mystery. It is a good definition. As Isaiah’s angels testify (Ch. 6), the God of Israel is awesome and inscrutable –and therefore holy beyond measure.
Yet God also assigns a measure of holiness to things “outside” Himself. God declares the Sabbath to be holy (Gen. 2.3). God also sanctifies locations of revelation (Ex. 3.5). From such lessons Judaism embraces the concept of holy space and, especially, of holy time.
To these Christianity and Islam eventually added what historian Karen Armstrong dubbed the “cult of the holy human being.” But Armstrong also writes, “any symbol of the sacred, be it a building, a city, a literary text, a law code, or a man, is bound to be inadequate.” That inadequacy becomes evident when, for example, a religion criminalizes misuse or criticism of things regarded as holy – “blasphemy.” Judaism prohibits the abuse of God’s name (Lev. 24). The regnant Church went further when it determined that demeaning the person of Christ was a criminal offense. And, as we have come to learn of late, Islam made it a death penalty crime to denigrate any “holy prophets,” especially Muhammad.
Because of this, as the recent violence reveals, the holy can be a double-edged sword. It has the power to inspire, but also to inflame, humanity. Otto was correct - holiness invokes both mystery and terror.
But the idea of holiness is still a profound and useful insight, despite its inadequacies. Take Lev. 19, for example. The entire People Israel is collectively commanded, “You shall be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.” It seems on the surface an invitation to claim special privilege for the Jewish people above all others. But the wording of this passage crucial to understanding this particular idea of the holy. The Hebrew verb to “be holy” appears here in the imperfect form; it is not describing what humans are already, but prescribing what we must strive to be. From this nuance Judaism has learned to elevate self-criticism almost to the standing of a sacrament, a phenomenon familiar to everyone in the days approaching Yom Kippur.
Just important, holiness in the Bible is inextricably linked to the ethical. The same passage in Leviticus continues by saying that pursuing holiness requires of people that they “not deal basely…not take vengeance, or bear a grudge…. love your fellow as yourself…” Killing or jailing those who slight the honor of prophets and places does not protect nor advance holiness. Rather, such actions ultimately undermine the very meaning of holiness. All the Abrahamic faiths need to emphasize that just as The Holy One is Mysterium Tremendum, an awesome mystery beyond our control, so too holiness is a condition beyond human regulation. God’s holiness does not require defending -- it needs emulating.