March 24, 2023
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Commentary: Viral “Innocence of Muslims” warps Islamic history

The flurry of events in recent weeks surrounding the 14-minute “Innocence of Muslims” video invites reflection on the escalation of both anti-Islamic and anti-Western sentiments reveal how religion and politics are often closely intertwined.

Amateurish at best, “Innocence of Muslims” offers a biased and unflattering account of Muhammad’s life and character. Taking offense at these misrepresentations of a central symbol of their faith, some Muslims have responded violently.

During his lifetime, Muhammad was widely esteemed, both inside and outside of his community and unified the many tribes of the Arabian peninsula under his rule by exercise of his considerable skills in conflict mediation and political leadership.

Muhammad did not have an insatiable appetite for multiple sexual partners. Only after the death of his first wife did he take additional wives. Many of these subsequent marriages were motivated by political motives — alliances between families — and by justice concerns, providing financial and social security to widows.

The intention of the misrepresentations in “Innocence of Muslims” is to tarnish Muhammad’s character, and it is to that disrespect that some Muslims have responded violently. What is particularly Islamic about the offense being taken?

Some insight comes by looking to the role Muhammad plays in Muslim piety. While mainstream Christian tradition views Jesus as both divine and human, Muhammad was merely human. Like Jesus, however, Muhammad was someone one could look to as a perfect exemplar of faithful living.

Few Christians seriously ask: “What Would Jesus Do?” In contrast, Muhammad’s example is central to Muslim practice. In discerning how to live faithfully, a devout Muslim will look first to the Quran, and then to the example of Muhammad for guidance.

To have one’s model of human perfection depicted negatively, then, will cause offense.

But three additional factors also help explain the extreme responses we’ve seen in some Muslim-majority countries. First, largely to thwart human tendencies to worship revered figures, Islam — a strict monotheistic tradition — typically disallows visual images of Muhammad.

Second, Muslim-majority countries are in politically fragile states. Many continue to work out political restructurings following the Arab Spring that began two years ago or position themselves in relation to American military power. This political instability leaves these countries particularly vulnerable to attempts by extremist groups to gain power.

Third, all this happens in the context of an ongoing Islamic response to the challenges of modernity. Before the modern era, Muslim civilization generally surpassed the achievements of the West. Modernity has left Muslim-majority countries with a political project enmeshed with a religious identity that is still being worked out.

Mohsin Hamid, in his 2007 book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, offers an eloquent depiction of the tension the love-hate relationship with the post-9/11 West can evoke for Muslims from Muslim-majority countries. The main character, a young Pakistani man who had attended college in the U.S., tells his American interlocutor: “[I]n the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets and — yes — conquering kings … And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.”

I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to understand better the modern Muslim mindset. It would do one much greater service than the controversial video “Innocence of Muslims.”

In the end, “Innocence of Muslims” and the violent response it has drawn seems more aligned with these political projects than with religion per se. Rather than focus so much attention on who produced this offensive and misleading video, we would do well to identify which groups of Muslims are taking this opportunity to advance their particular political projects by responding violently.

Nancy Menning is an assistant professor of world religions in the Department of Philosophy and Religion. Email her at