Muhammad: More Than a Prophet, More Than a Cartoon

05/07/2015 04:14 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

While leading storytelling workshops with Syrian refugee youth, I found myself unavoidably drawn into a spirited exchange in which some perceptions of religion and culture both encouraged and discouraged the pursuit of self-expression, creativity and communication. Given the current debate on free expression, Islam and extremism happening in America today, I find this experience important to share with you.

MeWeSyria: Why Storytelling?

Storytelling is powerful...a gift civilizations passed on from one world to the next. Culture, tradition and religion have been the most prominent passengers of storytelling. If approached in the right way, the process of storytelling exercises faculties of empathy, critical thinking and pluralism. With this in mind, the MeWe communications workshops aim to activate and amplify storytelling capacities of disadvantaged youth through creative enterprise, script development and videos.

Whether implementing the workshops in North Africa, South Asia or the Middle East, there is usually a point where some youth hit a wall and question the entire creative endeavor. One day, I walked into a minefield of self-doubt, mistrust and anger among some of the Syrian refugee youth, which threatened to derail all of our progress.

"Why am I doing this?" one girl asked. Another interjected, " We feel like fools. It is wrong for us to be open and share stories so publicly." "Everyone is making fun of us," another added.

What was the source of this isolationism and fear? The youth cited examples linked with religious and cultural reasons.

"The wasp and bee feed from the same source; from one there comes the sting, from one comes honey," writes Sufi poet Rumi. His words materialized for me in this very moment.

We were both Muslims...both spiritually linked under Islam, yet we had completely different educational and spiritual experiences. Some of the students believed that culture and religion deemed it inappropriate for them to be on camera, writing stories and engaging in exercises for self-expression. This was particularly the case among the female students.

On the other side--Islam and the diversity within it--inspired the very project I was doing, and my spirituality drove me to challenge myself and be a global citizen. Rather than let the MeWe project's previous victories dissipate in the desert air, the day's workshops shifted to an open debate that challenged our identification of culture and religion.

Not without some friction, we drew inspiration from an expanded identification of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (P.B.U.H.). Muhammad remains so many important things to so many people. Some Muslims base their daily lives on what the Prophet did and said. But in the process of exploring Muhammad beyond his Prophethood, we rediscovered him as a human being, a communicator, a poet and social activist who relied on the faculties of critical thinking and self-expression to reform pre-Islamic Arab society and overcome social injustice. To express his revelations, Muhammad, like Jesus and his followers, engaged in the process of storytelling as a mechanism for building understanding and eventual reform.

It was during one of Muhammad's moments of critical contemplation on Mount Hira where the first words of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet as: "Read!" or "Recite!" The first revelations command the active pursuit of knowledge and communication, not violence.

While expressing his spirituality, Muhammad faced humiliation and ridicule, just as Jesus (P.B.U.H) did. Even under such vulnerability, he did not give up or resort to violent retribution. His peaceful retaking over the Quraysh in Mecca and the amnesty granted to his enemies, such as Hind, further demonstrated his constant pursuit for non-violent reform and compassion. This history seems lost today on both Pam Geller and the terrorist attackers in Texas and France.

Perhaps unbeknownst to the weak-minded attackers in Paris and Garland who claimed to defend Muhammad's name, the Prophet was actually himself an advocate for free speech and a victim to systemic barriers to self-expression in Mecca.

The unplanned, critical discussion with the refugee youth about Muhammad became a vehicle for expanding the communication of ideas and forms of self-expression. It was unlike anything I had encountered in my own education as a Muslim in America. It all started from the reflective process of storytelling and expression. The goal is not about agreeing. It is instead about understanding one another.


A living religion

"Living religions are by definition dynamic," the Islamic scholar Leila Ahmad writes. Muhammad's life--unlike the Paris attackers or supporters of ISIS--was a life of pursuing knowledge, critical contemplation and compassion. The pursuit of knowledge and reform did not die with Muhammad (P.B.U.H). These pursuits are living in Muslims all over the world.

Islam did not attack a conference featuring cartoons of the Prophet; it was two men. Three million of America's Muslims did not attack Garland, Texas; two terrorists tried, and they died alone.

Radical Islamists and terrorist organizations such as AQAP and Daesh (ISIS) do not see Islam or Muslims as being part of a living religion. They see one door to which only they have the key. Behind the door is not God, it is instead worldly power and political ends. The casualties of this are innovation, pluralism and communication.

The same is the case with governments who limit freedom of expression and pluralism in places such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the UAE. In fact, countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Tajikistan go so far as to centrally monitor speeches and events in thousands of mosques with cameras and tape recorders, a report from The Economist suggests. Ironically, several of these countries are key allies of liberal, 'free-thinking' nations of the West.

To keep the tradition living and not memorialized, communities, in particular Muslim majority communities must invest more towards educational reform and the expansion how Islam is communicated and debated at dinner tables and mosques. In some communities, there is tragically little room to challenge spiritual authorities or elders. But in others, such as in New York University's Islamic Center, for example, there are thriving spaces to openly debate and question aspects of religion.

On the other side, some non-Muslim communities in the West must guard against cheap narratives of Muslims and Islam that marginalize the brave, everyday actions of Muslims all over the world who are trying to make the planet a better place. Today, parents are walking their children to school in Peshawar after terrorists killed a number of students. Are these families 'not doing enough'? In the Zaatari refugee camp, not far from ISIS attacks, girls and boys brave the hot sun, walking for miles to attend a class just to learn something--anything--in a dusty trailer as fighter jets roar overhead. Are they not doing enough?

Another trend to be weary of among some extremists is to increasingly "defend liberal values by reviving medieval prejudices," as Karen Armstrong once wrote after 9-11. Pam Geller and Geert Wilders are experts of this tactic.

The responsibility to build a better world lies with all of us. Our ability--or inability-- for communication and understanding may determine how successful we are at nurturing and protecting people and planet.