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Christians Fret as Muhammad’s Family Comes Under Fire

Aisha (L), at the Battle of the Camel

Founding fathers are often sacred, but not sacrosanct.

In recent years, Americans have wrestled with the slave-owning legacies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Confederate statues have been toppled, ideologically refighting for some the Civil War. Pilgrims have become pillagers; Plymouth Rock equated with imperialism.

Muslims are having a similar moment.

Their prophet is called a pedophile. Their miracles, a myth. Successors to Muhammad are compared to ISIS. And it is not just Islam’s historic men. Two current global controversies concern two of the faith’s celebrated founding females: Aisha and Fatimah.

The International Union for Muslim Scholars has renewed its call for an international ban on insulting religions. And from India to England, Muslims have poured into the streets this month in protest.

Christians—whether leading such polemics or suffering under blasphemy accusations—have often been embroiled in such Muslim controversies. These latest episodes, many are relieved, are centered elsewhere.

“But Christians in both India and Pakistan are quite frightened,” said Juliet Chowdhry, a trustee for the British Asian Christian Association. “It is inevitable that as a vulnerable religious minority that is incorrectly perceived to be in league with the West, Christians will find themselves caught up in the anger.”

Thus they are keeping silent, said a Christian leader in Pakistan who—illustrating the point—requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Last month [May 26], a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India cited Aisha, often considered the favorite wife of Muhammad. Appearing on a talk show with Muslims, the Hindu official responded passionately when chided about a disputed temple.

Her prime minister, Narendra Modi, has led India in the direction of Hindu nationalism, stoking tensions with its 15 percent Muslim community. Though always a minority religion there, Islam ruled the subcontinent for centuries, with some ancient temples turned into mosques.

In one location, shivling idols were allegedly discovered last month. The Muslim talk show guests said no, their shape—holy to Hindus in honor of Shiva—resembled instead a fountain. The panel then descended into a heated discussion over the mocking of gods and goddesses.

“Should I start mocking claims of flying horses … and having sex with [Aisha] when she turned nine?” exclaimed the official. “Should I start saying all these things that are mentioned in your scriptures?”

Buraq is the name of the winged animal mentioned in Islamic tradition as carrying Muhammad on a night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. Similar traditions quote Aisha on her tender age at the time her marriage was consummated, while some more contemporary scholars cite evidence to argue she was in her teens.

At least 15 majority-Muslim nations—led by those in the Arabian Gulf—have condemned India, which in turn censured both the BJP spokesperson and another offending official. The grand mufti of Oman called the comments a “war on all Muslims,” while Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque described them as “real terrorism.”

Muhammad was 53 when he married Aisha, and Islamic sources indicate a happy existence together. Aisha grew up to become a scholar and a military leader, often honored by modern day Muslims as an example of feminist egalitarianism.

But she is also a center of controversy—resurrected in a recent British film.

After the death of Muhammad, a faction of Muslims believed leadership should remain in the bloodline of the prophet. Known as Shiites, this sect believes the caliphate was promised to Ali, the prophet’s nephew and husband to his daughter, Fatimah. About 10–15 percent of Muslims are Shiites, with the great majority residing in Iran, Iraq, India, and Pakistan.

Sunnis, the majority sect, believe Muhammad did not designate a successor. The community then met to elect one, a caliph, and the first three were chosen from among Muhammad’s closest companions. Ali became the fourth caliph, but in a clash known as the Battle of the Camel, Aisha rode the Arabian dromedary in a rebellion against him.

The Lady of Heaven builds its story around Fatimah, who Muslims esteem as akin to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In a poignant introductory scene, Fatimah is introduced as the first victim of terrorism, paralleled as an elderly woman comforts an Iraqi child whose mother was killed by ISIS. Winning awards for visual effects, the $15 million partisan film relates a Shiite perspective that the famed daughter of Muhammad died in childbirth—due to injuries suffered earlier in a raid ordered by his first successor.

Sunni orthodoxy honors the first four caliphs as “righteous.” Thereafter the community descended into civil war, with Ali and Fatimah’s children on the losing end. Hussain, the younger of two sons, was killed in battle, and his commemoration by Shiites is often accompanied by mourning and ritual self-flagellation.

Though Shiite-dominated, Iran banned the film as divisive to the Muslim community, while Pakistan, Egypt’s al-Azhar, and the Muslim Council of Britain all condemned it also. Following large-scale Sunni protests, most UK cinemas canceled upcoming screenings. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film’s approval rating…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 24, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.