Insulting Cartoons: How Should Muslims Respond?

Danish newspaper cartoons, the Charlie Hebdo caricatures, a Dutch parliamentarian’s proposed drawing competition. What’s the true Islamic response?

Over the last 15 years, some public figures have decided to discard all notions of genuine intellectual critique of Islam, opting instead to fan flames of division by stirring up sensationlized controversy. The deep, understated tragedy underpinning these controversies is that as respect dies, so does any chance of genuine dialogue and advancement in interfaith relations. 

Yet, this death of respect has not been unilateral. The violent reactions of some Muslims in different parts of the world that have followed these controversies are equally condemnable. To understand what the true Islamic response should be to such acts of ignorance, one must ask: What would the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) himself do in such a situation? 

It is undoubtable that Prophet Muhammad (sa) would be offended by these acts of ignorance. However, the dismay felt by Prophet Muhammad (sa) would not be on account of the attacks on his own pristine character as much as it would be at the utter lack of respect shown by one group of society to another, and the inevitable societal unrest that results from it. His life was dedicated to promoting a society where people of different faiths and backgrounds could live in mutual harmony. 

As far as attacks on his own person were concerned, the Holy Qur’an records him bearing every kind of insult with perfect patience. God Almighty Himself gave him words of comfort, expressing deep pathos: 

“Alas for My servants! there comes not a Messenger to them but they mock at him.” (Holy Qur’an 36:31)

Facing attacks throughout his life, Prophet Muhammad’s (sa) dignified response was always an embodiment of the following timeless guidance of the Holy Qur’an: 

“And the true servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth humbly and when the ignorant address them, they avoid them gracefully by saying, ‘Peace!” (Holy Qur’an 25:64) 

Thus, the unfortunate reality is that Prophet Muhammad (sa) would likely be more upset with the reaction of some Muslims today than with the ignorant public figures who instigate them in the first place. As a compassionate parent who wants to raise their child with the highest moral character, what is your response when they get into a conflict with another child? No matter how utterly wrong the provocative instigation of the other child may have been, a part of you is much more pained if your child fails to respond to that ignorance with dignified, high-minded character. Similarly, Prophet Muhammad’s (sa) life was also devoted to teaching his spiritual children, the Muslims of the world, to live with true compassion and steadfastness.

In Islam, that is the spiritual philosophy behind why all prophets face mockery. These elect humans possess a wide array of excellent morals which can only be manifested in response to certain circumstances. Persecution and heinous opposition allow these men of God to display the fortitude of their perfect patience and humility so that the world has an example of what good conduct in the face of ignorance should look like. Thus, Muslims of today must similarly respond to ignorance with gracefulness so that the world can attain a glimpse into the true morality taught by Islam. 

Yet, it should be absolutely clear that Islam does not advocate for a passive response. A Muslim should hold the honour of their religion and of every prophet (Muslims are taught to recognize the high stature of all prophets) zealously dear to their heart. This passionate love is a sign that one has a living connection with their faith, without which one would only have a nominal, empty association with their prophetic figures. Thus, Muslims should undoubtedly feel pain and sorrow when their faith faces ignorant attacks that lack any element of an intellectual basis. 

This zeal, though, should move one to gracefully defend their faith through passionate and peaceful dialogue. The long-standing track record of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is a testimony to this true Islamic response. 

Geert Wilders’ Cartoon Contest

In 2018, Dutch politician Geert Wilders called for a cartoon contest where he wished to invite people to come draw the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa). While some Muslims sadly responded with violence and protests, the worldwide head and caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), guided Ahmadi Muslims to launch the international #MuhammadSpeechContest. This contest invited Muslims and non-Muslims alike to speak about the inspirational qualities of Prophet Muhammad (sa). 

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The flood of responses that this speech contest generated overwhelmed the tide of hatred initiated by Geert Wilders. For example, award-winning German novelist Christine Wunnicke participated in the contest, commenting: 

" In its own small way, the Muhammad Speech Contest run by a group of British Muslims and open to everybody struck me as a prime example of how resistance against hate – “counter speech” in a very literal way – can look: Creative, positive, inclusive and utterly peaceful. As I’m interested in the traditions of Islam and in the diversity and richness of religions in general, I happily participated. "

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His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) has consistently condemned violence and guided Muslims to follow the true example of Prophet Muhammad (sa) in their conduct. In 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he explained that violence and protesting is against the teachings of Islam, which instead emphasizes peace and prayer: 

" Today, it is the duty of members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to pray for both sides to desist from excesses and cruelties. Similarly during these days, focus on reciting Durood [invoking blessings and salutations upon the Holy Prophet (sa)] abundantly. Those who can help to create a peaceful environment within their spheres of influence should make efforts towards doing so. May Allah the Almighty save the world from a state of anarchy and may the disorder and strife rapidly transform into a state of peace."
A Lesson From 1925 

This tradition of peaceful activism by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community extends nearly 100 years into the past. In 1925, a British newspaper, The Star published a cartoon celebrating England’s top-ranking first-class cricketer, Jack Hobbs, after he set a new record for an achievement in cricket. 

The cartoon depicted “a gallery of the most important historical celebrities,” and included Prophet Adam (as) and Prophet Muhammad (sa) among a group of historical figures that were all below Jack Hobbs, and gazing up at him in awe and envy as he towered over them. It also showed a long sword hanging from the waist of Prophet Muhammad (sa), while Prophet Adam (as) was shown to have an almost-nude appearance, resembling a chimpanzee.

As the cartoon was published, AR Dard, a missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who served as the Imam of the oldest mosque in London, immediately wrote a letter to the editor of The Star as well as to the Home Secretary of England. A sample of the letter is briefly included here, to highlight what true Islamic peaceful protest looks like: 

“Your Excellency,
In my capacity as the head of a very big section of the Muslim community in England, I deem it necessary to convey to Your Excellency on their behalf, and on behalf of many Egyptian, Indian and African Muslims who have approached me for that purpose, the feelings of fierce indignation and deep mortification that a cartoon printed in ‘The Star’, dated 18/8/25 (of which a copy is attached herewith) has aroused.
The cartoon depicts Mr. Jack Hobbs as a colossal figure. At his feet are shown to stand some very reputed historical personages, including among them Adam and Mohammad the Holy Prophet of Islam (may peace and blessings of God be upon him). Like all others, they are made to look at Mr Hobbs apparently in astonishment and bewilderment at the latter scoring so many centuries in cricket. This ignominiously disgraceful cartoon has inflicted a deep wound on the religious susceptibilities of the Muslims.
The Holy Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) is the most sacred personage for the Muslims. The love they bear towards him and the veneration with which they cherish his holy memory transcends all barriers of colour, caste and country…
I protest, therefore, most emphatically, against this despicable indignity loaded on our Holy Prophet (may peace and blessings of God be upon him) and request Your Excellency to give your most earnest attention to this very serious matter and set the law in motion against the offenders, so that the world may know that England is justly proud of her traditional fairness and impartiality.
Your Excellency’s most obedient servant,

AR Dard, MA, The Imam

London, 26/8/25” 

The response to this letter was deeply positive. The editor, the cricketer, and even the cartoonist all expressed their regret at the incident. 

Wilson Pope, the editor ofThe Star, wrote a reply to Imam AR Dard’s protest letter:

“The home secretary has sent me a copy of the protest letter regarding cartoons published in The Star on 18 and 26 August. Let me start by saying that the government has no right to interfere in this matter.
Let me also say that had we known that this cartoon would deeply wound the religious sentiments of Muslims, we would never have published it. I assure you that this cartoon was never, by any means, intended to hurt the Muslims. I am greatly saddened by the hurt it has caused to your co-religionists.”

Jack Hobbs, the cricketer, wrote to the Imam: 

 “ Dear Sir,

I am pained to know that the cartoon in The Star dated 18/8/25 has offended the feelings of all Muslims.
I need not say that I have no control over The Star nor any responsibility for the cartoons which it publishes. I am, however, pleased to learn that The Star has published its regrets and that it, and its cartoonists, would have refrained from introducing the figure of Mohammed (peace be upon him) if they had thought it could give offence.
I am sorry that my success in cricket which has been shared with me by sport-loving people all over the world has thus, unfortunately, become the occasion of wounding the religious susceptibility of my Muslim friends.”
I wish it had not been so.
Believe me,
Yours sincerely,

(Signed)  J. B. Hobbs.

Lastly, David Low, the creator of this cartoon, wrote in his autobiography about this incident of 1925: 

 “ [The cartoon] brought a large number of letters, eulogizing and applauding, which surprised me, and an indignantly worded protest which surprised me even more from the Ahmadiyya Moslem Mission, which deeply resented Mahomet being represented as competing with Hobbs, even of his being represented at all. The editor expressed his regrets at the unintentional offence and regarded the whole thing as settled…
The whole incident showed how easily a thoughtless cartoonist can get into trouble. I had never thought seriously about Mahomet. How foolish of me […] I was ashamed of […] drawing him in a silly cartoon.” 

 

Conclusion

The reality is that it is a shame that this conversation is even necessary. Respect is not a difficult thing to show one another. This incident from 1925 is an example of how an honest mistake based on ignorance of others’ religion and culture can lead to hurting their feelings.

Yet, it can amicably and easily be resolved when open, respectful dialogue can take place between both sides. 

However, in today’s world, one feels dismay at observing that such incidents do not occur as honest mistakes, rather they are done with the intention of mocking and hurting the sentiments of Muslims. However, whether it is the drawing of cartoons, or the burning of copies of the Holy Qur’an across various countries, including in the Czech Republic--the response of Muslims should invariably remain the same, as Prophet Muhammad (sa) embodied throughout his life. Others may seek to malign and hurt you all they want, but a Muslim must always uphold the high morals of compassion and patience that can ultimately guide society to establishing true peace. 

" And let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice." (Holy Qur’an 5:9)