Why Mohammed would have given thumbs up to new Charlie Hebdo cover
Mohammed would have a little smile at the first front cover of 'Charlie Hebdo' since the Paris murders. He is depicted holding up a sign reading "Je suis Charlie" in sympathy with the dead journalists. He is depicted three million times, the captions translated into 16 languages. But that would not have fazed him either.
I know this because when I was researching radicalisation a few years ago, interviewing those who had travelled in and out of Islamist extremism, I was told many stories about Mohammed; wondrous canonical "hadith" (tales told about Mohammed by his companions and passed down). These stories had licensed my interviewees' critique of Islamism, giving them unimpeachably Islamic alternatives to fundamentalism, easing their exit from hell. And by offering them a redemptive script, they ensured nobody came back empty-handed.
Some of these tales established Mohammed as a tolerant man with a broad back, slow to react to provocation. One story has Gabriel come to the prophet and say "God has made you a messenger." So Mohammed went to a village just outside of Mecca with his companions to deliver the news to the people. But the people got the children to throw sticks and stones at him. The prophet was bleeding so much that his sandals were full of blood, the tale goes.
So Gabriel says to the Prophet: "God sends his peace on you. If you want, oh Messenger, I can command the angel of the mountains to crush these people by bringing in these mountains." Gabriel went on: "I can command the angel to crush these people because of what they have done to you and your companions." But the Prophet says: "I have seen this as a mercy. These people don't recognise me, they don't know who I am, and if they don't know me, their children will hopefully recognise me. If their children won't, then their grandchildren will."
Other stories portray a Mohammed not angered by insult. One has him going about his daily routine, walking to pray. He took the same route each day and each day a woman would sit on top of her house and throw rubbish on him. She could not be appeased. But one day Mohammed walked past and the woman wasn't there. So after Mohammed prayed, he returned to her house and knocked on her door. Getting no answer, he walked inside and saw that she was on the floor, ill. He said to her: "You didn't throw rubbish on me today." And she said: "No. I have been ill and nobody has come to visit me. You are the only person that has come to me." And, goes the story, after this woman who had threw rubbish on him every day was cared for by the Prophet, she accepted Islam.
Yet another story offers a very different idea of dawa (proselytizing) to the forced conversions or the dry-as-sticks hate-filled politicised indoctrination offered by the various stripes of Islamist. Here is the story: Mohammed declared his prophethood and freaked out the people. "He's a magician!" they shriek.
Mohammed then approached a woman walking away from Mecca, struggling with many bags. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Yes," she replied, "I am trying to leave Mecca. Can you carry these bags for me?" Mohammed carried her bags all the way up the mountain. Then he asked "why are you leaving?" She replied "Have you heard of this man called Mohammed? He is a magician. He is turning father against son, and he is destroying our whole community."
When they reached the end of their journey Mohammed put the bags down. The woman (unaccompanied by any male relative, I note in passing) said to him, "I have got nothing to give to you, but I will pray for you. What is your name?" "I am he that you have been talking about this whole way," said Mohammad. In the story, she too accepted Islam.
Yes, there are other, uglier, and equally canonical stories in Islam (each monotheism has some holy texts which are monstrous.) So one of the fronts in the battle for the soul of Islam - and to prevent radicalisation - will be the struggle over which stories get told often enough, compellingly enough.
As the novelist Phillip Pullman puts it: "All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions." Back to 'Charlie Hebdo'.
Which person comes closest to the near-superhuman patience of Mohammed depicted in these hadith? I nominate Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at 'Charlie Hebdo' magazine. She said this week's front cover headline ("All is Forgiven") is a call to forgive the killers. She said "We don't feel any hate to them. We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology."
They take your breath away, those words. They are themselves a story that can "create the world." And they take her closer to the spirit of Mohammed than were those poor deluded murderers who killed in his name last week.
Alan Johnson is Senior Research Fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. (© Daily Telegraph, London)