“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”1
This opening observation in Guy Debord’s seminal work underscores the inherent duplicities in pseudo-events represented through spectacular image-making. With all its successes, the post-modern rise of technology, of cinematography, of state power and individual autonomy has furthered man’s potential of narcissistic grandiosity, of arrogance, self-entitlement and exploitative behaviours. In light of this, this article will consider the behaviourism of the flamboyant denier, drawing on anticipated behaviour of antagonists, their tendencies and pathology as described in the Qur’an. There is nothing new nor remarkable in flamboyant denial; patterns of disbelief and indifference are one and the same; God has provided sufficient examples to discern such attitudes and tendencies. The Qur’an characterises such denial as paying no heed to the divine instructive, seeking “to refute the truth with false arguments and make fun of My messages and warnings.”2
Flamboyant denial and indifference
The 19th and 20th centuries brought rapid changes in the culture of cinematography and picture-making. The horrific lynching of black men in America during this period brings to light the pathology of indifference and denial that the culture of spectacle creates. The lynchings were initially discrete events, hidden from public view. However, over time, with the rise of cinematography and ‘image-making’, they became public and publicised events. This exposed the flamboyant indifference of the lynchers, as it revealed their lack of sympathy. It exhibited their flamboyant denial, refusing to accept their humanity, forsaking the universal moral truth that all humans have a right to dignity and safety.
The execution of Will Mack in 1909 that occurred in Brandon, Mississippi was attended by up to a crowd of more than 3,000 people. They arrived on trains and buggies while vendors sold soda pop, ice cream, peanuts and watermelon. The sobriety of the occasion for Black people was grotesquely juxtaposed with the collective indifference of attendees and the flamboyance of the occasion. Pre-lynching and post-lynching pictures of victims sought to create a twisted pictorial narrative – dread and fear was altogether fulfilled with humiliation in death. 6,000 people attended the execution of Charles Johnston in Swainsboro, Georgia in 1893, an event which hosted shows as side attractions. Such lynchings and executions resemble modern theatrical entertainment, events of thrilling amusement. Nowadays the smartphone has allowed multitudes to attend, create and publicise similar events of public abuse, humiliation and death. Far removed from such haunting scenes of murder, yet nevertheless symptomatic of similar trends in iconography, American Christian evangelist Warren Wiersbe draws on a telling exposition of contemporary Christian preaching:
“A subtle change took place; many churches almost ceased to be congregations to worship God and became audiences gathered to watch men. Believers who used to be participants in sacred liturgy became spectators at a religious performance. “Sanctuaries” dedicated to the worship of God became “auditoriums” where the goats laughed and the sheep languished. We began to worship what A.W. Tozer called “the great God entertainment.”3
The Qur’an and flamboyant denial
The Qur’an reveals that man sometimes basks in moments of playful recklessness. Playful, insomuch that enjoyment has the force of temporarily removing him from a heart and mind that is otherwise solemn, and reckless insomuch that the playful is void of any moral restraint. The playfully reckless thus comes to exhibit a kind of vainglory in his self and mannerism. This is reflected clearly in the character of the Pharaoh unto whom Prophet Mūsa (Moses) was sent.
The narrative of Prophet Mūsa and Pharaoh is the most oft-repeated in the Qur’an. Pharaoh’s denial of the message delivered to him by Prophet Mūsa was not a silent dismissal, an impassive refusal, but instead a glorying in his arrogance, a spectacular display of flamboyant denial. The Qur’an draws repeatedly on this human tendency – of the coupling of denial with an evocation of the flamboyant. The Qur’an describes the staging of his spectacle:
“but he denied it and refused [the faith].
He turned away and hastily
gathered his people, proclaiming,
‘I am your supreme lord,’
so God condemned him to punishment in the life to come as well as in this life
there truly is a lesson in this for anyone who stands in awe of God.”4
Such grandiose narcissism is typified by a sense of interpersonal dominance and spectacular arrogance. The Pharaoh was equipped with the apparatus that made all the more possible his flamboyant declaration and the gathering was right for the occasion.
In recent years there has been an amplifying of open displays of Islam rejection, Qur’an desecration and insult. 5 A very recent example involved a prominent Christian YouTuber David Wood who tore out and ate a page of the Qur’an. This, in a manner entirely predictable, was followed up by others (ex-Muslims) who put on display the same action. The allure of click-bait was all too unavoidable. In similar fashion a video published on YouTube on 16th September 2015, entitled ‘Christians ripping up Koran at university’, shows a man standing before a crowd, allegedly at an American university campus and giving a speech on the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Islam, and the Qur’an. Challenged by the crowd, the speaker gets increasingly agitated and begins to tear out pages of the Qur’an that he is carrying. The act of ripping pages from a copy of the Qur’an and chewing them, of throwing the Qur’an to the floor, burning of the Qur’an and other acts of desecration are the kinds also reported from prison camps run by the US military in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, where prison guards have allegedly used copies of the Qur’an for target practice.6
According to the 5th edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, cluster B of the ten personality disorders include Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Histrionic Personality Disorder. The report describes those who exhibit a histrionic personality disorder as “flamboyant and theatrical, exhibiting an exaggerated degree of emotional expression yet simultaneously, their emotional expression is vague, shallow, and lacking in detail.”7 The Qur’an informs its readers that such arrogant denial, stage-setting and flamboyancy is not a new phenomenon. It was instead well anticipated. Seventy-eight times is the verb tawalla (to turn away) used in the Qur’an with its derivatives ʿataw(exceeding all bounds), ‘utuwwan (with insolence) and ‘itiyyan (extreme rebellion). The Qur’an declares:
“Great arrogance have they assumed in regard to themselves, and have transgressed all limits in their rebellion.”8
Several verses of the Qur’an draw on the trait of arrogance displayed by rejectors of the divine message. The Qur’an informs its readers,
“Indeed, they were, when it was said to them, ‘(There is) no god except Allah,’ were arrogant.”9
“The disbelievers say, ‘Do not listen to this Quran; drown it in frivolous talk: you may gain the upper hand.’”10
Qur’anic commentators al-Baghawī and al-Saʿdī explain this verse by commenting that it means “To speak with words that have no benefit or purpose, to make noise to throw people off”11, with “idle talk, vanity and poetry.”12 The side-attractions are what create the noise and fanfare around a highly important discourse. The way a staged spectacle of suffering gave rise to a culture of bystanding and indifference as in the cases of Black lynchings, throwing an audience off by introducing distractions, of “frivolous talk”, was one of the methods of the disbelievers to circumvent the most pressing of concerns. Furthermore, the Qur’an describes “and whenever they pass by them, they wink at one another [derisively];”13 Al-Saʿdī describes that “with their insolence and mockery you see them content and unbothered by their opposition to faith.”14 The Qur’an further exposes, “Time and time again My messages were recited to you, but you turned arrogantly on your heels, [and,] impelled by your arrogance, you would talk senselessly far into the night.”15 God had long anticipated the behaviours of the antagonistic. If they were not disposed to reading the Qur’an, the Qur’an indeed read them.
Like the performance of David Wood the unrelenting, defamatory portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ by Charlie Hebdo are a glaring example of the pathology of flamboyant denial and rejectors of the Divine message. A symbolic stalwart for liberalism, Charlie Hebdo is pawned by a liberal elite who are under no illusion that absolute freedom of speech does not exist unless it suits the ruling paradigm or ideology. Flamboyant denial is a pathology rooted in supercilious ego. The contemptable decision of Charlie Hebdo to depict the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ with derision is their own failing. Not only is it a reflection of the government of France’s sheer hypocrisy of its liberal standards to choose to offend one people and safeguard the sensibilities of others but it is a telling reflection of their ignorance. Their mocking is not based on any truth, is unnuanced, immoral and lacks civility and virtue since to equate the Prophet Muhammad ﷺwith terrorism is quite simply preposterous. The drawing by the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, which caricaturised the Prophet ﷺ with a bomb in his turban with the Islamic creed (shahāda) inscribed on it calls us to question why he was portrayed in such a crude way. The false depictions are alien to his abundant displays of compassion, mercy, empathy, courage and how these attributes were used both to convey the message of monotheism with unflinching resolve and thus deliver billions of people out from the servitude to their own egos, lusts and false gods to the servitude of the Lord and Sustainer of all. Together with this, to foster goodwill and compassion with those he interacted with, the mighty and privileged and also the weak, poor and othered outcasts is demonstrative of the major impact he had on the world and a major reason so many continue to find faith in Islam.
Hope not hate
Unlike the culture of hate espoused by the flamboyant deniers, the Qur’an instead provides hope for its readers. It challenges man for his state of obstinacy, clarifies doubts, stresses on true belief and virtuous action and provides a way out of the constraints of disbelief into a life of guidance and fulfilment. Throughout the Qur’an we are reminded of God’s countless favours unto His creation, the provision of health, sustenance, opportunities are all purposed for our knowing of and loving of God, and finding contentment in a life purposed for His remembrance. Even for those who had been antagonistic and then exchanged that life to one focused on finding peace with God are called to take solace in God’s forgiveness. The Qur’an described townsfolk who had savagely murdered believers, described in Surah al-Burūj, and notwithstanding the horrors of their crimes, the Qur’an evokes true transformative repentance as a way of finding protection in the next life:
“For those who persecute believing men and women, and do not repent afterwards, there will be the torment of Hell and burning.”16
The Qur’an calls on those who had lived hedonistic lives of purposeless and temporary self-fulfilment to not lose hope in the prospect of entering heaven. By proposing instead a transformed life founded on repentance, faith and righteousness the Qur’an reminds its readers of the Mercy of God. Consider the following verses:
“Yet they were succeeded by generations [of people] who lost all [thought of] prayer and followed [but] their own lusts; and these will, in time, meet with utter disillusion.”17
“Excepted, however, shall be those who repent and attain to faith and do righteous deeds: for it is they who will enter paradise and will not be wronged in any way.”18
“Except those who repent, believe, and do good deeds: God will change the evil deeds of such people into good ones. He is most forgiving, most merciful.”19
The haughtiness exhibited by the people to whom Prophet Nūḥ was sent resulted in the Prophet complaining to God about the deviousness of his people. Ibn Kathīr explains that they attempted to avoid him at every instance “to refrain from following the truth and submitting to it.”20 The sequence of verses in the chapter demonstrate the tenacity of spirit of Prophet Nūḥ and his perseverance and sincere attempts at conveying the message. What stands out is the hope that pervades the prophetic call in chapter 71 of the Qur’an. With their flamboyant denial on full display and whilst growing in their insolence, Prophet Nūḥ’s call was simple: “I said, ‘Ask forgiveness of your Lord: He is ever forgiving.’”21
“He said, ‘My Lord, I have called my people night and day,
but the more I call them, the further they run away:
every time I call them, so that You may forgive them, they thrust their fingers into their ears, cover their heads with their garments, persist in their rejection, and grow more insolent and arrogant.
I have tried calling them openly.
and, behold I preached to them in public; and I spoke to them secretly, in private;
I said, ‘Ask forgiveness of your Lord: He is ever forgiving. He will send down abundant rain from the sky for you;
He will give you wealth and sons; He will provide you with gardens and rivers;
What is amiss with you that you cannot look forward to God’s majesty’.22
The desecrating of the Qur’an, the conceited denial of Islam, the contemptuous insulting of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ are all symptomatic, less so of the speed and spectacle involved in image-making and uploading but more so of an absence of spiritual perception. The Qur’an calls on man to focus on his very self. We reflect on Mūsa and Hārūn in their mission to call Pharaoh to God. The information God provides us is astonishing for how it describes that the initial theatre of struggle between the tyrant and the Prophet ﷺ , actually is first, an internal one. Though the apparatus of propagation in Prophet Mūsa’s case is staged with spectacle (“gathering his people, proclaiming”23) with the presence of magicians on a day of festivity, the objective and preparation was entirely intended for spiritual renewal and reformation. It is in the overcoming of one’s inner ego that sincerity can take root. God first instructs Prophet Mūsa to go unto Pharaoh who had “exceeded all bounds”:
“Go to Pharaoh, for he has exceeded all bounds,
and ask him, ‘Do you want to purify yourself [of sin]?
Do you want me to guide you to your Lord, so that you may hold Him in awe?’”24
These verses emphasise the great need for spiritual purification as a remedy for human wrongs. Pharaoh of course had been active in the murder and persecution of a great multitude of people but God’s instruction to Prophet Mūsa was to allow Pharaoh to consider his own human disposition and his need to believe and revere the One who created and sustains all beings.25 The Qur’anic call is thus one of hope and deliverance from the constraint of nihilistic emptiness, reminding its readers that God only wants goodness for His servants – “We only send messengers to bring good news and to deliver warning, yet the disbelievers seek to refute the truth with false arguments and make fun of My messages and warnings.”26
The Prophetic response
In the Prophet’s ﷺ time in Makkah a woman named Arwā b. Ḥarb (also known as Um Jamīl, the wife of Abu Lahab) would follow the Prophet ﷺ around to hurt and humiliate him and used to taunt him, “Mudhammam (the dispraised) we have denied, and his religion we have loathed, and his command we have defied!” Instead of responding to her, he would simply find solace in saying to his Companions, ‘Don’t you see how Allāh diverts from me the curses and insults of Quraysh? They insult Mudhammam, and they curse Mudhammam, while I am Muhammad (the Praised One)!”27. The Prophet’s ﷺ name was of course ‘Muḥammad’ (the praised one) and the wife of Abu Lahab hoped that by inverting his name to ‘Mudhammam’ (the dispraised one), the Prophet ﷺ would fall into disrepute among the townsfolk. Yet the Prophet ﷺ showed magnanimity in his ignoring the woman’s words, knowing that his words and character would far deeper penetrate the fabric of his society and our global world, as well as knowing that the name ‘Muḥammad’ would forever invite praise and salutations.28 The followers of the Prophet ﷺ were in turn called to remain faithful to the God-centric focus and moral paradigm of his teachings. Allah instructs in the Qur’an:
“The servants of the Lord of Mercy are those who walk humbly on the earth, and who, when the foolish address them, reply, ‘Peace’;
those who spend the night bowed down or standing, worshipping their Lord,
who plead, ‘Our Lord, turn away from us the suffering of Hell, for it is a dreadful torment to suffer!
It is an evil home, a foul resting place!’
They are those who are neither wasteful nor niggardly when they spend, but keep to a just balance;
those who never invoke any other deity beside God, nor take a life, which God has made sacred, except in the pursuit of justice, nor commit adultery. Whoever does these things will face the penalties:”29
Let us remember that situations like these when Islam and its symbols are brought into public scrutiny are situations wherein lies great reward for Muslims to share the message of Islam with others. The same way that any defence of the caricatures of the Prophet ﷺ are a defence of the Islamophobia that produced them, the defence of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his message is a reflection of one’s imān (faith), and inspire a calling to intellectually defend and share Islam with others. Oftentimes our compassionate engagement with non-Muslims and sharing with them the beautiful life and message of the Prophet ﷺ does much to reverse stereotypes at this grassroot level. Makkans of Quraysh were the most relentless in smearing the Prophet’s reputation while his companions were the most eager to share his message. Let us further remember that these situations are a test for us all, and in reacting the right way – with knowledge and wisdom we can use the opportunity to show the truth of Islam and brilliance in the character of the Prophet ﷺ – reassured here by God and called upon to continue his prophetic mission:
“We are well aware that your heart is weighed down by what they say. Celebrate the glory of your Lord and be among those who bow down to Him: worship your Lord until what is certain comes to you.”30
1 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, Black & Red: 1983), p. 2.
2 The Qur’an, Chapter 18, Verse 56.
3 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Integrity Crisis (Oliver-Nelson Books: 1988), p. 46.
4 The Qur’an, Chapter 79, Verses 21 to 26.
5 Jonas Svensson, ‘Hurting the Qur’an – Suggestions Concerning the Psychological Infrastructure of Desecration’, The Finnish Society for the Study of Religion, Temenos Vol. 53 No. 2 (2017), p. 252.
6 ‘Report into the Systematic and Institutionalised US Desecration of the Qur`an and other Islamic Rituals Testimonies from Former Guantánamo Bay Detainees’ 26th May 2005. https://www.cage.ngo/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/USQuranDesecration.pdf.
8 The Qur’an, Chapter 25, Verse 21.
9 The Qur’an, Chapter 37, Verse 35.
10 The Qur’an, Chapter 41, Verse 26.
13 The Qur’an, Chapter 83, Verse 30.
15 The Qur’an, Chapter 23, Verses 66 to 67.
16 The Qur’an, Chapter 85, Verse 10.
17 The Qur’an, Chapter 19, Verse 59.
18 The Qur’an, Chapter 19, Verse 60.
19 The Qur’an, Chapter 25, Verse 70
21 The Qur’an, Chapter 71, Verse 10.
22 The Qur’an, Chapter 71, Verse 5 to 13.
23 The Qur’an, Chapter 79, Verse 23.
24 The Qur’an, Chapter 79, 17 to 19.
25 Osman Latiff, On Being Human: how Islam addresses othering, dehumanisation and empathy (Sapience Institute, 2020), p. 5.
26 The Qur’an, Chapter 18, Verse 56.
27 Sunan an-Nasa’i 3438.
28 On Being Human: how Islam addresses othering, dehumanisation and empathy, p. 113.
29 The Qur’an, Chapter 25, Verses 63 to 68.
30 The Qur’an, Chapter 15, Verse 97 to 99.