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What can athletes say openly about Muhammad?

It’s not just a hypothetical question. Ask Aaron Brooks

Penn State's Aaron Brooks celebrates a victory in the finals of the NCAA wrestling championships on March 20, 2021, in St. Louis. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Roberson

What can athletes say openly about Muhammad?
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Does Islam support freedom of expression? If yes, does that “freedom” allow any remarks questioning Muhammad, his character, or his deeds?

These questions are urgent, and the answers are tricky, as evidenced in a recent story from Philadelphia, Pa.

After Penn State wrestler Aaron Brooks won his third consecutive national title, ESPN interviewed him about the victory. When asked him about his success, Brooks quickly attributed it to his Christian beliefs in God: “It’s everything. Christ resurrections and everything. Not just His life, but His death and resurrection.” Brooks continued, “You can only get that through Him, it will be spread only through Him. No false prophets, no Muhammad nor anyone else. Only Jesus Christ himself.”

Identifying Muhammad among “false prophets” triggered the activist Muslim group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), particularly its Philadelphia chapter.

They issued a statement denouncing Brooks’ remarks, identifying them as disparaging and degrading, and stated that “it was both unnecessary and inappropriate for Aaron Brooks to randomly denigrate Islam.” The statement emphasizes CAIR’s beliefs about Islam’s prophet, “the Prophet Muhammad was sent to spread the same truth taught by Moses, Jesus, and every other prophet: there is nothing worthy of worship but God alone, who is One and has no partner.”

While the phrase “has no partner” appears as a subtle Muslim charge against Christians as polytheists who associate partners with God, the overall statement reflects that, for CAIR, freedom of speech has limits. Only positive remarks about Muhammad can be publicly stated. This is why CAIR encouraged media outlets to “remove any social media posts that appear to celebrate or endorse the remarks.”

While we should never endorse any genuinely degrading remarks against anyone, there are two important questions we should ask: Did Brooks invent these views about Muhammad? Can we use CAIR’s reasoning to evaluate Islam’s claim about other religions?

What should the world do with the Quranic verse instructing Muslims to “take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends”?

Since Islam’s inception, numerous Christian thinkers—from various places and denominations—have identified Muhammad as a false prophet, based on a simple rationale: Since Muhammad’s teachings clearly deny that Jesus Christ has come as God in the flesh, then Muhammad was a false prophet and one of the antichrists, according to Christian scriptures (1 John 4:1–6; 2:22–23; 2 John 1:7). In declaring his views in public, Brooks simply followed the footsteps of multitudes of Christians throughout the centuries, in being committed to their Christian scriptures.

But if we consider Muhammad’s teachings, there is a huge problem with CAIR’s demands for Brooks to refrain from revealing his beliefs and for the media outlets to remove posts highlighting his views of Muhammad.

Should Muslims be silent about what they wholeheartedly believe if it violates Christian teachings? Since Muslims deny the Trinity and Incarnation, should they keep their beliefs to themselves and never declare them publicly? You know the answer.

Freedom of expression must go both ways.

It can be truly horrific to evaluate or even to recite some Islamic statements from the Quran and Muhammad’s sayings, and these are the most authoritative Muslim texts. Both have numerous negative charges against Christianity, Christians, Judaism, and Jews.

What should be done with these texts and their claims? Should Muslims refrain from repeating them in public?

What should the world do with the Quranic verse instructing Muslims to “take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends”? After all, this same disposition propelled a Muslim cleric in Canada to openly teach that “the Jews and the Christians are our enemies.” Should this verse be considered homophobic or anti-Semitic and Muslims required not to refer to it publicly? I doubt any Muslim would agree.

But there are more problematic Muslim statements: What should the world do with Muhammad’s reported prophecy that the Last Day wouldn’t come until the Muslims “fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. ‘O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.’” This prophecy alone continues to fuel severe hatred against the Jews. If Muslim enthusiasts adhere to it and seek to apply it literally, our world will never be a good place for any follower of Judaism.

Finally, the Quran states that some Jews incur Allah’s curse, so he transforms them into monkeys and pigs, and Christians are unbelieving infidels who say that God is one of three. If Jews and Christians consider these statements degrading and disparaging to their respective faiths, should Muslims refrain from mentioning them?

No Muslim will accept such a ridiculous demand. Still, some Muslim activists seek to shut down any public statement about Islam they do not like.

The answers to my initial questions are now clear, and now you know why defending freedom of expression for all is at stake.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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