The “Teddy Bear” Crisis (Expanded)


December 05, 2007 at 1:02 am

The recent “Teddy-Bear” crisis in Sudan illustrates the failure of many Muslims to understand a stark reality; one that if left misunderstood will probably lead to a lot of unnecessary bloodshed in the Muslim world, and destroy the opportunity for many western, non-Muslim people to benefit, at a mass level, from the many positive aspects of Islamic teachings. That reality is that the strategic preeminence of the Muslim world is long gone, possibly forever.

Were it not for oil, only three Muslim nations, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia would be among the world’s fifty largest economies, in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Turkey, a nation of 70 million people, ranks nineteenth. However, its GDP is equaled by Sweden, a nation of 9 million people. Egypt, which ranks fifty-first, also has 70 million people. Its GDP is smaller than that of New Zealand, a nation of 4 million people. The twenty-two Arab states combined have a GDP smaller than that of Spain. It has to be understood that military strength is a function of economic strength.

In strategic terms, it is certainly true that Muslims have proven to be dogged guerilla fighters able to wear down and expel invaders in debilitating wars of attrition. However, the ideologically-driven conflicts of the twenty-first century, unless current trends are drastically changed, will not be guerilla wars. They will be conventional wars, which may involve tactical nuclear weapons used against Muslim peoples and their armies. These wars will not be wars of occupation. Rather they will be wars whose purpose is to utterly destroy what will be presented as an irrational, imperialistic force that poses an existentialist threat to the West, Israel, or India. In this latter type of warfare, Muslims have been systematically routed in recent history, and the strategic gap between Muslims and any potential rivals in the Twenty First century, in this regard, is rapidly widening.

How does the “Teddy Bear Crisis” fit into this discussion? It could be viewed as an attempt on the part of an embattled Sudanese government to project power vis-à-vis the West. As that power cannot be realistically projected in a strategic sense, it was exercised against a hapless Western citizen, Ms. Gilliam Gibbons, who became an inadvertent symbol of western hegemony. That pathetic exercise of power, which here in the West only generated more hatred, misunderstanding, animosity, and in some quarters just plain pity towards Islam and Muslims, represents a failed opportunity to present western people a view of the loftier legal and ethical teachings of Islam. Such teachings are increasingly lost as our community, globally, becomes ever more deeply entrenched in a stultifying literalism and an empty legalism that drains the religion of its ability to speak to a global audience at a principled, ethical level.

The great Egyptian poet, Ahmad Shawqi, mentioned in a line of verse, “Nations are none other than the ethical systems that support them. When that system goes they will soon follow.” This line articulates the very essence of the Islamic mission. The Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, mentioned, “I have only been sent to perfect good character.” [1] Therefore, real religiosity is to be found in character and higher ethics, not in the mere conformity a legal code divorced from all other considerations. Unfortunately, increasingly throughout the Muslim world we find calls for the strict implementation of the law, unqualified by a healthy interaction with ethical ideals. The result of this situation is the legal travesties we increasingly witness in that world, ranging from the punishment of rape victims, to the recent teddy bear situation.

Were the Sudanese government not trapped in such legalism there would not have been a crisis. Fundamental principles of our religion and its law would have prevented such a sad episode. First of all, while we are bound to protect the honor of the Prophet, peace upon him, we are also taught that actions are judged based on the intention accompanying them—Al-‘Amalu bin-Niyyat. In the case in question no insult was intended, particularly on the part of the teacher. The fact that the idea to name to the teddy bear Muhammad came from the children in the class and not from the teacher along with the fact that they were trying to honor the toy by choosing the best possible name for it clearly witnesses to that.

Secondly, ignorant people are not held accountable for actions they undertake while not knowing that they are Islamically unacceptable. Such individuals are to be pardoned and educated, not punished and castigated. God mentions in the Qur’an, The servants of the Merciful walk with reverent humility across the earth, and when the ignorant address them they respond, peace. (25:63) AlQadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi mentions that one of the meanings of the ignorant in this verse is “non-Muslims.” [2] Imam Tabari comments, “When they are addressed by those ignorant of God concerning the things He dislikes of reprehensible speech, they respond with good speech, and an appropriately upright level of discourse.” [3] Imam Ibn Kathir adds:

When ignorant people speak foolishly to them with foul language they do not respond in kind. Rather, they pardon and overlook [those slights] and only speak well, as was the case with the Prophet, peace and mercy of God upon him, the abuse of the ignorant only increased him in forbearance. [4]

Ibn Kathir mentions the prophetic example. This is very important, for the Prophet, peace upon him, responded very differently to those who intentionally ridiculed and defamed him with the objective of undermining and belittling the prophetic office, and those who abused and insulted him out of ignorance. In the former cases his response was firm and stern, while in the latter case he was gentle and forbearing. One of the clearest examples of this is the instance when a desert Arab approached the Prophet, peace upon him, grabbed his cloak and pulled it so hard that its edge scratched the base of the Prophet’s neck, peace upon him. The man then said, “O Muhammad! [5] Order that I be given charity from the wealth God has deposited with you!” The Prophet, peace upon him, turned to him, smiled, and ordered that he be given something from the public treasury. [6]

Although this issue does not get to the heart of the matter at hand, it sheds insight on the spirit that should govern how we understand the law in such instances. To merely see the law as a set of strictures that must be dogmatically enforced under all circumstances is to make a mockery of the religion. The above incident and many similar ones also gives us insight into what the Prophet, peace upon him, might have done is such situations as the one we are commenting on.

A related issue is the fact that in many areas of the law new Muslims are exempt from certain rulings. In many different issues we will read the caveat, “…and he/she knows of the prohibition [of a certain action].” If he/she does not know then they are not liable for their actions. If that is the case for a new Muslim, what then should be the case of a non-Muslim?

Just as a case can be made for the ignorance of the teacher in question, a case can be made for the fact that she made a mistake by Islamic standards. The legal definition of a mistake is the unintended consequence of an intentional action. She intended to honor the bear with a name that would evoke tenderness and concern for the animals that the bear represented. However, she inadvertently slighted of the Prophet, peace upon him. Mistakes of this type involve no sin with God, and in the view of the majority of scholars they involve no legal consequences.

The Prophet, peace upon him, mentioned in this regard, “God has pardoned—for my sake—from my community, that done in error, forgetfully, or through coercion.” [7] God mentions in the Qur’an, There is no sin on you for mistaken actions, rather [sin accrues] for that which you undertake intentionally, and God is oft-Forgiving, most Merciful (33:5). Similarly, God does not take you to task for carelessness in our oaths, rather He takes you to task for the intention of your hearts, and God is oft-Forgiving, most Forbearing (2:225). Our religion teaches us that an error is not held against the one committing it. If it is accompanied by an effort to do good then that effort is actually rewarded. The Prophet, peace upon him, stated, “If a judge asserts himself and arrives at the truth he will have two rewards. If he asserts himself and errs he will have a single reward.” [8] The scholars mention that in the latter case he will be rewarded for his effort, even though it resulted in a mistake. These narrations express aspects of the divine law that are indispensable if it is to maintain its lofty status in this age of overly polemical, antagonistic political discourse.

Muslim authorities, even more than individual Muslims, have to think of the long-range consequences of their actions. One of our legal principles is considering the implications and ramifications of our actions—an-Nadharu ila al-Ma’alat. In this case, the actions of the Sudanese government have created a situation where a stark contrast can be drawn—a contrast amplified by skillful journalistic techniques—between the principles and compassion of Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Muslims are presented as so uncompassionate and inconsiderate of any higher human virtues that they will victimize an unwitting innocent person in an effort to uphold the law and allegedly defend the honor of the Prophet, peace upon him. The non-Muslim is presented as so principled and compassionate that she will forgive those who have actually oppressed her, and plead for understanding and empathy for Muslims. The impact of such a contrast on unsuspecting non-Muslims, and increasingly many Muslims is extremely unsettling.

A final aspect of this issue we wish to discuss is the nature of civil society in the Muslim world. In classical Islamic society, civil society was extremely strong as opposed to a weak and decentralized state. The actions of individual citizens were the key to social order and a high degree of civility and social morality (Akhlaq) prevailed. In such an environment, reporting crimes and misdemeanors to state authorities was a last resort. The institutionalization of a western model of the authoritarian state into the Muslim world, one of the worst aspects of the western political tradition, has altered the nature of that type of civil society.

Now we have the idea that the “Islamic” state is to be the ultimate arbiter of all things Islamic, great and small, despite the fact that the divine law discourages elevating transgressions to state authority for adjudication. Had civil society been stronger in Sudan, the “teddy bear” situation would have been handled in the local neighborhood, and stayed there. The parents of the children involved would have informed the teacher and their children—who actually suggested naming the bear Muhammad—of the inappropriateness of their actions and the affair would have ended. Even if those outside of the circle immediately involved had learned of the situation they would have realized that it was best left as an affair isolated to the school and individuals in question.

In a global village where the real battle is the battle for hearts and minds is this sort of narrow-minded legalism the best Islam can offer? I think not. However, as long as we continue to prioritize politics and strategic affairs, our decided weakness, over principles and prophetic ethics, our potential strength, we are going to move from shameful crisis to shameful crisis and we will find our religion floundering in the wake of frantic mobs, massacred civilians, and non-issues elevated to the status of definitive statements of our commitment to the defense of our Prophet, peace upon him, and our religion.

At the end of the day, in light of contemporary global realities, our best defense of the Prophet, peace upon him, will never come through the mindless enforcement of a sterile legal code divorced from the principles that give it real meaning and substance. Rather it will come through living lives that reflect the fullness of the prophetic teachings and using those teachings to shine rays of light on an increasing dark and troubled world.


[1] Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad al-Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasah ar-Risala, 1999/1420), 14:513.
[2] Al-Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, nd), 3:451.
[3] Imam Ibn Jarir at-Tabari, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997/1418) 9:408.
[4] Imam Abu al-Fida’ Isma’il b. Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim (Beirut, Sidon: Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 1996/1416), 3:305.
[5] Addressing the Prophet by his first name as opposed to an honorific title is an insult to him. Appropriate addresses would be terms such as O Prophet! O Messenger of God! God has commanded the believers in the Qur’an, Do not address the Prophet as you address one another (24:63). In other words use proper and honorific terms of respect for him
[6] Sahih al-Bukhari, #5809; Muslim # 1057
[7] Ibn Majah #2045; Ibn Hibban # 7219
[8] Al-Bukhari # 7352