Last year, a German Muslim organisation initiated the "Show me the Prophet!" competition, asking entrants to portray the Prophet in the form of poetry, prose, songs, or painting. Julia Gerlach attended the unusual awards ceremony
Yildiz Kaja, a medical student from Hamburg, tightens her grip on the microphone. "Dear Prophet," she begins, "I have wanted to write to you for a long time now."
A ripple of excitement runs through the auditorium. The slender young women on stage dressed in a long coat and a pale headscarf has won third prize in the "Show me the Prophet!" competition. The words she quietly speaks into the microphone are unusual, just like the event itself.
"How can I love you," she asks the recipient of her letter, "when I was slapped on the fingers as a child for making mistakes when reciting from the Koran? How can I love you when my brother wants to murder me in the name of honour?" Words such as these are hardy ever heard been uttered at Islamic events in Germany.
Nevertheless – or maybe because of this – her voice begins to falter in the middle of her reading. "How can I love you?" she asks. The corner of her mouth twitches; a tear rolls down her cheek. The sound of sniffling can be heard from the auditorium.
A daring move
Approximately 400 Muslims, most of them young people, have come together in Darmstadt's Centralstation cultural centre for this event. They are here to find out how 120 entrants reacted to the invitation to "Show me the Prophet!" The competition was launched just under a year ago by the website Islam.de which is hosted by Central Council of Muslims in Germany.
It was a daring move. The wounds opened by the cartoon debacle triggered by the publication of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper had not yet healed.
"Many Muslims were against the idea of Muslims organising and entering a competition such as this," says Mohammed Laabdallaoui, the man who came up with the idea for the competition and subsequently organised it. In this way he is playing down the debate about the competition that has been raging in a number of Internet forums.
The initiators of the competition made a conscious decision to leave it up to the entrants to decide how they wanted to portray the Prophet. Poems, prose, songs, and paintings were all submitted to the competition. "However," says Murat Hoffmann, patron of the competition, "no-one portrayed the Prophet in human form. After all, such portrayals are forbidden by Islamic tradition." In that case, surely everything is in good Islamic order, or is it?
Not necessarily. It didn't pacify the critics in the Internet forums, who considered other aspects of the competition to be fundamentally at fault. Some of them voiced the opinion that music, rap, or reggae go beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable in Islam.
Rida El Housseini spent a long time mulling over these questions. As a teenager he rapped in the Frankfurt scene. "But when I started to pray and discovered Islam, it wasn't my world any more, because of the drugs and the attitudes to women." After a break of almost ten years he is back on stage again. His song "Oh, Prophet" won second prize in the competition.
Eye-to-eye with the Prophet
The jury, which comprised the Islamic rapper Ammar114, Ahmed Kreusch, who has always linked art and faith, and the singer and author Hülya Kandemir, chose the entry submitted by Abu Bakr Heyn as the winner. His prize is a pilgrimage to Mecca. You could hear a pin drop as the bearded, cap-wearing man in his mid-thirties takes to the stage. "Mein Moment der Ewigkeit" ("My moment of eternity") is a poem describing a journey to the Prophet in a dream.
When Abu Bakr Heyn reaches the point in the poem where he looks into the Prophet's eyes, the floodgates open. Paper hankies are passed from person to person and even the author wipes a tear from his eyes. He collects himself. Using two fingers to give the beat, he raps the words of the Prophet:
"He says die, before death calls your name. Die, to bring a groove into your life. He's not talking about no stupid suicide attack. People like that are stabbing him in the back! He means the death of your tyrannical ego." Young people in the audience dry their tear-swollen eyes. He's right, you know, they murmur. That's the way it has to be.
"At last! An Islamic event that we can relate to!" says a girl who has travelled all the way from Karlsruhe. "We came because we wanted to hear something about our beloved Prophet and because we like this kind of thing," interjects her friend before she can finish her sentence. "This kind of thing" is something new for the Islamic community in Germany.
A new age for young German Muslims?
"There has never been anything like this before," confirms Aiman Mazyek, Secretary General of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany and head of the website Islam.de. Independently of the Islamic associations, young Muslims in many cities around the country are forming groups because they "want to be proactive and take matters into their own hands instead of simply reacting to negative events."
As if the creative competition hadn't caused enough of an uproar, Hülya Kandemir also celebrates her comeback in Darmstadt. Several years ago, the singer exchanged her stage clothes for a headscarf and wrote a book about her experiences. She has been a model for young Muslims ever since. Now she is sitting on stage in a long garment covered in oriental embroidery.
As if suddenly gripped by fear of her own courage, she mentions in her welcome address a website containing legal opinions that consider it permissible for women to make music in public. Then she launches into her performance. Initially her songs are greeted by tentative movements, then the first feet begin to move in time to the music, and by the time she starts her third song, the audience is singing along.
It is all very new and unfamiliar. New is the courage and new is the public criticism of the practices of many Muslims. New is also the self-irony: "It is said that Muslims love conspiracy theories," says Mohammed Laabdallaoui. "And so many theories have been put forward about the causes of the caricature debacle. If you ask me, the caricatures were published and all that anger was vented just so that we could organise this creative competition in response."
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan