Islam’s most important prophet is recognized along with 18 other historical figures. With all the Islamophobic rhetoric and criticism of Shariah law coming from American leaders, most Muslims assume the United States doesn’t have a clear understanding of – or respect for – Islamic history and traditions.
On the contrary, the highest court in the U.S. recognizes the incredible significance of Prophet Muhammad and his teachings on Islamic law.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court considers Prophet Muhammad to be one of the 18 greatest lawgivers in history, along with the likes of the ancient Egyptian ruler Menes, the Prophet Moses, Hammurabi, Confucius, Napoleon, and John Marshall.
A larger-than-life frieze of the great 18 lawgivers was created and installed in the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1930s, in remembrance of their contributions to legal history.
All these decades later, the piece of artwork remains, reminding viewers that American laws are not based on one specific legal or religious text. Instead, they are built on millennia of legal history and traditions from around the world.
In 1989, now-retired Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens, wrote that the inclusion of lawgivers from a vast array of religious, secular, and cultural traditions symbolized a respect for justice that transcends a particular creed.
“[A] carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, if that is the only adornment on a courtroom wall, conveys an equivocal message, perhaps of respect for Judaism, for religion in general or for law,” Stevens wrote, according to the Washington Post.
“The addition of carvings depicting Confucius and Muhammad may honor religion, or particular religions, to an extent that the First Amendment does not tolerate. Placement of secular figures such as Caesar Augustus, William Blackstone, Napoleon Bonaparte and John Mar-hall alongside these three religious leaders, however, signals respect not for great proselytizers but for great lawgivers,” he wrote.
Of course, the court’s way of honoring Prophet Muhammad may be a bit misguided. Muslims generally see depictions of any prophet as forbidden, and at the very least, strongly discouraged.
In 1997, the Council on American-Islamic Relations along with other Muslim groups petitioned for the court to edit the frieze out of respect for their community. CAIR said that it did not want the recognition of Muhammad removed. It simply asked for the statue’s face to be sandblasted away, offering to cover all fees incurred in the process.
“We believe the court had good intention by honoring the prophet, so we appreciate that. We want to be flexible, and we’re willing to pay for the changes ourselves,” Nihad Awad, a spokesperson for the coalition, said, according to an article published at the time.
“If maybe they can sandblast out the face,” said Awad, “we suggested they could replace it with a piece of marble with maybe a verse from the Koran or a saying of the prophet pertaining to justice and law.”
In the end, the coalition’s appeal was turned down when then-Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, issued a letter saying it is “unlawful to remove or in any way injure an architectural feature in the Supreme Court building.”
Later in 2000, Taha Jaber al-Alwani, who at the time served as a professor of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia and as the chairman of the Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) Council of North America, issued a fatwa in support of the frieze.
Al-Alwani argued through traditional forms of Islamic legal argumentation that the religion does not firmly prohibit all depictions. He also argued that the image of Muhammad should be praised and appreciated by Muslims.
“What I have seen in the Supreme Courtroom deserves nothing but appreciation and gratitude from American Muslims. This is a positive gesture toward Islam made by the architect and other architectural decision-makers of the highest Court in America. God willing, it will help ameliorate some of the unfortunate misinformation that has surrounded Islam and Muslims in this country,” al-Alwani wrote, according to Newsweek.
Whether or not one agrees with al-Alwani’s fatwa, as he said, the depiction was intended as a “positive gesture.”
With the climate of xenophobia in the U.S. and right-wing politicians using Islamophobic rhetoric in an effort to divide American society, Muslims can take some small comfort in knowing that the nation’s top court views Muhammad as one of the greatest lawgivers of all time.