Marketing Muhammed: Pro-Islam Group's Billboards Aim to Educate

Muhammed, the prophet and founder of the Islamic religion, taught peace, love and women's rights.

At least, that's what billboards going up around the Valley say.

Two Islam-promoting billboards have been seen by Phoenix motorists for the last couple of weeks, and new ones are coming in August in an attempt to enhance community relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. The campaign is being conducted by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a group of Muslims with the goal to provide "self-development, education, outreach and social services." The Phoenix outdoor ads are part of a nationwide campaign of 50 billboards with similar messages.

The billboards now up can be seen off Interstate 17 near Bethany Home and Glendale roads. One says, "Islam: The Message of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammed." The other says, "Muhammed always taught Love, Not Hate, Peace, Not Violence." Both offer viewers a free Quran and encourage people to call 877-WHY-ISLAM or visit the group's answer site at

The phone number reaches American Muslim volunteers who can answer various questions and educate callers about Muhammed and Islam, listen to rants (up to a point, no doubt), and discuss spiritual matters if need be.

The first two billboards will come down at the end of the month, but two or three more are going up in August with messages including "Muhammed believed in peace, social justice and women's rights," and "God does not judge by your face and wealth," according to a statement by the ICNA.

While the campaign was developed before the May 29 protest at the Phoenix Islamic Community Center, a now-infamous event that drew armed bikers and a strong counter-protest, the protest made ICNA's leaders see Phoenix as an important place to put the ads, says Shahir Safi, one of the volunteers helping with the campaign.

"It put a sense of urgency in people to reach out more and basically have people directed to Muslims," he says. "There are a lot of stereotypes and false conclusions about Islam and Muslims."

Safi, a civil engineer who lives in Mesa but was born and raised in Afghanistan, wants to help point out that millions of Muslims live in the United States. They're "part of the fabric of American society" and should not be judged by the actions of a few extremists, he says.

Muslims also differ widely in their approach to religion, he says, giving the example that in his family, a few women don't wear a traditional hijab head scarf, though "most" do. The idea is that by letting average Americans call a hotline to listen to well-spoken, average American Muslims like Safi, people will understand that lifestyle differences among Muslims and non-Muslims — at least in this country — aren't that significant.

While that may be, and while the group's mission to build bridges between communities is commendable, the billboards' message do stretch the truth a little about the sixth-century historical figure of Muhammed. A similar ad campaign to improve views of Muslims in England in 2010 was met with skepticism by some pundits.

Muhammed did not "always" teach peace over violence. For part of his life, Muhammed acted as a military commander who often ordered his troops into battle. While he and his followers believed their cause was just, he clearly taught his soldiers that violence was sometimes necessary, and he expected them to win their fights. According to blurb on about "Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General" by Richard A. Gabriel, Muhammed was a man "who in a single decade fought eight major battles, led eighteen raids, and planned thirty-eight other military operations. Gabriel’s study portrays Muhammad as a revolutionary who introduced military innovations that transformed armies and warfare throughout the Arab world."

"There are a lot of stereotypes of false conclusions about Islam and Muslims." - Shahir Safi

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Islam isn't generally known for its feminist views — did Muhammed really believe in women's rights, like one of the upcoming billboards says?

"Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, he advocated during his time against one of the grave sins being committed by pagans of burying daughters, their children, alive," says Safi.

He adds that, "ownership of property was given in regards to women. That's something that was unheard of, pretty much in the whole world."

According to a PBS website about Muhammed, Islam's prophet "frequently counseled Muslim men to treat their wives and daughters well. 'You have rights over your women,' he is reported to have said, 'and your women have rights over you.'

On the other hand, the Quran, believed by the faithful to be inspired by Allah (God) and communicated through an angel to Muhammed, states that men should beat their wives for disobedience. Asked about that, Safi says Muslim men aren't really instructed to beat their wives, and he doubts whether the original text of the Quran says a beating for disobedience is allowed. He acknowledges that some translations do seem to allow it. But tradition holds that instead of a beating, a habitually disrespectful wife might be hit symbolically on the hand. He tells us he's never gotten to that point with his own wife. He also says he's not aware of any part of the Quran that says a woman can hit her husband on the hand, or anywhere else, if he disobeys her.

"It would be anachronistic to claim that Muhammad was a feminist in our modern sense," the PBS site states. "Yet the same present-day barriers to women's equality prevailed in 7th century Arabia, and he opposed them. Because in his own lifetime Muhammad improved women's position in society, many modern Muslims continue to value his example, which they cite when pressing for women's rights."

For sure, the Quran and Islam are great subjects for study, especially for Americans who hear the word "Islam" in connection with news reports about violence more than in some scholarly setting — or better yet, with Muslim friends and neighbors. You might as well get your free Quran now and start learning: Statistics show that Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in America.

UPDATE:We called the hotline after business hours — no one was there, just voice mail.  

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.