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Islam is quintessentially tolerant. Its adherents are hospitable to liberty, equality, and pluralism, the rudiments of modern democracy. Those committing terror in its name are heretics -- a fringe which has "hijacked" a "religion of peace."
This conventional wisdom brims over the mainstream media's daily servings. It is, moreover, the not-to-be-questioned premise of U.S. policy on a host of paramount issues: everything from how the war on terror is conceptualized and prosecuted, to the wisdom of negotiations with Iran, a sovereign state for Palestinians, agitation for freedom and popular self-determination throughout the Middle East, and the assumption that our own growing Muslim population will seamlessly assimilate.
But is it true?
Emphatically, the answer is "no." So argues best-selling author and Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer in The Truth about Muhammad -- Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion (Regnery, 256 pages, $27.95). And he does not expect you to take his word for it.
Painstakingly, Spencer has crafted a biography Islam's Prophet from the authentic Muslim Sunnah, comprised of: the Koran, which is taken by believers to be the verbatim word of Allah, dictated to Muhammad in Arabic by the angel Gabriel; the tafsir, or Koranic commentary; the hadith, which are lengthy volumes recording the words and traditions of Muhammad (there are six different collections, dating from the eighth and ninth centuries); and, finally, the sira, authoritative biographies of the Prophet, including what remains to us of Ibn Ishaq's hagiographic account, written about 150 years after Muhammad's death in 632.
The picture that emerges is complex but not ambiguous. Muhammad was a dynamic figure -- necessarily, among the most dynamic in history, having formed from scratch a movement that ultimately dominated lands from the Near East to Central Asia (to say nothing of pockets of Europe, Africa, and the Far East), a movement that today claims over a billion adherents. He was also, through and through, a product of Arabia's tribal antiquity -- a fact often stressed by Islam's modern sympathizers to explain, if not smooth, the Prophet's many rough edges.
In such a life, unsurprisingly, one finds episodic acts of tolerance
and benevolence. But there are episodes and then there is trajectory.
The arc of Muhammad's life tends decisively to intolerance and
inequality. His was, ultimately, a bellicose, us-versus-them world of
conquest and booty. This cannot help but imbue the religion he
founded. In it, his example is normative: the scriptures revere him as
"an excellent model of conduct" (Sura 33:21), who exhibits an "exalted
standard of character" (68:4) and obedience to whom is repeatedly
adjured -- indeed, is made equally as essential as obedience to Allah
Himself (4:80). Recalling the Muslim fury over Danish Muhammad
cartoons in 2005, Spencer points out that in the Koran "again and
again Allah is quite solicitous of his prophet, and ready to command
what will please him. To the mind of someone who accepts the [Koran]
as an authentic revelation, this places Muhammad in a particularly
The Prophet of Islam was born in Mecca, a member of the Quraysh tribe which did a lucrative trade in pilgrimages to the local shrine, the Kabah -- now the central locus of Islamic worship but then home to numerous pagan idols. Both Muhammad's parents died in his early childhood. In his twenties, he was hired as a traveling salesman by his distant cousin Khadija, an accomplished merchant woman whose wares he deftly traded in Syria. Though fifteen years his senior, Khadija proposed marriage, becoming the first of Muhammad's many wives (biographers peg the number at between eleven and thirteen, with Muhammad having claimed to be "given the power of sexual intercourse equal to forty men"). Eventually, she also became the first Muslim.
Muhammad's prophetic career spanned about 23 years after he received, at age 40, what he came to believe was his first revelation. Initially, the call to Islam was a straightforward summons to monotheism -- to worship only "Allah," who, Spencer explains, may have been the tribal god of the Quraysh (and thus one of the many local deities).
As further revelations fleshed out nascent Islam, there was transparent borrowing from the Bible, the Torah, other Jewish and Christian sources (including heterodox strains of Christianity then abundant in Arabia), Zoroastrian writings from Persia, and local pagan ritual. The resulting similarities discomfit Muslims, who often insist that they represent not emulation but happenstance, the Koran having been recited to Muhammad (who was illiterate) by Allah in His original language of Arabic. Beyond that, any seeming Judeo-Christian influence is attributed to Jews and Christians being fellow "People of the Book," whose God Muslims share and whose heritage they claim to supersede. It is, in fact, an enduring tenet that Jews and Christians are, as Spencer puts it, "sinful renegades from the truth of Islam," who corruptly altered their scriptures to elide foreshadowings of Muhammad's coming.
One of the seeming contradictions of Muhammad's life is the contrast of his early hospitality toward Jews (and Christians) with his final position of unremitting enmity. Contradictions, of course, create ambiguity. This is useful for Islam's modern apologists, who incessantly underline a few isolated episodes of tolerance and even kindness as if they could bleach away Muhammad's legacy of arch hostility toward non-Muslims -- a legacy built, for example, on the Koran's admonition that Muslims "take not the Jews and the Christians as friends and protectors" (5:51); on Muhammad's vision of the end of the world: marked by Jesus returning to abolish Christianity and impose Islam, while Jews are killed by Muslims (with the help of trees and stones, which alert the faithful, "Muslim, ... there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him"); and on the Prophet's deathbed call for the total expulsion of unbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula -- a desire the Saudi government honors to this day, particularly in Mecca and Medina, cities closed to non-Muslims.
Spencer cogently explains, however, that there is no real
contradiction or ambiguity. Especially in the early phase of his
prophesying -- the Meccan period before Hijra, when the Muslims were
forced to flee to Medina -- Muhammad had great reason to be
solicitous: He was building a movement. Arabia's powerful Jewish
tribes (the Qaynuqa, Auf and Qurayzah, among others) were among those
the Prophet most energetically called to Islam. Thus we find Muhammad
"situating himself within the roster of Jewish prophets, forbidding
pork for his followers, and adapting for the Muslims the practice of
several daily prayers and other aspects of Jewish ritual." Muhammad,
moreover, struck a treaty with Medina's Jewish tribes -- grandiosely
regarded by Muslims as "the world's first constitution" -- which
described them as "one community with the believers" (though
tellingly, even in this amicable period, the pact drew sharp
distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims). In fact, this
adaptability, when exhibited in Muhammad's similarly earnest efforts
to convert his native Quraysh to Islam, resulted in the nearly ruinous
"Satanic verses" incident (made infamous in modern times by Salman
Rushdie's book and the consequent murder fatwa issued by Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini). Desperate to be reconciled with his own people,
Muhammad convinced himself that he'd received a revelation allowing
Muslims to pray to three pagan goddesses favored by the Quraysh as
intercessors for Allah. The Quraysh were thrilled, but the Prophet,
upon a countermanding revelation from an angry Gabriel, soon realized
he had not only contradicted the core of his monotheistic preaching
but potentially undermined the entire Islamic enterprise by raising
the possibility that his revelations were not authentic. Allah forgave
Muhammad, observing that Satan's interference had been an occupational
hazard for all His beleaguered prophets through the ages. Still, the
incident is sufficiently embarrassing that Muslim scholars and
apologists continue ferociously to discredit it, although, Spencer
concludes, the evidence preponderates against them.
In any event, good will between Muslims and non-Muslims proved fleeting. Muhammad's overriding aim was Islamic hegemony not ecumenical coexistence. Upon resettling in Medina, Muhammad became as much a political and military leader as the apocalyptic preacher of his first 13 years of prophesying. The Jews, like the Quraysh, many Christian communities, and other non-Muslims declined to heed his call. Rejection of Islam was construed as attack upon Islam, for which the prescription was jihad.
Incontestably, jihad is a central imperative (in fact, the highest obligation) of Islam. Muhammad's career as a fierce and, at times, brutal warrior illustrates the futility of efforts to render congenial to modern sensibilities this command to struggle against perceived enemies. Yes, the Koran famously asserts that there shall be "no compulsion in religion" (2:256). But however hortatory this injunction may be, it is ahistorical. Islam was spread by the sword.
The Prophet's military feats began with attacks, many of which he led personally, on Quraysh caravans. These raids, Spencer explains, were not merely acts of vengeance against those who had rejected Islam; they further "served a key economic purpose, keeping the Muslim movement solvent." Booty would be central to Muslim militancy, and thus grew rules for its division (such as one-fifth of the haul set aside for the Prophet, and the propriety of using female slaves as concubines). Asked by a follower about the legitimacy of nighttime attacks given the probability of endangering women and children, Muhammad indicated these were permissible because such noncombatants "are from them" (i.e., the unbelievers).
It is due to this and other lessons that the battles of early Islam resonate today -- creating a major hurdle (I fear, an insuperable one) for reformers hopeful of convincing the ummah (i.e., the worldwide Muslim community) that it's the terrorists, not the reformers themselves, who are doctrinally wayward.
The Prophet, for example, directed "martyrdom" operations. Martyrdom, Spencer elaborates, was understood exactly as it is by today's jihadists: "referring to one who (in the words of a revelation that came to Muhammad much later) 'slays and is slain' for Allah (Qur'an 9:111), rather than in the Christian sense of suffering unto death at the hands of the unjust for the sake of the faith."
Muslims were authorized by another revelation to break treaties -- particularly with the Jews -- when there appeared advantage in doing so (8:58). And in the tone-setting "Nakhla Raid" against the Quraysh, a timely revelation helped Muhammad overcome his initial reluctance to accept booty derived from killings committed by his followers during the sacred month of Rajab, when fighting was forbidden. Those murdered had disbelieved Allah. This, the Prophet learned, was the greater evil. Of course, the collateral lesson, as Spencer relates, was that "[m]oral absolutes were swept aside in favor of the overarching principle of expediency."
Believers were instructed to fight and behead non-believers (47:4), and did so mercilessly. After the out-numbered Muslims decisively triumphed over the Quraysh in the "Battle of Badr," for example, one captured Quraysh leader pled for his life, asking, "But who will look after my children?" "Hell," replied Muhammad, ordering the man killed. Another leader's head was brought as a trophy to the Prophet, who expressed delight and gave thanks to Allah. (No wonder then, Spencer interjects, that when al Qaeda's strongman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, decapitated American hostage Nicholas Berg, he declared, "The Prophet, the most merciful, ordered [his army] to strike the necks of some prisoners in Badr and to kill them.... And he set a good example for us.") (Brackets in original.) Allah, in fact, expressed anger at Muhammad after Badr because the Prophet agreed to take ransom from some captured Quraysh leaders rather than beheading them as his companion, Umar, had urged.
In Medina, the Muslims were pitted against an alliance of the Quraysh and the Qurayzah Jews in the "Battle of the Trench." During the Muslims' building of the defensive trench, Muhammad's pick blows are said to have emitted lightening flashes, which drew cries of "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is greatest" -- the "Islamic cry of victory" for Spencer) and were interpreted by the Prophet as a sign that Allah would eventually make Islam triumphant beyond Arabia in the east and west. Opining that "war is deceit," Muhammad directed one of his followers to appear as a sympathizer to the enemy factions, while sowing discord between them. It worked: the Quraysh abandoned the field and the Muslims laid siege to the Jews, whom Muhammad called "brothers of monkeys." (Spencer notes three places -- 2:62-65, 5:59-60 and 7:166 -- where the Koran records that "Allah transformed the Sabbath-breaking Jews into pigs and monkeys.") When the Qurayzah surrendered and sought mercy, Muhammad agreed with the assessment of his follower Sad bin Muadh that "their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as captives." In the execution, Muhammad personally participated in the beheading of between 600 and 900 captives -- including all males who had reached puberty.
This incident was not unique. Spencer recounts that Muhammad ordered a Jewish poet, Kab bin al-Ashraf, killed because the Prophet took offense at "amatory verses of an insulting nature about Muslim women." After the murder, he commanded the Muslims: "Kill any Jew that falls into your power." When Muhammad ordered the expulsion of the Nadir Jews with whom area Muslims had a treaty, Muhammad's emissary declared, "Hearts have changed, and Islam has wiped out the old covenants." When the Jews declined to leave, Muhammad construed this to mean that "[t]he Jews have declared war" -- another reminder that whether Islam is "under attack," the trigger of jihad, is ever in the eyes of the beholder. In the ensuing siege, the Prophet ordered the earth scorched, refuting his own prohibition against the wanton destruction of property so often cited by Islamic apologists. And in the "Raid at Khaybar," Muhammad directed that a Jewish leader, Kinana bin al-Rabi, be tortured to extract the location of tribal treasure; when al-Rabi stood fast, Muhammad had him beheaded, and later, when more hidden treasure was located, the incensed Prophet -- as he had done with the Qurayzah Jews -- directed that warriors among the Khaybar Jews be killed and the women and children taken as slaves.
Why rehash these and other chilling episodes in the meteoric, militaristic rise of early Islam? Because, Spencer maintains, they are crucial to appreciating the dual challenge faced by Westerners and Islamic reformers.
Americans, told incessantly by their elites that Islam is a "religion of peace," watch in bewilderment when, for example, a Muslim convert to Christianity is subjected to a death penalty trial in the "new" Afghanistan, liberated from the Taliban due to great American sacrifice. How, they rightly wonder, could the "moderates" now in charge abide such a thing? The answer is as simple: Islam's prophet made death the penalty for apostasy. ("Whoever changed his Islamic religion," said Muhammad, "then kill him.") There is a crying need, Spencer observes, "for Westerners to become informed about the words and deeds of Muhammad -- which make the actions of Islamic states much more intelligible than do the words of Islamic apologists in the West."
The foundation of American policy, furthermore, is the conceit that moderates represent the Islamic mainstream, that they reflect the authentic image of a Muhammad -- the "highest example of human behavior" -- who championed the values of democracy and equality. "But," as Spencer cautions, "if the jihad terrorists are correct in invoking his example to justify their deeds, then Islamic reformers will need to initiate a respectful but searching re-evaluation of the place Muhammad occupies within Islam -- a vastly more difficult undertaking."
And this must be said not just of jihad terrorists. Spencer, for example, is understanding about the actions of Muhammad, then aged 50, in taking Aisha as a wife when she was six and consummating the marriage when she was nine. This was, after all, in the spirit of the times. Nevertheless, for believers, the Prophet's example transcends its time, and thus child-brides are a commonplace in the Islamic world. Muhammad's Islam, moreover, still confines women to a subordinate status -- the Koran likens a woman to a "tilth" to be used as a man wills (2:223); a man may take four wives and have sex with slave girls (4:3); a woman's testimony is valued at half that of a man (2:282); and so on. There is, moreover, simply no credibly denying the denigrated status of non-Muslims, reduced by Muhammad and his successors to humiliating dhimmitude and, as we have seen, brutalized.
Individually, countless Muslims have evolved past these notions. But Islam has not -- certainly not in a dominant or convincing way. If anything, atavism is at least as strong a current as reform. Is it realistic to believe the tens of millions (more likely, hundreds of millions) of Muslims whose compass is Muhammad's belligerent, hegemonic vision of Islam -- a vision that has endured for 14 centuries -- will abandon it in favor of an Islam that embraces liberty, self-determination, and equality based on our common humanity? Anything, one imagines, is possible ... but such a seismic shift is not going to happen any time soon.
Robert Spencer graphically illustrates the depth of our folly in thinking -- or, rather, blithely assuming -- otherwise. An alarming book, and a necessary one.
Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. This article was published Jan 11, 2007 in the National Review Online
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