Balancing the Prophet

By Karen Armstrong 
Published: April 27 2007 15:43 | Last updated: April
27 2007 15:43

Ever since the Crusades, people in the west have seen
the prophet Muhammad as a sinister figure. During the
12th century, Christians were fighting brutal holy
wars against Muslims, even though Jesus had told his
followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate
them. The scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Muhammad
as a cruel warlord who established the false religion
of Islam by the sword. They also, with ill-concealed
envy, berated him as a lecher and sexual pervert at a
time when the popes were attempting to impose celibacy
on the reluctant clergy. Our Islamophobia became
entwined with our chronic anti-Semitism; Jews and
Muslims, the victims of the crusaders, became the
shadow self of Europe, the enemies of decent
civilisation and the opposite of ”us”.

Our suspicion of Islam is alive and well. Indeed,
understandably perhaps, it has hardened as a result of
terrorist atrocities apparently committed in its name.
Yet despite the religious rhetoric, these terrorists
are motivated by politics rather than religion. Like
”fundamentalists” in other traditions, their ideology
is deliberately and defiantly unorthodox. Until the
1950s, no major Muslim thinker had made holy war a
central pillar of Islam. The Muslim ideologues Abu ala
Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), among the
first to do so, knew they were proposing a
controversial innovation. They believed it was
justified by the current political emergency.

The criminal activities of terrorists have given the
old western prejudice a new lease of life. People
often seem eager to believe the worst about Muhammad,
are reluctant to put his life in its historical
perspective and assume the Jewish and Christian
traditions lack the flaws they attribute to Islam.
This entrenched hostility informs Robert Spencer’s
misnamed biography The Truth about Muhammad, subtitled
Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.

Spencer has studied Islam for 20 years, largely, it
seems, to prove that it is an evil, inherently violent
religion. He is a hero of the American right and
author of the US bestseller The Politically Incorrect
Guide to Islam. Like any book written in hatred, his
new work is a depressing read. Spencer makes no
attempt to explain the historical, political, economic
and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia,
without which it is impossible to understand the
complexities of Muhammad’s life. Consequently he makes
basic and bad mistakes of fact. Even more damaging, he
deliberately manipulates the evidence.

The traditions of any religion are multifarious. It is
easy, therefore, to quote so selectively that the main
thrust of the faith is distorted. But Spencer is not
interested in balance. He picks out only those aspects
of Islamic tradition that support his thesis. For
example, he cites only passages from the Koran that
are hostile to Jews and Christians and does not
mention the numerous verses that insist on the
continuity of Islam with the People of the Book: ”Say
to them: We believe what you believe; your God and our
God is one.”

Islam has a far better record than either Christianity
or Judaism of appreciating other faiths. In Muslim
Spain, relations between the three religions of
Abraham were uniquely harmonious in medieval Europe.
The Christian Byzantines had forbidden Jews from
residing in Jerusalem, but when Caliph Umar conquered
the city in AD638, he invited them to return and was
hailed as the precursor of the Messiah. Spencer
doesn’t refer to this. Jewish-Muslim relations
certainly have declined as a result of the
Arab-Israeli conflict, but this departs from centuries
of peaceful and often positive co-existence. When
discussing Muhammad’s war with Mecca, Spencer never
cites the Koran’s condemnation of all warfare as an
”awesome evil”, its prohibition of aggression or its
insistence that only self-defence justifies armed
conflict. He ignores the Koranic emphasis on the
primacy of forgiveness and peaceful negotiation: the
second the enemy asks for peace, Muslims must lay down
their arms and accept any terms offered, however
disadvantageous. There is no mention of Muhammad’s
non-violent campaign that ended the conflict.

People would be offended by an account of Judaism that
dwelled exclusively on Joshua’s massacres and never
mentioned Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule, or a description
of Christianity based on the bellicose Book of
Revelation that failed to cite the Sermon on the
Mount. But the widespread ignorance about Islam in the
west makes many vulnerable to Spencer’s polemic; he is
telling them what they are predisposed to hear. His
book is a gift to extremists who can use it to ”prove”
to those Muslims who have been alienated by events in
Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq that the west is incurably
hostile to their faith.

Eliot Weinberger is a poet whose interest in Islam
began at the time of the first Gulf war. His slim
volume, Muhammad, is also a selective anthology about
the Prophet. His avowed aim is to ”give a small sense
of the awe surrounding this historical and sacred
figure, at a time of the demonisation of the Muslim
world in much of the media”. Many of the passages he
quotes are indeed mystical and beautiful, but others
are likely to confirm some readers in their prejudice.
Without knowing their provenance, how can we respond
to such statements as ”He said that he who plays chess
is like one who has dyed his hand in the blood of a
pig” or ”Filling the stomach with pus is better than
stuffing the brain with poetry”?

It is difficult to see how selecting only these
dubious traditions as examples could advance mutual
understanding. The second section of this anthology is
devoted to anecdotes about Muhammad’s wives that smack
of prurient gossip. Western readers need historical
perspective to understand the significance of the
Prophet’s domestic arrangements, his respect for his
wives, and the free and forthright way in which they
approached him. Equally eccentric are the stories
cited by Weinberger to describe miracles attributed to
the Prophet: the Koran makes it clear that Muhammad
did not perform miracles and insists that he was an
ordinary human being, with no divine powers.

It is, therefore, a relief to turn to Barnaby
Rogerson’s more balanced and nuanced account of early
Muslim history in The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad.
Rogerson is a travel writer by trade; his explanation
of the Sunni/Shia divide is theologically simplistic,
but his account of the rashidun, the first four
”rightly guided” caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, is
historically sound, accessible and clears up many
western misconceptions about this crucial period.

Rogerson makes it clear, for example, that the wars of
conquest and the establishment of the Islamic empire
after Muhammad’s death were not inspired by religious
ideology but by pragmatic politics. The idea that
Islam should conquer the world was alien to the Koran
and there was no attempt to convert Jews or
Christians. Islam was for the Arabs, the sons of
Ishmael, as Judaism was for the descendants of Isaac
and Christianity for the followers of Jesus.

Rogerson also shows that Muslim tradition is
multi-layered and many-faceted. The early historians
regularly gave two or three variant accounts of an
incident in the life of the Prophet; readers were
expected to make up their own minds.

Similarly, there are at least four contrasting and
sometimes conflicting versions of the Exodus story in
the Hebrew Bible, and in the New Testament the four
evangelists interpret the life of Jesus quite
differently. To choose one tradition and ignore the
rest - as Weinberger and Spencer do - is distorting.

Professor Tariq Ramadan has studied Islam at the
University of Geneva and al-Azhar University in Cairo
and is currently senior research fellow at St Antony’s
College, Oxford. The Messenger is easily the most
scholarly and knowledgeable of these four biographies
of Muhammad, but it is also practical and relevant,
drawing lessons from the Prophet’s life that are
crucial for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ramadan
makes it clear, for example, that Muhammad did not
shun non-Muslims as ”unbelievers” but from the
beginning co-operated with them in the pursuit of the
common good. Islam was not a closed system at variance
with other traditions. Muhammad insisted that
relations between the different groups must be
egalitarian. Even warfare must not obviate the primary
duty of justice and respect.

When the Muslims were forced to leave Mecca because
they were persecuted by the Meccan establishment,
Ramadan shows, they had to adapt to the alien customs
of their new home in Medina, where, for example, women
enjoyed more freedom than in Mecca. The hijrah
(”migration”) was a test of intelligence; the
emigrants had to recognise that some of their customs
were cultural rather than Islamic, and had to learn
foreign practices.

Ramadan also makes it clear that, in the Koran, jihad
was not synonymous with ”holy war”. The verb jihada
should rather be translated: ”making an effort”. The
first time the word is used in the Koran, it signified
a ”resistance to oppression” (25:26) that was
intellectual and spiritual rather than militant.
Muslims were required to oppose the lies and terror of
those who were motivated solely by self-interest; they
had to be patient and enduring. Only after the hijrah,
when they encountered the enmity of Mecca, did the
word jihad take connotations of self-defence and armed
resistance in the face of military aggression. Even
so, in mainstream Muslim tradition, the greatest jihad
was not warfare but reform of one’s own society and
heart; as Muhammad explained to one of his companions,
the true jihad was an inner struggle against egotism.

The Koran teaches that, while warfare must be avoided
whenever possible, it is sometimes necessary to resist
humanity’s natural propensity to expansionism and
oppression, which all too often seeks to obliterate
the diversity and religious pluralism that is God’s
will. If they do wage war, Muslims must behave
ethically. ”Do not kill women, children and old
people,” Abu Bakr, the first caliph, commanded his
troops. ”Do not commit treacherous actions. Do not
burn houses and cornfields.” Muslims must be
especially careful not to destroy monasteries where
Christian monks served God in prayer.

Ramadan could have devoted more time to such
contentious issues as the veiling of women, polygamy
and Muhammad’s treatment of some (though by no means
all) of the Jewish tribes of Medina. But his account
restores the balance that is so often lacking in
western narratives. Muhammad was not a belligerent
warrior. Ramadan shows that he constantly emphasised
the importance of ”gentleness” (ar-rafiq), ”tolerance”
(al-ana) and clemency (al-hilm).

It will be interesting to see how The Messenger is
received. Ramadan is clearly addressing issues that
inspire some Muslims to distort their religion.
Western people often complain that they never hear
from ”moderate” Muslims, but when such Muslims do
speak out they are frequently dismissed as apologists
and hagiographers. Until we all learn to approach one
another with generosity and respect, we cannot hope
for peace.

Karen Armstrong is the author of ”Muhammad: Prophet
For Our Time”

The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most
Intolerant Religion 
by Robert Spencer


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