(Introductory Note: This Trogo is quite a bit longer than usual. However, the nature of the subject requires a thorough treatment. I hope you will find this piece beneficial.)
Life takes strange twists. It has often been observed that truth is stranger than fiction, and indeed this is so. For instance, this is the case in America’s (and many Christians’) current attitudes about Islam. Allow me to explain.
The natural gut reaction of many people to the events of September 11 and the ensuing terrorism and violence that have followed has been an outcry and outrage against militant Islam. Voices have been raised in anger and fear at the inherent violence of Islam. Many have reacted very strongly. In fact, in the aftermath of the various terrorist attacks on our nation, there have even been some who have taken matters into their own hands and angrily attacked any Muslim or Arab in sight. Of course this latter action is reprehensible and unjustified. Just because a person is Muslim, or from the Middle East, does mean they are vicious, cruel or hateful. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all people from the Middle East are even Muslim. We must be fair, balanced and knowledgeable in our actions, words, and emotional response to what has occurred in our nation. Reason, and a reasonable faith, call for this.
However, and this is where the twist comes in. Among some there is an effort to whitewash Islam totally. They say that Islam is a religion of peace. Period. For others, Islam has become the chic, the fashionable faith of choice. It’s cool to like Muhammad. It is trendy to be Muslim, or least the friend of Muslims. And for generally everyone, to speak critically of the Islamic faith has joined the prescribed list of politically incorrect behaviors to be rejected by all intellectually sophisticated people. Be angry as you want at ISIS or Boko Haram, but don’t you dare denounce Islam. Islam, like every religion, is good and honorable.
Part of the verbal wrangling going on in the public arena regards one issue. In the light of Islamic teaching as a whole, how far off base was Osama Ben Ladin (in the past) or ISIS (today)? Do these people accurately exemplify the beliefs and practices of the Islamic faith itself? Or are they fringe religious fanatics who no more represent Islam than David Koresh or Jim Jones represented Christianity? Is Islam a religion of love and peace, as many pundits assert? Or, is it a belief system intrinsically infected with violence and militarism?
We can debate all day about what Muslims believe about love, peace, violence and brotherhood. You will find as many opinions as you find individual followers of Islam, or individual critics of Islam, for that matter. Even the interpretations of what jihad means will vary from person to person. To some it means active war on the unbelieving world. To others it is a personal spiritual struggle to fulfill the will of Allah. Islam, like any great world religion, is not a homogeneous unit. It has many differing sects and many varying interpretations. It is difficult to pin down specific points.
But it is not impossible. There are ways open to us to gain understanding into what we might call the Islamic consensus. By this, I mean the beliefs that would be held as true by the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world and throughout Islamic history. And I believe we can discover this in regards to the Islamic view on war, violence, jihad, and political theory. In order to do this, we could take several approaches—historical, theological, sociological, etc. However, for our present discussion, I choose to explore the biographical.
Let me explain why I take this approach. Over the past few years I have heard many versions of Islam put forward in the media. From all the different perspectives offered, one begins to wonder what Islam really is at all! How can we discern what is the true Islam among all the media contenders? As I was pondering this, a thought occurred to me. If I want to know what true Christianity is, where would I go but to its Founder? To see the Christian faith in its purest, most complete expression I would look to Christ. If I want to understand Buddhism, where better to look than at the Buddha? Doesn’t he embody the true beliefs of the Buddhist faith? Do you get the idea? To fully appreciate the teachings of Taoism I would benefit from a study of the life of Lao Tzu. To really comprehend the Sikh faith I would be no better served than by an examination of the beliefs and practices of Guru Nanak. Thus, if I want to see what Islam is really all about, there is no more sure focus of inquiry than into the life of the Prophet and Apostle of Allah, Muhammad himself.
Indeed, understanding Muhammad is key to understanding Islam itself. The Islamic religion is grounded not only in the teachings of Muhammad as the “Apostle” or “Prophet” of God, but also in the example of Muhammad’s life. Muhammad is viewed as the perfect (literally) example of what a Muslim should be. If you want to understand what a Muslim is supposed to believe and how he is supposed to live and act in any and all circumstances, then look at Muhammad. Indeed, the Quran itself states that Muhammad is the model for all behavior: “Ye have indeed in the Apostle of Allah [i.e., Muhammad] a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the praise of Allah” (Sura 33:21, Yusuf Ali translation). Devout Muslims consider every action of Muhammad as a pattern for right behavior. This includes everything from how you brush your teeth and treat your wife, to waging war and dealing with unbelievers. Muhammad’s example is paramount. Muslim scholars say that he is the best example of morality, behavior, speech and deeds. He is an exemplary role model in all areas of life. Indeed, Muhammad is viewed as the “perfect man” whose every deed and action is to be emulated by all faithful Muslims.
So what sort of man was Muhammad? What did he believe, and how did his own personal faith cause him to live? To begin with, Muhammad was a complex individual. You see in him a wide spectrum of conduct. For example, he could be remarkably kind and merciful in one instance, and cruel and harsh to the extreme in another instance. Though he could be modest and self-effacing, he still wore a ring engraved with the words “Muhammad, the Apostle of Allah.” So, in order to understand the man, we will have to examine the various aspects of his character and deeds. For his behavior and character are the visible demonstrations of the faith he espoused.
There are some things that at first glance are to be admired in this man. He was noted as being humble. Sometimes, especially in the early days of his religious career, some had a hard time accepting this modest man as the prophet of God. Even at the height of his political power he could often be seen mending his own clothes, or shopping in the market for his dinner. He lived a simple life. He ate simple foods, and never lived in great luxury. Although he was from a prominent Meccan tribe, he never lived the high life. He would have no one wait on him to do something he could do for himself.
He could show great compassion. He forgave the repentant and submissive. He readily and graciously accepted as followers some who had been his greatest enemies. He was generous almost to a fault. He gave alms freely. It is said that when he would by chance come upon a funeral procession, he always joined it and grieved openly with the mourners. He would visit the sick. He treated slaves with dignity and respect—once even accepting a servant’s dinner invitation. The brotherhood of all men (under Islam) was strongly affirmed by Muhammad.
He was noted for his honesty and sincerity. People trusted him. He was affable and friendly, well liked by his neighbors and friends. He was noted for his humor, but he kept it in check by maintaining a demeanor of dignity and seriousness. His friends and close associates were almost slavishly devoted to him. He was tenderly and completely devoted to his first wife, and only to her, until her death.
He was a deeply religious man. He prayed often and seriously. He generally lived what he believed. Indeed, he was so completely committed to his faith that he repeatedly risked his own life for it. As Robert Hume observed, “Mohammed was a man of utter devotion to the religious ideal as he conceived it.”
This last point is extremely important, for it demonstrates our main point. As we have said, if we are to understand Islam, then we must look at the life of its founder. Muhammad illustrates the beliefs and practices of a devout Muslim in a pure and exemplary form. Thus, we can see from the foregoing description of Muhammad’s person that Islam may encourage some laudable and commendable qualities. However, what we have seen so far is not the whole picture. There is another side to Muhammad, and another side to Islam. There are character traits and behaviors in the life of Muhammad that can only be described as reprehensible. As you read the account below of the life and deeds of the Prophet, keep in mind that he is considered the “perfect man” whose beliefs, morals and actions should be emulated by all faithful Muslims.
The Islamic calendar begins in the year A.D. 622 when Muhammad fled from his native city of Mecca to Medina, another Arab city about 200 miles away. Rejected in Mecca, Muhammad’s religion was openly accepted in Medina. Here Muhammad’s faith and person flourished. In this “City of the Prophet” the religious system of Islam was fused with a political reality: Muhammad became the virtual king of Medina. Islam became not only a faith but a government. This politicizing of Islam was no accident. It was part of Muhammad’s plan all along. To his mind, political and governmental forces are agencies for achieving the will of Allah. Allah desires that all the world come under the sway of Islam, of submission to Allah’s will. And to this end, whatever needs to be done to accomplish the Islamization of the earth is acceptable—even to the use of war and state-sanctioned military action. Muslim writer Fazlur Rahman comments on this fact: “This is because the Islamic purpose must be achieved, as an absolute imperative, and for this not only preaching but the harnessing of social and political forces is necessary. That is precisely why the Medinese career of the Prophet, far from being a compromise of Islam with politics, is the inevitable fulfillment of Muhammad’s Prophethood.” Do you see the great significance of this point? For Muhammad, and for Islam, the state and the Muslim religion are conceived of as a unified, coordinated mechanism to achieve the will of Allah.
Thus, we gain great insight into the nature of Muhammad (and Islam) by examining the actions of Muhammad while living and ruling in Medina. His behavior there demonstrates his efforts to achieve his primary goal—which is the whole world united under the domination of Islam, with the state (and state-sponsored war) as an instrument to achieve this goal. With this in mind, let us consider some of the particular events and conduct of Muhammad during this period of his life.
When the Prophet went to Medina, he took 200 followers with him. Thus, he started with a base of believers. Most of the people of Medina readily accepted him, including his faith and his leadership. However, there was some disapproval. And Muhammad had to deal with this. Paul Fregosi notes, “Muhammad fought the opposition in Medina as any political leader might have done. He maneuvered, he intrigued, and sometimes he killed and had opponents assassinated. He organized his supporters for war.” Muslims became the “army of Allah” as Lewis Browne observed.
In Medina Muhammad changed in many ways. He became militaristic and totalitarian. He ruled the city, and later all of Arabia, with an iron hand. He also changed his conversion methods. In Mecca he had preached his message and relied on persuasion to gain converts. Now he had the power of an armed force behind him. So unbelievers either were converted or they were beheaded. Saving one’s life is a rather strong proselytizing technique. However, the Prophet did often provide a third option. You could pay a tax as an unbeliever, and thus spare your life. Those allowed to live by paying tribute to the Prophet were now designated dhimmis, second-class citizens “protected” by Islamic law, but with a status much below that of Muslims. They lived totally under the domination of the Prophet and Islam.
To provide material resources for his government he organized raiding parties that attacked and robbed caravans traveling near Medina. (Medina was on a major trade route passing through Arabia which also passed Mecca.) It is recorded that during his ten years in Medina Muhammad planned 65 raids and fighting campaigns, and personally led 27 of them. Booty from these raids filled Muslim coffers. The city of Mecca felt the effects of these raids, and they organized to respond.
The first major battle in the Muslim fight of faith occurred in 623, a year after he was accepted as leader of Medina. Muhammad himself organized a raiding party of 300 and attacked a large caravan at the wadi of Badr. The caravan was defended by a force of 900 Meccans. The Muslims won a great victory, which they attributed to angelic intervention. Seventy-four Meccans were killed, and much loot was taken. In this battle, one of Muhammad’s chief foes, Abu Jahl, was beheaded and his head cast at a triumphant Muhammad’s feet.
Muhammad’s victory at Badr assured his sovereignty in Medina. Now, as supreme commander of the city, he would brook no interference with his plans or criticism of his policies. Upon returning to the city, he had the poetess Asma bint Marwan assassinated because she has written verses critical of the Prophet. Her assassin thrust a knife through her sleeping body with such great force that it impaled her to her couch. When the assassin Omeir return to Muhammad, the Prophet assured him that there was no fear of reprisal for this deed. “No two goats will even butt their ends over it,” Muhammad said. Another poet, 100 year old Abu Afak was also killed in his sleep at this time for similar “crimes.” Thus, as Paul Fregosi comments, “Terror is a weapon that has its origins in these first struggling years of Islam.”
Fregosi also notes, “Muhammad was pitiless with those who fought him, stole from him, who acted against his interests, or whose wealth he hankered to acquire.” An example of the latter fact is to be seen in the account of a man named Kinana, head of the Jewish community of Kheibar. Muhammad desired the fortune in gold that Kinana was reputed to possess. When Kinana refused to reveal the fortune’s whereabouts, Muhammad had him tortured. The Jewish man was staked to the ground and a fire was set ablaze on his chest. When Kinana finally died under this torture, Muhammad ordered his head to be cut off. That night the Prophet took Safiya, the dead man’s widow, to bed with him. The 17 year old girl later became one of his wives.
Such brutal violence against Kinana is shocking enough, but what happened to poor Safiya only adds to the horror we feel at the Prophet’s conduct. Yet such sexually immoral exploits were not uncommon to the man. In Muhammad’s battle victories, rape was common—and was sanctioned by the Prophet. The Quran itself permits men to have sex with conquered women and with slaves (see Sura 23:1-6, 70:22-30). Muhammad did not exhibit a very high view of women in general. In the Quran husbands are authorized to beat their wives if they are disobedient or rebellious (Sura 4:34). Muhammad further declared that the inhabitants of hell mainly consisted of women, especially those who were ungrateful towards their husbands. (This latter fact comes from a vision of the Prophet recorded in Sahih Al-Bukhari [# 1052, 1462 and 4879], one of collections of the hadiths of Muhammad, i.e. the teachings and stories of his life.)
It is recorded that during the lifetime of his first wife, Khadija, he was faithfully monogamous. However, after Khadija’s death he did take other wives and concubines. The first was named Aisha. He married her when she was aged six, although the marriage wasn’t consummated until she was nine. Another of his ten or eleven wives (the figures vary) was named Zeinab. She had been the wife of his adopted son, Zeid. Muhammad accidentally saw her very scantily clad one day, and decided on the spot to marry her. Zeid immediately divorced Zeinab so she could marry the Prophet. This may disturb our modern sensibilities, but apparently Allah was okay with the arrangement. In fact, Sura 33 of the Quran expressly proclaims to the Apostle of Allah that it was God’s will for him to marry his daughter-in-law. Such convenient revelations were not uncommon in Muhammad’s life. While other Muslims were restricted to only four wives, Allah told Muhammad that he was given a special dispensation and could have as many wives as he desired.
The Apostle of Allah kept a cadre of volunteer executioners about him. They were sent to dispatch anyone who offended him or stood in the way of his plans. A number of foes of the Prophet were assassinated by these men. For instance, one rival tribal chief, Sufyan ibn Khalid, was killed by Muhammad’s devoted follower Abdallah, who brought his severed head as a trophy to the Prophet. Muhammad praised Abdallah and gave the assassin his own personal walking stick as a reward. “It shall be a token between you and me on the day of Resurrection,” the Prophet declared.
Raiding caravans was a common practice, and not just by the Muslims. However, Muhammad would not tolerate the caravans of Medina being raided by other tribes. When members of the Beni Fezara tribe raided a Medinese caravan, Muhammad acted in swift reprisal. He sent his adopted son, Zeid, to retaliate. Zeid captured a middle-aged woman who belonged to the robber tribe. He had her tied to two camels and then drove the camels apart, pulling the woman apart. After killing her two sons, Zeid returned to Muhammad with the woman’s daughter as a prize. The Prophet embraced Zeid and congratulated him on his accomplishment. The captured girl was given to one of Muhammad’s wives as a slave.
In the year 626 Muhammad was again at war with Mecca. Previous to this, he had maintained a rather peaceful existence with the Jewish tribes of Medina. However, many of the Jews were not pleased with this Prophet of Allah. A group of these Jews, the Ben Qoreiga tribe, conspired with the Meccans, and aided them in their fight against Muhammad. Muhammad reacted to this Jewish betrayal with severe ruthlessness. He had all the men of the tribe slain. (There were 600 to 800 men in this tribe.) These men were publicly killed in the streets of Medina. Trenches were dug to receive the corpses of the men, who were beheaded one by one. The killing started early in the morning and continued into the night. Muhammad watched until the sun set. Then he retired to enjoy the favors of Reihana, a beautiful Jewish girl who was the widow of one of the victims. She had been set aside for the Prophet’s pleasure. She then joined his harem as a concubine. The other women and child of the Ben Qoreiga tribe were all sold into slavery.
The annihilation of the Ben Qoreiga tribe was extremely profitable for the Muslims. A vast fortune in livestock, property, jewelry, furniture, land and money was seized by the followers of Islam. Twenty percent of this loot was set aside for the Prophet, who overnight became a very rich man.
The foregoing accounts of brutality, bloodshed and manslaughter are but a sampling of some of the more heinous examples of Muhammad’s vicious character. History and Islamic tradition recount many more. These horrific acts illustrate that violence, and even savagery, are not inconsistent with Islamic ideals. They were certainly components of the character and life of Muhammad himself.
I have heard it argued that Muhammad was simply a man of his times. To understand the Arabian culture of the late 6th and early 7th centuries would be to understand the man Muhammad. Much that is admirable, or censurable, about the man can be attributed to his place and time in history. It is asserted that in many ways Muhammad acted no worse than other leaders in this period of history. However, there is a major difference. These other men were not self-proclaimed prophets of God, and they did not establish a new religion.
In the life of Muhammad we have a graphic illustration of the Islamic belief system and the consequent results of following those beliefs. Violence, war, assassination and jihad were commonplace techniques in Muhammad’s methodology of religious practice. And they are commonplace in Islam today. Although these techniques may be sincerely rejected and deplored by many well-intentioned Muslims of today, they are obviously not inconsistent with Islamic faith or practice.
It must be emphasized that the political and social emphasis of Islam is as central to the faith as are its religious beliefs. As Paul Fregosi states: “As much as a religion, Islam is an ideological (or call it political) movement built on a religious foundation. The Jihad is there to spread the message, whatever it might be, with the aid of the sword.” For a government, or an organization, to use violence to achieve its ends is inherently consistent with the very system of Islam itself. This is apparent, as Muhammad’s life exemplifies this reality. Equally apparent must be the conclusion that Islam is not just another religion, the same as Christianity. Indeed, the contrast between the Islamic and Christian ethical perspectives is great indeed. This difference in ethos is summed up in an observation made by the French philosopher Pascal, “Mahomet established a religion by putting his enemies to death. Jesus Christ by commanding his followers to lay down their lives.”
In conclusion, I think it expedient to make one final statement. Perhaps what I want to say can best be expressed in the words of Franklin Graham. I once heard him interviewed on TV about his views on Islam. He was being questioned about some critical remarks he had made about the Islamic religion. His response was reasonable and appropriate. Graham asserted that there are indeed things that Islam teaches that he disagrees with and rejects. He specifically mentioned the tendency towards violence and the harsh attitudes towards women. However, he emphasized that although he held this position, this did not mean that he hated Muslims. He emphasized that God loves Muslims, and he [Graham] also loves Muslims. Amen, Brother Graham. That is the proper Christian response. We abhor the erroneous and gravely flawed faith of Islam. And we must not be naïve in our political and governmental dealings with Islamic nations and groups. But we love Muslims. Jesus cares for them as much as He cares for me. Jesus; blood can wash away their sins even as it washed mine away. Love must be our most vocal and passionate response to all Muslims, whether pacifists or terrorists. The One True God loves them all. Isa, son of Mary, died for them all.
A Note On Sources
I usually do not list sources for material contained in a Trogo. However, the nature of this piece necessitates at least a brief bibliography. I have tried to use unbiased, objective historical material. None were written from a distinctly Christian perspective. All were essentially secular works. The book entitled Islam was written by a Muslim. The Yusuf Ali translation of the Quran is considered by many as the most authoritative in English.
Gerald L. Berry. Religions of the World. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1956.
Lewis Brown. This Believing World. New York: Macmillan Co., 1929.
Will Durant. The Age of Faith. The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1950.
Paul Fregosi. Jihad in the West. New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Robert E. Hume. The World’s Living Religions. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959.
Fazlur Rahman. Islam. New York: Anchor Books, 1968.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, translator. The Holy Qur’an. Elmhurst, New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc. 1987.
Truth Builders is a ministry initiative of Advancing Native Missions. However, the content of this site is the personal opinion of Victor Morris, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions, views or conclusions of Advancing Native Missions, its leaders or staff