Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The Sword of the Prophet: Muhammad As The Prototype Jihadist (Part 1)

Although the Islamic Prophet Muhammad lived 1400 years ago, the details of his life, as recorded by the earliest Muslim biographers, are still important today, because he is held up by Muslims as al-insan al-kamil: the Perfect Man. The Islamic holy book, the Qur'an, says he presents a “beautiful pattern of conduct” for Muslims (33:21), and displays an “exalted standard of character” (68:4). The renowned Sufi mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111) declared that “the key to happiness is to follow the Sunnah [Muhammad's words, deeds, and even unspoken gestures] and to imitate the Messenger of God in all his coming and going, his movements and rest, in his way of eating, his attitude, his sleep and his talk." Muslims are encouraged to admire and emulate everything he said and did.

But what was Muhammad really like?

This question becomes more pressing every day. If he was a man of peace, as many Western Muslims claim, one may reasonably hope that his example would become the linchpin of reform efforts in the Islamic world that would eventually roll back the influence of jihad terrorism. If he really championed non-violence, one could profitably invoke his example among Muslims, who revere him as the highest example of human behaviour, to work for peace in the Islamic world.

And yet, modern jihad terrorists regularly invoke the Prophet's example to justify their deeds. If they are correct in doing so, 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.

The purpose of this essay is to examine some aspects of Muhammad's life that non-Muslims may find problematic, and that are used today by Muslims to justify violent actions, which will serve to explain why moderate Muslims appear so weak and marginalised compared to jihadist movements in the Islamic world.

There is no doubt that Muhammad's life was filled with violence. The Prophet's earliest biographer Ibn Ishaq (d.773) – who, according to the translator of his work, Alfred Guillaume, “had no serious rival” in this field – estimated that “the apostle took part personally in twenty-seven (T. six) raids...He actually fought in nine engagements”. But were these aggressive, expansionist wars, or were they fought to defend the young Islamic umma from enemies bent on destroying it, as Muslims often claim?

The evidence of the sira, the early pious Muslim biographies of Muhammad, suggests the former. Muhammad began publicly preaching Islam in Mecca in around 613 AD. For many years he faced frustration as his own tribe, the Quraysh, rejected and mocked him. He had a small band of followers who became Muslims, but most of the Meccans were quite happy to continue praying to their pagan goddesses. Although Muslims frequently assert that Muhammad and his men were persecuted by the Quraysh simply for being Muslims, Ibn Ishaq writes that the Meccans only began to seriously oppose Muhammad after he started insulting their gods and attacking their heritage:

“When the apostle openly displayed Islam as God ordered him, his people did not withdraw or turn against him, so far as I have heard, until he spoke disparagingly of their gods. When he did that, they took great offence and resolved unanimously to treat him as an enemy...he would not yield to them and withdrew from them and insulted their gods...”

One early Muslim traditionist remarked:

“They [the Quraysh] said that they had never known anything like the trouble they had endured from this fellow; he had declared their mode of life foolish, insulted their forefathers, reviled their religion, divided the community, and cursed their gods. What they had borne was past all bearing, or words to that effect.”

The Quraysh tried on several occasions to negotiate an amicable resolution to the troubles:

“[Quraysh leader] Abu Sufyan and sundry other notables went to Abu Talib [Muhammad's uncle] and said: '...You know the trouble that exists between us and your nephew, so call him and let us make an agreement that he will leave us alone and we will leave him alone; let him have his religion and we will have ours.'”

Muhammad consistently declined a relationship of mutual respect, demanding that the Quraysh convert to Islam.

After many years of tensions, Muhammad migrated from Mecca with a band of loyal followers, and they made for another town, Medina.

In Medina, the Muslims found new converts, and within two years their numbers had swelled significantly. From this position of new strength, says Ibn Ishaq, “the apostle prepared for war in pursuance of God's command to fight his enemies and to fight those polytheists who were near at hand whom God commanded him to fight.” The Muslims began launching raids against Quraysh trading caravans at Muhammad's behest. Not only did this serve as revenge against the Quraysh who had rejected Muhammad, but the wealth and goods the Muslims stole from the caravans also financed the burgeoning Muslim movement.

All of this culminated in the Muslims' first major military engagement, the Battle of Badr, in 624. Muhammad heard of another Quraysh caravan coming from Syria, and he instructed his warriors, “This is the Quraysh caravan containing their property. Go out to attack it, perhaps God will give it as a prey.”

But this time the Quraysh defended themselves, taking an army with them to protect their caravan, although they still did everything they could to avoid a conflict. Eventually, however, Muhammad forced them into one by blocking up all of the water wells the Quraysh relied upon for their journey home to Mecca, and then positioning his forces between these wells and the Meccans. This made the battle unavoidable. Three hundred Muslims supposedly fought a thousand Quraysh, and were victorious.

The battle won, Muhammad turned his attention to the prisoners. One Quraysh leader, Abu Jahl, was beheaded by a Muslim soldier, who carried the grizzly trophy to Muhammad – he was delighted, giving thanks to Allah for the man's death. Another enemy, Uqba, asked, “But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?” The Prophet replied: “Hell”, and had Uqba killed.

These events serve as inspiration for jihadists today, who imitate them with relish. When the American Nick Berg was captured and beheaded by terrorists in Iraq in 2004, the jihad leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi justified the act by saying: “The Prophet, the most merciful, ordered his army to strike the necks of some prisoners in the Battle of Badr and to kill them...And he set a good example for us”. This is just one example of how a seventh-century Arabian warlord's divinely sanctioned status as a “beautiful pattern of conduct” can be problematic when applied stringently by pious followers in the modern day.

In the following years, a weary give-and-take ensued between the Muslims and the Quraysh. The Meccans sought revenge at the Battle of Uhud, and were victorious. The Battle of the Trench ended in a Meccan retreat. Eventually, however, the Muslims prevailed and the Quraysh were defeated and subdued by the end of Muhammad's career.

Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon...

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