Saturday, 9 May 2009

The Sword of the Prophet: Muhammad As The Prototype Jihadist (Part 3)

Follows on from part 1 here and part 2 here.


The stage was now set for Muhammad to become the undisputed master of Arabia. Two years after Khaybar, he marched on Mecca with as many as ten thousand Muslims. The attack came by surprise; Ibn Ishaq emphasises that the Meccans did not even know they were at war with Muhammad until he had nearly arrived: “When the apostle had reached Marr al-Zahran Quraysh were completely ignorant of the fact and did not even know what he was doing.” Knowing that they could not possibly win, the Meccans surrendered the city with little to no resistance. Very soon the last few Arab tribes who did resist the Muslims were defeated and converted to Islam.

Unsatisfied with mere control of Arabia, the Prophet soon set his sights on the adjacent lands. He wrote letters to the rulers of the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires, inviting them to embrace Islam. The letter he wrote to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius read:

“In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful (This letter is) from Muhammad the slave of Allah and His Apostle to Heraclius the ruler of Byzantine. Peace be upon him, who follows the right path. Furthermore I invite you to Islam, and if you become a Muslim you will be safe, and Allah will double your reward, and if you reject this invitation of Islam you will be committing a sin by misguiding your Arisiyin (peasants).” (Sahih Bukhari v.1, b.1, no.6)

Heraclius did not embrace Islam. According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad then “ordered his companions to prepare to raid the Byzantines” at Tabuk. One of his followers stated that in attacking Tabuk, Muhammad “had in his mind (the idea of threatening the) Christians of Arabia in Syria and those of Rome.” (Sahih Muslim b.37, no.6670) It was during and around the time of this expedition that the most warlike and hostile of all the chapters of the Qur'an – sura 9 – was revealed.

The expected battle did not occur, but Muhammad still accepted the submission of some of the local Christian rulers, who paid him the jizya, the non-Muslim poll tax mandated in Qur'an 9:29. Muhammad tempted his men with the promise: “The first army amongst my followers who will invade Caesar's city [Constantinople] will be forgiven their sins.” (Sahih Bukhari v.4, b.56, no.2924)

This promise was only fulfilled long after Muhammad's death, as not long after the Tabuk raid, he fell terminally ill. But even then, even from his deathbed, he did not relent on his imperial ambitions. According to a hadith, he ordered his followers, “Turn al-Mushrikun [unbelievers] out of the Arabian Peninsula,” (Sahih Bukhari v.5, b.64, no.4431) – an order which the government of Saudi Arabia are still doing their best to honour to this day:

Another tradition reported by Ibn Ishaq renders the Prophet's words as: “Let not two religions be left in the Arabian Peninsula.”

One of the last – and most telling – things Muhammad ever said before he died is recorded in the hadith: “I have been made victorious with terror (cast in the hearts of the enemy)” (Sahih Bukhari v.4, b.56, no.2977). Of course, in this he was not referring to terror in the sense of modern terrorism. Rather, he meant the terror that Allah cast into the hearts of His enemies (see Qur'an 8:60 and others). But he saw himself and his armies as the instruments of Allah, the means by which Allah's wrath was implemented. So it might be argued that his view of himself was not that different from the way modern jihad terrorists see themselves – as a warrior of Allah terrorising the enemies of Islam.

In summary, the earliest biographies of Muhammad – which were written by pious Muslims who revered him – and related Islamic texts debunk the notion that he was a peaceful man, or that he only ever waged war in self-defence. Moreover, the behaviour of his closest friends and companions – who in the years following his death launched devastating invasions of Persia and Byzantium – clearly indicates that he did not foresee the jihad ending in Arabia; rather, he had plans to Islamise the whole world in time. Indeed, the hadith records this saying of the Prophet: “[The] jihad will be performed continuously since the day Allah sent me as a prophet until the day the last member of my community will fight with the Dajjal (Antichrist).” (Sunan Abu Dawud b.14, no.2526). It seems unlikely that his followers – those who knew him best, such as Umar, the second caliph – would so dramatically misunderstand his message. If he truly wanted the Muslims to be non-violent, or to understand jihad as primarily a peaceful interior struggle, then he did a catastrophically bad job of making this clear to them. Their actions, committed in reverence to him, demonstrate best what he wanted of them.

The words and deeds of Muhammad have been moving Muslims to commit acts of violence for fourteen hundred years. They are not going to disappear in our lifetimes; nor can they be negotiated away. The best thing that can be done is to recognise their character and move to limit their influence around the world, calling upon moderate Muslims to definitively renounce these elements of Islam. The sooner this is done, the closer we will be to genuine peace. But as long as this manifold problem continues to be ignored, Muhammad will continue to inspire his followers to wield the sword in his name.


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