Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Spinning Muhammad (Part 1)

This past Monday (11th July) saw the broadcast of the first episode in a three-part series for the BBC entitled "The Life of Muhammad". UK readers who missed it will be able to watch the first part in its entirety here.

As could be expected, the documentary, presented by Al Jazeera's Rageh Omaar, mostly shied away from any critical analysis of Muhammad's life and deeds, giving brief lip-service to some critical views, and giving far too much airtime to the woeful Karen Armstrong (although there were a couple of cameos from the exceptional Robert Spencer).

The programme contained many dubious claims and misrepresentations of the sources, and chief among these was the theme, peddled throughout the last 15 to 20 minutes, that Muhammad was "persecuted" by his Meccan tribe, the Quraysh, simply for preaching Islam peacefully.

But is this presentation really accurate?

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, the Prophet's earliest and most trusted biographer 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... (The Life of Muhammad, p.118)

One early Muslim narrator 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.” (pp.130-131)

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.'” (pp.191-92)

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

Omaar claims in the show that the Muslims suffered appallingly at the hands of the Quraysh, suffering everything from torture with hot coals to death by stabbing. Where he gets this information from is something of a mystery, however. Indeed, the hadith record that the "worst thing" the Meccans ever did to Muhammad was as follows:

"While Allah's Apostle was praying in the courtyard of the ka'ba, 'Uqba bin Abi Mu'ait came and seized Allah's Apostle by the shoulder and twisted his garment round his neck and throttled him severely. Abu Bakr came and seized 'Uqba's shoulder and threw him away from Allah's Apostle and said, "Would you kill a man because he says: 'My Lord is Allah,' and has come to you with clear Signs from your Lord?" (Bukhari v.6, b.60, no.339)

An attempted throttling isn't exactly a friendly gesture, but it is far from the exaggerated tales that Rageh Omaar spins. Ibn Ishaq does record an incident in which a Muslim was mocked and dragged through the streets by his beard, but even so, the extent of the "persecution" the Muslims actually suffered is vastly overstated - especially in light of the fact that where tensions did arise between the Muslims and the Quraysh, they were primarily caused not by the mere existence of the Muslims, but by Muhammad's repeated insults towards his tribe's religion and traditions.

Disproving the claims of violent persecution and passive "martyrdom" on the Muslims' part is another story recorded by Ibn Ishaq. Some Muslims were praying when they were interrupted by a group of pagans, and the two groups began arguing. At this point, one of the Muslims struck a member of the Quraysh with a camel's jawbone, drawing blood. "This," says Ibn Ishaq, "was the first blood shed in Islam." (p.118) And it was shed by a Muslim.

According to the preview at the end of the episode, next week's installment of this series will deal with the massacre of the Banu Qurayza. I am fascinated to see how they approach this incident, since I can guarantee right now that under no circumstances will they simply present this as an evil, unjustifiable act that is unbefitting of a Prophet of God (people would die if they did that). However they choose to cover it, I'll examine their account, along with any other major discrepancies, at the same time here next week.

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