Balancing the Prophet (s)

Posted on June 5, 2007

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By Karen Armstrong

Published: April 27, 2007, Financial Times

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. [more]

To read the complete article from the Financial Times, please click here.

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

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