Refuting lies about the Prophet
By Karen Armstrong
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 stigmatized 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
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.
People would be offended by an account of Judaism that dwelled exclusively on
Joshua's massacres and never mentioned Rabbi Hillel's Golden Rule, or a
description of Christianity based on the bellicose Book of Revelation that
failed to cite the Sermon on the Mount. But the widespread ignorance about Islam
in the west makes many vulnerable to Spencer's polemic; he is telling them what
they are predisposed to hear. His book is a gift to extremists who can use it to
"prove" to those Muslims who have been alienated by events in Palestine, Lebanon
and Iraq that the west is incurably hostile to their faith.
Eliot Weinberger is a poet whose interest in Islam began at the time of the
first Gulf war. His slim volume, Muhammad, is also a selective anthology about
the Prophet. His avowed aim is to "give a small sense of the awe surrounding
this historical and sacred figure, at a time of the demonisation of the Muslim
world in much of the media". Many of the passages he quotes are indeed mystical
and beautiful, but others are likely to confirm some readers in their prejudice.
Without knowing their provenance, how can we respond to such statements as "He
said that he who plays chess is like one who has dyed his hand in the blood of a
pig" or "Filling the stomach with pus is better than stuffing the brain with
It is difficult to see how selecting only these dubious traditions as examples
could advance mutual understanding. The second section of this anthology is
devoted to anecdotes about Muhammad's wives that smack of prurient gossip.
Western readers need historical perspective to understand the significance of
the Prophet's domestic arrangements, his respect for his wives, and the free and
forthright way in which they approached him. Equally eccentric are the stories
cited by Weinberger to describe miracles attributed to the Prophet: the Koran
makes it clear that Muhammad did not perform miracles and insists that he was an
ordinary human being, with no divine powers.
It is, therefore, a relief to turn to Barnaby Rogerson's more balanced and
nuanced account of early Muslim history in The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad.
Rogerson is a travel writer by trade; his explanation of the Sunni/Shia divide
is theologically simplistic, but his account of the rashidun, the first four
"rightly guided" caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, is historically sound,
accessible and clears up many western misconceptions about this crucial period.
Rogerson makes it clear, for example, that the wars of conquest and the
establishment of the Islamic empire after Muhammad's death were not inspired by
religious ideology but by pragmatic politics. The idea that Islam should conquer
the world was alien to the Koran and there was no attempt to convert Jews or
Christians. Islam was for the Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, as Judaism was for the
descendants of Isaac and Christianity for the followers of Jesus.
Rogerson also shows that Muslim tradition is multi-layered and many-faceted. The
early historians regularly gave two or three variant accounts of an incident in
the life of the Prophet; readers were expected to make up their own minds.
Similarly, there are at least four contrasting and sometimes conflicting
versions of the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible, and in the New Testament the
four evangelists interpret the life of Jesus quite differently. To choose one
tradition and ignore the rest - as Weinberger and Spencer do - is distorting.
Professor Tariq Ramadan has studied Islam at the University of Geneva and
al-Azhar University in Cairo and is currently senior research fellow at St
Antony's College, Oxford. The Messenger is easily the most scholarly and
knowledgeable of these four biographies of Muhammad, but it is also practical
and relevant, drawing lessons from the Prophet's life that are crucial for
Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ramadan makes it clear, for example, that
Muhammad did not shun non-Muslims as "unbelievers" but from the beginning
co-operated with them in the pursuit of the common good. Islam was not a closed
system at variance with other traditions. Muhammad insisted that relations
between the different groups must be egalitarian. Even warfare must not obviate
the primary duty of justice and respect.
When the Muslims were forced to leave Mecca because they were persecuted by the
Meccan establishment, Ramadan shows, they had to adapt to the alien customs of
their new home in Medina, where, for example, women enjoyed more freedom than in
Mecca. The hijrah ("migration") was a test of intelligence; the emigrants had to
recognise that some of their customs were cultural rather than Islamic, and had
to learn foreign practices.
Ramadan also makes it clear that, in the Koran, jihad was not synonymous with
"holy war". The verb jihada should rather be translated: "making an effort". The
first time the word is used in the Koran, it signified a "resistance to
oppression" (25:26) that was intellectual and spiritual rather than militant.
Muslims were required to oppose the lies and terror of those who were motivated
solely by self-interest; they had to be patient and enduring. Only after the
hijrah, when they encountered the enmity of Mecca, did the word jihad take
connotations of self-defence and armed resistance in the face of military
aggression. Even so, in mainstream Muslim tradition, the greatest jihad was not
warfare but reform of one's own society and heart; as Muhammad explained to one
of his companions, the true jihad was an inner struggle against egotism.
The Koran teaches that, while warfare must be avoided whenever possible, it is
sometimes necessary to resist humanity's natural propensity to expansionism and
oppression, which all too often seeks to obliterate the diversity and religious
pluralism that is God's will. If they do wage war, Muslims must behave
ethically. "Do not kill women, children and old people," Abu Bakr, the first
caliph, commanded his troops. "Do not commit treacherous actions. Do not burn
houses and cornfields." Muslims must be especially careful not to destroy
monasteries where Christian monks served God in prayer.
Ramadan could have devoted more time to such
contentious issues as the veiling of women, polygamy and Muhammad's treatment of
some (though by no means all) of the Jewish tribes of Medina. But his account
restores the balance that is so often lacking in western narratives. Muhammad
was not a belligerent warrior. Ramadan shows that he constantly emphasised the
importance of "gentleness" (ar-rafiq), "tolerance" (al-ana) and clemency
It will be interesting to see how The Messenger is
received. Ramadan is clearly addressing issues that inspire some Muslims to
distort their religion. Western people often complain that they never hear from
"moderate" Muslims, but when such Muslims do speak out they are frequently
dismissed as apologists and hagiographers. Until we all learn to approach one
another with generosity and respect, we cannot hope for peace.
Karen Armstrong is the author of "Muhammad: Prophet
For Our Time".