What Everyone Should Know about Muhammad
Muhammad has become a strangely unifying figure in America—able to get conservative Glenn Beck and liberal Bill Maher to agree that Islam is a backward, medieval religion and a threat to all civilization. Both are making a common, fundamentalist mistake.
Illustration Credit: Grace Russell
9/11 hit Spirituality & Health hard. Our offices at the time overlooked Ground Zero and many of our staff ended up spending days and nights at St Paul’s Chapel helping to feed the rescue workers. One of ours would end up so traumatized she could not work again. I did not live in New York, but toured the site with the rector of St. Paul’s and vividly remember the white dust covering my shoes. It seemed appropriate to clean my shoes with tears.
The world was awash in tears then. Tears alone could have drowned the fires of terrorism. Instead, we did everything that tiny band of terrorists dreamed of and more.
Once again the world is awash in tears, and the difficulty we face is much worse. A generation has grown up with every night in Paris. More nights like that won’t make us safer.
We should start by recognizing that the Prophet Muhammad was a man that Gandhi admired. Through our tears we must see clearly that we have no reason to fear Islam. At Spirituality & Health we commissioned Steven Scholl’s feature “What Everyone Should Know About Muhammad” for our January issue. We’re offering it now in the hopes that you will read it and pass it along.
We are strong enough to suffer this wound and not seek vengeance. Like Muhammad and Jesus, we must seek peace. — Stephen Kiesling, Editor in Chief
I was recently driving on Interstate 5 in Oregon and blew by a large billboard that posed the question, Who is Jesus? My first thought was, Well, everyone pretty much knows the answer to that question, but what if the billboard asked, Who is Muhammad? Now that would raise eyebrows and expose the fact that most Americans have no clue.
We Americans love religion. Surveys and polls show that we are the most religious country among developed Western nations. But as Stephen Prothero notes in his book Religious Literacy, it is also true that we know very little about the religions of the world that are now a part of the fabric of American life, and our knowledge of Islam, the religion founded by Muhammad, is no exception. Even after more than a decade of sending troops to fight in Islamic countries, Americans (citizens and political leaders) still display little or no knowledge of the basic facts of the life of Muhammad and the teachings of Islam.
I am not a Muslim, but I have spent the last 30 years engaged in study of Islam and the Muslim world; I have lived in the Middle East and I travel regularly to Arab-majority countries. I recently cowrote Muhammad: The Prophet of Islam, and I have been out talking to my fellow Americans about it. In presentations to churches, synagogues, and colleges, people ask me serious questions about just what kind of man Muhammad was and whether Islam is a religion of peace or a religion of violence. Here are some of the fruits of my research.
First, context is important. Conservative author and professional pot stirrer Glenn Beck has a new book titled It Is About Islam: Exposing the Truth About ISIS, Al Qaeda, Iran, and the Caliphate, which claims to expose the lies of Muslims and non-Muslims who say that Islam is a religion of peace. Beck quotes the Qur’an to prove his point, but he does so completely out of context. In this he shares the same position as liberals like Sam Harris and Bill Maher who love to ridicule Islam as a backward, medieval religion that is a threat to all civilization. In this sense, Muhammad is a great unifying figure: he is able to get Glenn Beck and Bill Maher to agree on something!
What Beck and Maher do is the same thing that fundamentalist believers do all the time. They pick out some lines from scripture, ignore the historical context, and ignore other parts of scripture that point believers in a different direction. So let’s set the stage and take a quick trip to the sixth century and get to know a bit about Muhammad and the founding of Islam.
The Birth of the Prophet
Muhammad was born around 570 CE in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. He was a member of the Quraysh, the leading tribal group of his day, but from a poor clan within the tribe. His fortunes were especially bleak because his father died before his birth and his mother died when he was six years old. Had he not been adopted, he would have been killed as a burden on the clan.
Arabia had long been a cultural backwater compared to the Christian Byzantine and Zoroastrian Sassanid empires to the north, but the Christian and Zoroastrian empires had been fighting over turf for centuries and both were in decline. Meanwhile, a few generations before Muhammad’s birth, Arab caravan cartels invented new camel saddles that allowed their dromedary fleets to carry more cargo. New wealth poured into Mecca, but it was controlled by the elite Quraysh clans, so there was a growing divide between, let’s call them the one-percenters and the rest of the population. The Quraysh did everything they could to hold on to their trade monopolies.
Part of the Quraysh trade monopoly had to do with control of the religious marketplace. The center of commerce in Mecca was the area known as the Kaabah, a shrine said to have been founded by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham as a temple to the one true God. But in Muhammad’s time the Kaabah was home to 360 deities, which suited the trading interests of the Quraysh.
Young Muhammad went to work in the trading caravans and traveled to the empires of the north. He was deeply moved by the unfairness of a social world where corruption was rampant, injustice the norm, and where the weak in society were forced into lives of poverty and discrimination. Muhammad was also keenly interested in religion and made efforts to meet and learn from both Jews and Christians. He had a mystical nature and often retreated to the mountain caves outside of Mecca for prayer and meditation.
Muhammad gained a reputation as an honest and capable trader and was hired by Khadija, a woman who ran a caravan-trading cartel. They fell in love and she proposed marriage. I always like to stop at this part of the story and emphasize that Khadija, said to be 40, owned her own company and controlled her economic fate. In fact, until the modern era, Muslim women typically had more rights than women in other religions and cultures. At the time of their marriage Muhammad was about 25.
At the age of forty, during one of his mystical retreats, Muhammad was overcome by the voice of an unseen figure who commanded him to “Recite in the name of your Lord!” This was the beginning of Muhammad’s prophetic ministry. Interestingly, his reaction was not one of ecstasy and confidence but of fear that he might be losing his mind. He rushed down the mountain to find Khadija, who wrapped him in her cloak and reassured him he was not mad. Muhammad was among a minority of Arabs of his day who were neither Jews nor Christians but nonetheless monotheists, known as hanifs. Khadija’s cousin Waraqa was a respected hanif and was brought to hear the experience of Muhammad in the cave. Waraqa also felt that the words from the angel were true and that Muhammad was a new prophet come to lead the Arabs into pure monotheistic faith.
Greed Is Against God
And so Muhammad began to preach by reciting the beautiful revelations that filled his mind and heart. He claimed that this was not his message but came from Allah via the Angel Gabriel. The content of these early revelations was straightforward: greed and hoarding of wealth and holding back from the poor is against the will of God:
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Caring
Do you see him who calls the reckoning a lie?
He is the one who casts the orphan away
who fails to urge the feeding of one in need
Cursed are those who perform the prayer
unmindful of how they pray
who make of themselves a display
but hold back the small kindness*
*[Sura 107, translated by Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (White Cloud Press, 2007), p. 124]
As well as redistributing wealth, Muhammad called for the cleansing of the Kaabah of idols and a return to the monotheistic tradition of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Since the precinct around the Kaabah did double duty as a place of worship as well as trade, the Quraysh elites saw the threat as both philosophical and practical. Muhammad had to be stopped.
The Quraysh called for an economic and social boycott of Muslims, and converts were threatened, beaten, and banished. In an ancient tribal system, such brutal retaliation was normally effective in preventing insurrection because to lose clan and tribe meant social death, and often physical death, too. But the new Muslims rallied to support each other. Clan and tribe began to give way to a new form of community, known as the ummah, which further unnerved the Quraysh. Believers shared their lives and sufferings and formed a new social bond as Muslims—uniting under the belief that all Muslims were equal before the eyes of God. Muhammad himself was just a man, neither a god nor a son of God. Respected as the bearer of revelation, Muhammad was the first among equals.
Muhammad proved to be an effective leader, and as more and more converts came to the faith, the outrage and violence of the Quraysh intensified. Attempts were made to assassinate Muhammad, and the situation became so dire that he sent his most vulnerable followers to the Christian kingdom in Abyssinia (Ethiopia on today’s maps), where they were welcomed and remained until fortunes shifted for the Muslims in Arabia. The Quraysh attacks escalated, and the years 619–620 became known as a time of sorrow. Khadija died first, followed by Muhammad’s uncle and protector, Abu Talib.
The Birth of Medina
Two hundred miles north of Mecca was the oasis city of Yathrib, an important agricultural center of about 20 square miles that was settled by eleven clans: eight Arab and three Jewish. With so many clans living in close proximity, disputes were inevitable and tended to escalate following the Bedouin traditions of blood feuds. Yet Jews and Arabs of the region intermarried, so that the main cultural patterns were Arab but Jewish monotheism was also strong. The people were tired of endless conflicts, and the region was ripe for change. As Muslims began slipping out of Mecca and heading north to safety, the people of Yathrib were drawn to the charismatic figure of Muhammad. They sought him out to come north to act as judge and arbiter.
In 622 CE, just before an assassination attempt, Muhammad departed with his friend and companion Abu Bakr. Yathrib soon became known as Medina an-Nabi, City of the Prophet, or Medina for short. This is the turning point in Muhammad’s ministry and is celebrated as Year One of the Muslim calendar. It was also the year the Quraysh of Mecca sent troops to attack Medina—and begins a new period of struggle (jihad) for the survival of Muslims.
The Shift to Jihad
While in Mecca, Muhammad was a target of hate groups, who would throw garbage and worse on him as he walked the streets. Meanwhile the revelations he recounted in the Qur’an told Muslims not to fight back when attacked by their pagan neighbors and family. This was a period of nonviolent resistance by the Muslims. But in Medina, Muhammad was personally more secure, he had growing numbers coming into the Muslim community, and he was facing open war against an army. Now verses came to Muhammad exhorting Muslims to build their own army to fight the unbelievers.
Today, these scriptures have been hijacked by a small minority of Muslim radicals to justify flying planes into buildings and killing all “unbelievers”—“unbelievers” being interpreted as any non-Muslims, including Jews, Christians, and followers of other religions. And of course these scriptures have also been hijacked by commentators like Beck and Maher to get people to fear Muslims. But, again, context is crucial—as is understanding how translations from one language to another can lead to huge misunderstandings. So let’s try to unpack some of these troubling verses, look at their context, and check our translations of Arabic terms. One thing that it so important in these difficult and polarized times is to not make assumptions and take actions based on limited knowledge. Wars might have been avoided and lives saved if we had taken time to understand another religious tradition. First, we have to ask what it means when the Qur’an exhorts Muslims to “kill the unbelievers.”
The Arabic word, often translated poorly as “unbeliever” is kafir, plural kuffar. In the Qur’an this refers to the Meccan pagans who were out to kill the Muslims—it is not a reference to believers of other faiths. Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans are referred to collectively as ahl al-kitab or “People of the Book” or directly as “Jews” or “Christians,” etc. As we have seen, the Qur’an’s early revelations urged Muslims not to fight back when attacked, but there came a point where nonviolence would likely have ended in the mass murder of Muslims.
Rules of conduct in war were also clearly established in the Qur’an:
- Fight only in self-defense: “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, do not transgress limits, for God does not love transgressors” (Q 2:190)
- If the enemy asks for peace, you must stop all fighting, even if you are on the verge of victory: “If they resort to peace, so shall you, and put your trust in God. He is the Hearer, the Omniscient” (Q 8:61) and “... if they leave you alone, refrain from fighting you, and offer you peace, then God gives you no excuse to fight them” (Q 4:94).
In his role as leader of Muslim armies, Muhammad also gave instructions for how Muslim warriors should behave in battle. These sayings on battle ethics are found in the hadith literature and are summed up in a talk by Abu Bakr, the prophet’s close companion, father-in-law, and first caliph or leader of the Muslim community following the death of Muhammad. In a speech before a battle, Abu Bakr preached:
Do not act treacherously; do not act disloyally; do not act neglectfully. Do not mutilate; do not kill children, old men, or women; do not cut off the head of palm trees or burn them; do not cut down fruit trees; do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or camel, except for food. You will pass by people who devote their lives in cloisters; leave them to their devotions. …
Thus, the Qur’an and earliest Islamic traditions are in absolute contrast to the actions of Al-Qaeda and ISIS—a fact that has been pointed out repeatedly by most recognized Muslim religious leaders and institutions.
What baffles me more than anything is how so many Americans hold such negative views about Muhammad. Despite the fact that we revere our own military heroes, like Presidents George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, and even though our nation has been at war for most of its history, we revile Muhammad as a warmonger. Whether our own wars are just or waged to protect our economic interests, we send off our warriors with prayers for victory and a cry of “God bless America.”
I often ask people to compare the words of Winston Churchill with those of the Qur’an and Muhammad. At a time when England and the Western nations were losing the fight against Hitler’s Nazi war machine, Churchill rallied the British with these stirring words of war:
We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our Island, whatever the costs may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
I think it’s fair to say that Churchill sounds rather Quranic!
Muhammad was not Gandhi, but Gandhi himself came to know Muhammad’s story and was a great admirer of him. Here is how Gandhi described his encounter with Muhammad’s story:
I wanted to know the best one who holds today undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind. I became more than convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for his pledges, the intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, and his absolute trust in God and his own mission. When I closed the second volume of the book about his life, I was sorry that there was not more for me to read about his great life.
Steven Scholl is the founding publisher of White Cloud Press and is the editor of several books including The Peace Bible: Words from the Great Traditions and Common Era: Best New Writings on Religion. His new book is Muhammad: The Prophet of Islam, cowritten with Sam Deeb.
This article will be published in the January/February 2016 issue of Spirituality & Health.