Fictional revelations must yield to the truth
James M. Arlandson
Part 1 of this series can be read here
Some of Muhammad's actions and policy show areas that his later followers misinterpret and misapply, since sometimes his actions and policies-rooted so deeply in Arab custom but missing in the Founder of another religion-seem excessive to Western outsiders. These ambiguities are the seeds of future jihads, which radicals are now waging and which will make reform of Islam from within difficult for moderate Muslims.
(4) Tension between Muhammad and the Jews simmered until he became powerful enough to apply various Arab customs to their opposition.
This tension and eventual ruptures went through five stages after Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina in 622.
First, while Muhammad was settling down in Medina and his position there was not secure, he tried to convince the Jews that his revelations were the continuation of Judaism (and Christianity), the religion of the People of the Book. Before he left Mecca, he faced Jerusalem in prayer. The early Muslims in Medina seem to have observed the fast for the Day of Atonement, and their special Friday worship was a response to the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
The Jews, however, who were divided into three important clans (Qaynuqa', an-Nadir, and Qurayzah, also spelled Quraizah), saw things a little differently. Muhammad was not educated in the Torah, though he seems to have known some of the stories and laws. He describes himself as "unlettered" (Qur'an 7:158), which probably means that he was not a scholar, not that he could not read or write. So it was not hard for the educated Jews to point out some differences or contradictions between his revelations and their Hebrew Bible.
Second, these disagreements meant that Muhammad would have to strike out on a new path and reinterpret matters in light of Abraham's religion. He claimed that Abraham was not a Jew and that the text of the Hebrew Bible was corrupt (and so was the New Testament); his religion was therefore the better and purer representation of Abraham. So if some of the claims of all three religions were contradictory, then the fault lay in the first two religions, not his.
Third, Muhammad expelled the clan of Qaynuqa' in April 624 (or a month or two later) after his victory at the Battle of Badr in March, a battle which made his position in Medina more secure. It is unclear what his motives were: a quarrel in the market place? Or the Jewish refusal to become Muslims? Jewish opposition to his policies and religion? In any case, he besieged the Jews' strongholds for fifteen days, after which they surrendered. He gave them three days to collect the debts owed to them and to get out of Medina.
The fourth stage is much too complicated to be described here, but Muhammad's motives for exiling the Jewish clan of an-Nadir seem to be founded on blood feuds and the payment of blood-wit, which compensates for loss of life. In August 625 he went to the Jewish settlement near Medina to ask for some blood-wit money that he and they had to pay, but the Jews were reluctant, even though by apparent agreement with a tribe they were required to contribute to the payment. They asked him to stay until they prepared a dinner, but after a short time he left because he got a revelation that they were going to assassinate him.
Or perhaps the real reason for exiling the clan lay in Muhammad's recent loss in the Battle of Uhud in March (which traditional Muslims say he did not lose, with some grounds), and in a failed raiding expedition in June, so his position weakened somewhat in Medina.
Whatever the motive, Muhammad besieged an-Nadir in their strongholds for some days until he set about destroying their date palms, their livelihood, so they capitulated to his first demand for blood-wit money. However, he upped the penalty-they must get nothing from their palms. Their livelihood destroyed, they departed to the city of Kaybar, a hundred or so miles to the north, where they had estates.
In May-June 628, Muhammad conquered Kaybar because an-Nadir was inciting Arabs to oppose him. The result: the Jews could cultivate their lands, but they must hand over half of their produce to their new Muslims owners, the 1,600 jihadists who participated in the conquest.
Finally, it was after the Battle of the Trench in March 627, named after a trench that the Muslims dug north of Medina, that Muhammad imposed the ultimate penalty on the men in the Jewish clan, Qurayzah, his third and final Jewish rivals. This clan was supposed to remain neutral in the Battle, but they seem to have intrigued with the Meccans and to have been on the verge of attacking Muhammad from the rear. They were judged guilty by one of their Medinan Muslim allies, though Muhammad could have shown mercy, exiled them (as indeed they requested), or executed only a few.
The sentence: Death by decapitation for around 600 men, and enslavement for the women and children. Muhammad was wise enough to have six clans execute two Jews each in order to stop any blood-feuds. The rest of the executions were probably carried out by Muhammad's fellow Emigrants from Mecca.
According to apologist* Maulana Muhammad Ali's translation, the Prophet says in Qur'an 33:25-26 the following about the Battle of the Trench and his treatment of Qurayzah:
25 And Allah turned back the disbelievers [Meccans] in their rage-they gained no advantage. And Allah sufficed the believers in fighting. And Allah is ever Strong, Mighty. 26 And He drove down those of the People of the Book [Qurayzah] who backed them from their fortresses, and He cast awe into their hearts; some you killed and you took captive some. 25 And He made you heirs to their land and their dwelling and their properties . . . . Allah is ever Possessor of power over all things.
These verses show three things: (1) Allah helped the Muslims in warfare against a much-larger foe; (2) Allah permitted the enslavement and execution of Jews; (3) Allah permitted Muhammad to take their property on the basis of conquest and His possession of all things.
However, in all five of these conflicts, traditional Muslims believe that Muhammad never attacked first, but when treaties and agreements were broken or when he or his followers suffered persecution and betrayal, only then would he retaliate or punish. Muslims seem to know this almost a priori. The logic:
(1) Muhammad was a Perfect Prophet.(2) No perfect Prophets ever violate God's command prohibiting aggression (2:190-193). (3) Therefore, Muhammad never violated God's command prohibiting aggression.
So the official story goes. Yet, does traditional Muslim belief and logic follow history? Does the Qur'an say wherever jihad is mentioned not to be the aggressor? That is debatable.
In addition, even though for clarity the conflicts between Muhammad and the Jews have been sketched out in stages, some scholars conclude that Muhammad never had a systematic master plan to eliminate the Jews in Medina, one large clan at a time. After all, he let them live in peace for several years and made agreements with them. He seems to have reacted to fluid circumstances.
The questions center on the severity of his punishments. But some Islamologists answer that in this he was simply following Arab custom, which allowed various means of dealing with enemies, including enslavement or death. Now, though, the latter two means have been enshrined in the Qur'an (33:21-27).
However, even if we concede that Muhammad did not have a master plan, that he was always non-aggressive, and that his motives to retaliate were always justified, then this still lands Islam in countless moral difficulties because the interpretation and application of his sunna (or "path") is far from clear. Muhammad says in Qur'an 16:126, according to Haleem's new translation for Oxford University Press, the following:
If you people have to respond to an attack, make your response proportionate, but it is better to be steadfast.
That is the ideal. What about the real? In that verse Muhammad is situated in Mecca and undergoing persecution. Maulana's commentary on the verse says Muhammad is prophesying a time when he will "dominate" his persecutors. His comment only shows the difficulty for later Muslims to interpret the Prophet's words and actions.
It seems Muhammad did not always remain only steadfast, but took his (just) revenge. How did he gauge a proportionate response? Is "domination" equal to persecution? Is inciting or intriguing with an enemy, as an-Nadir and Qurayzah did, proportionate to exile, mass execution, or the conquest of a city? What would the 600 or so male Jews of Qurayzah say? Who decides? The tribal chief with the most powerful army?
More profoundly, granted that everyone is part and parcel of his or her own culture, should a Holy Prophet practice the questionable customs of his culture like execution or enslavement? In the same context as the Qurayzah passage, Muhammad proclaims that he is the example to follow:
Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah [Muhammad] an excellent exemplar for him who hopes in Allah . . . . (33:21)
Astonishingly, this verse exhorts Muslims to follow Muhammad's excellent example in precisely the most controversial of historical Arab customs: enslavement and execution. This custom has now risen to the status of the eternal word of God; ambiguities have been planted in it. Could his words and sunna be the seeds of future strife between Muslims and Jews today?
Comparing religions can bring perspective. Muhammad's praxis in regards to the Jews stands in stark contrast with the praxis of Jesus. He encountered opposition from a few leading Jews, which finally culminated in his crucifixion, but he never ordered his disciples, say, to attack his persecutors and eventual executioners. In fact, he told his disciples to put up their swords in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed and arrested (Matt 26:51-54). If there ever were justification to defend the Lord by force, that was it, yet he refused because he had embarked on a heavenly mission.
If a present-day adherent of Christianity commits an act of violence, he can be denounced as not truly following Jesus because he never practiced violence, so the ambiguities or seeds do not exist in his message, which was spread by peaceful proclamation. And if the listeners in the First Century were not persuaded, or even persecuted his disciples, the preachers were not supposed to retaliate in kind, but shake the dust off their feet and move on to the next village.
In contrast, ambiguities or seeds have been planted in Muhammad's policies and theology, which, for the radicals, have grown up to be their jihad, as they (mis)interpret and (mis)apply his theology and policies according to their own perceptions of the world.
Terrorist arithmetic is simple: their perception + their interpretation = application of violence.
Here are the radicals' perceptions of the world: they feel persecuted. Sacred Saudi Arabia is being defiled by infidels. "Christian" troops have invaded Iraq. A dance club in Bali is too worldly. Jews are "occupying" the land that they "owned first." The Christian West, not Islam, dominates a large part of the world. After all, God helped Muhammad against a much-larger Meccan enemy and eventually against the entire Arabian Peninsula. If God endorses Islam, it should expand endlessly, but it is not. These perceptions and their interpretation of Muhammad's policies and his Qur'an, as discussed in this article and in Part (1), justify them, in their eyes, to retaliate and to eliminate the infidels and the opposition to the growth and purity of the True Religion.
But how do they now apply their perceptions and interpretation, as they seek to walk in Muhammad's path, in the imitatio Muhammadi?**
To judge from their intercepted messages and their acts of violence, these questions have crossed their minds:
How best to retaliate and eliminate? How best to measure a proportionate response to the Great Satan and his global reach? How best to eliminate oppressive Jews in Israel? How should radicals stop the growth of the inferior religion, Christianity, as represented by the West? Fly jets into buildings? Decapitate innocent workers in Iraq or Saudi Arabia? Blow up a dance club in Bali? Strap a bomb on a "dumped," confused Palestinian teenager to blow up a pizza parlor in Jerusalem? Detonate a dirty bomb? Deploy a nuclear weapon against Israel or the US?
Granted, the terrorists take Muhammad's theology and policies to extremes, but his ambiguous theology and policies are seeds that show how difficult it will be for moderate Muslim reformers to cut back the overgrowth of violence. But reform is the ultimate and longest-lasting solution to Islamic terrorism, no matter how hard it may be to accomplish.
*In theological usage "apologist" means "defender."
**The phrase, literally the "imitation of Muhammad," means "to follow the Prophet's example in every detail." See Annemarie Schimmel, Islam: An Introduction, p. 54.
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