Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Truth about Muhammad

Robert Spencer produces the blog jihad watch. His The Truth About Muhammad: the Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion is a polemic, but an intelligent and informed polemic, written in an accessible and populist style. One of the strengths of the book is that Spencer builds his case from entirely Muslim sources about the life of Muhammad.

The book is a biography of the Prophet, one written with a cold eye to the legacy of his life and work. In his first chapter, Spencer explains that he wrote this book to counter what he sees as ill-informed tendencies to have far too glowing a view of Muhammad, whose biography matters because the Prophet’s words and actions have such an authoritative status within Islam. To whitewash the Prophet is both to whitewash Islam and to create a barrier to understanding Islam. One of the themes in the book is Spencer citing and critiquing particular Western scholars for whitewashing, obfusticating or simply misrepresenting the evidence in order to project a positive view of the Prophet. (It is clear that one of the problems is that the default vision in Western heads of a founder of a major religion is Christ or Buddha, and Muhammad is very different from either: as are his teachings.)

Spencer then looks at the problem of historical sources, why the Qur’an—due to its often very elliptical nature—has to be interpreted in light of the hadith, the difficulties of the evidence and how it is the traditional beliefs about Muhammad which matter, since these are what inspire Muslims.
Seven chapters on the life and career of Muhammad follow: the book concludes with a final chapter on Muhammad’s legacy. The notion that religion is corrupted by marriage with secular power is an old one: hence claims that Constantine corrupted Christianity, Ashoka Buddhism and so on. In the case of Islam, such corruption occurs right at the beginning under the Prophet himself, since the (later, after he has achieved secular power) Medinan verses are much more intolerant, violent and persecutory than the earlier Meccan verses (when he was just a preacher). And, according to standard Qur’anic exegesis, later verses supersede earlier ones.

It also means that, if one wants to present a nice, “fluffy” view of Muhammad and Islam, you quote the Meccan verses, quietly ignoring the superseding authority of any contradicting Medinan ones. Or the inconvenient bits in his life. For waging aggressive war for Islam, engaging in deceit, defining as good anything which advances Islam (and as bad anything that harms it), taking slaves and booty, sexual exploiting one’s captives, ordering the assassination of writers, beheading captives, selling women and children into slavery, waging war in ways which put non-combatants at risk, taking child brides, killing apostates, insisting on special privileges for believers, insisting men have more rights than women: all these things have impeccable Islamic credentials in the life and actions of the Prophet.

Reading The Truth About Muhammad, one is struck by what an enormous burden the legacy of Muhammad is, particularly on Muslims but not only on Muslims.

Not only the lack of consistency in moral principles due to its overarching moral instrumentalism, but also encouraging a profoundly fatalistic conception of causality, a requirement to believe as God’s Revealed Truth things that are demonstrably untrue (e.g. that the men of Sodom invented homosexuality), that the unpassable benchmark of human political development was achieved in C7th Arabia: the latter in particular being something even someone as intellectually sophisticated as Tariq Ramadan is committed to.

While Christians believe Christianity to be the fulfilment of Jewish history, they accept the Old Testament as is. Islam sees itself as the fulfilment of the Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition, but the Qu’ran, as the direct Word of God, is uncreated and eternal: so any contradiction with Jewish or Christian Scriptures is due to Jews and Christians perverting the word of Allah.

The burdens in dealing with non-Muslims go beyond this profound de-legitimising of Judaism and Christianity. There are the attacks on befriending Jews or Christians; that laws that treat believers and non-believers equally, or men and women equally, are an offense against Islam; the permission for being deceitful in dealing with non-Muslims, part of the narrowing of the moral compass so that what is good or not for Islam is the highest ethical consideration.

One can see why some Sufis developed the notion that religions were just “masks” for expressing more fundamental spiritual realities. The “mask” of Islam is a very problematic one.

Muhammad established a divinely sanctioned conquest autocracy: a form of rule that, in various forms, has been the standard form of rule in the Middle East for essentially its entire history since rulership began. So the Prophet’s religion fitted both the standard form of rulership and attempted to incorporate (and, to be fair, transcend) tribal politics: a winning combination. (Even if its marriage of the sacred with rulership has left an enduring problem of succession to the Prophet.) It was an imperial religion of conquest in a region whose history has been dominated by waves of conquest: a matching of enduring patterns with belief, a triumph of selection processes.

Muhammad really is a very different figure than, say, Jesus or Buddha, and he established a very different religion. Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad is a useful corrective to wishful writing about the Prophet and his legacy.

No comments:

Post a Comment