Muhammad: From Prophet To Conqueror.
By Christopher Clukey
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In the days since the September 11th attacks, there has been a greater focus on Islamic teachings on peace and war. Frequent pronouncements that Islam is "a religion of peace" have been made by persons ranging from Muslim activists to the President of the United States (Bush). While there are a great many people committing violent acts in the name of Islam today, most of them are extremists of questionable sanity and their views are rejected as heresy by other Muslims. Yet some Muslims, such as author Salman Rushdie, have questioned why there is not greater outrage in the Muslim world over terrorist acts. Rushdie asked, "As their ancient, deeply civilised culture of love, art and philosophical reflection is hijacked by paranoiacs, racists, male supremacists, tyrants, fanatics and violence junkies, why are they not screaming" (qtd. in Watson)? Still, it is difficult to put aside the small matter of four hijacked airliners being used as cruise missiles in the name of God. Is Islam a religion of war, or of tolerance and peace? The answer lies at the founding of the faith, when Muhammad, the founder of Islam, first laid down its doctrines and practices. Looking closely at Islam's early years, we find that Muhammad's teachings as recorded in the Qur'an changed from a peaceful "Mecca message" to a warlike "Medina message" after his move to Medina in 622 A.D. (An-Na'im).

Born sometime around the year 570, Muhammad grew up in the Arabian town of Mecca. He became a skilled merchant, impressing one client, Khadijah, so much that she married him. Muhammad often went off alone to meditate, and about the year 610 he began receiving divine "revelations" from a being he claimed was the archangel Gabriel. At first, he was greatly disturbed by the visions, but his wife calmed him and her cousin Waraqah, a Christian, lead him to an understanding that these messages were similar to those given to previous prophets of God. With Khadijah and Waraqah's encouragement, Muhammad began teaching these revelations to others, first to a small group of friends, then to the people of Mecca as a whole in the year 613 ("Muhammad"). In "Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman", W. Montgomery Watt listed the main themes of the Mecca preaching: "God's goodness and power" (which is "the most prominent theme in the early passages"), "The return to God for judgement", "Muhammad's own vocation" and "Man's response to God: generosity," "gratitude and worship" (Watt 23-33). Though Muhammad was told to "rise and warn" the Meccans of the Last Day and judgement, most of the focus is on the good Allah has in store for His creation, as in Surah (or chapter) 80, verses 25-31:

We showered the water in showers,

Then fissured the earth in fissures,

And cause to grow in it grain,

And grapes and clover,

And olives and palms,

And orchards dense,

And fruits and pasturage (qtd. in Watt 24) .

There is no endorsement of violence. The devotion of Muslims was not to be signified by killing the infidel, but would only be accepted if they worshiped Allah alone and were generous to the poor and oppressed. The sort of person who would be "cast into the burning fire" is described in Surah 69, verse 33-37:

Surely he did not believe in Allah, the Great,

Nor did he urge the feeding of the poor.

Therefore, he has not here today a true friend,

Nor any food except refuse,

Which none but the wrongdoers eat (Shakir 577-578).

Indeed, the criticism in the early parts of the Qur'an was mostly reserved for pagan Arabs. As Watt wrote in his article on Muhammad for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Although Muhammad's preaching was basically religious, there was implicit in it a critique of the conduct and attitudes of the rich merchants of Mecca" ("Muhammad"). Muhammad preached against their treatment of the poor, in the manner reflected in this early Qur'anic passage:

Nay! But you do not honor the orphan,

Nor do you urge one another to feed the poor,

And you eat away the heritage, devouring indiscriminately,

And you love wealth with exceeding love. (Shakir 620)

In addition, Qur'anic passages written in Mecca advocate patience with enemies and non-believers. In Surah 73, verse 10, Muhammad is commanded to "Have patience with what they say, and avoid them with a becoming avoidance" (Shakir 586). Some versions of the Qur'an translate this as "...leave them with noble dignity" (Al-Araby 9). At this time the Qur'an also advocated respect for Jews and Christians, who are described as "People of the Book" because of the connections between the three religions. In fact, Muslims are told not to dispute the claims of Christians and Jews, but to point out that their God is the same as Allah (Al-Araby 9).

Muhammad continued to preach this message despite strong, sometimes violent, opposition. Not only was the message critical of Meccan society, but Muhammad's call to worship Allah alone was a danger to the local economy, which depended in great part on the money spent by pilgrims and revelers who came to worship the hundreds of gods enshrined at Mecca. Certainly, having a charismatic prophet and his dedicated followers predicting a trip to Hell for the customers could put a damper on any business. The merchants attempted to bribe Muhammad with lucrative trade deals and even marriage into a wealthy family. He refused to be moved ("Muhammad"). In the clan system of the time, his personal safety was guaranteed by his uncle, Abu Talib, but others suffered more than just ridicule. One of his early followers, an African slave named Bilal, was left for dead in the wastes of the desert, pinned down with a large rock, when he refused to renounce Islam. Muhammad's neighbor Abu Bakr bought him and rescued him just in time. Bilal would live and was made a free man, but the message had been sent: The Muslims were not wanted in Mecca (Fregosi 36). After Abu Talib died in 619, the clan's protection ended, and Muhammad was fair game for his enemies.("Muhammad")

Soon, in the summer of 620, Muhammad was invited by six Medinan traders to come to Medina and establish himself there. They believed he could help the Medinans solve some of the social problems they were having (Watt 83). The area was inhabited by eleven different clans that were fighting among themselves (Watt 84). Some of the conflicts involved scarce resources, others simple tribal friction (Watt 87). Some of the visiting Medinans became Muslims and converted others; Muhammad had many new followers there before he emigrated. To show how much they desired his leadership for their city, seventy-five of them met with Muhammad secretly and pledged to fight for Islam. This is known in Islamic tradition as "The Pledge of War." It took two years, increased Meccan persecution, and a careful exodus of a few Muslims at a time, but eventually Muhammad made his journey to Medina. Known as the Hirjah, this event marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar and, in the view of many Muslims, the true beginning of Muhammad's career as a prophet (Watt 83).

For the first six months or so, things were quiet in Medina, but soon Muhammad and his followers began to go on "razzias" or caravan raids, which was a common activity of the tribes in Arabia. The razzias were "...a normal feature of Arab desert life...a kind of sport rather than war"(Watt 105). The object of the raids was to take animals and other goods, and raiders were careful to avoid killing. If an enemy was killed, this could spark a blood feud between tribes. If he were captured, he could be ransomed back to his family at a handsome profit (Watt 106).

Muhammad's raids were largely unsuccessful until the Battle of Badr. Prior to the battle, Muhammad had told those who took the Pledge of War, "Forward, then, for God has promised me one of two triumphs" (Kelen 123). It is also recorded that Muhammad had already begun telling his troops that an eternity in a "Paradise populated by doe-eyed damsels" awaited any of them who fell in battle for Islam (Kelen 126). The Muslims defeated a Meccan force with the assistance, according to Muhammad, of thousands of angels under the command of Gabriel himself. Abu Jahl, a Meccan tribal chief who had been Muhammad's bitter enemy for years before the rise of Islam, was captured and beheaded; Bilal's former owner was cut to pieces (Fregosi 42-43). Certainly, the Meccans knew that the Muslims were serious.

Around this time Muhammad was also consolidating power in Medina and was eliminating some enemies through assassination. Asma bint Marwan, a woman who wrote a poem mocking him, was stabbed so hard that her body was stapled to the frame of her couch by the blade (Fregosi 44). These assassinations actually helped recruit new Muslims. A chronicler living in Medina wrote that the death of bint Marwan caused the men of her tribe to convert "because of what they saw of the power of Islam" (Ibn Hisham, quoted in Fregosi 44).

Among the most brutal incidents in the Medina years were those involving Jewish tribes living in the city. On more than one occasion, large groups of Jews who had somehow slighted the Muslims were allowed to live unharmed- provided they left town immediately with only the clothes on their backs. The fate of the Beni Qoreiga tribe of Jews was far worse. The tribe was a potent military force, and they "had withheld their support from [Muhammad] after his takeover of the city" (Fregosi 59). When Muhammad moved to punish them, he carried out 600-800 executions of the tribe's men, throwing their bodies into trenches dug in the marketplace. Muhammad took one of the widows as his concubine, and his share of the tribe's possessions made him a very wealthy man and added about 2,800 pieces of armor and weaponry to the bulk of his army. Around 1,000 Beni Qoreiga women and children were sold into slavery (Fregosi 59).

At this point we begin to see a much harder edge to the verses of the Qur'an, especially in regard to warfare. Edward W. Lane, Stanley Lane-Poole and A.H.G. Sarwar called this time "The Period of Harangue" in their chronologically-ordered translation of the Qur'an (187). For instance, we find this praise to Allah for help in conquests in Surah 33, verses 25-27:

And Allah turned back the unbelievers in their rage; they did not obtain any advantage, and Allah sufficed the believers in fighting, and Allah is Strong, Mighty. And he drove down those of the followers of the Book who backed them from their fortresses and He cast awe into their hearts; some you killed and you took captive another part. And he made you heirs to their land and their dwellings and their property and (to) land where you have not yet trodden, and Allah has power over all things (Shakir 409).

The Beni Qoreiga tribe were not the only "People of the Book" that Muhammad was now against. In Surah 9, verse 29 we read, "Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgement of superiority and they are in a state of subjection" (Shakir 172).

Indeed, in Surah 8, verse 65, Muhammad wrote a command from Allah to make war, and a guarantee it will be a success. "O Prophet! urge the believers to war; if there are twenty patient ones of you they shall overcome two hundred, and if there are a hundred of you they shall overcome a thousand of those who disbelieve, because they are a people who do not understand" (Shakir 167).

From this we can conclude that Muhammad changed his teachings to fit his military and political situation. It is true that there were many extenuating circumstances which can explain the violence Muhammad committed. Not only were warfare, clan feuds and assassination common tools of the time, but the new Muslim community in Medina had as much right to self-defensive actions as anyone else. There is no real question that the first Muslims were in a war with Muhammad's Meccan persecutors, a war they had not started. It is not clear whether the Meccans were holding an eternal grudge or if Muhammad's raids renewed the hostilities. What is clear is that he already had a fighting force as soon as he accepted The Pledge of War, and that his enemies were single-minded and brutal. After the Battle of Badr, Abu Sufyan, a merchant who had lost goods in the raid, swore an oath that he would not have sex with his wives until he had punished Muhammad (Fregosi 43). One of his wives, Hind, had lost a son and her father at Badr. She was present at the next battle, charging out onto the battlefield to eat the liver of Muhammad's uncle in revenge for her fallen kin (Fregosi 53). It would certainly be wise to be prepared for battle when facing such enemies! It should also be noted that at the time of Muhammad, Europe was full of barbarian kings who were busy slaughtering each other (Fregosi 51).

Yet, it must also be remembered that many of Muhammad's violent actions had no connection to military defense. Also, we are not considering whether Muhammad was violent or if his actions were justified, but whether the basic message of Islam was changed by, or to accommodate, this violence. Muhammad not only changed the message, he even put a major doctrine in place which made it fit logically with previous preaching; "al-Nasikh wal-Mansoukh" or "the Abrogator and the Abrogated." Abdullah Al-Araby describes this in Islam Unveiled: "This simply means that when a recent verse in the Quran gives a contradictory view to another verse that preceded it (chronologically), the recent verse abrogates (cancels and replaces) the old verse and renders it null and void" (10). In other words, Muhammad occasionally had "updates" from God for the Muslim faithful.

This doctrine is laid out in Surah 2, one of the Medina surahs, in verse 106: "Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things"(Shakir 14)? The concept also appears in Surah 16, verse 101: "And when We change (one) communication for (another) communication , and Allah knows best what he reveals, they say: You are only a forger. Nay, most of them do not know" (Shakir 256). Al-Araby points out the implications of this doctrine when it comes to violence:

An example of abrogation: there are 124 verses that call for tolerance and patience which have been cancelled and replaced by this single verse: "Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)..." Surah 9:5. One doesn't help but wonder; how Allah, the all-powerful, the omniscient, and the omnipotent, needs to revise himself so often (11).

Though Al-Araby asks this as a rhetorical question in his criticism of Islam, I will venture to bring forth possible explanations. Possible reasons include the theory set forth by Paul Fregosi in Jihad, which is that Muhammad used Islam for the purpose of giving Arabs a common cause and national identity, without which they would never be anything more than hangers-on to great empires like the Byzantines and the Persians (57-58). Yet the idea that he was using an entire new religion as a political tool assumes a great deviousness on Muhammad's part, a con game that would have required decades to play out. More likely is the possibility that Muhammad really wanted to spread peace, love and understanding at first, but he later needed his followers to be on a war footing if the Medinans (and the Islamic faith) were to survive the war with the Meccans. To achieve this goal, he offered new verses endorsing violence against non-Muslims. Frankly, this would not be out of character; Fregosi cites cases in which Muhammad suddenly received revelations from Allah (which were incorporated into the Qur'an) that solved arguments with his wives and put his uncle and aunt-by-marriage in their place (Fregosi 49). In any case, unless we accept that God does need an editor, the explanations left to us involve a short-term expediency. Islam began as a religion of peace, but it soon became a faith that encouraged war. This is truly unfortunate, because in an effort to rally the troops, to "urge the believers to war" Muhammad abrogated the message of peace he had struggled and suffered for, and touched off a period of Islamic violence and expansionism that lasted over 1,300 years (Fregosi 15). In our age, when the hatred of Muslim terrorists burns as hot as flaming jet fuel, some would say that it continues to this day.

Works Cited

Al-Araby, Abdullah. Islam Unveiled. Los Angeles: The Pen vs. The Sword, 2001

An-Na'im, Abdullahi Ahmed. "The Islamic Counter-reformation." New Perspectives Quarterly. Winter 2002

Bush, George W. "Remarks During the March of Dimes Volunteer Leadership Conference."The March of Dimes. The Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC. 12 Oct 2001

Fregosi, Paul Jihad In the West: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Centuries. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998

Kelen, Betty. Muhammad: The Messenger of God. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975

Lane, Edward W., Stanley Lane-Poole and A.H.G. Sarwar. The Koran: An Edition for English Readers. Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1953

"Muhammad." Encyclopaedia Britannica 2003 Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service.

04 Feb, 2003

Shakir, M.H. The Qur'an. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, 1999

Watson, Roland. "Reclaim Moderate Islam, Says Rushdie." Times of London 28 Nov 2002

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. London: Oxford University Press, 1961

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"Muhammad: From Prophet To Conqeror" Copyright 2003 Christopher Clukey
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