SNOW IN THE DESERT: Muhammad and the Message of Islam
Islam came to humanity as the third great expression of the monotheistic vision that had begun with Abraham, after Judaism and Christianity. But as we consider its history, we may also see a difference between Islam and the revelations of the One God that preceded it.
Judaism is based on the lives of Prophets separated from modern Jews by thousands of years, who are honored although their historical existence cannot be verified. Many Jews and other Westerners today view the Hebrew Prophets as mythical or symbolic creations of a literary imagination. Christianity centers on the life and works of a gentle rabbi, Jesus, who was incapable of deceit or violence. But no document proves whether or not there was a historical Jesus.
By contrast, Muhammad was a figure whose existence is undoubted except by the most extreme skeptics. Further, Muhammad’s life is much closer to that of an ordinary individual, living at any time or place, than those of Moses and Jesus. Nor are accounts of Muhammad dominated by the otherworldly, supernatural aspects that suffuse Jesus’ life. Muslims say that Moses was a mighty Prophet but did not see the Promised Land, while Jesus was a great Prophet but was raised up to heaven almost at the beginning of his mission (Muslims believe Judas was crucified in Jesus’ place). Muhammad, however, became a ruler of men and women.
Unfortunately, Muhammad has an evil reputation among Westerners that also sets him apart from Moses and Jesus. Jews and Christians reject Muhammad as the apostle of a religion they fear. Jews deny that Jesus was Messiah, but many among them have come to recognize him as a great religious teacher. Little such respect has been accorded to Muhammad. Rather, the Arabian Prophet has been treated with contempt, both by Jews, who have tended to ignore him, and by Christians, who load his name with insults. Islam is considered by most Westerners a hideous, bloodthirsty, intolerant, and aggressive cult, and Muhammad himself has been widely portrayed by non-Muslims as devious, brutal, and perverted. Jews carried away by outrage have fostered bestial images of Muslims. Equally biased Christians have denied that the God worshipped by Muhammad and his followers is the same as the God of Jews and Christians.
Those who ascribe such qualities to Islam and its Prophet often posit their own religions as honorable, kind, and loving alternatives. To do so, they must not only remain ignorant of authentic Islam, but also overlook uncomfortable and inconvenient aspects of their own religious histories. Ancient Judaism was deeply intolerant of idol-worshippers as well as those who resisted its rule over the land of Israel. Thus the Torah describes Moses’ destruction of the Midianites, even though that nation sheltered him when he fled Egypt, and he had married one of their women. Notwithstanding the preaching of peace by Jesus, Christian rulers were brutal in the imposition of their faith, as well as in their treatment of Jews and Muslims. With the European conquest of the New World, the Christianization of the Caribbean islands and Central and South America encompassed the massacre of whole peoples.
But conversion at sword point to the faith of Jesus did not begin with the age of Columbus. At the end of the first Christian millennium, Germans, Nordics, Slavs, and Baltic peoples were forcibly baptised and given new names by order of their rulers. Those who resisted were murdered or driven to flight. The persecutions and expulsions of Spanish and Portuguese Jews and Muslims were notable examples of Christian intolerance, including public burnings of alleged heretics and secret Jews and Muslims. Rage at the Jewish refusal of Jesus produced centuries of bloodshed and enduring bitterness between the two older branches of the Abrahamic tradition.
Fundamentalist Muslims--by no means the majority in the world, notwithstanding rhetoric on both sides of the divide after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001--may despise Jews and Christians, but they do not denigrate the Prophets of the Torah and Jesus. Rather, they honor them volubly, and many Muslims sincerely believe they understand the essence of Moses’ heroic deeds and Jesus’ sweet discourses as well as or better than the majority of Jews and Christians. Muhammad’s message included warnings not to ignore the righteous among the Jews and Christians, who are collectively known to Muslims as People of the Book. Islam, from its beginnings, banned compulsion in matters of faith and mandated the protection of Jews, Christians, and other religious believers. Yet Muslims are accused, largely falsely, of a savage forced Islamization of subject peoples, supposedly inspired by the narrow, fanatical, and ignorant Muhammad. The Prophet of Islam is typically described as a desert bandit who claimed to have invented a new religion on his own.
Where do these false Western images come from? The aftermath of September 11 shows that when civilizations come into contention, mutual understanding tends to vanish, at least in the short term. But while Islam existed for 1,400 years before the assaults on New York and Washington, little real knowledge of it has ever penetrated the non-Muslim world. Moreover, modern Westerners have inherited deep anxieties about Islam. The Western horror of Islam began with its early, rapid expansion, which seemed irresistible, and its terrifying reputation was strengthened by the later victories of Islamic arms during the Crusades, the Arab conquest and Christian reconquest of Spain, the Ottoman invasions of the Balkans and Central Europe, and maritime conflicts between Christian states and Muslim navies from Morocco to Cyprus.
These conflicts summoned a spectre of a bloodthirsty Islamic enemy at the gates of Western civilization, bent on physical destruction and religious devastation. Each of these convulsions produced, on both sides, atrocities and atrocity stories, legends, ballads, and, behind the curtain of combat, cultural exchanges and borrowings that are often overlooked or forgotten but that sometimes changed the course of human history. The situation did not improve in the 20th century, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, wars and revolutions in the main Islamic states, and establishment of the state of Israel. In 2002, after 14 centuries, Islam remains enigmatic and frightening to the West.
Nevertheless, when we examine the life of Muhammad, we discover a different reality altogether. Muhammad’s career includes militant preaching, the founding of a new religious community, battles with unbelievers, and severe decisions and judgments. But overall, the Prophet’s personality reveals a profound commitment to compassion and mercy--the qualities Muslims mainly ascribe, among many attributes, to God, praised in Islam as “Compassionate and Merciful.”
Muslims find many more practical lessons in the incidents and details of Muhammad’s biography. Because of his humanity, the force of his message, and his benevolent personality, the life of Muhammad, or Sirah, has been a model for emulation by Muslims throughout history. Together, the Sirah and the Hadith,1 comprising Muhammad’s oral commentaries, remarks, and teachings, make up the Sunna, or “example” provided by the Prophet. From the Sunna is derived the essential body of faith, morals, and doctrine on which Islam is based.
The Prophet’s full name was Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Abd al-Muttalib. He was born in the year 570. The place was the city of Mecca in southwestern Arabia. His mother was named Aminah. His father had died not long before Muhammad’s birth. But as the delivery of Aminah’s child approached she felt happy, after her time mourning for her husband.
Aminah is said by the early chronicler Ibn Ishaq to have perceived a light within her as she awaited childbirth. It was so bright that one day she could see as far as Syria. A voice spoke to her. It said, “You carry in your womb the lord of this people, and when he is born, say, ‘I place him under the shelter of the One God, from the evil of any envious person’; and so, name him Muhammad.” His name means “the glorified.”
Muhammad was born into an environment of tribal paganism, in a Middle East that had long been a vessel of religious ferment. Many faiths flourished there at the time of Muhammad’s birth, including Christianity, Judaism, and various forms of idol worship. Zoroastrianism thrived in Persia, with remnants of other religions, largely forgotten today, including Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. But the Red Sea had, by then, become encircled by an expanding, militant monotheism. Though small in numbers, Jews and Christians had established colonies in Arabia. Ethiopia, a Christian domain, was fairly close to Mecca and ruled over Yemen, the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Christian Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire had become the leading power in much of the Middle East. Churches and monasteries proliferated. But the early Christians were troubled by conflicting interpretations that divided their many communities. Syria, to the north of Muhammad’s territory, was a land in which Christianity had made a deep impression and Jews were well established. In much of Christendom at that time, Hebrews labored under heavy restrictions, but Alexandria in Egypt, as well as Iraq and Persia, had long sheltered Jews. When Muhammad was born, the center of world Jewry was to be found in Babylon. Wherever the Jews went, they brought their Book, the Torah, and celebrated their holidays, dedicated to their Covenant with the One God.
Mecca, now the center of Islamic worship, is the site of the Ka’bah, a stone temple traditionally dedicated to the worship of the One God. Muslims believe it was built by Adam and reconstructed by Abraham, or Ibrahim, and his firstborn son, Ishmael, or Ismail. (The Arabs believe they are descended from Ishmael--an ancestry also affirmed by Jewish religious tradition.) In one of its walls Abraham is said to have placed the Black Stone, a rock that had fallen from the sky. Muhammad traced his own ancestry to Ismail, and soon after he was born Muhammad’s grandfather Abd al-Muttalib, caretaker of the Ka’bah, took the child there and gave a prayer of thanks.
Muhammad’s people, despite being city-dwellers, were essentially desert folk, and following custom, he was sent away from Mecca as an infant to be raised by a foster mother. Muhammad’s early childhood was filled with signs and wonders. He later recalled that when he was small, two angels came to him carrying a golden cup filled with snow. They opened up his heart and removed a black blood clot from it. Muslims interpret this as a reference to the place in every person’s heart through which Satan comes and goes. They washed his heart in the snow. Soon after he was returned to his mother in Mecca, but Aminah died when he was six.
Islam, emerging from a desert culture in which water was rare and precious, exalts cleanliness and bathing above all other customs. Muslims cannot pray unless they have cleansed themselves, and the water of ablutions gives the body a sensation of freshness at prayer. Islam values water as evidence of God’s grace, and in countries they conquered, like Spain, the Muslims worked wonders of irrigation on dry, barren lands. The cup of snow borne by the angels who cleansed Muhammad’s heart may thus be Islam’s most powerful metaphor.
Mecca is a city in a green belt near the sea, which makes it a different place from the desert interior of Arabia. But it had little fresh water or arable land and was not a settled, agricultural community--its economy was limited to the caravan trade with Syria and Yemen. Muslims describe their pre-Islamic forebears as existing in “the time of ignorance.” The One God worshipped in the Ka’bah bears the name Al-Lah in Arabic, nearly identical to Elohim in Hebrew. In addition, the Arabs, like the Jews, circumcise their sons. However, by the time of Muhammad the original monotheistic worship reputedly founded by Abraham had been diluted by paganism--chiefly the cult of Hubal, an idol brought from the land of Moab. Consequently, the Arab society of Muhammad’s day was chaotic and violent.
Muhammad belonged to an Arab tribe called the Quraysh, and a clan called the Banu Hashim. Many of the Quraysh lived without law. Theft and murder were daily activities and topics for boasting. Torture was common. Personal differences led to long feuds and tribal wars. Men accumulated wives, and on their deaths, the eldest son received them, except for his own mother, as an inheritance--thus marrying his stepmothers. The murder of female children was an established custom, one that provoked deep disgust in the heart of Muhammad. He perceived that tribal lawlessness must fall before God’s law.
The idol worship of the Quraysh was a primitive affair, unlike the elaborate rituals and temples found in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. The desert Arabs were not known for fear of the dead, which was often a source of pagan belief. Indeed, many were doubtful about Islam, when it was offered to them, because of its preaching that the dead would be resurrected. Nor were they obsessed with natural forces: Their physical environment was static. Moreover, as traders their economic life was much less regulated by the passage of the seasons--the foundation of the pagan religions--than that of peoples more dependent on agriculture, such as the Egyptians, the Sumerians, and the gigantic, sedentary societies of India and the Far East.
From the age of 10, Muhammad had accompanied his uncle Abu Talib on the well-traveled caravan route, journeying north to Syria and Egypt in summer and south to Yemen in winter. By the time he was 20 he was himself leading caravans, and was known as a camel whisperer who could calm animals by kindly handling, stroking, and speaking to them. In his profession of merchant, Muhammad earned respect as a righteous person, and was nicknamed “the trustworthy,” or “al-Amin.”
When he was 25 a rich woman of Mecca named Khadijah hired him to take her goods to Syria. She was distantly related to Muhammad’s clan, and she also had a Christian cousin named Waraqa ibn Nawfal, who was literate--a rare achievement in that time and place. Fifteen years older than Muhammad, she was attractive and had been pursued by many men, all of whom she rebuffed. But she fell in love with the young Muhammad, and thanks to a woman friend of hers, a marriage was contracted. Eventually they would have six children: two sons that died young and four daughters who survived to adulthood. Traditional Muslims honor the family of Muhammad, and in their prayers and blessings they invoke 11 wives and a concubine, their children, Muhammad’s nephew Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Ali’s sons, whom we shall meet. In addition, traditionalists believe that although the parents of Muhammad died before the advent of Islam, they are rewarded in heaven.
Muhammad was viewed as a conciliator within his tribe, as shown by the most significant event recorded about his life before he received his divine message. When he was 35 the Quraysh reconstructed the Ka’bah. The temple of the One God had been defiled by the introduction of idols. Its roof was gone, and a snake had taken possession of its walls, coming out in the sun and frightening people away from the structure. Nothing could more dramatically symbolize the decay of Abraham’s religion among the Arabs than the presence of a serpent in the Ka’bah. The snake was the epitome of human temptation, as revealed in the story of Adam and Eve. It was also an object of pagan worship. The Quraysh dithered, deterred from their mission by the reptile. Then, one day, an eagle descended from the heavens and seized the snake in its claws, flying away with it.2
The Ka’bah was rebuilt by the Meccans, and Muhammad, respected for his fairness, was asked to be first to enter it. He was to decide which of the competing clans of Quraysh should have the honor of restoring the Black Stone to its position in the structure’s walls. Muhammad laid a cloak on the ground and ordered the Black Stone set on it. He then summoned one man from each clan to take a corner of the cloak, that the sacred responsibility be shared. Together they carried the Black Stone into the refurbished structure and placed it in the wall.
This minor event shows Muhammad avoiding disruption and extremes among his people. He was deeply opposed to the idolatry that had infected his community, but he was not a merciless fanatic. Throughout his life, Muhammad advocated peace and the avoidance of conflict. During his struggle to establish the community of Islam, he suffered much at the hands of his relatives and neighbors, the tribe of Quraysh, and the residents of Mecca. But seeking reconciliation and civility even with these, he recited a verse that has since stood as a credo of traditional Islam: “Say: ‘Unbelievers, I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship what I worship. I shall never worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine.’”3
Muhammad was swept to his core by the revelations he received. He was possessed by the mission of bringing the message of an undiluted worship of One God to his people. But he was not, by nature, a preacher. He was judicious in both word and deed, and that was the basis of his great personal authority.
The sharp difference between the sensible, calm, humble, and kind conception of Muhammad held by traditional Muslims and the fanatical, rigid, overbearing, and puritanical manner adopted by Islamic fundamentalists today presents us with the two faces of Islam--moderation, equanimity, patience, and fairness versus separatism, supremacism, frenzy, and aggression. Traditional Muslims honor the Prophet as a pleasant and positive human being. A poem in his praise by Imam Ibrahim al-Bajuri, which was a major Muslim devotional text for centuries, ascribed to him these attributes:
A form like the soft lilies and the full moon in splendor,
A character like the ocean in generosity and time in endeavors,
Seeming, due to his majesty, even when you met him alone, to head an army or a large company,
As if the very pearl concealed inside the shell were formed in the two molds of his speech and his smile.
In contrast with this appealing description, Islamic extremists seek to remove Muhammad from Islam altogether. To Westerners, this seems impossible. But it is true: Islamic fundamentalists ignore the personality of the Prophet and oppose traditional Muslims’ love and admiration of his quest for compassion. As we will see, a wholesale purge of the Prophet’s personality from Islamic religion has been an essential goal of the “end time” cult of Wahhabism, which has made a serious attempt to reshape Islam in its intolerant image.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Two Faces of Islam by Stephen Schwartz. Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.