A few weeks ago, National Review’s Rich Lowry wrote this:
But what deserves preserving from the original Bush approach? First, the contention that Islam is a religion of peace. Even if this seems a polite fiction, it is an important one. Influential Muslims believe it to be true, and it is crucial that they prevail in the Muslim struggle for self-definition. We should want to do all we reasonably can to create the conditions in which the positive elements within Islam flower.
I didn’t have the chance to comment on this at the time, but I’ve decided to do so now not only because this kind of assessment is taken seriously by so many, but because it has consequences for public policy that could be quite serious — not to say catastrophic.
“We should want to do all we reasonably can to create the conditions in which the positive elements within Islam flower.” Without any doubt this is so. But does this really require affirming that Islam is a religion of peace even if we know that this is a “polite fiction”? Well, if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride, but I generally don’t put much stock into the idea that if we pretend very hard, fiction will become reality. One must ask of Lowry’s “influential Muslims” who believe that Islam is a religion of peace what exactly they mean by this phrase, and how they intend to convince Muslims of other perspectives of the correctness of their own position — which, especially since it is a “polite fiction,” is not well grounded in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
One must also come to grips with the fact that there is quite a bit of deception, distortion, and half-truth out there about this topic. And that deception, distortion, and half-truth is influential. But when shallow and incomplete presentations purport to establish that Islam is a religion of peace, non-Muslims may be convinced, but those Muslims who are waging jihad in the name of Islam will see the weakness of the arguments and not be convinced to lay down their arms. The non-Muslims who are convinced, meanwhile, will perhaps overestimate the chances for Islamic reform — and that in turn will lead to any number of misconceived policies and initiatives.
What brought all this on this morning was a post at The Anchoress blog. It showed up in my Referrers List since someone there posted a link to this site. I had not seen The Anchoress site before; it seems to be a Catholic religious blog, and I only cite it because it is a good example of how an intelligent person of good will can be taken in by a misleading and incomplete presentation of the Islamic data.
The Anchoress initiated a correspondence with a Muslim named Ali, asking him if Muslims, like Christians, were taught to turn the other cheek; she recounts the exchange in a post entitled “Muhammed turned the other cheek?” The whole thing is worth reading, but Ali makes several assertions that are particularly worth noting:
There certainly is a turn the other cheek component to Islam. You must know that Islam has grown up in close proximity with Christianity. In fact, one of the Prophet’s brother in laws was a Christian (and his first wife a Jew).
Immediately the alarm bells started to go off for me. Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, was probably not a Jew. Some Islamic traditions imply that her uncle was Jewish, but others clearly state that she was daughter of Khuwaylid ibn Asad ibn Abdul-`Uzza ibn Qusayy, who was a member of an Arab tribe, the Banu Asad. In fact, she and Muhammad were distant relatives.
Also, the “turn the other cheek component” in Islam, insofar as it exists at all, must contend against passages of the Qur’an such as 9:13: “Will ye not fight a folk who broke their solemn pledges, and purposed to drive out the messenger and did attack you first?” In other words, these people hurt you; will you not now hurt them? That is just the opposite of the idea of turning the other cheek. If Ali quoted such verses and attempted to explain them in a way that acknowledged their plain meaning but offered a viable alternative to the literal understanding of them, he would inspire more confidence in the trustworthiness and comprehensiveness of his presentation.
When Muhammad first accepted his prophethood, he was scared of preaching to the Meccans. Some were family. Some thought he was crazy. So he went to the nearby city of Taif, which was another pagan stronghold. The place was where pilgrims of the goddess Al-Lat (The Goddess), used to come. In Taif he was immediately mocked and reviled, but he persisted. Anyway, the residents began to pelt him with stones and threw him out. They threw so many stones at him that blood ran into his shoes and pooled. As Muhammad was leaving Taif, the angel Gabriel came to him and asked: Messenger of God, if you wish I will hurl the mountains upon these people. Muhammad, instead, prayed for the people and declined Gabriel’s offer.
This did not, however, keep Muhammad from besieging Ta’if, although he did not conquer it That in turn suggests that Muhammad’s gentle response to his being stoned by the inhabitants of the city was tactical rather than principled; in other words, he didn’t retaliate at the time because he lacked the means to do so, but this wasn’t because he believed in turning the other cheek. He did try to conquer the city when he could.
Ali also says:
Similarly, on another occassion, there was a Jewish neighbor of his who often reviled him. He used to stand in his window as Muhammad passed by and yell insults. One day Muhammad noted that the insults had stopped. After some days passed Muhammad realized that something was wrong and he went to find out if something was amiss. He discovered that the man was on his death-bed. Muhammad stayed with him until he passed away.
Once again, this is not a consistent pattern of behavior for Muhammad. Take, for example, his call to heaven for revenge when his enemies abuse him:
Narrated ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud:
Once the Prophet was offering prayers at the Ka’ba. Abu Jahl was sitting with some of his companions. One of them said to the others, “Who amongst you will bring the abdominal contents (intestines, etc.) of a camel of Bani so and so and put it on the back of Muhammad, when he prostrates?” The most unfortunate of them got up and brought it. He waited till the Prophet prostrated and then placed it on his back between his shoulders. I was watching but could not do any thing. I wish I had some people with me to hold out against them. They started laughing and falling on one another. Allah’s Apostle was in prostration and he did not lift his head up till Fatima (Prophet’s daughter) came and threw that (camel’s abdominal contents) away from his back. He raised his head and said thrice, “O Allah! Punish Quraish.” So it was hard for Abu Jahl and his companions when the Prophet invoked Allah against them as they had a conviction that the prayers and invocations were accepted in this city (Mecca). The Prophet said, “O Allah! Punish Abu Jahl, ‘Utba bin Rabi’a, Shaiba bin Rabi’a, Al-Walid bin ‘Utba, Umaiya bin Khalaf, and ‘Uqba bin Al Mu’it (and he mentioned the seventh whose name I cannot recall). By Allah in Whose Hands my life is, I saw the dead bodies of those persons who were counted by Allah’s Apostle in the Qalib (one of the wells) of Badr. (Sahih Bukhari, vol. 1, book 4, no. 241)
Muhammad was also in no mood to turn the other cheek when he ordered the assassinations of Asma bint Marwan and Abu Afak, two poets who had made fun of him in their verses.
When Ali asserts that modern-day jihads are illegitimate, he is hardly more reliable:
In short, Muslims have forgotten that war (jihad) is the exclusive possession of the state. This is why OBL, despite his pietist stance, is actually (under classical islamic law), a heretic.
This completely ignores the fact that Osama has cast all his actions as defenses of the Muslim community worldwide, and that “classical Islamic law” stipulates that jihad is fard ayn, or mandatory for all Muslims, when a Muslim land is attacked. Ali may be correct that offensive jihad cannot be waged except by the caliph (which is one reason why the mujahedin are so avid to restore the caliphate), but when virtually any and every violent action by Muslims can be and is presented as defensive, this is rendered irrelevant.
Ali is no more accurate about the touchy subject of the age of Aisha, Muhammad’s last and youngest bride:
One thing if you don’t mind adding: people often attack Muhammad’s personal life by citing to the fact that he allegedly married a six (or 9) year old. In fact, Muslims perpetuate this idea as well!
Fact is, this is empirically incorrect. Some scholars have done research, and reached the conclusion that she was, at worst, 16.
Ali doesn’t explain why the hadith collection that Muslims consider most reliable, Sahih Bukhari, affirms in no less than five places that Aisha was six when Muhammad took her and nine when he consummated the marriage (vol. 5, bk. 58, no. 234; vol. 5 bk. 58 no. 236; vol. 7 bk. 62 no. 64; vol. 7 bk. 62 no. 65; and vol. 7 bk. 62 no. 88). It is also in Sunan Abu Dawud (bk. 41 no. 4915), another of the Sahih Sittah, the six hadith collections Muslims accept as most reliable. Ali’s arguments for Aisha being older may be perfectly sound, but they are based on traditions that are later and less reliable than the ones cited here. He should at least explain why that is so if his intention is truly to reform Islam by convincing Muslims that they should not imitate the Prophet in his taking of a child bride or in other matters as well.
Or is his intention merely to help lull non-Muslims into complacency?
I am all for supporting Muslim reformers. But I don’t believe that people who ignore or brush aside material that obviously refutes their views are worth trusting as reformers. Because the mujahedin will not ignore or brush aside the material that these pseudo-reformers are busy sweeping under the rug.
Ali, of course, is just an example of a larger tendency. But his arguments are no weaker than those of more prominent pseudo-reformers. There is still no large-scale or comprehensive effort within the Muslim community worldwide to refute the mujahedin’s exegesis of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Unless or until there is, it would be foolhardy to depend on the prospects of reformers for success.
If wishes were horses, beggars and Rich Lowry would ride, but I think it is very unwise to place our hopes, much less to base public policy, on such an obviously weak reed.