Conservative Book Club Editor Elizabeth Kantor interviews me about The Truth About Muhammad:
You’re now the author of several books about Islam. Did your research for The Truth about Muhammad turn up anything new? If readers have already bought The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and tens of thousands of them have), why do should they read this book?
This book differs markedly from The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and my other books in that, instead of focusing on aspects of Islamic history and theology and their use by contemporary mujahedin, it concentrates on the figure of Muhammad himself. In Islamic tradition Muhammad is al-insan al-kamil, the perfect man, and uswa hasana, an excellent model of conduct (Qur’an 33:21). Accordingly it is extraordinarily important for non-Muslims in this age of global jihad violence to understand who Muhammad was and what he taught. So in this new book I explore the earliest Islamic sources about Muhammad in order to illuminate what pious Muslims learn about him, and show how jihadists today invoke his words and deeds to justify their actions.
So what kind of a person was Muhammad?
Muhammad was by all accounts a strong and compelling personality, who inspired magnificent loyalty in those who were close to him. His personal kindness and even gentleness are remembered in glowing terms by some of his closest companions. At the same time, however, he was a warrior who assured his followers that the supreme god, Allah, would reward them if they fought for him. He didn’t just fight in self-defense, but he initiated conflicts, gave instructions for the division of the spoils of war, and fought in many of those battles himself. For Muhammad the political and religious were virtually synonymous: Allah would reward obedience to him in this world with military victory and political power, and he ruled according to laws that he represented as having been revealed by Allah.
How have Muhammad’s character and the events of his life shaped Islam as we know it today?
In innumerable ways. Most notoriously, of course, in violence. Muhammad commanded his followers to offer non-Muslims conversion to Islam, subjugation as inferiors within the Islamic social order, or war (cf. Sahih Muslim 4294). We have recently seen Al-Qaeda’s Adam Gadahn and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran extend the invitation to Islam; Gadahn to all Americans and Ahmadinejad to George W. Bush. We should understand that the follow-up to such invitations, in accord with the example of the perfect man, is violence. Moreover, jihad warriors around the world invoke his example. The late Zarqawi exhorted his followers several years ago in these terms: “Is it not time for you to take the path of jihad and carry the sword of the Prophet of prophets?…The Prophet, the most merciful, ordered [his army] to strike the necks of some prisoners in [the battle of] Badr and to kill them….And he set a good example for us.” This kind of statement is common.
Muhammad also has left his mark on Islamic culture in numerous ways: his notorious marriage to the nine-year-old Aisha led the Ayatollah Khomeini to lower the marriageable age of girls in Iran to nine, in imitation of Muhammad’s example. Khomeini himself married a ten-year-old when he was 28. Child marriage is common throughout the Islamic world: aid workers entering Afghan refugee camps in 2002 found that half the second-grade-age girls in those camps were already married.
Meanwhile, false accusations against Aisha brought about the Islamic legal requirement that four male Muslim witnesses must be produced in order to establish a crime of adultery or related indiscretions. In cases of sexual misbehavior, four male witnesses are required to establish the deed””in accord with a revelation that came to Muhammad to exonerate his youthful wife (Qur’an 24:13). And just as Aisha’s own word counted for nothing to establish the falsity of the accusations against her, so to this day Islamic law restricts the validity of a woman’s testimony — particular in cases involving sexual immorality. Says the Qur’an: “Call in two male witnesses from among you, but if two men cannot be found, then one man and two women whom you judge fit to act as witnesses; so that if either of them commit an error, the other will remember” (2:282).
Consequently, it is even today virtually impossible to prove rape in lands that follow the dictates of Islamic law. If a woman accuses a man of rape, she may end up incriminating herself: if the required male witnesses can’t be found, the victim’s charge of rape becomes an admission of adultery. That accounts for the grim fact that, according to the Islamic reformist group Sisters in Islam, as many as seventy-five percent of the women in prison in Pakistan are, in fact, behind bars for the crime of being a victim of rape. Several high-profile cases in Nigeria recently have also revolved around rape accusations being turned around by Islamic authorities into charges of fornication, resulting in death sentences that were only modified after international pressure.
Moreover, such abuses are extraordinarily resistant to criticism and reform””they are, after all, based on the example of the Prophet, the perfect model for human behavior.
Okay, so Muhammad lived in a really primitive culture, an awfully long time ago; and maybe he had some pretty serious character flaws. But an unsympathetic student of Christianity or Judaism could argue the same about the Old Testament patriarchs. Look at Abraham: He engaged in some pretty dubious behavior when the pharoah of Egypt took an interest in his wife, he fathered a son on a slave woman and then drove both mother and child out into the desert, and he came this close to human sacrifice. Don’t all religions have this stuff in their traditions? What makes Islam any different?
Even if material from the Old Testament or New Testament were equivalent to the material in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition that I have briefly sketched above, Islam is still completely different — because Muhammad’s exalted status as the Perfect Man flattens historical distinctions and ignores historical development, elevating this seventh-century leader to a role as model for twenty-first century people. No Jews or Christians look to Abraham or any of the other patriarchs in a comparable way.
Even if Muhammad’s example is particularly dangerous, isn’t indicting his character the exactly wrong tactic to take? Why shouldn’t we Americans, Westerners, and Christians downplay the negative features of Islam, and emphasize what Muslims have in common with us? Isn’t it smart (even if it may be something of a stretch) for President Bush to keep insisting that Islam is a religion of peace? Surely we can’t afford a war with the whole Muslim world?
This is, of course, a widespread view, but I couldn’t disagree with it more strongly. In the first place, our ignoring or downplaying the elements of Muhammad’s character that inspire violence and fanaticism won’t do a thing to prevent Islamic jihadists from invoking those very same elements of his character in order to justify their actions among their fellow Muslims, and even to gain recruits. The general ignorance of Americans about the teachings of Islam and the life of Muhammad may mislead some analysts into believing that the unsavory facts about Muhammad’s words and deeds are a closely guarded secret, when in fact the material in my book is all common knowledge in the Islamic world. The only difference between my book and a book written by a pious Muslim about Muhammad is not the events we discuss, but the fact that I subject Muhammad to a moral standard that is different from the one he delineated for himself. As I show in the book, mujahedin refer to these words and deeds more or less on a routine basis.
Thus the only fruit of our declining to discuss these issues will not be a strengthening of Islamic moderates, but just the opposite. In this book I have set forth elements of Muhammad’s example that need reevaluation by those who think of him as the Perfect Man. Muslim reformers can have no success unless they dare to discuss forthrightly the elements of Islam that need reform. Pretending that there are no such elements only cuts the ground out from under these reformers.
Finally, those who think that speaking forthrightly about the elements of Islam that encourage violence will lead to war with the entire Islamic world have never explained why this must be so. Are we then to believe that President Bush’s claim that Islam is a religion of peace is what is keeping the peace between the U.S. and most of the Islamic countries in the world? It is much more likely that that peace, such as it is, is being preserved by complexes of prudence and self-interest. Will all that be overthrown if the President said forthrightly that we are fighting a defensive action against an Islamic jihad, and that any state that supports that jihad will receive no more American aid? Is it certain that in that case every one of our putative Muslim allies would choose the jihad over the aid, even in the short term?
If Muhammad is, as you suggest, a person very unlike Jesus, or even the Buddha, why is he so admired? Isn’t Islam the fast-growing world religion? Why does it appeal to so many people?
In a certain sense he is admired because Muslims are taught that he is admirable. Once it is taught that he is the Perfect Man whose example must be followed, it follows that everything he did must have been right. The elements of his life and career that scandalize non-Muslims do not, therefore, have a similar effect on Muslims. After all, it is he who is the standard; there is no standard above him.
Islam is growing quickly, but this is largely due to demographics. Polygamous societies tend to have high rates of population growth. However, there is no doubt that Islam has definite appeal to Westerners who, sick of relativism and materialism and often unable to find a respite from it in Western religious traditions as they currently present themselves in America and Europe, turn to Islam admiring its absolutism and unwillingness to compromise. There are also concerted efforts to spread Islam in America’s prison, where jihadist recruiters can capitalize upon the alienation from Western society that the prisoners may already feel, and channel it into the jihad against the West.
And why are Muslims willing to go to such lengths–killing themselves, murdering other people, living in sleeper cells for years so they can pull off acts of terrorism–for Islam?
Because Allah has promised them rewards in this life and the next if they do. I think it is sometimes difficult for Americans, even religious Americans, to understand the depth and power of a religious appeal. Allah promises Paradise to those who “kill and are killed” for him (Qur’an 9:111). A suicide bomber may thus reflect that, after all, he is going to die one day anyway, but if he dies in this way, Paradise is guaranteed to him. Secularists may sneer, but this is in fact an extraordinarily powerful appeal.
Do you have a theory about why the liberals in Europe and our own blue states seem completely blase about the increasing influence of a religion that’s so hostile to their own interests and stated goals (especially on the status of women)? Why are we seeing lefty Canadians and Europeans making accommodations to sharia law?
The jihad aims to establish an earthly polity in which justice is established by force, with draconian punishments for those who do not fall into line. The resemblance to the earthly utopia of the Marxists is unmistakable, and I do not doubt that this is an important reason why — but not the only reason why — so many Leftists see kindred spirits in the mujahedin. Another reason arises from the Left’s now long-standing habit of standing on the other side of any cause in which the United States is fighting.
You’ve been writing about Islam since soon after 9/11, and your JihadWatch website follows Islamist violence around the world very closely. Are things getting any better, at all? Have moderate Muslim voices begun to emerge? Are we succeeding in containing the violence?
No to all three questions, although there are some quite courageous moderate Muslim individuals. Generally, I am seeing increasingly that the failure to come to grips with the realities of Islam and the example of Muhammad have led to numerous disastrous policy errors. If, for example, the U.S. called the governments of Egypt and Pakistan to account for the elements within those governments that are aiding the jihad against us, and made eradication of those elements and concrete steps against the jihad ideology a condition for further U.S. aid, we would either save some money or gain some more reliable allies.
After the Danish Cartoon riots and the Pope Rage incident, why on earth would you write a book that Muslims are sure to say insults their Prophet? Why keep sticking your neck out like this?
I am aware of the risks, and have received several new death threats just since this book came out. But I do not personally wish to be a person who gives in to violent intimidation, and I don’t want to live in a society that does so either. The issues I raise in this book ought to be part of the American public debate, for the sake of our future. If we decline to discuss them now, we are already submitting to one significant aspect of the Islamic norms for behavior that Osama bin Laden and his ilk so dearly want to impose upon us.