“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” — James Joyce
If you want to spend a depressing afternoon, try flipping through Robert Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad. It’s not a long read, but when you’re through you’ll have an idea of the monumental task awaiting the West.
Unlike the founders of other religions, whose lives are often shrouded in legend and mystery, Muhammad’s rise took place — as 19th century French scholar Ernest Renan put it — “in the full light of history.” Muhammad himself dictated the Koran. There are numerous other accounts of his life, both from people who knew him personally and from the hadith, a collection of “sayings of the prophet” that scholars collected shortly after his death. There is no great mystery about who Muhammad was or what he stood for. The only mystery is why the West has so much difficulty in recognizing it.
Muhammad was a warlord, pure and simple. He roused a disorganized group of nomadic tribes into a ruthless, fearless army. During his lifetime, he conquered the Arabian Peninsula and his followers eventually extended those conquests from Spain to India. By all rights, he should take his place in history among of Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, and Tamerlane the Great as early history’s great military leaders.
The difference is that Muhammad was also a prophet — or maybe just a bit of a psychopath. Probably illiterate, he was nevertheless extremely familiar with Jewish and Christian doctrines that prevailed throughout the Middle East. Realizing that people would not be won over unless they abandoned their religion, Muhammad reinterpreted these faiths, styling them all as forerunners and himself as the “Last Prophet,” come to replace both.
Beginning in middle age, Muhammad heard the voice of god — Allah — almost daily. His followers took notes and these transcriptions were eventually compiled into the Koran. As Spencer points out, Allah’s dictates often went into strange detail and had an uncanny way of aligning themselves with The Prophet’s desires. When Muhammad decided to take his own son’s young bride for his wife, for example, Allah expressed approval. When several of Muhammad’s wives ganged up on him because of his philandering, Allah gave him permission to divorce them — a Koranic passage that still governs divorce in Muslim societies today.
But it’s worse than that. Where Allah and Muhammad occasionally disagreed, Allah was actually more harsh — a kind of Freudian superego regurgitating the grim fantasies of early childhood. In several instances, Muhammad was ready to forgive his rivals and enemies but Allah wouldn’t let him. Instead, they had to be beheaded.
What has survived from Muhammad’s eventful life, then, is not just a record of his conquests but a philosophy, a religion, a set of personal attitudes that prevails among more than a billion people of the world today. Those attitudes are not very friendly. Briefly, they prescribe that might makes right, that forgiveness is a sign of weakness, and that no fate is too vile for those who reject the wisdom of The Prophet. Jihadists beheading their captives still quote Koranic scripture — accurately — today.
More than anything, Spencer’s detailed analysis is a remarkable endorsement of Thomas Carlyle’s idea that “History is the elongated shadow of great men.” Say what you will about social and economic circumstances, about natural resources and geography, or even — if you are to believe Jared Diamond’s bizarre ramblings — that climate is the determining factor of history, the fact remains that the ethos of every civilization can be traced to the historical actions of a few individuals.
Confucius was a hermetic scholar who set China on a path of family loyalty, submission to authority, and respect for learning. The authors of The Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita were Brahmin scholars who preached supreme detachment and caste divisions. Buddha was the Indian Prince Siddhartha who rebelled against the Hindu caste system but taught extreme patience and withdrawal from the world. Moses was a lawgiver who led his people out of bondage. Jesus was a prophet who taught personal responsibility and the forgiveness of sins. Muhammad was a warrior who led armies into battle and taught that the sword was a proper instrument for converting the unbelievers.
Granted, each of these founders often contradicted himself and the message of each has not always survived in its original purity. But each of these prophets set the tone of a civilization that still reverberates today. The tone of Islam, from its very beginnings, has been intolerance, conflict, and conquest. As a result, Islam now finds itself at war, not just with the West, but with every civilization on its borders. Of course this is everyone else’s fault. Muslims are like the boy fighting with everyone in school whose mother comes to the principal’s office wanting to know why everyone in the school is fighting with him!
Spencer uses one example after another to bring home the point. In a story from the 9th century hadith of Muhammad Ibn Ismail al-Bukahari, for example, Muhammad confronted a group of Jews about to punish a couple that had committed adultery. Asked to expound their own law, one of the rabbis then began to read from the Torah, but skipped a verse mandating stoning, covering it with his hand. Abdullah bin Salam, a rabbi who had converted to Islam, saw the trick.
“Lift your hand!” Abdullah cried, and the verse duly read, Muhammad exclaimed, “Woe to you Jews! What has induced you to abandon the judgment of God which you hold in your hand?” And he asserted: “I am the first to revive the order of God and His Book and to practice it.”
Muhammad ordered the couple to be stoned to death; another Muslim remembered, “I saw the man leaning over the woman to shelter her from the stones.”
Compare this to Jesus’ prescription in an almost identical situation: “Ye who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”
Muhammad’s story belongs to a period when, to quote Mark Twain, “History was one damned battle after another.” Most of the world has left this era behind. The rise of civilization has been the history of people learning to live in peace and cooperate with each other on a wider and wider scale. All this requires that people forgive and forget, letting old grudges eventually recede into the past. Islam not only nurtures old grudges, it celebrates them. The Sunni and the Shi’ia are still fighting over the death of Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson, at the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.
The fruit of Jesus’ teaching of tolerance and forgiveness is that Western Civilization has been able to prosper while Islam remains locked in an era of primordial combat. Certainly we have had our wars and religious conflicts, but the overall trend has been toward cooperation and civilization — especially in America, a land where much of history is virtually forgotten. Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the great Eastern religions are also proving that they can prepare people for the modern world.
So why can’t we make it clear to Muslims that it is time to forget the desert morality of the 7th century? For one thing, the people defending Western Civilization don’t seem very familiar with its accomplishments. Last week the New York Times recounted how the Dutch government is introducing Muslim immigrants to Western values by showing them a DVD of “topless women and two men kissing” (“Across Europe, Worries on Islam Spread to Center,” October 11). What would you think of a country that introduced itself by flaunting its pornography? Does the word “decadent” come to mind?
Robert Spencer has outlined the situation very clearly:
The words and deeds of Muhammad have been moving Muslims to commit acts of violence for fourteen hundred years now. They are not going to disappear in our lifetimes; nor can they be negotiated away.
Islam is just as violent and conquest-oriented as the jihadists say it is. The question is not whether Islamic values are incompatible with ours. The question is whether we are going to assert our own values — or let decadence and submission lead the way.