As Robert Spencer explains in Chapter One, Muhammad’s “importance to hundreds of Muslims worldwide is rooted in the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book. In brief, he is an “˜excellent model of conduct” (Qur’an 33:21).” Spencer cites one Muqtedar Khan of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, who in 2003 wrote, –˜Muslims, as a part of religious observance, not only obey, but also seek to emulate and imitate their Prophet in every aspect of life.–
Beyond Spencer’s references, other Muslims and Islamic organizations make the same point. Sajid Iqbal, editor of The Revival, a magazine and web site for young Muslims in the UK, said in August, 2006: “Muslim youth don’t have any role models. In Islam, our role model is the holy prophet Mohammad.” In the United States, consider the web site IslamAmerica.org, produced by a New Mexico organization named Dar al Islam that describes itself as “Building Bridges with the American Community and among the Muslims of America.” In an article titled “The Voice of Moderate Islam,” author Zakariya Wright writes, “Muhammad is for Muslims the beloved of God and the creation, and there is no seemingly insignificant characteristic of his unworthy of emulation. His example is what guides and facilitates our life in this world.”
Who is this “role model” that Muslims around the world wish to emulate? This is the question Robert Spencer’s book aims to answer.
Since Spencer is not a Muslim and his writings have been criticized by numerous Muslims, I wanted another perspective as well””one written and accepted by most Muslims. I decided on Yahiya Emerick’s “Muhammad (Critical Lives)”; it’s relatively new (2002), it sets out to be concise, and most importantly it’s endorsed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which claims to be “America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group.” CAIR is distributing copies of Emerick’s book for free on its Web site as part of a campaign called “Explore the Life of Muhammad,” a “year-long educational effort prompted by the Danish cartoon controversy.”
Both books rely on some of the same ancient Islamic sources. Both cite Ibn Ishaq’s “The Life of Muhammad,” one of the earliest biographies of Muhammad. Both books also use al-Bukhari’s 9th century compendium of “anecdotes from the life of Muhammad,” as Emerick describes it. To my surprise Spencer specifically mentions the sources used in Emerick’s book; Spencer writes that he relies primarily on the same sources used by respected Muslim Muhammad biographers. Note: Spencer provides hundreds of citations throughout his book; Emerick does not provide any specific citations in the body of the book.
Beyond its concise, readable recounting of key events and decisions of Muhammad’s life, two aspects of Spencer’s book stand out.
Firstly, Spencer does exactly what I set out to accomplish by buying Emerick’s book: as Spencer describes events from Muhammad’s life, he often includes direct quotes and summaries of those same events from other contemporary biographies of Muhammad (including Emerick’s). Secondly, Spencer consistently demonstrates how Muslims today justify their actions and views by evoking comparisons to the Prophet’s life.
One example concerns the Banu Qurayzah, a Jewish tribe that Muhammad had battled and defeated. After surrendering to the Muslims, Spencer writes, “Muhammad decided to put the fate of the tribe in to the hands of the Muslim warrior Sa”˜d bin Mu”˜adh.” Sa”˜d issued the judgment that all men of the tribe be killed, and that all children and women be taken as captives. Emerick writes, “Muhammad did not intervene because he had already given up his right to alter the judgment.” He writes that Muhammad stipulated that no mothers and children be separated, and warriors were to be offered a chance to convert to Islam before execution. Emerick makes no further mention of Muhammad’s involvement. In contrast, Spencer explains that according to Bukhari, Muhammad “confirmed Sa”˜d’s judgment as that of Allah himself: “˜You have decided in confirmation to the judgment of Allah above the seven heavens.– Further, Spencer quotes Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s participation: “The apostle went out to the market of Medina and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for [the men of the Qurayzah] and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches.”
As Spencer writes, another Muhammad biographer named Karen Armstrong argues that –˜it is not correct to judge the incident by twentieth-century standards.– Spencer responds: “That is true, but Armstrong misses the larger issue; as in all the incidents of Muhammad’s life, he is still held up by Muslims around the world as “˜an excellent model of conduct” (Qur’an 33:21).” Spencer continues: “In July 2006 “¦ a writer on a British Muslim Internet forum declared: “˜I”m so fed up with these dirty, filthy Israeli dogs. May Allah curse them and destroy them all, and may they face the same fate as Banu Qurayzah!” No one accused him of illicitly importing seventh-century models into the present day.”
Spencer elucidates other key aspects of Muhammad’s life, such as his marriage to a very young girl named Aisha; death sentences for those who leave Islam; and clear statements about the second-class status of Jews and Christians under Islam. In each case, Spencer shows how modern biographers or analysts sugarcoat, contradict, or ignore these issues, while other Muslims cite these same examples to justify their actions””emulating the model set by Muhammad.
Spencer, Emerick and other biographers leverage the same historical Islamic sources. So why would Emerick and others paint an incomplete and unrealistically benign picture of Islam’s prophet? Draw your own conclusions, but the answer seems quite simple. As described above, there appears to be a broad consensus among Muslims today that Muhammad’s life and ways continue to serve as the perfect example of human behavior. Thus, any dissemination of the darker side of Muhammad does not bode well for presenting Islam as a peaceful and tolerant way of life: what does it mean if the perfect man isn’t so perfect after all?