The Life of Muhammad
Muhammad was born into a relatively poor Arab clan. His youth was spent in poverty. In his youth he had traveled widely with his uncle and had the opportunity to meet a variety of Christian monks or priests and Jewish rabbis. One such meeting which he had at the age of twelve seems to have made a special impression upon him. It was probably his first meeting with a Nestorian monk who called him God’s messenger. At the age of twenty five he married a 40 year old wealthy widow whose trading caravan he had accompanied. Many caravans at the time passed from the area of the Yemens in the south to Damascus in the north. These caravans would pass through or near Mecca or Medina. Damascus was already a long occupied city which had existed since at least 2500 BC. Arabia was populated by tribal societies. There were as many as six Arab tribes, and large populations of both Arab Jews and Arab Christians. The groups and tribes which were most actively engaged in trade both from Damascus to Yemen and from Egypt to Bagdad were wealthy. The Arab tribes which were more nomadic in their life style were poorer. Muhammad had come into personal means when he married, and for fifteen years he lived as a caravan driver and trader. He remembered the poverty and difficulty of his youth. There was the great Persian empire in the far east, and the Byzantine empire in the north west. Arabia was divided by tribal society and the multiplicity of religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Arab paganism. The Byzantine and the Persian empires were routinely engaged in struggles for control of the areas of Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Neither the Byzantine empire nor the Persian empire had significant control over Arabia. These lands were the crossroads of world trade and their control was lucrative.
Arab paganism at the time included a belief that God begat daughters and that they became angels who among many Arabs were worshiped as gods. There were at the same time a number of Arab theists who were fundamentalists who had repudiated idolatry and polytheism and were pursuing an ascetic life style. Muhammad was casually familiar with all of these through contact with individuals and not from personal study inasmuch as he himself was illiterate. Muhammad held ideas which were ethnocentric or nativist, and he saw the differences of religion, language, wealth and tribe were keeping Arabia from being united. He saw a world in which others had huge organized empires while Arabs were mired in tribalism, with a multiplicity of languages and religions. Muhammad saw diversity not as a strength, but as a weakness of Arab culture. Anti-sectarian and anti-schismatic themes emerge frequently in the Koran. For example:
6:160 “Have nothing to do with those who have split up their religion into sects.”
15:90 “We will surely punish the schismatics, who have broken up the scriptures into separate parts, believing in some and denying others.”
30:32 “Do not divide your religion into sects, each exulting in its own doctrines.”
At the age of forty he had spent time in caves contemplating these ideas and began ‘reciting’ the words of the Koran. These recitations were in classical Arabic. These words were either committed to memory and recorded later by someone else, or were recorded by someone who was with him at the time. Some have noted the apparent contradiction of Muhammad who was illiterate in producing the classical Arabic poetry of the Koran. Modern examples are available of individuals who are voluble and use language freely who at the same time are illiterate. One must observe that there are many employed in the recording industry who sell millions of recordings. Yet there remains a deep suspicion that if some of these were handed a pencil and paper they would be exposed as functionally illiterate.
At the age of 43 he began public preaching of the words of the Koran. He began to gather around himself followers, and it was at about this time he began to lead his followers in paramilitary operations against unsuspecting trading caravans. He was not well received and at an age of 45 his followers fled to Ethiopia. At 52 he himself fled Mecca for Medina. He condemned in his ‘recitations’ what he regarded as the polytheism of Christianity, Arab paganism, and the corruption of Scriptures by the Jews. He was regularly engaged in a variety of activities such as extortion, murder, beheading and selling his victims into slavery. He was already in middle age when his raids began, and he directed attacks from the safety of the rear. At middle age, he avoided hand to hand combat against those who were half his age. Muhammad’s role was that of motivator and Prophet, rallying and urging his followers into battle. He was the one who articulated the promises of heavenly sexual bliss. The earthly rewards of booty and a fresh supply of slaves was the temporal bonus.
With no distinction between individual law and universal law in his thought, it became legitimate for him to impose his religious, political, and social views on others by force. He embraced a realized eschatology:
3:52 “When Jesus observed that they had no faith, he said: Who will help me in the cause of God?”
22:41 “…whoever helps God shall be helped by Him. God is powerful and mighty: He will assuredly help those who, once made masters in the land, will attend to their prayers, and render the alms levy, enjoin justice and forbid evil.”
47:6 “Believers, if you help God, God will help you and make you strong.”
Brief contemplation of this idea will reveal its lack of humility, and its profound arrogance and even stupidity. All of those who unite individual law and universal law and pursue a realized eschatology, in both ancient and modern times, believe they are helping God. It never occurs that God does not need help. If God needed help, He would not be God. The first step in acknowledging God for anyone who would become a believer is disabusing oneself of the notion that God is a dependent Being in desperate need of help without which He might fail. Political leadership in current day Iran accepts this view, and even openly express the idea that they must act in such a way as to usher in the end of days, supposing or leaving the impression that God cannot do this on His own. This idea originates in an overestimation of the abilities, and perfectibility of man, and so presents a God of diminished capacity. The philosophical position of uniting individual law and universal law led Muhammad and his followers to the view that in human governance the exercise of power is its own legitimization.
2:251 “ Had God not defeated some by the might of others, the earth would have been utterly corrupted.”
This is a very common idea throughout history. It is the attribution to God of one’s own conduct or behavior. Judaism and Christianity understood that the corruption of original sin came from a very early time. None of them should have supposed that following a military policy of conquest would lift the world’s burden of sin and darkness. Yet, it should be noted that ideas of conquest and subjugation of the defeated for proximate ends were common in seventh century cultures. The reality of the seventh century was that all of the world powers wanted undisputed control of the region for economic reasons. The difference was that Muhammad sought this explicitly through creating a religion, uniting Arab culture, motivating his army of followers, and disposing of any who resisted, and establishing his own realized eschatology.
Over the centuries Christians have engaged in the effort to develop a doctrine of just war. Today the doctrine of just war addresses a number of considerations and among these are: necessity, proportionality, and purpose. Necessity suggests that just war follows after all other negotiated options have been exhausted. Historically, it has been thought just war must be proportional, but a powerful case can be made that just war should be disproportional so as to achieve the earliest possible result. The purpose of the just war must be survival, or defensive in character, and not for the expansion of spheres of influence, or the imposition of hegemony in a region or in the world. A theology of just war for Christians does not envision the punishment of moral turpitude, or the enforcement of moral rectitude, or the propagation of the faith as just cause for war. Yet, these are the precise purposes endorsed by the Koran and envisioned in the violent expansion of Islam.
It should be noted that a theology of just war would not include waging war for the purpose of spreading western values, opening commercial markets, or imposing security on the high seas. A theology of just war does not envision ‘making the world safe for democracy.’ The purpose of a government whose foundation is natural law is not messianic, apocalyptic, or eschatological . Its purpose is protecting and ensuring the liberty and independence of those who have consented to its governance. The prosecution of a just war must from its beginning include the intention of winning. The prosecution of a war without an intention of winning displays in a palpable way the total contempt for the value of life, as it views those engaged as disposable or expendable for proximate ends. No government could be regarded as justly prosecuting a war in which they were not mindful of the sacrifice required of those committed to combat. Furthermore, once just war has been engaged, the least immoral way of prosecuting it should be pursued. This requires placing a higher value on the lives of one’s own combatants than on the lives of the enemies innocent civilians. While it would not be moral to deliberately target the enemies civilians, the primary responsibility for the safety and security of their own civilians is that of each warring party. Minimizing the occasions for war is the only moral course which one might follow. This would include the active pursuit of independence and the intolerance of interdependence. War is the precipitate of interdependence.
Increasing sophistication of technology has forced reconsideration and debate of the idea of preemptive war. One should approach this idea with great caution as it is demonstrable that the capacity of nations to wage war has vastly exceeded both their competence and their intelligence.
. Muhammad assumed the mantle of subjugating, cleansing, and perfecting the world. He was an early ethnic cleanser. It was an enormous task before him, but he had to start somewhere, and the absolute submission of those who lived in Arabia came first. He became a sort of highway robber, taking his followers and attacking unarmed trading caravans on a variety of the many roads crossing Arabia.
A discussion of the 624 AD Battle of Badr (Surah 8:1-8) confirms these tactics as it describes a plan to attack an unarmed caravan which was changed due to the approach of Meccans coming to the rescue of the caravan. The Muslim force of 319 engaged and killed the Meccans force of 1000. The intention of the God of the Koran in this description is to demonstrate a sort of high moral standard, but accomplishes the reverse by revealing the character of Muhammad in at first planning the attack against those who were unarmed. Moreover, engaging the Meccans was a tactical military decision not a moral one. It occurs when Muhammad is 54 years old. The Battle of Badr is widely considered to be the first truly military victory of Muhammad and his forces. It was a victory over the Quraysh tribe (Muhammad’s own tribe) of Mecca. Many of the attacks in the period of 613-623 AD were against the unarmed or the minimally defended commercial caravans. When his band of followers were successful in their raids in this period they would split up the booty, kill the men and sell women and children into slavery. For a full decade prior to more formal military operations Muhammad was simply a highway robber or terrorist.
The distributions of the property stolen in these many raids is a matter of concern for the God of the Koran. A significant portion was to be reserved for God’s prophet, Muhammad, and for his extended family. Residual amounts were for those in need.
8:41 “Know that one-fifth of your spoils shall belong to God, the Apostle (Muhammad), the Apostle’s kinsfolk, the orphans, the destitute, and the traveler in need…..”
Additional revenues were obtained through assessment for ‘alms’ on desert Arabs. Some of these ways of revenue raising would today be considered as extortion or a protection racket. The distributions to the poor began to make him popular among some of the desert tribes and he attracted more and more followers willing to engage in the violent activities necessary to acquire this largess. Much of his popularity may be attributed to the scheme of redistribution. Eighty percent of the booty was reserved for those willing to engage the enemy. With eighty percent of the stolen property reserved for the combatants, his forces were willing to fight fiercely even when they were substantially outnumbered, because the booty would be distributed over fewer participants, and the greater the military victory, the greater the prize at the end.
Since Muhammad was assured of a significant share in the prize, there was no need for him to personally engage the enemy. However, it was after the victory at Badr that Muhammad became briefly overconfident if not reckless. He was substantially overweight. At the battle of Uhud (625) he was wearing his customary two coats of mail armor and instead of remaining far to the rear in his own tent as was his custom he allowed himself to be caught up in the battle. He was struck down and wounded in the eye. For a time he was thought to be dead, but he survived and in the remaining few years of his life never again allowed himself to be overtaken by the battle.
Muhammad would periodically have additional ‘recitings’ which would clarify the word of God or justify his own behavior. A fine example of personal self-justification occurs in which Muhammad admonishes two of his wives to repent their objections to his affair with a Coptic slave from whom he had promised to separate:
66:6 “It may well be that, if he divorce you, his Lord will give him in your place better wives than yourselves, submissive to God and full of faith, obedient, penitent, devout, and given to fasting; both formerly wedded and virgins.”
This reflects a sentiment which could just as easily be expressed by a religious polygamist of modern times. There can be no doubt that this type of cult-like manipulative abuse of his wives was both practiced by Muhammad, and was central to the instruction which is provided to his followers.
Those who were his victims regarded him as a charlatan and an imposter. He was the object of ridicule. The Jews commonly joked about him. Arab pagans wrote satirical poetry about him. He was generally regarded with contempt. His activities were quite profitable and the distributions to the poor brought him many followers. His recitings of the Koran provided a cohesive ideology for Arab society. Many of his ‘converts’ were converts of convenience who would rather not die or have their trading activities totally destroyed. Armies were raised who fought against him, but eventually Muhammad and his forces prevailed.
A few years before his death the Byzantine empire defeated the Persian empire. This left somewhat of a power vacuum into which Muslim forces could eventually expand, and hardening even more Muhammad’s opposition to Christianity. Once Arabia had been unified under the Muslim yoke, resistance to the Byzantine empire and expansion of the Muslim lands was inevitable.
The man and the movement were from the outset about imposing Islam, unifying the diverse Arab tribes, and establishing hegemony on the peninsula of Arabia and in the region. This could not be accomplished without killing or converting Arab Christians and Arab Jews and Arab pagans. It required waging a war against the ‘rich’ and raising an army from the ‘poor.’ The movement was religious, social, political, and military. In addition it was about the personal acquisition of power and wealth of both Muhammad and his followers. Islam as envisioned by Muhammad is less of a religion and more of a criminal enterprise. It is a sort of religious protection racket characterized by astonishing barbarism. Muhammad’s broader goals were not achieved until several years after his death, as Islam spread into Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia.
The irrational hatred which he had for the Jews was undoubtedly related to the fact that they were thoroughly engaged in commerce and were wealthier than many of the Arabs. They provided a target rich environment for his activities of plunder. The religious justification was that they ‘had corrupted the Scriptures.’ Yet on even a more base level his hatred for Jews may have been motivated by a more shocking and adolescent attitude: “I am more monotheistic than you are!” This personal prejudice probably was magnified by Muhammad’s personal knowledge of the Byzantine emperor Phocas and his persecutions of Jews and Monophysite Christians in the period 602-610 AD in the regions of Syria and Mesopotamia.