Archive for The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)

Jihad By Any Means Necessary?

Posted in Feature, Loon Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2012 by loonwatch


The following is a part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series, which is a refutation of Robert Spencer’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades).  Specifically, I am herein refuting chapter one of his book, entitled “Muhammad: Prophet of War.”

An anti-Muslim canard that has gained considerable popularity in the post-9/11 world is the idea that Muslims can do anything, no matter how morally questionable, if it furthers the Islamic cause.  According to this idea, jihad can be waged “by any means necessary.”  Robert Spencer argues this in his book, writing:

Islam’s only overarching moral principle is “if it’s good for Islam, it’s right.” [1]

Spencer traces the birth of this Islamic “principle” to the life story of the Prophet Muhammad, specifically the raid at Nakhla.  To properly debunk this conspiracy theory, we must then transport ourselves back in time to this controversial event.

In the year 610 A.D., Muhammad declared his prophethood.  His people, the Quraysh of Mecca, violently rejected him.  The early Muslims suffered heavy-handed persecution, which they endured with patience for well over a decade.  Finally, the God of the Quran permitted them to take up arms in self-defense.  Muhammad and his followers, who had regrouped in the nearby city of Medina, engaged in guerre de course (commerce raiding) against the powerful Quraysh.

I have discussed Muhammad’s guerre de course in quite a lot of detail in a previous article.  This tactic was not only something considered acceptable in the Arabian context of the time, but also has a celebrated history in the American–as well as French and German–naval traditions.  Historically, it has been considered a valid military strategy and a means of waging economic warfare against a more powerful enemy.

The early military operations led by the Muslims were largely unsuccessful–that is, until the raid at Nakhla.  Muhammad had dispatched Abdullah bin Jahsh with secret instructions contained in a letter that were not to be opened until after traveling two days journey.  (This precaution was designed no doubt to thwart potential spies, who may have informed the Quraysh of Muslim “troop” movements, which could explain the earlier failed military expeditions.)

When Abdullah opened Muhammad’s letter, it read:

When you have read this letter of mine proceed until you reach Nakhla between Mecca and Al-Ta’if. Lie in wait there for [the] Quraysh and find out for us what they are doing. [2]

On the way to Nakhla, Abdullah and his fellow riders happened across a poorly armed Qurayshite caravan.  They debated among themselves whether or not to waylay it, for it was the last day of the month of Rajab.  The pre-Islamic culture at the time assigned four months of the year as sacred (of which Rajab was one), in which fighting was proscribed.  In addition to the four sacred months, fighting was forbidden in certain holy sanctuaries (i.e. Al-Bayt Al-Haram, the area around the Kaabah).

Abdullah’s contingent faced a difficult choice:

If [we] leave them alone tonight they will get into the sacred area and will be safe from [us]; and if [we] kill them, [we] will kill them in the sacred month. [3]

They were also not quite sure what day it was.  Was it the last day of the sacred month of Rajab or the first day of of the next month, Jumada (in which fighting was permitted)?  Prof. Reuven Firestone writes of this:

The uncertainty of the day is a natural result of the calendrical system of that period, in which the moon was the primary measurer of time, because the beginning of the month was established only by actual observation of the new crescent moon. [4]

Making matters worse was the fact that, according to the lunar calendar used by the Arabs, days change at sunset, not midnight.  One of the men explained to Muhammad later that

it was becoming evening. We looked at the crescent moon of Rajab, and we did not know whether we [struck during] Rajab or in Jumada. [5]

Initially, Abdullah and his men hesitated, but then decided to attack.  The Muslims shot and killed one of the Quraysh (a man by the name of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami), captured two of them, and seized the caravan’s goods.  By killing Ibn Al-Hadrami, the Muslims had violated the pre-Islamic Arabian custom forbidding bloodshed during the sacred month.

When Abdullah and his men returned to Medina, Muhammad rebuked them, saying:

I did not order you to fight in the sacred month! [6]

Sir Thomas W. Arnold wrote of this incident:

In so doing, [Abdullah] had not only acted without authority but had violated the sacred truce within Arab custom caused to be observed throughout the month of pilgrimage.  Muhammad received him coldly with the words, “I gave thee no command to fight in the sacred month;” dismissed the prisoners, and from his own purse paid blood-money for a Meccan who had lost his life in the fray. [7]

Other Muslims in Medina also chastised the men.  Meanwhile, the Quraysh exploited the incident to further their war propaganda against the Islamic nation.  They effectively drove a wedge in the community of Medina, with Muslims distancing themselves from other Muslims, and non-Muslims from Muslims.  Muhammad’s leadership itself was called into question.

It was in this crisis that the following Quranic verse was revealed:

They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in that month is a great offense, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its people, are still greater offences in God’s eyes: [their] persecution is worse than the killing [of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami].’ They will not stop fighting you [believers] until they make you renounce your faith, if they can. If any of you renounce your faith and die as disbelievers, your deeds will come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and you will be inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain.  But those who have believed, who were driven out from their homes, and who strive for God’s cause, it is they who can look forward to God’s mercy: God is most forgiving and merciful. (Quran, 2:217-218)

This response from the God of the Quran successfully rallied the Muslims around their leader and their cause.  Muhammad’s treatment of the raid was splendidly balanced, neither making the Muslims look too warlike nor too humiliated: on the one hand, he paid blood money for the Qurayshite man that was killed (blood money was a form of restitution given to a victim’s family) and freed the two Qurayshite prisoners.  On the other hand, he released the two Qurayshite prisoners only in exchange for two Muslim prisoners, and also accepted the confiscated goods as legitimate spoils of war.

*  *  *  *  *

Robert Spencer writes of the Nakhla raid:

In Medina, these new Muslims began raiding the caravans of the Quraysh, with Muhammad personally leading many of these raids.  These raids kept the nascent Muslim movement solvent and helped form Islamic theology–as in one notorious incident when a band of Muslims raided a Quraysh caravan at Nakhla, a settlement not far from Mecca.  The raiders attacked the caravan during the sacred month of Rajab, when fighting was forbidden.  When they returned to the Muslim camp laden with booty, Muhammad refused to share in the loot or to have anything to do with them, saying only, “I did not order you to fight in the sacred month.”

But then a new revelation came from Allah, explaining that the Quraysh’s opposition to Muhammad was a worse transgression than the violation of the sacred month.  In other words, the raid was justified.  ”They question thee, O Muhammad, with regard to warfare in the sacred month.  Say: warfare therein is a great transgression, bu to turn men from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Inviolable Place of Worship, and to expel his people thence, is a greater sin with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing” (Quran 2:214).  Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed was overshadowed by the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad.

This was a momentous revelation, for it led to an Islamic principle that has had repercussions throughout the ages.  Good became identified with anything that redounded to the benefit of Muslims, regardless of whether it violated moral or other laws.  The moral absolutes enshrined in the Ten Commandments, and other teachings of the great religions that preceded Islam, were swept aside in favor of an overarching principle of expediency. [8]

In true Spencerian fashion, he misleads the reader using lies of omission and commission.  Spencer does not clearly state that Muhammad had dispatched the “band of Muslims” on a reconnaissance mission, in order to “find out for us what [the Quraysh] are doing.”  This is why the Prophet of Islam later disavowed Abdullah’s actions, for he had “acted without authority.”  Also, no mention is made in Spencer’s book of the difficulty in ascertaining the day and month in which the raid took place.

Spencer’s biggest lie, however, is the following doozie:

Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed was overshadowed by the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad.

In fact, it was not merely “the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad”, but, in the words of the Quran itself, their persecution [of the Muslims that] is worse than the killing” of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami.  Here, the Islamic holy book was referring to the over decade-long period of Qurayshite persecution, during which the early Muslims suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and forced conversions; some of the early believers were even killed.  This, the God of the Quran argued, was worse than what the “band of Muslims” had done.  It would be difficult to argue otherwise.

Spencer goes on to say:

In other words, the raid was justified.

No, it wasn’t.  In fact, the Quran recognized and affirmed that the Muslims had committed a grave sin: “Fighting in [the sacred] month is a great offense.”

Many Western commentators have claimed that Muhammad and the Quran, by this passage, abandoned observation of the ban on fighting during the four sacred months.  The insistence on this view is based on their blind acceptance of the traditional opinion [9], held by various Islamic exegetes in medieval times, that this was a pre-Islamic tradition that was overturned by the advent of Islam.

Yet, a neutral reading of the Quranic text–both this passage and those that follow it–reveals the exact opposite: the Prophet Muhammad affirmed and respected the sanctity of the four sacred months.  The Quranic verse starts by saying, “They ask you about fighting in the sacred month.”  Obviously, Muhammad was being accosted by all sides about the raid at Nakhla, which threatened to be a public relations disaster for the Muslims.  How much easier it would have been for the Prophet of Islam to have simply declared the four sacred months a “pagan belief” that the Muslims did not accept.

After all, in another controversy in early Islam’s history, when Muhammad received significant criticism for having married his adopted son’s ex-wife Zaynab bint Jahsh, the Quran justified the act by declaring that: firstly, unlike in the pagan custom of the time, in Islam there is no prohibition against such a thing; and secondly, it was God himself who commanded Muhammad to marry Zaynab, and therefore, “the Prophet is not at fault for what God has ordained for him” (Quran, 33:38).  (It should be noted that the Islamic permission to marry one’s adopted son’s ex-wife is no more disconcerting than Judaism’s permitting of marriage to one’s nieces.)

The point is that the Quran didn’t just take the easy way out, which would have been to reject the four sacred months altogether.  (Muhammad could have also simply declared the pagans to be “disbelievers”, licit to be attacked at any place or any time.)  Instead, the Quran affirmed that it was indeed a grave offense to fight therein, and in fact, commanded Muhammad to tell the people so:

They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in that month is a great offense.’ (Quran, 2:217)

The Islamic affirmation of the four sacred months occurs throughout the Quran.  Muslims are not to fight in these months, so long as the other side respects this prohibition:

Fight during the sacred months if you are attacked therein, for a violation of sanctity is subject to the law of just retribution.  So, if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you. (Quran, 2:194)

The Quran also affirms the idea of sacred spaces:

Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there. (Quran, 2:191)

This topic deserves greater elaboration, but for now, suffice to say that even in the jihad passages of chapter nine of the Quran–which the Islamophobes insist are (in the words of the anti-Muslim website “the final ‘revelations’ from Allah” about jihad–the four sacred months are affirmed.  For example, in the so-called “verse of the sword” (ayat al-saif), the Quran declares:

When the sacred months are passed, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them… (Quran, 9:5)

Leaving aside for now the fact that the verse right before this one (verse 9:4) explains that this injunction refers only to those pagans who broke a treaty and waged war against the Muslims, there is another obvious point to be made here: Islamophobes insist that this passage was revealed in Muhammad’s last years and was his final, all-out call to war against non-Muslims.  (I will refute this argument in a future article.)  If we are to accept this claim, then we see that–even in this late stage of Muhammad’s decrees about jihad–the sacred months are to be respected.

In fact, the Quran goes so far to claim that it was God himself who decreed these months to be sacred.  More than this, the God of the Quran chastises the Qurayshite pagans for violating the four sacred months by “transposing them” for other months in the year, something they did out of convenience:

God decrees that there are twelve months–ordained in God’s Book on the Day when He created the heavens and earth–four months of which are sacred: this is the correct calculation. Do not wrong your souls in these months–though you may fight the idolaters at any time, if they first fight you–remember that God is with those who are mindful of Him.  Transposing sacred months is another act of disobedience by which those who disregard God are led astray: they will allow it one year and forbid it in another in order to outwardly conform with the number of God’s sacred months, but in doing so they permit what God has forbidden. Their evil deeds are made alluring to them: God does not guide those who disregard Him.  (Quran, 9:36-37)

In conclusion, it is not true that Muhammad justified the Nakhla raid, nor is it valid to claim that the Prophet of Islam simply made it legal when Muslims did it.  Spencer’s claim that ”if it’s good for Islam, it’s right” finds no basis.

The Quran acknowledged that the killing of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami in the sacred month was a “grave offense” and Muhammad offered restitution to the victim’s family.  This mea culpa indicates that the Prophet of Islam acknowledged that wrong had been committed and he sought to right it.  Meanwhile, the “band of Muslims” involved in the escapade were duly chastised.  After they had expressed remorse for their sin, the God of the Quran forgave them “for God is Forgiving, Merciful” (2:218), and reassured them of their salvation.  That forgiveness was necessary in the first place indicates that they had committed a sin.

What the Quran didn’t do is claim that the Muslims had done nothing wrong.  All it did was point out the hypocrisy of the Quraysh, for they had committed greater offenses against the Muslims.  Robert Spencer would quickly claim that the Quran was committing a tu quoque fallacy, but there is a difference between a valid tu quoque argument and an invalid tu quoque fallacy.  Tu quoque (“you too”) arguments are not always illegitimate.  Of significance is the fact that, following the Nakhla raid, Muhammad (1) admitted that the Muslims had committed an offense, and (2) willingly submitted to the penalty of that offense (i.e. paid blood money).

The Prophet of Islam didn’t try to make something right because the enemy did something wrong.  More importantly, he didn’t try to get out of the penalty for the offense.  Instead, he admitted that his side had done something wrong, paid the penalty for it, and then pointed out that his accusers had committed far greater offenses without making any amends for it.  He was not trying to get out of the penalty, but only highlighting the Qurayshite hypocrisy so that they would not exploit the incident to further anti-Muslim propaganda.

Islamophobes today are also guilty of hypocrisy on this front: they are among America and Israel’s most hawkish proponents of war in Muslim lands.  During Muhammad’s pre-Badr expeditions, the Muslims had killed only one person, and this was in violation of their orders.  What about the hundreds and hundreds of Muslim victims who die at the hands of the American and Israeli military, without any form of restitution given to them?  We are told then that “this is war”…But when Muhammad’s men kill one person, then it’s the greatest tragedy in all of history.

Related to our opening question (Is Islam more violent than other religions, specifically Judaism and Christianity? Was Muhammad the most violent prophet or religious figure in history?) lies another question: the Biblical prophets–such as MosesJoshuaSamson,DavidSaul, etc.–engaged in genocide against the natives of Canaan.  Thousands and thousands of innocent people were slaughtered.  Are there any stories in the Bible of any of these Judeo-Christian prophets and holy figures giving restitution to the victim’s families?  One can already hear Robert Spencer crying “tu quoque, tu quoque!”, a word that he obviously does not properly understand.  Islam, identified as our enemy in the post-9/11 war, is put through a special standard, one that Spencer’s own religion could not withstand.

*  *  *  *  *

The Islamic principle of justice is to apply the law equally to all.  There are numerous verses of the Quran to this effect (i.e. 16:90: “God commands you to uphold justice and to do good to others”) and this topic would require another article to elucidate fully.  For now, however, it would suffice us to refer to the opening of sura (chapter) five, which is said to be among the final revelations of the Quran.  It was revealed after the conquest of Mecca.  In it, we see once again that the Quran affirms the idea of sacred months and sacred spaces.  More importantly, it commands Muslims to uphold justice and be fair even to their enemies:

Do not violate the sanctity of God’s rites or the Sacred Months…or the people coming to the Sacred Space…Do not let your ill-will towards a people–because they barred you from the Sacred Mosque–cause you to transgress against them.  Help one another to do what is right and good.  Do not help one another towards sin and aggression. (Quran, 5:2)

Robert Spencer traces “Islam’s only overarching moral principle” of “if it’s good for Islam, it’s right” to the raid at Nakhla, but the evidence simply does not bear his argument out.  Instead, all that becomes apparent is the Islamophobic tactic: if it makes Islam and Muslims look bad, let’s run with it.

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.

1. Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), p.79
2. Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.287 (tr. A. Guillaume)
3. Ibid.
4. Reuven Firestone, Jihad, p.57
5. Ibid.
6. Ibn Ishaq, p.287
7. Thomas W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, p.30
8. Spencer, pp.5-7
9. It should be noted that the nineteenth century gave birth to the modernist movement within Islamic thought, which redefined jihad and challenged the long-held “traditional” opinion on the matter.  Today, the “traditional” opinion is held only by a few ultra-conservative Muslims, a view that should not to be conflated with that held by Radical Muslims such as Osama Bin Laden.

When They Almost Killed Muhammad: The Persecution of Islam’s Earliest Followers

Posted in Feature, Loon Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2012 by loonwatch

Robert Spencer has summarized the key arguments raised by Islamophobes in his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades).  Chapter one of his book is entitled “Muhammad: Prophet of War”, in which he recounts the life story of the Prophet Muhammad.  In it, he portrays Muhammad as the aggressor and his Quraysh enemies as the victims.  Spencer writes:

After receiving revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel in 610, [Muhammad] began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as a prophet.  But he was not well received by his Quraysh brethren in Mecca, who reacted disdainfully to his prophetic call and refused to give up their gods.  Muhammad’s frustration and rage became evident.  When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam: “May the hands of Abu Lahab perish!  May he himself perish!  Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him.  He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fibre around her neck.”  (Qur’an 111:1-5)

Ultimately, Muhammad would turn from violent words to violent deeds.  In 622, he finally fled his native Mecca for a nearby town, Medina… [1]

Muhammad’s message of monotheism does not adequately explain why the leaders of the Quraysh rejected his message so forcefully.  Indeed, Muhammad preached a lot more than this: he called for a top-to-bottom reform of Meccan society, advocating for the rights of the poor and weak.  While it is also true that Muhammad’s renouncement of the pagan gods was unbearable to many followers of the old religion, so too did his powerful critique of the rich and powerful set him on a collision course against them.

Spencer not only fails to properly explain why the Quraysh leaders opposed Muhammad, but he also omits entirely how they opposed him.  In Spencer’s version of events, (1) Muhammad preached to them about God and his prophetood; (2) the Quraysh didn’t accept this message; and then (3) Muhammad reacted with rage and violence.  Spencer’s biography is curiously missing the almost decade and a half-long persecution of Muhammad and his early followers in Mecca, which preceded their Flight (Hijra) to Medina.  This willful omission is designed to mislead the reader, and Spencer succeeds in inverting reality, portraying Muhammad as the aggressor and the Quraysh leaders as the victims.

*  *  *  *  *

Muhammad was born and raised in seventh-century Mecca, a city of the Arabian Peninsula.  At the time, the majority of Meccans, led by the powerful Quraysh, were polytheistic in religion.  Then, in 610 A.D., when he was around forty years old, Muhammad declared his prophethood and called his people to a new, monotheistic religion.

Initially, Muhammad preached in private, and his early followers congregated in secret.  When Muhammad eventually declared his message publicly, he and his early followers were met with increasing hostility.  The Quraysh leaders instigated a sustained campaign of violence against what they saw as a rival faith.  Consequently, the early Muslims suffered persecution; they endured beatings, torture, and even imprisonment.

This entire period is omitted entirely from Robert Spencer’s chapter: Spencer portrays Muhammad as the violent aggressor and the Quraysh as his peaceful victims.  Yet, it is well-established that it was in fact Muhammad who began preaching his message peacefully, and it was the Quraysh leaders who responded violently.  Prof. Spencer C. Tucker writes:

As Muhammad’s group of followers grew, the leadership of Mecca, including Muhammad’s own tribe, perceived them as a threat. Some of the early converts to Islam came from the disaffected and disadvantaged segments of society. Most important, the Muslims’ new set of beliefs implicitly challenged the Meccans’ and the Quraysh tribe’s guardianship over the Kaaba, the holy site dedicated to the gods and goddesses of the area, which hosted an annual pilgrimage. The city’s leading merchants attempted to persuade Muhammad to cease his preaching, but he refused. In response, the city leadership persecuted Muhammad’s followers, and many fled the city. One group of his followers immigrated to Abyssinia. In 619 Muhammad endured the loss of both [his wife] Khadija and [his uncle] Abu Talib, while the mistreatment of his followers increased. [2]

Not surprisingly, the meanest persecution was meted out to the most vulnerable members of the Muslim faithful.  Prof. Daniel C. Peterson writes:

There are many stories of imprisonment, beating, starvation, and thirst, and perhaps worst of all, of believers staked out on the ground under the scorching heat of the Arabian sun until they could be induced to repudiate their faith.

Slaves were particularly vulnerable, for they had no one to protect them against their masters. One of them, a black Abyssinian named Bilal, was pinned to the ground by his master, with a large rock on his chest, and told that that he would remain there until he either died or recanted–whichever came first. He was spared only because Abu Bakr, passing by, was horrified at this maltreatment of a fellow believer and bought Bilal’s freedom…Some, it is said, died under torture. And others did indeed renounce their faith. [3]

The extent of the persecution can be gauged by the fact that some of the early Muslims were forced to flee with their lives from the Arabian Peninsula altogether, an event known as the First Flight to Abyssinia.  Under the cover of night, these Muslims fled Mecca and boarded ships headed for the African country of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia).  There was a second such emigration, known as the Second Flight to Abyssinia.  The Quraysh leaders dispatched envoys to the Abyssinian king, requesting that these Muslim refugees be returned to Mecca.  This request for extradition was rejected and these Muslim refugees stayed in Abyssinia for the remainder of what is known as the Meccan Period of Muhammad’s prophethood.

The Quraysh leaders harassed Muhammad himself, who endured both verbal and physical abuse.  Initially, however, his tormentors stopped short of killing Muhammad because he was still under the tribal protection granted to him by his aging uncle, Abu Talib.  Islam’s early enemies earnestly beseeched Abu Talib to permit the killing of Muhammad, but Abu Talib adamantly refused.

To pressure Abu Talib’s clan, the Banu Mutalib, to rescind their protection of Muhammad, the Quraysh leaders signed a pact resulting in the complete social and economic boycott of the early Muslims along with the two clans associated with them (the Banu Mutalib and the Banu Hashim, the latter of which was the tribe Muhammad was born to).  The early Muslims and members of the two clans were forced by circumstance to leave their homes and resettle in the outskirts of Mecca.  Confined to the harsh and barren desert valley (Mecca’s “ghetto”), they struggled to survive for three years, with even food and medicine being barred to them by the Quraysh leaders, who intended to starve them into submission:

Abu Jahl now tried to starve Muhammad into submission and imposed a boycott on the clans of Hashim and al-Muttalib, managing to get all other clans to sign a treaty to unite against the Muslim threat. Nobody could intermarry or trade with anybody in the two outlawed clans and this meant that nobody was supposed to sell them any food. For the sake of security, all members of Hashim and al-Muttalib, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, moved into Abu Talib’s street, which became a little ghetto. [4]

During what is known as the Year of Grief, both Muhammad’s wife Khadija and uncle Abu Talib passed away.  Abu Lahab, early Islam’s arch-enemy and Muhammad’s bitterest foe, replaced Abu Talib as the chief of the clan.  Muhammad thus lost his tribal protection and was forced to flee with his life to the neighboring city of Taif.  He preached his message to the leaders of Taif, who rejected him and refused to give him asylum for fear of earning Mecca’s wrath.  Muhammad was stoned by the street urchins of Taif and told to never return.  Bloody and battered, Muhammad had no place to go but to return to Mecca.

The persecution of the early Muslim community in Mecca intensified to the point that there was a very real fear that the religion of Islam would be snuffed out entirely.  It was at this precarious moment in history that a group of influential men from the nearby city of Yathrib (henceforth to be referred to as Medina) accepted Islam and promised to grant Muhammad refuge.  Thus began The Flight (Al-Hijra), as the Muslim community in Mecca migrated in waves to Medina.  The Quraysh authorities, fearful that Islam would spread to other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, tried (but failed) to prevent this exodus.

By this time, the Quraysh leaders had already formulated a plot to assassinate Muhammad in his sleep.  They delegated this task to eleven men, chosen from all different tribes so as to make retaliation against any one of them untenable.  The assassins gathered around Muhammad’s house, broke into it, and advanced towards his bed.  In fact, however, they had just missed Muhammad, who had slipped away and begun the arduous journey to Medina.  Prof. Juan Eduardo Campo writes:

[P]ersecution of Muhammad and his followers in Mecca by the Quraysh intensified; the weaker ones were physically tortured or imprisoned. Muhammad ordered his followers to emigrate to Yathrib [Medina] in small groups, while he remained in Mecca with his friend Abu Bakr and his loyal cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Quraysh plotted to murder Muhammad and invaded his house only to find Ali sleeping in his bed. Muhammad had secretly escaped with Abu Bakr, and the two of them hid in a cave for three days before making their way to Yathrib [Medina]. [5]

The Quraysh leaders were by this time wild-eyed with fury, and placed a bounty on Muhammad’s head.  Whoever could intercept Muhammad before he reached Medina would be handsomely rewarded.  Search parties went out to apprehend or kill the prophet of Islam.

But, destiny had another plan altogether for Muhammad.  He arrived safely in Medina in the year 622 A.D., what became year one of the Islamic calendar.  There, the early Muslim community would regroup, and eventually, flourish.

*  *  *  *  *

In Robert Spencer’s biography of the Islamic prophet, the persecution of Muslims in Mecca is completely passed over.  Muhammad is wrongfully portrayed as the aggressor and the initiator of violence.  Context is completely lost–in fact, it is purposefully distorted.  Without understanding the background of the conflict (i.e. Muslims being persecuted in Mecca for almost a decade and a half), the reader will view Muhammad’s actions in Medina as nothing short of unprovoked aggression.

Not only does such a deception distort the reader’s view of the Prophet Muhammad, it also has huge implications with regard to Islamic theology.  Jihad is wrongfully equated with terroristic violence and unprovoked aggression, instead of what is actually called for in the Quran: a defensive responding to unprovoked aggression.

If the concept of jihad was first formulated during Muhammad’s lifetime–and if Muslims look to Muhammad’s example to understand the embodiment of this concept–then it makes a very big difference whether or not Muslims see Muhammad as initiating violence or merely defensively responding to it.

Spencer well understands this concept and himself argues it intensely in his book.  His deception, however, lies in his flipping of reality on its head, portraying Muhammad and the early Muslims as the aggressors and their tormentors as the victims.

*  *  *  *  *

Having thus understood the importance of this discussion, let us then delve into Muhammad’s response to the violence, persecution, and injustice directed at him (and his religious community).  Did he preach “love your enemies” or ruthless vengeance?

Muhammad’s reaction to his enemies can be summarized as follows: it was better to forgive the average foot soldier, and only the top level leaders of injustice (“the chiefs of disbelief”) were to be punished.  This dynamic can be seen with Muhammad’s eventual triumphal return to and conquest of Mecca eight years after he fled from it.  Even though the people of Mecca in general had engaged in the persecution of the early Muslims, Muhammad issued a blanket immunity and “mercy” to all of them aside from nine individuals (other sources say seventeen), who were “his most inveterate [of] enemies.” [6] However, even of these, most were pardoned, and in the end “only four Meccans were killed. ” [7]

These were the same people who had humiliated, harassed, tortured, and persecuted Muhammad and his followers.  In fact, at one point in time Muhammad was attacked by them and left with a bloodied face, a busted lip, a broken tooth, and a split-open forehead.  Muhammad had then asked rhetorically:

How can a people cut the face of their prophet and break his tooth while he is calling them to God?  How can such a people prosper?

He exclaimed:

God’s Wrath is great on those who besmear the face of His Messenger!

The following Quranic verse reprimanded Muhammad:

Not for you (O Muhammad) is the decision whether [God] turns in mercy to them to pardon them or if He punishes them (for indeed, they are wrongdoers).  To God belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth.  He forgives whom He pleases and punishes whom He pleases; but God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.  (Quran, 3:128-129)

Muhammad retracted his earlier comment and then prayed for not only forgiveness of the attackers but forgiveness for the Meccans overall:

O God, forgive my people for they do not know. [8]

Later that day, Muhammad came across his uncle, Hamza ibn Abdul Mutallib, who had been killed by the Quraysh.  Worse, Hamza’s corpse had been mutilated: his nose was burnt off and his ears cut off; his stomach was gutted and his intestines were hanging out of his body.  When Muhammad saw his uncle in such a state, he angrily took the following oath:

I shall kill seventy of their men in revenge!

To this, God is said to have replied in the Quran:

(O Muhammad), invite them to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and dispute with them only in the most politest manner–for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His Path and who is rightly guided.  And if you wish to retaliate, retaliate only in a way that is proportionate to the injury done to you.  But if you endure patiently (instead of retaliating), it is better to do so.  (O Muhammad), endure with patience.  Truly, your patience is only possible with the help of God.  Do not be grieved by them or distressed because of their schemes–for God is with those who are mindful of Him and who do good.

Therein then do we have the Quranic axiom: if you wish to retaliate, then the punishment must be proportionate to the crime.  (This rule is clarified in verses 2:190-194 with the stipulation that the punishment must be against the guilty party only.)  Although the Quran permits one to demand justice, it strongly urges the believer, especially Muhammad, to instead “endure with patience” and forgive.  Following this admonition,  ”the Prophet refrained (from taking revenge) and atoned for his oath.” [9]

Indeed, when the early Muslims triumphed over and conquered Mecca, Muhammad issued a blanket pardon to everyone, aside from four “arch-criminals”. [10] Muhammad could have taken vengeance against all those who had persecuted him and his people for so many years, but instead he forgave them all, reciting the following verse of the Quran:

There is no censure on you on this day.  May God forgive you, for He is the Most Merciful of the merciful. (Quran, 12:92) [11]

Muhammad would even forgive those who killed and mutilated his uncle, praying: ”[M]ay God forgive them, for God is Forgiving, Merciful.” [12] He also forgave those who had tried to kill him.

There is much food for thought here: Islamophobes like Robert Spencer argue that Muhammad’s violence cannot be compared to that of the Biblical prophets, since Muhammad in Islam is considered perfect whereas Jews and Christians don’t think the same of Moses, Joshua, David, etc.  This is a huge oversimplification and mischaracterization of Islamic textual sources and dogma (a topic that I will analyze in further detail in a later article).  But for now, suffice to say, this is but one example of Muhammad being corrected in the Quran–and that too with regard to war, peace, vengeance, and mercy towards non-Muslims.

The Islamophobes claim that Muhammad only preached patience, forgiveness, and tolerance during the Meccan Period.  They argue further that the “opportunistic” Muhammad opted towards militarism, violence, and war as soon as he came to power in Medina.  And yet, the events surrounding this Quranic revelation (i.e. the killing/mutilating of Muhammad’s uncle, and the command for Muhammad to endure it with patience and forgiveness) occurred well into the Medinan Period.  In fact, it occurred at the height of the military conflict with the Meccan pagans.

What is even more telling is the fact that once Muhammad and the early Muslims conquered Mecca, Muhammad granted the Meccans pardon and mercy.  If the critics of Islam attribute Muhammad’s peaceful attitude during the early Meccan Period to his lack of power to do otherwise, then what of Muhammad’s triumphal return to Mecca whereupon he had all the power in the world to take limitless vengeance upon them?  Muhammad’s tolerant nature towards his Quraysh enemies cannot be explained by the meekness of his position, because he maintained that attitude when he had the power to crush them as they had tried to do to him aforetime.

Similarly, Muhammad had prayed for the forgiveness of the people of Taif, who had stoned him out:

Mohammed traveled to Ta’if, a mountainside town in Arabia about seventy miles southeast of the holy city of Mecca, to invite its people to become Muslims. Instead of welcoming him, the farmers stoned him and drove him, bleeding, out of town…Wiping blood from his face, the Prophet refused, saying, “Lord, forgive thy people, they do not know.” [13]

After the Conquest of Mecca, the pagans regrouped at Taif to launch a massive counter-offensive;  Prof. Ella Landau-Tasseron writes:

Shortly after[ the Conquest of Mecca,] the Thaqif, the ruling tribe of the nearby town al-Ta’if, organized a bedouin army [against Muhammad], which was defeated by Muhammad at a place called Hunayn.  Muhammad then laid siege to al-Ta’if but had to withdraw without achieving any result.  Shortly afterward, however, the Thaqif joined Islam of their own volition. [14]

No retribution was taken against the people of Taif, who thus entered the folds of Islam; Prof. Michael Dumper writes:

[The Muslims] laid unsuccessful siege to Taif for almost a month.  In 631 the head of the tribe embraced Islam, which resulted in his assassination by his own people.  Quickly, however, the city changed its mind and sent a delegation to the Prophet and indicated their willingness to embrace Islam.  The Prophet, stressing the diplomatic immunity of ambassadors, did not hold their earlier antagonism against them and welcomed them into the [Islamic] community. [15]

Upon his triumphal return to Mecca and Taif, the two cities that had earlier driven him out, Muhammad took no revenge and forgave his former tormentors, thus embodying the Quranic principles of patience and forgiveness.

*  *  *  *  *

Robert Spencer argues that Jesus preached “love your enemies”, contrasting this with Muhammad’s teachings.  Certainly, many Westerners associate such peaceable beliefs to Christianity’s central figure.  Yet, this comparison suffers from an inherent flaw: it is simply not accurate.

If we wanted to maintain an apples-to-apples comparison, the Meccan Period can be analogized to Jesus’s First Coming: like Jesus, Muhammad was a persecuted prophet during this period and was in fact almost killed.  Meanwhile, the Medinan Period can be likened to Jesus’s Second Coming.  Just as Muhammad triumphantly marched into Mecca, so does Jesus triumphantly return with his army as a “conquering king.”

Once Muhammad conquered Mecca and held absolute power over them, he forgave all of them (save for four “arch-enemies”).  Muhammad’s march into Mecca was virtually bloodless,; on the other hand, “Jesus’ second coming will be exceedingly violent…It’s going to be bloody (v. 13) and gory.”  Whereas on the day of Mecca’s conquest, Muhammad bestowed mercy on his enemies (he called it the “Day of Mercy”), Jesus will have “no compassion upon His enemies” and “will take vengeance” on them (the Bible calls it “the day of vengeance”).  Indeed, the Biblical Jesus will kill all his enemies.

When one considers other Biblical prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the contrast becomes even more glaring.  Compare the Conquest of Mecca to the conquest of Canaan by Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, Saul, etc.  Muhammad granted immunity to the Meccan population whereas the Judeo-Christian prophets “completely destroyed every living thing in the city, leaving no survivors” (Joshua 11:11).  In fact, this was done to city after city in what can only be called wholesale genocide.

How then can one support Robert Spencer’s dubious argument that the Prophet Muhammad was somehow more violent than all other prophets and religious founders, especially when we have such violent figures in Spencer’s own faith tradition?

*  *  *  *  *

A word ought to be said specifically about what Robert Spencer writes here:

When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam: “May the hands of Abu Lahab perish!  May he himself perish!  Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him.  He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fibre around her neck.”  (Qur’an 111:1-5) [16]

Abu Lahab was the only one of Muhammad’s foes to be taken by name in the Quran.  Even though numerous Quraysh influentials persecuted Muhammad, Abu Lahab was singled out in the Islamic holy book because he and Abu Jahl were the staunchest and most mean-spirited of early Islam’s adversaries.  He was assisted in his hatred by his wife, Umm Jamil, who joined in the persecution of Muhammad and his followers.  Abu Lahab led and orchestrated the harassment, beatings, torture, persecution, and crippling boycott of the early Muslim community.  He would later be one of the eleven assassins who attempted to kill Muhammad in his sleep.

The Quranic verse against Abu Lahab was revealed when he had picked up a stone in his hand to throw at Muhammad and yelled “may you perish” (reflected in the Quranic phrasing “may the hands of Abu Lahab perish“).  As for the statement against Abu Lahab’s wife, it can be understood using a less arcane translation: “…and his wife, the bearer of wood (translated in Spencer’s book with the difficult to understand ‘laden with faggots’), shall have a rope of fiber around her neck.”  She was dubbed “the bearer of wood” because she used to routinely lay splinters of wood on the ground where Muhammad would walk so as to cause his feet to bleed.  Additionally, Umm Jamil used to wear a very expensive necklace, of which she vowed: “By Lat and Uzza, I will sell away this necklace and expend the price to satisfy my enmity against Muhammad.”  [17]  This is said to explain the Quran’s choice of punishment for her: a rope of fiber around her neck.

Harsh as these punishments are against Abu Lahab and his wife, two points need to be borne in mind: firstly, Abu Lahab and his wife represent the Quran’s chief villains, equivalent to the Bible’s Pharaoh and Jezebel.  The Bible promised that Pharoah and “all who trust in him” will be slaughtered (Jeremiah 46:25), and that Jezebel will be punished–”her children” will be killed (Revelation 2:23).  The punishment promised to Abu Lahab and his wife are certainly no harsher than this.  More importantly, the Quran only promised punishment of the guilty party, not “all who trust in him” or “her children.”

The second point is that both Abu Lahab and Umm Jamil died of natural causes.  Muhammad was never violent with them.  The verses in the Quran condemning this couple were meant to be understood in a supernatural sense, unlike the very real violence committed by Abu Lahab and his wife against Muhammad and the early Muslims.

On a somewhat related note, it should be added that one of the major reasons that Abu Lahab opposed the message of Islam so violently was that it threatened his status and position.  He was extremely wealthy and powerful–among Arabia’s top one percent.  Muhammad, on the other hand, preached equality among believers.  To this, Abu Lahab would exclaim:

May this religion perish in which I and all other people should be equal and alike! [18]

This is reflected in the Quran’s response to Abu Lahab:

Neither his wealth nor his earnings will benefit him. (Quran, 111:2)

Indeed, Muhammad’s support for the 99% explains why he faced the wrath of the 1%, of which Abu Lahab belonged to.

*  *  *  *  *

There are of course events in Muhammad’s life between his escape from Mecca and his subsequent return that merit further investigation and critical analysis.  Readers are certainly well-aware of the numerous charges levied against the Prophet of Islam in this regard.  Future parts of this Series will look into these matters with an attempt to be impartial and fair.  For now, however, we have achieved our purpose: Robert Spencer’s dishonest rendering of Muhammad’s time in Mecca, known as the Meccan Period, has been laid to waste.

Muhammad and his early followers experienced persecution at the hands of their enemies, a basic fact that must be understood in order to understand early Islamic history, as well as Islamic texts and theology.  An at least rudimentary knowledge of these events is needed to negate the propaganda of those who seek to demonize the faith of over a billion adherents around the world.  More than that, it offers peace-loving, moderate Muslims the ammunition they need to counter the intolerant interpretations of their religion espoused by their fundamentalist coreligionists, people who often act more like the Quraysh leaders than Muhammad.

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.  

[1] Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), p.5
[2] Spencer C. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of Middle East Wars, p.849
[3] Daniel C. Peterson, Muhammad, Prophet of God, p.72
[4] Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, p.129
[5] Juan Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam, p.299
[6] Simon Ockley, The History of the Saracens, p.55
[7] Jonathan E. Brockopp, The Cambridge Companion to Muhammad, p.10
[8] Ar-Raheeq al-Makthum, p.318; Original source for “O Allah, forgive my people for they do not know” is Fath al- Bari 7/373; Alternately narrated as “My Lord, forgive my people for they have no knowledge” in Sahih Muslim 2/108.
[9] Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 16:126
[10] Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum, p.254
[11]  Al-Tabaqat Al-Kubra, Vol.2, p.142
[12] Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya, p.432
[13] Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, p.23
[14] Ella Landau-Tasseron, Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, p.11
[15] Michael Dumper, Cities of the Middle East and North Africa, p.634
[16] Spencer, p.5
[17]  Tafheem ul Quran, 111:5
[18]  Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 111


Posted in Feature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2012 by loonwatch

Robert Spencer provides a biography of Muhammad in chapter 1 of his book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), a chapter he entitles “Muhammad: Prophet of War.”  I have been writing a rebuttal of this chapter, but as I do so, I realize that perhaps I should contemporaneously provide a “counter-biography.”  This will be an attempt at doing that, while at the same time tying in Spencer’s work.

Because the United States is involved in many wars in the Muslim world, many Americans want to know what Islam is all about.  Unfortunately, they often either knowingly or unknowingly get that information from extremely anti-Muslim sources.  This is especially the case when they hear about Muhammad, the founder of Islam.  Most Americans are woefully ignorant about Muhammad, and what little they do know is nothing more than talking points against him made by Islamophobes.

There are certainly events in Muhammad’s life that are open to scrutiny (events that we will analyze in this “counter-biography”), but it is extremely ignorant to limit one’s knowledge to these.  It would be like studying the history of America’s Founding Fathers, and only focusing on their extramarital affairs, their racism and slave-holding, and their genocidal wars against the American Indians.  That’s not history.  That’s nothing short of ideologue-driven propaganda.

Indeed, there is a side of Muhammad that Americans desperately need to know in order to have a more balanced and accurate view of him.  In fact, there is much about Muhammad that the liberal, secular West has to like.  We don’t need to look at Muslim apologia to find this.  Rather, it’s found in the books of America’s most respected historians.

On that note, I should probably say something about my use of the term “counter-biography,” which wrongly implies revisionism.  In reality, my biography of Muhammad will be in line with mainstream Western scholarship, and it is the narrative taught in America’s universities (and has been for many decades).  Meanwhile, it is Robert Spencer’s biography of Muhammad that engages in revisionism born out of nativist populism and a clear anti-Muslim animus.  It is exactly the reason that mainstream historians and scholars have nothing but disdain for people like Spencer, and why Spencer in turn accuses them of “dhimmitude.”

With that clarification, our “counter-biography” begins circa 570 A.D., in the city of Mecca, Muhammad’s birthplace.  Not much is known about Muhammad’s childhood, but we do know that it was marked by tragedy: his father died when he was only six months of age, and his mother passed away when he was six years old.  The newly orphaned boy was taken in by his grandfather, who also died just two years later.  His uncle, Abu Talib, then took guardianship of Muhammad.

Family, clan, and tribe meant everything in sixth and seventh-century Arabia.  Muhammad’s family and clan were going through difficult times, which must have been especially trying for Muhammad the orphan.  It is likely that Muhammad’s childhood experience, as a weak and vulnerable member of an impoverished clan, shaped the man he would become and the views he would hold, particularly his desire to protect the poor and weak from the rich and powerful.

Very little is known about Muhammad’s teenage years.  He would accompany his uncle, Abu Talib, on trade caravans to Syria.  We also know that Muhammad accompanied him during the Sacrilegious War (Harb al-Fijar), a four-year war that broke out between Muhammad’s tribe and another.  The extent of Muhammad’s participation in the war is disputed, but it is generally agreed that it was mostly in a non-combat support role, picking up enemy arrows from the ground.

The very first three lines of Robert Spencer’s biography are extremely misleading as he uses this event to portray Muhammad as having been “experience[d] as a warrior before he assumed the role of prophet.”  I have already refuted this argument in my previous article, where I pointed out that Muhammad not only played a very limited role (a far cry from the “fierce warrior” image that Spencer has portrayed), but he would later express regret over it.

After the war came to a close, Muhammad participated in the League of the Virtuous (an event that is omitted entirely from Spencer’s biography), a body designed to bring peace on earth and to end bloodshed, violence, and war; the League also aimed “to protect the weak and the defenseless.”  I have discussed the League of the Virtuous in more detail here.  Under the heading of Hilf al-Fudul (the League of the Virtuous), Thomas Patrick Hughes’ A Dictionary of Islam says:

A confederacy formed…for the suppression of violence and injustice at the restoration of peace after the Sacrilegious war. Muhammad was then a youth, and Sir William Muir says this confederacy “aroused an enthusiasm in the mind of Mahomet [Muhammad], which the exploits of the Sacrilegious war failed to kindle.”

Muhammad liked the idea of “protect[ing] the weak and the defenseless,” this being yet another event in his early life that would inspire him.  He also seemed to approve of “international”–or in his context, “super-tribal”–efforts to bring peace to Arabia and thereby avoid bloodshed.  Some time later in his life (still before he became a prophet), Muhammad is said to have arbitrated a peaceful settlement between various tribes with regard to the rebuilding of a shrine, a matter that almost came to swords.

It was a few years later that Muhammad declared his prophethood.  Robert Spencer writes on p.3 of his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades):

But [Muhammad’s] unique role as prophet-warrior would come later.  After receiving revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel in 610, he began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as a prophet.  But he was not well received by his Quraysh brethren in Mecca, who reacted disdainfully to his prophetic call and refused to give up their gods.

(Note: “Allah” is simply the Arabic term for “God”; Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians, for example, refer to God as “Allah”, as does the Arabic Bible itself.)

Spencer specifically inserts the word “just” into the following sentence: “[Muhammad] began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as a prophet.”  While it is certainly true that Muhammad placed a great emphasis on monotheism, it is not true that he just preached this (or just “his own position as a prophet”).

Neither could these two reasons alone explain why the leaders of the Quraysh (the dominant tribe of Mecca) reacted so disdainfully to Muhammad’s message.  Indeed, a strong component of this opposition came from Muhammad’s call to sweeping social reform;  Prof. Caesar E. Farah writes:

Muhammad’s preaching of monotheism and social reform went hand in hand. Indeed, no other message is so thoroughly underscored in the revelations received from Allah than the stress on equal treatment and social justice. To Muhammad these constituted a vital concomitant of worship. The revelations of the one and only God enjoin consistently the exercise of mercy and benevolence as the necessary adjuncts of belief in Him.

This dual role of Muhammad as preacher and reformer is largely evident in his life and career. [1]

Muhammad was a strong proponent of social justice, arguing for greater rights and protections for the poor and the weak.  He criticized Meccan society as decadent, especially for the way the rich and the powerful (the 1%) treated the most vulnerable members of society (the 99%).

He preached the importance of charity to the poor, a topic that the Quran stresses over and over.  The list of Quranic verses and hadiths that mandate or encourage charity is very extensive and too long to reproduce here, but suffice to say, Muhammad would eventually obligate charity upon all Muslims who could afford it.  He linked charity to salvation itself, declaring: “Charity extinguishes sin as water extinguishes fire.” [2]

But, Muhammad’s message was more radical than this: in a statement that would make a Republican’s head explode, Muhammad said:

God has made the payment of charity from [your] wealth obligatory on [you], to be taken from the wealthy among [you] and given to the poor. [3]

And further, he said:

God has enjoined upon wealthy Muslims a due to be taken from their wealth corresponding to the needs of the poor among them. The poor will never suffer from starvation or lack of clothes unless the wealthy neglect their due. If they do, God will surely hold them accountable and punish them severely. [4]

The wealthy should not just willingly give their wealth to the poor, but it is the right (haq) of the poor to be granted something from this wealth.  The Quran argues that it is from God’s Sustenance from which the prosperous are given their wealth, and that God Himself mandates that a portion of it should be given to the poor:

In their wealth is the right (haq) of the beggar and destitute. (Quran, 51:19)

Not only do the poor have a right to a portion of this wealth, but those who give charity “must wish no reward or thanks” from the one who accepts it (76:9), seeking their reward from God alone.  Muhammad obligated a reasonable percentage of one’s wealth to be given to charity (zakat), but recommended giving swaths of it away (sadaqa).  He linked charity to salvation, and miserliness in this regard to damnation.

He preached that all humans would be held to account by God for how they spent their money, and that God did not look kindly to those men who “squandered” their wealth on worldly pursuits.  This message was not just a kindly suggestion but a stinging rebuke of those who “devour the wealth of mankind wantonly” (Quran, 4:29); it condemned the extremely rich (the 1%) who “squandered [their] wealth in extravagance” and who “hoard[ed] up gold and silver”; the Quran commanded:

Give relatives their due, and the needy, and the wayfarer.  Do not squander your wealth in extravagance!  Squanderers are the brethren of Satan. (Quran 17:26-27)

That Muhammad supported “the 99%” over “the 1%” can be ascertained by his prayer:

O God, grant me life as a poor man, cause me to die as a poor man, and resurrect me in their company.

When he was asked why that was, he replied:

Because the poor will enter Paradise before the rich.  Do not turn away a poor man even if all you can give is half a date.  If you love the poor and bring them near you, God will bring you near Him on Judgment Day. [5]

Wealth in Mecca was concentrated among the city’s nobles; Muhammad questioned the concept of nobility altogether, preaching equality before the law and, more importantly, before God.  The Quran declared that ”the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you” (Quran, 49:13).  Muhammad condemned the inequality of society, whereby the poor would be punished for a crime but a rich person would be let off scott-free.  He would later admonish his fellow believers:

The people before you were destroyed [by God] because they inflicted legal punishments on the poor and forgave the rich. [6]

Muhammad spoke out strongly against the practice of usury, the charging of exorbitantly high interest rates.  This was a practice that caused many of the poorer people to become completely bankrupt.  Meanwhile, Muhammad preached mercy towards debtors.  The Quran urged lenders:

If the debtor is in difficulty, grant him time till it is easy for him to repay. But if you forgive the debt by way of charity, that is best for you, if you only knew. (Quran, 2:280)

In summary, Muhammad’s message stressed that “wealth should not just circulate between the rich among you” (Quran, 59:7).  Prof. Eugene F. Gorski writes:

It should be noted that from the beginning, the religion Muhammad preached was much more than an acceptance of monotheism. The Qur’an required the Meccans to change their immoral ways. The emphasis of the earliest chapters of the Qur’an was overwhelmingly on social-economic justice: it is good to feed the poor and take care of the needy; it is evil to accumulate wealth solely for one’s own behalf. Muhammad condemned the powerful rich for the oppression of the enfeebled poor and insisted that charitable service for one’s fellow human beings was the identifying characteristic of all faithful Muslims. [7]

It is no wonder then that the majority of Muhammad’s early members were from the depressed classes of society, as Prof. Charles Lindholm notes:

In Mecca, Muhammad’s revelations at first had relatively little influence. His original converts were his wife and some of his closest relatives, but most of the early believers were those who were poor, disenfranchised and humble. They were drawn to the Quran’s condemnation of excessive riches, to its advocacy of generous donations to care for the disadvantaged, and to its repudiation of the arrogance and selfishness of the wealthy. [8]

Islam’s early enemies spoke disdainfully of the “rabble” that followed Muhammad.  Interestingly, Ali Sina, an ardent Islamophobe (one spoken highly of by Robert Spencer), writes off Muhammad’s early followers, saying:

Compare that to the early followers of Muhammad in Mecca. They were mostly the poor, the disenfranchised slaves, the rebellious youths, and a few disaffected women. He preached to the slaves that they should escape the yoke of their masters and emigrate; he told the youths to disobey their parents and follow him; he spoke of social equality and the brotherhood of all the believers… [9]

Is Sina describing Muhammad’s early followers or “the 99 percent movement”?  Like the 99 percent movement of today, it was the rich and powerful that stood in staunch opposition: “Muhammad’s message angered the rich and powerful people of Mecca.” [10] The opposition to Muhammad was led by the nobles of Mecca, who opposed Muhammad’s egalitarian principles and calls to social reform.  This was one of their major motivations behind opposing Muhammad (in addition to Muhammad’s call to monotheism).  Yet, Robert Spencer’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) completely omits this all-important fact, leaving the reader with a skewed impression of Islam’s prophet.

Muhammad also called to reform the condition of slaves and women, which is why he attracted so many slave and women followers.  Prof. Stephen P. Heyneman writes:

A major principle of the Qur’an is that of establishing a just society, one concerned with socioeconomic equality among its component parts. The treatment of women and children, as well as reformation of the institution of slavery, were important elements in this concern with establishing an ethical and viable social order. Muhammad criticized Meccan society for its disregard for the welfare of its weaker members; as an orphan, he had personal acquaintance with the treatment meted out to anyone without powerful support.

Many of the reforms of pre-Islamic customs stipulated in the Qur’an concerned the well-being of women and children, particularly girls. Female infanticide (wa’d)–whether for reasons of honor or poverty–was abolished. Reforms were made to ameliorate some injustices committed by men [against women]…Many of the underprivileged referred to in the Qur’an were women…General injunctions include the right of the indigent to share of the abundance of the wealth…
Specific injunctions recommend express measures to better care for the poor and orphaned. [11]

But because the hate propaganda against Islam is so fierce in regard to these two topics (i.e. Islam and slavery, Islam and women), it would require pages and pages of in-depth analysis that I neither have space or time to delve into at the present; therefore, I will postpone this discussion for a later time.  Suffice to say, however, it is quite incorrect to claim that Muhammad “just preached” monotheism and “his own position as a prophet.”  He preached quite a lot more than that.  As William Montgomery Watt wrote:

In his day and generation Muhammad was a social reformer, indeed a reformer even in the sphere of morals. He created a new system of social security and a new family structure, both of which were a vast improvement on what went before. [12]

When it comes to Muhammad, there is a tendency to scrutinize and even malign him to a far greater extent than any other figure in history.  There are all sorts of arguments raised to justify this special standard, which I will analyze in the future.  For now, however, it is important for the neutral reader to understand that for all that the Islam-haters criticize in this very important historical figure, there is much to like.

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.

[1] Ceasar E. Farah, Islam (7th Ed.), p.38
[2] Sunan al-Tirmidhi : 2541
[3] Sayyid Saabiq, Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Section 3.1
[4] Ibid.
[5] Sunan al-Tirmidhi : 1376
[6] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Hadith 778
[7] Eugene F. Gorski, Theology of Religions, p.222
[8] Charles Lindholm, The Islamic Middle East, pp.66-68
[9] Ali Sina, Understanding Muhammad, p.209; Sina goes on to argue, quite unconvincingly, that Muhammad’s early followers must then not have been sincere in their belief of him, an argument he raises with little proof.
[10] Richard Wormser, American Islam, p.17
[11] Stephen P. Heyneman, Islam and Social Policy, p.53
[12] William Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p.332

More Proof Why You REALLY Shouldn’t Trust Robert Spencer’s “Scholarship”

Posted in Feature, Loon-at-large with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2012 by loonwatch
Robert Spencer, pseudo-scholar, once again gets Arabic 101 lessons from LoonWatch

A few days ago, I published an article entitled Why You Shouldn’t Trust Robert Spencer’s Biography of the Prophet Muhammad (I).

I took issue with Robert Spencer’s opening sentences of his biography of Muhammad (p.5 of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam), in which he wrote:

Muhammad already had experience as a warrior before he assumed the role of the prophet.  He had participated in two local wars between his Quraysh tribe and their neighboring rivals Banu Hawazin.

I wrote a response as follows:

What Spencer leaves out from this talking point–“Muhammad already had experience as warrior before he assumed the role of prophet”!–is quite telling.

He is referring to what is known in Islamic history as Harb al-Fijar (the Sacrilegious War), a series of conflicts that took place when Muhammad was a teenager. The spark that ignited the war was the unsettled murder of a member of one tribe, which lead to a blood feud. Due to “entangling alliances,” many different tribes in the area found themselves at war with each other.

Like most of Muhammad’s life, the details of this event are contested. This dispute is not simply one between modern-day Muslim apologists and Islamophobes, but rather one that traces its way back to the earliest biographers of the Prophet.

In specific, Muhammad’s level of participation in these wars is disputed. On the one hand, some Shia biographers reject the idea that Muhammad partook in them at all. Meanwhile, Sunni biographers write that Muhammad simply accompanied his uncle but did not directly fight in these wars. He only took on a very limited support role: picking up enemy arrows from the battlefield. At the most, he fired off a few arrows, but did not kill anyone.

Not only was Muhammad’s role severely limited, but even this he would later express regret over. Muhammad later recounted: “I had witnessed that war with my uncle and shot a few arrows therein. How I wish I had never done so!” [1] Spencer conveniently omits this very important fact, one that mitigates Muhammad’s participation in the war, especially in regards to his views about war and peace.

Spencer replied:

In 2006 I wrote the book on the right, The Truth About Muhammad, a biography of the prophet of Islam based on the earliest Muslim accounts of his life, in order to illustrate what Muslims generally believe that Muhammad said and did. In my forthcoming book, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, which will be published April 23 by ISI, I examine the historical value of those early Muslim accounts. It is an attempt to determine whether what Muslims believe Muhammad said and did, as recounted in The Truth About Muhammad, actually corresponds to historical reality.

There are numerous reasons to question the historicity of the early Muslim accounts of Muhammad’s life. Take, for example, an incident I refer to briefly in yet another book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades):

Muhammad already had experience as a warrior before he assumed the role of prophet. He had participated in two local wars between his Quraysh tribe and their neighboring rivals Banu Hawazin.

That he participated in these wars, known collectively as the Fijar War, or Sacrilegious War, is generally agreed upon, but there is no agreement about what he thought later about his role in them. The Egyptian writer Muhammad Hussein Haykal, in his 1933 biography, Hayat Muhammad (translated into English as The Life of Muhammad), quotes Muhammad expressing regret for his participation in this war:

“I had witnessed that war with my uncle and shot a few arrows therein. How I wish I had never done so!” (Pp. 52-3)

However, the ninth-century Muslim historian Ibn Sa’d, in one of the earliest and most important sources for biographical information on Muhammad, Kitab Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir, directly contradicts Haykal by quoting Muhammad saying this about the Fijar War:

I attended it with my uncles and shot arrows there and I do not repent it. (I.143)So which is it?

Is Haykal right that he really did express regret, or is Ibn Sa’d right that he explicitly ruled out doing so? Haykal doesn’t give his source, but it is possible that he had access to a hadith or some Islamic tradition that flatly contradicted the one Ibn Sa’d recorded eleven centuries earlier — although this is unlikely, since Ibn Sa’d often records variant and contradictory reports and discusses how they can be harmonized, or why one should be accepted and the other rejected. In this case Ibn Sa’d gives no hint of any variants. Haykal may simply have altered this tradition for apologetic purposes. Those who cite him as their source on this, or try to build an argument upon his quotation, do so at their own risk.

Nonetheless, such contradictions abound in the hadith reports. Muhammad can quite often be found saying contradictory things, as I show in Did Muhammad Exist?. In that book also I discuss how this odd situation came about: opposing factions both invoked Muhammad as an authority, and invented traditions to support their point of view.

Spencer is hawking his new book, which he is pushing as a “scholarly work” about how Muhammad didn’t exist.  His home page boasts that Robert Spencer is “[t]he acclaimed scholar of Islam”, “[a] serious scholar”, and “a brilliant scholar.”

I have pointed out in the past that Spencer is not a scholar of any sort–especially not on anything related to Islam.  He simply does not have the academic qualifications to claim this.  What other “scholar” do you know of that doesn’t even have a master’s or PhD degree on the subject he claims to be a “scholar” of?  He only has a one-year master’s degree in “the field of early Christianity”.  How does that make him an “acclaimed scholar of Islam”?

Another major problem with Spencer’s claim to scholarship is that he simply does not speak or understand Arabic.  This much has been apparent in the past, and it becomes painstakingly obvious in his latest response to me (as I shall show below).  I don’t think Spencer needs to know Arabic to criticize Islam (as some Muslim apologists insist), but I do think he needs to know it in order to be considered a “scholar of Islam” (a title he claims)–let alone “[t]he acclaimed scholar of Islam.”

Combine (1) not having any academic qualifications whatsoever with (2) not knowing Arabic and you have a situation like this: imagine some random blogger claiming to be “a world renowned physician” without ever having (1) gone to medical school and (2) without ever having studied or learned anatomy.  Such a blogger might be able to bring up good points about the field of medicine, but nobody in their right mind would consider him a “world renowned physician”–and if he claimed any such thing, his credibility would be shattered.

The need to understand Arabic in order to be a “scholar of Islam” cannot become more apparent than it is now with Spencer’s latest reply.  And here’s why:  Spencer argues (see quote above) that the hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) found in Haykal’s Hayat Muhammad contradicts the one in Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir.  He argues that Haykal may have reproduced another hadith that contradicts the one found in Ibn Sa’d’s book, or even that Haykal may have engaged in academic deceit (i.e. “altered this tradition for apologetic purposes”).  That’s a serious and bold claim to make against Haykal.

Yet, had Spencer simply been able to read Arabic, he would have realized that the hadith in Haykal’s Hayat Muhammad and Ibn Sa’d’s Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir are the exact same!  They are word-for-word identical.  In other words, Haykal took the hadith from Ibn Sa’d’s book.  That Spencer couldn’t see this speaks volumes about his “scholarship.”  So, Spencer’s blathering on about Haykal finding another contradictory hadith or of manipulating the text is indicative of his sophomoric “scholarship.”

How could Haykal have reproduced another hadith or have manipulated the text when in fact the wording in both Haykal’s book and Ibn Sa’d’s is the exact same?  Here is what is found in Haykal’s book:

Source: Haykal, Muhammad Husayn, Hayat Muhammad [The Life of Muhammad], 14th ed. (Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, n.d.): 134

And here’s the exact same found in Ibn Sa’d’s book, which Spencer quoted to “trump” Haykal’s hadith (stupidly not realizing they are the exact same!):

Source: Ibn Sa’d,  Tabaqat al-Kabir, edited by Ali Muhammad Umar (Cairo: Maktabat al-Khaniji, 2001) 1:106

To Robert Spencer, who doesn’t read or understand Arabic, that looks like a whole lot of jibberish.  One can imagine Spencer saying: “That’s Greek Arabic to me!”  But, if we help Spencer out by underlining as we did above, even he should be able to verify that they are the exact same–word-for-word.

So, if the two quotes are the exact same, why does Spencer’s quote seem to say the exact opposite as what I quoted?  Why did I translate it as such:

I had witnessed that war with my uncle and shot a few arrows therein. How I wish I had never done so!

Whereas Spencer used the following:

I attended it with my uncles and shot arrows there and I do not repent it.

Why the difference?

Being the “acclaimed scholar of Islam” that he is, Spencer relied on Google search to find this English translation of Ibn Sa’d’s book and/or was forced to rely on an English translation of the book (due to his inability to read the source text).  In doing so, Spencer didn’t realize that the sentence he reproduced was a faulty translation.

In Arabic, the underlined part is:

وما أحب أني لم أكن فعلت

In transliteration (for Spencer’s sake), it would be:

wa ma uhibb anni lam akun fa’alt

It translates to:

and what I wish is that I had not done it!

Breaking it down, we have:

وما (wa ma) – and what

أحب (uhibb) – I love/wish (See Hans Wehr for the meaning of this verb)

 أني (anni) – is that I

لم أكن (lam akun) – had not

فعلت (fa’alt) – done [it]

The translator Spencer used made a mistake with the word ما (ma), which is a participle in Arabic that is modified by the words surrounding it.  Hans Wehr lists nine different uses of the word ما (ma), one of which is indeed negation.  However, from a linguistic standpoint, the “negative ma” cannot be used in this particular sentence.  Indeed, it would render the sentence into a nonsensical “double negative”:

And I do not love that I had not done it.

Huh?  If you translated it like so, that would actually mean that Muhammad did not participate in the war.  So, even still, this would actually be proof against Spencer’s claim that Muhammad took part in it.

The translator Spencer relied upon saw two negatives and just tried to “simplify” the text to read: “and I do not repent it.”  This, even though the word “repent” does not appear anywhere in the text.  It is completely imagined.  It should be noted that the translator’s native language was neither Arabic nor English. He didn’t know what to do with the nonsensical double-negative–a sentence that would actually mean that Muhammad did not love the fact that he did not participate in the war.

In reality, the word  ما (ma) was being used as a “relative ma“:

Source: Ryding, Karin C., A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 326

The translator can be forgiven for making a mistake, but Robert Spencer, being “[t]he acclaimed scholar of Islam” should have known better.  The only correct translation of this text would support the translation I used, namely that Muhammad regretted his participation in the war, which was the point of my article.  It was this fact that Spencer failed to include in his book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades).  Instead, he tried to give the exact opposite (and false) impression, i.e. that Muhammad was already a “warrior” before he became a prophet.

Watch how this hadith from Ibn Sa’d’s book–which Spencer is currently using as his strongest proof–will be quickly tossed away by Spencer now that it doesn’t support his argument any more.  This is, after all, his methodology for “finding the historical Muhammad”: any hadiths that paint Muhammad in a positive light are jettisoned, whereas those that do the opposite are trumpeted and used as a club to hit Muslims over the head with.  With such a biased “methodology”, do you really want to trust Robert Spencer as a source for Muhammad’s biography or for anything related to Islam?

*  *  *  *  *

The bottom line is that Spencer relied on an incorrect translation to write a response to my article.  This has two implications:

1)  Our entire discussion underscores how important it is for a “scholar of Islam” to read, understand and have mastery of the Arabic language.  This is what is expected of a scholar at any credible university, and this is what must be expected of Robert Spencer if he wishes to don the mantle of a scholar of Islam.  It is exactly because of situations like these where knowing how to read Arabic can make or break the argument.

2) Specifically with the Prophet Muhammad, Spencer’s biography is misleading because it portrays Muhammad as “already [having] had experience as a warrior”, which is meant to purposefully mislead the reader.  It is intended to paint a portrait of Muhammad as a fierce warrior–hence, Spencer’s choice of title, “Muhammad: Prophet of War”.

What Spencer leaves out is the fact that, at most, Muhammad’s involvement in the war was menial–mostly just in a support capacity.  This is a far cry from the “fierce warrior” image that Spencer is trying to portray.

Muhammad not only expressed regret for participation in the war, but more importantly, after hostilities ceased he supported the League of the Virtuous (Hilf al-Fudul), which was similar to the League of Nations formed after World War I.  The goal of the League of the Virtuous was to bring an end to bloodshed, violence, and war.  Muhammad’s participation in this–and his ringing endorsement of the League even in his later years of life–tells us a lot about how he viewed the war (and warfare in general).  Under the entry of Hilf al-Fudul, Thomas Patrick Hughes’ A Dictionary of Islam says:

A confederacy formed…for the suppression of violence and injustice at the restoration of peace after the Sacrilegious war. Muhammad was then a youth, and Sir William Muir says this confederacy ”aroused an enthusiasm in the mind of Mahomet [Muhammad], which the exploits of the Sacrilegious war failed to kindle.”

The war Muhammad was not too keen of.  But, the body designed to bring peace on earth was something he was deeply inspired by.

These are facts that Spencer wouldn’t have the reader know.  Yet, whereas there was disagreement among biographers about Muhammad’s participation in the war, there was–as far as I know–no difference of opinion about his participation in and support for the League of the Virtuous.  Why is it that Spencer’s biography focuses on contested facts but stays clear from a more accepted occurrence? It is only because one event helps build his case against Muhammad, and the other does the opposite.  So, he includes what helps and ignores what doesn’t.  Should you really trust Spencer’s biography then?

*  *  *  *  *

Spencer also writes in the same article:

Nonetheless, such contradictions abound in the hadith reports. Muhammad can quite often be found saying contradictory things, as I show in Did Muhammad Exist?. In that book also I discuss how this odd situation came about: opposing factions both invoked Muhammad as an authority, and invented traditions to support their point of view.

Robert Spencer has recently argued that Muhammad didn’t in fact exist.  The desire to negate Muhammad’s existence altogether is born out of his strongly pro-Catholic, anti-Muslim views.

Yet, Spencer should know that historians have doubted the historicity of Moses and Jesus as well.  Almost all of the arguments used against the historicity of Muhammad can be applied to Moses and Jesus.  Some scholars have doubted Moses and Jesus’ existences altogether, just as Spencer doubts the existence of Muhammad.  Once again, what is good for the goose is good for the gander, but try arguing this point and Spencer will cry “tu quoque, tu quoque!”  How dare you apply the same standards to Spencer’s religion and beliefs that he does on a routine basis to others!

However, most scholars don’t believe Muhammad didn’t exist, just as most don’t deny the existence of Jesus.  But, the details of Muhammad’s life are far more controversial and up for debate, just as is the case with Jesus.  Finding the historical Muhammad is, like finding the historical Moses or Jesus, an important endeavor.

Yes, contradictory hadiths abound, but that’s no different than is the case in Christianity: Bible scholars argue that the Gospels, for example, are highly contradictory to each other, especially with regard to Jesus.  I can hear it now already: tu quoque, tu quoque!

The fact that contradictory reports exist just means that scholars need to exert energy to determine what’s more reliable and what’s not–and there will always be a level of guesswork and doubt about it.  But the correct way to find the historical Muhammad is not the way Spencer does it: agree with whatever casts Muhammad in a bad light, and dump everything that doesn’t.

Finding the historical Muhammad is an important endeavor that modern scholarship will need to undertake, and you won’t find me disagreeing with that.  Yes, it might call into question stories that many Muslims take for granted, but it will also cast doubt on events that Islamophobes like Robert Spencer rely on to bash Muslims over the head with.

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.  For the writing of this article, Dawood (guest contributor) was consulted.

Why You Shouldn’t Trust Robert Spencer’s Biography of the Prophet Muhammad (I)

Posted in Feature, Loon Blogs with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2012 by loonwatch

This article is a part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series.

I recently agreed to debate the following thesis with Robert Spencer of JihadWatch:

Islam is more violent than other religions, specifically Judaism and Christianity.

This is the main theme in Spencer’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades).  It is even the title of one of his books: Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t.  More than this, it reflects the fundamental difference between he and I: whereas I accept the violent and intolerant aspect inherent in all religious traditions, Spencer specifically targets Islam.

Under this heading, I was willing to debate the following sub-thesis:

The Islamic prophet was more violent and warlike than Jewish and Christian prophets.

This was the argument Spencer brought forth in chapter 1 of his book, entitled “Muhammad: Prophet of War.” On p.3, Spencer writes:

[F]or the religious man or woman on the streets of Chicago, Rome, Jerusalem, Damascus, Calcutta, and Bangkok, the words of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Krishna, and Buddha mean something far greater than any individual’s reading of them.  And even to the less-than-devout reader, the words of these great religious teachers are clearly not equal in their meaning.

On p.4, Spencer promises to compare Muhammad to prophets and founders of other religious traditions in order “to emphasize the fallacy of those who claim that Islam and Christianity–and all other religious traditions, for that matter–are basically equal in their ability to inspire good or evil.”  In other words: Muhammad was the most violent of them all, and thus inspires greater evil.

But, is it true?

I’ve already written multiple articles related to this topic, but now I will directly refute chapter 1 of Robert Spencer’s book (“Muhammad: Prophet of War”), which is Spencer’s biography of Muhammad.  I will present a balanced, neutral, and academic picture of Muhammad–in between the Islamophobic narrative of Spencer on the one hand and the understandably biased Muslim apologist view on the other.

Once Muhammad’s life is understood thus, I will compare it to the lives of other prophets–MosesJoshuaSamsonSaulDavid, Jesus, etc.–to see if Muhammad was truly the most violent of them all.

*  *  *  *  *

Robert Spencer’s biography of Muhammad is extremely misleading.  This becomes apparent from the get-go. The very first section of Spencer’s biography of Muhammad begins on p.5, entitled “Muhammad the raider.”  Spencer’s opening words are:

Muhammad the raider

Muhammad already had experience as a warrior before he assumed the role of prophet.  He had participated in two local wars between his Quraysh tribe and their neighboring rivals Banu Hawazin.

What Spencer leaves out from this talking point–”Muhammad already had experience as  warrior before he assumed the role of prophet”!–is quite telling.

He is referring to what is known in Islamic history as Harb al-Fijar (the Sacrilegious War), a series of conflicts that took place when Muhammad was a teenager.  The spark that ignited the war was the unsettled murder of a member of one tribe, which lead to a blood feud.  Due to “entangling alliances,” many different tribes in the area found themselves at war with each other.

Like most of Muhammad’s life, the details of this event are contested.  This dispute is not simply one between modern-day Muslim apologists and Islamophobes, but rather one that traces its way back to the earliest biographers of the Prophet.

In specific, Muhammad’s level of participation in these wars is disputed.  On the one hand, some Shia biographers reject the idea that Muhammad partook in them at all.  Meanwhile, Sunni biographers write that Muhammad simply accompanied his uncle but did not directly fight in these wars.  He only took on a very limited support role: picking up enemy arrows from the battlefield.  At the most, he fired off a few arrows, but did not kill anyone.

Not only was Muhammad’s role severely limited, but even this he would later express regret over.  Muhammad later recounted: “I had witnessed that war with my uncle and shot a few arrows therein. How I wish I had never done so!” [1] Spencer conveniently omits this very important fact, one that mitigates Muhammad’s participation in the war, especially in regards to his views about war and peace.

Like World War I, the Sacrilegious War was sparked over a murder and resulted in great turmoil due to “entangling alliances.”  Once hostilities ceased, many of the tribes decided to convene a sort of “League of Nations” to prevent future wars.  The Arabian tribes assembled at the house of a man named Abdullah bin Judan and “forged the League of the Virtuous [Hilf al-Fudul].  The major aims of the League were to prevent wars from breaking out and to protect the weak and the defenseless from their enemies.” [2] Members would “henceforth and forever stand on the side of the victim of injustice,” instead of simply siding based on tribal loyalty. [3] It was hoped that such an arrangement would prevent the blood feuds that were common in that time.

Muhammad took part in the signing of the League of the Virtuous, and it left its indelible mark on him.  He would later say: “I witnessed in the house of Abdullah bin Judan a pact made that I wouldn’t have exchanged for the choicest of herds; and if it had been suggested after Islam, I would have responded positively to it.” [4] (“The choicest herd” is the ancient equivalent of saying: “I wouldn’t trade it in even for a Ferrari.”) Muhammad said further: “If further such pacts be made for the cause of the oppressed and I be called, I would certainly respond.” [5]

The ideals of the League of the Virtuous–of standing for justice regardless of family or tribal loyalty–finds its way into the Quran:

O you who believe, stand firmly for justice, witnesses before God, even if it be against your own selves, your parents or relatives, or whether it be against rich or poor. (4:135)

Throughout his career, Muhammad opposed tribal warfare and blood feuds.  Meanwhile, the Quran instructed the believers to defend the oppressed by fighting the oppressors:

What reason could you have for not fighting in God’s cause–for those men, women and children who are oppressed and cry out, “Our Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors!  By Your Grace, give us a protector and a savior!” (4:75)

The Sacrilegious War and the League of the Virtuous played a pivotal role in Muhammad’s views on matters of war and peace–but not in the way that Spencer implies it to (i.e. “he was born a warrior!”).  Instead, Muhammad became a “veteran against the war” and greatly supported the idea of a League of the Virtuous, a body intended to bring peace on earth–one that would end violence, bloodshed, and war.

By omitting key details, Spencer willfully misleads the reader.  This is just within the first three lines of his biography of Muhammad.  As we shall see, the deception just gets worse.

To be continued…

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.

[1] Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Hayat Muhammad, p.62
[2] S. Ali Asgher Razwy, A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims, p.24.
Prof. Joseph Morrison Skelly writes on p.39 of Political Islam: “Hilf al-Fudul was an agreement among several pre-Islamic Arab tribes in the seventh century to prevent injustice and to aid those who had been wronged.”
[3] Haykal, p.62
[4] Ibn Kathir, Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya, p.188
[5] A.H. Qasmi, International Encyclopaedia of Islam, p.113

“We’re at War!” — And We Have Been Since 1776: 214 Years of American War-Making

Posted in Feature, Loon Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2011 by loonwatch

“I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” -President Theodore Roosevelt, at the turn of the century [1]

Islam is inherently more violent than other religions.  This is the Supreme Islamophobic Myth.  Yes, there are other core beliefs of Islamophobia (Islam is sexist, oppressive, discriminatory, the list goes on…), but nothing is more critical to anti-Muslim bigots than associating Islam with violence, war, and terrorism.  This, in turn, is used to justify bombing, invading, and occupying Muslim countries–what I call the Supreme Islamophobic Crime.

We see this quite clearly in the jingoistic rhetoric against Iran, a Muslim country that is portrayed as being inherently violent and warlike.  This is then flipped around, using the argument that we must attack them before they attack us.

Yet, this is a Myth–the Mother of all Myths.  It is the United States that has been waging wars of aggression, not Iran.  Ahmed Rehab challenged Bill O’Reilly on this point by asking him: “How many countries has Iran attacked in the past 50 years?”  The answer is, of course, zero. Meanwhile, the United States and her “stalwart ally” Israel have attacked numerous Muslim countries, as I recently portrayed in this graphic:

The U.S., in the name of fighting terror, is waging seemingly Endless War in the Muslim world.   The “We are at War” mentality defines a generation of Americans, with many young adults having lived their entire lives while the country has been “at war.”  For them, war is the norm.

But if the future of America promises Endless War, be rest assured that this is no different than her past.  Below, I have reproduced a year-by-year timeline of America’s wars, which reveals something quite interesting: since the United States was founded in 1776, she has been at war during 214 out of her 235 calendar years of existence.  In other words, there were only 21 calendar years in which the U.S. did not wage any wars.

To put this in perspective:

* Pick any year since 1776 and there is about a 91% chance that America was involved in some war during that calendar year.

* No U.S. president truly qualifies as a peacetime president.  Instead, all U.S. presidents can technically be considered “war presidents.”

* The U.S. has never gone a decade without war.

* The only time the U.S. went five years without war (1935-40) was during the isolationist period of the Great Depression.

When we look at the present situation (see map above) and our violent past (see timeline below), is it not a bit hypocritical of us to point the finger at Muslims?  Whenever I hear “good Judeo-Christian American patriots” telling me how violent Muslims are and how Islam supposedly endorses Perpetual War–I cannot help but think of how their own “Judeo-Christian nation” has been locked in perpetual warfare since its inception.

The U.S. was born out of ethnic cleansing, a violent process that had started long before 1776 and would not be complete until 1900.  In other words, more than half of America’s existence (about 53%) has been marked by the active process of ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population, which was ultimately all but destroyed.

If the Islamophobes insist that the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the span of eight years, defines the Ottoman Empire (which existed for over 600 years, meaning the Armenian Genocide lasted only 1% of its existence), then would they be consistent and use this logic to argue that the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians (which spanned more than a century and a quarter, or 53% of America’s existence) defines the United States?  Or would they use it to demean Christianity overall as they do Islam? (Note: Benjamin Taghov has made this comparison on our website before; see here.)

By looking at America’s many wars throughout history, it becomes apparent that it is not radical Islam that propels the country to war.  Rather, it is America’s trajectory of war and conquest, which has always been in the direction of expanding hegemony.  In the start, the country expanded by occupying American Indian lands, portraying its indigenous population as inherently violent and warlike.  In 1823, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: “The tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war…” [2]

The American Indians were thought to be an existential threat to the United States (a classic case of projection or role inversion): John Quincy Adams, for example, wrote that “the savage Indians” were out to “wage an exterminating war” against the “peaceful inhabitants” of the United States [3].  It was the same message then as it is now: we must attack them before they attack us.

As Indian land was gobbled up by the use of force and fraud, the U.S. border expanded to the periphery of Mexico (which at that time consisted of most of the West Coast and Southwest of the modern United States).  Hungry for this land too, the U.S. invaded Mexico, and “Mexicans were portrayed as violent and treacherous bandits who terrorized” the people [4].  American belligerence towards Mexico heated up in the 1800′s, culminated in the U.S. annexation of half of Mexico’s land (leaving right-wingers today to wonder “why so many Mexicans are in our country?”), and seamlessly transitioned into the Banana Wars of the early 1900′s.

Once the Americans had successfully implemented Manifest Destiny by conquering the land from sea to shining sea, the Monroe Doctrine was used to expand American influence in the Caribbean and Central America.  Thus began the Banana Wars, a series of military interventions from 1898 all the way to 1934, which attempted to expand American hegemony to the south of its borders.  America’s brutality in this part of the world is not well-known to most Americans, but it is well-documented.

During this time period, Hispanics were portrayed as “cunningly dangerous bandits” [5].  The Banana Wars came to an end in 1934 with the adoption of the “Good Neighbor Policy,” a policy that was adopted because “World War II was looming in Europe and Asia” and the U.S. wanted “to secure Latin American allegiances and hemispheric unity as a protection against foreign invasion” [6].

For a brief period, from 1935-1940, America rested from war, thanks to the emergence of isolationism during the Great Depression.  But, with the start of World War II, the U.S. emerged as a super-power, ever hungry for more conflict.  Thus began the Cold War period from 1945 all the way to 1991, with the U.S. fighting “the (exaggerated) menace of Communism” all over the world, even when it meant bombing, invading, and occupying countries that had done no harm to the U.S.

The Cold War had not even ended before the U.S. found its new target: the Middle East and the Muslim world.  By 1990, the U.S. was already bombing Iraq in the First Gulf War–a country that the U.S. would go on to bomb for over two decades.  Needing another boogieman now that the Soviet Union was dead, the U.S. turned to “radical Islam” as the enemy.  And that’s why you have the map as it is above.

It should be noted that American plans to dominate the Middle East date back to at least the end of World War II, when it was decided that the region was of critical strategic value.  Now that the U.S. has followed through on this plan, do you think “radical Islam” is really “an existential threat” just as American Indians were “fierce savages” waging “an exterminating war” against the “peaceful inhabitants” of the United States; or how Mexicans were “violent” and “terrorized” people; or how Central Americans were “dangerous bandits”?  The rampant Islamophobia that abounds today is part of a long tradition of vilifying, Other-izing, and dehumanizing the indigenous populations of lands that need to controlled.

The objects of American aggression have certainly changed with time, but the primary motivating factor behind U.S. wars of aggression have always been the same: expansion of U.S. hegemony.  The Muslim world is being bombed, invaded, and occupied by the United States not because of radical Islam or any inherent flaw in themselves.  Rather, it is being so attacked because it is in the path of the American juggernaut, which is always in need of war.

*  *  *  *  *

Here is a graphic depiction of U.S. wars:

And here is the year-by-year timeline of America’s major wars:

[Note: This is a non-exhaustive list, and I purposefully excluded all sorts of military interventions so as to be very conservative; the list excludes, for example, “peaceful means” used to ethnically cleanse the land of American Indians, i.e. fraudulent treaties and other coercive means; it excludes many outright massacres of American Indians; it further excludes several instances of the U.S. landing troops in various countries to “protect American interests”; it also excludes virtually all CIA interventions and other covert wars; lastly, I may have omitted wars due to my own ignorance of them, although I am sure that readers will give their input so we can add to the list as needed.]

Year-by-year Timeline of America’s Major Wars (1776-2011)

1776 – American Revolutionary War, Chickamagua Wars, Second Cherokee War, Pennamite-Yankee War

1777 – American Revolutionary War, Chickamauga Wars, Second Cherokee War, Pennamite-Yankee War

1778 – American Revolutionary War, Chickamauga Wars, Pennamite-Yankee War

1779 – American Revolutionary War, Chickamauga Wars, Pennamite-Yankee War

1780 – American Revolutionary War, Chickamauga Wars, Pennamite-Yankee War

1781 – American Revolutionary War, Chickamauga Wars, Pennamite-Yankee War

1782 – American Revolutionary War, Chickamauga Wars, Pennamite-Yankee War

1783 – American Revolutionary War, Chickamauga Wars, Pennamite-Yankee War

1784 – Chickamauga Wars, Pennamite-Yankee War, Oconee War

1785 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1786 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1787 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1788 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1789 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1790 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1791 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1792 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1793 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1794 – Chickamauga Wars, Northwest Indian War

1795 – Northwest Indian War

1796 – No major war

1797 – No major war

1798 – Quasi-War

1799 – Quasi-War

1800 – Quasi-War

1801 – First Barbary War

1802 – First Barbary War

1803 – First Barbary War

1804 – First Barbary War

1805 – First Barbary War

1806 – Sabine Expedition

1807 – No major war

1808 – No major war

1809 – No major war

1810 – U.S. occupies Spanish-held West Florida

1811 – Tecumseh’s War

1812 – War of 1812, Tecumseh’s War, Seminole Wars, U.S. occupies Spanish-held Amelia Island and other parts of East Florida

1813 – War of 1812, Tecumseh’s War, Peoria War, Creek War, U.S. expands its territory in West Florida

1814 – War of 1812, Creek War, U.S. expands its territory in Florida, Anti-piracy war

1815 – War of 1812, Second Barbary War, Anti-piracy war

1816 – First Seminole War, Anti-piracy war

1817 – First Seminole War, Anti-piracy war

1818 – First Seminole War, Anti-piracy war

1819 – Yellowstone Expedition, Anti-piracy war

1820 – Yellowstone Expedition, Anti-piracy war

1821 – Anti-piracy war (see note above)

1822 – Anti-piracy war (see note above)

1823 – Anti-piracy war, Arikara War

1824 – Anti-piracy war

1825 – Yellowstone Expedition, Anti-piracy war

1826 – No major war

1827 – Winnebago War

1828 – No major war

1829 – No major war

1830 – No major war 

1831 – Sac and Fox Indian War

1832 – Black Hawk War

1833 – Cherokee Indian War

1834 – Cherokee Indian War, Pawnee Indian Territory Campaign

1835 – Cherokee Indian War, Seminole Wars, Second Creek War

1836 – Cherokee Indian War, Seminole Wars, Second Creek War, Missouri-Iowa Border War

1837 – Cherokee Indian War, Seminole Wars, Second Creek War, Osage Indian War, Buckshot War

1838 – Cherokee Indian War, Seminole Wars, Buckshot War, Heatherly Indian War

1839 – Cherokee Indian War, Seminole Wars

1840 – Seminole Wars, U.S. naval forces invade Fiji Islands

1841 – Seminole Wars, U.S. naval forces invade McKean Island, Gilbert Islands, and Samoa

1842 – Seminole Wars

1843 – U.S. forces clash with Chinese, U.S. troops invade African coast

1844 – Texas-Indian Wars

1845 – Texas-Indian Wars

1846 – Mexican-American War, Texas-Indian Wars

1847 – Mexican-American War, Texas-Indian Wars

1848 – Mexican-American War, Texas-Indian Wars, Cayuse War

1849 – Texas-Indian Wars, Cayuse War, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians

1850 – Texas-Indian Wars, Cayuse War, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Yuma War, California Indian Wars, Pitt River Expedition

1851 – Texas-Indian Wars, Cayuse War, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, Yuma War, Utah Indian Wars, California Indian Wars

1852 – Texas-Indian Wars, Cayuse War, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Yuma War, Utah Indian Wars, California Indian Wars

1853 – Texas-Indian Wars, Cayuse War, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Yuma War, Utah Indian Wars, Walker War, California Indian Wars

1854 – Texas-Indian Wars, Cayuse War, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians

1855 – Seminole Wars, Texas-Indian Wars, Cayuse War, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Yakima War, Winnas Expedition, Klickitat War, Puget Sound War, Rogue River Wars, U.S. forces invade Fiji Islands and Uruguay

1856 – Seminole Wars, Texas-Indian Wars, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, California Indian Wars, Puget Sound War, Rogue River Wars, Tintic War

1857 – Seminole Wars, Texas-Indian Wars, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, California Indian Wars, Utah War, Conflict in Nicaragua

1858 – Seminole Wars, Texas-Indian Wars, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Mohave War, California Indian Wars, Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-Paloos War, Utah War, U.S. forces invade Fiji Islands and Uruguay

1859 Texas-Indian Wars, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, California Indian Wars, Pecos Expedition, Antelope Hills Expedition, Bear River Expedition, John Brown’s raid, U.S. forces launch attack against Paraguay, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1860 – Texas-Indian Wars, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Paiute War, Kiowa-Comanche War

1861 – American Civil War, Texas-Indian Wars, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Cheyenne Campaign

1862 – American Civil War, Texas-Indian Wars, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Cheyenne Campaign, Dakota War of 1862,

1863 – American Civil War, Texas-Indian Wars, Southwest Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Cheyenne Campaign, Colorado War, Goshute War

1864 – American Civil War, Texas-Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Cheyenne Campaign, Colorado War, Snake War

1865 – American Civil War, Texas-Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Colorado War, Snake War, Utah’s Black Hawk War

1866 – Texas-Indian Wars, Navajo Wars, Apache Wars, California Indian Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians, Snake War, Utah’s Black Hawk War, Red Cloud’s War, Franklin County War, U.S. invades Mexico, Conflict with China

1867 – Texas-Indian Wars, Long Walk of the Navajo, Apache Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians, Snake War, Utah’s Black Hawk War, Red Cloud’s War, Comanche Wars, Franklin County War, U.S. troops occupy Nicaragua and attack Taiwan

1868 – Texas-Indian Wars, Long Walk of the Navajo, Apache Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians, Snake War, Utah’s Black Hawk War, Red Cloud’s War, Comanche Wars, Battle of Washita River, Franklin County War

1869 – Texas-Indian Wars, Apache Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians, Utah’s Black Hawk War, Comanche Wars, Franklin County War

1870 – Texas-Indian Wars, Apache Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians, Utah’s Black Hawk War, Comanche Wars, Franklin County War

1871 – Texas-Indian Wars, Apache Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians, Utah’s Black Hawk War, Comanche Wars, Franklin County War, Kingsley Cave Massacre, U.S. forces invade Korea

1872 – Texas-Indian Wars, Apache Wars, Utah’s Black Hawk War, Comanche Wars, Modoc War, Franklin County War

1873 – Texas-Indian Wars, Comanche Wars, Modoc War, Apache Wars, Cypress Hills Massacre, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1874 – Texas-Indian Wars, Comanche Wars, Red River War, Mason County War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1875 – Conflict in Mexico, Texas-Indian Wars, Comanche Wars, Eastern Nevada, Mason County War, Colfax County War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1876 – Texas-Indian Wars, Black Hills War, Mason County War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1877 – Texas-Indian Wars, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians, Black Hills War, Nez Perce War, Mason County War, Lincoln County War, San Elizario Salt War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1878 – Paiute Indian conflict, Bannock War, Cheyenne War, Lincoln County War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1879 – Cheyenne War, Sheepeater Indian War, White River War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1880 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1881 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1882 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1883 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1884 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1885 – Apache Wars, Eastern Nevada Expedition, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1886 – Apache Wars, Pleasant Valley War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1887 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1888 – U.S. show of force against Haiti, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1889 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1890 – Sioux Indian War, Skirmish between 1st Cavalry and Indians, Ghost Dance War, Wounded Knee, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1891 – Sioux Indian War, Ghost Dance War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1892 – Johnson County War, U.S. forces invade Mexico

1893 – U.S. forces invade Mexico and Hawaii

1894 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1895 – U.S. forces invade Mexico, Bannock Indian Disturbances

1896 – U.S. forces invade Mexico

1897 – No major war

1898 – Spanish-American War, Battle of Leech Lake, Chippewa Indian Disturbances

1899 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1900 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1901 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1902 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1903 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1904 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1905 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1906 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1907 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1908 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1909 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1910 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1911 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1912 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars

1913 – Philippine-American War, Banana Wars, New Mexico Navajo War

1914 – Banana Wars, U.S. invades Mexico

1915 – Banana Wars, U.S. invades Mexico, Colorado Paiute War

1916 – Banana Wars, U.S. invades Mexico

1917 – Banana Wars, World War I, U.S. invades Mexico

1918 – Banana Wars, World War I, U.S invades Mexico

1919 – Banana Wars, U.S. invades Mexico

1920 – Banana Wars

1921 – Banana Wars

1922 – Banana Wars

1923 – Banana Wars, Posey War

1924 – Banana Wars

1925 – Banana Wars

1926 – Banana Wars

1927 – Banana Wars

1928 – Banana Wars

1930 – Banana Wars

1931 – Banana Wars

1932 – Banana Wars

1933 – Banana Wars

1934 – Banana Wars

1935 – No major war

1936 – No major war

1937 – No major war

1938 – No major war

1939 – No major war

1940 – No major war

1941 – World War II

1942 – World War II

1943 – Wold War II

1944 – World War II

1945 – World War II

1946 – Cold War (U.S. occupies the Philippines and South Korea)

1947 – Cold War (U.S. occupies South Korea, U.S. forces land in Greece to fight Communists)

1948 – Cold War (U.S. forces aid Chinese Nationalist Party against Communists)

1949 – Cold War (U.S. forces aid Chinese Nationalist Party against Communists)

1950 – Korean War, Jayuga Uprising

1951 – Korean War

1952 – Korean War

1953 – Korean War

1954 – Covert War in Guatemala

1955 – Vietnam War

1956 – Vietnam War

1957 – Vietnam War

1958 – Vietnam War

1959 – Vietnam War, Conflict in Haiti

1960 – Vietam War

1961 – Vietnam War

1962 – Vietnam War, Cold War (Cuban Missile Crisis; U.S. marines fight Communists in Thailand)

1963 – Vietnam War

1964 – Vietnam War

1965 – Vietnam War, U.S. occupation of Dominican Republic

1966 – Vietnam War, U.S. occupation of Dominican Republic

1967 – Vietnam War

1968 – Vietnam War

1969 – Vietnam War

1970 – Vietnam War

1971 – Vietnam War

1972 – Vietnam War

1973 – Vietnam War, U.S. aids Israel in Yom Kippur War

1974 – Vietnam War

1975 – Vietnam War

1976 – No major war

1977 – No major war

1978 – No major war

1979 – Cold War (CIA proxy war in Afghanistan)

1980 – Cold War (CIA proxy war in Afghanistan)

1981 – Cold War (CIA proxy war in Afghanistan and Nicaragua), First Gulf of Sidra Incident

1982 – Cold War (CIA proxy war in Afghanistan and Nicaragua), Conflict in Lebanon

1983 – Cold War (Invasion of Grenada, CIA proxy war in Afghanistan and Nicaragua), Conflict in Lebanon

1984 – Cold War (CIA proxy war in Afghanistan and Nicaragua), Conflict in Persian Gulf

1985 – Cold War (CIA proxy war in Afghanistan and Nicaragua)

1986 – Cold War (CIA proxy war in Afghanistan and Nicaragua)

1987 – Conflict in Persian Gulf

1988 – Conflict in Persian Gulf, U.S. occupation of Panama

1989 – Second Gulf of Sidra Incident, U.S. occupation of Panama, Conflict in Philippines

1990 – First Gulf War, U.S. occupation of Panama

1991 – First Gulf War

1992 – Conflict in Iraq

1993 – Conflict in Iraq

1994 – Conflict in Iraq, U.S. invades Haiti

1995 – Conflict in Iraq, U.S. invades Haiti, NATO bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina

1996 – Conflict in Iraq

1997 – No major war

1998 – Bombing of Iraq, Missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan

1999 – Kosovo War

2000 – No major war

2001 – War on Terror in Afghanistan

2002 – War on Terror in Afghanistan and Yemen

2003 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, and Iraq

2004 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen

2005 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen

2006 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen

2007 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen

2008 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen

2009 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen

2010 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen

2011 – War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen; Conflict in Libya (Libyan Civil War)

President Barack Obama repeated the now infamous words of George W. Bush, declaring: “We are at war…”  Yes, and we have been, ever since 1776.

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.  

Update I:

It goes without saying that I am not arguing that all of America’s wars listed above were wars of aggression and therefore unjustified–but arguably the vast majority of them were.

Update II:

To put this into greater perspective, Iran has not invaded a country since 1795, which was 216 years ago. (h/t LW’s Ilisha)


[1] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, p.297

[2] Steuter, Erin. At War with Metaphor, p.43

[3] Chomsky, Noam. Deterring Democracy, p.34

[4] Mraz, John. Looking for Mexico, p.60

[5] Ching, Erik. Reframing Latin America, p.228

[6] Ibid.

What I Bet You Didn’t Know About the Christian Just War Tradition (III): Saint Ambrose’s Holy War Against Infidels

Posted in Feature, Loon Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2011 by loonwatch

Note: This article is page III of a series on the Christian just war tradition.  If you haven’t already, might I suggest that you first read page I (the introduction) and page II (about the early Church).  

Saint Ambrose (Fourth Century)

The relationship between Christianity and imperialism traces itself all the way back to the early Church fathers who enlisted themselves as “prayer warriors” for the Roman armies (read page II: Was the Early Church Really Pacifist?).  However, even though they prayed for the success and preservation of the Pax Romana, the early Christians felt uncomfortable serving as soldiers in a largely pagan military.

This changed with the conversion to Christianity of Rome’s emperor, Constantine the Great (272-337 AD).  Wim Smit writes on p.108 of Just War and Terrorism:

With the reign of Constantine (306-337) and the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion, the attitude of most Christians towards military service changed. The question no longer was: can service to God be reconciled with service to the emperor, but what kind of conditions and rules should be satisfied during battle? This revolution in Christian thought started with Ambrose…and was later systematised by his pupil Augustine (354), who can be seen as the founder of the just war tradition.

Saint Ambrose (340-397 AD) served as a Roman imperial officer and sought to justify the Empire’s wars.  Prof. Christopher Tyerman writes on p.33 of God’s War:

The conversion of Constantine and the final recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire in 381 prompted the emergence of a set of limited principles of Christian just war which, by virtue of being fought by the Faithful, could be regarded as holy. The identification of the Roman empire with the church of God allowed Christians to see in the secular state their protector, the pax Romana being synonymous with Christian Peace. For the state, to its temporal hostes were added enemies of the Faith, pagan barbarians and, more immediately dangerous, religious heretics within the empire. Eusebius of Caesarea, historian of Constantine’s conversion, in the early fourth century reconciled traditional Christian pacifism with the new duties of the Christian citizen by pointing to the distinction between the clergy, immune from military service, and the laity, now fully encouraged to wage the just wars for the Christian empire. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), as befitted a former imperial official, consolidated this symbiosis of the Graeco-Roman and Christian: Rome and Christianity were indissolubly united, their fates inextricably linked. Thus the war of one was that of the other, all Rome’s wars were just in the same way that those of the Old Testament Israelites have been; even heresy could be depicted as treason. Ambrose’s version of the Christian empire and the wars to protect it which constituted perhaps the earliest formulation of Christian warfare was, therefore, based on the union of church and state; hatred of foreigners in the shape of barbarians and other external foes; and a sharp intolerance towards dissent and internal debate, religious and political.

The term “barbarian” comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning “anyone who is not Greek.”  The Romans expanded the word to refer to anyone outside of the Greco-Roman world.  It was thought that the “civilized world” referred to the Roman Empire, which was surrounded by “barbarians.”  Prof. Glen Warren Bowersock writes on p.334 of Late Antiquity:

The term barbarian[ was] derived from Greek ideals of cultural “otherness”…The image of barbaricum began at the frontiers…There was the idea of a wall around the empire, separating Rome from the other gentes [nations]…Every “good” emperor set up inscriptions of himself as domitor gentium barbararum [conqueror of the barbarian nations]…Barbarians were contemptible, unworthy enemies…Many stereotypes were simply ethnocentric [racist]…Barbarians were natural slaves, animals, faithless, dishonest, treasonable, arrogant, drunken sots…

Christians were not detached from the construction of these images…Some, like Ambrose, projected barbarians as drunks and faithless savages…

The pax Romana had to be “defended” against these “barbarians,” something which was done by conquering their lands.  This imperial mentality was, from the very start, accepted by Christianity.  The early Church fathers, for example, believed that “God ordained the imperial powers” to “advanc[e] the gospel;” they appreciated “the value of a Pax Romana maintained by force.”  The “barbarians” surrounding the Roman Empire threatened not just the state, but also the Church; their paganism and heresy was a threat against true belief.  Therefore, war against them had to be justified.  Who better to justify this than the former imperial officer Ambrose of Milan?  Prof. Frederick H. Russell writes on p.13 of The Just War in the Middle Ages:

The fuller development of a Christian just war theory was futhered in the writings of Ambrose, a new kind of Christian. Trained in imperial administration and the former prefect in Milan, Ambrose brought a Roman political orientation to his ministry…The courage of soldiers who defended the Empire against barbarians…was full of justice, and Ambrose prayed for the success of imperial armies.

Prof. Russell writes further:

To the Roman animosity toward the barbarian was added the element of religious animosity between believer and unbeliever, thus rendering the internal and external threats to the Pax Romana more politically explosive. To point the way out of this crisis Ambrose about 378 the De Fide Christiana for the Emperor Gratian, who was at the time attempting to consolidate Roman authority on the Danube after the defeat of the Arian Valens by the Visigoths. Ambrose assured Gratian of victory, for it had been foretold in the prophecies of Ezekiel and confirmed by Gratian’s faith. Ambrose even identified Gog, the wicked enemy of Ezekiel’s prophecies, with the contemporary Goths, who were thereby destined to destruction.

The just war theory was thus generated as a way “to point the way out of this crisis,” the crisis being the need “to consolidate Roman authority.”  More specifically, civil wars and rebellions within the Empire were to be forbidden, whereas Rome’s foreign wars to be justified.  Indeed, the emerging doctrine was to be applied to fellow Christians in order to prevent themselves from fighting each other when they could be fighting the infidel instead.  Prof. Alex J. Bellamy writes on p.24 of Just Wars:

Ambrose was the first thinker systematically to blend Christian teachings with Roman law and philosophy (Johnson 1987:54). He followed Cicero in acknowledging the possibility of justifiable wars and recognizing the difference between abhorrent civil wars and wars fought against barbarians (Swift 1970:533-4). Wars against barbarians, Ambrose argued, were legitimate because they protected both the empire and the Christian orthodoxy.

Ambrose, the first thinker behind the just war theory, justified his belief in two ways: (1) He was inspired by the wars in the Old Testament, and (2) He argued that Jesus’s non-violent teachings in the New Testament applied only to individuals but not to states.  Prof. Bellamy writes:

Ambrose argued that there were two grounds for justifying war. First, he found evidence in the Old Testament to support the view that not only was violence sometimes justified in order to protect others from harm, it was sometimes required on moral grounds or even directly commanded by God (Swift 1970:535). Second, Ambrose agreed dthat Jesus’ teaching forbade an individual from killing another in self-defence…Nevertheless he argued that whilst an individual may not kill to save himself, he must act in the defense of others…

Ambrose argued that “wars could only be fought in self-defense (broadly understood, as in the Roman tradition), when directly commanded by God, or in defence of religious orthodoxy”(Ibid.).  He ”demanded that the state should not tolerate any religion other than Christianity” (p.112 of Ralph Blumenau’s Philosophy and Living).  Heretics and pagans should be fought, both within and outside the Empire.

Ambrose melded the Church to the state’s powerful military.  ”Ambrose proposed that the incorporation of nails from the Cross into the imperial helmet and bridle symbolised Christianity’s support for enduring secular military authority” (p.77-78 of Prof. Michael Witby’s Rome at War).  He ”used Christianity to uphold imperial power” (Ibid.), but also used the imperial power to uphold Christianity.  The Church provided the state with the religious justification for war.  The Church, in return, benefited from these wars by using the state to enforce the faith and punish “barbarians” (pagans and heretics). Prof. Mary L. Foster writes on p.156 of Peace and War:

Ambrose, former praetorian prefect and then bishop of Milan (339-397)[ was] the first to formulate a “Christian ethic of war.” He drew upon the Stoics, particularly Cicero (106-43 B.C.), and legitimized the view by referring to holy wars spoken of in the Old Testament from Abraham and Moses to Maccaebus. Ambrose further justified the view by arguing that Christianity was, and must be, protected against the barbarians by the armed force of the Roman Empire. Both Augustine and Ambrose saw the Christian Empire as empowered to resist paganism and heresy.

For Ambrose, wars fought against pagans and heretics were, by definition, just: “if a Christian general fought a pagan army, he had a just cause” (Prof. Joseph F. Kelly on p.164 of The World of the Early Christians).  In fact, the machinery of the state should be used to conquer the world under the banner of Christianity.  Prof. Reinhard Bendix writes on p.244 of Embattled Reason:

Ambrose justified war against those who do not belong to the community of the faithful [pagans and heretics]…Warlike actions are justified [against the non-believer]…The goal of Ambrose was to establish a universal faith. All people should be brothers in the common, Christian faith, even if wars against non-believers were needed to accomplish this ideal…

Discrimination against pagans was justified in the eyes of Christian Fathers like Ambrose by the absolute belief in Christ as the only road to salvation. Accordingly, it is man’s religious duty to proclaim, and fight for, this truth in the whole world. Ambrose wrote his commentary decades after Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman world, recognized and supported publicly. With this support, Ambrose could presuppose a universal ethic based on a shared belief in [the Christian] God and on that basis fight in the name of the church against the heathens who were still the great majority [outside of the Roman Empire].

Ambrose declared an all-out war against paganism, and recruited the Roman emperors to do so.  ”No one was more determined to destroy paganism than Ambrose,” who was “a major influence upon both [Emperors] Gratian and Valentinian II” (Ted Byfield on p.92 of Darkness Descends).  In a letter addressed to the Roman emperor, Ambrose wrote:

Just as all men who live under Roman rule serve in the armies under you, the emperors and princes fo the world, so too do you serve as soldiers of almighty God and of our holy faith. For there is no sureness of salvation unless everyone worships in truth the true God, that is, the God of the Christians, under whose sway are all things. For he alone is the true God, who is to be worshiped from the bottom of the heart, ‘for the gods of the heathen,’ as Scripture says, ‘are devils.’ (Ibid., p.93)

Here, we see a reciprocal relationship emerging between the Church and Roman state.  The Church legitimated Roman wars to expand the Empire and protect its hegemony, so long as the state enforced the Christian religion by fighting against heretics and pagans.

Jews, for example, were infidels worthy of death.  James Carroll writes on p.104 of Jerusalem, Jerusalem that Ambrose “wanted to kill Jews (since, after all, Christian heretics were being killed for denying details of orthodoxy, while Jews rejected the whole of it).”

Prof. Madeleine P. Cosman writes on pp.262-263 of the Handbook to Life in the Medieval World (Vol.3):

The church’s attitude toward war would indelibly be changed by Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the so-called Edict of Milan (313), which recognized Christianity as a religion that could be practiced openly; church and state could now be conjoined in the same cause. A momentous meeting in the year 397 of Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (d. 397), and the emperor Gratian resulted in the declaration of Christianity as the official state religion and the concomitant outlawing of other “pagan superstitions.” Church leaders began to encourage rulers to wage a holy war on pagans for the sake of God and the church to defend the empire from heretical “traitors.”

There is much discussion, even in some scholarly circles, about “just war” vs. “holy war.”  I have read countless books where Western authors write of how it “was only during the Crusades that the Christians developed the concept of ‘holy war’ like the Islamic concept of jihad.”  These are all bogus discussions.  Quite clearly, the Christian just war tradition was the legitimization of “a holy war on pagans” from its very inception.  This is the case starting with the originator of the doctrine itself, Saint Ambrose, who harnessed imperial power to promote the Christian faith, a partnership that would outlast the Roman Empire itself.

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None of this is meant to characterize Christianity as inherently violent.  Rather, it is meant to disabuse people of the notion that Christianity’s just war tradition has been any less troublesome than Islam’s jihad tradition.  This article is part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series, which answers the question (answered incorrectly by most Americans): Is Islam More Likely Than Other Religions to Encourage Violence?