Over the past few weeks I have immersed myself in the study of Islam in order to understand whether it is a “religion of peace” as many people claim or not. During this personal journey I learned much that I hadn’t picked up over the years living and traveling in Muslim countries or had not been taught in my comparative religions classes in high school.
For example, I hadn’t known that the Koran was a perfect copy of a book that Allah possessed, the umm al-kitab. No other book has such a pedigree, thereby giving the Koran special status similar to the host in a Catholic mass after it has been transformed into the body of Christ. Even the most fundamentalist Christians who take a literal interpretation of the Bible do not hold the Bible itself in such high regard. This fact goes a long way to explaining the sensitivity Muslims show towards the Koran; any attack on it is a direct attack on Allah rather than on a religious symbol. The Koran isn’t a symbol at all; it is Allah. The Bible and other holy works such as the Vedas and Upanishads are more similar to Islam’s hadith, inspired by God but written by Man.
And that’s part of the problem Westerners face today. Islam is a unique religion and throwing it into a mental bin alongside the other “Great Religions of the World” does a disservice to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Such actions equating Islam to Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism highlight the ignorance of those who make such generalizations more than they illuminate the unique characters of these religions.
I had viewed Muhammad as a prophet along the lines of the Biblical prophets including Jesus Christ, and later prophets such as Joseph Smith. However after studying his life in depth I see him as less of a figure talking to God in the desert and more like Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan, a great conqueror wielding the power of the sword just as deftly as the power of God. But even those roles don’t adequately fit Islam’s prophet. The truth is that Muhammad is unique: he is in fact both a holy man and a general. There is simply no one like him in history to compare to.
The New Testament of the Bible encourages Christians to imitate Christ. Paul writes, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27), “Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:5), and in Ephesians 5:1 Paul exhorts Christians to be “imitators of Christ as dearly beloved children.”
Similarly in Islam Muhammad is held up as al-insan al-kamil – the Perfect Man – and is viewed as the standard by which all should judge themselves. The Koran states flatly that Muhammad is “an excellent example of conduct,” (33:21).
But that is where the similarities end. Nowhere in the New Testament does Christ kill anyone. In fact when one of his apostles moves drew his sword in defense of him, Jesus rebuked him. “And suddenly, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, struck the servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear. But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” (Matthew 26:51-56).
Muhammad participated in 27 battles, and significant passages of the Koran are dedicated to the warfare and the division of the spoils of war. In addition Muhammad personally killed or ordered the killings of at least 700 people as shown in the table below.
|?tens?||Nakhla Raid||Muhammad justifies the killing of women and children (Al-Mushrikun) (1)|
|2||unclear||Muhammad orders an adulterous couple stoned to death. (2)|
|70||Battle of Badr||Muhammad personally leads his warriors into battle against superior forces. (3)|
|1||Battle of Badr||Uqba bin Abi Mu'ait begs for his life. "Who will look after my children, O Muhammad?" "Hell" Muhammad replies and orders Uqba killed.|
|1||Battle of Badr||Abu Jahl beheaded.|
|1||unclear||Jewish poet Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf assassinated on Mohammed's orders for writing verses insulting Muslim women.|
|1||unclear||Jewish merchant Ibn Sunayna killed after Mohammed orders his followers to "Kill any Jew that falls into your power." Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirate Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume trans, 369|
|1||unclear||Sufyan ibn Khalid al-Hudhali killed on Mohammed's orders.|
|1||Uhud Mountain||Muhammad kills Quraysh warrior Ubayy bin Khalaf who had once taunted him.|
|600+||Banu Qurayzah tribe||Muhammad participates in the killing of captives in the marketplace of Medina.|
|?100s?||Banu Mustaliq tribe||Men killed, women, children enslaved.|
|93||Khaybar Raid||Muhammad breaks treaty with Jewish tribe.|
|1||Khaybar Raid||Kinana bin al-Rabi tortured to reveal location of treasure, beheaded by Mohammed.|
|1||unclear||Zaynab bint al-Harith attempts to poison Mohammed (some traditions say she was spared).|
|?100s?||Mecca||Muhammad orders those who resist, and those on a list to be killed.|
|3||unclear||Murder of the Poets. Muhammad orders murders of Abu 'Afak, Asma bint Marwan - the latter of whom was pregnant.|
|700 - 2,000||Total|
Note that these are not people killed in Muhammad ’s name but who were ordered killed by the prophet himself. Karen Armstrong writing in defense of Muhammad states “it is not correct to judge (these incidents) by twentieth-century standards,” and that “in the early seventh century, an Arab chief would not be expected to show any mercy towards traitors such as the Qurayzah,” (Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet). That just points out how even more extraordinary the lives were of Jesus, living 600 years before, and Guatama Buddha, living 400 years before that.
Besides Muhammad ’s actions of the seventh century were unusual in how successful he became. He founded a religion and spread it from a small desert kingdom to encompass a huge portion of the Middle East in just twenty years. His successors then took it and spread it around the world, and today a billion people practice the faith he founded 1,400 years ago. Not too shabby for a former merchant from Mecca.
Islam is many things, but it is not a religion of peace. It’s important for non-believers to see the religion for what it is, and understand how important its founder is to those who practice it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. Muhammad isn’t Jesus Christ. He is not another Buddha, and the men operating in his name aren’t apostates. They are following his example just as they claim to be.
1. Muhammed Ibn Ismaiel Al-Bukhari, Shih al-Bukhari: The Translation of the Meanings, Muhammed M. Khan trans, Dar Es Salaam, 1997, vol 4, book 56, no. 3012. Note that other traditions in (nos. 3014 and 3015) have Muhammad forbidding the massacre of women and children.
Here is how no. 3012 reads:
The prophet passed by me at a place called Al-Abwa’ or Waddan, and was asked whether it was permissible to attack Al-Mushrikun (unbelieving) warriors at night with the probability of exposing their women and children to danger. The Prophet replied, “They (i.e. women and children) are from them (i.e. Al-Mushrikun).”
2. Bukhari, vol. 4, book 61, no. 3635
3. Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume, trans, Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 301