Monday, 20 August 2018 17:53

Muhammad's Raids and Expeditions

As my writings attest, I believe strongly in countering today’s rampant Islamophobia (and not just in the “West”). At the same time, I believe that interfaith dialog entails a mutual commitment to finding truth. This includes, at the right time and place, discussions about difficult and tense topics.

No topic is more fraught with fear and rancor than that of Islam and terrorism. I dealt with that last year, showing that the issue was vastly overblown and callously exploited for political purposes (see part 1 and Part 2). But part of the reason it raises such potent emotions is that it is tied to a centuries-old Christian and Jewish complaint, namely the early military expansion of the Prophet Muhammad’s rule in Medina.

This issue of the early Muslim conquests is a particularly vexed one. On the one hand, a good eighty percent of evangelicals (the Christian tribe with which I mostly identify) subscribe to the right-wing mantra that Islam is a religion of hatred and war. Franklin Graham may bear the most responsibility for that, since he declared shortly after 9/11 that “Islam is a very wicked and evil religion.” Sadly, his father, Billy Graham, who was likely the most influential evangelical in the twentieth century, would never have said or believed such a thing (read here religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s piece about how he believes Franklin is dismantling his father’s legacy).

On the other hand, I have to disagree with the standard Muslim apologetic which claims that the early Muslim conquests were a) defensive military operations; and b) all about spreading the blessings of the new faith these leaders had received. That said, I do agree with them that the oft repeated statement, “Islam was spread by the sword,” is also very misleading. But before explaining what I mean, let me first start with some remarks about biographies of the Prophet Muhammad.

 

Kecia Ali’s The Lives of Muhammad

Boston University’s Kecia Ali is best known for her work on Islamic feminism and the Islamic legal literature on women (see for instance Sexual Ethics and Islam, exp. & rev. ed., 2016). Yet in 2014 she had a book published on modern bibliographies of Muhammad (The Lives of the Prophet, Harvard U. Press). Her main thesis is that the Muslim and non-Muslim biographies, in spite of and perhaps because of their disagreements, have been mutually interdependent. My concern here is to look at the issue of war, but first, a quick summary of her main points.

Ali is building on another recent work that spans the last twelve centuries of biographical writing (Tarif Khalidi, Images of Muhammad, Doubleday, 2009). Keep in mind that Muhammad, “alternatively revered and reviled, has been the subject of hundreds if not thousands of biographies since his death in the seventh century” (Ali, 2). Khalidi sees three distinct stages:

1. From the late 8th through the early 10th centuries, we have the “Sira [biography] of primitive devotion,” which as we will see in the next section contains even “stories or anecdotes that may offend the sensibilities of Muslims” (19).

2. From the 10th to the mid 19th century Muslims composed various forms of literature, most of it devotional, which pruned the early material for theological consistency with an emphasis on “Muhammad’s superhuman qualities – his pre-eternity, miraculous powers, and sinlessness … [and] an object of love and devotion” (20).

3. The final stage began at the end of the nineteenth century: “the polemical Sira, written largely to defend Muhammad’s reputation against the attacks of the European Orientalists” (20). This is the stage on which Kecia Ali focuses her Lives of Muhammad.

 

Medieval Christian writings about Muhammad in one way or another magnified his perceived lust for power and women, and his excessive recourse to violence and war. In a paper I presented to a 2015 conference on Islamophobia at Temple University, you can read about the long history of anti-Muslim polemics in the United States since the seventeenth century.

What is interesting here is that according to Khalidi “two British Lives of the nineteenth century ‘haunt’ modern Muslim biographers” (46). The first is Thomas Carlyle’s 1840 lecture, “The Hero as Prophet.” With clear romantic overtones, Carlyle argues that Muhammad (he used the French “Mahomet”) is “a true prophet” when British imperialism was fast approaching its zenith. Following the German writer Goethe, he spoke of Muhammad’s natural genius and the sincerity of his thinking and actions, which demonstrated his perfect integration into the world of his time. Yet the lecture was less about Muhammad and more about good and true men in general. To Ralph Waldo Emerson he explained that his lecture proved that “man was still alive, Nature not dead or like to die; that all true men continue true to this hour” (49). Not surprisingly, Muslims have quoted from this lecture again and again, to this day.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, William Muir’s The Life of Mohamet from Original Sources was written as an aid to the Christian missionary enterprise, representing in Khalidi’s words, the “Missionary-Orientalist complex.” A British civil servant who rose through the colonial administration during his four decades in India, Muir was an evangelical who earnestly wanted to see Hindus and Muslims come to faith in Jesus. He was also a very capable Arabist and scholar, and so he embarked on this ambitious biography of the Muslim Prophet. Fifty years later (1905), his obituary proclaimed it as “the standard presentment, in English, of the Prophet of Islam.” As Khalidi sees it, Muir’s use of the original sources was imbued with “deadly accuracy” and that’s why his biography “was found so distasteful by Muslim readership” (51). Interestingly, Ali wants to tweak that statement: “though he was faithful to his sources, he presented information gleaned from them in unflattering ways.”

That is the crux of the matter. In the next and last section, I will try to show that the earliest sources as a whole constitute an “unflattering” portrayal of Muhammad’s raids and expeditions.

 

Ayman S. Ibrahim’s The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (622-641)

This is how I began my review of this book for a Southern Baptist journal (its full title includes: A Critical Revision of Muslims’ Traditional Portrayal of the Arab Raids and Conquests; Peter Lang, 2018). I still haven’t heard from the editor and this part might be cut out, but it’s certainly relevant here:

 

“I cannot claim total impartiality in reviewing this important book. When it was still in dissertation form, I was Ibrahim’s outside reader. I was impressed with his stellar historical skills, encouraged him to keep working on it for publication, and we have become good friends in the process. In fact, it was he who, countless times, helped me with Arabic passages I struggled with in a long translation project for Yale University Press.”

 

Ibrahim, born into an Egyptian evangelical family, is now Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Seminary (Louisville, KY) and Director of the Jenkins Center for the Understanding of Islam. Ayman would be the first to agree with me that our friendship has included some strong disagreements at times, particularly about specific pieces he has published in The Washington Post, Religion News Services, and elsewhere. It is fair to say that we have learned from each other. But I have no reservations about this book, as my second paragraph indicates:

 

“Even aside the significant research he is now doing for his second PhD (on conversion in early Islam) at the University of Haifa, Ayman Ibrahim is fast becoming a noted historian in early Islam. This book, The Stated Motivations, demonstrates his wide and strong grasp of the sources and critical issues relative to early Islamic history and historiography. Part of the great input of his mentor J. Dudley Woodberry in his PhD program was to put him in contact with three exceptional historians of Islam, Chase Robinson, Gabriel Said Reynolds and David Cook. No doubt they in turn generously invested in Ibrahim because they saw his obvious gifting and hard work.”

 

Rice University historian of Islam David Cook writes in his recommendation of this work: “No recent scholar comes close to matching his total command of Arabic sources, both past and present. The issues he raises concern not only distant history, but contemporary Arab interaction with that history. Ibrahim proves conclusively that – contrary to contemporary apologetic-historical analysis – the initial conquests were not religious in nature, nor were they for the sake of self-defense.” Needless to say, I believe this is a very significant contribution to Muslim-Christian conversations today. It is a delicate one, and perhaps too sensitive at the moment, but a very necessary one in the long run.

[I will post my review in Resources when it is actually published later in September and since I have no room here to review the book properly here, you can check back later if you are interested in more details (the book costs $100).]

Ibrahim deals with the current state of historical research on early Islam, and particularly on the issue of the reliability of the written texts, the earliest of which date to almost two hundred years after Muhammad’s death. Just from that standpoint his book is a great primer on mainly four types of literature Muslims produced that touch on some aspect of the early expansion of Islam: a) the abundant maghazi literature (military campaigns); b) the sira literature (most famous of which is Ibn Hisham’s, d. 838), though the two genres overlap a great deal; c) the futuh literature (conquests made by Muhammad’s successors); d) early Muslim histories (tarikh), which begin in the late ninth century, the most famous being the work of al-Tabari (d. 923). His sources beyond that cover the whole medieval period up to today.

In concluding his Chapter 3 on Muhammad’s maghazi, Ibrahim writes, “a careful study of our Arabic sources allows that political domination and economic gain were chief motivations for the early expeditions” (99). There are no indications that these campaigns were defensive or for spreading Islam through conversions. Indirectly, of course, strategic planning to defeat Mecca by force of arms, diplomacy, and gaining dominion over most of the Peninsula allows the Prophet to set up a rule in which Muslims are in control. But even that kind of motivation is not spelled out in the texts. We also know that by the end of the Umayyad period (the dynasty ruling in Damascus, so in the 740s) only about ten percent of that vast population from Spain through North Africa, and all the way to the Indus River on the edge of India were actually Muslims. So no, in that sense Islam was not “spread by the sword.” Part of the reason was the initial prejudice against non-Arabs. Another part was that converts no longer paid the poll tax, thus creating a loss of revenue. Then too, Islam as a "religion" was not yet developed in the first generations after Muhammad. The full ethical implications of the new faith had not yet been drawn out.

I’ll take just one example – the Battle of Badr (624), the first great Muslim victory over Mecca. There is no indication in the sources that the Meccans had attacked the Muslims first or that the Muslims had intended to preach their message in order to convert them. Rather, in a speech to his soldiers Muhammad “spoke of the abundance of possessions and properties, which awaited the Muslims upon victory” (74), and that many of the elite leadership were present in that caravan. Ibrahim makes five other points from his reading of the sources:

1. The Meccans, though vastly outnumbering the Medinans, tried very hard to avoid a confrontation, likely because they wanted “to secure their trade and social status.” The Meccan leader Abu Sufyan changed his route to avoid the Muslims and sent for reinforcement. Meanwhile, one of their wealthy notables, Ataba ibn Rabi’a was negotiating with his colleagues for a Meccan peace treaty with Muhammad, which would include also some financial compensation. The news of the Meccans’ unwillingness to fight reached Muhammad and the Believers, but it only added to their determination to attack and defeat the Meccans. As it turned out, Ataba was killed even before the battle started.

2. The later Muslim historians used “supernatural elements and deliberate exaggerations to add a spiritual nature to its course of events.” The aim was to show that this victory was due to God’s supernatural intervention. Though details vary widely among writers, Ibn Hisham describes for example “heavenly angels riding in the midst of sky clouds, wearing colorful ama’im (turbans) and beheading the non-Muslim Meccans” (76).

4. The vast discrepancies in the retelling of the battle might indicate that the writers were more interested on communicating their own particular slant on the events than in “documenting what actually happened.” For example, some texts report that Muhammad was leading the battle in front; others that he was protected by an elite guard; others that he was fighting for himself in the middle. One report even says that he was afraid the Medinan “helpers” (ansar) were going to abandon him.

5. The sources seem to point to revenge as the main Muslim motivation. They had been driven out of Mecca and their properties confiscated. Now they were going to get even with them. One report states that the blood of the Meccans reached the armpit of Ali. Others point to a strategy of killing the most influential leaders. Even the Prophet “instructed the killing of two major leaders of the Quraysh after they had surrendered and being held as prisoners of war” (78, emphasis his). Also, some Meccans were spared because of their clan affiliations. It’s hard not to conclude that this was mostly a tribal war.

6. Finally, the disputes over the spoils after the battle were ferocious, so much so that Muhammad had all the spoils brought to him and he distributed them once they had returned to Medina.

 

There is so much left unsaid here, but allow me to end with some remarks I made at the end of my last chapter in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. I had referenced Indian Muslim journalist M. J. Akbar’s 2002 book, In the Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity (Routledge). In this book Akbar argues that Muslims are called to defend the faith, by the sword if necessary. He makes a direct connection between this early expansion of Islam, the promise to the martyrs in battle that they will be rewarded in the next life, and the current spate of jihadi fervor in Muslim lands.

Akbar’s book was not a scholarly work, though as a journalist he did some serious research. My point in mentioning his book was to shine a light on this early military expansion of Islam. I’m an outsider, I reminded the reader, and as such I could only venture two suggestions to my Muslim friends. First, take seriously the modern and postmodern hermeneutical turn when reading the Qur’an. Somehow those passages calling to fight had not only a particular historical context (which most Muslim scholars today recognize) but also perhaps stand in need of reinterpretation in an interdependent, globalized world. Then I wrote the following:

 

“Second, in the spirit of Islamic theology, I am pleading with my Muslim brothers and sisters to reconsider the ethical implications of the early Muslim conquests. Just as I have forthrightly condemned the Crusades and Western colonialism as contrary to the spirit and letter of the gospel, I would urge some soul-searching on the Muslim side” (517).

 

Enough said here. I hope the conversation will continue, God willing. And I know that that is His desire. In the meantime, we will continue to work together for greater peace and prosperity for all in our troubled world.