The Prophet Muhammad and the Challenge in Promoting a Moderate Islam
Winston Churchill once said, “Individual Moslems [sic] may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.” Islam and how it is observed by Muslims is almost exclusively based on the Prophet Muhammad’s life. All Muslims are conditioned by him because in both the Quran and Islamic tradition, he is the example par excellence of behavior for everyone to follow. His words and deeds are agreed upon by all Muslims as identifying Islam, since he was faithful to Allah’s will as dictated in the Quran: And “[h]e who obeys the Messenger [Muhammad], obeys Allah.” (Sura 4, 80) Allah established in the life of the Prophet Muhammad general, eternal, and all-inclusive characteristics, and he gave every human being the possibility to imitate him and take his life as a model.
According to Muqtedar Khan of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, in the history of the human race, “no religious leader has as much influence on his followers as does Muhammad..… So much so that the words, deeds and silences (that which he saw and did not forbid) of Muhammad became an independent source of Islamic law. Muslims, as part of religious observance, not only obey, but also seek to emulate and imitate their Prophet in every aspect of life. Thus, Muhammad is the medium as well as a source of the divine law.”
Robert Spencer says: “If the jihadists are correct in invoking his example to justify their deeds, then Islamic reformers will need to initiate a respectful but searching re-evaluation of the place Muhammad occupies within Islam.” The problem is that the Quran hardly offers anything on Muhammad’s life itself. On the contrary: it does not show us the Prophet from the outside at all, but rather takes us inside his head, where Allah is speaking to him, telling him what to preach, how to react to people who poke fun at him, what to say to his supporters, and so on.” In other words, we perceive the original Muslim society through Muhammad’s eyes, and the elusive style of the Quran makes it difficult to put facts into perspective. And as far as the hadiths — the sayings and acts of Muhammad — are concerned, it would be superfluous even attempting to resolve their many disparities.
One can then argue that the fundamentalists and other Islamists may wrongly be justifying their positions. All this being said, there is confusion as to who speaks for Islam and how Islamic law (the sharia) is to be employed, especially in light of the Sunni-Shi’ite division. Nevertheless, the manner in which both physical and cultural jihadists invoke their legal tenets in order to justify their jihad leads one to confirm that their indiscriminate acts are sanctioned by the Islamic texts:
[Remember] when you asked help of your Lord, and He answered you, “Indeed, I will reinforce you with a thousand from the angels, following one another … I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip. That is because they opposed Allah and His Messenger. And whoever opposes Allah and His Messenger—indeed, Allah is severe in penalty.” — Sura 8, 9; 12–13
Imitating the Prophet could be as innocuous as wearing a full beard or entering a mosque with the right foot, as recorded by the hadiths. The dilemma is that the adherents of Islam cannot subjectively pick and choose, for once they declare that Muhammad is the messenger of God — as per the profession of faith contained in the shahada — they affirm that everything he did was good because it was in furtherance of Allah’s cause. While some of the deeds of the Prophet are considered criminal in the West, they are presented in Islamic biographical works as pious.
Incidents in the life of an Arab conqueror, in this case Muhammad, the tales of raiding, private assassinations and public executions, perpetual enlargements of the harem and so forth, might be historically explicable and therefore pardonable. It is another matter that they should be taken as a setting forth of the moral ideal for all time.
Muslim apologists have become defensive at the accusations from the West that Islam is to blame for terror acts carried out by Islamists as well as labeling Islam as an evil religion and Muhammad as a Prophet of violence and sexual promiscuity. However, they have not been able to fully explain otherwise, partly because there have not been any profound studies on Muhammad sufficient enough to exonerate him as a promoter of violence, misogyny, or even the pedophilia: “Aisha reported that Allah’s Apostle married her when she was seven years old, and she was taken to his house as a bride when she was nine, and her dolls were with her; and when he [the Holy Prophet] died she was eighteen years old.” — Sahih Muslim, Book 8, hadith 3311
Former UN Undersecretary for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel Hans Corell indicated that part of this dual problem is that a given few who exercise and exert power over the many tend not to look at their own record on human rights. “There is a tendency among some [Islamic] States to criticize others for not respecting international rules on human rights. Unfortunately, this criticism is often all too well founded but in order for a State to criticize others with legitimacy, that State must pay attention to its own observance of human rights.”
This opportune shift from moral absolutism to moral relativism is both fickle and troubling. If it is wrong to condemn practices we hold to be immoral in Arabia and in the rest of the Muslim world, then it is out of line for Muslims to judge the Christian disciplines or democratic principles of our culture. But if condemning immoral observances is acceptable for Islamic apologists, then they need a better response to criticisms of the Prophet’s killings, raids, and sexual practices, especially since he is the ideal pattern of conduct for Muslims and is considered to be morally infallible.
It is both duplicitous and oblique to promote human rights while holding that if marrying a girl at six or seven years of age and consummating marriage with her at nine — as Muhammad did with Aisha when he was in his 50s — was acceptable in seventh-century Arabia, it is perfectly fine in today’s society. This is precisely why this pedophile practice continues in certain Muslim countries today. And yet, most Western leaders and Christian officials refrain from criticizing such observances out of respect for Islamic culture, holding that it can coexist with ours. Culture, however, is supposed to create harmony and foster human development, not suppress them. Until there is a re-examining of the Islamic texts, putting them into exegetical and historical context, there can be no moderation of Islam nor can it coexist with Western culture. If, however, there is a reformation of the texts, and if the person Muhammad of is consequently restructured, it then can be a part of our civilisation, but it would no longer be Islam.
N.B. This article was originally published on August 23, 2019, on my blog
Quotations are can be found in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up, unless otherwise noted.