Leaving Islam




Muhammad was born around AD 570 in the city of Mecca, a place of pagan pilgrimage focused on the temple of Kaaba (“cube”) that sheltered a revered black stone. The dominant pagan deity was the moon-god whose title was al-ilah—“the chief among gods”—shortened by frequency of usage to Allah. Mecca, close to the seaport of Jeddah and halfway between Yemen and Syria, was a large trading center and Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh, included many affluent and politically influential merchants. His own family was poor, however. Orphaned at an early age, he grew up on the social margins and lacked formal education. Muhammad’s later bitterness towards his native city and its social and spiritual structure reflected a resentful and marginalized young man’s sense of powerlessness and alienation.

At 25 Muhammad met a wealthy widow, Khadija, 15 years his senior, and entered her service as a camel driver, soon rising to become her partner and eventually husband. But his enduring detachment from Meccan society and from the Quraysh tribe prompted the development of his contemplative side. He would often wonder in the hills around Mecca, meditating in solitude. One day in AD 610, coming out of one of his hallucinatory trances, he confided to his wife that he was visited by a majestic being—whom he identified as angel Gabriel—with a call to prophecy: “You are the Messenger of God.” That “Night of Power” marked the beginning of his career as messenger of God—rasul Allah—or Prophet, nabi. Starting in 610, at increasingly frequent intervals until his death 12 years later, Muhammad received “revelations” or verbal messages that he claimed came directly from Allah. Around 650 AD they were collected and written in the Kuran, and eventually codified in the form that has endured until today.

Three years after the first supposed revelation Muhammad decided to go public. His initial teaching was simple, focused on the submission to one transcendent Allah, on the end of the world and the Day of Judgment, on the subsequent delights of paradise for the virtuous and torments of hell for the sinners. In the early days the revelations were delivered in the tone of warnings and appeals rather than threats. (Kuran, sura 46, verse 12; hereafter denoted only by numbers). But the Meccan leaders sneered at the audacity of this common man, with no natural claim to authority or prestige, whose attack on the divinity of old idols could deny the Quraysh their profits derived from the guardianship of the temple of the Kaaba. This was taken as a proof of the upstart’s disregard for the interests of his community and his obligations to the tribe. The initial humorous contempt for Muhammad’s claims eventually turned to indignation and enmity.

Muhammad felt offended by the scorn of his native city, and his wrath brought an early revelation that was harshly violent in tone. It was directed against his uncle Abu Lahab and aunt Umm Jamil: “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 fiber around her neck!” (111:1-5) For the first time Muhammad’s family problems were thus echoed by Allah, but certainly not the last.

Muhammad’s fortunes changed in June 622, when a group of 75 people from the fertile settlement of Yathrib, 200 miles north of Mecca, came to him professing acceptance of his faith and inviting him to come to them. In his subsequent escape from Mecca Muhammad was joined by a small group of seventy muhajirun who were all intensely loyal to him personally. This was the hijrah and Muhammad’s arrival in Yathrib on in September 24, 622, marked the beginning of the history of Islam. From that time Yathrib became the city of the prophet, Medinnet el Nebi, which has been shortened to Medina. Significantly, just prior to leaving for Medina, Muhammad received first revelations allowing him to fight the Meccans. (22:39-41)

Once physically secure in his new abode but always short of funds, Muhammad ordered armed raids against Meccan caravans passing near Medina on their way to Syria. An early raid, at Nakhla, took place in the sacred pagan month of Rajab, when no Arab was permitted to raise arms in battle. Not only Muhammad’s foes, but his followers, too, were likely to be scandalized by the wanton violation of sacred trust, so he promptly received a revelation from Allah that the raid enjoyed divine sanction. (2:214) From that moment on, the morality based on pre-Islamic concepts and scriptures, in custom and in natural human sensibility, was to be abrogated in favor of what was advantageous to Muhammad and his followers.

In 624, at Badr, his men killed over forty Meccans in a single razzia that fortified Muhammad’s power in Medina. Yet again, however, divine justification was required for ambushing and murdering one’s own kinsmen, which was repugnant to an Arab. Yet again it was duly granted. (3:123-125) Allah’s alleged messages grew more bellicose at this time: “I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers, Smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger tips of them.” (8:12) The “messenger” gloated in the spectacle of his slain enemies and ordered execution of several prisoners who had crossed his path back in Mecca. From the victory at Badr on, to quote Ayatollah Khomeini, “Islam grew with blood.”

At that time Muhammad made the prospect of booty and ransom legal to his followers. This powerful inducement to endemic warfare was so important that it merited a separate sura in the Kuran (the eighth). In the division of the spoils, every man was allowed to retain the plunder of those whom he had slain, with the rest thrown into a common stock. From the proceeds one fifth was Muhammad’s, as condoned by Allah. (8:41) Once the loot was divided it was time to relax: “Now enjoy what ye have won.” (8:69) The promise was reiterated in other verses: “Allah promiseth you much booty that ye will capture.” (48:20-21) Muslim warriors desire the lure of this world, so “enjoy what you have won as lawful and good.” (69:30-37) As for the fallen, a very tangible, X-rated paradise filled with virgins “unouched by man” (52:17-20, 55:56-77) and “fresh” pre-pubescent boys (52:24, 56:17, 76:19) awaits them immediately.

At Badr the simple preacher of yore finally morphed into a vengeful warlord, who jubilantly exclaimed that the spectacle of severed enemy heads pleased him better than “the choicest camel in Arabia.” Killing prisoners was divinely condoned by Allah (8:68) and urged by Muhammad. Fresh revelations described the unbelievers as “the worst animals” (8:55) and “the vilest of creatures” (98:6) undeserving of mercy. The prophet was the “enemy of infidels” (2:90) and his enemies’ heads were to be cut off. (47:4) Killing, enslaving and robbing them was divinely sanctioned and mandated.


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