Muhammad and Jihad

This is part 5 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first four parts of the series at the end of this post.

As noted last time, Muhammad’s teachings challenged the very nature of Quraysh rule in Mecca. It wasn’t because he was a monotheist – the Quraysh had tolerated many of those. Rather, he was challenging the distribution of wealth, the treatment of the poor, and doing it from inside the Banu Hasim, a powerful Quraysh clan. So powerful was the clan that until Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib died, Muhammad was protected. After his death, and that of Muhammad’s wife Khadija, the Quraysh decided to simply eliminate the Prophet.

Muhammad was smart enough to realize that if he stayed in Mecca he’d die; if his followers left en masse they’d be noticed and likely slaughtered. So instead they slowly left town, Muhammad missing death by one day, heading for the city of Yathrib, where Muhammad was to act as an Hakim to settle a dispute. It’s unclear how Muhammad rose to prominance in Yathrib, a city known for producing dates, with a large number of Jewish clans. Islamic tradition makes it appear that upon his arrival Muhammad was greeted as leader; that seems unlikely. However, over time he and his community became dominant.

Rather than go through the details of the battles between the Quraysh and the Ummah, or community of believers, I want to focus on Muhammad’s notion of Jihad, developed during this time. In my opinion many non-Muslims and some Muslims have lost sight of Muhammad’s intent. First, he made a distinction between higher and lower jihad. The higher jihad is the most important; it is the ‘fight of faith’ to stay pure and moral in a world filled with temptation. It is ones’ personal battle against ones’ own desires. The lower jihad meant to defend Islam from those who would do it harm. It was based on the need to defend the early Ummah from the Quraysh.

Thus part of the Koran is concerned with those battles. In one infamous passage Muhammad says to his followers “kill the polytheists, kill them while they sleep…” This is in preparation for the battle against the powerful Meccans, but has been interpreted by many in the West and even some Muslims as a command to kill polytheists anywhere. Christians are polytheists from the Muslim perspective, since they believe the trinity represents three Gods. Of course, Muhammad did not mean that. There is no way one can have such an interpretation alongside the special privileges given to the ‘people of the book’ (Jews and Christians), the demand that there be no compulsion in religion, and more importantly, the Quran’s command that one not fight against a foe who does not want to fight.

In another famous incident, the Ummah butchered the Banu Qurayza, a Jews tribe living in Yathrib (later renamed Medina – the city of the Prophet), killing the men and sending women and children into slavery, as per Arab custom. This is often put forth as a sign of Muhammad’s brutality and anti-Jewish bigotry. However, such an interpretation is completely ignorant of the historical context. Muhammad had been betrayed by other local tribal leaders, who bet that the Quraysh would defeat the Ummah, and thus be in a position to grant them favors. Muhammad had defied Arab custom and the law of retribution by refusing to kill the men and enslave the women and children. Instead, he allowed them to leave in peace. He did this a couple times, causing many of Muhammad’s followers to believe that this emboldened groups like the Qurayza to decide they had little to lose if they betrayed Muhammad — and a lot to gain from the Quraysh. So when they betrayed the Muslims at a crucial point in the conflict Muhammad’s people were incensed — not just at the betrayal but at how Muhammad’s apparent softness had made it seem like the worst that could happen if you failed is that you’d be sent into exile (perhaps to return once Muhammad was defeated).

Muhammad thus acquiesced, though he himself could not order the destruction of the Banu Qurayza. Instead, he left it in the hands of an Hakim, who ruled that traditional Arab custom should be followed. Looking at the story as a whole, Muhammad was clearly not anti-Jewish (some of the tribes he let go earlier were Jewish), and in fact the religion of the tribe had nothing to do with what happened — it was the betrayal to the Quraysh. These kinds of misunderstandings pepper the western comprehension of “jihad,” and give ammunition to Islamophobic propagandists who apparently want a conflict with Islam, even though they can’t quite explain how one might win such a ‘clash of civilizations.’

All that said, there remains a fundamental difference between the pacifistic other-wordliness of Jesus and Augustine, and Muhammad’s fight against the Quraysh. Jesus preached an essentially spiritual view of religion, more oriented toward faith than practice. Muhammad was a social reformer, and the Ummah would develop rituals of practice to solidify community bonds. Like Judaism, Islam is a praxis-oriented religion rather than faith-oriented. While Jesus and Augustine focused on saving ones’ soul, Muhammad focused on fighting injustice and improving society. Early Christianity was in the world but not of the world. Islam was in the world with the goal of transforming the world. Moreover, Christianity became powerful as Europe declined into the dark ages; Islam was a force by which the Arab and Persian worlds would form great empires. In politics, the leaders of both the Christian and Muslim worlds would often veer far from the ideals of their founders.

In future entries into this series we’ll delve more into what these differences mean. However the “lower jihad,” like “just war” was meant to limit acceptable acts of war and civilize Arab customs. Both want the innocents to be protected, both want warfare to be defensive, and both condemn trying to use war to spread their religion. Because Muhammad’s reforms were in the practical world of politics, and Islam defended itself through war while the early Christians suffered from the political powers, Islam more quickly moved to turn the religion into a rationalization of violence, something it would take the Christians hundreds of years to accomplish. But at base, the two faiths have more in common than not, and both are justifiably labeled religions of peace, even if political leaders have often used religion as a rationale for war.

Previous entries in the series:

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)

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