Jihad By Any Means Necessary?

The following is a part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series, which is a refutation of Robert Spencer’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades).  Specifically, I am herein refuting chapter one of his book, entitled “Muhammad: Prophet of War.”

An anti-Muslim canard that has gained considerable popularity in the post-9/11 world is the idea that Muslims can do anything, no matter how morally questionable, if it furthers the Islamic cause.  According to this idea, jihad can be waged “by any means necessary.”  Robert Spencer argues this in his book, writing:

Islam’s only overarching moral principle is “if it’s good for Islam, it’s right.” [1]

Spencer traces the birth of this Islamic “principle” to the life story of the Prophet Muhammad, specifically the raid at Nakhla.  To properly debunk this conspiracy theory, we must then transport ourselves back in time to this controversial event.

In the year 610 A.D., Muhammad declared his prophethood.  His people, the Quraysh of Mecca, violently rejected him.  The early Muslims suffered heavy-handed persecution, which they endured with patience for well over a decade.  Finally, the God of the Quran permitted them to take up arms in self-defense.  Muhammad and his followers, who had regrouped in the nearby city of Medina, engaged in guerre de course (commerce raiding) against the powerful Quraysh.

I have discussed Muhammad’s guerre de course in quite a lot of detail in a previous article.  This tactic was not only something considered acceptable in the Arabian context of the time, but also has a celebrated history in the American–as well as French and German–naval traditions.  Historically, it has been considered a valid military strategy and a means of waging economic warfare against a more powerful enemy.

The early military operations led by the Muslims were largely unsuccessful–that is, until the raid at Nakhla.  Muhammad had dispatched Abdullah bin Jahsh with secret instructions contained in a letter that were not to be opened until after traveling two days journey.  (This precaution was designed no doubt to thwart potential spies, who may have informed the Quraysh of Muslim “troop” movements, which could explain the earlier failed military expeditions.)

When Abdullah opened Muhammad’s letter, it read:

When you have read this letter of mine proceed until you reach Nakhla between Mecca and Al-Ta’if. Lie in wait there for [the] Quraysh and find out for us what they are doing. [2]

On the way to Nakhla, Abdullah and his fellow riders happened across a poorly armed Qurayshite caravan.  They debated among themselves whether or not to waylay it, for it was the last day of the month of Rajab.  The pre-Islamic culture at the time assigned four months of the year as sacred (of which Rajab was one), in which fighting was proscribed.  In addition to the four sacred months, fighting was forbidden in certain holy sanctuaries (i.e. Al-Bayt Al-Haram, the area around the Kaabah).

Abdullah’s contingent faced a difficult choice:

If [we] leave them alone tonight they will get into the sacred area and will be safe from [us]; and if [we] kill them, [we] will kill them in the sacred month. [3]

They were also not quite sure what day it was.  Was it the last day of the sacred month of Rajab or the first day of of the next month, Jumada (in which fighting was permitted)?  Prof. Reuven Firestone writes of this:

The uncertainty of the day is a natural result of the calendrical system of that period, in which the moon was the primary measurer of time, because the beginning of the month was established only by actual observation of the new crescent moon. [4]

Making matters worse was the fact that, according to the lunar calendar used by the Arabs, days change at sunset, not midnight.  One of the men explained to Muhammad later that

it was becoming evening. We looked at the crescent moon of Rajab, and we did not know whether we [struck during] Rajab or in Jumada. [5]

Initially, Abdullah and his men hesitated, but then decided to attack.  The Muslims shot and killed one of the Quraysh (a man by the name of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami), captured two of them, and seized the caravan’s goods.  By killing Ibn Al-Hadrami, the Muslims had violated the pre-Islamic Arabian custom forbidding bloodshed during the sacred month.

When Abdullah and his men returned to Medina, Muhammad rebuked them, saying:

I did not order you to fight in the sacred month! [6]

Sir Thomas W. Arnold wrote of this incident:

In so doing, [Abdullah] had not only acted without authority but had violated the sacred truce within Arab custom caused to be observed throughout the month of pilgrimage.  Muhammad received him coldly with the words, “I gave thee no command to fight in the sacred month;” dismissed the prisoners, and from his own purse paid blood-money for a Meccan who had lost his life in the fray. [7]

Other Muslims in Medina also chastised the men.  Meanwhile, the Quraysh exploited the incident to further their war propaganda against the Islamic nation.  They effectively drove a wedge in the community of Medina, with Muslims distancing themselves from other Muslims, and non-Muslims from Muslims.  Muhammad’s leadership itself was called into question.

It was in this crisis that the following Quranic verse was revealed:

They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in that month is a great offense, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its people, are still greater offences in God’s eyes: [their] persecution is worse than the killing [of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami].’ They will not stop fighting you [believers] until they make you renounce your faith, if they can. If any of you renounce your faith and die as disbelievers, your deeds will come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and you will be inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain.  But those who have believed, who were driven out from their homes, and who strive for God’s cause, it is they who can look forward to God’s mercy: God is most forgiving and merciful. (Quran, 2:217-218)

This response from the God of the Quran successfully rallied the Muslims around their leader and their cause.  Muhammad’s treatment of the raid was splendidly balanced, neither making the Muslims look too warlike nor too humiliated: on the one hand, he paid blood money for the Qurayshite man that was killed (blood money was a form of restitution given to a victim’s family) and freed the two Qurayshite prisoners.  On the other hand, he released the two Qurayshite prisoners only in exchange for two Muslim prisoners, and also accepted the confiscated goods as legitimate spoils of war.

*  *  *  *  *

Robert Spencer writes of the Nakhla raid:

In Medina, these new Muslims began raiding the caravans of the Quraysh, with Muhammad personally leading many of these raids.  These raids kept the nascent Muslim movement solvent and helped form Islamic theology–as in one notorious incident when a band of Muslims raided a Quraysh caravan at Nakhla, a settlement not far from Mecca.  The raiders attacked the caravan during the sacred month of Rajab, when fighting was forbidden.  When they returned to the Muslim camp laden with booty, Muhammad refused to share in the loot or to have anything to do with them, saying only, “I did not order you to fight in the sacred month.”

But then a new revelation came from Allah, explaining that the Quraysh’s opposition to Muhammad was a worse transgression than the violation of the sacred month.  In other words, the raid was justified.  ”They question thee, O Muhammad, with regard to warfare in the sacred month.  Say: warfare therein is a great transgression, bu to turn men from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Inviolable Place of Worship, and to expel his people thence, is a greater sin with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing” (Quran 2:214).  Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed was overshadowed by the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad.

This was a momentous revelation, for it led to an Islamic principle that has had repercussions throughout the ages.  Good became identified with anything that redounded to the benefit of Muslims, regardless of whether it violated moral or other laws.  The moral absolutes enshrined in the Ten Commandments, and other teachings of the great religions that preceded Islam, were swept aside in favor of an overarching principle of expediency. [8]

In true Spencerian fashion, he misleads the reader using lies of omission and commission.  Spencer does not clearly state that Muhammad had dispatched the “band of Muslims” on a reconnaissance mission, in order to “find out for us what [the Quraysh] are doing.”  This is why the Prophet of Islam later disavowed Abdullah’s actions, for he had “acted without authority.”  Also, no mention is made in Spencer’s book of the difficulty in ascertaining the day and month in which the raid took place.

Spencer’s biggest lie, however, is the following doozie:

Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed was overshadowed by the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad.

In fact, it was not merely “the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad”, but, in the words of the Quran itself, their persecution [of the Muslims that] is worse than the killing” of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami.  Here, the Islamic holy book was referring to the over decade-long period of Qurayshite persecution, during which the early Muslims suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and forced conversions; some of the early believers were even killed.  This, the God of the Quran argued, was worse than what the “band of Muslims” had done.  It would be difficult to argue otherwise.

Spencer goes on to say:

In other words, the raid was justified.

No, it wasn’t.  In fact, the Quran recognized and affirmed that the Muslims had committed a grave sin: “Fighting in [the sacred] month is a great offense.”

Many Western commentators have claimed that Muhammad and the Quran, by this passage, abandoned observation of the ban on fighting during the four sacred months.  The insistence on this view is based on their blind acceptance of the traditional opinion [9], held by various Islamic exegetes in medieval times, that this was a pre-Islamic tradition that was overturned by the advent of Islam.

Yet, a neutral reading of the Quranic text–both this passage and those that follow it–reveals the exact opposite: the Prophet Muhammad affirmed and respected the sanctity of the four sacred months.  The Quranic verse starts by saying, “They ask you about fighting in the sacred month.”  Obviously, Muhammad was being accosted by all sides about the raid at Nakhla, which threatened to be a public relations disaster for the Muslims.  How much easier it would have been for the Prophet of Islam to have simply declared the four sacred months a “pagan belief” that the Muslims did not accept.

After all, in another controversy in early Islam’s history, when Muhammad received significant criticism for having married his adopted son’s ex-wife Zaynab bint Jahsh, the Quran justified the act by declaring that: firstly, unlike in the pagan custom of the time, in Islam there is no prohibition against such a thing; and secondly, it was God himself who commanded Muhammad to marry Zaynab, and therefore, “the Prophet is not at fault for what God has ordained for him” (Quran, 33:38).  (It should be noted that the Islamic permission to marry one’s adopted son’s ex-wife is no more disconcerting than Judaism’s permitting of marriage to one’s nieces.)

The point is that the Quran didn’t just take the easy way out, which would have been to reject the four sacred months altogether.  (Muhammad could have also simply declared the pagans to be “disbelievers”, licit to be attacked at any place or any time.)  Instead, the Quran affirmed that it was indeed a grave offense to fight therein, and in fact, commanded Muhammad to tell the people so:

They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in that month is a great offense.’ (Quran, 2:217)

The Islamic affirmation of the four sacred months occurs throughout the Quran.  Muslims are not to fight in these months, so long as the other side respects this prohibition:

Fight during the sacred months if you are attacked therein, for a violation of sanctity is subject to the law of just retribution.  So, if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you. (Quran, 2:194)

The Quran also affirms the idea of sacred spaces:

Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there. (Quran, 2:191)

This topic deserves greater elaboration, but for now, suffice to say that even in the jihad passages of chapter nine of the Quran–which the Islamophobes insist are (in the words of the anti-Muslim website ReligionOfPeace.com) “the final ‘revelations’ from Allah” about jihad–the four sacred months are affirmed.  For example, in the so-called “verse of the sword” (ayat al-saif), the Quran declares:

When the sacred months are passed, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them… (Quran, 9:5)

Leaving aside for now the fact that the verse right before this one (verse 9:4) explains that this injunction refers only to those pagans who broke a treaty and waged war against the Muslims, there is another obvious point to be made here: Islamophobes insist that this passage was revealed in Muhammad’s last years and was his final, all-out call to war against non-Muslims.  (I will refute this argument in a future article.)  If we are to accept this claim, then we see that–even in this late stage of Muhammad’s decrees about jihad–the sacred months are to be respected.

In fact, the Quran goes so far to claim that it was God himself who decreed these months to be sacred.  More than this, the God of the Quran chastises the Qurayshite pagans for violating the four sacred months by “transposing them” for other months in the year, something they did out of convenience:

God decrees that there are twelve months–ordained in God’s Book on the Day when He created the heavens and earth–four months of which are sacred: this is the correct calculation. Do not wrong your souls in these months–though you may fight the idolaters at any time, if they first fight you–remember that God is with those who are mindful of Him.  Transposing sacred months is another act of disobedience by which those who disregard God are led astray: they will allow it one year and forbid it in another in order to outwardly conform with the number of God’s sacred months, but in doing so they permit what God has forbidden. Their evil deeds are made alluring to them: God does not guide those who disregard Him.  (Quran, 9:36-37)

In conclusion, it is not true that Muhammad justified the Nakhla raid, nor is it valid to claim that the Prophet of Islam simply made it legal when Muslims did it.  Spencer’s claim that ”if it’s good for Islam, it’s right” finds no basis.

The Quran acknowledged that the killing of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami in the sacred month was a “grave offense” and Muhammad offered restitution to the victim’s family.  This mea culpa indicates that the Prophet of Islam acknowledged that wrong had been committed and he sought to right it.  Meanwhile, the “band of Muslims” involved in the escapade were duly chastised.  After they had expressed remorse for their sin, the God of the Quran forgave them “for God is Forgiving, Merciful” (2:218), and reassured them of their salvation.  That forgiveness was necessary in the first place indicates that they had committed a sin.

What the Quran didn’t do is claim that the Muslims had done nothing wrong.  All it did was point out the hypocrisy of the Quraysh, for they had committed greater offenses against the Muslims.  Robert Spencer would quickly claim that the Quran was committing a tu quoque fallacy, but there is a difference between a valid tu quoque argument and an invalid tu quoque fallacy.  Tu quoque (“you too”) arguments are not always illegitimate.  Of significance is the fact that, following the Nakhla raid, Muhammad (1) admitted that the Muslims had committed an offense, and (2) willingly submitted to the penalty of that offense (i.e. paid blood money).

The Prophet of Islam didn’t try to make something right because the enemy did something wrong.  More importantly, he didn’t try to get out of the penalty for the offense.  Instead, he admitted that his side had done something wrong, paid the penalty for it, and then pointed out that his accusers had committed far greater offenses without making any amends for it.  He was not trying to get out of the penalty, but only highlighting the Qurayshite hypocrisy so that they would not exploit the incident to further anti-Muslim propaganda.

Islamophobes today are also guilty of hypocrisy on this front: they are among America and Israel’s most hawkish proponents of war in Muslim lands.  During Muhammad’s pre-Badr expeditions, the Muslims had killed only one person, and this was in violation of their orders.  What about the hundreds and hundreds of Muslim victims who die at the hands of the American and Israeli military, without any form of restitution given to them?  We are told then that “this is war”…But when Muhammad’s men kill one person, then it’s the greatest tragedy in all of history.

Related to our opening question (Is Islam more violent than other religions, specifically Judaism and Christianity? Was Muhammad the most violent prophet or religious figure in history?) lies another question: the Biblical prophets–such as MosesJoshuaSamson,DavidSaul, etc.–engaged in genocide against the natives of Canaan.  Thousands and thousands of innocent people were slaughtered.  Are there any stories in the Bible of any of these Judeo-Christian prophets and holy figures giving restitution to the victim’s families?  One can already hear Robert Spencer crying “tu quoque, tu quoque!”, a word that he obviously does not properly understand.  Islam, identified as our enemy in the post-9/11 war, is put through a special standard, one that Spencer’s own religion could not withstand.

*  *  *  *  *

The Islamic principle of justice is to apply the law equally to all.  There are numerous verses of the Quran to this effect (i.e. 16:90: “God commands you to uphold justice and to do good to others”) and this topic would require another article to elucidate fully.  For now, however, it would suffice us to refer to the opening of sura (chapter) five, which is said to be among the final revelations of the Quran.  It was revealed after the conquest of Mecca.  In it, we see once again that the Quran affirms the idea of sacred months and sacred spaces.  More importantly, it commands Muslims to uphold justice and be fair even to their enemies:

Do not violate the sanctity of God’s rites or the Sacred Months…or the people coming to the Sacred Space…Do not let your ill-will towards a people–because they barred you from the Sacred Mosque–cause you to transgress against them.  Help one another to do what is right and good.  Do not help one another towards sin and aggression. (Quran, 5:2)

Robert Spencer traces “Islam’s only overarching moral principle” of “if it’s good for Islam, it’s right” to the raid at Nakhla, but the evidence simply does not bear his argument out.  Instead, all that becomes apparent is the Islamophobic tactic: if it makes Islam and Muslims look bad, let’s run with it.

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.

Footnotes
1. Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), p.79
2. Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.287 (tr. A. Guillaume)
3. Ibid.
4. Reuven Firestone, Jihad, p.57
5. Ibid.
6. Ibn Ishaq, p.287
7. Thomas W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, p.30
8. Spencer, pp.5-7
9. It should be noted that the nineteenth century gave birth to the modernist movement within Islamic thought, which redefined jihad and challenged the long-held “traditional” opinion on the matter.  Today, the “traditional” opinion is held only by a few ultra-conservative Muslims, a view that should not to be conflated with that held by Radical Muslims such as Osama Bin Laden.

When They Almost Killed Muhammad: The Persecution of Islam’s Earliest Followers

Robert Spencer has summarized the key arguments raised by Islamophobes in his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades).  Chapter one of his book is entitled “Muhammad: Prophet of War”, in which he recounts the life story of the Prophet Muhammad.  In it, he portrays Muhammad as the aggressor and his Quraysh enemies as the victims.  Spencer writes:

After receiving revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel in 610, [Muhammad] began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as a prophet.  But he was not well received by his Quraysh brethren in Mecca, who reacted disdainfully to his prophetic call and refused to give up their gods.  Muhammad’s frustration and rage became evident.  When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam: “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 fibre around her neck.”  (Qur’an 111:1-5)

Ultimately, Muhammad would turn from violent words to violent deeds.  In 622, he finally fled his native Mecca for a nearby town, Medina… [1]

Muhammad’s message of monotheism does not adequately explain why the leaders of the Quraysh rejected his message so forcefully.  Indeed, Muhammad preached a lot more than this: he called for a top-to-bottom reform of Meccan society, advocating for the rights of the poor and weak.  While it is also true that Muhammad’s renouncement of the pagan gods was unbearable to many followers of the old religion, so too did his powerful critique of the rich and powerful set him on a collision course against them.

Spencer not only fails to properly explain why the Quraysh leaders opposed Muhammad, but he also omits entirely how they opposed him.  In Spencer’s version of events, (1) Muhammad preached to them about God and his prophetood; (2) the Quraysh didn’t accept this message; and then (3) Muhammad reacted with rage and violence.  Spencer’s biography is curiously missing the almost decade and a half-long persecution of Muhammad and his early followers in Mecca, which preceded their Flight (Hijra) to Medina.  This willful omission is designed to mislead the reader, and Spencer succeeds in inverting reality, portraying Muhammad as the aggressor and the Quraysh leaders as the victims.

*  *  *  *  *

Muhammad was born and raised in seventh-century Mecca, a city of the Arabian Peninsula.  At the time, the majority of Meccans, led by the powerful Quraysh, were polytheistic in religion.  Then, in 610 A.D., when he was around forty years old, Muhammad declared his prophethood and called his people to a new, monotheistic religion.

Initially, Muhammad preached in private, and his early followers congregated in secret.  When Muhammad eventually declared his message publicly, he and his early followers were met with increasing hostility.  The Quraysh leaders instigated a sustained campaign of violence against what they saw as a rival faith.  Consequently, the early Muslims suffered persecution; they endured beatings, torture, and even imprisonment.

This entire period is omitted entirely from Robert Spencer’s chapter: Spencer portrays Muhammad as the violent aggressor and the Quraysh as his peaceful victims.  Yet, it is well-established that it was in fact Muhammad who began preaching his message peacefully, and it was the Quraysh leaders who responded violently.  Prof. Spencer C. Tucker writes:

As Muhammad’s group of followers grew, the leadership of Mecca, including Muhammad’s own tribe, perceived them as a threat. Some of the early converts to Islam came from the disaffected and disadvantaged segments of society. Most important, the Muslims’ new set of beliefs implicitly challenged the Meccans’ and the Quraysh tribe’s guardianship over the Kaaba, the holy site dedicated to the gods and goddesses of the area, which hosted an annual pilgrimage. The city’s leading merchants attempted to persuade Muhammad to cease his preaching, but he refused. In response, the city leadership persecuted Muhammad’s followers, and many fled the city. One group of his followers immigrated to Abyssinia. In 619 Muhammad endured the loss of both [his wife] Khadija and [his uncle] Abu Talib, while the mistreatment of his followers increased. [2]

Not surprisingly, the meanest persecution was meted out to the most vulnerable members of the Muslim faithful.  Prof. Daniel C. Peterson writes:

There are many stories of imprisonment, beating, starvation, and thirst, and perhaps worst of all, of believers staked out on the ground under the scorching heat of the Arabian sun until they could be induced to repudiate their faith.

Slaves were particularly vulnerable, for they had no one to protect them against their masters. One of them, a black Abyssinian named Bilal, was pinned to the ground by his master, with a large rock on his chest, and told that that he would remain there until he either died or recanted–whichever came first. He was spared only because Abu Bakr, passing by, was horrified at this maltreatment of a fellow believer and bought Bilal’s freedom…Some, it is said, died under torture. And others did indeed renounce their faith. [3]

The extent of the persecution can be gauged by the fact that some of the early Muslims were forced to flee with their lives from the Arabian Peninsula altogether, an event known as the First Flight to Abyssinia.  Under the cover of night, these Muslims fled Mecca and boarded ships headed for the African country of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia).  There was a second such emigration, known as the Second Flight to Abyssinia.  The Quraysh leaders dispatched envoys to the Abyssinian king, requesting that these Muslim refugees be returned to Mecca.  This request for extradition was rejected and these Muslim refugees stayed in Abyssinia for the remainder of what is known as the Meccan Period of Muhammad’s prophethood.

The Quraysh leaders harassed Muhammad himself, who endured both verbal and physical abuse.  Initially, however, his tormentors stopped short of killing Muhammad because he was still under the tribal protection granted to him by his aging uncle, Abu Talib.  Islam’s early enemies earnestly beseeched Abu Talib to permit the killing of Muhammad, but Abu Talib adamantly refused.

To pressure Abu Talib’s clan, the Banu Mutalib, to rescind their protection of Muhammad, the Quraysh leaders signed a pact resulting in the complete social and economic boycott of the early Muslims along with the two clans associated with them (the Banu Mutalib and the Banu Hashim, the latter of which was the tribe Muhammad was born to).  The early Muslims and members of the two clans were forced by circumstance to leave their homes and resettle in the outskirts of Mecca.  Confined to the harsh and barren desert valley (Mecca’s “ghetto”), they struggled to survive for three years, with even food and medicine being barred to them by the Quraysh leaders, who intended to starve them into submission:

Abu Jahl now tried to starve Muhammad into submission and imposed a boycott on the clans of Hashim and al-Muttalib, managing to get all other clans to sign a treaty to unite against the Muslim threat. Nobody could intermarry or trade with anybody in the two outlawed clans and this meant that nobody was supposed to sell them any food. For the sake of security, all members of Hashim and al-Muttalib, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, moved into Abu Talib’s street, which became a little ghetto. [4]

During what is known as the Year of Grief, both Muhammad’s wife Khadija and uncle Abu Talib passed away.  Abu Lahab, early Islam’s arch-enemy and Muhammad’s bitterest foe, replaced Abu Talib as the chief of the clan.  Muhammad thus lost his tribal protection and was forced to flee with his life to the neighboring city of Taif.  He preached his message to the leaders of Taif, who rejected him and refused to give him asylum for fear of earning Mecca’s wrath.  Muhammad was stoned by the street urchins of Taif and told to never return.  Bloody and battered, Muhammad had no place to go but to return to Mecca.

The persecution of the early Muslim community in Mecca intensified to the point that there was a very real fear that the religion of Islam would be snuffed out entirely.  It was at this precarious moment in history that a group of influential men from the nearby city of Yathrib (henceforth to be referred to as Medina) accepted Islam and promised to grant Muhammad refuge.  Thus began The Flight (Al-Hijra), as the Muslim community in Mecca migrated in waves to Medina.  The Quraysh authorities, fearful that Islam would spread to other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, tried (but failed) to prevent this exodus.

By this time, the Quraysh leaders had already formulated a plot to assassinate Muhammad in his sleep.  They delegated this task to eleven men, chosen from all different tribes so as to make retaliation against any one of them untenable.  The assassins gathered around Muhammad’s house, broke into it, and advanced towards his bed.  In fact, however, they had just missed Muhammad, who had slipped away and begun the arduous journey to Medina.  Prof. Juan Eduardo Campo writes:

[P]ersecution of Muhammad and his followers in Mecca by the Quraysh intensified; the weaker ones were physically tortured or imprisoned. Muhammad ordered his followers to emigrate to Yathrib [Medina] in small groups, while he remained in Mecca with his friend Abu Bakr and his loyal cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Quraysh plotted to murder Muhammad and invaded his house only to find Ali sleeping in his bed. Muhammad had secretly escaped with Abu Bakr, and the two of them hid in a cave for three days before making their way to Yathrib [Medina]. [5]

The Quraysh leaders were by this time wild-eyed with fury, and placed a bounty on Muhammad’s head.  Whoever could intercept Muhammad before he reached Medina would be handsomely rewarded.  Search parties went out to apprehend or kill the prophet of Islam.

But, destiny had another plan altogether for Muhammad.  He arrived safely in Medina in the year 622 A.D., what became year one of the Islamic calendar.  There, the early Muslim community would regroup, and eventually, flourish.

*  *  *  *  *

In Robert Spencer’s biography of the Islamic prophet, the persecution of Muslims in Mecca is completely passed over.  Muhammad is wrongfully portrayed as the aggressor and the initiator of violence.  Context is completely lost–in fact, it is purposefully distorted.  Without understanding the background of the conflict (i.e. Muslims being persecuted in Mecca for almost a decade and a half), the reader will view Muhammad’s actions in Medina as nothing short of unprovoked aggression.

Not only does such a deception distort the reader’s view of the Prophet Muhammad, it also has huge implications with regard to Islamic theology.  Jihad is wrongfully equated with terroristic violence and unprovoked aggression, instead of what is actually called for in the Quran: a defensive responding to unprovoked aggression.

If the concept of jihad was first formulated during Muhammad’s lifetime–and if Muslims look to Muhammad’s example to understand the embodiment of this concept–then it makes a very big difference whether or not Muslims see Muhammad as initiating violence or merely defensively responding to it.

Spencer well understands this concept and himself argues it intensely in his book.  His deception, however, lies in his flipping of reality on its head, portraying Muhammad and the early Muslims as the aggressors and their tormentors as the victims.

*  *  *  *  *

Having thus understood the importance of this discussion, let us then delve into Muhammad’s response to the violence, persecution, and injustice directed at him (and his religious community).  Did he preach “love your enemies” or ruthless vengeance?

Muhammad’s reaction to his enemies can be summarized as follows: it was better to forgive the average foot soldier, and only the top level leaders of injustice (“the chiefs of disbelief”) were to be punished.  This dynamic can be seen with Muhammad’s eventual triumphal return to and conquest of Mecca eight years after he fled from it.  Even though the people of Mecca in general had engaged in the persecution of the early Muslims, Muhammad issued a blanket immunity and “mercy” to all of them aside from nine individuals (other sources say seventeen), who were “his most inveterate [of] enemies.” [6] However, even of these, most were pardoned, and in the end “only four Meccans were killed. ” [7]

These were the same people who had humiliated, harassed, tortured, and persecuted Muhammad and his followers.  In fact, at one point in time Muhammad was attacked by them and left with a bloodied face, a busted lip, a broken tooth, and a split-open forehead.  Muhammad had then asked rhetorically:

How can a people cut the face of their prophet and break his tooth while he is calling them to God?  How can such a people prosper?

He exclaimed:

God’s Wrath is great on those who besmear the face of His Messenger!

The following Quranic verse reprimanded Muhammad:

Not for you (O Muhammad) is the decision whether [God] turns in mercy to them to pardon them or if He punishes them (for indeed, they are wrongdoers).  To God belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth.  He forgives whom He pleases and punishes whom He pleases; but God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.  (Quran, 3:128-129)

Muhammad retracted his earlier comment and then prayed for not only forgiveness of the attackers but forgiveness for the Meccans overall:

O God, forgive my people for they do not know. [8]

Later that day, Muhammad came across his uncle, Hamza ibn Abdul Mutallib, who had been killed by the Quraysh.  Worse, Hamza’s corpse had been mutilated: his nose was burnt off and his ears cut off; his stomach was gutted and his intestines were hanging out of his body.  When Muhammad saw his uncle in such a state, he angrily took the following oath:

I shall kill seventy of their men in revenge!

To this, God is said to have replied in the Quran:

(O Muhammad), invite them to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and dispute with them only in the most politest manner–for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His Path and who is rightly guided.  And if you wish to retaliate, retaliate only in a way that is proportionate to the injury done to you.  But if you endure patiently (instead of retaliating), it is better to do so.  (O Muhammad), endure with patience.  Truly, your patience is only possible with the help of God.  Do not be grieved by them or distressed because of their schemes–for God is with those who are mindful of Him and who do good.

Therein then do we have the Quranic axiom: if you wish to retaliate, then the punishment must be proportionate to the crime.  (This rule is clarified in verses 2:190-194 with the stipulation that the punishment must be against the guilty party only.)  Although the Quran permits one to demand justice, it strongly urges the believer, especially Muhammad, to instead “endure with patience” and forgive.  Following this admonition,  ”the Prophet refrained (from taking revenge) and atoned for his oath.” [9]

Indeed, when the early Muslims triumphed over and conquered Mecca, Muhammad issued a blanket pardon to everyone, aside from four “arch-criminals”. [10] Muhammad could have taken vengeance against all those who had persecuted him and his people for so many years, but instead he forgave them all, reciting the following verse of the Quran:

There is no censure on you on this day.  May God forgive you, for He is the Most Merciful of the merciful. (Quran, 12:92) [11]

Muhammad would even forgive those who killed and mutilated his uncle, praying: ”[M]ay God forgive them, for God is Forgiving, Merciful.” [12] He also forgave those who had tried to kill him.

There is much food for thought here: Islamophobes like Robert Spencer argue that Muhammad’s violence cannot be compared to that of the Biblical prophets, since Muhammad in Islam is considered perfect whereas Jews and Christians don’t think the same of Moses, Joshua, David, etc.  This is a huge oversimplification and mischaracterization of Islamic textual sources and dogma (a topic that I will analyze in further detail in a later article).  But for now, suffice to say, this is but one example of Muhammad being corrected in the Quran–and that too with regard to war, peace, vengeance, and mercy towards non-Muslims.

The Islamophobes claim that Muhammad only preached patience, forgiveness, and tolerance during the Meccan Period.  They argue further that the “opportunistic” Muhammad opted towards militarism, violence, and war as soon as he came to power in Medina.  And yet, the events surrounding this Quranic revelation (i.e. the killing/mutilating of Muhammad’s uncle, and the command for Muhammad to endure it with patience and forgiveness) occurred well into the Medinan Period.  In fact, it occurred at the height of the military conflict with the Meccan pagans.

What is even more telling is the fact that once Muhammad and the early Muslims conquered Mecca, Muhammad granted the Meccans pardon and mercy.  If the critics of Islam attribute Muhammad’s peaceful attitude during the early Meccan Period to his lack of power to do otherwise, then what of Muhammad’s triumphal return to Mecca whereupon he had all the power in the world to take limitless vengeance upon them?  Muhammad’s tolerant nature towards his Quraysh enemies cannot be explained by the meekness of his position, because he maintained that attitude when he had the power to crush them as they had tried to do to him aforetime.

Similarly, Muhammad had prayed for the forgiveness of the people of Taif, who had stoned him out:

Mohammed traveled to Ta’if, a mountainside town in Arabia about seventy miles southeast of the holy city of Mecca, to invite its people to become Muslims. Instead of welcoming him, the farmers stoned him and drove him, bleeding, out of town…Wiping blood from his face, the Prophet refused, saying, “Lord, forgive thy people, they do not know.” [13]

After the Conquest of Mecca, the pagans regrouped at Taif to launch a massive counter-offensive;  Prof. Ella Landau-Tasseron writes:

Shortly after[ the Conquest of Mecca,] the Thaqif, the ruling tribe of the nearby town al-Ta’if, organized a bedouin army [against Muhammad], which was defeated by Muhammad at a place called Hunayn.  Muhammad then laid siege to al-Ta’if but had to withdraw without achieving any result.  Shortly afterward, however, the Thaqif joined Islam of their own volition. [14]

No retribution was taken against the people of Taif, who thus entered the folds of Islam; Prof. Michael Dumper writes:

[The Muslims] laid unsuccessful siege to Taif for almost a month.  In 631 the head of the tribe embraced Islam, which resulted in his assassination by his own people.  Quickly, however, the city changed its mind and sent a delegation to the Prophet and indicated their willingness to embrace Islam.  The Prophet, stressing the diplomatic immunity of ambassadors, did not hold their earlier antagonism against them and welcomed them into the [Islamic] community. [15]

Upon his triumphal return to Mecca and Taif, the two cities that had earlier driven him out, Muhammad took no revenge and forgave his former tormentors, thus embodying the Quranic principles of patience and forgiveness.

*  *  *  *  *

Robert Spencer argues that Jesus preached “love your enemies”, contrasting this with Muhammad’s teachings.  Certainly, many Westerners associate such peaceable beliefs to Christianity’s central figure.  Yet, this comparison suffers from an inherent flaw: it is simply not accurate.

If we wanted to maintain an apples-to-apples comparison, the Meccan Period can be analogized to Jesus’s First Coming: like Jesus, Muhammad was a persecuted prophet during this period and was in fact almost killed.  Meanwhile, the Medinan Period can be likened to Jesus’s Second Coming.  Just as Muhammad triumphantly marched into Mecca, so does Jesus triumphantly return with his army as a “conquering king.”

Once Muhammad conquered Mecca and held absolute power over them, he forgave all of them (save for four “arch-enemies”).  Muhammad’s march into Mecca was virtually bloodless,; on the other hand, “Jesus’ second coming will be exceedingly violent…It’s going to be bloody (v. 13) and gory.”  Whereas on the day of Mecca’s conquest, Muhammad bestowed mercy on his enemies (he called it the “Day of Mercy”), Jesus will have “no compassion upon His enemies” and “will take vengeance” on them (the Bible calls it “the day of vengeance”).  Indeed, the Biblical Jesus will kill all his enemies.

When one considers other Biblical prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the contrast becomes even more glaring.  Compare the Conquest of Mecca to the conquest of Canaan by Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, Saul, etc.  Muhammad granted immunity to the Meccan population whereas the Judeo-Christian prophets “completely destroyed every living thing in the city, leaving no survivors” (Joshua 11:11).  In fact, this was done to city after city in what can only be called wholesale genocide.

How then can one support Robert Spencer’s dubious argument that the Prophet Muhammad was somehow more violent than all other prophets and religious founders, especially when we have such violent figures in Spencer’s own faith tradition?

*  *  *  *  *

A word ought to be said specifically about what Robert Spencer writes here:

When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam: “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 fibre around her neck.”  (Qur’an 111:1-5) [16]

Abu Lahab was the only one of Muhammad’s foes to be taken by name in the Quran.  Even though numerous Quraysh influentials persecuted Muhammad, Abu Lahab was singled out in the Islamic holy book because he and Abu Jahl were the staunchest and most mean-spirited of early Islam’s adversaries.  He was assisted in his hatred by his wife, Umm Jamil, who joined in the persecution of Muhammad and his followers.  Abu Lahab led and orchestrated the harassment, beatings, torture, persecution, and crippling boycott of the early Muslim community.  He would later be one of the eleven assassins who attempted to kill Muhammad in his sleep.

The Quranic verse against Abu Lahab was revealed when he had picked up a stone in his hand to throw at Muhammad and yelled “may you perish” (reflected in the Quranic phrasing “may the hands of Abu Lahab perish“).  As for the statement against Abu Lahab’s wife, it can be understood using a less arcane translation: “…and his wife, the bearer of wood (translated in Spencer’s book with the difficult to understand ‘laden with faggots’), shall have a rope of fiber around her neck.”  She was dubbed “the bearer of wood” because she used to routinely lay splinters of wood on the ground where Muhammad would walk so as to cause his feet to bleed.  Additionally, Umm Jamil used to wear a very expensive necklace, of which she vowed: “By Lat and Uzza, I will sell away this necklace and expend the price to satisfy my enmity against Muhammad.”  [17]  This is said to explain the Quran’s choice of punishment for her: a rope of fiber around her neck.

Harsh as these punishments are against Abu Lahab and his wife, two points need to be borne in mind: firstly, Abu Lahab and his wife represent the Quran’s chief villains, equivalent to the Bible’s Pharaoh and Jezebel.  The Bible promised that Pharoah and “all who trust in him” will be slaughtered (Jeremiah 46:25), and that Jezebel will be punished–”her children” will be killed (Revelation 2:23).  The punishment promised to Abu Lahab and his wife are certainly no harsher than this.  More importantly, the Quran only promised punishment of the guilty party, not “all who trust in him” or “her children.”

The second point is that both Abu Lahab and Umm Jamil died of natural causes.  Muhammad was never violent with them.  The verses in the Quran condemning this couple were meant to be understood in a supernatural sense, unlike the very real violence committed by Abu Lahab and his wife against Muhammad and the early Muslims.

On a somewhat related note, it should be added that one of the major reasons that Abu Lahab opposed the message of Islam so violently was that it threatened his status and position.  He was extremely wealthy and powerful–among Arabia’s top one percent.  Muhammad, on the other hand, preached equality among believers.  To this, Abu Lahab would exclaim:

May this religion perish in which I and all other people should be equal and alike! [18]

This is reflected in the Quran’s response to Abu Lahab:

Neither his wealth nor his earnings will benefit him. (Quran, 111:2)

Indeed, Muhammad’s support for the 99% explains why he faced the wrath of the 1%, of which Abu Lahab belonged to.

*  *  *  *  *

There are of course events in Muhammad’s life between his escape from Mecca and his subsequent return that merit further investigation and critical analysis.  Readers are certainly well-aware of the numerous charges levied against the Prophet of Islam in this regard.  Future parts of this Series will look into these matters with an attempt to be impartial and fair.  For now, however, we have achieved our purpose: Robert Spencer’s dishonest rendering of Muhammad’s time in Mecca, known as the Meccan Period, has been laid to waste.

Muhammad and his early followers experienced persecution at the hands of their enemies, a basic fact that must be understood in order to understand early Islamic history, as well as Islamic texts and theology.  An at least rudimentary knowledge of these events is needed to negate the propaganda of those who seek to demonize the faith of over a billion adherents around the world.  More than that, it offers peace-loving, moderate Muslims the ammunition they need to counter the intolerant interpretations of their religion espoused by their fundamentalist coreligionists, people who often act more like the Quraysh leaders than Muhammad.

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.  

Footnotes:
[1] Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), p.5
[2] Spencer C. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of Middle East Wars, p.849
[3] Daniel C. Peterson, Muhammad, Prophet of God, p.72
[4] Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, p.129
[5] Juan Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam, p.299
[6] Simon Ockley, The History of the Saracens, p.55
[7] Jonathan E. Brockopp, The Cambridge Companion to Muhammad, p.10
[8] Ar-Raheeq al-Makthum, p.318; Original source for “O Allah, forgive my people for they do not know” is Fath al- Bari 7/373; Alternately narrated as “My Lord, forgive my people for they have no knowledge” in Sahih Muslim 2/108.
[9] Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 16:126
[10] Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum, p.254
[11]  Al-Tabaqat Al-Kubra, Vol.2, p.142
[12] Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya, p.432
[13] Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, p.23
[14] Ella Landau-Tasseron, Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, p.11
[15] Michael Dumper, Cities of the Middle East and North Africa, p.634
[16] Spencer, p.5
[17]  Tafheem ul Quran, 111:5
[18]  Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 111