Friday, June 20, 2008

Muhammad and the Poets

The poets were the commentators and social critics in the pre-book world of seventh century Arabia . The Arianna Huffington and Bill O'Reilly of Muhammad’s day were the poets. Their poetry was memorized at fairs and public events, passed from person to person, and their influence was considerable.

That said, there were two kinds of poets. In addition to those described above who were well respected, there were many fortune tellers and soothsayers who did not enjoy good reputations and were often thought of as being public nuisances or slightly mad. Historian Ibn Ishaq describes them as people in contact with spirits and jinn. Muhammad stated that he despised these people so much he could not even look at them. When he received the first Quranic revelation via the angel Gabriel his initial fear was that he had become one of them.

History records four poets of the first type, the real poets, whose lives intersected with Muhammad. One of them accepted Islam, and the other three criticized him. In other words, one lived and three died.

The first was Al-Tufayl Bin Amr Al-Dausi, who visited Mecca soon after Muhammad began to preach. He was warned by friends there to stay away from this self-proclaimed prophet who was saying dangerous things. His response was, “I’m an intelligent person, a poet, and I know the difference between good and evil. I’ll listen to him; if what he says is good I’ll accept it and if it is bad I’ll reject it.” Al-Tufayl visited Muhammad in his home, where Muhammad recited the Quran to him. Al-Tufayl concluded he had never heard anything so beautiful in his life, and converted to Islam. He returned to his hometown and preached his new religion to the people there. When Muhammad later raided the Jewish community at Khaybar, Al-Tufayl and his converts joined him and were given a full share of the bounty.

The next was a Jewish poet, Ka’b Bin Al-Ashraf, who lived in Medina . Following the Muslim victory at the Battle of Badr, Muhammad sent spokesmen to different sections of Medina to proclaim his victory and recite the names of the Quraysh enemies who were killed. Ka’b realized his life was in danger and went to Mecca where he composed poems commemorating those who had been killed in the battle and critical of Muhammad. A few lines from one of them are:

Badr’s mill ground out the blood of its people
At events like Badr you should weep and cry
The best of the people were slain round their cisterns
Don’t think it strange that the princes were left lying
How many noble handsome men
The refuge of the homeless were slain,
Those who were liberal when the stars gave no rain
Who bore others burdens.

As soon as Muhammad learned of this, he asked, “Who will rid me of this man?” Bin Maslama volunteered to go to Mecca to kill Ka’b Al-Ashraf. After Bin Maslama accomplished his mission, he boasted that not a single Jew in Medina did not fear for his life.

The third poet, Abu Afak, was reportedly 100 years old. Following Muhammad’s murder of a man named Al-Harith, Abu Afak wrote critically of his people who had allowed Muhammad to rule over them. One of his verses was:

I have lived a long life and I have never seen
Men who were more faithful when called upon (to fight)
They overthrew mountains and never submitted
But now a rider (Muhammad) has come and split them in two
He divides everything into “halal and haram” (allowed and forbidden)
Why are you following him?

Muhammad’s response was, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?” One of his followers killed Abu Afak that very night. An associate named Umama then wrote a poet of his own, sneering,

Take that Abu Afak, in spite of your age
Even if I knew whether it was a man or a spirit
Who killed you in the middle of the night
I would never tell.

The final poetess was Asma Bint Marwan. In response to the murder of Abu Afak, she courageously wrote a poem critical of “the stranger” who had come to rule over them. Muhammad’s response again was, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” A man named Umayr killed her that night in her bed where she was sleeping with her nursing child. The next morning he went to her other five children, mockingly asking which of them wanted to be next.

Muslims sometimes argue that Muhammad did not really give the order to kill the poets noted above, because his comments could be construed as not being a direct order for their deaths. Anyone who has ever watched an episode of the Sopranos or the Godfather knows exactly what was happening. “Hey, Joey, that Luigi on the other side of town has been giving me some trouble. You think maybe you could take care of that problem for me?” “Sure thing, boss”. And the next day Luigi’s body is pulled out of the river.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Poetry in Motion

Muslims believe that one of the "miracles" of the Quran is its poetry. How could an illiterate man, they ask, write such exquisite poetry unless he was inspired by God?

The grammatical structure of Arabic lends itself to being a poetic language. Many nouns or adjectives, for example, end with the syllable "....eem". Muhammad could create a few lines each ending with one of these words that would be poetry to his listeners. As an example, Sura 66 is called "The Prohibition". The title as well as the final or penultimate words of the first few lines are "tahreem...raheem...aleem...hakeem." The English translation of these words, "prohibition...merciful...all-knowing...wise", of course do not rhyme at all.

The "story behind the story" is often more interesting than the story itself. Muhammad often created Quranic suras to get himself out of a tight spot. In the case of sura 66, he had literally been caught with his pants down. While visiting one of his wives, 20 year old Hafsah, he noticed her beautiful Egyptian Christian slave Mary. Muhammad had already legitimized sex with slaves for his followers, and told Hafsah that her father wanted to see her. As soon as Hafsah left the house, Muhammad had intercourse with Mary. When Hafsah realized her father had not called her and returned home to a locked door, she suspected the worst. Muhammad admitted what he had done, but promised Hafsah he would not sleep with Mary again. Hafsah was still upset, and told another of Muhammad's wives, Aisha, what had happened. Muhammad then claimed that Allah had revealed to him that Hafsah had complained to Aisha, and that Allah had also told him that he was free of his promise not to sleep with Mary again.

Now read the entire sura carefully. Notice who is at fault, who is to blame, who is threatened, and who is exonerated by Allah.

You've Got To Go To The Source

A TV show I enjoy is “Minbar” on Al-Jazeera. The host chooses a different subject each week and people call in from all over the world to express their viewpoint. “Minbar” means pulpit, also equivalent to the English “soap-box”, and the show indeed allows people to stand on their soapbox for a few minutes.

In an episode on torture in Arab prisons the host asked a caller if he thought the Arab governments had made any progress in human rights during the last 50 years. The caller replied they had not and then said, “Real progress would be to let people say whatever they want. I don’t question the patriotism of anyone else. But we just want the opportunity to express ourselves, to say ‘Let me disagree with you, let you say something and me say the opposite, let’s disagree but reach a solution.’”

That’s a longing that exists throughout the people of the Middle East. But in looking at why it is not there, they never seem to go very far. They will acknowledge their governments do not allow freedom of expression, but that’s all. They seem unwilling or unable to take the next logical step, which would be to examine what it is in their cultural or religious heritage that makes criticism unacceptable. Which would of course eventually lead them to how Muhammad dealt with critics Ka'b Ibn Al-Ashraf, Abu Afak, and Asma Mint Marwan.

Muhammad and the Jews Part 1: Great Expectations

There were few Jews in Mecca when Muhammad first announced he was to be obeyed as the Prophet of Allah, and his early efforts were directed towards the pagan Quraysh. He preached quietly for three years, and then became more public and confrontational, stating that he was a "plain warner of a coming severe punishment". The short blunt Meccan suras of the Quran mention hell 146 times, lucidly describing the parched skins and scalding water awaiting those who did not follow Muhammad.

Muhammad often repeated the stories from the Torah of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, but with a distinctly different emphasis. In Muhammad's version, Allah had been prepared to destroy each of those civilizations unless they obeyed the prophets. God didn't just tell Abraham to leave Iraq and go to Canaan for a great blessing as recorded in Genesis, he was about to wipe out Abraham's people. This was the backdrop for Muhammad's main message, which was that Allah would likewise destroy everyone who did not accept him as the final and greatest prophet.

The Quraysh did not take kindly to Muhammad's warnings of divine judgment. They were not familiar with the Torah but Medina, a city 250 miles to the north, was about 50 percent Jewish. The rabbis there had long threatened enemies who robbed them that a prophet would come to set things straight. The Quraysh sent a delegation to Medina to inquire of the rabbis whether Muhammad might be this prophet. The rabbis told them to ask Muhammd three specific questions that would determine his validity. Suras 17 and 18 of the Quran give Muhammad's answer to the questions.

Looking back from a historical perspective, it is doubtful the rabbis really believed a non-Jewish Arab Muslim would be their anticipated prophet, but Muhammad thought they did. He began to focus his attention on them and stated that the Quran was the answer to all their questions. He also claimed to be taken to heaven on a night journey where he was accorded by Allah a status higher than all their prophets.

When some non-Jewish Medinans heard Muhammad's message at an annual fair outside Mecca, they converted to Islam. Returning to Medina, they gave good reports of Muhammad. They returned to the fair the following year, and invited Muhammad to their city. Most of them were from the Aus and the Khazraj tribes. The Aus were aligned with the Jewish tribes of Qurayza and Al-Nadir, and the Khazraj with the Jewish tribe of Qaynuqa. There were tribal conflicts in Medina, and they thought that Muhammad could come and mediate the differences. Muhammad saw this as an opportunity for expansion, and accepted the invitation. The year was 622 A.D., year one of the Muslim calendar, and Muhammad and his followers immigrated to Medina with great expectations of what the future would hold.

Muhammad and the Jews Part 2: Unpleasant Reality

Immediately after arriving in Medina, Muhammad wrote a covenant for all the people of the city. It stated that "any dispute or controversy…must be referred to Allah and to Muhammad the apostle of Allah". Muhammad considered himself the new ruler of the city and built its first mosque.

The Jewish rabbis, rather then accepting Muhammad as their prophet and leader, began to criticize him. Many of the Aus and Khazraj converts joined them and became known as the hypocrites. They had initially accepted Islam, but did not really believe Muhammad. The next few hundred pages of the history books and many chapters of the Quran are devoted to Muhammad's arguing with the Jews, trying to persuade them to accept him as a prophet. He claimed they had removed passages of the Torah that prophesied his coming, and warned the Muslims against taking Jews as friends. His language became more strident, with the Quran on three different occasions recording his accusation that Allah had changed the Jews into monkeys and pigs. He also speculated that Allah had turned some of them into rats.

A Jewish couple committed adultery and Muhammad asked the rabbis if the law of Moses called for the stoning of adulterers. The rabbis acknowledged it did, but said they did not do this anymore. Muhammad said he would revive that law. The couple was stoned to death at the door of the mosque, the man leaning over the woman trying to protect her from the stones as they died.

Islam quickly became powerful, with Muhammad and his warriors robbing trade caravans to finance the new community. Following a victory against the Quraysh at the Battle of Badr in which many Meccans were killed, Muhammad warned the Jews of the Qaynuqa tribe they would suffer the same fate unless they converted to Islam. One of their Medinan allies pleaded with Muhammad to expel them from the city rather than kill them. Although Muhammad "became so angry his face almost turned black", he agreed to let the Jews live. They left the city, leaving behind their property to be possessed by the Muslims.

A Jewish poet named Ka'b Al-Ashraf wrote poems criticizing Muhammad's killing two Arab leaders. When Muhammad heard of it, he sent Bin Maslama to kill the poet. After murdering him, Bin Maslama boasted that the attack had cast terror among the Jews and there was not a Jew in Medina who did not fear for his life. One hundred year old poet Abu Afak and the poetess Asma Bint Marwan, mother of five young children, were also killed at Muhammad's command for writing poetry critical of him.

Muhammad then ordered the Muslims to kill any Jew who fell into their power. A Muslim named Muhayisa killed a Jewish merchant named Ibn Sunayna who had for a long time been his friend and business associate. When Muhayisa's brother asked why he had killed the Jew, Muhaysiya replied he would kill the brother also if Muhammad told him to.

Following the Battle of Uhud, which was the next major confrontation between the Muslims and the Quraysh, Muhammad went to the second Jewish tribe of Medina, the Al-Nadir, to arrange financial compensation for some people who had been killed. Muhammad then quickly left, claiming Allah had told him the Al-Nadir wanted to kill him. He gathered his army, burned the fields of the Jews, and then surrounded them. When they pleaded for their lives, Muhammad agreed to let them live provided they leave with only what their camels could carry. The Jews agreed and were banished, some going to Khaybar about 100 miles away, and the rest to Syria.

The remaining Jewish tribe in Medina, the Qurayza, realized their turn would be next and tried to gain support from Muhammad's enemies in Mecca. The Quraysh came out to fight, but Muhammad dug a trench around Medina preventing them from approaching the city. The angel Gabriel then asked Muhammad if he was going to attack the Qurayza. When he replied he had finished fighting, Gabriel informed him that Allah was not finished. Muhammad approached the Jews and, addressing them as "brothers of monkeys", said Allah was bringing his vengeance upon them. He besieged them for 21 days until they surrendered. He then dug ditches and beheaded every male Jew who had reached the age of puberty, throwing their heads into the ditches. Arab historians say the number killed was between 600 and 900 men. Their land and property were taken by the Muslims, with the women and children divided up as slaves.

The Jews had lived in Medina for well over a thousand years. They were the educated artisans and merchants of the city. Within five years of Muhammad's arrival, they were all exiled, enslaved, or slaughtered. Although Muslims justify Muhammad's treatment of the Jews by incidents such as his claiming the Al-Nadir wanted to kill him, and the Qurayza seeking help from the Quraysh, the truth is that their fate was sealed simply by not accepting him as a prophet.

Muhammad and the Jews Part 3: Bitter End

Some of the Jews who had been expelled from Medina settled in a town about 100 miles away called Khaybar. It was an agricultural community, set up in the style of individual settlements, and quite wealthy.

After six years in Medina, Muhammad established a treaty with Mecca, the city that had first cast him out. Soon after that, he marched against Khaybar. He approached early in the morning as the people were coming out with their farm implements to work in the fields. As soon as they saw his army, they panicked and fled back into the town. Muhammad shouted, "Allahu Akbar! This town will be destroyed." His soldiers took the town building by building, capturing the men and dividing the women up as slaves. During the battle, a Muslim soldier named Mahmud was killed by a millstone thrown down on him.

Muhmmad believed that a local leader named Kinana was guarding the town's treasure. When Kinana refused to divulge its location, Muhammad ordered that he be tortured until he talked. Red-hot bars of steel were placed on Kinana's chest until he was close to death. Muhammad then turned him over to the brother of the slain Mahmud, who beheaded Kinana in revenge for his brother's death.

Seventeen year old Safiyah, Kinana's new bride, was extremely beautiful so Muhammad took her for himself. Her father and other male relatives had been beheaded by Muhammad in Medina. One of Muhammad's companions thought he had claimed her first, but Muhammad gave him her two cousins in exchange. In one day Safiyah went from being the bride of a Jewish farmer to the fiancée of the man who tortured and killed him, as well as her father and brothers.

As a soldier brought Safiyah and a second woman to Muhammad on a path that took them past their husbands' dead bodies, the other woman began to scream. Muhammad quickly told the soldier to get that "devil" away from him. He married Safiyah as soon as she finished her next menstrual cycle, granting her freedom from her slave status as a wedding present.

Waiting until the end of the menstrual cycle was not insignificant. Sex with captured slaves was permitted, but Muhammad had ruled that his soldiers could not have intercourse with them if they were pregnant. Since pregnant women usually sold for less in the slave markets, soldiers who ended up with pregnant women had a double disadvantage. Safiyah, of course, was not one of those.

Muhammad realized it would not be to his advantage to exile the Jews again, or slaughter them as he had the Qurayza. Since they were skilled agriculturalists, he allowed them to continue farming their land in exchange for giving him fifty percent of all produce. This was the first instance of the celebrated "dhimmi" status, where Christian and Jewish minorities are allowed to live in Muslim countries under specified conditions. It is also the first example of the "jizya", the tax they are expected to pay. One of the conditions put down by Muhammad for the Jews of Khaybar was to be prepared to leave anytime. In his final sermon at Mecca soon afterwards, he announced that Islam would be the only religion allowed in Arabia. Successor Umar then expelled all remaining Jews from Khaybar and a few other scattered locations to Syria. No children of apes and pigs have lived in Saudi Arabia for almost 1400 years.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Muhammad the Buddha?

Popular Saudi cleric Salman Al-Odeh (or Al-Ouda) in a well-publicized TV speech last year addressing Osama Bin Ladin said that Muhammad was so peace-loving that anyone who unjustly killed a bird or destroyed an anthill would be judged by Allah. When Muhammad heard of a man named Abu Harb (Father of War), he changed his name because he hated war.

Wait a minute! The man who financed his community by raiding trading caravans hated violence? The leader who personally led 27 raids and sent out others at the average of one every seven weeks for the last ten years of his life despised fighting? The Prophet who beheaded 800 Jews in one day because they did not accept his prophethood lost sleep over an anthill?

Here's the thing. If you find a "red-letter edition" of the Bible, all the words of Jesus are underlined in red. There aren't that many. Apart from the Sermon on the Mount and a few other discourses, and eliminating repitition in the four Gospels, his words are limited to short stories and similarly brief comments about various issues.

Islam is much different. There are volumes of hadith containing what Muhammad is reported to have said about almost everything under the sun. The most authoritative collections of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim contain 645,745 and 576,594 words. There are four more collections considered authoritative by Muslims, in addition to other collections said to be less reliable. In addition, the Shia and the Sunnis place emphasis upon different sets of traditions. Put these all together, and you have millions of words. You can find almost anything you want. And that's exactly what Muslim preachers and apologists do.

Criticizing Islam and Supporting the Palestinians

In a recent interview with ex-Muslim Wafa Sultan on Arabic TV she expressed her belief that no-one could read the early biographies of Muhammad, with their emphasis on his military raids and his relationship with his many wives, and “believe” them in the Muslim sense of believing this was God’s ideal model for humanity to follow for all time, and emerge a mentally healthy person.

In the same interview, Wafa stated, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious conflict. I support the Palestinian cause. I support the Palestinian children. I lose sleep over the suffering of Palestinian women. I cannot even step on an ant, so how could I possibly be against them?"

Something grabbed me when she juxtaposed these two ideas. Some Western critics of Islam seem to have no sympathy for the Palestinians. It’s as if a critical view of the writings and teachings of Islam translates into a lack of compassion for their situation.

I agree with Wafa that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is primarily religious. It is also political, but I don't think we understand the religious element. As an undergraduate at Temple University, I audited a graduate seminar taught by the late Palestinian professor Dr. Ismail Al-Faruqi. I was the only Western non-Muslim among the small group of students who had come from all over the world to get their PhD's with Dr. Al-Faruqi. He spoke much more bluntly in this seminar than in his regular classes, stating that "of course we are all working and praying for the total demolition of Israel".

I only realized afterwards that he was not talking about Palestinian farmers being allowed back to the olive trees and villages they had left in 1948. He was talking about the existence of a non-Muslim entity on territory formerly controlled by Islam. It must be taken back, and Islam must again become dominant. This is why the Hamas charter states, "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."

So what is the answer to the religious dimension? I think the only solution is a change in the religious presuppositions. Then the political aspects of the problem could be worked out, and there would be a real peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians that would be the envy of the entire Muslim world.

Who Do They Blame It On?

Last night on one of the Arabic TV channels a Palestinian was talking about the Shu'fat refugee camp located a few miles outside of Jerusalem. He described it as "Jerusalem's largest Palestinian refugee camp", to emphasize his point that Shu'fat's slum-like conditions are the fault of Israel.

Last December I visited Shu'fat. He's right; it's not a place I'd like to live and I feel sorry for the people who do, especially the children. But I have a problem with his blaming it all on Israel. Shu'fat is no worse than Dar As-Salam in Cairo, or the slums of Casablanca. This is how poor Arabs live everywhere. In Gaza and the West Bank they blame it on the Israelis. Who do they blame in Egypt and Morocco?

Speaking of Casablanca, I once accidentally got on a bus there filled with French tourists being taken around the city. One of the tourists asked the tour guide, "Are there slums here in Casablanca?" His proud reply was, "Non, il n'y a pas de bidonvilles ici a Casa." (Absolutely not!). Along the entire length of the street was a high concrete wall. I knew that just behind that wall was a slum as bad as you'll see anywhere in the world. But in typical Arab tradition, the unpleasant is hidden from view and can easily be denied.

Everyone Should Know About Asma Bint Marwan

Hundreds, if not thousands, of biographies are written about Muhammad. Some are for small children, others designed for Muslim teenagers living in the West, and still others intended for non-Muslims. Countries such as Saudi Arabia have competitions for students to write the best biography of the Prophet.

The interesting thing is that all of these are based on a trilogy of books that have been here for 1200 years. They are the Quran, the sayings of Muhammad, and his original biography. There have been no recently discovered hidden documents, no Dead Sea Scrolls, not even a Da Vinci Code.

The original biography was written by Ibn Ishaq (Is-haq) about 130 years after Muhammad died. His text is lost to history, but an editor named Ibn Hisham (Hi-sham) collected most of it and published it along with his own notes and additions. That is available today in English, translated by A. Guillaume, under the title, “The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah”. I’d read it some time ago, but today I walked into the Obeikan Bookshop and bought the original Arabic version, 850 pages of “As-Sira An-Nabawiya”, by Ibn Hisham.

What amazes me is that the Muhammad I see in this book is so different from the fawning biographies on the shelf at Barnes & Nobles. Guillaume’s translation contains all the authentic material but there’s something sobering about reading it in the original language, as Arabs have done for 1200 years. The first story I read was “The Raid of ‘Umayr Bin ‘Uday Al-Khatmi to Kill ‘Asma Bint Marwan”. Asma was a poetess, the mother of five children. When she heard that Muhammad had sent one of his soldiers to kill another poet, the 100-year old Abu ‘Afaq, she said, “I blame Islam and its people.” She then composed the following lines:

I despise you, Oh you tribal people
You obey a stranger who is not from you
He’s not from any of your tribes
How can you expect good from the person who killed all your leaders?
Why are you waiting like a hungry man hoping for the cook’s left-over broth?
Are none of you courageous enough to attack him by surprise,
And cut off the hopes of those who are expecting something from him?

That was enough to get her killed. As soon as Muhammad heard about it, he asked, “Who will get rid of that woman for me?” One of his courageous (irony intended) followers went to her house that night and killed her in her bed with her nursing child by her side. In the morning he told Muhammad what he had done. The Prophet’s response was, “You have brought victory to Allah and his Apostle.” The murderer asked if anything might happen to him as the result of what he had done. Muhammad replied, “Two goats won’t butt their heads about her.” Just in case the message wasn’t clear, my Arabic edition has the footnote, “That means she is insignificant.”

We don’t understand this in the West. We can’t connect the dots between the death of a poetess 1400 years ago because of a poem, and the blowing up of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad because of a cartoon. We can’t make the connection between her being murdered for criticizing Muhammad, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali receiving death threats for Submission. We’d rather believe, with our President, that a “few extremists have hijacked the religion of peace”. It’s a lot easier than actually examining that religion. We don’t want to really know about Asma Bint Marwan or the Prophet who killed her.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Malicious or Ignorant?

Last night on "The Message" TV I watched the PBS 2002 documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. It was very slick (not one of my favorite words, but one that fits). Many others have reviewed it critically so I won't do that, but one thing caught my attention. Karen Armstrong described the angel Gabriel squeezing Muhammad in the cave as he prepared to give him Allah's message with such passion one would think she had been there herself personally sharing the experience.

As far as I know, Karen Armstrong is not a Muslim. That's what has me confused. Muslims believe Allah gave those words to Muhammad. That's what makes one a Muslim. Infidels (non-Muslims) do not. If Allah was not talking to Muhammad, Muhammad either imagined it or made it up. So Karen either believes Allah was speaking to Muhammad (in which case by definition she would be a Muslim- or muslimah since she is female), or she doesn't believe it and is an infidel like the rest of us. Am I missing something?

My former Islamics professor Sayyed Hossein Nasr also featured prominently in the documentary. He obviously is still as devoted to the Prophet as he was at Temple University almost 30 years ago. I can appreciate that; he's a believer. What I don't understand are people who idolize the prophet but who are unbelievers, from the Muslim point of view.

My other Islamics professor at Temple, the late Dr. Ismail Al-Faruqi who was never one to mince around with words, used to put it this way, "To persuade someone of the truth of Islam, you present them with evidence. If they refuse to believe, you give them more evidence. If they still refuse, you conclude they are either ignorant or malicious." I wonder what he would say about Karen Armstrong.

Prophetic Analysis

Imagine that three individuals were each commissioned to prepare the psychological profile of a self-appointed religious prophet who founded a tightly-knit community in Arizona in the mid-1800’s.

The prophet, soon after the death of his wife of 25 years, began having dreams about the six-year-old daughter of his best friend and persuaded the friend that God had told him to marry her. He later used the same God-told-me-so line to convince his adopted son to divorce his attractive wife so he could marry her as well. The community was polygamous, but the prophet was the only man who could have as many women as he wanted.

The community had few financial resources, so the prophet developed the idea of robbing stagecoaches and trains that passed through the area. Slavery was legal within the community, and the people who were not killed on these raids were used and sold as slaves. Male members of the community had full sexual access to the female slaves.

The prophet’s ambitions were much larger than the few hundred converts he garnered his first few years. He fully expected all the people of the area to accept his prophethood and join the community. When some refused, he turned viciously against them. Eight hundred men were killed in one day, and the rest were driven to outlying regions. When he realized that his people did not have the agricultural and industrial resources to provide for the needs of the community, he came up with a new strategy. He again attacked the people he had recently driven away, this time allowing them to live in exchange for giving him fifty percent of their produce. Shortly before his death, he stated a new ruling that they were to be driven completely from Arizona and never allowed to return.

As often happens with religious and political leaders who see themselves as chosen vessels, the prophet became more intolerant to criticism as he grew older and more powerful. Stories of the murder and assassination of his critics became increasingly common. One of his disciples bragged that he had come across a one-eyed sheep rancher who said he would never join the prophet’s group. The disciple waited until the rancher fell asleep, and then thrust a sharpened stick into the rancher’s good eye so hard it came out the back of his neck. The disciple next captured an associate of the rancher, tied his thumbs together, and led him to the prophet. The prophet laughed so hard at the sight, according to the disciple, that, “You could see his back teeth”. The prophet blessed the disciple when he heard how he had killed the one-eyed rancher.

About the same time a 100-year old poet wrote lines critical of the prophet and his followers. In reference to the many regulations the prophet had established for the community, the poet noted, “You follow someone who divides everything into ‘This is allowed’ and ‘That is forbidden’.” As soon as the prophet heard this, he sent someone to assassinate the old poet.

A second poet, the mother of five children, was courageous enough to criticize the murder of the old man. She wrote, “I despise you people….you who obey a stranger and expect good things from him after he killed all your leaders.” The prophet, realizing he was the “stranger” she was writing about, sent one of his followers to kill her. She was murdered in her bed that night with her nursing child lying by her side. Her murderer, perhaps touched with remorse by the heinousness of his crime, asked the prophet if anything bad would happen to him. The prophet replied that her death was of no more significance than two goats butting their heads together in the back yard.

Some time after the prophet’s death, it was discovered that the Arizona desert underneath his followers’ feet contained the world’s largest diamond resources. Community members became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and began to use their new-found riches to extend the prophet’s vision that the entire world come under the influence of his teachings and principles.

Now back to the first sentence, where “three individuals” are each commissioned to write a profile of the prophet. The first is a university professor who is an expert in the teachings of the prophet even though he has not joined the prophet’s community. He was recently given 25 million dollars by that community to establish a university department where the teachings of the prophet are examined. He is careful to only teach a version of community history appoved by his sponsors. His students rarely learn incidents such as the deaths of the poets and the role of the community in the slave trade as noted above. They know nothing about the world-wide political aspirations of the group.

The second individual is a fully-committed member of the community. She has been taught since her birth that the life of the prophet is the perfect model for all humankind to follow. She doesn’t even know many of the details of that life, such as his treatment of the exiles who did not accept his message. She only knows what she was taught, one side of the story, and is not interested in learning more.

The third person is an ex-member of the community. He was born and raised within it, similar to individual number two, but at a certain stage began to question the things he had always been ordered to simply believe. His questioning led to doubt, and the doubt resulted in his leaving the community. He now sees himself as free, but his former associates, including individual number two above, view him as a traitor. Even the university professor, individual number one, despises him because he is not sufficiently “academically trained”, according to the professor, to critically examine the community of which he was once a part.

Which of these three individuals might give the most objective profile of the prophet’s life? If your answer is individual number three, I recommend this book by Ali Sina.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Not Ready to Make Nice

Nessma, the music video channel on my Arabic satellite package, advertises itself as “La tele du Grand Maghreb”, the TV channel for North Africa. In line with the trilingual ability of many of its viewers, its songs are in English, French, and Arabic. Although I’ve studied both languages, my youthful dream of being fluent in anything other than English has gone out the window along with many of my other dreams. But I still enjoy the music (and I'm still working on Arabic - as wiser men than me have said, It's not whether you accomplish your dreams, it's whether you're still trying).

They have recently been playing Not Ready to Make Nice by the Dixie Chicks. It reminds me of the tragedy of that group. It’s strange…one writes of them in the past tense as if they passed away. If anyone doesn’t know their story, they are (were?) an extremely talented trio with two sisters who played guitar, violin, and a host of other instruments, and a lead singer with a captivating voice. They had some great songs. I still can’t hear Travelin' Soldier without tears coming to my eyes and a lump in my throat.

And then it happened. During a concert in London soon after the Iraq war broke out, they commented they were ashamed that President Bush was from their home state of Texas. All hell broke loose. Country music stations stopped playing their music, fans burned their records, talk show hosts tore them to shreds, and magazine and newspaper articles buried the remains. Even the president got involved, commenting that the fans had the right not to buy their records if that was their choice. The lives of the Dixie Chicks will never be the same.

Not to even talk about the tragedy that the war in Iraq was and is, or the fact that the vast majority of Americans now feel the same about it as the Dixie Chicks, what would have happened if the President had a different response? What if as soon as they returned to the States from their tour he would have invited them to the White House to perform, say, at a state dinner for visiting Saudi King Abdallah? He could have acknowledged in his introductory speech that the Dixie Chicks publicly disagreed with his policy but, hey, this is America. We accept dissension. And I’m proud the Dixie Chicks are from Texas. I’ll tell you one thing – it would have been an evening the King would never forget.

Did I say something in the first paragraph about dreams flying out the window? It’s hard to imagine that happening today in the America of presidential handlers and advisors such as Karl Rove and James Carville. It’s become all about image, attacking your opponents, and never giving an inch. Somehow the simple advice of Jesus to just treat people the way you want them to treat you has also gone out the window.

Last year I saw a Willie Nelson concert in Monterey, California. Before the concert, the promoter threw out a few jokes about a campaign to elect Willie Nelson for President. When Willie came on stage, he brushed it off with a few comments I can’t remember. I thought he missed the opportunity for a good zinger. He could have said, “Well, after these last few years, I think it’s going to be a lonnngg time before America elects another President from Texas !”

On second thought, it’s probably better he didn’t say that. Looking at what happened to the Dixie Chicks, it might have been the end of Willie’s career as well.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Changing Sacred Texts

In one of my early Introduction to Islam classes, we were asked to write a short research paper on a related subject of our own choosing. We had already learned that Muslims believed Christians and Jews had corrupted or deliberately changed the texts of the Old and New Testaments, so I thought I would look at the historical evidence for that belief.

At the time, Temple University had a well-known religion department with an equally well-stocked library. Looking at the rows and rows of books in the religion section, I was eager to begin my research. To my surprise, I could find no evidence to support the proposition. There were no names, dates, or examples of the corruption that had supposedly taken place.

Even before this, I thought the Muslim claim was rather strange. Early Christians, including almost all of the original followers of Jesus, were killed for their beliefs and this persecution continued for hundreds of years. People don't deliberately change their sacred texts and then willingly die in defense of the falsehoods. Many people have given their lives for false causes, but they believed they were true. You don't die for something you know is wrong.

Later I realized that the Muslim allegation was based upon one simple fact. The Quran is different from the Bible. Since Muslims believe the Quran is perfect, the a priori assumption is that the earlier text was corrupted. The Quran says Jesus was not crucified. The Bible says he was, so the Christians must have changed their text. Muhammad said the Torah predicted that a messenger from Allah named Ahmad (a form of Muhammad) would come. Since the Torah does not say that, the Jews must have removed the reference. Muhammad taught that Allah prevented prophets from committing major sins. The spicy story of David and Bathsheba must have been inserted by those nasty Jews; King David would not really have done that.

Muslims still believe that our Christian and Jewish ancestors deliberately changed their sacred texts. The headlines in the Saudi press for the past few days have been devoted to King Abdallah's recent call for an "Interfaith Dialogue". Six hundred Muslim scholars met in Mecca this weekend to prepare the Muslim positions for this dialogue. A Saudi scholar was interviewed on TV recently about the upcoming dialogue. When he was asked if Islam had come to do away with Judaism and Christianity the scholar replied, "Islam did not get rid of their religions. They contaminated, changed, altered, and distorted their holy books. We accept that their religions exist, but we tell them that they have changed them, and that they know the books they have are not the divine gospel and the divine Torah. We want to bring them back to their original religion."

What Happened in the Cave

In the preface to “No god but God" Reza Aslan writes that “To ask whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions."

I see it differently. Looking at the second part of Reza's statement, I think that whether or not Muhammad actually heard the voice of God in the cave on Mount Hira and throughout the rest of his life is of extreme importance. As with most major questions, there aren’t many possible answers. In this case, there are only two. Either Muhammad was given the words of God by the angel Gabriel, or he made it all up. If the first is true, we should all become Muslims. If the second……….

As for the first part of his statement, I'm surprised Reza made reference to the relatively unimportant tomb of Lazarus compared to the much more significant tomb of Jesus. Which brings to mind the following story:

In 1980 British Anglican bishop John Hick came to Temple University to promote his book “The Myth of God Incarnate”. The bishop explained that he had faced a dilemma when Muslims began moving into his UK parish. How could he relate to them if his religion was superior to theirs? Jesus performed miracles while Muhammad did none. Jesus guaranteed his followers eternal life, and Muhammad’s message was to hope for the best. Jesus rose from the dead, and Muhammad died of a headache. The bishop concluded he needed to bring his religion down to their level. The result was his book, which debunked all the supernatural events of the New Testament.

As I left the hall, I saw my Islamics Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr ahead of me. Assuming he must have been impressed, I caught up to him. “Dr. Nasr,” I asked, “What did you think?” I’ve never forgotten his reply. “I don’t know how that man can call himself a Christian,” he said. “If you take the resurrection out of Christianity, it collapses like a deck of cards.”

I believe Dr. Nasr was correct. But the same holds true for Islam. If Muhammad did not really receive the words of God in the cave, there’s nothing there.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Your Homework Assignment

The New Yorker and The New Republic have just published lengthy articles about the demise of Al Qaeda. The first is “The Rebellion Within” by Lawrence Wright. The second is “The Unraveling” coauthored by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank.

If I were a university professor and you were my student, I’d give you an assignment. It would be to underline every occurrence of the word “jihad” or any of its derivatives in the two articles. “Jihad” and “jihadist” would be underlined dozens of times. I would then ask you to write a 500-word paper on the meaning of jihad as understood and practiced by Muhammad. If the word is important enough to be repeated so many times, what does it mean?

The reason for asking you to define jihad as Muhammad understood it is because that is what Muslims do. We in the West have no idea how significant the person and example of the Prophet are to Muslims. The conflict between Al Qaeda and other Muslim activists is simply a disagreement about how Muhammad would practice jihad and what limits he might place on it.

Here are a few ideas that might help you with your assignment. First of all, don’t look for any assistance within the two articles themselves. It’s not there. To be honest, I’m not sure even the authors could do this assignment. Secondly, the best way to understand how Muhammad viewed jihad is to read what he said about it. You need to read enough to get a true picture, because just one example could give you an incomplete impression. As an example, the Quran tells Muslims in Sura 29:8 to resist even their parents if the parents are “struggling” (the word used is “jihad”) to prevent Muslims from worshipping Allah. From that one verse, one might conclude that “jihad” is something non-Muslims do against Muslims. But there are dozens of other verses in the Quran that define jihad as the exertion of effort to spread the influence and authority of Islam. Al Qaeda and its Muslim opponents just disagree on what those efforts should be.

I'll make the assignment really easy. All you need to do is read this analysis of jihad, where the Muslim scholar has done all the work for you. Summarize what he says in 500 words, and turn it in. You'll get an A+. And you'll possibly know more about jihad than the writers of the two articles.

Notes on Culture

The other day I attended a lecture on American culture given by a visiting professor from American University in Washington DC . The lecture was held at a local private English-medium university. Many of the students will be continuing their studies in the States, and the lecture was designed to prepare them for that experience. One of the things the professor noted was that people should not judge the host culture by the values or standards of their own culture.

Following the lecture, some time was given for questions. In the States this usually means a member of the audience asks a short question and the speaker gives a response. In this part of the world, it often means that members of the audience use the opportunity as a platform to talk about whatever. The first person to stand up went into a monologue about I-have-no-idea-what. But I do remember one sentence, “We all know that America will never elect a black person as President.”

The visiting professor was very generous. He commented that he would be willing to “bet a cup of tea” with the student that the next American President would indeed be black.

I wouldn’t have been so kind. It would have been the chance for a “teaching point” I couldn’t have passed up. I would have said, “This is exactly what I was talking about. You are judging another culture by the standards of your own culture. Just because you will never be king of Saudi Arabia, you assume the Americans would not elect a black American as President.”

Following the lecture I had a conversation with a delightful young student in his second year. His English, although good, is not perfect. The visiting professor had also encouraged the students to not be afraid to make language mistakes in America, because Americans are very understanding and helpful with people still learning our language. The student asked me if this was true. I assured him it was, and gave him the example of Nobel-prize winner Ahmad Zewail whose English was also weak when he first arrived in America. Ahmad recounts that when he went into a restaurant and asked for “desert”, his wife had to teach him the difference in pronunciation between “dessert” and “desert”.

Girls of Riyadh

In a recent conversation with a young Saudi woman, I commented that Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf said he did not like to read Arabic authors because none of them had said anything interesting in the last 500 years.

Her response was to ask if I had read Binat Al-Riyadh (Girls of Riyadh). I hadn’t heard of it, but soon after stopped off at the Jarir bookstore to get a copy. The Arabic edition was (tellingly) sold out, but an English translation was available. It’s the well-worth-reading story of four young Saudi female friends and their adventures in life and love. The best thing about it is that it was written by a Saudi woman in her early 20's. This book could not have been published the last time I lived in Saudi Arabia from 1993-95. The fact that it was initially banned even when it first came out in 2005, but is now available in local bookstores in both Arabic and English, is evidence that changes are taking place in this society. The “Princess” trilogy written by Jean Sasson in the 90’s caused a stir, but this is different in that it was actually written by a Saudi and not by a foreigner writing about Saudis.

The only sad thing in reading it was the ever-recurring realization that I am and always will be a stranger to and in this society. Even though I live here and take more of an interest in the culture and the people than do many expats, I’m still a stranger. At least books like “The Girls of Riyadh” are now appearing to give me glimpses into a society of which I always stand on the outside.