Friday, November 27, 2009

Tariq Ramadan: In the Footsteps of the Prophet

I'm reading "In the Footsteps of the Prophet - Lessons from the Life of Muhammad", by Tariq Ramadan. As usual, one needs to read books like this very carefully, with the book in one hand and access to original accounts of the sayings and life of Muhammad (the Hadith and the Sirah) in the other. There is no other way to verify the truth or untruth, as well as the intention and the purpose, of what appears in the book.

In the case of Tariq's book, examples appear on almost every page. Here is just one from the first page of chapter 5, which is entitled "The Message and Adversity". Tariq writes, "The number of converts slowly grew as a result of the Prophet's own discreet preaching and the very determined involvement of Abu Bakr, who was always ready to speak about the new faith and take action for its sake: he would buy slaves from their masters and set them free in the name of Islam's principles stressing the equality of all human beings."

To the university professor and her students, the newspaper journalist and his readers, the TV reporters and their viewers, government officials and all those who voted them into power, military commanders and their soldiers, and all regular Joe Six-Pack and Judy Soccer-Mom Americans, statements like these seem so impressive. No wonder Paul Donnelly described Tariq Ramadan as "a Muslim Martin Luther" in the Washington Post, according to the cover jacket of Tariq's book. No wonder millions of Americans believe these "facts" must be true - Muhammad really was against slavery, and his followers set slaves free in the name of Islamic principles that stress human equality.

The only way to verify the information given is to examine the original Islamic sources. As is often the case, they show another side of the story.

It is true that many of Muhammad's first followers in Mecca, the early converts to Islam, were Meccan slaves. But did they follow him because of his message of love and justice, or was their another reason? Sayyid al-Qimni, in his Arabic book "Islamiyat", writes that Muhammad's message was attractive to slaves because he promised them that following him would make them rich. There were at the time two great empires in the region, the Byzantine Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire. Their leaders were known as Caesar and as Khosrau. Muhammad promised his followers in numerous authentic hadiths that if they followed him, "Khosrau will be ruined, and there will be no Khosrau after him, and Caesar will surely be ruined and there will be no Caesar after him, and you will spend their treasures in Allah's Cause."

The message was simple - "If you follow me, you will become rich." It is very possible that this promise of wealth was what caused slaves of Mecca to follow Muhammad. It is also possible that this fermented rebellion from those slaves against their masters, and this - not Muhammad's teaching that Allah was the only true God - is what caused the merchants of Mecca to punish the slaves and turn against Muhammad.

Is there more behind Abu Bakr's "buying slaves from their masters and setting them free" than Tariq Ramadan chooses to tell us? In the original "Life of Muhammad", Ibn Ishaq recounts the incident of Abu Bakr freeing a Muslim slave named Bilal as follows: One day Abu Bakr passed by as Bilal's owner was mistreating him. Abu Bakr said to the owner, "Have you no fear of God that you treat this poor fellow like this?"

The owner replied, "You are the one who corrupted him, so you save him."

"I will do so," said Abu Bakr, "I have got a black slave who is tougher and stronger than he, who is a heathen. I will exchange him for Bilal." The transaction was carried out, and Abu Bakr took Bilal and freed him.

The story could not be clearer. Abu Bakr was himself a slaveholder. He did not purchase Bilal's freedom with his own money; he merely exchanged him for a non-Muslim slave. A "strong black slave" who was "a heathen", was of less value than a convert to Islam. And is it really plausible that the slave was "corrupted" by merely being taught the name of the true God was Allah?

Islamic history records Abu Bakr as freeing seven Muslim slaves, five women and two men. Apart from Bilal, the other male was named Amir. Amir was killed in one of the battles Muhammad instigated, as were many of Muhammad's other early followers, without ever having the opportunity to "spend the treasures of Khosrau and Caesar".

Tariq Ramadan does not mention what Muhammad did with his female slave captives after he beheaded 800 Jewish men from the Beni Qurayza tribe in Medinah for the crime of refusing to accept him as Prophet and Leader. Ibn Ishaq recounts that, "The apostle sent Sa'd al-Ansari with some of the captive women of Beni Qurayza to Najd, where he sold them for horses and weapons." Tariq forgets to add that the Quran itself in 4:3 allows Muslims to have sex with as many of their female slaves as they like, and the hadiths specify it makes no difference whether or not the women are married. It also slips Tariq's mind to inform us that Muhammad himself had slaves throughout his life. Again, an authentic hadith records Umar as saying, "Allah's Apostle was staying in an attic room, and a black slave of Allah's Apostle was at the top of the stairs. I told him to inform the Prophet that Umar bin al-Khattab wanted to see him, and he did so."

The point of this post is not to give a detailed study on Islam and slavery, or the attitude of Muhammad towards slaves. It's simply a reminder to be careful when reading defenses of Islam written by Muslims or Muslim apologists. Things are not always quite what they seem.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Good Soldiers - David Finkel

The Good Soldiers is the most moving book I've read in years. When I tried to read a passage over the phone to my daughter in California, I could hardly make it through the page. She immediately went to the bookstore to purchase a copy, and texted me from the bus on her way home, "This is not a book to be read in a public place."

I was in Baghdad for two years, but my experiences do not begin to compare with those of the author who was there during some of that same time. I was living in the relative safety of the Green Zone; he was on patrol with soldiers near Sadr City. I spent many hours in bunkers waiting for the All Clear following incoming rockets and mortars, but he was in Humvees attacked by Improvised Explosive Devices and lived with the soldiers who both survived and succumbed to those attacks. The magic of the book is that the author tells their story, not his.

One paragraph in the book that literally took my breath away, however, was not another emotional description of an injured or dead soldier. It was when battalion Commander Ralph Kauzlarich blurted in frustration, "The whole religion of Islam is supposed to be a peaceful religion, in which the jihad is supposed to be that internal fight to be the best person you can be. I mean the Iraqi people, they're not terrorists. They're good people."

The second part is true. Iraqis, and Saudis, and Moroccans, and Bangladeshis, and Afghans, and Pakistanis, and Palestinians, and American Muslims living in DC and LA, are wonderful people. Not all of them, of course, but many. Just like Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Atheists, People Who Haven't Yet Figured Out Exactly What They Believe, and People Who Just Know They Don't Believe The Way They Did Five or Ten or Twenty Years Ago.

But the first part of his statement is not true. Islam, as designed and practiced by Muhammad, is not a religion of peace, and jihad is not an internal spiritual struggle. Let's look at both propositions, the second one first.

From Jerusalem to Monterey CA, I've heard people argue that jihad has a primarily peaceful meaning. I was astonished to hear the response of an "expert on Islam" when asked pointblank by a Turkish student during a lecture at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to define jihad. The expert reminded us that the Arabic noun in sentences such as "He put forth his best efforts" is "juhud", the plural for "jihad". He repeated the "weak hadith", which means it is not considered authoritative and which I've never once heard in hundreds of hours listening to Arabic TV, when Muhammad commented while returning from a raid that his followers had just completed the "lesser jihad", and were now to engage in the "greater jihad" of becoming more spiritual Muslims. The statistical fact is that jihad is mentioned well over 100 times in the Quran, and more than 95% of all those references refer to the primary meaning of jihad which is to remove all obstacles to the spread and domination of Islam. Jihad has this same meaning in the authoritative hadiths, and in Islam throughout history.

The first proposition is also not true. Islam, again as envisioned and practiced by Muhammad, only becomes a religion of peace when it is dominant and Muslims as well as non-Muslims live in quiet submission under their Muslim leaders, whether they are just or tyrants. Hundreds of people were killed during Muhammad's lifetime, both among his followers and those they attacked, in his campaigns to build his empire. Thousands of people were killed in the months following his death in the "Ridda" wars led by his first successor, Abu Bakr, when they discovered they could not leave Islam as easily as they had entered. And untold millions of people have died since in battles in which Muslims killed Muslims. Even in my lifetime examples include the war between Egypt and Yemen under President Nasser, the conflict between East and West Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh, the long struggle between Morocco and Mauritania over the Southern Sahara, the Iran-Iraq war, the fight between Libya and Chad, the slaughter in Algeria, and the current conflict between the Houthis and government forces in Yemen.

What is happening now is even more tragic, because American solders are dying by the thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan to try and stop Muslims from killing other Muslims. In the final analysis, that is all that is happening. Al-Qaidah Sunni Muslims are killing Awakening Movement Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Muqtada Sadr Shia loyalists are killing rival Shias, and the Shia and Sunnis are killing each other. The conflict in Afghanistan is between competing tribal factions. Muslims are doing what Muslims have always done, and we are caught in the middle. And our only response is to blurt out in frustration with Ralph Kauzlarich, "Islam is supposed to be a religion of peace." Why? Because that is what we have been taught by Muslim apologists and defenders.

In 2006, Wafa Sultan was listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World following her appearance on Al Jazeerah TV in which she challenged an Islamic scholar. In 2009 her very important book, A God Who Hates, was bypassed by the same media. Why did she go from the poster child "bad girl of Islam" to being ignored in only three years? The reason is she crossed the line that American academics, political officials, and media personnel are unwilling or afraid to cross. She came to the same conclusion that I reached after two years in Iraq and serious study of the original texts of Islam, the Quran, the Hadith, and the Sira (Muhammad's biography). During those two years I moved from believing the problem was Islamic terrorism to Islamic extremism to political Islam to...well, just Islam.

Chances are Ralph Kauzlarich has never heard of Wafa Sultan and won't read "A God Who Hates." And he'll probably never find the answer to another question he pondered in The Good Soldiers:

"Sometimes Kauzlarich would wonder exactly what the Iraqis hated about the American soldiers. What were they doing, other than trying to secure some Iraqi neighborhoods? What made people want to kill them for handing out candy and soccer balls, and delivering tankers of drinking water to them, and building a sewer system for them, and fixing their gas stations, and never being aggressive except for rounding up the killers among them?"