Friday, December 25, 2009

Muslims and Muhammad and Empire Building

At Muslims and Muhammad - the Impossible Task, I posted, "It is impossible that a man could call other men to follow him, and then watch them die one after the other in the battles he instigated to build his empire while giving them promises of the sensual Paradise that awaited them, and be a prophet of God."

The knowledge many Muslims have of Muhammad begins with his first claimed revelation in the cave of Hira when he was about 40 years old, but a better understanding of his personality and motivation comes with a study of his family's history beginning five generations earlier when his ancestor Qusay married the daughter of the Quraysh tribal leader and purchased the keys of the Kaaba for a flagon of wine and a camel. The Kaaba housed the tribal gods of many local tribes, and was a source of revenue as worshippers offered donations to visit the buidling and pray to their idols.

Qusay's leadership of the Quraysh and control of the Kaaba passed through the succeeding generations of Abdel-Manaf and Abu-Hashim. Abu-Hashim, who was Muhammad's great-grandfather, married a woman from Medina and sent their son Abdel-Mutalib to Medina specifically to learn horsemanship and religion from the Jewish rabbis who lived there. As a result of his time with the rabbis and his study of Jewish history, Abdel-Mutalib learned two principles that he in turned passed on to his young grandson Muhammad. First was a belief in monotheism, and second was the concept of the prophet-king exhibited by King David and other ancient Jewish rulers. To control both the religious and secular life of his subjects, a leader needed to be first accepted as a prophet and then as a king. Although Muhammad was only 8 years old when Abdel-Mutalib died, there are several Hadiths that indicate that Abdel-Mutalib preferred his young grandson even above his own ten sons, and recognized the potential of leadership in the young Muhammad.

The power and influence of the Beni Hashim had greatly decreased in the four generations between Abu-Hashim and Muhammad, and the young orphaned Muhammad only had memories passed through oral tradition of his family's past leadership in Mecca. At the same time, other Arab tribes throughout Arabia and Yemen were successfully forming unions and kingdoms (I have discussed this at this link). The year before Muhammad's first revelation, there was an unprecedented Arab victory over the Persians at Dhi Qar in present day Iraq, and about the same time a Yemeni tribe forced the Ethiopians from their territory in southern Yemen. It became apparent to Muhammad that a united Quraysh tribe could form a political entity that would challenge the surrounding kingdoms. It was for this reason that Muhammad promised his first converts in Mecca that if they followed him, the treasures of the Roman and Persian Emperors would be theirs.

Muhammad spent the first thirteen years of his career trying to find a tribe that would accept him, in the tradition of King David, as first a prophet and then a king. When the Quraysh refused, Muhammad approached tribes in nearby cities such as Taif and at annual tribal gatherings to urge them to accept him as their leader. He was finally successful when Abbas Ibn Ubada and some others from Medina accepted his leadership hoping it would give them an advantage over local Jewish tribes with whom they existed in enmity. When Abbas Ibn Ubada asked Muhammad what they would get for following him, Muhammad answered with one word, "Paradise."

Historian Ibn Ishaq in great detail gives the names of many of Muhammad's early followers, both from Mecca and later in Medina. He also carefully lists the names of those who died in Muhammad's battles at Badr, Uhud, and many other battlegrounds throughout Arabia and extending to Syria. Many of Muhammad's first converts, including his son Zayd, were dead within a few years.

Muslim and Muslim apologists defend these battles as defensive and necessary for the survival of the Muslim community, but it is impossible to read them carefully in the words of Islam's early historians and conclude they were in any way defensive.

Umayyah ibn Abu Salt, a contemporary of Muhammad whose poetry was both admired and copied by Muhammad into the Quran, never accepted Islam. While passing a graveyard where the Muslim victims of the battle of Badr were buried, Umayyah said according to the Hadith, "I cannot believe that a man who leads his own tribal members to death can be a prophet of God."

I agree. I don't believe that Muhammad was necessarily any better or worse than an innumerable number of other warlords, political leaders, or empire builders who have lived after him or who are alive today. But I don't accept them as prophets. I find it impossible to believe that a man who would lead his followers to battle and death as Muhammad did, while offering them promises of the Paradise awating them, could be a Prophet of God.

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