No-one seems to know how to respond to al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine. Stephen Colbert tried to be funny, as comedians always do. Peter Hoekstra tried to be blustery, as politicans always do. But the real challenge posed by the magazine and the ideology it represents is neither to American comedians nor politicians. It is to the Muslim Ummah, the community of Muslims worldwide, a challenge to look honestly at who Muhammad really was and how he responded to those who resisted his claim that he was a Prophet sent from God.
Stephen Colbert along with the rest of Western media might laugh at "How to Build a Bomb in Your Mom's Kitchen", but a much more serious editorial was written by American turned Jihadist Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki. Entitled "The Cartoon Crusade - the Dust Will Never Settle Down", the editorial contains a list of Western non-Muslims, as well as former Muslims who have left Muhammad behind, who deserve to be killed because they criticized Muhammad. The reason for this death sentence is simple and straightforward. "The medicine prescribed by the Messenger of God," writes Shaykh Anwar, "Is the execution of those involved. A soul that is so debased as to enjoy the ridicule of the Messenger of Allah...does not deserve life, does not deserve to breathe the air created by Allah, and enjoy a life provided for by Allah. Their proper abode is hellfire. The Messenger of Allah called for the assassination of Kab ibn Ashraf, and there are other incidents of his companions killing those who spoke against him. There was a blacklist of names of people in Makkah that were to be killed even if found hanging onto the clothes of the Kabah, the holiest site in Islam. This list included, among others, women who sang poetry defaming Muhammad."
And here is the challenge posed by Anwar al-Awlaki to Muslims everywhere. Muhammad killed people who criticized him. As noted here, the social critics of Muhammad's day - the Bill O'Reillys and the Arianna Huffingtons - were the poets. They were our bloggers, cartoonists and film-makers, the cynics and the skeptics. And those who did not believe Muhammad was a prophet of God and who expressed their views in their poetry were killed. Anwar's simple proposition is as follows. Muhammad is our Prophet, our model and our example. He killed those who criticized him. Why should we not do the same?
There are two important things to notice here. The first is that Muhammad's earliest biographers, in contrast to writers such as Tariq Ramadan, Reza Aslan, Muhammad Haykal and Omid Safi today, rarely tried to explain the actions of Muhammad and his companions. They simply recorded what they did. In one example from Ibn Ishaq's The Life of Muhammad, a warrior named Amr bin Umayya recounted that Muhammad sent him to Mecca to kill an enemy named Abu Sufyan. Amr was recognized before he could carry out the mission and forced to flee the 250 miles back to Medina. While spending the night in a cave he encountered a one-eyed shepherd tending his sheep. When Amr identified himself as a follower of Muhammad, the shepherd replied, "I will never become a Muslim nor pay any attention to their religion."
Amr's unspoken response was, "I'll teach you." He continued, "As soon as the shepherd was asleep, I killed him in a more horrible way than any man has ever been killed. I put the end of my bow in his one eye, and bore down on it until I forced it out at the back of his neck." The next morning Amr came across one of the shepherd's companions. He tied his thumbs together with a bow string and took him as a prisoner back to Medina. When Muhammad saw the prisoner, he "laughed so hard one could see his back teeth". When Amr told him the rest of the story, "the Prophet blessed me".
Why did Amr kill the shepherd in such a gruesome manner? Why did Muhammad find the story so hilarious? The biographer does not tell us, but simply recounts the event.
The same is true of the poets and poetesses killed by Muhammad for criticizing him in their poetry. Modern writers go to great lengths to try to explain and justify Muhammad, but his original biographers did none of this. They merely recorded what he did.
The second thing to notice is that many Muslims do not even bother to try to explain what Muhammad did - they simply deny it. Google Asma bint Marwan, the Jewish poetess killed by Muhammad as she lay sleeping with her nursing child because Islam's Prophet felt threatened by her poetry. Muslims such as this one argue the story never happened because her name is not collaberated in the Hadith. Rather than honestly deal with the unsavory aspects of Muhammad's character and behavior, they simply deny them.
And here is the problem. Most Muslims believe in the Prophet they wish had existed. The Jihadists follow the Muhammad who really existed. When confronted with the arguments of the Jihadists, the so-called moderate Muslims have no answer. The Anwar al-Awlakis of this world are the true Followers of Muhammad. And the willingness or unwillingness of ordinary Muslims to critically confront their own Prophet could determine, in my opinion, the future of Western civilization.