"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Jihad Chapter and Muhammad's Moral Dilemmas



Notes and my reflections as I read Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong


This 214-page book only has five chapters and the fourth that I finished the other day while driving to the mountains is simply called "Jihad."  On nearly the final page, Karen Armstrong writes "[Muhammad's] original aim had been to end the violence of jahiliyyah, but he was now behaving like an ordinary Arab chieftain. He had felt impelled to go to war in order to achieve a final peace, but the fighting had unleashed a grim and vicious cycle of strike and counterstrike, atrocity, and retaliation, which violated essential principles of Islam."  (pg. 163)

Truthfully for me much of this chapter was Muhammad doing things that were against what he desired to do or else the spirit of the Quran.  Actually the first part that took my attention wasn't so much against Muhammad's or the Quran's standards, but against mine. I just have a hard time justifying stealing from others being a God-sanctioned way of providing for yourself.  I read how the Emigrants - those who came to Medina with Muhammad from Mecca - couldn't support themselves as merchants since there were already plenty and none of them were good farmers so they supported their community by raiding from caravans.  Add to this fact, Karen Armstrong says part of Muhammad's strategy was to get the Quraysh's attention so he could bring his message from God to his people.  The Quraysh had already rejected this divine revelation -- that's why Muhammad & Co. are outside of their home city -- but Muhammad feels burdened for his people, wants them to know this truth from God ... so he raids their caravans!   Sounds about as decent as sending in the missionaries to convert the people before your powerful army comes through to steal the natural resources of a country!  Stealing from others and trying to share your faith should never go together!


Probably not the best way to share the goodness of your faith


Granted Armstrong showed us that a revelation came to give permission for these raids - a "primitive just war theory" - because when Muhammad and his followers were ousted from their homeland, they were treated unjustly.  Apparently by raiding caravans they could steal back what was stolen from them by the Meccans.

Twice in this chapter Armstrong notes the struggle, the "tragic moral dilemma" Muhammad faced as he had to expel people from their homeland. See, his whole justification for warring with the Quraysh was that the Muslims were made to leave Mecca.  But now that Muhammad was rising to power in Medina and a few tribes didn't bow to his wishes, he was doing the same thing to these people by forcing them to leave their homeland due to their rebellion.  Armstrong says, "He had wanted to cut the cycle of violence and dispossession, not continue it." (pg. 151)  Yet he did.  I suppose this shows that not even a prophet of God can change society in any sort of quick way, huh?

Armstrong quotes Ibn Sa'd  and said Muhammad never hit any slave or wife of his. According to her, Muhammad "was ahead of his time" in this matter since so many of the Muslim men did "beat their wives without giving the matter a second thought."  (pg.158)  Now Muhammad was already introducing a lot of reform. Much of which gave women rights they had never had before such as inheriting property.  This book notes that the men were outraged at how many social reforms Muhammad was making already.  So Muhammad, knowing his enemy was gathering a massive army, had to keep the loyalty of his men somehow.  Thus he permitted them to retain this wife-beating provision though he basically told them it wasn't something he wanted them to do.  In fact Armstrong notes that Muhammad "did not like" the new revelation that seemed to give men permission to beat their wives. (I guess Muhammad was more progressive than God on this topic.)    Armstrong notes: "Yet again, the conflict with Mecca had compromised his vision and forced him to adopt a course of action that, in more normal circumstances, he would have preferred to avoid.  The Quranic legislation about women is intertwined with verses about the war, which inevitably affected everything that happened in Medina at this time; Muhammad knew that he had no hope of surviving a Meccan onslaught with disaffected troops."  (pg. 158)

It's a shame that wife beating had to continue in order to keep the troops happy, isn't it?  

One social reform Muhammad made had to do with women inheriting property.  The men protested this wondering why women who do no work to earn money would get their (the men's) money.  This is such an annoying and idiotic view as if women are not contributing to the household simply because the jobs they do don't pay in cash.  While the men are out earning money, the women are staying home. It seems the men think they all sat around watching soap operas while scarfing down chocolate candies!  

Does she contribute to the household or not?

 Because we all know that babies miraculously feed, change their diapers and care for themselves while a woman simply snaps her finger and her house is instantly clean and a delicious meal is on the table ready for her family to enjoy.  Yeah, poor men out working all day and their wives not contributing one bit to the household. How dare they think they should inherit property their men have worked for!




One last thing I noted was how a spirit of individualism contributed to a more patriarchal society.  At one time both men and women of Arabia had multiple spouses.  Women lived with their families and their 'spouses' would drop by for visits.  It didn't matter which spouse fathered a child as children identified as their mothers' descendants.  This started changing as the tribes became settled and people started accumulating property and wealth.  Men suddenly wanted to pass their property on to their sons, so as Armstrong notes, "The Quran encouraged this trend towards a more patriarchal society."  (pg. 146)  It limited women to only one husband at a time and men to only four wives. Men started housing and taking care of their wives and children and now descendants are traced through their fathers' lines. Indeed I remember going into a house in Syria, seeing a picture of a group of fifty people or so and my hosts explaining that it was a family reunion.  I looked closer and then asked, "Where are the women?"    They laughed.  In my thinking if you have that many generations of people and that many people in one family, you had to have women somewhere along the way.  Alas, women are not traditionally pictured so I suppose future generations will only have adequate knowledge - or at least pictures - of their MALE descendants.  *tsk*  For shame.  You know me, I'm not used to staying out of the picture.  ;-)


Thoughts on any of this?

12 comments:

Amber said...

Armstrong has a very pro-Mohammed and Islam view. I actually like her writing in general - at least her early stuff, but she's not a historian and what she writes is heavily skewed to her own point of view even more than what one would expect from an actual historian.

I don't see Mohammed's actions being any different from what any other leader would have done in those situations. In other words, his actions are similar to other people who don't have 'divine mandate' from God to raid, etc. but are merely doing it for practical purposes. It's...common and entirely human. *shrug*

I've long thought that matrilineal lines make more sense when tracing geneaology and the like. You can always know who gave birth to who. You can't always know who fathered who. :)

sanil said...

I like your quiet snarkiness throughout this post. :D

How does Armstrong deal with this section? I've seen other people comment that she's very "pro-Islam," does she sort of look the other way here and justify it? Or criticize those verses and tendencies sort of the way you did, and note the situation as a factor that led him to corrupt the message?

Susanne said...

Amber, yes, I like her writing pretty well actually. It's not technical so that's good for my brain! :D

Definitely I see Muhammad's actions as ordinary. This is why I quoted from the page near the end of the chapter about Muh acting like an ordinary Arab chieftain. He may have had desires to be different, but in many matters he was no better than the Arab chiefs surrounding him. He reformed some areas, true, but most things he followed social norms .. at least it seemed so in this chapter.

Enjoyed all you shared. Thank you!

Susanne said...

Sanil, snarky? Meeeee? *feigns innocence* :) That made me laugh!

I get a more favorable view of Muhammad from these books (this one and Reza Aslan's), but I don't think I've ever pretended I'm his biggest fan. :) You know I love Jesus and when someone comes along saying he is of the same order of the previous prophets yet his message is so ordinary or a regression from what Jesus said, I find his "prophethood" and "divine revelation" suspect and something HE must prove to me somehow. (So far I've not found the proof and find Jesus' message superior.)

Muhammad seemed a nice enough guy. He probably meant well, but I don't find him another Jesus or Moses really.

And Karen Armstrong only mentioned these things giving me the impression Muhammad wanted to be different, but couldn't so he was left to be an ordinary Arab chieftain type...so far.

She seems to really like him and I'm sure he did do some really good social justice type things which are admirable. There ARE many things about Islam and Muhammad that are good. I don't want to be one of those types who damns every single thing about Islam and its prophet.

But she just explains this stuff as "it's not normal for us or it might appall modern sensibilities, but it was OK for that time."

Someone else reading it may come to a completely different conclusion, but that's how I see it. The one thing I do like (actually there are other things I like) is she never portrays Muhammad as a perfect person like some Muslims give me about their prophet. It's OK to be a fallible human. We all are. :)



Thank you both for your comments!

observant observer said...

To me it seems obvious that Karen Arsmtrong is interested in becoming popular and well accepted by Muslims....it could be for the better of seeing them having at least restored dignity (being questioned all the time by the non Muslims), or it's also possible that she's venturing into her own version of what a God and a prophet should be, I mean I see that she's the one who becomes the salesperson of Islam while she's actually still have lots of question regarding any religion and what and who God is personally to her.

I remember that she was not very keen about the story of the Catholic saints who were given some vision of Jesus showing His heart and blood (see her book : history of God)to be the remembrance for what He had given or sacrificed for the Church, to her this kind of God seemed to be showing too much self pity!! I was rather dissapointed of reading her comment on this! I now see that she was not capable of seeing the vurnerability of man's life to be appreciated, especially when it's the true facts of life, instead she seemed to be interested in the mighty concept of God and how it's applied by this so called religion of mighty God with its grip on men's freedom and the application of rules and regulations...and following the model of a warrior cum leader cum religious advocate of Muhammad....so, it's a matter of taste for her, I suppose

Susanne said...

OO, thanks for recording your impressions of Karen Armstrong. I read it soon after I finished the book in which the author concluded we must -- Muslim and Western worlds that is -- "learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another." Then she suggested a good place to start being Muhammad: "a complex man, who resists facile, ideologically-driven categorization, who sometimes did things that were difficult or impossible for us to accept, but who had profound genius and founded a religion and cultural tradition that was not based on the sword but whose name - "Islam" - signified peace and reconciliation." (pg. 214)

Make of that what you want. :)

Thanks much for your reply!

Suroor said...

Susanne, I really enjoyed this post. I think you have pointed out a lot of issues I have thought about myself. Let me offer you my (semi!) conclusions :)

I think the biggest point that goes against Muhammad is that he was born in full light of history. By that I mean that there may have been prophets before him with similar or more tangential behavior (from what *we* perceive should be the best moral behaviour) but those men were not scrutinised like Muhammad. The other problem that I see is that the Biblical prophets had erred but infallibility is not attached to them whereas infallibility of prophets is an integral part of Islamic culture, especially in the Shia sect of Islam.

I thought KA was actually looking at Muhammad with a very Christian eye – he behaved a certain way because it was required and shaped by his culture and society and it was no different than the behaviour of past prophets. She either accepts him as just another prophet or she doesn’t believe in the idea prophethood at all - all men make mistakes, some more than others.

I also feel that because Christians have this perfect example of Jesus (who according to Rumi was so perfect that it confused people and they started to believe he was God!) they always compare other men to him. My problem with this is, if you believe Jesus was/is God then why compare Muhammad or anyone with God when Muhammad never claimed to be perfect or God; in fact Quran reminds us over and over again that Muhammad was only human. I call this my problem because I don’t believe that Jesus was God but I think he was as perfect as any human being can ever get – surely he scared people with Hell and at least once he said he had come with a (metaphorical) sword, but that is nothing compared to what other prophets did in the Bible or even Muhammad did in Medina. Thus, to be Jesus is the perfect model of what a preacher should be like. Therefore, when ‘I’ compare other men to Jesus, I have problems since no one matches up to him. But I don’t understand the Trinitarian comparison, you know what I mean?

Regarding wife beating – if KA is constantly justifying the Prophet’s behaviour by referring to the society around him, perhaps she should have mentioned that all the marital training he got for 25 years was through a monogamous union with a much older and much stronger and influential woman. There was no way on earth he could have dreamed of hitting a woman who was not only moral and upright but was also his boss and patron. His companions on the other hand were not married to women nearly as amazing as Khadeejah who had trained the Prophet and even helped in convincing him that he was a prophet of Allah. They were into relationships that allowed them to hit their wives and that is what they knew about marriage. How do we know that the Prophet NEVER hit his wives? Through hadith? But there are also two instances in hadith of him hitting once Aisha and once a wife who loudly took refuge in Allah from him so he raised his hand and “patted” her to silence her and then divorced her instantly. So either we do away with all hadith good and bad, or we admit that there were these two instances and that it was NOT the norm. If we reject all hadith then we don’t have any evidence that he never hit any woman and from the reading of the Quran alone we may come to conclusion that if he allowed other men to beat their wives, he may have beaten his wives as well. See how important hadith is to understand the upright and uniformly moral character of the Prophet?! He wasn’t a wife beater like other men; only two instances don’t make him a wife beater but I don’t believe in human infallibility either.

Raids are tricky. I don’t bend over backwards to understand their *moral* requirement. There is always a way. When there is a will, there is a way. You preach a religion, you don’t propagate it.

Suroor said...

Sorry for the long comment, btw :)

Lat said...

Hhhmmm....but many preachers do propagate their religion.It happened in the past and it's still happening now.Isn't it part of their religious duty to do so? i'm just assuming of course seen from their actions.

Suroor said...

Yes, preachers do that but prophets are special, aren't they? They are different from ordinary preachers because they come with miracles and divine support etc. Prophets come to change minds not merely increase the population of their followers.

Susanne said...

Suroor, no need to apologize for any lengthy comments. You know I love 'em! :)

I really enjoyed your take on my post and the issues raised by KA's book. I read this post to Samer and he said the hadith about Muhammad hitting Aisha was weak so maybe that's what most Muslims believe. I appreciate your mentioning that and also the raids.

About this:


"My problem with this is, if you believe Jesus was/is God then why compare Muhammad or anyone with God when Muhammad never claimed to be perfect or God; in fact Quran reminds us over and over again that Muhammad was only human. I call this my problem because I don’t believe that Jesus was God but I think he was as perfect as any human being can ever get – surely he scared people with Hell and at least once he said he had come with a (metaphorical) sword, but that is nothing compared to what other prophets did in the Bible or even Muhammad did in Medina. Thus, to be Jesus is the perfect model of what a preacher should be like. Therefore, when ‘I’ compare other men to Jesus, I have problems since no one matches up to him. But I don’t understand the Trinitarian comparison, you know what I mean?"


If I believed Muhammad was a prophet of God I would have no trouble believing in his message *despite* any sinful things he did (e.g. stealing from caravans). After all I accept the Old Testament prophets and leaders despite the fact they did wrong. That is not the issue for me. I hold Muhammad against Jesus' example for a very important reason. His message was different. He came AFTER Jesus, yet his message is more like a 2000 year REgression to Moses and Joshua times (eye for an eye mentality). We've already progressed past that with Jesus, yet Muhammad claims to be a continuation of those prophets. But his message takes people backwards and puts them under a lot of rules (or maybe the followers of Muhammad did that and I am wrongly crediting Muhammad for this. Do people REALLY care one iota how you used the bathroom? It is REALLY necessary to have rules for entering a bathroom, whether we squat or stand and how we clean ourselves? Are the people really THAT stupid??) when Jesus came to set us free to do good works, love and serve others -- INCLUDING our enemies.

I compare Muhammad with Jesus' *message* and he lacks something fierce. This is why I scrutinize his actions more. Maybe I am wrong for this, but if someone comes along with a claim that he is only following the footsteps of the prophets yet his message regresses or is "another gospel" (and *of course* I am looking at this through Christian eyes!), then why should I accept him? He is one that should be looked at with great suspicion. So I do.

Also Muslims often give me the impression that Muhammad was perfect so if I want to find proof that he was not, it's just my examining the evidence and coming to my own conclusions of his perfectness - or not. He has to prove to me somehow that he is from God and so far I've not been convinced.

Thanks for those good questions that give me a chance to explain where I'm coming from. I appreciate your comments!

Susanne said...

Lat, maybe preaching your message is fine and if people want to join you, then great. But none of this "convert or die" stuff! I wonder if that really "takes" with God anyway ... being forced to convert rather than doing it for Him. Same with converting just so you can marry someone of another faith. Does that count?


Thank you all for your comments!