From Merchant to Messenger
The Prophet Muhammad's struggle for legitimacy as revealed in the Koran
Arabs: Before and After
Ernest Renan (1823–92), French historian and critic, writing about pre-Islamic Arab society (my translation):
I am not aware in the entire history of civilisation of a more gracious, more loving, more vibrant society than that of the Arabs before Islam … [It was a time] … of unbound freedom, lofty sentiments, a nomadic and chivalrous way of life, [a land] of fantasy, joy, mischievousness, bawdy impious poetry, refined love-making…
Ernest Renan, cf. Robert Montagne, La Civilisation du désert
What happened? Islam happened! Islam became the religion of the inhabitants of the peninsula and the Arabs, in T. E. Lawrence’s words, became a people of “primary colours.”
They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white … They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questioning. They only knew truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.
This people was black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes … they never compromised; they pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends, without perceiving the incongruity.
They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellect lay fallow in curious resignation. Their imaginations were vivid, but not creative.
T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
It wasn’t easy, as God readily admits, getting the Arabs to buy into his black and white vision of everything. He had to metaphorically open one of the gates of Hell and show them the punishment before they would finally give in to “utter despair.”
23:76 We seized them with the punishment; but they would not submit to their Lord and they would not supplicate.
23:77 Until We opened up against them a gate of terrible punishment and, behold, they were in utter despair.
In the Koran, you get a glimpse of the Arabs before Islam; not as unthinking pagans as Allah would have us believe, but as rational to the core and spiritual human beings, in the best sense of the word. This is evident in their coherent, logical, reasoned response—which God denounces as following their fancies—when asked to accept, without question, what a man claimed to reveal on His behalf, what He had written in a book on display in Paradise.
45:20 This (Qur’an) is an illumination for mankind, a guidance and mercy unto a people who believe with certainty.
A group of Meccan men’s fancy, of which Einstein would have approved and which remains my favourite, was their explanation of aging and life and death (Revelation 45:24).
45:22 Allah created the heavens and the earth in truth, so that every soul may be rewarded for what it has earned; and they shall not be wronged.
45:23 Have you seen him who has taken his fancy as his god and Allah has led him astray knowingly, and set a seal upon his hearing and his heart, and placed a veil upon his sight. Who, then, will guide him besides Allah? Do you not remember?
45:24 They say: “There is nothing but this our present life. We die and we live and we are only destroyed by time.” However, they have no certain knowledge of this; they are only conjecturing.
Conjecturing about our surroundings and what we don’t know has been associated with the beginning of wisdom by Western philosophers and Eastern sages since man started to look beyond superstitions to describe his surroundings and the possible world beyond. Many Meccans, despite being told not to think too much or risk being held to account, were comfortable with conjecture, as God readily admits in Revelation 45:32.
17:36 Do not pursue what you have no knowledge of. Hearing, sight and the heart – all these [you] shall be questioned about.
45:32 And when it was said: “Allah’s Promise is true and the Hour is undoubted”, you said: “We do not know what the Hour is. We only conjecture and are by no means certain.”
The people mentioned were those who denied the Hereafter openly and absolutely, here those who are not sure of it although they do not deny its possibility because of conjecture. Apparently there is a vast difference between the two groups in that one of them denies the Hereafter absolutely and the other regards it as possible on the basis of conjecture. But as for the result and final end, there is no difference between them, for the moral consequences of the denial of the Hereafter and of lack of the faith in it are the same.”
In Allah’s Universe, you may not speculate about what He tells you that you do not know; and what He tells you is the truth, in which you must believe “with certainty” no matter the incongruity. The disincentive that is Allah’s blanket embargo against seeking knowledge other than what is revealed in the Koran (and later the hadiths) may be partly responsible for the Muslim world, which constitutes 21 percent of the world’s population (2011), having produced only 10 Nobel Prize laureates, with only two in the physical sciences (1979 physics, 1999 chemistry).
Another is the inordinate amount of worship and glorification time Allah demands (if prayer is the answer, then the world may eventually owe Islam an enormous debt).
Not to be overlooked is the requirement of an Islamic education where priority is given to learning Arabic and attempting to memorise the Koran in its entirety; the negative impact on critical thinking is just as damaging, if not more, than the time left available to non-religious subjects, which Islamists consider the works of Satan.
Any study beside that of the Quran is a distraction, except the Hadiths and jurisprudence in the religion. Knowledge is what He [Muhammad] narrated to us, and anything other than that is the whispering of the Satan.
The period before Islam, on the Arabian Peninsula, is generally referred to by Muslims as Jahiliya, the time of ignorance, when world views as numerous and as varied as the colours of the rainbow flourished. Then Muhammad came along and that multi-coloured view of the universe changed to black and white, and humanity’s relationship with its Creator was demoted to that of mere supplicants of a vain and vengeful God.
Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 with his followers marks this alleged transition from ignorance to enlightenment. The year of this exodus is known as the Hijra or Hegira. The Hegira begins the Muslim calendar and is represented as 1 AH or 1 al-Hijra. As you read the revelations surrounding the Meccan unbelievers’ statement about the ravages of time, and about expressing doubts, you may be left to wonder who are the ignorant ones.
The Cartoon Protest
The Koran is more than a set of rules to be rigidly adhered to; it is also one man’s idea of what your relationship with an ethereal being as creator and overseer should be. Like any profound idea, good or bad, it will easily take root if it offers some benefit to a large enough collective and is left unopposed.
The sultans of the Ottoman Empire were the last to attempt to impose Islam on Europe via the sword. Today, Islam is subjugating the West, not through the force of arms (although intimidation, mainly through terrorist acts, still plays a role), but by using the openness of the West to old and new ideas even when not in its best interest.
The West has implicitly, if not explicitly, accepted Islam’s argument that limits should again be placed on criticism of religious beliefs, thereby allowing militant Islam to advance almost unchallenged. This gradual surrender of hard-won fundamental freedoms in the face of religious intolerance is slowly neutering the most effective weapons against the spread of this type of tyranny: freedom of expression and freedom of speech.
Winston Churchill, after the end of the Second World War (when it still had no official name), was asked what they should call the war that had just cost more than 30 million lives. He said “the unnecessary war.” If the democracies had stood steadfast in the face of Hitler’s demands instead of rewarding aggressive behaviour, there would have been no World War 2.
I was reminded of Churchill’s response when viewing a demonstration by Muslims in London during the so-called “cartoon protest.” Some of the demonstrators carried signs demanding that the now infamous Danish cartoonists be slaughtered, others that they be butchered for mocking Islam, for drawing mostly inoffensive cartoons of Muhammad.
In 2015, twelve cartoonists and staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, who first published the cartoons, were shot to death and another eleven injured in an act of retaliation.
I am sure that Churchill, if he were still alive, would have labelled the democracies’ timid response, which involved mainly apologizing for their citizens exercising their right to freedom of expression, as rewarding aggressive behaviour. Will the outcome be the same, a bloody, global war to dwarf all wars trying to regain cherished freedoms carelessly thrown away?
39:28 We made it an Arabic Qur’an without any defect that perchance they might be God-fearing.
How do we know our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so.
Epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world. If we cannot find our way to a time when most of us are willing to admit that, at the very least, we are not sure God wrote some of our books, then we need only to count the days to Armageddon—because God has given us many more reasons to kill one another than to turn the other cheek.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith - Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
When the 17th century welcomed the Age of Reason, it was thought that reason had triumphed over dogma once and for all. Islam has proven this assumption to be wrong and the outcome of the battle between the rational and the irrational is still very much in doubt.
The Renaissance, which marked the end of the Catholic Church’s dominance in Europe allowing for a flowering of the arts and sciences, and the Enlightenment, which ushered in the Age of Reason, may turn out to have been a short detour taken by a relatively small segment of humanity in the march of history; “a fragile exception,” writes Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia University in The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West (2007):
After centuries of strife, the West has learned to separate religion and politics – to establish the legitimacy of its leaders without referring to divine command. There is little reason to expect the rest of the world – the Islamic world in particular – will follow.
We in the West find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that can leave societies in ruin. We had assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that political theology died in 16th-century Europe. We were wrong. It's we who are the fragile exception.
Islam’s success in recruiting largely unopposed in the Dar al-Islam (Land of War, any jurisdiction where the Sharia, i.e., God’s Law is not the law of the land.); its approval of polygamy and encouragement of early marriages and large families; its promise of death to those who would even contemplate leaving the perfect religion for one less perfect or for no religion at all mean the community of believers will always be expanding. In fact, except for a temporary halt at the gates of Vienna in 1683, a small setback in Spain during the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand and a temporary reversal during the Mongol invasions, Islam has never looked back.
With all it has going for it, not to mention the paralyzing fear of random death in keeping with a strategy to which Muhammad attributes his successes, in Islam you have the making of a winner.
Narrated Abu Huraira:
Allah's Apostle said, "I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror.”
If you don’t believe that the Koran’s black-and-white, god-mandated, absolutist worldview should prevail, what should you do? Informing yourself of what is at stake is a start. Defending your right to freedom of speech and expression, especially where religion is concerned, is another.
We also recognize that a free society must have the scope to debate, to criticize, proselytize, insult and even ridicule belief and religious practices in order to ensure that there is full scope – short of violence or inciting violence or other criminal offences - to tackle these issues.
From a plea by an alliance of Muslims, Christians, humanists and secularists urging the British Parliament to reject legislation limiting the rights to criticize religious beliefs and traditions.
Still another way is acknowledging that Muslims are not your enemy. “Only religion,” to quote Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg, “can make good people do bad things.” Your enemy is a religion that was not allowed to grow beyond its desert roots; to become more than what Irshad Manji, in her plea for reform, The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change, calls “desert Islam.”
It won’t be easy.
The Damning of Innovation
For His last communication for humankind until Judgement Day, when He will deign to address, individually, each man, woman and child that ever lived and ever will be born—mostly to point out the many failings of what He created—God wanted to make sure His Book of instructions was perfectly delivered.
The only way perfection can be conveyed intact is via perfection itself, which is why today, Muhammad is revered as the embodiment of the perfect human being. Having delivered perfection, Muhammad sought to ensure that it never be altered by banning all innovation in what was communicated. Anyone who attempts to do so will burn in Hell.
Every innovation is a misguidance and every misguidance goes to Hell fire.
Prophet said: "The worst thing is any addition, for every addition is an innovation."
At the time, the most likely to bring about change were Muhammad’s surviving trusted collaborators, the Companions of the Prophet. In singling out confidantes of His ultimate spokesman, God warned anyone who would try to introduce change into the religion founded on His instructions that they would be denied Paradise. He did so in what He revealed to Muhammad will take place at Lake-Fount (Kauthar), a lake in Paradise He will gift to His favourite mouthpiece on Judgement Day.
Narrated Sahl bin Sa'd:
I heard the Prophet saying, "I am your predecessor at the Lake-Fount (Kauthar), and whoever will come to it, will drink from it, and whoever will drink from it, will never be-come thirsty after that. There will come to me some people whom I know and they know me, and then a barrier will be set up between me and them."
Abu Sa'id Al-Khudri added that the Prophet further said: "I will say those people are from me. It will be said, 'You do not know what changes and new things they did after you.' Then I will say, 'Far removed (from mercy), far removed (from mercy), those who changed (the religion) after me!'"
Muhammad, by damning innovation, has made Islam into a religion that will not bend, not unlike the proverbial oak that only hurricane force winds can topple. In that, there is a message and a dilemma for mankind.