Sunday, 2 April 2017

Myths About Muhammad 1. Moon God

     I am always pleased that I did my readings on Islam in the 1970s. That meant that when the War on Terror began a quarter of a century later, I did not need to do a rapid catch-up investigation, worrying all the time that I was reading biased polemics. However, I have noticed a number of popular misconceptions which have become current, so I would like to take the opportunity to dispel them.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Myths About Muhammad 2. Demon Possessed

     Having read the biography of Muḥammad, I have to admit to a grudging respect. But how you assess him depends on your terms of reference. Are you looking at Muḥammad the Arab, or Muḥammad the prophet? In the case of Muḥammad the Arab, I will not speak a harsh word against him. He was a moral giant striding across his environment. His faults were those of his society, but his virtues were his own, and that is the best which can be said about any of us.
     However, if you look at Muḥammad the prophet, the ideal man, the model to which all men should aspire, then it is hard not to agree with what H.G. Wells said in An Outline of History (1920):
Because he, too, founded a great religion, there are those who write of this evidently lustful and rather shifty leader as though he were a man to put beside Jesus of Nazareth, or Gautama, or Mani. But it is surely manifest that he was a being of a commoner clay; he was vain, egotistical, tyrannous, and a self-deceiver; and it would throw all our history out of proportion if, out of a sincere deference to the possible Moslem reader, we were to present him in any other light.
     So now let us look at a few criticisms of Muḥammad. The Rev. Jerry Vine caused a ruckus when he called Muḥammad a demon possessed pedophile, and an inspirer of terrorism. Let us examine each of them in turn.

Myths About Muhammad 3. Pedophile

     You won't need to read much of anti-Islam polemics to find Muḥammad described as a pedophile. For 25 years he lived in a monogamous marriage with Khadīja, a widow 15 years his senior, who was not only his first, but apparently his greatest, love. However, she died when he was aged 50, after which, as a middle aged man with the prestige of a prophet, following psychological processes on which we may speculate, he threw himself into the hobby of collecting women. (It is interesting to note, in passing, that the verses in the Koran promoting the sexual pleasures of Paradise - the famed "72 virgins" - all date from his monogamous period. Once he had started gathering an earthly harem, these revelations ceased.)
     Be that as it may, the accusation of pedophilia relates to his marriage to Ā’isha, a name sometimes written as Ayesha, which more closely approximates the pronunciation in her Meccan dialect. That he was very fond of her is not disputed, though her own attitude was more nuanced. It is also not disputed that she was his only virgin bride, and was very young when the marriage took place. But how young?

Myths About Muhammad 4. Violence

     The Rev. Jerry Vine also claimed that Muḥammad was an inspirer of terrorism. Is this accurate? A lot will depend on how his modern followers interpret his actions and words, because flying planes into skyscrapers and blowing oneself up in the middle of a crowded building are somewhat different from the way Muḥammad waged war. During the conflict with the Meccans, first blood was drawn at Ṭā'if, when a raiding party send out by Muḥammad cut down unarmed men in violation of the pilgrims' peace. So shocking was this to his contemporaries that God had to send a chapter of the Koran justifying it. But the important point to note was that the outrage was directed at the violation of a religious taboo. Nobody criticized the killing per se. This is the whole point: the violence perpetrated by Muḥammad was standard for Arabian warfare. In this sense, he wasn't doing anything unusual.