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A Study of Muhammad's Personality


1. Were Muhammad's Wars Purely Defensive?

We have, in the last section, seen what a great difference there was between the Prince of Peace and the Prophet of Islam. A more detailed examination of his attitudes towards his enemies, especially his personal foes, reveals a flaw in his personality not readily explained away. It is here that we find a weak point in Muhammad's character and one which troubles Muslim apologists.

Before passing on to individual examples, let us consider the whole question of jihad from a general standpoint. It is invariably claimed by Muslim writers today that Muhammad's wars were purely defensive. "Islam seized the sword in self defence, and held it in self-defence, as it will ever do". (Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 218). In this way they endeavour to set aside the charge that Muhammad took the sword to his enemies, seeking their destruction and their possessions as booty and plunder. One writer goes so far as to say:

This is extremely hard to credit from an historical perspective. There is no evidence that the Persian or Byzantine empires had any designs on the Hijaz in Arabia during Muhammad's time, let alone the fledgling Muslim community at Medina. On the other hand, when Umar was caliph, the Muslims took the fight to Greek and Persian soil and conquered their territories.

Muhammad, during his ministry, was at no time threatened by an invasion from the north. His chief concern was the Quraysh and, next to them, the hostile pagan Bedouin tribes of the Hijaz. But even in this context he is blandly portrayed as a harmless defender of the faith against relentless plots and threats from those around him. Such claims are, from an historical perspective, unjustifiable. Yet they are found in many works, of which the following statement is typical:

The claim that one is fighting purely in self-defence is one of the most elliptical ever made by men and nations throughout human history. Israel used it when conquering the Golan Heights, West Bank of the Jordan, and Sinai Desert in 1967. The conquest of these territories was, it was alleged, essential to protect the nation from the hostile Arab states round about. Hitler made a similar claim when invading Russia in 1941, alleging that he was protecting the Aryans from the Bolsheviks. Indeed the Quraysh could just as well have claimed that their expeditions to Medina were purely defensive exercises to protect their peaceful caravan trade which Muhammad was intent on disrupting. The Muslim claim that his wars were purely defensive appears to be more rhetorical than historical in substance.

One writer even has the audacity to say of the Meccan caravan trade: "These caravans constituted a grave threat to the security of Medina". (Zafrulla Khan, Muhammad: Seal of the Prophets, p. 111).

Some authors will go to great lengths to exonerate Muhammad and remove the stigma that the raiding parties have left on his character. These caravans were invariably lightly manned and armed. Even the large annual caravan from Mecca to Syria had to pass Medina by a special route each year to avoid capture and, when Abu Sufyan learnt that a raiding party was coming out of Medina to meet him on his return in 624 AD, he had to hasten on to protect the caravan and was compelled to call for a force from Mecca to escort him. The "grave threat" was, in truth, the other way around.

Within a hundred years the Muslim hordes, by force of arms, had conquered territories from Spain in the West to India in the East. Was this all purely defensive? What threat faced the small community of Muslims in Medina from the shores of Spain and frontiers of France? The thesis that Muhammad never took the sword for aggressive purposes appears very weak in the light of this famous verse from the Qur'an, known as the ayatus-saif, the "verse of the sword":

They were only to be spared if they repented and became Muslims, the verse continues. Another wishful claim, made in bold defiance of the facts of history, is that Muhammad "never killed a single prisoner of war" (All, The Religion of Islam, p. 483). We have already seen how Muhammad had Abu Azzah executed after the Battle of Uhud. Another was an-Nadhr ibn al-Harith who was ordered to be beheaded by Muhammad after the Battle of Badr for the capital offence of challenging Muhammad's revelations and composing surahs and stories like those in the Qur'an. (The Qur'an boldly invites all-comers to attempt to produce passages equal to its own in Surah 11.13 but Muhammad was sorely tried whenever anyone ventured to do so). Yet another victim at Badr was Uqba ibn abi Muait.

The Battle of Badr has been celebrated in Islam as its first true moment of glory and yet even here we find Muhammad and his companions bent on vengeance and the destruction of those who had persecuted them. A Muslim writer gives us a useful insight into the thoughts of the Muslims as they prepared for the first battle they were to fight for Islam:

Another unedifying spectacle that greets the reader is the reaction of Muhammad when he learnt of the death, on the same battlefield, of the man who had persecuted him so much during his days in Mecca:

"Beloved, never avenge yourselves" is the advice of the Apostle Paul (Romans 12.19), following the teaching and example of his Master (Luke 6.27-31). Not so the dictum of Muhammad, who constantly plotted revenge against his personal enemies and delighted in it when it was achieved.

2. The Assassination of Ka'b ibn Ashraf.

Shortly after the Battle of Badr an incident occurred, widely reported in the Hadith, which Muir describes as another of those dastardly acts of cruelty which darken the pages of the Prophet's life" (The Life of Mahomet, p. 238). It was the clandestine killing of a Jew, Ka'b ibn Ashraf, who "was at Mahomet's instigation assassinated under circumstances of the blackest treachery" (Stobart, Islam and its Founder, p. 158). He had been one of those poets who had irritated Muhammad with his satirical verses. After Badr he mourned the leaders of the Quraysh and visited Mecca to stir up a reprisal raid against the Muslims. What ultimately transpired is described in unemotional language in the traditions:

In another tradition Muhammad ibn Maslama's statement "allow me to say what I like" is interpreted to mean that he should be allowed to say a "false" thing to deceive Ka'b. (Sahih at-Bukhari, Vol. 5, p. 248). An early biographer is quite unambiguous in his record of this commission:

It is hardly any wonder that writers like Muir and Stobart speak so harshly of Muhammad's conduct in this matter. This was a direct order to effect the murder of one of his opponents coupled with a licence to resort to any manner of lies to achieve it. Muhammad's companion of the same name duly took advantage of the freedom given him to use deceitful means to dispose of the unsuspecting Jew:

The subtle claim that Muhammad had burdened the Medinan Muslims (Ibn Maslama was of the Aus tribe) duly persuaded Ka'b that the men with him meant him no harm. His own foster brother Abu Natilah, also among the party, was even more convincing than his companion:

Ibn Sa'd goes on to say that when these men, who claimed they had come to purchase food and dates from him, finally met Ka'b again during the evening, he talked freely with them and was "pleased with them and became intimate with them" (op. cit., p.37). Coming closer to him on the presence that they wished to smell his perfume, Ibn Maslama and the others immediately drew their swords and killed him. They returned to Muhammad uttering the takbir ("Allahu Akbar" - Allah is Most Great).

This affair discredits Muhammad's claim to be a prophet. Who can read these sordid details without being nauseated in his spirit? Muslim biographers, as ia to be expected, have sought to exculpate their Prophet in this matter. One has very artfully rewritten history by giving no indication that Muhammad had any part in this murderous scene. Claiming that Ka'b had vexed the Muslims of Medina with false accusations against their womenfolk, he puts the responsibility for his assassination at the feet of the Muslims alone without any reference in his narrative to Muhammad's part in it:

One can see how awkward Muhammad's role in this matter was for the Egyptian author. Finding no way to justify him, he expediently left him out of the affair altogether.

Other Muslim writers have produced a more imaginative defence of their Prophet's action. They have given it a forensic touch by claiming that, as ruler in Medina, Muhammad had a right to order the execution of those who were guilty of high treason. One writer alleges that "Christian controversialists" have "shut their eyes to the justice of the sentence, and the necessity of a swift and secret execution (Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 74). Mitigation of Muhammad's action is sought in legal terminology, viz. "sentence", "execution", etc. Another writer seeks to remove the sting in the course of this affair by the use of similar terms:

Muhammad at this stage was anything but the undisputed ruler of Medina and the devious methods adopted to despatch the offending Jew, when exposed to public view as they so blandly are in the traditions, still leave the firm impression that this was an act of cold-blooded murder coupled with a host of lies, both of which had the sanction of the Prophet of Islam.

It is not surprising to find such incidents leading to strange teachings in Muslim writings. One writer comments on the fate due to "traitors" in these words:

These words almost defy comment! Well does the author appeal to God for guidance into the Truth - he is much in need of it. His licence to all and sundry to take the law into their own hands by lynching those whom they consider to be "traitors" (Ka'b never espoused Muhammad's cause) seems hardly consistent with his professed desire for peace among men. But his comment does give a truer picture of what really happened that night than the legal euphemisms of men like Syed Ameer Ali and Muhammad Zafrulla Khan.

3. The Murder of Abu Rafi.

On many occasions Muhammad showed commendable magnanimity towards his enemies but every now and then we are faced with individual cases which seriously compromise his claim to be God's final messenger to mankind. Another Jew, Abu Rafi, one of the chiefs of the Banu Nadhir exiled after the Battle of Uhud, was also murdered at his instigation. Abu Rafi's true name was Sallam ibn abi al-Huqaiq and he lived in one of the forts at Khaibar before Muhammad's conquest of the settlement. This tradition tells its own story:

The narrative is unsavoury, to say the least, and once again we have the usual ingredients - a calculated murder accomplished through deceit and presence. Ibn Ishaq informs us that when Abu Rafi's wife asked the group who they were they politely answered "Arabs in search of supplies" (Sirat Rasulullah, p. 483). It is no wonder that Islam does not, even to this day, reprobate every form of dishonesty. A Muslim writer unashamedly says:

How much more reliable are the absolute standards set out in the teaching of Jesus who warned that anyone given to even a little dishonesty in any given circumstance was dishonest through and through (Luke 16.10). Indeed in one statement made by Jesus we have a perfect analysis of the source of the motivation behind the murders of Ka'b and Abu Rafi and the lies accompanying them, and his words might just as well have been addressed to all those involved in their so-called "executions":

Furthermore we are told in the Hadith that both these murders were accomplished secretly at night. The Bible gives sound reasons why such evil deeds are performed under the cover of darkness:

4. A Christian Perspective and Conclusion.

It is often claimed by Muslims that their Prophet's actions were consistent with both the standards of his day in Arabia and with those of many of the prophets of Israel in pre-Christian times (ea. David's scheme to kill Uriah the Hittite, etc.). Syed Ameer Ali says of the massacre of the Banu Quraydhah: "We simply look upon it as an act done in complete accordance with the laws of war as then understood by the nations of the world" (The Spirit of Islam, p. 81). This brings us back once again to relative standards - the only ones, it seems, by which Muhammad and his religion can be justified. The defence sometimes takes a different form - it is alleged that the Muslims acted according to the basic principles of human nature. Here is an example:

It is precisely at this point that Islam becomes something of an anachronism, an outdated form of religion which was, centuries earlier, replaced by one that was far better. When Jesus came into the world a new covenant was introduced, one far better than the one it replaced (Hebrews 8.6). One of the better essences of this new covenant is the universal pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all who truly belong to Jesus Christ so that they may no longer be bound to their ordinary natures but to the new nature within them which has Divine qualities (cf. 1 Corinthians, 2.12). As Hayka' says of Mohammad and his companions, it was "not in their nature" to suffer patiently, leaving vengeance to the Lord. But this very thing is in the nature of true Christians because they are born of the Holy Spirit and have divine power to become what God truly wants men to be. How graciously these words of a follower of Jesus compare with the spirit of the followers of Muhammad:

Jesus Christ brought a new morality into the world. He showed that earthly survival and security were not paramount objectives for men and nations but rather that men should seek to become like God in their characters. He died and rose again to make such things possible. He introduced a higher standard of righteousness, one much superior to that of Islam.

When Muhammad found that the Jews and Christians were ultimately not going to acknowledge his claims, he became very antagonistic towards them. The Qur'an says of both these groups "God's curse be on them!" (Surah 9.30). The original words in Arabic, however, are qautalahumullaah which mean, quite literally, "Allah kill them". Jesus was also faced with a people who would not receive him. As he passed through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem, the Samaritans refused to accommodate him. Two of his disciples exclaimed "Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9.54). This is the spirit of human nature, the spirit of vengeance, the spirit of Islam. But Jesus turned and rebuked them, saying:

The wondrous forbearing love of the Saviour of the world stands out, in all his teaching and actions, above the spirit of Islam. It was he who set the perfect example of love before the world when he prayed for the salvation of his enemies even as they crucified him, and bade his disciples do likewise: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6.27-28). Indeed when Jesus gave a parable to demonstrate what true love was just after he had been rejected by the Samaritans, he chose a Samaritan as the hero of his story (Luke 10.33).

On the night Jesus was betrayed he called his betrayer his friend (Matthew 26.50), healed one of the soldiers who came to arrest him (Luke 22.51), and prayed for a disciple who was to desert him (Luke 22.32). The next day, when all human vindictiveness was let loose against him, he commended Pilate (John 19.11), comforted a man who but a few hours earlier had reviled him (Luke 23.43, Matthew 27.44), and sought the forgiveness of his murderers (Luke 23.34). This was the spirit of the man Jesus Christ. The same spirit has been manifested in thousands of true Christians since his ascension to heaven. Encouraged by his example and fortified by the Holy Spirit, his followers have also loved their enemies and prayed for the forgiveness of their murderers (Acts 7.60).

From the moment of his ascension to the moment of his return, his perfect standard is publicly portrayed before all men. The spirit of the Christian Gospel is the heart of true religion, one which summons human character to perfection, sets an incomparable example of it (Ephesians 5.2), and provides the Spirit by which such perfection is attainable. The prophets who came before Jesus Christ looked forward earnestly to the coming of their Redeemer, the Messiah, and when he came he introduced a religion and way of life vastly superior to that which went before. If the best thing that can be said for the spirit and attitudes of Muhammad and his companions is that they were no different to those who came before Jesus Christ, then this is one of the best reasons for not accepting the religion he introduced. It may compare favourably with Judaism but is considerably inferior to the spirit of true Christianity.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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