Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Was the Pope Wrong?

Recently, Pope Benedict’s reference to a historical document regarding Prophet Muhammad has once again created the familiar firestorms across the Muslim world. Muslim Leaders and Clerics across the world have unequivocally condemned the Pope and have demanded an unconditional apology. Others have gone further to incite or commit violence. The top Islamist clerics in Somalia and  Britain, have ordered the assassination of the Pope, while the Iranian spiritual leader has urged protests and violence against America. An al-Qaeda-linked Iraqi militant group declared worldwide Jihad against the worshippers of the Cross. These incitements have already resulted in violence and casualties that include murder of an Italian nun in Somalia and bombing of seven churches in West Bank (Palestine). This is probably just the beginning. Christians across the Muslim world are living in anxiety of attacks by the Muslims. The security of the Pope has been tightened.
As the ‘Pope saga’ takes an increasingly violent turn and continues to get worse, let us examine what the Pope has said. The Pope, a former academic, while addressing a gathering of academics at the University of Regensburg (Germany) on the relationship between God (religion) and violence, quoted a Middle-age Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus’s views on Islam, written in 1391: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

This remark was made as part of a series of dialogues between the learned Byzantine emperor and a Persian Muslim scholar about the truth of their respective religions, when Constantinople was being besieged by the Turks. Emperor Paleologus, made the referred remark in the seventh part of the dialogue, which points to the Koran's teachings about spreading the faith by the sword, to emphasize that Koran could not come from God because violence was the opposite of reason, and God himself cannot act contrary to reason. Pope Benedict was also emphasizing the same fact. 

The question requires examining: was the Pope wrong in citing the reference while discussing the nature of Islam? That is, let is us examine: if the religion of Islam was spread through violence and the sword in the light of the Koran and the Sunnah and the historical anecdotes of Islamist historians. 

It is a common knowledge that the Prophet had engaged in numerous battles and raiding expedition against the pagan communities of his ancestral city of Mecca and the Jewish communities of Medina (where he relocated after failing to convince the people of Mecca) leading to the their unconditional submission (the pagans of Mecca), annihilation through mass slaughter (Banu Quraiza Jews) or mass exile (Banu Qainuqa and Banu Nadhir clans). The Muslims claim that Muhammad had no option but to act against these hostile Jewish and pagan communities for survival. Although a simple wish of the all-powerful Allah, who was working hand-in-hand with the Prophet, could repair the hostility of the alleged enemies of Mecca and Medina or any other deadly enemy on earth without requiring such blood-shedding, yet let us agree that having been in close proximity, these pagan and Jewish communities could cause harm to the Muslims and those steps of force and violence were applied against the enemy as justifiable measures for self-defense.

Let us examine the other instances of Muhammad violence, such as against the Jazima tribe. On the day of Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca on 11th January 630 CE, when the Meccan pagans were forced to submit to Islam and their most sacred temple of Kaba was sacked and idols were smashed into pieces at the behest of the Prophet. Upon sacking the Ka'ba, the Prophet sent his fiercest general Khalid ibn Walid to destroy all the pagan temples around Mecca. When Khalid arrived at the Jemima Tribe, a Sabian community, who lived a day’s march south of Mecca, they quickly surrendered and wished to submit to Islam. Khalid said to the people, "Say! We are Muslims". Not trained about how to recite the allegiance to Allah/Islam, the scared Jazima tribesmen confusedly started saying "Saba'na! Saba'na", which meant ‘they have changed to a new religion’. Angry for failing to pronounce properly, Khalid started slaying them [Sahih Bukhari 005.059.628; 009.089.299].

Alongside the cruel barbarity of this heartless incident, the issue that need to be considered here is that no where in the Islamic literatures -- the Koran, the Hadiths and the biography of the Prophet – there is a mention of any strife, enmity or violence, not even an incidence of disagreement – between Muhammad and the Jazima tribe, although there are numerous references of alleged hostile attitude and conspiracies by the pagans, Jews and Christians. The question is: why did the Prophet send an armed force under Khalid’s command to subdue the Jazima tribe in the first?

Next, we turn attention to Prophet’s sending emissaries in 628 CE to the powerful emperors, kings and Governors of far-off lands [1].  An emissary to emperor Heraclius of Rome, the most powerful in the world, asking him to submit to Islam, was dismissed by the emperor  as an effusion of a mad man. Another letter was sent to the Christian Prince Al-Harith of Banu Ghassan of Syria asking for submission to Islam, which Al-Harith forwarded to Heraclius seeking permission to chastise the imposter. Heraclius urged Al-Harith to ignore it.

Another dispatch was sent to the mighty Persian King, also seeking his submission to Islam, which the king tore into pieces and threw away as a sign of ignoring it. A third letter was sent to the Makaukis, the Roman Christian Governor of Egypt, who although declined to accept Islam, sent two beautiful slave sisters as a friendly present to Muhammad. 

Embassies for submission were also sent to the kings of other far-flung communities. The question here is that these far-off kingdoms had nothing to do with the Muslims. Yet, Muhammad provocatively sent those emissaries seeking submission to Islam and to his command.

One year after sending the emissaries to those far-flung states and domains, the Prophet cast his eyes to far-off destinations. After annihilation of the last Jewish clan of Banu Quraiza in 628, he ordered a series of often-disastrous military campaigns against distant communities.

In February 629, an army of Muslims were sent out towards Fadak against the community of Banu Murra with disastrous result. Muslims avenged the loss a few months later [2].

In June, an expedition against the Banu Layth on the way to Mecca also suffered great casualties [3]. 

In September 629, Muhammad sent an emissary to one of the Christian Prince of Ghassan at Bosra. On the return path, the messenger was waylaid and killed by Bedouin tribesmen. Although this murder could be a normal criminal act in which the Ghassanid Christians did not have any complicity, Muhammad decided to avenge the murder by sending an expedition comprising of a force of 3000 men to attack the border of Syria. Ibn Ishak record the command of Muhammad was as follows: “If Zayd should be killed, Jafar is to take the command, and if Jafar be slain, then Abdullah b. Rawaha.” [4] 

Muslims allegedly met a huge assembly of enemy forces, consisting of Greek troop and semi-Christian tribes of the desert, at Mut’a. They were routed with terrible casualties, in which their commanders fell one after another. Khalid Ibn Walid salvaged the remainder of disarrayed Muslim fighters and rushed to Medina.

The fact is that many of these violent acts and campaigns did not have any provocations form the enemy side. It is unlikely that some of those far-flung communities, which the Prophet had commanded to attack, could have done anything seriously wrong to the Muslims. In stead, Prophet’s sending emissaries to powerful kings and emperors to submit to his command are clear acts of provocation on his own part. Yet, those provocations were either treated quite kindly or were just ignored. 

Even Prophet's expulsion of the Jewish tribes, such as Banu Qainuqa, cannot be defended by any minimally conscientious human being. Barely two years after the Prophet’s emigration to Medina, a prankster from the Qainuqa tribe teased a newly converted Muslimah to which another Muslim man attacked the Jewish man and killed him. In retaliation, other men from the Qainuqa tribe killed the Muslim man.

Such harmless pranksterism is not uncommon even today. When the Jews and Muslims were allegedly bounded by a friendly treaty, such an act of teasing should no way have resulted in the death of the teaser. In reality, the Muslims were at fault for giving a violent turn to this event by killing the Jewish prankster. And here is the justice of the most compassionate prophet of God. He commanded seizing the entire Qainuqa tribe, who had no complicity or knowledge of this individuals’ rather harmless act. When surrendered, Muhammad started preparation of slaughtering the entire community but only after forceful intervention of Abdullah ibn Obay, he relented from the blood-bath and instead, commanded them to go to exile with bare-minimum of the belongings. As soon as the community left, Muslim quickly moved in to their abode and confiscated the properties as the spoils of war.

There is definitely a display of the power of the sword by Muhammad in these incidences. The slaughtering of the Banu Quraiza by Muhammad is another indisputable act of his power-play of the sword. Quraiza clan was accused by Muhammad of spying during the ‘Battle of the Ditch’ against the Mecca army on the basis of following description by Ibn Ishaq [5]:

Safiya, the daughter of Abdul‑Muttalib, was at the fort of Hassan, who had remained to guard the women and children. She told how ‘A Jew approached and began to walk round the fort. Now, the Banu Qurayza Jews had broken their treaty with the apostle of Allah, and their fort was to the rear of ours. There was no one to protect our side of the city, and the apostle of Allah was occupied with the invaders and unable to come to our aid. Accordingly, I said, “O Hassan! A Jew is walking round the fort, and by Allah! I am not convinced that he will not report our weak position to the Jews in our rear. The apostle is fully engaged; go thou therefore to the man and kill him.” He replied, “May Allah pardon thee! Thou knowest full well that this is not a task for me.” When I saw that he would do nothing, I girded.

This incidence hardly proves that the Jewish man was truly spying or out to do any harm to the Muslims. Yet, Safiya along with other women captured and killed him. Once the Mecca army retreated, Muhammad attacked the Banu Quraiza tribe and when surrendered after a long seize, Muhammad commanded the killing of the 800-900 adult men. The women and children were taken captives and their properties were confiscated. Both the captives and properties were distributed amongst the Jihadists with Muhammad himself acquiring one-fifth of the booty [5]. The beautiful young women were kept as the sex-slave, Muhammad himself keeping Rihana until her her death – while the rest of the women and children were sold to the Bedawi tribe in Nedj for weapons and horses to be used in future wars.

Slaughtering so many people based on simple suspicion of one Jewish man’s spying is indefensible to any human conscience, let alone to that of a Prophet of the almighty God, who is allegedly the most compassionate man ever to lay feet on earth. Even Prof. Karen Armstrong, a sympathetic defender of Islam, was disgusted by this cold-blooded slaughter and termed it the first Holocaust of the Jews. The fact that the captives were sold away for buying weapons and horses for using in future wars is another indisputable indicator of the Prophet’s commitment to the power-play of the sword. 

There are numerous other incidences that tell us about the Prophet’s commitment to unleashing the sword for achieving his goals. Any attempt to dissociate Prophet Muhammad from the power-play of the sword, who himself commanded more than 100 raiding expeditions and wars in his life,  is an utterly idiotic and futile exercise. Be it the prophet’s treatment of the Banu Qainuqa, Banu Quraiza or Banu Jazima (Jadhima) – none could be defended as justifiable punishment. In today’s standard of common man, such punishments, under those circumstances, would qualify as the acts of utter cruelty and barbarism. And Muhammad was allegedly the messenger of an all-compassionate God and claimed to the most merciful man ever to be born.

The Prophet did not even forget to unleash his sword in his death-bed when he fell terminally ill for few days. He was in the middle of preparing for an expedition against Syria when he fell sick from which he never recovered. As recorded by Ibn Ishak, while sick in death-bed, he was repeatedly insisting on sending the expedition under the command of Osama, to which an army wad dispatched towards Syria [6]. But on the way, Osama learnt of Prophet’s death and turned back to Medina for attending the funeral. About one of Prophet’s last wishes, Ibn Hisham notes: “Let there remain no faith than Islam in Arabia” [7]. A Hadith records one of Prophet’s last wishes in death-bed: “Lord Destroy the Jews and Christians” .

The Prophet’s order to launch an armed campaigned against Syria and his order to depopulate the Arabia of non-Muslims even in his death-bed, once again prove it impossible to dissociate his unflinching commitment to the application of the sword to achieve his goals. Not only the Prophet actions, there Koran is also filled with violent verses urging the faithful to slay, kill and subdue alleged enemy and smite their neck etc. [9:111; 09:05; 9:29; 08:12; 47.004; 4:89; 4:91]. Not only that, the Koran even threatens the faithful with grievous punishment if they do not join the wars or fight them at the best of their ability:

"Those who were left behind (in the Tabuk expedition) rejoiced in their inaction behind the back of the Messenger of Allah: they hated to strive and fight, with their goods and their persons, in the cause of Allah: they said, "Go not forth in the heat." Say, "The fire of Hell is fiercer than heat." If only they could understand! [ 9:81]

"Unless ye go forth, He (Allah) will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place"? [9:39].

Thus, in the light of the Prophet’s actions, the Hadiths and the Koran, there cannot be any dispute but only solid truth in emperor Palaeologus’s assertion of the Prophet's application of the sword for spreading the religion of Islam. The only thing, one can argue whether the Pope at the head of the Catholic Church, which itself has a bloody past, have the moral right to point to the violent nature of Islam. However, if we care for one’s right to speak the truth, there is little Muslims can complain about, let alone ask for apology or engage in violent acts for Pope’s comment. Muslims could best respond by hitting back at the violent nature of Jesus or his teaching (if any), or the violent past of the Catholic Church, which indeed, the Muslims have done to the fullest in their statements and commentaries. Asking for an apology or indulging in acts of violence simply for mentioning the truth is neither a sign of tolerance nor of civilized behavior on part of the Muslims. The last but not the least, Muslims behavior and actions in the current episode spoke for itself about how correct the 14th century Chieftain was in his assessment of Muhammad and Islam.



[1] Ibn Hisham, p971f, At-Tabari 1559 f

[2] Al-Waqidi, p297 f; Ibn Sa’ad, p91

[3] Al-Waqidi, p307 f; Ibn Sa’ad, p89f




[7] Ibn Hisham, p1021

MA Khan is the editor of and the author of  Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery.

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