Here’s a question to test your knowledge of Islam. The Muslim calendar is dated from:
a) the birth of Muhammad
b) the first revelation to Muhammad
c) the immigration of Muslims to Medina from Mecca
d) the death of Muhammad
The correct answer is “c.” This may come as a surprise to many Westerners, who might assume that the birth of a religion’s founder or his first message from God would be the most significant dates. But Muslims don’t view events through Western eyes. The fact is, Islam was a relatively unsuccessful religion during the first twelve years of Muhammad’s ministry—that is, the first twelve years after the initial revelation in 610 A.D. During that period, Muhammad never had more than one hundred followers at one time. It was only after the move to Medina and the commencement of raiding, looting, and warfare that Islam began to attract sufficient followers to force the submission of the unbelievers in Arabia.
In a recent article for Gatestone Institute, Salim Mansur, a professor of political science at Western University in Ontario, draws a distinction between Islam the religion and “Islamism,” which he describes as a totalitarian ideology “masquerading as a religion.” Along with other moderate Muslims, Mansur holds out the hope that Muslim societies can reform themselves if they embrace the “faith-tradition” of Islam and reject the “aberrant strain” of Islamism. Finally, he calls on the West to come to the aid of anti-Islamist Muslims in their struggle against the “perversion” of political Islam.
But, in fact, the strategy outlined by Mansur has been in place ever since 9/11. Since that time, Western leaders and strategists have devoted a great deal of energy to enlisting moderate Muslims against radical Muslims. The problem is, the strategy hasn’t worked. The Muslim world is even more radicalized now than it was in 2001. The drawback of the approach is that the task of separating religious Islam from political, supremacist Islam is difficult, if not impossible. The two sides of Islam are inextricably linked both textually and historically.
One reason—perhaps the main reason—the Islamists have been able to convince otherwise peaceful Muslims that militant Islam is the authentic Islam is that they have the facts on their side. They can make an excellent case that the subjugation of unbelievers is an integral part of Islamic texts and traditions. The Muslim system of dating history is a case in point. Islamic history begins not with Muhammad’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel, but with his commencement of jihad against unbelievers.
The centrality of jihad in Islam also finds confirmation in the earliest biography of its founder—Ibn Ishaq’s The Life of Muhammad. Of the 133 chapters which cover the Medina period, the majority are taken up with raids, attacks, battles, and expeditions. Those chapters that don’t directly deal with fighting are usually connected with it in some way—for example, chapters on the division of spoils, on armistice, and on deputations from tribes attempting to negotiate a preemptive surrender to Muhammad.
The Muslim calendar and The Life of Muhammad are acknowledgments that the success of Islam depended largely on jihad. During the peaceful Meccan period of his career, Muhammad’s pagan neighbors remained unconvinced by his claim to prophethood. After the military successes in Medina, however, he could no longer be ignored. This was a religion that produced visible worldly results, and the Meccans eventually submitted to it.
Thus, Islam and Islamism were united from the earliest days. Mansur claims that the “earliest expression of Islamism” occurs after the death of Muhammad, but this view is difficult to reconcile with the original texts. Consider a passage from Ishaq which deals with Muhammad’s treatment of the Banu Qurayza, a Jewish tribe that had surrendered to his forces after a long siege:
Then they surrendered, and the apostle [Muhammad] confined them … Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches…There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900…This went on until the apostle made an end of them (p. 464)
It is highly unlikely the Muhammad performed all the executions himself, but the fact that the story is presented in this way indicates that the author considered the action as praiseworthy. This, along with numerous other passages in the Koran, the Hadith, and the Sira suggest that militant Islam is hardly an “aberrant” strain. If anything, the more peaceful Islam of the recent past is the aberration.
Still, Islam was relatively peaceful during a long stretch of the last two centuries. How does one account for that fact if Islam is inherently warlike? The main reason the Muslim conquests stopped is that the Muslim world was outmatched by the military and technological might of the West. Napoleon’s easy conquest of Egypt in 1798 confirmed that the balance of power between the Muslim and Christian worlds had dramatically shifted. As a result, the condition of Christians in the Middle East improved markedly. In his recent book, Crucified Again (Regnery, 2013), Raymond Ibrahim speaks of a “Golden Age” for Christians in the middle East—roughly the period between 1850 and 1950 (my opinion is that the period should be extended to 1979—the date of the Iranian Revolution).
During this colonial and post-colonial period, writes Ibrahim, the superiority of the West was so evident that there was no option for Muslims except to imitate it:
Muslims, who … had operated under the belief that might makes right … began to emulate the West in everything from politics and government to everyday dress and etiquette. The Islamic way, the Sharia, was the old failed way…all things distinctly Islamic—from Islam’s clerics to the woman’s “hijab” or headscarf— were increasingly seen by Muslims as relics of a backward age. Most “Muslims” were Muslim in name only (p. 10).
That last sentence may be an exaggeration, but it certainly seems to have applied to the educated and social elites in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, observes Ibrahim, we are still viewing Islam through the rearview mirror of that now vanished era. Consequently, that relatively brief aberration is taken as the norm while the centuries of persecution are taken as the aberration.
Moderate Muslims such as Mansur know about that past and may have lived through part of it. To moderate Muslims and to far too many Western elites, that was the authentic Islam—an Islam in which jihad had largely receded into the past (with horrific exceptions, such as the genocide against the Armenians and the 1922 masacre of the Christians in Smyrna) and in which many requirements of sharia law had been abolished by secular strongmen such as Ataturk and Nasser.
But, contrary to Mansur’s thesis, that period was characterized not by a deeper faith, but by a loss of faith. And this loss of faith, in turn, was the spur that provoked the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and other groups to launch their largely successful restoration of Islam to its pure and original form.
To a great extent, moderate Islam is a diluted Islam. In a recent FrontPage Magazine piece, author David Solway contends that the kind of Islam envisioned by moderates like Mansur “could no longer legitimately be called Islam” since it would require the expurgation of huge chunks of the faith. There may be millions of Muslims who have made peace with the modern world but these moderates, asserts Solway, “are not really Muslims any longer, and certainly not Muslims in good standing. They are nominal Muslims, dissembling members of the faith…imagining themselves to be what they are not.”
Then why don’t they leave Islam? The answer, says Solway, is that they “cannot surrender the faith that cradles their needs.” In other words, their desire to keep the faith does not stem from a deep faith in Islam, but rather from a psychological need to belong. Solway explains it as “a desire for a venerable designation or a cultural habitus.”
Catholics can identify with the process. There are millions of cultural Catholics in the U.S. and Europe who have long since abandoned the core beliefs of their faith yet still consider themselves Catholics in good standing. They support contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and a host of other anti-Catholic causes, but they feel they have every right to claim Catholicism as their own.
Why don’t they leave the faith? For the same reason that moderate Muslims cling to Islam. Everyone—or, at least, almost everyone—needs a spiritual home. To abandon one’s religion is too large a step for most. For most, it’s much easier to relax one’s faith than to renounce it.
For Muslims, even for those who have internally rejected it, there is an added incentive to remain within Islam. The penalty for apostasy from Islam is death. Muslims in the West who apostasize are less likely to meet this fate, but it is a possibility that they must reckon with. For Muslims in the Muslim world, the threat is so immediate and omnipresent that the great majority can’t allow themselves to even contemplate leaving Islam. The amount of thought control exerted by family, friends, neighbors, and clerics in Muslim societies rivals anything to be found in Orwell.
According to an oft-repeated verse in the Koran, “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (2.256), but what is the apostasy law if not the ultimate compulsion? The apostasy law is not an accidental aspect of Islam, it is of the essence of Islam. As Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Islam’s most popular preacher, recently admitted, Islam would long ago have ceased to exist without it.
Muhammad did not succeed in converting the Meccans at first because they found his theological claims to be unconvincing. But Islam is convincing in other ways. The Ayatollah Khomeini put it this way:
Islam says: Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword!
Speaking of swords, here’s one final indication of Islamic priorities. The Topkapi Museum in Istanbul contains a room devoted to the relics of Muhammad. As you have probably guessed, the central exhibit, encased in glass, is a display of Muhammad’s swords. Apparently, the museum authorities realized that a display of his prayer rugs or prayer beads would not quite convey the essence of the man. Although Salim Mansour and other moderates claim that militant Islam is an aberration, the Topkapi curators seem to have a more realistic grasp of what Islam is all about.
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