Can Islam be reformed? It’s a tricky question because, according to a great many Muslim leaders and Western leaders, it doesn’t need reforming. As they keep insisting, the beheadings, slave trafficking, and general violence committed in the name of Islam have nothing to do with Islam.
Despite the many attempts to prop it up, some cracks are now appearing in that narrative. In a New Year’s Day speech to Islamic scholars and clerics, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi blamed the “corpus of [Islamic] texts and ideas that we have sacralized” for “antagonizing the entire world,” and he called for a “religious revolution.” More recently, in an essay for the Wall Street Journal, Ayaan Hirsi Ali called for a thorough reformation of Islam (WSJ, March 21-22, 2015). Hirsi Ali, who left Islam and who has fought for the rights of Muslim women both as an author and as a member of the Dutch parliament, lists several needed changes:
• An acknowledgement that the Koran “was shaped by human hands” and should not be interpreted literally.
• An emphasis on the rewards of this life as opposed to the rewards of the afterlife.
• A rejection of those elements of Shariah law that are “violent, intolerant, or anachronistic.”
• A rejection of jihad.
Looking at the list, you can appreciate the difficulty of the proposed reformation. Among other things Hirsi Ali is asking Muslim men to give up their dreams of a heavenly harem. Most difficult of all, she also calls for a repudiation of “those parts of Muhammad’s legacy that summon Muslims to intolerance and war.”
If you’re a non-Muslim, you might be inclined to say, “Sure, why not?” But it’s not quite so simple. As Hirsi Ali points out, Muhammad enjoys an “infallible”, “semi-divine” status among Muslims. To reform Islam by repudiating Muhammad is akin to reforming Christianity by repudiating Christ. In short, it would be a tough sell.
Hirsi Ali’s solution to the difficulty is to divide Muhammad’s life into two periods: Mecca and Medina. After twelve years of trying to peacefully persuade his fellow Meccans that he was the messenger of God, Muhammad migrated with his followers to Medina, and began to use more forceful means of persuasion—raiding, looting, assassination, and warfare. The portion of the Koran that was composed during the years in Medina reflects this more militaristic mindset. Accordingly Hirsi Ali (and others), recommends that Muslims retain the more spiritual, religious form of Islam that developed in Mecca, and reject the supremacist and intolerant form that developed in Medina.
But, again, it won’t be easy. For starters, the Koran is not neatly divided into the Meccan period and the Medina period. Unlike the Bible, which is roughly chronological and which clearly separates the New Testament from the Old Testament, the Koran has no chronology. It contains 114 suras or chapters, but they are arranged arbitrarily by length with the largest suras coming first and the shortest, last. Thus, the early chapters may be from the Meccan period or maybe not. Scholars have been able to figure out which passages belong to which period, but ordinary people would be at a loss. To further complicate matters, some of the revelations received in Medina are included in some of the chapters begun in Mecca.
What makes Hirsi Ali’s suggestion even more problematic is that the Muslim calendar is dated not from 610 AD when Muhammad supposedly received his first revelation in Mecca, but from 622 AD when he migrated to Medina and commenced his warrior career. Muslim tradition, then, puts much more emphasis on the part of Muhammad’s life that Ali wants Muslims to repudiate—namely, “those parts of Muhammad’s legacy that summon Muslims to intolerance and war.”
Moreover, although the Meccan verses are more peaceful than the Medina verses, the intolerance was there from the start. Muhammad divided the world into believers (in Islam) and unbelievers, and he had very little use for the unbelievers. It’s difficult to find any chapters that don’t remind the reader of the wickedness and vileness of unbelievers. And there are few chapters from any period in Muhammad’s life that fail to describe in detail the well-deserved fate that awaits the unbeliever in hell.
In fact, the pagan Meccans were far more tolerant of Muhammad than he was of them. They would have been happy had Muhammad set up a shrine to his god alongside all the others that lined the Kaaba. It’s a tribute to their patience that they put up with him for twelve years despite the abuse he constantly heaped on them.
In some ways, of course, Islam was an improvement on Arabian paganism. In a theme found throughout the entire Koran, Muhammad’s Allah seems almost Christian in his concern with the welfare of widows and orphans. And in one verse (81:1-4), Muhammad inveighs against female infanticide, a common practice at that time.
On the other hand, Muhammad himself was responsible for creating a great many widows and orphans—some of whom were subsequently sold into slavery and some of whom, if they were young enough and pretty enough, became his “brides”. Apologists for the widowmaker prophet claim that such was the unfortunate by-product of battle in those days. That excuse doesn’t work, however, for the occasions when Muhammad ordered cold-blooded assassinations of people he disliked. For example, when the prophet heard that a poetess, Asma bint Marwan, had composed verses mocking him, he sought a volunteer to dispatch her. The volunteer, who killed the woman while she slept surrounded by her six children, asked Muhammad in the morning if he would have to bear any evil consequences for the deed. The prophet assured him that “two goats won’t butt their heads about her.”
Even if a merciful verse is not compromised by Muhammad’s own actions, it stands a good chance of being cancelled out by a contradictory verse in the same sura. The most glaring example of this is the warning that “whoever killed a human being…shall be regarded as having killed all mankind,” followed immediately by the notice that those who oppose God and his apostle “shall be slain or crucified” (5:32-5:33).
Putting the contradictions aside, it must be acknowledged that there are peaceful verses in the Koran that strike the right note for the Christian ear. Whether there are enough of them to build a religion around is another matter. If you were to reduce the Koran to the tolerant and peaceful verses, you would be left with a fairly slender volume—about the size of a book of Khalil Gibran’s love poems in large print.
There are other problems with attempting to split the prophet into “good Muhammad” and “bad Muhammad.” We usually judge a man and his work by his whole life, not by one segment of it, and we tend to put more weight on the latter half of the life. This is especially the case with religious figures. We can forgive a saint’s earlier sins if he made up for them by his later good deeds. The young Saul persecuted the first Christians and Augustine was a zealous sinner in his early years, but both were profoundly and dramatically changed for the better after their conversions.
Muhammad reverses the order. There is no evidence that he was a debauched sinner who suddenly found God and decided to change his ways. Before his first revelation, Muhammad seems to have been a model citizen—a trustworthy merchant who was faithful to one wife. After the revelation he seems to have developed an increased sense of his own importance and a growing willingness to bend the moral rules to his own inclinations. If Muhammad refrained from using force during his Meccan “ministry,” it was because he was considerably outnumbered. His followers never amounted to more than one hundred during those first twelve years. After the move to Medina, the numbers increased and he was able to go on the offensive. Medina was also the time when Muhammad began to sin more boldly. He acquired more wives and concubines, went back on his promises, traded slaves, and massacred defenseless captives.
But, as the Muslim calendar attests, this was also the beginning of the glory days of Islam. Muhammad’s conquests and those of his immediate successors offered seemingly irrefutable proof that this was indeed the true religion of Allah. Muslims could try to ignore this period but it would be equivalent to a judge ordering a jury to disregard the most startling revelations from the witness stand.
It’s convenient from the reformist point of view to ignore the Medina years and attempt to build a better religion around the handful of kumbaya-like verses in the early Koran. However, the significance of the bloody ten-year Medina period is that it casts doubt on the whole enterprise. It suggests that there was something wrong about Islam from the start. As stated above, we tend to put more weight on the later part of a holy man’s life. As he grows in faith, his holiness increases. But what can you say about a man whose rapaciousness increases as he grows in faith? What can you say about the faith that motivates him?
Suppose that in the last half of his ministry, Christ took to owning slaves, ordering assassinations, and sanctioning rape. Wouldn’t that cast doubt on his entire ministry? Wouldn’t it invalidate his claim to be the Son of God? Wouldn’t it call into question the authenticity of the Christian revelation?
The Medina Muhammad and the Meccan Muhammad are the same man—a man whose life is considered the model for Muslims to imitate in every detail. As we are now finding out, however, the imitation of Muhammad and the imitation of Christ lead in entirely different directions. If Muslims were to repudiate Muhammad, the world would be a much safer place. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that such an accomplishment can be easily or quickly achieved. As Serge Trifkovic maintains in The Sword of the Prophet:
• On the Prophet’s own admission, Islam stands or falls with the person of Muhammad, a deeply flawed man by the standards of his own society, as well as those of the Old and New Testaments…and even by the new law of which he claimed to be the divinely appointed medium and custodian.
Because the man and the faith are so intimately entwined, a repudiation of Muhammad is tantamount to a repudiation of Islam itself.
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