2006-01-25 01:00:01 UTC
By David Wood
The title of this essay introduces a topic that may be difficult for Muslims,
or for readers who have friends or acquaintances who are Muslims. It is a
difficulty I share with all of them. My best friend is a Muslim, and I have
two students who are Muslims. They are all very kind individuals, and, I
would say, they are peaceful. Indeed, despite the popular portrayal of
Muslims on the evening news, the vast majority of Muslims are normal,
faithful, peaceful people, going about their daily lives with no intention of
blowing up anyone or burning anyones flag. (Many in the West deny this, but
they typically do so because they have never so much as talked to a Muslim).
Nevertheless, this essay isnt about Muslims; its about Islam. Its about
the religion, not the practitioners of the religion. To understand what I
mean here, consider the following scenario. Suppose someone were to come up
to me and ask, David, is Islam a religion of peace? My answer would not be
Yes or No. Rather, my response would be, First tell me what you mean
when you say Islam, for it is a term that is used in different ways. If by
Islam we mean the religion that is practiced by more than a billion people
around the world, I could reasonably answer with a qualified Yes, because it
is a religion of peace for many people (though not for all). But if by
Islam we mean the religion taught by Muhammad, I would have to respond with
a resounding No.
At this point my Muslim readers will be saying to themselves, What does this
infidel mean? There is only one Islam, perfectly preserved in the Holy Quran
from the time it was given to Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.
However, much like the idea that the Quran has been perfectly preserved, the
idea that Islam has only one face is completely false. There has always been
a psychological crisis in Islam, and if I were to diagnose it as having a
particular mental illness, I would probably argue that it suffers from
Multiple Personality Disorder. Islam has never been able to decide whether
it wants to live in peace with unbelievers, or to pile their severed,
unbelieving heads into a giant pyramid. Im sure many would disagree here,
but they would be disagreeing with one of the most empirically verifiable
facts in the universe. Think about it. One Muslim beheads an innocent woman
to protest the war in Iraq, while another Muslim curses him for slaying the
innocent. One group of Muslims flies an aircraft into a building, while
another group condemns the attack. One Muslim steps onto a bus with pounds of
explosives strapped under his jacket, while another Muslim teaches philosophy
at an American university. Each person or group quotes the Quran to support
its actions. However, it may be even more important to note that each of them
has followed the example of Muhammad.
The reason that Islam suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder is that its
founder also suffered from this disorder. I dont mean this to be taken
literally, of course. It is only meant to describe a peculiar phenomenon that
went on in Muhammads head. When Muhammad first began receiving his
revelations, many of his neighbors in the city of Mecca took it upon
themselves to mock and persecute him. Muhammad was a threat both to their
immoral lifestyles and to their source of wealth (the pagan idols of the city
brought plenty of revenue), and so he had to be stopped, or at least
discredited. During this period, Muhammad was humble, devout in every way,
obedient to the message handed down to him, faithful in giving to the poor,
and, in general, an outstanding moral example. In essence, he was like the
many fine examples of dedicated Muslims we see in the world today. He
preached a religion of peace, and the Quranic revelations received at this
time reflected his peaceful temperament.
Then something happened. Muhammad fled Mecca and moved to Medina, where his
political power rapidly increased. Soon he and his followers began raiding
caravans to support the fledgling religion, and, while Muhammads enemies
multiplied, so did his followers. What followed can only be described as a
reign of terror for those who refused to submit to Islam. Both men and women
were slaughtered for writing satirical poems against Muhammad, and those who
left the Islamic faith were to be exterminated. One woman was murdered in the
dark for writing a poem against Muhammad; after she was slain, Muhammad
declared that Two goats wont butt their heads about her. Hundreds of
Jews were beheaded (after surrendering) for standing against Muhammad, and
their wives and children were sold into slavery. A blind man who was
reportedly more than a hundred years old had his head split open for saying
that, if he could only see, he would throw a handful of dust at Muhammad.
When a man named Uqba was about to be killed by Muslims and showed concern for
his family by asking, But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?
Muhammad answered by telling the doomed man that Hell would take care of
There are, of course, far more examples of violence than the ones listed here,
but these should be sufficient to provide a picture of Muhammads idea of how
Muslims should treat those who refuse to submit to Islam. Was Islam a
religion of peace for the 600-900 Jewish men and boys whose heads were piled
into trenches after they had surrendered? Was Islam a religion of peace for
the woman whose infant son had to be pulled away from her breast so that she
could be stabbed to death? Was it a religion of peace for anyone who dared to
speak out against Muhammad? When Muhammad finally had a band of dedicated
followers who would obey his violent commands without question, Islam was not
a religion of peace.
Notice that we have approached this question regarding the nature of Islam
using a basic historical analysis. Discussions about Islam typically revolve
around certain verses in the Quran, but such discussions are often fruitless.
The reason for this is that the Quran is very inconsistent in its approach
towards unbelievers, due in large part to Muhammads own inconsistency. In
conversations about Islam, a Muslim may argue that, according to the Quran,
There is no compulsion in religion (2:256). A critic may reply with a very
Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they
prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion
of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in
acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection (9:29).
To this the Muslim replies, Yes, it says to fight those who do not believe,
but it is referring to unbelievers who attack Islam. Thus, according to many
Muslims, Islam fights, but only in self-defense. So whos right? The
solution to the debate lies in a historical examination of Islam. It is true
that Muslims are only permitted to attack when threatened, but history shows
what the early Muslims considered a threat. Anything other than complete
submission to Islam was regarded as a threat to Islam, and so anything other
than complete submission was met with extreme hostility. Even poetry and song
lyrics, when used against Muhammad, were enough to warrant a sentence of
Hence, the verses in the Quran that teach Muslims to live in peace should be
examined within the historical context of Muhammads life, for it is this life
that sheds light on an apparently ambiguous message. This historical context
also sheds light on modern aspects of Islam, which ultimately derive from the
life of its founder.
For instance, more than thirteen centuries ago, the peaceful Muhammad fled
Mecca because of intense persecution. As he fled the city, he left the path
of peace farther and farther behind him. He eventually returned at the head
of an army, and few were brave enough to oppose him. Islamic law was suddenly
supreme, with a host of bloody tales to warn its enemies. A similar
phenomenon occurs in the world today. When Muslims are in the minority (as
they are in America) the message is always Let us live in peace with one
another, for Islam is a religion of tolerance and understanding. Then, once
Islam has spread throughout the country, the message suddenly changes to
Anyone who stands against the Prophet is worthy of death!
Oddly enough, this tactic has been remarkably successful for Islam. Despite
more than a thousand years of bloodshed, many people are convinced that
Muhammad was a gentle, humble man who never harmed anyone, and that Islam
teaches its followers to be at peace with everyone who hasnt declared war on
them. Then, when someone like Osama bin Laden organizes a group of Muslims in
an attack against thousands of innocent people, everyone says that he must be
insane. Yet, in a curious way, Osama bin Laden is really more dedicated to
true Islam than most Muslims are. If Muhammad tells Muslims to fight in the
name of God and demonstrates what he means by killing men, women, and children
for even minor resistance, what should a dedicated Muslim do? Should devout
Muslims live in peace with the infidels around them, or should they follow
Muhammads example by murdering the infidels in their beds?
Im very happy that most Muslims are willing to live in peace with their
neighbors. Yet we have to be honest here. Muslims arent peaceful because
they are following the example set by Muhammad. They are peaceful because
theyve chosen to do whats right, and because they are willing to live far
better lives than Muhammad himself lived. In fact, many Muslims are such
kind, peaceful, and gentle people that they seem to be following the example
set by another great religious leaderone who died on the cross for the sins
of the world and rose from the dead to prove his message. This man gave his
listeners the following warning: Watch out for false prophets. They come to
you in sheeps clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their
fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:15). And, may I add, we should also
watch out for false religions, which come to us crying Peace! Peace! when
they were built on a foundation of murder and bloodshed.
 Christianity, if it suffers from anything, suffers from claustrophobia;
atheism suffers from agoraphobia, amnesia, paranoid schizophrenia, and manic
depression, but that is a topic for another article.
 According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammads earliest biographer, Muhammad
personally took part in 27 of these raids [Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, (The
Life of Muhammad), A. Guillaume, tr. (New York: Oxford University Press,
1980), p. 659]. I highly recommend Ibn Ishaqs work for anyone who is
interested in early Islam.
 Ibid., p. 676.
 Ibid., p. 464: Then they surrendered, and the apostle [Muhammad]
confined them in Medina . . . Then the apostle went out to the market of
Medina (which is still a 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.
 Ibid., p. 372-373.
 Ibid., p. 308.
 Thus, if a Muslim were to kill me for writing this article, he would be in
keeping with the teachings of Muhammad.
 For one example of Muslims killing a victim in bed, see Ibn Ishaq, p. 483:
His wife came out and asked who they were and they told her that they were
Arabs in search of supplies. She told them that their man was here and that
they could come in. When we entered we bolted the door of the room on her and
ourselves fearing lest something should come between us and him. His wife
shrieked and warned him of us, so we ran at him with our swords as he was on