The recent violence surrounding the video “The Innocence of Muslims” is only the latest in a series of incidents in which Muslims react violently to a perceived insult to their faith and its founder, Muhammad.
To be sure, we all resent it when outsiders attack our religious tradition or culture; we prefer such criticism to be conducted, if at all, by insiders, not outsiders. However, Islam makes sweeping claims: Muslims hold their faith to be the final revelation of God’s will and insist that it abrogates all earlier revelations, in particular Judaism and Christianity, and that non-Muslims are all destined for hell. Muslims accordingly hold that all people should convert to Islam. Non-Muslims therefore have every right to subject Islam to critical scrutiny. Non-Muslims certainly have the duty to be courteous and fair in doing this, but they have no duty to refrain from explaining why they reject Islam, if this is the conclusion to which their reflection leads, however painful this may be to Muslims. Respect for Islam must not be confused with deference, dishonesty, or self-censorship by non-Muslims as they evaluate key Islamic beliefs. After all, the most important choice a human being can make is the choice to profess a particular religion or none at all. This choice is an expression of our most basic moral duty as rational beings, namely, to seek the truth and live by it. A responsible person will therefore spend a good deal of his or her life reading and thinking about religion, including Islam. Indeed, the ultimate sign of respect for Islam is to take it seriously by asking, “Is it true? Should I believe it?”
A study of Islam quickly reveals the importance of belief in the Koran as the literal, uncreated, infallible word of God, every verse of which, Muslims assert, must be accepted as true. The Koran teaches Muslims that Muhammad “is verily of noble nature” (68:4), and many of its verses command Muslims to obey and imitate the prophet Muhammad (e.g. 3:32, 3:132, 4:13, 4:59, 4:69, 5:92, 8:1, 8:20, 8:46, 9:71, 24:47, 24:51, 24:52, 24:54, 24:56, 33:33, 33:36, 47:33, 49:14, 58:13, 64:12). So to obey the Koran, God’s word, one must obey and imitate Muhammad. Indeed, Muslims insist that Muhammad was “the perfect person,” “the most perfect creature,” “the infallible one, the best of mankind.” Muslim doctrine holds that Muhammad possessed isma, that is, divine immunity from sin and error. Muhammad himself approved of those who described him as “the best of [God’s] creation,” so this manner of speaking is not some late innovation but an integral aspect of Muhammad’s original teaching. Muhammad told his followers, “None of you believes until I am more beloved to him than his wife, child, self, and all people,” and classical Islamic scholars explain what this means as follows: “Love of the Prophet… means the will to obey him and not disobey him, this being one of the obligations of Islam. The most respected of the collections of Muhammad’s sayings (hadith), that of Bukhari, quotes Muhammad as saying, “whoever obeys me, obeys Allah, and whoever disobeys me, disobeys Allah.” In his last homily to his followers, Muhammad told them, “I have left with you something which if you will hold fast to it you will never fall into error – a plain indication, the book of God and the practice of His prophet, so give good heed to what I say” (emphasis added). Annemarie Schimmel observes, “The obedience due to the Prophet seems to have played an important, perhaps the central role in the development of Islamic piety.” The great medieval theologian, al-Ghazzali, wrote:
Know that the key to happiness is to follow the sunna [Muhammad’s example and teachings] and to imitate the Messenger of God in all his coming and going, his movements and rest, in his way of eating, his attitude, his sleep and his talk…. That means, you have to sit while putting on trousers, and to stand while winding a turban, and to begin with the right foot when putting on shoes.
A choice to embrace Islam or not, then, will depend heavily on one’s assessment of Muhammad’s actions and teaching. If one concludes that Muhammad’s example and teaching are morally flawed in some serious way, this will count, perhaps decisively, as a reason not to enter Islam.
Yet here the conscientious enquirer encounters a problem, for under Islamic law, criticism of Muhammad is punishable by death. Why? Because Muhammad’s example is to be imitated in all things, and (once he had the power to do so, after AD 622) Muhammad systematically assassinated those who criticized him (sparing those critics who humbly repented and converted to Islam). W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad’s premier biographer, writes, “Throughout his career Muhammad was specially sensitive to intellectual or literary attacks… They were for him an unforgivable sin.” We find here the root cause of the violent reactions in the Muslim world to any perceived insult to Muhammad, whether by Asia Bibi, Salman Rushdie, Theo Van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Geert Wilders, the Danish cartoonists, Flemming Rose, Hans-Peter Raddaz, Robert Redeker, or Pope Benedict XVI: this is simply a case of Muslims following Muhammad’s lead. Indeed, in a superb biography of Muhammad published in 1968, the French scholar Maxime Rodinson recounts an anecdote that eerily foreshadows the plight of Pope Benedict in 2006:
At a conference in Beirut not so very many years ago, a European professor caused a great furor merely by quoting, purely as historical evidence and with no personal intent, some medieval Christian abuse of Muhammad. The matter became a diplomatic incident.
Non-Muslims encountering such reactions should (after removing themselves to a safe location) politely but firmly remind Muslims that they may not predetermine the outcome of an inquiry into the life and character of Muhammad in this way. An inquiry into Muhammad’s character must impartially follow the evidence wherever it leads. Indeed, Muhammad’s violent reaction to criticism is itself an important piece of evidence that his moral character was not perfect.
There is other evidence in Muslim sources (biographies of Muhammad or sira, traditions about Muhammad or ahadith, and the Koran) that will lead a conscientious non-Muslim to doubt whether he ought to imitate and obey Muhammad. We may group this evidence under three categories: (a) draconian punishments imposed or permitted by Muhammad, (b) Muhammad’s use of violence against non-Muslims, and (c) Muhammad’s attitude towards women.
(a) Draconian punishments: Muhammad ordered the stoning of adulterers. Muhammad also asserted that “lesbianism by women is adultery between them” and that his followers should “kill the one who sodomizes and the one who lets it be done to him." Muhammad once ordered that a group of criminals be punished by having their hands and feet cut off and their eyes gouged out with hot irons. This was an application of the general rule that “those who make war on God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be slain or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land” (Koran 5:34). Muhammad taught, “As for the man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut off their hands to punish them for their crimes. That is the punishment enjoined by God” (Koran 5:38). Muhammad taught that apostates from Islam should be killed. After the battle of Khaybar, Muhammad ordered that a local chieftain, Kinana, be tortured by having a fire kindled on his chest to induce him to reveal the location of buried treasure. Muhammad tacitly approved of the revenge taken by his adopted son, Zayd, on an elderly woman named Umm Qirfa, whom Zayd tore apart by tying her legs to camels and driving the camels in opposite directions. (The sunna includes Muhammad’s tacit approvals as well as his overt actions and teachings. Moreover, it is obligatory for Muslims to believe in the excellence of prophetic companions such as Zayd.) In dealing with the enemies of Islam, Muhammad often punished whole clans, including women and children, for the alleged misdeeds of a few of their members (e.g. in his treatment of the Jews of Medina).
(b) Violence against non-Muslims: Muhammad ordered the expulsion of all non-Muslims from Arabia, an order that was carried out by his companion Umar, the second caliph. (To this day the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enforces this order by banning the practice of any faith but Islam within its borders.) Muhammad taught that “no Muslim should be killed for killing an infidel,” an exception to the general rule of “a life for a life.” Muhammad ordered that all pagan Arabs be killed unless they convert to Islam (see Koran 9:5).[28 Muhammad ordered that Jews and Christians be fought and killed until they either convert to Islam or pay tribute (the jizya) to their Muslim overlords (see Koran 9:29). Some years before his death, Muhammad began preparing his followers to attack the Byzantine and Persian Empires, even though these empires posed no apparent threat to the nascent Muslim community. Indeed, Muhammad’s raid against the Byzantine outpost of Tabuk in the autumn of 630 was, according to W. Montgomery Watt, “the precursor of the wars of conquest,” for Muhammad was aware that “he was launching the Islamic state on a challenge to the Byzantine empire.” Muhammad told his followers, “I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” Muhammad permitted and sometimes ordered the execution and enslavement of non-Muslim prisoners of war. In describing the signs that will portend the end of time, Muhammad taught his followers that the last hour will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and the Jews hide behind trees and rocks and the trees and rocks say, “O Muslim! There is a Jew behind me; come and kill him.” Muhammad’s physical violence against his enemies was accompanied by verbal abuse, as when he addressed the soon-to-be-liquidated Jews of the Banu Qurayza as “You brothers of monkeys” (see Koran 2:65, 5:60, 7:166). Muhammad taught his followers, “Do not greet the Jews and Christians before they greet you and when you meet any one of them on the roads force him to go to the narrowest part of it.” Citing this teaching, the great Koranic commentator Ibn Kathir (1301-1373) notes, “This is why the Leader of the Faithful Umar bin al-Khattab [Muhammad’s companion and successor]…demanded his well-known conditions be met by the Christians, these conditions that ensured their continued humiliation, degradation and disgrace.” He proceeds to list the discriminatory rules, referred to under the rubric of “the pact of Umar,” that kept Christians and Jews socially and politically subordinated to Muslims under Islamic imperial rule for centuries.
(c) Attidude towards women: Muhammad taught that Muslim soldiers may have sexual intercourse with female war-captives, even when they had no intention of taking the women as wives or concubines. Muhammad taught that male slave-owners may have sexual intercourse with female slaves; indeed, Muhammad himself had sexual relations with his Coptic slave-woman, Mariya, whom he received as a gift from the ruler of Alexandria (see Koran 23:1-6, 70:30, and 66:1-12). Muhammad’s fondness for Mariya aroused the jealousy of his wives, who pressured him into promising not to have sex with Mariya; when one of his wives caught him breaking this promise, Muhammad responded angrily, threatening his wives with divorce and revealing a divine message in which God released Muhammad from his promise and chastised the prophet’s wives (an entire chapter of the Koran, sura 66, is devoted to this divine revelation). Muhammad once gave another Coptic slave woman, Sirin, as a gift to one of his followers, Hassan bin Thabit, who proceeded to impregnate her. After conquering the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza and beheading all of the 600-900 male members of the tribe, Muhammad enslaved all of their women and children, selling some of the women in exchange for horses and weapons; he also took one of the women, Rayhana, for himself as a concubine. Muhammad took another Jewish woman, Safiya, as a war prize at the battle of Khaybar and consummated his relationship with her immediately after he had ordered the torture and execution of her husband, Kinana, and after he had killed her father as well. Muhammad taught that husbands may beat their wives for disobedience (albeit “gently”, Koran 4:34). Muhammad taught that a majority of those in hell are women, sent there for ingratitude to their husbands. Muhammad asserted that women are deficient in intelligence compared to men, for which reason the legal testimony of one man is worth that of two women, and that women are deficient in religion as compared to men, because their menses makes them ritually impure. Muhammad said, “After me I have not left any affliction more harmful to men than women” and “men are already destroyed when they obey women.” Muhammad taught his followers, “It is not permissible for a man to be alone with a woman, and no lady should travel except with a Muhram (i.e. her husband or a person whom she cannot marry).” In his farewell homily, Muhammad exhorted men to “lay injunctions on women kindly, for they are prisoners with you, having no control of their persons.” Muhammad taught that “it is not permissible for a woman…to allow someone into her husband’s house if he is opposed, or to go out if he is averse.” Muhammad married one of his wives, Aisha, when she was too young to make an autonomous choice to be married; at age seven, she was married to Muhammad by her father Abu Bakr. When Muhammad heard that a woman had been made empress of Persia, he said “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.”
Historians remind us that seventh-century Arabia was a barbarous place and that it is anachronistic to expect the people of that time to live up to the moral standards of a later era. They have a point (although one must note that Christianity had banned stoning of adulterers and sexual relations with slaves centuries before Muhammad’s birth). Muslims observe that many of Muhammad’s teachings were improvements over the customs of pre-Islamic pagan Arabia and that Muhammad and his successors were often less intolerant than some medieval Christian rulers. They, too, have a point (although Arabia itself enjoyed far greater religious tolerance before Muhammad than after him). However, these points are irrelevant to our topic, for Muslims, following the Koran, insist that Muhammad even today is the perfect moral exemplar whom all people ought to obey and emulate in every aspect of their lives. Muslims do not assert merely that Muhammad was good by the standards of a barbarous age or slightly better than some other very violent and intolerant people, for that would be damning with faint praise indeed. Christians also may point out that, while Christians through the centuries have often been guilty of intolerance, religious violence, and misogyny, one cannot find any warrant for such behavior in the example and teaching of Jesus. Muslim apologists often note that Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon slaughtered and enslaved people and had sex with concubines. Again, they are correct, but this entails only that the same critique of Islam sketched out above also applies to any religion that holds up these men as perfect moral exemplars. Atheists and agnostics will of course be utterly unimpressed by these various iterations of the tu quoque fallacy, a fallacy which Muslims frequently use against Jews and Christians.
Muslims might object that we have given a selectively negative list of Muhammad’s actions and teachings, omitting all the good things he did and said. This is true, but irrelevant, for it is precisely the counter-examples that are most relevant to assessing the claim that “Muhammad is the perfect person,” for those who make this claim are asserting something much stronger than that Muhammad got some things right. In assessing any claim of the form “All S are P,” the logical approach is to search for any instance of an S that is not a P.
Muslims may also complain that the foregoing summary could give some people an inaccurate impression of life in contemporary Muslim societies: after all, Muslim nations today do not impose the jizya, wage expansionist war to impose Muslim rule on non-Muslims, stone adulterers, cut off the hands and feet of criminals, or allow slavery and concubinage, etc. Even if this were entirely true, however, it would only demonstrate that Muslims do not really believe their own rhetoric about Muhammad being the perfect person. It is, however, not entirely true that Muhammad’s influence in no way shapes contemporary Muslim societies. For instance, a recent study by Freedom House shows that virtually all Middle Eastern and North African countries lack laws that unequivocally outlaw domestic violence, because their constitutions show deference tosharia, which allows husbands to beat their wives. Also, threats to the lives of apostates from Islam continue to be common in Muslim countries. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, it is a crime punishable by death to convert from Islam to some other religion or to induce others to do so. The dubious example set by Muhammad when he married the pre-pubescent Aisha continues to influence men in Muslim countries, where child marriage is an ongoing threat to the rights of women. Furthermore, as current events illustrate over and over again, some Muslims still continue to threaten the lives of people who are perceived as insulting Islam or Muhammad, and in this they follow Muhammad’s example. Muhammad’s verbal abuse of the Jews when he called them “brothers of monkeys” continues to influence the way many Muslim preachers speak to their congregations today. Finally, Muhammad’s influence lives on in his homeland of Saudi Arabia, where the government severely restricts the rights of women and non-Muslims and imposes the draconian punishments called for by Muhammad and the Koran. Moreover, traditional Wahhabi scholars in Saudi Arabia still teach that Muslims have a duty to wage expansionist jihad against non-Muslims; in doing so, they are following the example of Muhammad. In the Sudan over the past three decades or so, many thousands of non-Muslims have been killed or enslaved in religious warfare waged by the shariah-enforcing regime in Khartoum.
Our hypothetical enquirer has therefore assembled the elements of a plausible (I would say compelling) case against converting to Islam. Let us summarize that case: (a) Islam requires obedience to and emulation and veneration of Muhammad as “the perfect person.” (b) Muhammad, as portrayed in traditional Muslim sources (the only sources we have on him), performs, commands and condones many actions that are gravely immoral. (c) One ought not to convert to a religion that condones, let alone commands or admires, gravely immoral actions. The frank statement of this argument will no doubt be painful to Muslims, but they must consider: if Muslims have the right to say why they believe the rest of us ought to be Muslims, then the rest of us have the right to say why we reject this judgment. Muslims must accord to others the same rights that they claim for themselves.
Suppose that Muslims were to construct a convincing rebuttal of the argument presented above. They might challenge the reliability of some of the Muslim sources cited, or they might rethink the traditional Muslim view of Muhammad as “the perfect person,” or they might offer alternative interpretations of key Koranic verses, or they might define Islam in terms of an “esoteric core” and dismiss all the aforementioned items as part of its “exoteric periphery.” Still, they could not answer the argument unless it was frankly stated in the first place, and the threat of physical violence makes it impossible to articulate any critique of Muhammad or Islam in many parts of the world – even, increasingly, in Europe. The right to freedom of speech includes also the right to advance mistaken arguments, or else it is meaningless. Too many Muslims want to insist not only that Muhammad was the perfect person, but also that everyone else must either agree with them or be silent. This is not an invitation to a genuine dialogue, nor is it compatible with full freedom of inquiry and speech for those who wish to evaluate the key Muslim doctrine that Muhammad was “the perfect person.”
More subtle and insidious than the physical violence of the Muslim street is the rhetorical intimidation practiced by many Western intellectuals, who often dismiss criticism of Islam as “Islamophobia,” “racist Orientalism,” or “demonizing the non-Western ‘other,’” to quote some of the more trendy jargon. Here we have a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy, the mistake, that is, of attacking the one who advances an argument instead of assessing the argument on its merits. Two replies to this type of rhetoric are in order. First, it is uncharitable to assume the worst about another person’s motives when one has no compelling reason to do so. A critic of Islam may, after all, be motivated by a genuine desire to seek the truth and not by racism or bigotry. Second, even if we assume the worst about another person’s motives, nothing at all follows about the cogency of his reasoning. If I argue that all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal, it is no refutation of my argument to assert that I am motivated by anti-Greek bigotry; even if that were so, my reasoning would still be sound.
The search for religious truth requires an atmosphere of open dialogue and debate, free from physical intimidation or ad hominem abuse. People committed to the careful investigation of religious claims share a common interest in resisting both the physical threats aimed at those who criticize Islam or Muhammad and the stultifying self-censorship of the Western intelligentsia on all matters Islamic. A most precious human right is at stake here, one possessed equally by atheists and by Popes, namely, the freedom to enquire, argue, and speak about religion. Muslims must respect this right. Non-Muslims must not unwittingly relinquish it.