Copyright The New Yorker
February 4, 2008
In 610 A.D., Muhammad ibn Abdallah, a forty-year-old man from a prosperous merchant family in Mecca, repaired to a cave on nearby Mt. Hira to meditateâ€šÃ„Ã®a retreat he had made many times. That year, though, his experience was different. An angel appeared and seized him, speaking to him the words of God. Muhammad fell to his knees and crawled home to his wife. â€šÃ„ÃºWrap me up!â€šÃ„Ã¹ he cried. He feared for his sanity. But, as the voice revisited him, he came to believe that it truly issued from God. It called on him to reform his society. Poor people were to be given charity; slaves were to be treated justly; usury was to be outlawed. Muhammadâ€šÃ„Ã´s tribesmen, the Quraysh, were polytheists, like most people in the Arabian Peninsula at that time, but this God, Allah, proclaimed that he was the only God. He was the same deity that the Jews and the Christians worshipped. Jesus Christ wasnâ€šÃ„Ã´t his son, though. Christ was just a prophet, like the prophets of the Old Testament. Their word was now superseded by Muhammadâ€šÃ„Ã´s, as their creeds were supplanted by this new one, Islam.
When Muhammad started preaching in Mecca, people saw him as a harmless crank, but as he gained followers he began to be regarded as a menace. Mecca was an important trading hub, with rich merchants. Muhammadâ€šÃ„Ã´s God forbade all ostentation. Furthermore, if, as he instructed, the pagan idols were to be discarded, that would mean no more revenue from their shrines. In 622, Muhammad and his followers were driven out of Mecca. They fled to Yathrib, which became known as Medina, and from there they warred with their native city. In the beginning, Muhammadâ€šÃ„Ã´s treatment of his fellow-monotheists the Jews and the Christians was conciliatory, but new religions do not normally establish themselves with the help of older religions. The local Jewish tribes conspired against him. After a decisive battle in 627, Muhammad had seven hundred Jews beheaded in Medinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s central market. In 630, he and his men took Mecca. Muhammad ordered the destruction of the three hundred and sixty idols around the cityâ€šÃ„Ã´s great temple, the Kabah. He proclaimed the supremacy of Islam, and reportedly sent messengers to the rulers of Persia, Byzantium, Yemen, and Ethiopia bidding them to convert. According to his biographer Karen Armstrong, he spent his few remaining years trying to establish peace, sometimes over the objections of his lieutenants.
Soon after Muhammadâ€šÃ„Ã´s death, in 632, the record of what God had said to him was collected in the Koran, and his contemporariesâ€šÃ„Ã´ testimonies about his life were gathered in the Hadith. At the same time, Islam expanded, with a speed unique in history. One of the obligations imposed on the faithful by the Koran was jihad, or struggle. This has been translated as â€šÃ„Ãºholy war,â€šÃ„Ã¹ and there are passages in the Koran to support such a reading, notably the recommendation that Muslims kill enemies of the faith: â€šÃ„ÃºFight against them until idolatry is no more and Allahâ€šÃ„Ã´s religion reigns supreme.â€šÃ„Ã¹ But just a few paragraphs later the Koran makes the opposite decree: â€šÃ„ÃºThere shall be no compulsion in religion.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Some interpreters of the Koranâ€šÃ„Ã®particularly in recent years, when holy war has become a matter of public alarmâ€šÃ„Ã®have argued that â€šÃ„Ãºjihadâ€šÃ„Ã¹ actually means spiritual combat, every Muslimâ€šÃ„Ã´s fight within himself against the temptations of evil. I donâ€šÃ„Ã´t know why a book that was collected, rather than composed, should have to be internally consistent, or why a religious document that originated within a nomadic society in the seventh century and includes such things as the moon splitting in two should be asked to conform to post-Enlightenment thought. The Bible also contradicts itself, and has water turning into wine. Such matters are a problem only for literalists. As for slaying oneâ€šÃ„Ã´s enemies, this is enthusiastically recommended in Psalms (â€šÃ„ÃºHappy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stonesâ€šÃ„Ã¹), as it is in many premodern writings.
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