We Muslims have a love affair with the word Islamic. We are obsessed with putting it at the front of almost all other words. We have an Islamic version of everything: Islamic government, Islamic countries, Islamic tax system, Islamic economics, Islamic banking system, Islamic humor, Islamic punishments, Islamic foods, Islamic beer, Islamic dress, Islamic swim suit, Islamic fashion show, and moronically, Islamic toilet. You name it and we concoct an Islamic version of it.
Our fascination with the Islamization of the universe is not an epidemic psychological anomaly; it is an imperative historical necessity, albeit irritable at times. It is a tendency unique only to Muslims and has been used cunningly by Islamic leaders who crave loyalty as an effective strategy to foment faithfulness among believers and solidify attachment to Islam. Although this control strategy is an interesting topic in itself, it is not the focus of this article. My hope here is to be able to shed some light on another still unsettled issue which is the question of what is true Islam? Islam is a garden-variety religion with many divisions and sects. The adherents of each sect claim that they are the true Muslims, hence, each has a monopoly on access to the gates of heaven. Discussed more often, especially in the Western media, is the division of Islam into pacifist and militant.
Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, known as Saudi Arabia today, nearly fourteen centuries ago. The pre-Islamic societies in Arabia have been described as primitive and characterized by a state of outmost ignorance (Jahelyya), a long history of hostilities and tribal conflicts, and prolonged fights over tribal dominance. It was a society so barbaric that, according to the historical narratives, families buried their newborn female infants alive (the practice known as female infanticide). It was against such circumstances that the prophet of Islam, Mohammed, stood up steadfastly and reacted with remarkable passion and resolve. Muslims believe Mohammed was chosen by God to challenge the existing inhumane practices, and take action to abolish the unfair tribal rules and traditions. He and his followers resorted to a variety of means, including the use of force, to advance their message.
The Prophet Mohammed was born in the city of Mecca and lived most of his life in this town. Mecca was the center of trade on the Arabian Peninsula at that time. It is not too far-fetched to link most of the Mohammed’s divine messages to the situation on the ground, and his quest to dismantle the prevailing social and civic structures and replace them with ones he thought were rightful and God-given. Apparently, his messages were not well received by Meccans who often accused him of fabricating his link to God and his divine revelations. They especially resisted his opposition to polytheism.
Before the advent of Islam, Kaba was the center for polytheists and the idols favored by different tribes. This was in fact necessary and the main impetus behind the flourishing trades among different tribes in Arabia. Mohammed was not only an extra ordinary human being and charismatic leader; he was also a savvy politician who, according to his early preaching, thought that the best way to recruit devoted followers was to be conciliatory and to have a direct connection to a divine source. His enemies, however, were skeptical and constantly doubted his link to the supernatural source. They thought his revelations came from himself and not from God. It seems that the key reasons why Meccans elites were opposed to Mohammed, especially his monotheist preaching, were not only theological but economic as well. Kaba was a welcoming sanctuary for all types of believers and at one time housed 360 idols. It was like the epicenter of all faiths. Various people came to Mecca to worship their idols. It was due to these pilgrimages that Mecca became a center of commerce, embracing all kinds of devotees who would come to trade with one another. In other words, Kaba was the attraction that made Mecca the center of business.
Mohammad challenged the established socioeconomic paradigms he believed were unjust and appalling and contemplated their obliteration. Obviously the ruling tribes of Arabia were vehemently opposed to such endeavors and especially resisted Mohammed’s intention to rid Kaba of its idols. Judging from Quranic verses, Mohammed seemed to be more tolerant and collaborative in the early years of Islam in Mecca, hoping to coexist with ruling tribes for theological motives. Such a strategy was also considered necessary for doing business with non-believers. In other words, he was willing to make some conciliatory gestures to polytheists in exchange for peaceful coexistence. No doubt the Prophet Mohammed was a masterful coalition builder engaged in the game of mutual interdependence with non-believers. For the time being, he was willing to build an alliance with them at the cost of forsaking his monotheistic message. In Mecca, he was a preacher, a morality teacher, and a savvy politician who used his power as well as his charisma trying to build a coalition in order to advance his religious movement still in its infancy.
Relentlessly, he reminded the nonbelievers and his accusers of the judgment day and the kind of harsh punishments awaiting them if they refuse to subscribe to, or ridicule, his messages. In modern day politics, this was a kind of carrot and stick strategy offering eternal life in heaven if you are with us and the abominable fire of hell if you are not. Such a strategy seemed prudent and necessary at the time. In order to recruit loyal followers and build a base of supporters who were promised heavenly recompense in the other world for their sacrifice. It was the only effective means through which Mohammed could convince the uninformed people around him to give up their corrupt life style and convert to Islam
Imagine yourself wanting to preach your divine messages and persuade the skeptical people around you to understand you and accept your message. What would be the tenor of your speech to the people who are overwhelmingly opposed to your ideas and refuse to abandon the established norms by which they have lived for many centuries? Imagine yourself wanting to guide your errant teenage son who refuses to give up his loathsome lifestyle and walk the straight path. What would be the tone of your advice? What kind of strategy would you pursue? It would seem you have no viable option but to resort to a carrot and stick strategy. That is most likely what the Prophet Mohammed was trying to do during his ten years of less successful preaching in Mecca.
Later in his life, after migrating to Medina (hijra), Mohammed had a chance to build up a stronger support base and essential resources. He successfully formed a strong army of believers to capture his hometown of Mecca and teach the Maccans a lesson. After he was forced to leave Mecca, he perhaps contemplated his return and retribution against the Meccans, the tormentors who ridiculed his teachings and resorted to shameful tactics to undermine his mission.
In Medina, he also ventured to establish a system of governance based on holy laws, laws that he claimed were being dictated to him by God. In other words, he not only started a new religion but also created a religion-based political system with himself at its center. After he successfully built a strong army of loyal supporters in Medina, the tone of Mohammed’s divine teachings changed from conciliatory to belligerent, and understandably so. In other words, with stronger power, the change in strategy was inevitable. He no longer had to rely on preaching to advance his cause. He had a strong army, a bigger group of devoted followers; therefore, war and the use of force seemed like a more expedient option. Accordingly, Mohammed’s strategies changed as did the tone of his revelations. Tolerance changed to intolerance and his passionate message changed to more assertive proclamations. There was no need for concession to or compromise with non-believers any longer.
Since then, the divine laws have been the basis for Islamic governments throughout Islamic history. The sources of Islamic laws are mainly Quran and/or hadiths (sayings, practices, and traditions of Mohammed) to a lesser extent. Undoubtedly, at the time of Mohammad, the creation of an Islamic state made sense and was the only system through which he could spread his message, often forcefully. Over time, some Islamic leaders envisioned the establishment of a similar social and political system for Muslims
with set rules, codes, standards, and guidelines for all aspects of life from birth to death. These included diet, clothing, adornment, entertainment, and even trivial matters such as washing one’s self after using a bathroom. This is a system that leaves little or nothing to human judgment when it comes to private and public affairs, and it does not recognize man-made laws unless they are in accordance with the Islamic codes.
Believers believed then, and still do today, that Mohammed preached nothing that came from himself and everything he expressed was the words of God conveyed to him by the angel Gabriel. Many religious scholars in the West inclined to believe that he may have utilized the so-called divine revelations as an auspicious strategy to reinforce his mission, and justifiably so. In their opinion, connecting Mohammed to Gabriel reduces Mohammed to a mere instrument of transmission and undermines his personal aptitude as an extraordinary human being who had the courage to stand up to the prevailing unjust ruling system of his hometown. Even if he used the revelations stories to build up power, it was a clever approach and was in fact indicative of his resourcefulness. He used his spiritual messages, combined with his exceptional personality, to advance his cause.
Many of the rules and guidelines articulated by the Prophet Mohammed were meant, though, to be applied to a particular case or specific situations that he faced at the time, and were not obviously intended for the 21st century without the needed modifications and refinement. Many Islamic scholars believe that there are some rules, even those mentioned in Quran that are abrogated or outright obsolete and must be replaced by modern rules. Trying to forcibly apply such outdated rules to today’s complex societies may create a backlash and loss of creditability, especially in the long term. Nevertheless, some extremist Muslims still believe that Islamic laws are God-given, everlasting, and no one should dispute their wholesomeness and their eternal suitability. Accordingly, Islam should not unconditionally sanction human legislation.
The justified fluctuations in the manner of Mohammed’s teaching and practices, as clearly documented by the verses of Quran, seem to have resulted in perplexing some contemporary Muslims who now think that there are two kinds of Islam, passive and aggressive. In other words, these variations have created a rift among the followers more so today than at any other time; they have created a duality, a division of Islam into peaceful and militant. The dichotomy explained above has historical origins and is rooted in the practices of the Prophet Mohammed since the dawn of Islam. What is overlooked, however, is that the shift in the tactics and in the tone of the teachings of Prophet Mohammad was a matter of practicality and a response to the situations he faced at the time. He would never have thought that after 1400 years his teaching would instigate violence among his followers in the 21st century, and that his proclamations would be used as a license to oppress or to kill.
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