Bismillah ar Rahman ar Raheem.
I begin in the name of God, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.
Before I begin my response to Tommy Robinson’s book, “Mohamed’s Koran; why Muslims kill for Islam”, I would like to clarify a few crucial points of reference:
Firstly, I am a proud, loyal and patriotic British citizen. In this I am certainly not unique in any respect, as most Muslims share this love for their country. I work hard, pay my taxes, obey the law, and contribute in a small way to my country’s economy and success. Furthermore, love for my country obliges me not to stay silent when there is injustice, falsehood or immorality.
Secondly, I have lived most of my life in London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. My friends, colleagues, neighbours and the various people I have had the good fortune to meet over the years have been from a myriad of cultures, religions, races and colours, and I revel in being part of this glorious tapestry of God’s creation.
Thirdly, I have worked with the East London Three Faiths Forum for over a decade, and count myself blessed to have vicars, priests and rabbis as my colleagues and friends. In this treatise I feel compelled to answer TR’s vicious criticism of the Islamic faith and history with a critique of his amnesia regarding British and Christian history. This is not something I would choose to do under normal circumstances as I do not wish to mock the sensibilities of my friends and countrymen. In fact, I believe that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all in the same boat in modern times, struggling as they are in a modern secular world that castigates faith, spirituality and religious lifestyles. Islam obliges me to treat the Old and New Testaments as holy and divinely inspired. My faith obliges me to love and respect Jesus Christ, his mother the blessed virgin Mary (after whom an entire chapter of the Quran is named), as well as dozens of previous prophets such as Abraham, Noah, Solomon and Joseph. I cannot therefore stoop to trashing the Bible in the manner that Robinson treats the Quran. I will however show that the adherents of any great faith do not always live up to the ideals of their faiths. This is just as true of Islam as it is true of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and others.
Even the shortest of perusals of history books will reveal that adherents of all the world’s great faiths and empires have seen the ebb and flow of civilisation: sometimes rising to the heights of enlightenment, and at other times plummeting to the depths of barbarity. Faith teaches both physical and spiritual ascension, yet human beings can be frail and forgetful. To focus on the lowest times of a civilisation while forgetting the heights it soared in centuries past, as Robinson insists on doing, is simply irrational and ahistorical. The Muslim world is clearly passing through a time of immense intellectual, social, cultural, political and religious pandemonium. This has not always been so, and God willing, it will not be so in the future. The current malaise neither defines Islam nor is intrinsic to the faith. There are a variety of reasons for the malaise, many of them political and outside the control of Muslim countries themselves. Some commentators will explain that Muslim countries are mere pawns in a chess game for political and material control being played by much bigger and richer world powers. Others will explain that the Muslim world reached immense heights in the past, but then allowed itself to stagnate and stupefy. Its record on human rights, women’s emancipation and political transparency was one of the best in history, but it now wins prizes for the worst. Whatever the criticism, it is still fair to say that the Islamic world has given the world some of its most glittering, tolerant and scientific civilisations. To deny this and claim that Islam has contributed nothing positive to the world is sheer ignorance.
Robinson’s book divides history and our present existence into binary opposites. The premise, chapter, verse and conclusion of the book is that Islam is depraved, Christianity is noble. Muslims are uncouth, Christians are cultured. Islam destroys, Christianity builds. Muslims subjugate women, Christians elevate women. Islam ordains slavery, Christianity condemns slavery. Muslims are paedophiles, Christians are saints. And so on and on, ad nauseam. It is thus important to set the record straight. TR and his ilk need to realise that murderous genocide, racism, sexism and curtailment of basic human rights will certainly be found in the histories of all world civilisations. Christian rule has seen its fair share of psychopaths and tyrants, as has Islam. The torture of heretics, public lynchings of non-conformists, burning books and persecution of minorities can be found in the histories of all great empires. But there are also numerous examples of justice, emancipation, invention and tolerance. Just as it would be nonsensical to define Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition or the KKK, so it would be nonsensical to define Islam by Isis. Catholic priests who raped young boys and Muslim men who groomed and raped young white girls made a mockery of their religions and abused their positions of power. Such people have no faith, morality, decency or Godliness. Their respective religions cannot be defined or condemned because of their vileness.
There is a danger today from extremists among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, the Far Right and others. Faith remains a powerful force in politics and popular culture; it can be utilised to offer peace, love and harmony, or it can be used to inflame, degrade and hate. Robinson’s book is an affront to all faiths, to history and to truth itself.
Religious intolerance and superstition in Christian Europe.
The modern European-Christian enlightenment did not appear as a gift from the skies, adorned on a tray of holly and ivy, accompanied by singing harpists and carried down by choirs of translucent angels. It was an enlightenment that was born out of blood, guts and gore. Europe suffered the contractions of superstition, spilt the blood of witches and heretics, and screamed out the anguish of despair. Only after experiencing trauma for almost six hundred years did it see the birth of a more temperate civilisation. The Muslim world is also in the midst of its own re-birth and awakening. Like Christianity, it is having to re-define its relationship with modernity, politics and dissent. It is 600 years younger than its Christian neighbours, and perhaps it needs time and space to decide its own fate.
Europe has seen its fair share of religious intolerance, bigotry and savagery, all in the name of Christ. The rise of Al Qaida and Isis in Muslim lands may have different roots, but the murderous effect on innocent civilians has been the same.
Modern Europe has taken its current shape after six hundred years of torture, murder and mayhem. The Medieval Inquisition was established by the Catholic Church to suppress heresy. It spread terror through its cruelty, violence, mutilations, the confiscation of property, public hangings and the burning alive of heretics. Consider the famous heretic Joan of Arc, a young woman credited with inspiring the military victories of the French against the English. She was arrested and charged with seventy offences, including heresy and dressing like a male soldier. Her trial before a Church court was overseen by a Bishop, who ignored her complaint of repeated rape by the English soldiers holding her in custody. In 1431 she was burned alive at the stake for heresy. Twenty-five years later, her mother petitioned for a re-trial, and the court eventually overturned her conviction. The Catholic Church canonised her in 1920.
During the 1600s, Europe became mired in the 30-year war (1618 – 1648), one of the longest and deadliest wars that Europe has seen. This began as a battle between various Catholic and Protestant states, but quickly developed into a quest for political power. Countries included in the long conflict included England, France, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Austria, Poland, Transylvania and Russia. The incessant war was accompanied with famine and the failure of crops. Refugees travelled across Europe, looking for shelter and safety; disease epidemics spread among the starving while soldiers looted properties and farms. More than 8 million people died during this period. In this atmosphere of increased tribulations, thoughts of the Church turned to Satan and witchcraft; the Church explained that malevolent satanic witches were causing all these problems by consorting with demons, worshipping the devil and conspiring to cripple Christianity. If Europe was to survive the wars, famine and disease, it needed to purge its cities of witches. The result was mass trials of witches in which thousands of suspected witches, men, women and children, were burned alive at the stake. In Bamberg, a Malefizhaus (witch house) was specially constructed; it contained a torture chamber, the walls of which were decorated with verses from the Bible. The Bamberg witch trials lasted for five years and claimed more than five hundred victims. Even after the Enlightenment had supposedly led to great philosophical and intellectual leaps in European thinking, the Nazis were still able to take hold in the hearts and minds of many Germans.
As the age of Enlightenment spread, the Jews remained one of the biggest victims of Christian persecution. The term ‘blood libel’ was coined to blame Jews for the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jews were accused of ritualised murder of Christian children and baking the Matzah bread with the blood of the children. These blood libel myths helped incite anti-Jewish sentiments and riots across Europe. In 1243 in Beelitz, the entire Jewish community was burnt alive. In 1349, a rumour was started that Jews were burning wells in Basel, and more than 600 Jews were burned alive as punishment. In 1524 in Halle, a Jewish man was tied to a pillar, rings of glowing coals were laid around him, and he was slowly roasted to death. He had been accused of impersonating a Christian priest, stealing Christian children to be tortured by other Jews, and poisoning people and wells. In 1290, the Edict of Expulsion proclaimed by King Edward 1 banished the entire Jewish community of England. The country was considered “Yuden rein” (free of Jews) until 1656 when Cromwell permitted the Jews to return. The argument for re-admission was that England was one of the 4 angles of the earth prophesised in Scripture, and the return of Jews would hasten the coming of the Messiah.
Many Jews escaped persecution from Christian Europe by fleeing to Muslim Spain, where they were treated with honour as being ‘People of the Book’. In Muslim lands, the Jews hailed the “Golden Age” where they were free of persecution and able to enjoy success and wealth. The great Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides wrote his Magnum Opus, “The Guide for the Perplexed” in the Arabic language. This Rabbi and philosopher was also a medical doctor and was chosen by Sultan Salahuddin of Egypt to be his personal physician. During the Golden age, Jews entered politics, developed the Hebrew language, excelled in craftmanship and architecture, and joined the ranks of the wealthy and privileged. Bernard Lewis comments in his “The Jews of Islam” that “with few exceptions, whatever was creative and significant in Jewish life happened in Islamic lands.”[i]
Professor Maria Rosa Menocal describes the respect afforded to Jews and Christians under Muslim rule. Samuel ibn Nagrila was nagid, or head, of the Jewish community and a great poet of the Golden Age. He was appointed vizier, or prime minister, to the caliph in Granada. The Jews of Andalusia were so enamoured of the rich and vibrant life under Muslim rule, they assimilated into it wholeheartedly. Menocal comments, “But unlike many later European and American Jews, the Andalusian Jews had not had to abandon their orthodoxy to be fully a part of the body politic and culture of their place and time. The Jews of Al-Andalus were able to openly observe and eventually enrich their Judaic and Hebrew heritage and at the same time fully participate in the general cultural and intellectual scene.” [ii]
The Muslim caliph of Cordoba made Hasdai ibn Shaprut head of a delegation for delicate foreign negotiations. In today’s language this may be termed the office of Foreign Affairs. Another member of the delegation was bishop of Alvira, Racemundo, who also represented the caliph in the court of Otto1. When the Normans eventually conquered Sicily from the Arabs, they fell in love with the food, culture, clothes and music of the Muslims, wearing turbans on their heads, marrying Muslim women and writing philosophical letters in Arabic. Paul Alvarus of Cordoba was so incensed by the Christian love for the Arabs, he wrote a scathing comment on life in Cordoba;
“The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs: they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their own language. For everyone who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in this language than the Arabs themselves.” [iii]
When the Christians took Andalusia from the Muslims, they burned huge libraries of books in Toledo town square, forced Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity or be banished forever, persecuted the new converts, prohibited reading books or speaking in Arabic, and forced the converts to eat pork as a sign of allegiance to their new religion. The Golden Age for both Muslims and Jews was set to fire by the Spanish Christians.
PART 2: JIHAD
The heart of Robinson’s diatribe is a concept that vexes and bewilders him utterly: the concept of jihad.
Muslims know the literal meaning of the word Jihad is ‘to struggle’; this can be an armed struggle against oppression, but it also means an inner struggle against evil and sin. Most Muslims will not engage in armed struggle in their lives, but the inner struggle against temptation, greed, sin and satan are part of all human experience. Islamic revelatory guidance focuses on the latter struggle, reminding believers constantly the need to worship, remember God, and to be honest, just and forgiving. The goal of the Quran is to create a society based on temperance, decency and restraint, and not on waste, greed and promiscuity. As such there is incredible Quranic emphasis on five daily prayers, modesty, knowledge of hell and heaven, an obsession with a sense of accountability for one’s actions, faith, love and trust in God, and knowledge of satanic impulses. For Muslims, life is a Jihad. It is a struggle against base, ugly, impious desires.
Jihad means to subdue carnal desires and feed one’s immortal soul with love of God. Jihad is to reach personal and social equilibrium. Jihad means to establish social justice among family, neighbours and society. Jihad is to speak the truth and to fight for peace. All five pillars of Islam (five daily prayers, testament of faith, charity, fasting in Ramadan and going for pilgrimage) necessitate some form of personal jihad.
Robinson looks for definitions of Jihad in dictionaries. The obvious route would be to turn to an Arabic dictionary, given that the Quran is in Arabic, the word Jihad is Arabic, and Arabic is the lingua franca of Islamic worship. This may seem like common sense to most folk, but not to Robinson. He turns to English dictionaries to find definitions for the word Jihad. And given that English dictionary-writers were not known for their great Arabic skills, the meanings he finds are lacking. He thus states with great aplomb,
“None of these standard dictionaries of English have any mention of there being a primary or even a secondary usage, where jihad means “inner struggle”. In those core texts of Islam having chapters devoted to jihad, there is not one entry on the topic which is to do with inner struggle, as very single entry is about jihad as violence.” [iv]
So there we have it. Robinson believes that the English dictionaries written in the Western world do not define jihad as an “inner struggle”, ergo, the concept does not exist. I wonder whether we should turn to an Arabic dictionary or Islamic book of jurisprudence or indeed an Islamic book of theology to see what it says on the subject of jihad. Of course not! What an imbecile one would be to do so. No, Robinson turns to Tintin. Yes, you read it correctly. The comic book character TinTin. The one with Captain Haddock, the Thompson twins and blistering barnacles. Robinson informs us grandly that the 1970s comic books told of the rise of Islam with Prophet Muhammad leading his soldiers in battle. Therefore, jihad can mean only war.
Having reduced the literal meaning of Jihad to definitions from his favourite comic book, Robinson then proceeds to the discussions of armed Jihad in the Quran. As explained earlier, the focus of the Quran is on the inner struggle of human beings, and the need to stay on the path of goodness and virtue. The Quran is full of stories of previous prophets and communities, all designed to show the importance of a pious and useful life, both in the service of God and in the service of other human beings. In one saying, the Prophet Muhammad said, “The greatest jihad is speaking truth to unjust power.” (Sunan Abi Dawud)
Jihad as an act of warfare also exists in both the Quran and in Islamic history. The early Muslim community, the first fledgling Islamic nation, had to go to war repeatedly simply in order to survive. Had the Muslims not fought valiantly against bigger enemies such as neighbouring pagan Arabs, the Romans and the Persians, Islam would have been wiped off the face of this earth in its first decade. Muslims fought and killed in order to survive, as have all great civilisations in history. At the same time, many Islamic scholars maintain that Jihad as warfare is only permissible when it is defensive. After all, which sovereign country would sit back and let allow others to invade and take control? Did not Europe and Britain fight the Nazis?
JIHAD TO DEFEND MONASTERIES, CHURCHES AND SYNAGOGUES.
The Quran is both reasonable and practical; it acknowledges that evil exists on earth and that persecution, violence and injustice happen frequently. When this does happen, Muslims are ordered to stand up for truth and peace, and to take up arms whenever necessary. Muslims are not cowards. Muslims do not sit still when their neighbours are being raped, butchered and burned. Muslims are commanded to fight for justice fearlessly. In fact, God says in one beautiful verse,
“Permission to fight is given to those who have been treated unjustly; surely God is able to give them victory. Those who have been expelled from their homes unjustly simply because they say ‘Our Lord is God’. For had it not been that God checks one set of people by means of another, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, in which the name of God is mentioned would surely have been pulled down. Indeed God will help those who help His cause. Truly God is All Strong, Almighty.” (22:39-40)
Sometimes, one has to fight in order to attain peace. This astonishing verse shows the implicit respect Islam has for other faiths and their places of worship. Muslims are told specifically to use Jihad to defend churches, monasteries and synagogues, just as they would defend mosques.
The Quran orders explicitly that establishing justice and removing oppression of the weak are the linchpins of Jihad. Killing the innocent, murdering non-combatants or spreading chaos and fear among the general populace are forbidden categorically by Islamic sources.
“And what is wrong with you that you fight not in the Cause of God, and for those weak, ill-treated and oppressed among men, women and children whose cry is: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from You one who will protect, and raise for us from You one who will help.’” (4: 75)
Yes, Muslims have sometimes been guilty of unprovoked attacks and brutality, but this was the exception and not the rule. Isis and Al Qaida are aberrations in Islamic history and not the norm. Robinson needs to understand that Islamic and Christian history are closely intertwined and complicated. Cartoons such as Tintin are not the place from which one should understand complicated world events. May I remind him of the brutality of the Christian Crusades for example. The vast armies of European men who marched to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims did so for a plethora of reasons. Some saw the event as a religious obligation against the Muslims and Jews. Others had an apocalyptic vision of the world and wanted to be present in the holy lands when the world ended. Some believed wealth and status awaited them in Jerusalem. Many joined for the adventure and camaraderie. The Vatican encouraged men to join as an act of penance for past sins, promising them eternal redemption for taking part. If the atrocities of Isis in Iraq and Syria fill us with revulsion, let us look at their Christian predecessors. The Crusaders described themselves as an “army of God” and “soldiers of Christ”. Yet the brutality they administered was far from the example of Jesus Christ. Raymond of Aguiles wrote an eyewitness account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Christians in 1099:
“Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of the enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are normally chanted…in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.” [v]
Compare this with the magnificent Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi, the legendary Saladin who re-conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. Stanley Lane-Poole recounts that when Saladin took Jerusalem,
“The Patriarch, who had neither morals nor conscience, carried off the treasures of the churches, gold chalices and monstrances, and even the gold plate of the Holy Sepulchre, besides a vast hoard of his own, which had been better spent on ransoming the poor who still remained…It was left for the Mohammedan king to teach the Christian priest the meaning of charity.” [vi] The victorious Salahuddin gave orders that all the people of the city who could not ransom themselves were to be set free.
Stanley-Poole concludes movingly;
“Thus did the Saracens show mercy to the fallen city. One recalls the savage conquest by the first Crusaders in 1099, when Godfrey and Tancred rode through streets choked with the dead and dying, when defenceless Moslems were tortured, burnt, and shot down in cold blood on the towers and roof of the Temple, when the blood of wanton massacred defiled the honour of Christendom and stained the scene where once the gospel of love and mercy had been preached. ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ was a forgotten beatitude when the Christians made shambles of the Holy City. Fortunate were the merciless, for they obtained mercy at the hands of the Moslem Sultan….If the taking of Jerusalem were the only fact known about Saladin, it were enough to prove him the most chivalrous and great-hearted conqueror of his own, and perhaps of any, age.” [vii]
CONTEXT OF JIHAD IN THE QURAN
Robinson has an interesting albeit daft theory about the Quran. Having noted that the Quran contains conciliatory as well as violent verses, he sets out his stall that verses on Jihad must be understood in the chronological order in which they were revealed. In other words, Robinson contends that Prophet Muhammad was conciliatory in the early years of his life, but taught violence and murder in the final stage of his life. The problem with such a theory is that it misreads the style of the Quran and totally disregards the context of each verse that speaks of Jihad. In fact, the criticism of Isis by the world’s Muslims is that they are ignorant of the context and interpretation of Quranic verses on armed jihad and relationship with the wider world and modernity. Robinson makes exactly the same mistake. He isolates the verses from their historical and physical context. Any religious command that is arbitrarily taken out of its context, both historical and linguistic, will lose logic and meaning. The reader will have no sense of who originally gave the command, who the audience was, what the immediate historical situation was that prompted the command in the first place, how the command was interpreted and understood by its immediate audience, how it was applied by later generations, what we make of the command in our current socio-political climate, and what linguistic inferences can be devised from the particular words chosen in the command. To ignore the context of any text is folly; to do so with a major religious text like the Quran is positively irresponsible.
Robinson is also nonplussed by the style of the Quran, assuming that it must be understood in a particular historical order. The Quran is not a story book so it does not follow a historical pattern. It is a book of morality, ethics, a passionate exhortation to goodness and virtue. It tells stories of previous prophets and communities in order for readers to learn profound lessons about Godliness and rebellion. It preaches love, salvation and contentment in God’s word. Its chapters therefore are not set in chronological order but according to themes and concepts.
FRIENDSHIP WITH JEWS AND CHRISTIANS.
“O you who believe. Do not take Jews and Christians as protectors. They are protectors of one another, and the one among you who turns to them is of them. Truly, God does not guide those who do wrong.” (5:51)
At first glance this may seem a directive for Muslims to refuse integration or friendship with non-Muslims. In fact, violent extremists such as Al Qaida and Isis have repeatedly interpreted this verse in the most hostile manner possible. But Quranic exegesis by Muslim scholars through the ages has been highly sophisticated and refined. Muslims understood this verse was revealed by God at a very difficult time for the young Muslim community. The Prophet Muhammad and his small group of followers had faced 13 years of intense persecution while living in his birthplace of Makkah. Forced to become refugees, they made the arduous journey to Madina, a town that offered them peace and sanctuary. As the small group of refugees struggled to find their feet and the Prophet established the first Muslim state, they heard rumours that the pagans of Makkah were planning an attack on the Muslims of Madina. The pagan Arabs had superiority in numbers, weapons, horses and fighters. To all intents and purposes, a battle between the pagans and the Muslims would end in annihilation of the young Muslim nation. The pagans expected victory as a foregone conclusion so were coming to battle with singers, musicians, instruments and poems celebrating certain triumph.
In this tense and terrifying atmosphere, some of the weaker Muslims began to panic. Certain of defeat, they began to make alliances and treaties with Jewish and Christian tribes living in the near vicinity. These tribes had existed in the area long before Islam, and had been given total freedom of religion by the Prophet as well as permission to abstain from any battles. In fact, it was the duty of Muslims to defend their Jewish and Christian neighbours. The beleaguered Muslims felt that in the event of certain defeat their allies would offer them protection, as allegiances and treaties were essential for survival in the political landscape of ancient Arabia.
The problem was that such treaties would lower the morale of the Muslim army and introduce a negative mindset that would have serious consequences for the army. The verse under discussion was thus revealed by God to warn the new Muslims not to be defeatist or faint of heart. Their mission was to go into this and future battles with purpose and strength. Unlike the ramblings of Robinson, Muslims have always known the true interpretation of this verse. And so with peace and justice did Andalusian Caliphs rule over Jews and Christians, Mughal emperors rule over Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, Safavids rule over the Persians, and Ottoman emperors rule over Christians and Jews. For over a thousand years, Muslims lived and ruled over the holy lands of Jerusalem and Palestine with Christians and Jews as their friends and neighbours. Jewish town criers awoke sleeping Muslims for their pre-fast meal during Ramadan, beating drums and singing in Arabic. Jewish folk singers sang Sufi music with their Muslim neighbours. In Iraq, the Arab Jews worked as poets, jewellers, financiers and doctors. Arab Muslims, Jews and Christians attended each other’s wedding festivities and funerals as one united people. The Quran preaches love, harmony and mercy, and Muslims through the ages have lived by this maxim.
RULES OF WARFARE.
“And fight in the way of God those who fight you, but transgress not the limits. Indeed God does not like the transgressors. And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Sedition is worse than war. But fight not with them at the sacred sanctuary unless they first fight you there. But if they attack you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.” (2:190-191)
The wording of this passage makes it clear that it sits in a particular time and context. But when Robinson and his ilk quote carefully selected portions of this passage, it sounds as if Muslims are ordered to kill all non-believers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We shall examine this verse in its linguistic and historical context. As explained earlier, the Prophet and early Muslims suffered humiliation, torture, banishment and starvation for 13 years but were not permitted by God to defend themselves. It was only after the migration to Madina that they were permitted to take up arms in self-defence for the first time. And despite the permission to defend themselves, Muslims are told in unequivocal terms that they must adhere to clear rules of warfare. The phrase “and transgress not the limits” is crucial to the verse and was explained by the Prophet thus:
“Do not kill women, the children, the elderly or the infirm. Do not cut down fruit-bearing trees. Do not destroy any towns. Do not cut the gums of sheep or camels except for the purpose of eating. Do not burn palm trees nor flood them. Do not steal from the war booty. And do not be cowards.”
In other traditions, the Prophet specifically forbade the killing of monks and priests.
FREEDOM TO CHOOSE ONE’S RELIGION.
“There is no compulsion in religion. Indeed Guidance has become distinct from Error. Whoever disbelieves in false gods and believes in God, then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that will never break. And God is All Hearing, All Knowing.
God is the protector of those who believe. He brings them forth from darkness into light. But as for those who disbelieve, their protectors are false deities who take them out of light into darkness. Those are the dwellers of the Fire and they will abide therein forever.” (2: 256-257)
Islamic scholars and exegists of scripture, such as At Tabari, Ibn Taimiyya and Ibn Kathir, have explained clearly that this verse has relevance for all time and that one cannot be compelled to become a Muslim or to stay a Muslim. Faith has to be entered with choice and love of God.
ISLAM SPREAD BY THE SWORD.
Robinson is not the first person to assert that Islam was spread by the sword and that the Prophet wrote to all local leaders giving them the choice between Islam and death. But history proves this theory to be totally false.
The Prophet Muhammad did indeed send emissaries and letters of introduction to the great powers of the day: Heraclius, the Caesar of Byzantium; Chosroes II, the Khusru of Persia; the Negus of Ethiopia; Muqawqis, the ruler of Egypt; Harith Ghassani, the governor of Syria; and the Emir of Bahrain. Far from beating the drums of war and shouting cries to battle, these letters were simple introductions to the new faith by a new Prophet introducing himself to his neighbours. Many of these letters were preserved and below is the text of the letter sent to Heraclius:
In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Bestower of Mercy
From Muhammad, son of Abdullah to Heraclius the Leader of the Romans:
Peace be upon he who follows the guidance.
Furthermore, I invite you with the invitation of Islam. If you accept Islam- you will find peace, Allah will give your reward in double. If you turn away, you will bear the sin of the Arians.
“Say, ‘O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you – that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah.’ But if they turn away, then say, ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him].’ (Quran 3:64)
Robinson looks at the dramatic spread of Islamic power in a very short period of time and concludes that death, forced conversion and barbarity accompanied this rapid expansion. The facts are that the Prophet lived in a world of empire; the Roman and Persian empires surrounded Arabia and were expansionist for economic and territorial gain. Their history is similar to British colonial history in both prosperity and savagery. If the Muslims of Arabia had sat quietly and twiddled their toes, one of these empires would surely have swallowed them up. Thus far in history, Arabia had been treated as a quiet backwater, but a new faith that preached obedience to one God in a land that worshipped idols was attracting new interest and would inevitably attract hostilities and war. In order to survive, the Muslims had to expand and conquer.
Before we turn to the conquest of Arabia and lands much further away, let us first see how Makkah was conquered for Islam. This was the city that brutalised the Muslims for 13 years, banishing and starving them simply for their faith. After a few important battles in which Muslims defeated the pagans of Makkah, the Prophet signed a 10-year treaty of peace with the leaders of Makkah called the Treaty of Hudaibiyyah. This treaty called for a truce and cessation of all hostilities. Unfortunately, the truce was broken after a few years by a group of Makkans who killed members of the tribe of Bani Khuzaah, and the tribe asked the Prophet for retaliation. By this time Islam had spread rapidly and the Prophet was undisputed ruler of Arabia. He was able to march to Makkah at the head of an army of ten thousand soldiers, having left the town nine years previously as a refugee. The leaders of Makkah watched from the hills as battalion after battalion joined the colossal army, each carrying the standard of its tribe. They saw utter defeat stare them in the face and agreed to surrender without conditions. The Prophet entered Makkah as victor without having to fire a single arrow or take a single life. He granted general amnesty to all residents of Makkah and forgave all his erstwhile tormentors. The conquest of Makkah remains a stunning example of the Prophet’s magnanimity and humility in times of great victory. Muslims have every right to be proud of their beloved Prophet.
Beyond the borders of Makkah and Arabia, Islam spread quickly into Roman and Persian lands. Egypt, Iraq, and the lands of greater Syria which included Palestine were all taken in a matter of decades. The magnificent achievement of the Muslims was that the conquests were military only. There was no attempt or desire to destroy the cultures, languages or religions of the conquered people. The Muslims wanted an empire that was large and robust enough to withstand other existing empires. But they did not want forced conversions of the conquered people. All they asked for was a financial undertaking. One of the five pillars of Islam was that Muslims paid an annual zakah to the treasury; this was a charity of 2.5 percent of an individual’s surplus wealth. This charity was used to provide a welfare state to all members of the empire, regardless of their faith. Another requirement for Muslims was that all able-bodied men had to be ready for war if required. Conscription was a normal part of life in any empire. However, the Muslims exempted people of other faiths from conscription as they were aware theirs was an army built on a common religious belief. Many of the wars fought were for religious reasons. Non-muslims were therefore exempt from both conscription and from paying the annual zakah, but were guaranteed protection during war. As they were not paying zakah, they were instead required to pay a tax called jizyah. The jizyah and zakah ensured that all members of the growing empire were investing financially in the future of their nation.
During the days of the Islamic empires, many Jewish and Christian subjects chose to join the army and support their Muslim conquerors. When they did so, they were not required to pay jizya. The Umayyad Caliph Walid ibn Abdul Malik signed a treaty with the Christian Jarajimah community. It stated,
“Al Jarajimah may settle wherever they wish in Syria….neither they nor any of their children or women should be compelled to leave Christianity; they may put on Muslim dress; and no jizyah may be assessed on them, their children or their women. On the other hand, should they take part in the Muslim campaigns they will be allowed to keep for themselves the booty from those whom they kill…and the same amount taken from the wealth of the Muslims should be taken as tax from their articles of trade and the possessions of the wealthy among them.” [viii]
If we study the lands conquered by the Muslims, we will find ancient Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and other communities surviving intact. Their customs, religious institutions, languages and cuisines all endured and indeed flourished under Muslim rule. Furthermore, when Muslim soldiers took power of new lands, they imposed political rule only. So concerned were they that the customs and lifestyle of the native people should not be disrupted, they often insisted on refusing to live within the city walls. They established new garrison towns outside the cities for their soldiers, their families and their administrative staff. For example, the cities of Basra and Kufa in Iraq were founded in 636 CE as military encampments by the Caliph Umar. The houses were made of reeds and the towns also contained mosques and residence for the commanders. The soldiers were divided into units according to their tribes and each tribe would have its own section in the town. [ix]
THE BRITISH COLONIAL EMPIRE
An interesting comparison can be made between the Islamic empires that allowed the native people and refugees (often Jewish) to prosper, and the British empire that laid to waste the areas it conquered. The jacket for Shashi Tharoor’s book “Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India” reads as follows,
“By the eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was as large as Europe’s. By 1947, after two centuries of British rule, it had decreased six-fold. Beyond conquest and deception, the Empire blew rebels from cannon, massacred unarmed protestors, entrenched institutionalised racism, and caused millions to die from starvation.”[x]
Tharoor explains that when India was ruled by the Muslim Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1700, it accounted for 27% of the world economy. By the time the British left the country, it accounted to a mere 3% of the world economy. He quotes J.T.Sunderland, a Unitarian minister:
“Nearly every kind of manufacture or product known to the civilised world-nearly every kind of creation of man’s brain and hand, existing anywhere, and prized for either its utility or beauty – has long been produced in India. India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or any other in Asia. Her textile goods – the fine products of her looms, in cotton, wool, linen and silk – were famous over the civilized world; so were her exquisite jewellery and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, colour and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal – iron, steel, silver and gold.
She had great architecture – equal in beauty to any in the world. She had great engineering works. She had great merchants, great businessmen, great bankers and financiers. Not only was she the greatest shipbuilding nation, but she had great commerce and trade by land and sea which extended to all known civilised countries. Such was the India which the British found when they came.” [xi]
Tharoor’s book details a catalogue of crimes committed by the British Raj in India: the British Industrial revolution was built on the destruction of India’s manufacturing industries, artisan industry, shipbuilding industry and political institutions; high taxation, corruption, theft of beautiful diamonds and other jewels, theft of steel; silencing and censoring of the press, detaining political activists without trial and arresting without warrant any individual suspected of treason against the Empire, massacres of unarmed protestors repeatedly. He describes the Jallianwala Bagh massacre where Brigadier General Reginald Dyer calmly told his troops to open fire on civilians gathering together to celebrate the spring festival of Baisakhi. As the terrified men, women and children tried to run, Dyer’s troops kept their fingers on the triggers and fired until they were out of ammunition. They were instructed to fire at the faces and chests of the defenceless crowd, killing almost 1500 civilians in an orgy of blood. Kipling hailed Dyer as ‘the man who saved India’; he was allowed to retire on a handsome pension, presented with a fat wad of notes and a jewelled sword of honour.
One of the worst crimes of the British was to create a false Hindu-Muslim divide. “Indians of all religious communities had long lived intertwined lives, and even religious practices were rarely exclusionary: thus Muslim musicians played and sang Hindu devotional songs, Hindus thronged Sufi shrines and worshipped Muslim saints there, and Muslim artisans in Benares made the traditional masks for the Hindu Ram-Leela performances.” [xii]
Tharoor further gives the example of the state of Kerala, a melting pot of Arab, Roman, Chinese, British, Islamic, Christian, Brahminical and even Jewish. “Islam came to Kerala not by the sword, as it did in northern India, but through traders, travellers and missionaries, who brought its message of equality and brotherhood to the coastal people. The new faith was peacefully embraced and encouraged, rather than rejected; indeed, as I have mentioned earlier, the Zamorin of Calicut was so impressed by the seafaring skills of this community that he issued a decree in the sixteenth century obliging each fisherman’s family in his kingdom to bring up one son as a Muslim to man his all-Muslim navy, commanded by sailors of Arab descent, the Kunjali Maraicars…The first recorded instance in Kerala of violence involving the Muslim community…was in British India…in 1920.” [xiii]
Divide et impera; Divide and Rule was the motto of the British in India, and hostilities between the Muslims and Hindus were made so intense that never again could the two communities work and live together. The divide and rule strategy was seen repeatedly across the globe as western empires jostled to take power and wealth from civilisations much older and nobler than themselves.
Alex von Tunzelmann juxtaposes Mughal India with Britain:
“In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organised and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.” [xiv]
Contrast this sorry indictment with the achievements of the Muslim Mughal emperors, who made peace with Hindu rulers, built safe networks of roads which benefited trade industries and introduced a uniform currency for the country; they made progress in observational astronomy and began systems of data collection, land settlement and tax calculation schemes, some of which are still used today; the Muslims began the golden age of Indo-Persian culture, especially in art and architecture, with the Taj Mahal remaining one of the most stunning buildings of the world; religious tolerance was epitomised with inter-religious marriages common among the royals and the ordinary citizens. The Mughal dynasty lasted more than two centuries and brought wealth and peace to India. The Mughals built palaces, tombs, mosques and forts that can still be seen in Delhi, Dhaka, Agra, Jaipur and Lahore. They were phenomenal patrons of art and their dynasty saw the flourishing of language, gardening, cuisine, poetry, architecture, music and much more.
[i] Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, (PUP 1984), p67.
[ii] Maria Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World, (Black Bay Books 2002), p87
[iii] Ibid, p66.
[iv] McLoughlin and Robinson, Mohammed’s Koran, (Peter Mc Loughlin 2017), p20
[v] Karen Armstrong, Holy War; The Crusades and their impact on Today’s world, (Anchor Books 2001), P179.
[vi] Stanley Lane-Poole, Saladin; and the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, (General Books 2009), p116.
[vii] Ibid, p117.
[viii] Edited by Joseph E. B. Lumbard, Islam, Fundamentalism and the Betrayal of Tradition, (World Wisdom 2004), p23.
[ix] Fred M. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, (Princeton University Press 1981), p226.
[x] Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, (C. Hurst & Co 2017).
[xi] Ibid, p2.
[xii] Ibid, p113.
[xiii] Ibid, p116.
[xiv] Ibid, p175.