How do you solve a problem like Mohammed?


In late December, the ever-insightful Belmont Club published a summary of the current Bishop of Rome’s approach to dealing with Islam.  Among the salient points:

  1. Benedict doesn’t see much scope for a ‘theological’ debate between Christianity and Islam, which is of interest to only a specialist few. Instead, the Pope sees the real debate taking place at a cultural/civilizational level in which the subject of sharia will be a key item.
  2. The debate is inevitable, because Islam at its roots is profoundly different from Christianity. Those who wish to bury the differences under relativism and a glib multiculturalism will fail.
  3. Islam’s desire for supremacy is not directed primarily at Christianity, rather it is directed at any competitor.

— Richard Fernandez.  “Boots of the Fisherman“, Belmont Club, December 20th, 2008.

I find myself in agreement with these three points; the remainder, not so much.  Christianity and Islam are, fundamentally, different creatures with wildly divergent underpinnings.  Particularly when it comes to the lives and examples of their founders, Jesus and Mohammed.  A Belmont Club commenter, wildiris, makes the point with great clarity; I shall reproduce the comment in full here:

I posted this comment once before here at Belmont Club. But given the context of the current post, I think it is worth repeating again.

(Observation 1) Every society has its share of violent, misogynistic, hurtful and etc. people, a number of who will always try and bend their religion to serve as a cover, excuse or justification for their behavior. As a result, all religions have had their fringe cults and sects that have acted out in violent and/or other anti-social ways; that’s just a sad fact of human nature. But Islam, of all of the world’s major religions, seems to be the one most troubled by this problem, while at the same time; the more peaceful (moderate) element in the religion of Islam is seemingly powerless to stop this co-opting from happening.

(Observation 2) It doesn’t matter what verses of the Bible or Koran one chooses to emphasize, or how one may try to interpret them. The ultimate arbiter of what is or what is not a proper Christian or Muslim response is the lives and works of Jesus or Mohammed themselves. Jesus was above all, a man of peace, while Mohammed was anything but a man of peace.

A Christian may try to use scripture to justify or incite others to violence, but because Jesus himself would not have acted in that way, their words will never attract more than a handful of listeners.

But it is the converse that is true for Islam. While there may be many within the Muslim religion that want to live peacefully with their neighbors, Mohammed himself did not live that way. As a result, the voices of the “moderates” carry no weight with the community of Islam as a whole. After all, how can one Muslim, with any authority, tell another not to do what Mohammed himself did do? It’s not that the moderates can’t or won’t speak out against the radical element, it’s that the prophet Mohammed, by the example of his own life, left them with no voice to speak out with.

(Conclusion) That’s why Islam is not, never was or can ever be trusted to be a “religion of peace”. Because Mohammed himself was not a peaceful man and by the example of his own life, he has left the door wide open for the more violent element in any community or society, in which Islam is the dominant religion, to turn Islam into a tool to justify their violent actions against others.

In other words, Islam, as a religion, can’t be any more “peaceful” than, as a man, Mohammed was himself.

It is hard to fault the logic, and indeed I see no reason to do so.  The most violent example we have from the life of Christ is the scourging of the Temple, where He drove out cattle vendors and money changers.  This is an event mentioned in all four canonical Gospels (Matthew XXI 12-13, Mark XI:15-18, Luke XIX 45-46, John II 13-22).  Contrary to surface appearances, this is not an invitation to drag a bullwhip to church on the off chance you might express ass-whooping righteous anger at some dodgy doctrine.  Nor do I think it is a blanket condemnation of capitalist commerce.

In Roman Judea, the currency of Rome was, naturally, used for commercial transactions of all kinds.  And Roman coins naturally carried the image of Roman emperors, who were also self-styled living deities.  The use of Romain coin (and the image of its idolatrous, blasphemous god-emperor) would have been deemed entirely inappropriate for Jews to use when paying the Temple tax, ergo they had to exchange their Roman currency for a non-idolatrous Hebrew currency.  Therefore money changers and lenders set up shop in the Temple, some charging outrageous usuries of up to 300% per annum.  Merchants also took the opportunity to set up stalls to sell various animals for the requisite burnt and blood offerings.

Of course, for many temple merchants, their activities had nothing to do with the repentance and sacrifice called for by the Law of Moses.  It was simply raking in the maximum amount of profit possible on each transaction, while ignoring the intent and spirit of the sacrifice which enabled these transactions in the first place.  Seeking increasing profit from a mandatory religious activity does seem parasitic and corrupt, and I believe this rapacious avarice is what animated Jesus in this instance.

Otherwise the account of Christ’s ministry on this planet is characterised by the confounding of human expectations and behaviours.  The Biblical Jesus constantly acts in ways that both his friends and enemies do not expect, and this is part of its genius.  The Jesus of the Bible loves but does not copulate; seeks no earthly riches; does not demand vengeance when rejected and assailed; goes out of His way to be merciful to sinners, the afflicted, and those of lesser social station.  When confronted with extraordinary trial or temptation, He does not buckle—as ordinary, fallible humans do.  The sheer otherworldliness of His example is what sets it apart from all others, and inspires Christians to do likewise.

Mohammed, on the other hand, is all too recognisably human.  When their livelihoods were disrupted by Meccan seizure, Mohammed’s contemporaries turned to banditry, raiding caravans.  Mohammed acts as a typical Semitic tribesman of the period, avenging a slight to group honour by calling upon his followers to kill Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf.  Owing to these early tussles with descendants of Israelites, he develops a lifelong enmity towards Jews.  Harassed by increasing enemy activity, Mohammed goes on the offensive, commanding armies in the field at the siege of Medina, and later attacking and capturing Mecca.  He marries thirteen times, although the Qur’an states that Muslim polygyny has a maximum concurrent limit of four wives.  Mohammed is a man in which we can see earthly desires, attitudes and appetites quite clearly on display.

Like the Belmont Club commenter, it is difficult to see how any Muslim—even the earnest Irshad Manji—could offer up a compelling platform of broad-based reform for Islam, given the proclivities and examples of its founder.  A watered-down, “New Learning” of Mohammed, disavowing the bloodshed, deception and—let’s be honest—utter disregard for the rights and aspirations of women, is not going to be an easy sell to the ummah.  If Mohammed is the penultimate Muslim, what possible justification could be offered (and accepted) for substantially altering the character of this foundational figure?  More than likely such a proselytiser will end up branded a heretic at best, and slain at worst.  Because the founder himself has engaged in a wide array of human behaviour—not all of it admirable or good—the followers do not have very firm ground by which to disavow such negative examples.

This is why, ultimately, I have a great deal of skepticism about Western efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.  I have no doubt that the West possesses the military might to crush Islamic radicalism wherever and whenever it arises.  What it lacks is the philosophical wherewithal to point out that Mohammed’s example is one very few men should want to emulate, and that Islam—as embodied in the life of its founder—is not a way to overcome human appetites and frailties, but rather a way to be ensnared by them.  Building better Islamic societies is, like building better Communism or Fascism, simply building better machines for human misery.

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