WWMD?

        In this ecumenical age, it is common for Americans to minimize the differences between different religions, and even to argue that different religions are just different paths to the same goal.  This is natural when we seek unity against a common threat, and so I have no objection when politicians like President Bush choose to emphasize the similarities rather than the differences among religions.  However, for a clear understanding we need to look at differences, as well.  Since the main terrorist threat comes from radical Islam, in particular we need to consider how Islam differs from other religions.  An obvious way to do that is to examine the founder of Islam, to ask, in a variant of the saying common among evangelicals:  What would Mohammed do?
        There is more historical evidence on Mohammed than there is on most founders of religions, and the traditional picture is probably not far from the truth.  He was born in Mecca in 570 AD, and for forty years lived an unremarkable life.  He married a wealthy, older widow in 595, and seems to have made his living as a merchant.  During this time he was exposed to Jewish and Christian beliefs, as well as the paganism then dominant in Mecca.
        In 610,  while out in the desert, he had a vision of the angel Gabriel, who told him to be a messenger from God. He began to preach the angelic message, secretly for three years, and then openly.  At this time, he appears to have seen his revelation as an extension and completion of Judaism and Christianity, and to have expected that followers of those faiths would join him.  Some Abyssinian Christians saw his early teachings as similar to theirs, and aided some of his followers when they were being persecuted by the pagans.  Most of the followers he won in Mecca were poorer people, although a few were from the powerful families that dominated the city.  Part of the opposition to him there was practical; Mecca was a pagan sanctuary and the merchants did not want to lose the patronage of the pilgrims who came to worship at the shrine there.  At one point, under intense pressure, Mohammed retracted some of his beliefs and said that he had received a revelation showing that worship of the pagan Meccan goddesses was acceptable.  (He retracted this when the pressure was off, and said that the devil had made him do it.)  Most of Mohammed's arguments for religious freedom date from this period, when he needed the toleration of the Meccan rulers.
        The persecution of his followers was increasing, and, according to some accounts, he was about to be killed by the Meccan rulers when he reached an agreement to rule Medina, a city north of Mecca.  (Then called Yathrib; it was renamed Medina, which means the city of the Prophet, later.)  There, he became a war leader, as well as a preacher, and began to extend his influence by force as well as argument.  The followers who had come with him to Medina had no way to earn a living, and so he sent them on raids against caravans, leading some raids himself.  He especially targeted caravans from Mecca.  (It is fair to add, whatever we now think of a religious leader making his living from highway robbery, that this kind of raiding was accepted at the time by the Arab tribes as honorable, just as the Viking raids were among the Scandinavians a thousand years ago.)
        After about a year ruling Medina, he broke with the Jews he had earlier hoped to attract, perhaps because he had so little success at conversion.  He had gone so far, earlier, as to adopt some Jewish practices and pray, not towards Mecca, but towards Jerusalem.  Medina and the surrounding area had a substantial population of Jewish tribes and these now became his secondary targets, after Mecca.  (Medina was originally established by Jewish tribes.  As it prospered, it attracted the pagan Arab tribes, who were dominant there by the time Mohammed arrived.)  When he was unsuccessful in his attacks on Meccan forces, he sometimes placated his followers by attacking one of the local Jewish tribes.  Sometimes he plundered them, sometimes he drove them out, and sometimes he massacred them.  
        Later, Mohammed changed his policy and began offering a one-sided toleration; Jews (and, still later, Christians) were allowed to live where they were, but they could not proselytize and must pay a special tax.  Even now this is the basis for the relationships between Muslims and Christians and Jews in many Muslim countries.  For Muslims, this looks like toleration; for non Muslims, this looks like a protection racket.  (For more on this history, see this translation of an early pact.)  If Jews and Christians, as people of the book, were tolerated as second class citizens, pagans were given no toleration at all in theory, though they often received it in practice, especially if they were strong militarily.  When Muslims later met people whose faith did not have the same Abrahamic roots as Jews, Christians, and Moslems,  like Hindus and Buddhists, they often treated them as pagans, that is, without even the protection they offered to Christians and Jews in exchange for tribute.
         (Having different rules for one's own group than for other groups is hardly unusual.  Probably more tribes than not have had some variant of this kind of system.  One can say, without great exaggeration, that Mohammed created a new  tribe out of his Muslim followers.  Those in the tribe should be protected and helped; those outside could be exploited and even killed.  This principle may explain some of the attraction Islam has had for warlike tribes; it is an extension and generalization of beliefs they already hold.)
        During his rule in Medina, Mohammed propagated many of the fundamental rules of Islam.  Some seem, to a non Muslim, to be reactions or over-reactions to particular incidents.  The ban on alcohol came after a party got out of hand.  The curious rule, that adultery requires four eyewitnesses, came after his favorite wife, Aisha, was out all night with a handsome young soldier.  (She may have been about 13 at the time, though it is not clear, since we are not sure how old she was when they married.   Her age at marriage is still of interest to Moslems since it can set the permissible age of marriage for girls.  It may have been as low as 5.  The same accounts add that the marriage was not consummated till she was 9.)  Some rules, like the elaborate set that prescribe how and when to wash, suggest that Mohammed was, to use the modern phrase, something of a control freak.  Other rules seem, again to a non Muslim, to have come from Mohammed's lack of education.  He chose a lunar calendar, even though the far better solar calendar established by the Romans was available.  Still other rules show a modernizing spirit most of us would approve.  He banned infanticide, tried to stop the practice of blood feuds, and, according to tradition, granted women the right to inherit property.  
        Some rules often associated with Muslims do not originate with Mohammed  For example, there is no historical evidence that he supported the bizarre restrictions on women's dress imposed by groups like the Taliban.  Nor did he advocate the genital mutilation practiced in many parts of Muslim Africa.  Although opposed to idolatry, he did not advocate the complete destruction of images that some Islamic sects, including the Wahhabis now ruling Saudi Arabia, now require of their followers.
        Mohammed did not ban slavery, though he did hold it wrong for a Muslim to be a slave and proposed rules that tempered the evil in the institution.  At least one of his concubines was a Coptic Christian slave, and he owned other slaves.  After he conquered one of the neighboring Jewish tribes, he slaughtered all the men and sold the women and children as slaves.  Given the practices of the time, his conquests probably caused a considerable increase in slavery.  The conquests of his immediate successors were sometimes motivated by a desire for slaves, as well as other kinds of booty.  After the conquest of the Buddhist and Hindu kingdom of Sind (located in what is now southern Afghanistan and Pakistan), the Arabs sent tens of thousands of slaves back to the Middle East.  (They also killed every man of the military castes on orders from the ruler.)  The practice of slavery has continued in Moslem countries, especially Arab countries, to the present.  Saudi Arabia did not formally ban it until 1962, and it continues today as part of the brutal civil war in Sudan.   
        Like many a dynast before and since, Mohammed tried to solidify his power by marriage.  His daughters were married to prominent followers, and he himself picked wives and concubines to strengthen ties to supporters, or, in some cases, as proof of victory.  The first four Caliphs (successors) who followed him were all in-laws, either married to a daughter of Mohammed or giving him a daughter in marriage.  The wives or daughters of defeated leaders often went into his harem.
        In time, he won control of Mecca, partly through military victories, partly through his preaching, and partly through an artful compromise: Mecca became the religious capital of the new power and so retained its attraction for pilgrims.  Soon after, he had gained control of much of the Arabia, partly by conquest and partly by the voluntary adherence of those impressed with his doctrines and his success.  While planning further attacks out of his base in Arabia, he died.
        With this brief sketch of Mohammed's life, we can give a partial answer to the question posed by the title.  If a follower of Mohammed calls for toleration when out of power and represses other religions when in power, if he plunders and kills those of other religions, if he changes religious rules for immediate advantage, if he demands tribute from Christians and Jews, if he relentlessly persecutes those who do not follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, if he takes women as booty in battle, if he takes and owns slaves, then, in all of these, he is doing what Mohammed did.
        This is not just interesting history, since the ethical views Muslims hold are still formed largely by what Mohammed did more than 1300 years ago.  The Ayatollah Khomeini, like Mohammed, called for toleration before he took power in Iran, and then, also like Mohammed, engaged in ruthless persecution once he came to power. A few months ago, a Muslim school in Virginia, with Saudi connections, was caught teaching its students that it was acceptable to plunder those of other religions.   Muslims have shown some of the same tactical flexibility on beliefs that Mohammed did; suicide, till a few years ago one of the unforgivable sins, is now being praised if the person committing suicide takes some Jewish civilians, especially women and children, with him. The thugs who took over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem had been extorting payments from the Christian merchants there for years, like the tribute Mohammed demanded of dhimmis.  The Taliban, in Afghanistan, sometimes demanded women from the local tribes.  The Muslims ruling the Sudan still murder and plunder those who do not share their beliefs, as they have done for more than a thousand years.  They even, like Mohammed, take non Muslims as slaves.
        Even when Muslims are out of power, Mohammed's example makes it difficult for them to live in peace with others.  Since he set up a theocracy, that must be the ideal form for society, and there is, in orthodox Islam, thus no provision for Muslims to live under a non Muslim ruler.  This means that orthodox Muslims living in predominately Christian countries like the United States are required by their faith not to assimilate, but to subvert the society.  
        Of course not all Muslims believe that they should do everything that Mohammed did; as with other faiths, there are modernizers, reformers, nominal believers like our Easter Christians, and even many who have lost their faith entirely, though in most Moslem countries they would find it dangerous to say so.  Still, if only one in ten Muslims hold the complete set of radical Islamic beliefs, that means we have one hundred million deadly enemies, and there may be several hundred million more who sympathize with those enemies.  Though we can not make it an open policy, we should support reform efforts that, over time, may make Muslims less likely to believe that they should do everything Mohammed did.

A note on sources:  I took most of this material from a half century old Brittanica encyclopedia, the writings of the top academic expert on Islam, Bernard Lewis, and V. S. Naipaul's Among the Believers .  If this article seems very different from what you have seen about Islam recently, you may want to see my discussion of sources, coming soon.

Copyright © 2002 by James R. Miller