A False Muhammad for False Times

A new book depicts Islam's prophet as a saint.

Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.  A slightly different version of this review first appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of the Middle East Quarterly (view PDF).

In his recent book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Oct. 2018) Juan Cole, an American academic, does his utmost to depict Muhammad as a premodern Western statesman devoted to peace, tolerance, multiculturalism, and gender equality, and sympathetic to Christian Byzantium as opposed to its pagan opponent Sassanian Persia.

To support this picture of Muhammad—which the author admits “differs significantly from the picture of the Prophet in most Muslim commentary”—Cole rejects mainstream Islamic historiography, relying instead on select Quran verses, unsourced “folk memories,” and plenty of academic conjecturing:

Thus, Cole claims that “Muhammad would have watched with horror the outbreak” of war between Rome and Persia; “Muhammad would have listened with horror to the reports of travelers” concerning the Persian siege of Jerusalem in 614; “Muhammad … would have been acquainted with Roman law, culture, and languages”; “Muhammad would have sent envoys seeking good relations with the new imperial authorities.”

The reason for the subjunctive tone is that there is zero textual evidence for support.  There is, however, plenty of evidence in reverse.  For example, the only record of relations between Muhammad and Byzantine Emperor Heraclius found within the Islamic tradition—the prophet’s order that the emperor abandon Christianity and submit to Islam or face war—is left unmentioned.  Instead, Cole writes, “Muhammad had allied with Constantinople [no textual evidence of any “alliance” exists] and went to his grave that way in 632.”

Because Cole is at pains to present “the pro-Roman Muhammad” within the Western tradition, the best he admits to is that “Muhammad was occasionally forced into a defensive campaign” and that “The Qur’an allows warfare only in self-defense.” Long quotes from Roman statesmen, Church Fathers, and European philosophers, all of whom assert that defensive war is just, typically follow such assertions, as if to say the violence Muhammad is often criticized for was exclusively defensive—which, after all, Western authorities permit.  Even “[t]he Arabic notion of jihad, or exertion for the sake of virtue, was paralleled in Aristotle, Plotinus, and the New Testament.”

While Cole associates Islam with classical and early Christian notions of war, he frequently presents Islamic principles as more humanitarian.  Thus, whereas St. Augustine’s rationale for war alluded to the combatting of vice, “the Qur’an gives Lockean grounds for warfare.” Moreover, “Christian law helped create the endogamous Christian ‘race’ or ‘nation,’ whereas the law of the Qur’an creates a rainbow race of Abrahamians.”  This is because “The Qur’an … celebrates gender and ethnic diversity as an enrichment of human experience.”  No mention is made that the Quran also permits husbands to beat their wives and own sex slaves (e.g.,4:34 and 4:3).

Mainstream Islamic historiography flatly contradicts Cole’s revisionism.  It maintains that most of Muhammad’s wars—or rather booty and slave driven raids—were not defensive but offensive, and coercing non-Muslims to embrace Islam on pain of death was the norm.  It also maintains that Muhammad engaged in any number of atrocities that would seem to contradict just-war sensibilities: for instance, he ordered the assassination of elderly men and women who had mocked him and tortured a Jewish man with fire—ultimately decapitating him—to reveal his tribe's hidden treasure; hours later the prophet “married” the tortured/executed victim’s beautiful wife. (Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 547, 593; 367-9, 515-7, 665, 676.)

Cole dismisses all such unflattering but widely accepted anecdotes.  Although it is well documented, “the Qur’an does not mention anything about a mass slaying of the [Jewish] men of Khaybar and rather suggests that deaths occurred during a battle but that the Believers offered the enemy quarter and took prisoners.” Similarly, Cole suggests that Muhammad’s well-known expulsion of Jews is a later archetype based on “Christian expulsion of Jews in late antiquity”; Muhammad’s biographers apparently projected this trope back onto him since “the few details in the Qur’an do not support” it.

This is a radical departure from how Muslims ascertain Muhammad’s biography.  Because the Quran is notoriously ambiguous, unchronological, and mostly poetic, from the start Muslims needed to turn to other sources (chiefly the sira and hadith) to piece together their prophet’s life.   

Even Cole’s exclusive reliance on the Quran does little to prove that Muhammad’s wars were all defensive.  Mainstream Islamic exegesis maintains that the Quran was revealed in three phases: 1) Muhammad’s earliest years in Mecca, when he was vulnerable and outnumbered; then he preached religious tolerance (e.g., 2:256).  2) Muhammad’s transitional years, when he began making alliances outside of Mecca; then he preached self-defense (e.g., 22:39); and 3) Muhammad’s last decade (622-632), when his forces became stronger than and overwhelmed his Meccan rivals; then he preached going on the offensive (e.g., 9:29).

Cole regularly quotes Quran verses from the first two phases, while ignoring or reconfiguring those from the third to conform to his thesis.  Consider his approach to 9:29, which reads:

Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.

Although Islamic exegesis always interprets “those who were given the Scripture” as Jews and Christians, Cole tells readers that this verse is actually talking about fighting pagan Arabs; the notion that it is referring to Christians and Jews “is frankly bizarre.” (He fails to mention that the very next verse, 9:30, makes perfectly clear that 9:29 is talking about Jews and Christians, as it names them, before adding, “may Allah destroy them!”)

“I should warn readers,” Cole later confesses in an obscure endnote concerning his claim that the verse is not referring to Christians and Jews, “that I am engaged in a radical act of reinterpretation here.” The vast majority of readers will be ignorant of this important caveat tucked away in the back. 

Moreover,  “In my reading,” continues Cole in the main text, “Qur’an 9:29 does not have anything to do with a poll tax on Jews and Christians [as Islamic exegesis has always understood it] but rather demands reparations from pagans guilty of launching aggressive wars.”

Here is the best Cole will admit to concerning the third phase of Muhammad’s life (622-632), when, according to traditional Islamic history, the prophet launched approximately nine raids per year in search of power, plunder, and slaves:

In one of the great ironies of history, Muhammad, who had preached returning evil with good and praying for peace for one’s enemy, had violent conflict thrust upon him, in the last third of his prophetic career.  The Qur’an maintains that he waged even that struggle, however, in self-defense and in the interests ultimately of restoring tranquility, the late-antique definition of just war (emphasis added).

Cole presents Muhammad's conquest of and entry into Mecca "as more resembling the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 march on Washington than a military campaign"—somehow overlooking that King did not turn up with ten-thousand armed men threatening the denizens of D.C. with a bloodbath if they did not submit to his rule.

Cole also whitewashes the early Arab conquests (632-750), most of which occurred over Christian territory.  Although eyewitnesses and early chroniclers from Syria to Spain all write of similar devastation and atrocities, Cole dismisses them as “exaggerated” and “hyperbolic,” unjustly causing Islam to suffer from a “black legend.”  He suggests that if excesses were committed, these were introduced by Christian converts to Islam, who “brought into the new religion their own long-standing practices of religious violence.”

Juan Cole’s book is a hagiography catering to Western sensibilities and meant for Western consumption.  To validate his thesis—which is the antithesis of what Muslims believe about their prophet—he either ignores or manipulates the entirety of Islamic historiography and Quranic exegesis.


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