History News Network
10-07-02: Fact & Fiction
By Juan Cole
Mr. Cole is professor of Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and author of Sacred Space and Holy War (I. B. Tauris, 2002). His web site is www.juancole.com.
Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist televangelist, has said, “I think Muhammad was a terrorist.” On CBS’s Sixty Minutes, the reverend contrasted Moses and Jesus as men of peace with Muhammad, whom he saw as warlike. News of the slur ricocheted through the Muslim world, and crowds rioted in Kashmir, raising questions as to whether Falwell himself is exactly promoting love and peace.
Falwell’s comments are problematic for many reasons, not least with regard to historical accuracy. Muhammad forbade murder and the killing of innocents, and never used terror as a weapon in his struggles against his aggressive pagan enemies. Far from glorifying aggression, the Koran says (2:190), “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not begin hostilities, for God does not love aggressors.”
As for the contrast to other prophets, it is not as clear as Falwell suggests. Biblical narratives depict Moses as a murderer and leader of a slave revolt, and while he was a liberator, it is difficult to see him as a pacifist. The Romans crucified Jesus of Nazareth because they saw him as a subversive, and historians know too little about his life to be sure they were entirely wrong. Many of the patriarchs and prophets celebrated by Christian fundamentalists were arguably terrorists or even genocidal, including Joshua.
Quite aside from the historical record, Falwell’s remarks are misleading as to his own position. He and other fundamentalist leaders have repeatedly condemned Christian pacifism and have militantly supported a whole raft of wars and military interventions. If he believes that Jesus preached love and peace, Falwell has not exemplified those teachings himself. In the 1980s, Falwell even vocally supported the Reagan administration’s military aid to the radical Muslim extremists who later coalesced into al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
European civilization has long been perplexed and scandalized by Muhammad, who succeeded in founding a world religion that rivals Christianity. Most early Christian attacks on Islam actually depicted it as an idolatrous religion, one of the great black legends ever fostered. Islam is nothing if not single-mindedly monotheistic. The first Latin translation of the Koran, carried out in 1143 by Robert of Ketton, was incomplete and marred by sarcasm and even obscenity. Its motive was not understanding but refutation.
Dante (1265-1321) placed Muhammad in the ninth circle of hell, writing:
How mutilated, see, is Mahomet;
In front of me doth Ali weeping go,
Cleft in the face from forelock unto chin;
And all the others whom thou here beholdest,
Disseminators of scandal and of schism
In fact, since Muhammad and the Meccans had never been Christians, it is difficult to see how they could be condemned for fomenting Christian schism.
Martin Luther promoted and wrote a preface to a 1543 Latin edition of the Koran by Theodore Bibliander, saying “I have wanted to get a look at a complete text of the Qur ‘an. I do not doubt that the more other pious and learned persons read these writings, the more the errors and the name of Muhammad will be refuted. For just as the folly, or rather madness, of the Jews is more easily observed once their hidden secrets have been brought out into the open, so once the book of Muhammad has been made public and thoroughly examined in all its parts, all pious persons will more easily comprehend the insanity and wiles of the devil and will be more easily able to refute them.” The dangers of this sort of religious bigotry, which once directed at Muslims can begin to spill over onto other religious communities, should be obvious.
In contrast, the Romantic sage and writer Thomas Carlyle (d. 1881) spoke for moderns in insisting on Muhammad’s sincerity. (Another Western black legend about Muhammad was that he knew he was a charlatan). Of the prophet he wrote, “A false man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick house!” He went on to observe of Islam, “To the Arab Nation it was as a birth from darkness into light; Arabia first became alive by means of it. A poor shepherd people, roaming unnoticed in its deserts since the creation of the world: a Hero-Prophet was sent down to them with a word they could believe: see, the unnoticed becomes world-notable, the small has grown world-great; within one century afterwards, Arabia is at Grenada on this hand, at Delhi on that; -glancing in valor and splendor and the light of genius, Arabia shines through long ages over a great section of the world . . . I said, the Great Man was always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.”
The admiration of Muhammad’s achievements visible in this modern writer marks a turning point in Western culture, away from narrow religious bigotries and toward a humanist ability to appreciate the best in world civilization. Falwell in contrast is promoting religious hatred for his own purposes. The rest of us should resist his scary agenda by learning more about Muhammad and Islamic civilization, and gaining a secular appreciation of their contributions to our world.