No God But God Max Rodenbeck Makes Odd

No God But God

Max Rodenbeck makes odd statements and basic errors in his review of Reza Aslan’s “No God but God” on the struggle between moderates and extremists in the Muslim world.

Rodenbeck writes:

“Aslan’s wish to emphasize the tolerant, merciful side of Islam can lead to pitfalls. It is not particularly comforting to learn that when the prophet triumphantly returned to Mecca, the city of his birth that had rejected him, there were no forced conversions and ”only” six men and four women were put to the sword.”

First of all, we don’t know that Muhammad had anyone at all killed when he took Mecca in 630. The sources reporting this are late, 200 years after the fact, and the authors use terms like “dhukira anna” (“it was mentioned that”) instead of giving tight citations as they usually do. My teacher, the great historian of early Islamic sources, Marsden Jones, flatly disbelieved the few execution stories based on the wording of the sources.

Muhammad was a merchant of Mecca from a noble family, who began receiving what he interpreted as revelations from God around 610 A.D. (C.E. or Common Era). He began preaching the one God, but was persecuted by the pagan Meccan elite. In 622 he emigrated to the nearby Yathrib, which later became known as Medina, just ahead of an attempt to assassinate him. Even in Medina, the Meccan elite came after him, intending to kill him and wipe out his religion. He and the Muslims fought back, and

they ultimately won.

It is certainly the case that Muhammad did not have his primary enemies killed, and did not visit vengeance on the city that had tried to murder him and wipe out his religion through active warfare over more than a decade. Aslan’s praise for Muhammad in this regard is a commonplace and completely appropriate.

Here are some instances of prophets not behaving with Muhammad’s magnanimity:


1. [9] And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out, fight with Am’alek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.”
2. [10] So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Am’alek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.
3. [13] And Joshua mowed down Am’alek and his people with the edge of the sword.
4. [14] And the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Am’alek from under heaven.”

Or how about this from Chapter 8 of the Book of Joshua?

“# [18] Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city.
# [21] And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city, and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and smote the men of Ai.
# [23] But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua.
# [26] For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.
# [27] Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took as their booty, according to the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua.
# [28] So Joshua burned Ai, and made it for ever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day.
# [29] And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening; and at the going down of the sun Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree, and cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city, and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.”

So actually, yes, Muhammad’s treatment of Mecca was remarkably gracious, and it is weird that Rodenback should have so much trouble acknowledging it. Muhammad did not have his opponents among the Meccan elite hanged, did not kill all the Meccans, did not raze the city. The scribes that wrote the Joshua story many centuries later depicted him as a bloodthirsty mass murderer egged on by Moses, his mentor in wiping people out. All those Westerners who go on about how much better the Bible is than the Koran apparently haven’t actually read much of the Bible.

Then Rodenbeck writes:

“The killing and enslavement of Jewish tribes at Medina receives a similarly light gloss, although Aslan may be right to point out that their ”Jewishness” may have been rather vaguely defined.”

Rodenbeck is mixing up several distinct narratives here. And, again, we don’t have early sources. The late sources we do have from a couple of centuries later do not agree with one another on key details and may well reflect Muslim-Jewish relations in post-conquest Iraq. But the narratives we do have suggest that their authors thought that the Jewish tribes in Medina (who are depicted as joining in pagan rituals) initially pledged neutrality in the Muslim/Meccan struggle, but later many of them sided against Muhammad. Personally, I think such narratives are very suspect (see, e.g., Rizwi S. Faizer, “Muhammad and the Medinan Jews,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Nov., 1996), pp. 463-489 ).

Then Rodenbeck writes:

“Even archconservative Saudi Arabia is slowly evolving. In April, its top religious authority declared that forcing a woman to marry against her will was an imprisonable offense.”

Rodenbeck seems not to know that in traditional Islamic law women were full persons under the law, with the sort of property rights that Western women lacked until about 1850. Indeed, I suspect that Muslim women were the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world between 632 and 1850 or so. It has been the general stance of Muslim jurists through the centuries that a girl cannot be married off to someone without her consent. Ibn Abbas says that when a girl came to the Prophet and said that her father forced her to marry without her consent, Muhammad gave her the choice of annuling the marriage or keeping it. (Ibn Hanbal No. 2469). It wasn’t just an ideal, either. Judith Tucker found a Hanafi jurist of 18th century Palestine maintaining that it was wrong to marry a girl off to someone against her will. Obviously, some fathers have married daughters off against their will, but that is a matter of patriarchal custom, not Islamic principle.

You can’t treat Muhammad as a historical figure in a vacuum or by reading the sources naively. And you can’t write knowledgably on modern Islamic reform if you don’t know what Muslim authorities have written on issues in the medieval and early modern period.

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