Following a spate of terror-related incidences, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security recently held a session called “Identifying the Enemy: Radical Islamist Terror.” Several commentators and experts in the causes of radicalization spoke at the hearing. Some had valuable inputs and feedback, while others were gravely mistaken. Muslim U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison and Professor Sahar Aziz voiced their deep concern of legitimizing extremists by terming their ideology as “Islamic” or “Islamist,” effectively aiding their recruitment campaigns while generating Islamophobia and marginalization of Muslims at large.
However, Shireen Qudosi, a self-proclaimed Muslim reformer, stated during the hearing that the founder-prophet of the religion, Muhammad, had elements to his prophetic life that were “warmongering” and “terrorism.” Much as the statement is bizarre and incoherent for someone who claims to be a Muslim, Ms. Qudosi echoed the not unfamiliar narrative ― while Muhammad lived in Mecca, he kept a peaceful and persevering practice which took a radical and militant turn upon migration to Medina from which contemporary extremist movements draw their ideology and validation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The military engagements undertaken by the prophet of Islam were firmly grounded in their moral disposition to defend fundamental freedoms and human rights against undue oppression and aggression.
Whereas this Mecca versus Medina narrative if oft touted in discussion and dialogue on extremist ideology, little is understood about why Muhammad faced opposition in Mecca and then gained the invitation to serve as Chief Arbitrator of Medina and the military engagements that followed in its aftermath.
The Meccan Years
When Muhammad announced himself as a prophet of God and began proselytizing Islam in Mecca, he faced severe opposition and persecution. Muhammad preached monotheism whereas Arab culture of the time was immersed in polytheism. Mecca hosted a lucrative socio-economic platform based on idolatry and pilgrimage that brought with it traders and festivals from Yemen to Damascus. While Mecca was economically affluent and robust, it suffered grave social grievances such as female infanticide, misogyny and nepotism. When Muhammad pursued the rights of women, welfare for the poor and access for all to equity and justice, he clashed with Meccan authorities who saw him as a threat to the status quo.
Over a period of thirteen years, the persecution intensified, including an economic and social boycott, torture and even an assassination attempt on Muhammad. The Muslims were ultimately compelled to seek migration. It is at this time that Muhammad is reported to have been met by a delegation from Medina with an incredible offer.
Invitation to Medina
When Muhammad was extended the offer to serve as Chief Arbitrator at Medina, he had no military experience and had never advocated a militant rebellion against his persecutors. There were other relevant reasons to tap him for the job. Medina was a city torn by tribal strife and conflict. It was a multi-ethnic community with Jewish tribes, Polytheists and some heterodox Christians. Muhammad was a believer in the Biblical prophets and monotheistic (like the Jews in Medina) yet he was raised in a polytheist society. The Muslim community was new and had fresh converts from all the backgrounds found in Medina. Further, despite bitter persecution in Mecca, Muhammad never compromised his principles and advocacy for reform and human rights. This profile and circumstance made Muhammad the ideal candidate for leadership at Medina.
The Meccans were furious!
Not only had the Islamic movement survived the persecution, but it now had a robust political and leadership platform in Medina, poised to yield and expand. They took to looting the properties of Muslims in Mecca and bound them on caravans to be sold off in Damascus.
The Medina Years
Given the trust and privilege placed in him, Muhammad’s immediate task at Medina was to forge a cohesive set of agreements and accords that would bring the city’s feuding tribes onto a common and functional platform of governance. The culmination of this effort was so great that academics and historians have opined this may well be the first act of a state constitution based on the principles of freedom of conscience and equality of the citizenry ― The Constitution of Medina. The constitutional principles were smack from verses of the Quran. Verse 2:257 of the Quran (revealed at Medina, not Mecca) states Let there be no compulsion in religion (freedom of conscience) and verse 4:136 states Be strict in observing justice, and be witnesses for Allah, even though it be against yourselves, parents or kindred… weather he be rich or poor… act equitably (equality under the law).
As such, Muhammad is honored by the U.S. Supreme Court of Justice as one of the greatest law administrators of history. Author Michael Hart wrote that he picked Muhammad as the most influential person in history because not only was he successful as a religious leader but also a secular one. Perhaps no testimony can be greater than that of Mahatma Gandhi, arguably the greatest peaceful protester of history.
Given the severe opposition of the Meccans, the feudal environment in Arabia at the time and the protracted warfare between Rome and Persia on the Arabia border, the Muslims found themselves, inexorably, in the theater of war. Yet the core theological grounds for engaging war defined in Quran 22:40 reinforce the protection of freedom of religion:
Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made… who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’…. And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated.
“Warmonger” and “terrorist” are highly derogatory terms used to denote someone who engages in warfare and violence for naked aggression akin to criminality. To call Muhammad, whose legacy extended far beyond the battlefield, a warmonger and a terrorist is to call defending fundamental freedoms and human rights as warmongering and terrorism. Not only is this narrative historically wrong, it has severe repercussions in terms of marginalizing Muslims and the Islamic faith.
If the Committee on Homeland Security really wants to decipher the root causes of extremist violence and seek real solutions with the inclusion of the Muslim community, it should propagate the true legacy of the founder of the Islamic faith and emphatically remove it from the extremist narrative — nothing will do the extremist ideology greater harm.