Persecuting Muslims Has A History, Mr. President

The president of the United States loves Muslims. We know this because he said so—“I love the Muslims. I think they’re great people.” He was even willing to make a Muslim his running-mate, he said. But that was early in his campaign for the presidency. Later statements—calling for a Muslim ban and a Muslim registry—seemed to belie this affection. Indeed, just a few months after declaring his love, he was quoted as saying, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States ...” And this is a problem, really, because federal anti-discrimination legislation (Civil Rights Act of 1964) declares members of a religion a “protected class.” Which is to say, discrimination based on religious status is illegal for governmental agencies that receive federal funds. Thus, no ban against Muslims can be legally enforced by a governmental agency of the United States.

Now, I’m forced to admit, I can’t really say whether the president actually loves “the Muslims” or not—I can’t see into his heart, or judge his conscience—I can only say it’s a strange love if he also wishes to discriminate against them in clear violation of the laws of our country. But, regardless of why or whether he loves or hates them, I want to point out that discrimination against Muslims has a history, as well as extremely interesting parallels to our own times.

As a professor of religion at a university, I teach a course on Islam to acquaint students with its historical context, its theology, and its practices. And, as we explore these things together, many students are surprised to discover that the first Muslims lived in, and were persecuted as a community in a context of economic disparity not so unlike our own.

In the year 620 C.E., the Islamic tradition tells us, a well-respected, spiritually-inclined man named Muhammad ibn Abdullah, began to receive revelations from God while on retreat in a cave near Mecca. Far from being pleased by the event, he ran frightened to his wife, seeking comfort from her. For the messages coming through him were not themselves comforting, and once known, would certainly cause him to lose his place in society. So, for three years, he shared them only with the members of his household and a trusted friend.

But then, in 613, much to his chagrin, he was commanded to break his silence and preach the word of God publically. The words he was commanded to speak proclaimed him a ‘warner’ (nadhir) to the Arabs from the God of the Jews and Christians, coming with a clear Arabic ‘recitation’ (qur’an), the same Message brought by earlier Messengers, such as Moses and Jesus. And interestingly enough, it was a message calling for social justice, calling-out the wealthy elite of Mecca for abandoning their responsibilities to the poor, the widow, and the orphan—whose circumstances the Prophet Muhammad, an orphan at an early age, knew only too well.

The Qur’an spoke directly to the neglectful businessmen of Mecca, often hard-hearted inheritors of wealth, taking them to task for their negligence:

But no. To the orphan you are ungiving

You do not demand food for those who hunger

You feed on inheritances and devour

You love possessions with a love consuming (89:17-20)

The early surahs or revelations of the Qur’an bear witness to the increasing gap between the rich and the poor of Mecca, the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ With the success of the caravans and the riches brought by the pilgrimage holidays, Mecca was the center of trade and finance in Arabia, and a concentration of wealth was growing around an elite class who, according to the holy scripture, had abandoned their social responsibilities.[1] Numerous verses in the Qur’an point to these social and economic inequalities and the rapacious characters of those who allowed them, going about their business as if there were no consequences for their reprehensible actions.

Cursed are the cheats

who when their portion is measured among people

take their full share

who when they measure the share of others,

are frauds (83:1-3)

As for him who hoards what he has

thinking it makes him secure

who denies the right—

him we will ease to hardship

Wealth will not save him from ruin (92:8-11)

The early converts to Islam were idealistic youth from the shrinking middle-class, seeking a better world, as well as ‘have nots’ abandoned by the wealthy and without clan protection.[2] At first, the wealthy ‘haves’ were merely dismissive of them and the Qur’an’s message, but it was not long before the Meccan elite turned to active persecution of the young Muslim community.

What they did to the faithful

they are the witnesses to it

What did they condemn them for—

keeping faith in God almighty, worthy

of all praise (85:7-8)

Why should they persecute the emerging Muslim community? Was it because of their faith, because the Qur’an was critical of greedy business practices and the old religion? This was annoying, certainly, but hardly merited persecution. The response to this, we are told, was mostly ridicule.[3] Likely, the greater threat was the growing community of Muslims standing in opposition to their way of life, calling for a compassionate redistribution of wealth in Meccan society. It is at this point—when the idealistic youth and the ‘have nots’ unite and acquire a voice, becoming an influential communitythat the powerful elite begin to persecute them in terrible ways, abusing them in the streets, refusing them the necessities of life, and forcing many to flee as refugees into Christian Ethiopia.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the president knows this history, or really anything about Islam, or even that his ‘strange love’ of Muslims is some kind of reaction to a Muslim demand for social justice today; I just think that based on the parallels, if he had lived in 7th-century Mecca with his currently professed values, he might have every reason to hate and persecute Muslims. For Islam, in as much as it upholds the Qur’anic message of social justice, equality, and respect for nature, stands in direct opposition to the greed-based policies of those who view the world and its inhabitants as a commodity to be consumed, and who consider their own limitless capacity for consumption a qualification for leadership. Indeed, a united community of Muslims passionately opposed to these views—many of them coming to this country as refugees, often fleeing similar tyrannies—would certainly be a group whose numbers the president might want to limit.

In the end though, we are not the judges of hearts, only actions. When those actions run contrary to our values, and to justice according to the best of our understanding, then we must oppose them. The judgment of hearts we can leave to the One-Who-Knows, the one who is said to speak through the words of the Qur’an:

Does he think there is no power over him

He says: look at the goods I devoured

Does he think no one sees him

Did we not endow him with eyes . . .

To free a slave

To feed the destitute on a day of hunger

A kinsman orphan

Or a stranger out of luck in need (90:5-8, 13-16)

In love of wealth he is harsh

Does he not know

that when the tombs are burst open

and what is hidden in the breasts revealed

on that day their lord knows through them (100:8-11)[6]


[1] Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1974: 8; Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1953: 3, 72-73, 79-80.

[2] Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, 1953: 87-88, 95-96.

[3] Andrae, Tor. Mohammed: The Man and His Faith. New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1936: 29.

[4] All the quotes from the Qur’an are drawn from Sells, Michael (tr.). Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. Ashland, Oregon. White Cloud Press, 1999: 80, 56, 86, 64, 82, 110.