Bill Warner, Mohammed and the Unbelievers, CSPI Publishing, 2006, 172 pp., $17.95 (softcover).
In his book, The 100, Michael H. Hart profiles the 100 people he thinks had the greatest impact on world history. He ranks the prophet Mohammed number one.
Mohammed and the Unbelievers is very critical both of Mohammed and of Islam, but its author, Bill Warner, would probably agree with Prof. Hart. It is hard to think of anyone who, single-handedly, so dramatically changed the lives of so many people. Dr. Warner believes that it is essential for non-Muslims to understand Islam, and Mohammed and the Unbelievers is the first of a series of books he has written to explain the religion’s true nature to Westerners.
Because Mohammed lived in an obscure corner of the world, we have only Arab accounts of his life, and the only sources of information are the three holy books of Islam. The best known is the Koran, of course, but there are two other sacred texts that, together, contain six times as much material as the Koran: the Sira, which is a set of biographies of Mohammed, and the Hadith, which is a compilation of the prophet’s works and teachings. For all we know, these books could be fairy tales, but that doesn’t matter; what is important is that Muslims believe them.
All three books are hard going. They are filled with genealogies, poetry, and other fluff that do not tell us much about Mohammed or Islam. Dr. Warner has boiled this mass down to its essentials to give us a concise, readable life of the prophet and the founding of Islam.
From Mecca to Medina
Mohammed was born in approximately 570 AD in Mecca, which was one of the wealthiest cities in Arabia. At that time, Arabs were polytheists, and one of their principal gods, a moon god, was already called Allah. Mohammed’s father’s name was Abdullah, which means “slave of Allah,” and it was common to pray to Allah. The people of Mecca already revered the Kabah–the square black structure in Mecca–which they believed had been built by Abraham.
Mohammed was a trader who had married a wealthy widow, and he lived an ordinary life until middle age. Suddenly, at about age 40, he began to have visions, and wrote the Koran–which means “recitation”–under instruction from the angel Gabriel. Part of the Koran is a retelling of Old Testament stories, and Mohammed clearly got this information from the small population of Jews and Christians who lived in Mecca.
For three years, Mohammed revealed his new teachings only to a few intimates and to his wife, who became his first convert. Mohammed’s principle new idea was monotheism, but he was not the first Arab to promote it. A Meccan named Zayd had preached monotheism, and Mohammed recognized him as a precursor.
Mecca was religiously tolerant, and no one cared if Mohammed wanted to be a monotheist, but when he began to speak openly he made a pest of himself by insisting that everyone else was wrong. Skeptics asked Mohammed to prove his powers by performing miracles, but Mohammed refused, claiming that he was only Allah’s messenger not Allah himself. Meccans repeatedly proposed that people should be left alone to practice whatever religion they liked, but Mohammed indignantly refused, insisting that anyone who didn’t follow his teaching would burn in hell. There was constant trouble between his followers and everyone else.
Mohammed had more success on a visit to Medina, which was a ten-day trek to the north. The town was about half Jewish, and the Jews and Arabs did not get along. The Jews kept predicting that a prophet would come and deliver them, and when Mohammed showed up claiming to be a prophet, some of the Arabs decided to get a jump on the Jews by adopting the prophet first, and became Muslims. There were plenty of non-Muslim Arabs still in town, however, so Medina ended up with the same kind of strife as Mecca.
When the Meccans learned that Mohammed had allies in Medina they were afraid of his growing power and decided to kill him, but Mohammed learned of the plot and ran away with his disciples to live in Medina. This was in 622 AD, and the flight to Medina, known as the hegira, is year one on the Muslim calendar.
In Medina, Mohammed worked out many of the details of Islam. His followers built the first mosque, with attached living quarters for the prophet. He established the muezzin’s call to prayer as a way to distinguish Muslims from Jews, who blew the shofar to announce prayers, and Christians who rang a bell.
He also developed the theory that the Jews had been Allah’s chosen people, and that the Torah had originally predicted his coming. However, the Jews deliberately changed the text to keep Mohammed out of the Torah, and thus turned their back on Allah and lost their special status. The Koran was therefore the true version of the Hebrew scriptures, and Mohammed claimed that he was “closer to Moses than they [Jews] are.” In Mecca, Muslims had faced Jerusalem when they prayed; after Mohammed rejected the Jews, Muslims faced Mecca. Mohammed also recognized Jesus as a prophet of Allah but said he could not have been Allah’s son. Moreover, Jesus was not crucified but taken up directly into heaven while a double died on the cross.
After two years in Medina, during which the number of Mohammed’s followers grew from about 150 to 300, the prophet got orders from Allah to make holy war, or jihad, on the Meccans. The Muslims went on a few desert raids but either never found anyone or did little damage. The first serious fight with the Meccans–the Battle of Badr–took place in 624. The Muslims are said to have been outnumbered three to one, but Allah sent angels to join the fight, and Mohammed routed the Meccans. Dr. Warner calls this one of the most important battles in the history of the world, because it immediately established Mohammed as a political as well as religious figure.
The prophet quickly worked out the rules of jihad. He got one fifth of the plunder, and his soldiers shared the rest. Anyone who died fighting the unbelievers–known as Kafirs–went straight into the arms of houris: specially trained nymphomaniac virgins.
Strangely, the next major fight with the Meccans–the Battle of Uhud–was a defeat; even Mohammed was bloodied in the face and had to leave the field. Where were the angels? The Koran spends 60 verses looking into what went wrong, and explains that this was a test of the courage and commitment of Mohammed and his followers.
In 630, after another series of victories, Mohammed invaded Mecca with an army said to have numbered 10,000 men. By then, he was considered invincible, and he met little resistance. From Mecca, he spread Islam by the sword–Kafirs had the choice of conversion or slaughter–and by the time he died in 632, all of Arabia was Muslim.
Preacher and warrior
As Dr. Warner explains, Mohammed’s life had three distinct stages. For about 40 years he was a trader. For the next 14 years, he was a preacher, but attracted only about 300 followers. He became wildly successful only during the last nine years of his life, when he started spreading Islam by violence.
Dr. Warner calculates that during that last period, on average, Mohammed’s men were in a battle or on a raid every seven weeks, and that does not include the many assassinations and executions carried out under his orders. It was Mohammed the warrior, not the preacher, who changed the course of history.
The violent struggle to convert Kafirs–jihad–is what gives the Koran its character. Dr. Warner points out that the religious tenets of Islam are not very complicated and do not take up many pages. It is Mohammed’s endless battles with the infidels and his rules for dealing with them that are the heart of the Koran. In this sense, the Koran is more about politics than religion.
For centuries, Islam was in a constant state of war with Kafirs, who were to be converted or destroyed. Jews and Christians–the “people of the book”–had a special status because they believe in Allah, even though their understanding is corrupt and contemptible. They could be tolerated in an Islamic society if they accepted inferior status as dhimmis, which means paying a heavy tax and following humiliating rules. For example, they could not own weapons or ride horses or camels, and when they rode donkeys they had to ride side saddle. They always gave precedence to Muslims, and in a dispute their word counted for nothing against that of a Muslim. Dhimmis could still be enslaved or deported more or less at the whim of the authorities. Sometimes, Kafirs who were not “people of the book” were granted dhimmi status, but were treated even more harshly.
There were many Jews in Medina, so Mohammed had much more contact with them than with Christians. There were three tribes of Jews in the city, and Mohammed made war on all of them. He drove out the first two with only the clothes on their backs, and stole their possessions. The third tribe had a fort, which held out against a Muslim siege for 25 days. When the Jews surrendered, the Muslims abducted the children, took the women as sex slaves, and slaughtered the men. Mohammed is said to have watched with approval, his favorite wife by his side, as 600 to 800 Jews were executed.
Some of the Jews Mohammed chased out of Medina went to a town called Khaybar, northeast of Medina, where they became the first dhimmis. They were allowed to stay, and were not forced to convert, but they had to turn over half their crops every year. On his deathbed, Mohammed ordered that all Jews and Christians be expelled from Arabia, so the dhimmi status of the Jews of Khaybar was revoked and they were driven out.
There are a number of stories in the Muslim holy books about individual Jews. One Jew in Medina criticized Mohammed before he was powerful enough to run Jews out of town. This man could not be touched because he lived in a well-guarded, fortified house. Some of Mohammed’s pals then claimed to be disenchanted with Islam, and approached the Jew for a loan. They offered to put up weapons as collateral, but this was only an excuse for four or five Muslims to enter his house with arms. They killed him and stole his property. Mohammed’s followers assassinated several other Jews through similar trickery.
Jews were not, however, the only people Muslims treated harshly. One of Mohammed’s lieutenants, Khalid, besieged a town of Kafir Arabs who eventually surrendered, on the promise that the men would be spared. Khalid massacred them anyway.
Mohammed was a sex fiend, who had at least 10 wives and countless sex slaves. He married his favorite wife, Aisha, when she was six, and had intercourse with her when she was nine. He let her bring her dolls into the harem, which was a great concession, since he was against images of any kind. Another of his wives, Zaynab, was originally married to Mohammed’s adopted son, but he caught sight of her in her underwear, and made his son divorce her so he could have her. It was about this time that Mohammed started making women wear veils, since he didn’t want other men getting a good look at his wives.
One of Mohammed’s wives was a beautiful Jewess named Safiyya. She had been captured in war after her husband was tortured and killed, and one of the Muslim soldiers made off with her. When Mohammed heard how beautiful she was, he took her from the soldier and told him to find someone else. Since Safiyya was a captive infidel, Mohammed could have simply kept her as a sex slave, but she converted to Islam and he married her, thus giving her the same title–“Mother of Believers”–as his other wives. After he died, Safiyya became a woman of considerable influence, though other wives were suspicious of her because of her Jewish origins.
Yet another wife famous for her beauty was a Coptic Christian. The other wives were jealous of her fair skin and curly hair.
Besides wives, Mohammed took countless sex slaves from among the women captured from the Kafirs, and he established rules for how to treat captive women. The Koran says they may be raped in front of their husbands, but only if they are not pregnant. Pregnant women must be allowed to give birth before they are raped. Mohammed ordered that all captured men be put to death, but children were to be distributed as slaves and reared as Muslims. Mohammed also forbade mutilation of the dead.
Barbarous as his practices sound today, Mohammed was no different from many other conquerors. In the Old Testament, the Children of Israel sometimes killed every man, woman, child, and animal in the cities they conquered. The Mongols, the Huns, and plenty of Europeans had no compunction about mass murder, either.
What sets Mohammad apart is that he was a ruthless conqueror who also started a religion. People who start great religions don’t usually have hands dripping with blood. Abraham, Jesus, Gautama Buddha, Zoroaster, and the Hindu saints could hardly be more different from Mohammed.
As Dr. Warner points out, there are plenty of Muslims who still believe and act as Mohammed did. The people fighting for the Islamic State undoubtedly see themselves following in the footsteps of the prophet, observing the Koran to the letter. When its commanders recently handed out rules on sex slaves, they were just following Islamic scripture.
After Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls in northern Nigeria last year, its leader Abubakar Shekau made a video in which he explained that he was selling the girls he wasn’t keeping as slaves for his own men. Like the Islamic State, Boko Haram was following Koranic doctrine.
Islam has no separation of church and state; the caliph is the both religious and civil leader, just as Mohammed was. Islam–which means “submission”–can therefore govern every aspect of one’s life, and it appeals to people who want to devote themselves to a greater cause. It may be more attractive than ever in today’s era of abundance, in which so many people find no goals in life beyond the satisfaction of personal desires. Its aggressive masculinity also appeals to men who do not like societies that promote equality of the sexes.
Whatever the reasons, the only religion that still asks its followers to die for it finds no shortage of martyrs. Various jihadist movements have attracted thousands of Muslims from all over the world. There may be as many as 700 French citizens, for example, now fighting in holy wars. The Islamic State gets the most volunteers these days, no doubt because of its bloodthirsty, back-to-the-Koran authenticity. It beheads its enemies–just as Mohammed did–and videos of these executions are its most effective recruitment tools.
It is certainly true that most Muslims do not make war on the infidel. However, of all the major religions, only Islam is famous for conversion by the sword, and it did so for centuries, across great parts of the world. There are passages in the Koran that forbid aggressive war or conversion by force–and Muslim apologists make much of them–but there are plenty of passages, such as Sura 9, Verse 5, that command death for unbelievers:
[S]lay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
There is a story from Islamic scripture that even today captures Islam’s nature and its unique appeal. At one point, Mohammed told his followers in Medina, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.” Muhayyisa, a good Muslim, then promptly killed his long-time Jewish business partner. Muhayyisa’s brother, who was not a Muslim, started beating him for this act of treachery, but Muhayyisa explained that Mohammed had ordered the killing. The brother asked if Muhayyisa would kill his own brother if the prophet told him to, and Muhayyisa said yes, he would. “By Allah, any religion that brings you to this is marvelous,” said the brother, and immediately converted.