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One of the things I really love about my commute via bus is that it gives me a chance to read and I have been reading a wide variety of books. Some of the books I have read are central books from the various religious traditions such as the Bible and Koran. The Koran was one of the least interesting books to read, but I assume that that was because it was poetry in Arabic and that did not translate very well into English. I had heard that if you really wanted to understand Islam you have to read the Al Hadith (or the teachings of Muhammad) as they really contained the heart of Islam.

Of course the Al Hadith is quite extensive and what you can mostly find are excerpts which runs the dangers of being biased. I finally got a relatively complete English translation in Al-Hadith by Mishkat-ul-Masabih, translated by Maulana Fazlul Karim. These were most understandable, but they still made references to events in Muhammad's life which made it hard to fit together.

So, I read a history of Muhammad in Barnaby Rogerson's 'The Phophet Muhammad'. That really helped me pull things together, but also raised some troubling issues. First off, I believe that there is only one God and that Muhammad was a messenger of God, which would make me a Muslim if you want to be formal about it. Indeed, there was a very sweet selection of Muhammad's teachings in El Hadith, The Sayings of Muhammad by Suhrawardy which made it very clear to me that Muhammad was a messenger of God.

The troubling issues that Muhammad's history brought up for me provided me much food for thought, so I will relay the aspects of the history that I found most troubling (in a presentation that focusses on the troubling aspects)...

Muhammad was born in Mecca, which was the cultural and religious center of Arabia at the time. Muhammad was a member of one of the ruling clans and was a prosperous merchant when he was called to deliver God's message. However, it was not enough to just preach to those who accepted his teachings, but also to insist that those who followed the polytheistic ways stop their practices.

That made him pretty unpopular. Now you have to remember that in Arabia at that time there was no government or law at all, only clans. Due to deaths of clan leaders, Muhammad was subjected to some pretty awful treatment and there was finally a plot to have him assinated by almost all of the clans so that there wouldn't be any feuds as an aftermath.

A couple of years earlier some pilgrims from a nearby oasis, Yatrib which was later known as Medina, had invited Muhammad to come live there. He narrowly escaped to Yatrib and was a great blessing to them. The oasis was about 20 square miles with something like 20 clans, each a fortified village. However, the two leading clans had been in deadly struggle which was threeatening to destroy the oasis and under Muhammad all the factions were united except for three Jewish clans. Being as they were, they did not in join in the new fledgling state.

This was thorn in the side of the new movement and Muhammad picked a fight with one of the Jewish clans1. The Muslims then laid seige to the clan and they finally surrendered. They were permitted to leave taking their portable property with them, but Muhammad and the Muslims seized all their land and buildings and they were distributed amongst the poor converts. After a while Muhammad picked a fight with another of the Jewish clans and again laid siege to their village until they also surrendered. Again they were permitted to leave with the portable property, but their lands and buildings were siezed.

The members of those two clans went to Mecca where they joined those plotting against the Muslims, but that is no surprise as their lands hand been stolen. The clans in Mecca organized an army which invaded Yatrib, but the Muslims had organized a defense of the entire oasis so that they had food and water while the invaders were left in the desert. After some pretty intense fighting the army from Mecca retreated.

The last Jewish clan had stood with the Muslims and many believe that if they had sided with the Meccan army, the Muslims would have been defeated. However, they had spoken with emissaries of Mecca and so as soon as the Meccan army left, the Muslims laid seige to the last Jewish clan. This time the Muslims insisted on unconditional surrender and, even though the Jews surrendered without being overwhelmed, all of the men in the clan were beheaded and the slaves, women, and children were enslaved and distributed with the other property amongst the Muslims.

A few years later the Muslims were able to invade Mecca and took the city without conflict, granting amnesty to most everyone, even those who had actively fought against Muhammad and the Muslims. However, I am troubled by the treatment of the Jews, in particular the beheading of the last clan. To me this seems quite brutal and unwarranted as the Jews were not really guilty of anything other than being loyal to their family and God.

To understand why this was necessary, I contemplated what life must have been like in a time without any government or law. Before Muhammad, if a person didn't have any family to avenge his death, you could just kill him and take his property and nobody would object. Those were really dreadful times. It is hard for us who live comfortable and secure lives to imagine life without any sense of justice or immorality. I have found many sections of the Old Testament to be pretty gruesome, but the story of Lot in Sodom (Genesis 19:31) gave me some insights. Can you imagine living in a town where you have two honored guests, but the men of the town want to take your guests and have their way with them and there is nothing you can do to stop them.

In such brutal times, the answers are often brutal in themselves. Muhammad brought law to Arabia and allowed large numbers of people to become closer to God. While it can be thought of as unjust that those Jews needed to die for the Muslims to be successful, there is no doubt in my mind that the world is a better place as a result. While it is certainly possible to obsess about the injustice of their beheading, that is a narrow perspective and I try to find perspectives which are more helpful to me, developing love and compassion rather than anger and fear.

While some people believe that our central essence, soul, or consciousness (whatever it is that makes a living person alive) comes from nothing and goes to nothing, under this belief the beheading of those Jews is not as serious as they would have died over a thousand years ago in any case and they were able to leave a legacy of a better world. What greater heritgae could they have hoped to have left?

Of course I find it hard to believe that anything comes from nothing and returns to nothing (every other part of our bodies has been recycled through life on Earth for the last four billion years). If our central essence is just as eternal as everything else on Earth, then those Jews are still with us in some form and so enjoying the better world they helped create.

I imagine that amongst those Jews who were beheaded there must have been at least one who was selfish and immoral, doing whatever it took to improve his standing in the clan and the clans' own power. Now while I can not believe that a loving and forgiving God would create an eternal hell to punish misdeeds, I do believe that a soul could have dreams when it is no longer attached to a body. What sort of dreams would such a soul have after leading such a life? Those dreams could seem very hell like, full of fighting and betrayal, and, without the constraints of a body and the ability to wake and with the distorted time sense of dreams, seem like an eternity.

I also imagine that there would be at least one of those Jews who was very loving and moral, caring for his family and friends as best he was able. For such a Jew, the dreams he would have could only be sweet and heaven like, full of love and respect. A loving and forgiving God would, like a good parent, allow us to experience the consequences of our choices and so the kind and loving are allowed sweet dreams while the amoral and self-serving are allowed dreams of life as they see it.

While the last hours of the Jews who were beheaded may have been quite unpleasant, they were only a few hours and I believe that they each were then able to experience the consequences of the life they led. There is no great injustice and the result was a better world for all of us.

It is apparent that Muhammad was very kind and compassionate, but he was driven to accomplish an important and difficult task. However, he was reported to be very serious and driven, not inclined to laughing and generally appreciating the joy of life itself. I imagine that he must have been quite disturbed by the deaths that were necessary in conquering Arabia. Further he seemed to be aware of the problems that would develop later and could well be troubled by them as well. Under these circumstances, it is entirely possible that the dreams which Muhammad could have had on his death would not have been entirely pleasant.

I personally am most appreciative of living in such peaceful times with widespread laws and morality. I am not called on to make the really tough decisions that Muhammad faced. I am not sure that I could have made the same tough calls and certainly am not sure that I would not be sorely troubled if I were able to make those tough calls.

What is really sad is the manner in which Muhammad's teachings have been mistunderstood to justify unwarranted murder and brutality. That is the real loss, but it will have to wait for the next rambling tale.


1 This story is told from a particularly troubling perspective. There are other ways to describe these events.

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This page was last updated on March 15, 2007