With the 24/7 cable news coverage of ISIS and terrorism, there has been a lot of loose talk about what Islam does and does not teach. However, much of this banter comes from people who have no idea what they’re talking about. This yields uninformed discussions and misinformation about how the Islamic texts direct the actions and lives of the ummah, the global Muslim population.

The level of ignorance, particularly here in the United States, is somewhat understandable – the media does a very poor job of explaining in plain language to a largely Christian or secular population just what Islam is (because the journalists themselves don’t usually have much knowledge of the faith). Who am I to say anything? Well, in addition to my work with Muslim communities and time spent in the Middle East, I wrote a 150-page historical analysis of the origins of Islamic prayer (which I’ve heard is an excellent sleeping aid), and I taught the secular study of religion at the university level.

Secular study means we do not approach a religion from a point of “truth” or personal belief, but instead, with as much objectivity as we can muster, we strive to understand each religion on its own terms. As we head into the holiday season and many Americans celebrate their religious traditions, it’s worth taking this fleeting awareness of religion overall to inject a little knowledge and understanding into what is a very important conversation.

And so I ask you to do what I used to ask students to do when they came to class: set your faith aside for a little bit, and try to think about religion in a neutral, non-judgmental way.

Where Did Islam Come From?

Islam’s prophetic figure, Mohammed, was a merchant before he was a messenger.  He came from Mecca, which at the time was a stopping point for the trade caravans that led north to Palestine/Syria. More importantly, however, Mecca was considered a holy place, a neutral gathering point where fighting between polytheistic indigenous tribes was forbidden by local custom.

Kaba_MeccaYou may have seen photos of the large square black cube in Mecca around which Muslims walk and pray during hajj, a religious pilgrimage. It’s called the Ka’ba, and that box, in some form, existed before Mohammed. It was always a religious object, in which the indigenous tribes would place icons of their patron deities, symbolizing the conflict-free nature of the city.

The Arabian Peninsula at this time was home to an array of religions. There were the indigenous beliefs of the tribes that lived on the peninsula. There were many Jewish tribes practicing different versions of Judaism. There were Zoroastrians from the Persian Empire to the northeast, and Christians from the Byzantine Empire to the northwest (as well as monks of various Christian traditions).

As Mohammed grew older, he became increasingly philosophical in his thought. He spent many hours and days away from the city, meditating and thinking. Tradition says that during one of these contemplative instances, the Angel Gabriel came to Mohammed and said, in so many words, God has a message, and you’re going to be the messenger.

The story goes that after a fair amount of skepticism, Mohammed ultimately accepted his calling, and he began to repeat the messages he heard. The first messages were short, somewhat general and focused on the notion of monotheism. These suras, as they’re called, make up the Qur’an, which is considered by Muslims to be the literal word of God and not a theological teaching from Mohammed himself.

How Did the Muslim Community Start?

As Mohammed set about communicating the messages to the people of Mecca, a couple things happened. First, a small but devoted group in the city embraced this new message. Second, the ruling tribe in Mecca did not like that. The Islamic message flew directly in the face of their polytheistic religions. As such, over 12 years, the new adherents to Islam trickled out of Mecca to safer places, and in 622, Mohammed snuck out of Mecca at night to avoid assassination by the ruling tribe. He and his followers traveled north, to Medina.

In Medina, Mohammed encountered tribes in conflict, and he served as a mediator between the tribes. In that mediation, we see one of the first examples of a political outgrowth of what Mohammed was reciting. He drafted what you might call a constitution for Medina, outlining the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim people in the city, establishing processes for maintaining peace and dividing authority. And it was here that Mohammed delivered longer, more robust suras with far more information about how to follow and understand Islam.

Every tribe on the Peninsula at that time used warfare as an expected part of trade and movement. In the United States, we litigate. In the 6th and 7th centuries, conflict resolution was substantially bloodier for everyone. As the population of Muslim believers grew, they naturally accrued a sizable military force, one that could pose a threat to the ruling tribe in Mecca. When Mohammed led his followers back to Mecca, the city surrendered and dramatically swelled the number of believers who, in some cases, weren’t offered much choice in what the city religion would be going forward. (For the interested reader, check out the prosthelytizing activity in ancient Israel that occurred more than a millennium before Mohammed. Not much choice there either. Likewise, Constantine did not provide his subjects a choice when he declared his empire Christian.)

After the conquest of Mecca, the community of Muslims grew rapidly, and alongside this growth, the Persian and Byzantine empires, exhausted from constant war, left a power vacuum in the region. The unified tribes on the Arabian Peninsula, with their newly acquired belief system, filled that vacuum. It became an empire governed by a religious tradition, just as the Persian and Byzantine empires had operated before it.

Is a Religion that Presents a Political Structure Dangerous?

Today, those warning of the inherent threat in Islam fret, “it is a political system as well as a religion!” Well, that’s true, and it’s true for the other Abrahamic traditions as well (even Christianity). Something that’s not easy to wrap our heads around is that in the 6th and 7th centuries, when Islam grew, the notion of secular governance did not exist. Not in Byzantium, where the state religion was Christianity. Not in Persia, where the state religion was Zoroastrianism. Take it back a couple thousand years, and we see the same phenomenon in ancient Israel.Roman coin

Governance as we know it today in the United States is exceedingly young relative to the history of humanity. For most of our history, religion and politics were indistinguishable. The king, queen, emperor, what have you was also a religious figure. Before and during the time of Jesus of Nazareth, for example, some Roman currency was stamped with the phrase, “Son of God,” referring to the emperor.

Even with our modern enlightened view of democracy, our political systems are still influenced by religion. One easy example: modern Israel is self-defined as a Jewish state whose legislature includes deeply devout Orthodox Jews, their worldview defined by ancient, religious texts. Libraries have been filled on the relationship between Christianity and American democracy. Many people still refer to the United States as a “Judeo-Christian” country, and there is evidence of this in law as well as our national identity. Check out the $1 bill. In who do we trust?

Even today, it’s not possible to totally separate religion and politics. People build and run political systems, and so they inevitability base their decisions, to some degree, on the religious ideas that define their identity and worldview.

Is Islam Inherently Dangerous?

Now, to the evil elephant in the room. The so-called Islamic State.

The devils murdering and raping people in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere are evil. No doubt. I’ve read all of the Islamic sacred texts many times, and while there are some things that are unsettling, there’s a lot ISIS is doing that has zero basis in Islam. I know there are people on TV saying otherwise, but they are not speaking from a point of knowledge. They’re speaking from fear, from rhetoric, from ignorance or even from hate.

There are pluralistic, Muslim-majority countries the world over that fit democratic ideas alongside religious traditions. These systems aren’t always perfect, but they are certainly nothing like what ISIS is doing. And perhaps this is the most important nuance for you to take with you. The so-called Islamic State is not the only outcome of a political read on Islam. It’s just one possible outcome, and even at that, ISIS is making up much of their rules as they go.

It’s true, there are passages in Islamic sacred literature that, read in a certain light, might suggest things that make the secular American uncomfortable. There’s stuff in there that makes me uncomfortable. And even though many Muslims might never say it out loud, there’s stuff in there that bugs some of them too. But that does not mean that Islam is itself somehow threatening—at least, no more so than any other religion. (For example, I would direct you to Leviticus and some of the punishments that divine Hebrew law meted out for a range of offenses, many of them minor by today’s standards.)

What then is the threat we face today? Is it Islam? No, that’s far too simplistic. Is it “political Islam?” That’s almost a nonsensical phrase; all religions are to a degree political. Is it “political Islam that governs a caliphate?” Only if that caliphate looks like ISIS and declares war on us (and right now, ISIS accounts for 0.01% of the world’s Muslims).

No, it’s more fundamental than that. Our greatest threat is twofold:

1. Unchecked growth of a violent ideology that draws from but does not define Islam; and
2. An uncontested worldview that pits Muslims against non-Muslims.

We will not be able to address either of these points if we talk, plan and operate from a position of ignorance. Neither the fear-mongering pundits on TV nor the murderers in Iraq and Syria are helping this. They’re making it worse by the minute. We can undercut both of their hurtful messages with just a little information, understanding and communication.

No matter what you believe, I wish you peaceful weeks ahead and a very Happy New Year.

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More
  • Sean

    “And so I ask you to do what I used to ask students to do when they came
    to class: set your faith aside for a little bit, and try to think about
    religion in a neutral, non-judgmental way.”

    Neutral does not mean that one eliminates distasteful facts.

    “He drafted what you might call a constitution for Medina, outlining the
    relationship between the Jewish and Muslim people in the city,
    establishing processes for maintaining peace and dividing authority. ”

    Here is the rest of the story: Within a few years of drafting the “constitution” for Medina’s Muslims and Jews, Mohammed began to accuse the Jewish tribes of breaking the constitution. He would go on to accuse the three wealthiest and most prosperous tribes of Jews of treason as a pretense to take everything they had and drive them out of Medina. The Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Nadir tribes were both expelled and their lands and wealth was taken to enrich Mohammed’s jihadists. The third tribe, the Banu Qurayza, were gathered as captives The unarmed men and boys were slaughtered en masse, the fertile women and girls were made sex slaves to the Muslims and the children were enslaved. The chief was tortured by being burned alive by Mohammed in an effort to find out where the tribe’s wealth was hidden, and after the chief’s agonizing death, Mohammed took the chief’s wife, raped her and made her his sex slave.

    At that point, after only five years, the Jewish community of Medina, who had founded the town and were its principal economic force was effectively wiped out in what can only be called a genocide based on Mohammed’s greed for land, wealth, power and slaves.

    • Justin Hienz

      Interesting narrative. There are very few texts that have survived describing precisely what happened in Medina, and while there was certainly violence, your descriptions here hold more details than the surviving historical texts. What are your sources?

      • Sean

        All of this information comes from the following sources:
        the Koran
        the ahadith, particularly the reliable ahadith of Bukhari and Muslim
        Tarikh al Tabari
        Sirat Rasul Allah, Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Mohammed

        These are all Sunni texts that are regarded as reliable and form the Islamic canon of scripture and commentary.

        For example: Sahih Bukhari 4:52:280 is a hadith that describes the judgement that led to the massacre of the unarmed boys and men of the Qurayza tribe:

        Narrated Abu-Sa’id al-Khudri: When the tribe of Banu Qurayza was ready to accept Sad’s judgment, Allah’s Apostle sent for Sad who was near to him. Sad came, riding a donkey and when he came near, Allah’s Apostle said (to the Ansar), “Stand up for your leader.” Then Sad came and sat beside Allah’s Apostle who said to him. “These people are ready to accept your judgment.” Sad said, “I give the judgment that their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as prisoners.” The Prophet then remarked, “O Sad! You have judged amongst them with (or similar to) the judgment of the King Allah.” 

        • Justin Hienz

          1. Ibn Ishaq’s original Sira was heavily rewritten by Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham after Ibn Ishaq died. And both Ishaq and Hisham were writing with a specific agenda. So not only has that document been changed substantially from the original version, the original version was not written as a factual recounting of Mohammed’s life. It should not be considered a reliable historical source.

          2. The 33rd Sura holds some information on what occurred in Yathrib, but it is hardly a blood-dripping, woman-raping narrative. Perhaps most relevant: “And those of the people of the Book who aided them – Allah took them down from their strongholds and cast terror into their hearts, some you slew, and some you made prisoners” going on to further detail spoils of war. Again, no reference to, as you say, “the chief’s agonizing death” by fire. It’s that kind of hyperbolic language that frustrates a thoughtful conversation.

          3. Sahih Muslim 3:732:4364

          “It has been narrated on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar that the Jews of Banu Nadir and Banu Quraiza fought against the Messenger of Allah who expelled Banu Nadir, and allowed Quraiza to stay on, and granted favor to them until they too fought against him. Then he killed their men, and distributed their women, children and properties among the Muslims, except that some of them had joined the messenger of Allah who granted them security.”

          I’m not an apologist for Islam, and I am not kidding myself that war in the 7th century was very ugly, but the way you rewrote some of this information is so inflammatory and misleading, it does a disservice to the everyday person who doesn’t know anything about Islam. And it’s exactly this kind of fire-stoking nonsense that is perpetuating animosity between Muslims and non-Muslims.

          Thank you, however, for offering your thoughts and referencing texts.

          • Sean

            1. I and many others reference ibn Ishaq because his biography of Mohammed is regarded as reliable as a historical reference for the life of Mohammed. Almost all information about the charter of Medina to which you refer in your article comes from ibn Ishaq. There is virtually nothing about it in the Koran. When a piece of information that you perceive as positive comes from ibn Ishaq, you present it, but when I present information you see as negative, ibn Ishaq is no longer reliable.

            Kinana’s death by fire is also recounted by ibn Ishaq, but since it has come under criticism by non-Muslims, we have the same shell game of picking and choosing by Islamic apologists.I must apologize by the way. Kinana was the chief of another tribe, the Banu Nadir, who had been expelled from Medina in 625 and had fled to Khaybar. Mohammed attacked them in 629 and that was when Kinana was tortured to extract information about gold that Mohammed believed the Banu Nadir had left in Medina. Mohammed took Kinana’s young wife, Safiyya, as his booty. You are entitled to believe that she had willing sex with the man who destroyed her tribe, killed her husband and subjected her to being traded around like chattel, but we all know that is a rapist’s fantasy. A slave with no power to refuse who has just watched her sexual “partner” kill her family cannot consent to sex.

            Muslim Book 008, Number 3329:

            “Anas, (Allah be pleased with him) reported: Safiyya (Allah be pleased
            with her) fell to the lot of Dihya in the spoils of war, and they
            praised her in the presence of Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) and said: We have not seen the like of her among the captives of war.
            He sent (a messenger) to Dihya and he gave him whatever he demanded.”

            ibn Ishaq on Kinana:
            “When he asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the
            apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr Al-Awwam, “Torture him until you
            extract what he has.” So he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his
            chest until he was nearly dead.”

            2. Obviously, I do not know what ahadith you are picking as reliable. Bukhari and Muslim are considered as valid by most Muslims. You have quoted yourself that the Muslims killed all the men of the Qurayza tribe and gave the women, children and property to his warriors. The women and children were slaves, unless you have some other term for owning a person as your property.

            At any rate, I’m not sure what else you are complaining about in my comment. We both know that women were taken as sex slaves and that sex slaves, by definition, are raped. We both know that killing a tribe of men and boys is bloody work. We know that Mohammed approved forms of death that are torture by any definition:

            “They were caught and brought to him (the Holy
            Prophet). He commanded about them, and (thus) their hands and feet were cut off and their eyes were gouged and then they were thrown in the sun, until they died.” (Sahih Muslim 4131, one of the most reliable of ahadith)

          • Justin Hienz

            Sir, two things. 1. We could go back and forth all day on how we write about and talk about Islam and how we interpret the sources available; we’ll each make valid points, and it won’t resolve our differences. In as much as I disagree with your tone, framing, and extrapolation, I nevertheless give you credit for having read these texts. 2. Even as you and I look and think about this very differently, to be sure, it is this level of discussion that’s needed for the country to understand Islam. Whatever people ultimately decide, at least they would have information on which to base their thoughts, rather than the ignorant rhetoric that gets tossed around, notably on political stages.

          • Sean

            You are right. We could go back and forth and there is nothing innately wrong with that. In different circumstances it would simply be interesting and I would probably be less strident. After all, you have presented what is really a reasonable overview of Islam for non-Muslims, most of whom know little about Islam. You seem to be trying to positively influence the Somali community, a group of people who also come from a situation of low (religious) literacy.

            The attitude seems to be: if we can make people believe a certain narrative about Islam, then it will become true for all practical purposes. To do this, we will simply downplay the bad and emphasize the good. Muslims will follow a peaceful brand of Islam. Non-Muslims will stop complaining that Islam is inherently violent. With a bit of social engineering and the right kind of press, we can tamp down on a divisive atmosphere and get people in line.

            If I thought you were going to be successful in doing this, I would go away and read a good fantasy novel. I’m a pragmatist and I would totally go along with it.

            However, the Saudis and other Wahhabist/Salafist/Deobandi influences are working overtime in America and around the world to promote their brand of religion. They have put hundreds of millions into schools, mosques, university departments and Islamic associations to promote their ideas. They are fundamentalists who follow a strict Sunni school that would brand someone a heretic just for suggesting that reliable ahadith can be fiddled with or questioned, much less disregarded if one does not like the content. They are the reason that the largely Sufist Somalis are now largely Wahhabist wanna-bes.

            So we are not going to win the game by hoping that we can deny, wallpaper-over or downplay strict Sunni theology and practice. We now have to confront it, and that means that even people who do not know much about Islam will have to hear about the ugly parts first, because the ugly parts are the problem parts.

            And frankly, Islam has always been like this. The seeds for extremism are inherent in the religion itself, and quietist populations can be radicalized surprisingly fast under the right conditions. If we are going to bring a significant number of Muslims into this country, we have better consider that now.

  • So tired of the brain and soul void hatemongers.