An Islamic Scholar Responds
Jude Wanniski
May 10, 2005


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Continuing our Discussion

On May 6, I ran a raft of letters I received on my discussion of the nature of Islam as a religion and Mohammed as its Prophet. Most of the letters were critical of both, some savagely so, with a great many assertions about Mohammed’s life as an “evil” war lord who sanctioned assassinations and slaughtered Jews. I’ll turn today’s discussion over to a Muslim scholar, the director of graduate studies in the Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, Khalid Yahya Blankinship.

But first a question directed at me from a reader who questioned my assertion that Islam is the most ecumenical of the three great monotheistic faiths. She argued that if I would get "'behind the lines’ into areas where Muslims are in the majority,” I would “quickly find out, in the real world, how ‘ecumenical’ Muslims are, and perhaps understand something about the true nature of evil.”

In response, I explained that “ecumenical” simply means Islam will accept any converts, whatever race, creed, color or religion they now have. Judaism is the most "exclusive" of the monotheistic faiths because it is very difficult for outsiders to be accepted in that faith. Christianity is the most evangelical, but history shows that it has preferred to have certain races or colors segregated in their own churches.

Now to Professor Blankenship, who had seen my original posting in defense of Islam and wrote to thank me for it. I asked him if he would answer some of the questions raised about Islam and Mohammed and he agreed. First I asked him about the “Red Crescent,” which a number of writers insisted was a “pagan symbol” of the god of war, evidence that Islam is by its nature a “violent religion.”

KHALID YAHYA BLANKENSHIP: The crescent frequently used as a symbol of Islam actually has very little scriptural background in Islam. It is not mentioned in the Qur'an in the singular; in the plural, it is mentioned once (Qur'an 2:189) as the marker of the beginning of the lunar months used in the Muslim calendar. I have never heard it connected with "red " before, apart from the organization the Red Crescent, which is simply the Muslim version of the Red Cross, adopted to avoid using a Christian symbol. Indeed, perhaps the use of the crescent as a symbol arose mainly out of the need for a symbolic shorthand in the face of the Christian use of the cross, a factor that may ultimately have also inspired the Jewish use of the Mogen David or Star of David as a Jewish symbol. It does not appear that this was an exclusively Jewish symbol until the Middle Ages. However, it does go back earlier as a decorative motif, as does the crescent, which, in its star-and-crescent form, appears on the margins of the coins of the Persian kings of the Sassanian Dynasty (224-651 AD). Since the Zoroastrian Sassanians were engaged before their fall to the Muslims in a centuries-long conflict with the Christian Roman Empire, it is possible that the Muslims simply appropriated and continued to use the Sassanians' symbol, but it now stood for monotheistic Islam. I would consider the comment of the people on the "red crescent" as rather prejudiced and uninformed, in the same league as those who considered the Proctor-and-Gamble man-in-the-moon symbol as some kind of anti-Christian paganism. We will all do better if we act on accurate information.

JUDE W: In my original posting, I quoted Washington Irving’s biography of Mohammed as saying he had an affinity for the Jews, perhaps because his mother was Jewish. A reader responded with the assertion that Mohammed had presided over the slaughter of several hundred Jews in the course of his military campaigns.

KYB: As for the question about the Jews, it relates to the story of the Jews of Banu Qurayzah, an Arabian Jewish tribe of al-Madinah, a varying number of hundreds of whom were said to have been executed, after their surrender in 627, for collaborating with the pagan besiegers of al-Madinah. This story is found only in the Muslim biographical tradition of the Prophet; the Arabian Jews are unknown to the surviving Jewish tradition. The Muslim scholar Walid Arafat wrote an article now available on the Internet that this never took place, and the Indian Muslim writer Barakat Ahmad wrote a whole book, "Muhammad and the Jews," to disprove it.

My own Jewish professor Jere Bacharach said after reading that book, "I am convinced it never happened." On the other hand, M. J. Kister, the dean of Israeli historians at the Hebrew University, wrote an article reaffirming that it must have happened. Although an Israeli, Kister's opinion is not to be taken lightly because of the detailed depth of his scholarship and his lack of bias against the Muslim sources. Indeed, in this case it is interesting to see two Muslim scholars denouncing a Muslim story and a Jewish professor upholding it. There is much more as well to say on this matter, but I will confine myself to this for now. In general, Jews have up until now rather moderately refrained from using the matter of the Banu Qurayzah as a club to beat the Muslims with. This owes to several considerations. One, they have not wished to gratuitously provoke the Muslims. Two, the matter exists entirely in the Muslim tradition which the Jews historically have not used or commented much upon. Three, there has been a claim sometimes that since the Banu Qurayzah were an Arabian tribe and seem to have had a limited consciousness of Rabbinical Judaism, they may have been only Arabian converts and not really Jews.

Although I myself am tempted by Arafat's work to deny the story, or to restrict the executions to seventeen named persons as Ahmad does, I am also leery of doing too much violence to the tradition overall. That is, if this is denied, then what else might be denied in the received tradition? Instead, I would point out that the Bible, specifically the Torah, contains much more violent episodes where whole peoples are justly slaughtered, such as the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the people of Heshbon, and the people of Bashan, yet those texts do not seem to cause a problem for modern practitioners of Judaism and Christianity to be recognized as non-violent. Nor do they seem to delegitimate the status of, for example, Moses as a true recipient of God's revelation.

This is because the Jews and Christians are accorded the right to interpret their own scriptures and other traditions themselves and not be violently confronted with opponents foisting their own hostile interpretation on the followers of those religions. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and the Muslims must be accorded the same right, to speak on their own behalf. The existence of this story does not mean, by the way, that Muslims cannot live in peace with Jews; indeed, for over thirteen centuries until the appearance of modern political problems caused by modern materialist nationalism, followers of the two religions did just that. However, there is a lot of informational work that needs to be done to achieve understanding on both sides of that divide, and with the Christians as well.

JUDE W: What of the assertion that Mohammed condoned assassination?

KYB: Muhammad's claimed "connivance of assassination" has to do with the killing of the poet Ka'b al-Ashraf in al-Madinah by Muhammad ibn Maslamah, who went on to become a governor of Egypt, I believe, under the caliphate of Mu'awiyah (ruled 661-680). The story somewhat resembles the slaying of Thomas a Becket by errant knights who overheard the loose wish of King Henry II to be rid of the prelate, except that Ka'b was savagely satirizing the Prophet in his poetry, which was not a mere breach of entertainment etiquette, for poetry was powerfully influential at the time. As a political figure, the Prophet Muhammad operated in a political world whose context is now lost to us and many of whose details are disputed. Therefore I doubt that we can now use the language "historical matters that cannot be denied" about such details. It suggests a facticity that is really not there. Also, one has to distinguish between political history and religion; they are not identical. No historical religion could operate if it had always to be held to outsiders' standards of perfection.

JUDE W: Here are a series of assertions by one reader, "Kenna Amos" . Please comment on them:

AMOS: It is myth that Islam is the fastest growing religion on Earth. If you compare it to mainline Christian Protestant and Catholic denominations, then likely it is.

KYB: Muslims and non-Muslims tend to conspire together to paint a picture of Islam as the world's fastest-growing religion. For Muslims, this validates their faith; for Christians, it sounds the alarm. Yet the growth is almost all through natural increase, which no doubt has its limit. Both religions continue to grow in Africa and a few other areas characterized by local religions of place, but in the last century the growth of Christianity in Africa has been far faster. In America, Islam has been called the "fastest-growing religion," but this is also doubtful and depended to some extent on immigration, which has now been largely cut off. Islam tends to spread among the African Americans and to some extent the Latinos, as well as among Euro-American women, but this is statistically minor. Today at most six percent of the African Americans have become Muslims. Omar Khalidi, the Agha Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at MIT, once characterized Islam as "the fastest disappearing religion in North America," because of the difficulty parents have of keeping their children in the faith, just like all the other religions.

AMOS: But if you include several tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of Christians who no longer affiliate with denominations, then no, Islam is not the world’s fastest growing religion: Christianity is.

KYB: So far, Christian countries have more of a demographic fall-off than Muslim ones, especially in Europe. "Christians who no longer affiliate with denominations," by which the writer seems to mean Evangelical Protestants, usually come from other Christian denominations, not from non-Christians. Also, the writer's optimism about getting rid of denominations is clearly misplaced, because religious definition inevitably calls them into existence, and a happy unity will never happen. If most of the Chinese became Christians, they would not simply be like North American Evangelicals. Has the writer forgotten that the Churches of Christ and the Mormons, for example, originally arose as protests against denominationalism but lived to reproduce it?

AMOS: The premise that Islam is an evil religion? Probably. But I suggest that Islam is a political movement with religious trappings rather than vice versa.

KYB: The writer sits in judgment over 1.3 billion people without knowing any of them. That is pretty sweepingly presumptuous! And sorry, Islam is primarily a religion, with politics being incidental to it. Otherwise it would never have survived. Islam is simply a religion like Christianity that promises salvation in the afterlife. There are significant differences of course, primarily about the status and role of Jesus Christ. But the differences are less than the similarities. Failure to understand and accept this will harm Christian missionary efforts.

AMOS: Regardless, Islam has cultivated its image from its violent image from its earliest days and promoted its own image now through more than a cottage industry which spews not just fear, but hate about non-Muslims.

KYB: Sorry, the shoe is on the other foot. Hate today actually spews almost exclusively from the western world because of Islamophobia and also because of the incongruous difficulty of defending the last hegemonic foreign policy in the world without throwing all blame on the other. Has the writer actually experienced life in a Muslim country to know what he is talking about? Also, the "violent image" of Islam is entirely a creation of the western media, not the Muslims, who enjoy no input into that media whatever, except occasionally to be used as foils to defame their own religion. Violence in most Muslim countries is very little, and where it is a lot, it has been fomented by outside intrusions, interventions, and forces, as is especially the case in Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. Muslims are victims of power politics and have little ability to resist. Also, internally Muslim countries on the whole are far less violent in the crime aspect than our country here. Of course, it is also true that continued attacks against the Muslim countries will produce a hostile reaction. What would you expect people to do, welcome being killed and blown up?

AMOS: And it solidifies its non-peaceful, terrorist image by the murder of non-Muslims the world round by its crazies and so-called holy men who promote such and by the silence of its members who are too afraid to speak out against such monstrosity.

KYB: First, the amount of people killed by all Muslim warfare is far less than those killed by western-waged warfare, even by the United States. Explore the website for evidence of this. This website is run by a conservative white American who doesn't particularly like Muslims, but the figures still speak for themselves. Muslims have waged no genocidal wars of the magnitude of the First and Second World Wars. Muslims who have engaged in freelance bombings and attacks such as 11 September are actually very few people. An instructive book on this point is "My Jihad" by Aukai Collins, a white American Muslim soldier-of-fortune type who actually fought the Russians in Chechnya. Early in the book he avers that transnational Muslim fighters the world over insist that they do not amount to more than 10,000 persons, even though more than that went through the CIA-sponsored "American jihad" against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which is the original source of most of the inspiration and training of those people, as documented by John Cooley in "Unholy Wars." Also, the silence of Muslim religious leaders and people is false propaganda. Actually, there is much discussion and condemnation of such events in the Muslim world, but all that is excluded from the western press, partly because western reporters know no Muslim languages, and religiously-motivated Muslims know little or no English. And even here in Philadelphia, when the imams had a press conference denouncing all attacks on civilians, it was not widely circulated and was quickly forgotten. People believe what they want, and listen to what they want, and that is especially true in the United States, where people imagine they are well-informed.

On the other hand, there is of course no condemnation by Muslims of local Muslim resistances against illegitimate, immoral, and illegal occupations of Muslim countries. Any people, if they are aggressed against, will fight back, and to denounce their resistance as "terrorism" is itself illegitimate and immoral. Americans would likewise regard any impairment of their parochial sovereignty as a just occasion for all manner of legitimate resistance. With regard to Iraq, even President Bush acknowledged this in an offhand statement.