Mercy in the Midst of Mayhem: Muhammad and the Origins of Islam
by Ryan Miller
Despite recent radicalism and current rhetoric, Islam is not inherently a faith of violence, and it is important to establish this in the polarized modern world. This essay challenges the notions that Islam is a religion that promotes violence and that Muhammad was a ruthless and opportunistic leader. I begin by discussing Christian West’s negative views of Islam as a whole and of Muhammad in particular. Muhammad’s life is particularly important, as this is the most commonly criticized portion of Islam by outsiders. Because of this, I investigate the life of Islam’s founder and the early Arab world to gain context on the developments of the faith and its empire. I also look into some of the essential beliefs of Islam, including jihad, to provide the grounding of Islamic views regarding violence and war. These views are far different from the idea of jihad and Islamic violence that has become especially prominent since the attacks on September 11, 2001. This essay is a synthesis of secondary sources that analyze the early moments of Islam and investigate direct quotations from the Qur’an. This work defends the life of Muhammad in this context and advocates for a fresh take on his legacy in the West.
Key words: Muhammad, Islam, jihad, violence in Islam, mercy
Christianity and Islam have had a tempestuous relationship for centuries, from the Crusades to the modern era, and this relationship has sprouted much disinformation about Islam’s central figure: Muhammad. From medieval Christian texts to modern Internet claims, Muhammad and the Islamic faith are frequently misrepresented in their goals and history. The interactions between the early church and Islam created a notion of the Islamic faith being one of violence and hatred in opposition to the Christian West. This attitude has evolved for over a millennium, and the recent events of the twenty-first century have reinforced these deeply embedded judgements. Much of the criticism and biases focus on the Messenger himself and the message he carried-—the Qur’an. Misguided opinions and interpretations of the life of Muhammad and his actions are the main sources of the idea that Islam is a religion of violence. Critics through the ages have condemned Islam as well as Muhammad’s life and have used his actions as evidence of a supposedly violent faith. Islam is neither an oppositional religion nor ancient Christian heresy, and the Qur’an does not carry a message of violence or command the faithful to strike the innocent. Islam is far from the religion that its critics have described.
The western Christian community has held a relatively negative view of Islam and the Islamic world. Negative views of the Arab world started even before Islam and only became worse. Prior to direct interactions with the expanding Islamic empire, Christian Europe only had Roman ethnography and biblical narratives to describe this section of the world, and these descriptions pointed to an uncivilized people supposedly descended from the cast-out Ishmael. Even when Islamic scholars helped save classical works that would later be translated into Latin during the Renaissance, neither they nor their faith was given any credit in the preservation. Around the same time, Philip III of Spain banished all of the moriscos (a group of Muslims that faced forced baptism decades before under his grandfather) from Spain into foreign “Berber lands” after concluding that their faith was ingenuine and they posed a tactical risk if they chose to align with the Ottomans—a serious threat in the Mediterranean to the Spanish. Nevertheless, little historical evidence exists to substantiate his claims about the majority of this group.
More recently, Pew Research conducted surveys around the West in 2016 and found that European countries varied with around 30-70% of the responders holding negative views of Muslims with the more conservative sectors sharing more negative views. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit anti-hate organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, studied American anti-Muslim groups and found that they often misconstrue the religion as nefarious and evil. These are just a few examples of the western tendency either to diminish or to condemn outright the Islamic faith and people, but they provide background for the reasons behind the misconceptions derived about Muhammad over the centuries. Jocelyne Cesari offered a wonderful assertion to connect the modern to the past: “The liberal modernist narrative that constitutes Western identity has effectively adopted Islam as its foil in order to establish itself.” The modern perceptions descend from this “East-West binary” sourced as early as “the writings of Machiavelli.”
It is important first to consider the life of Muhammad from a historical view before addressing these misconceptions. He has been a polarizing figure for much of modern history, so it is inherently difficult to find sources not biased for or against him; however, the truth might be deduced from somewhere in the middle. Historians agree that Muhammad was born sometime around 570 A.D. and that he was the founder and first leader of the Islamic community. He was the military and community leader until his death in 632 A.D. Islamic tradition holds that he began receiving revelations from Allah (which is “God” translated into English) in the year 610 A.D. until his death in 632 A.D.; all of them are compiled in the Qur’an. As for Muhammad’s wives, Khadija was his first and only wife until her death in 619 A.D.; he would then marry a handful of other women, most of them widows and members of important ally families. By all accounts, Muhammad treated his wives with great respect relative to the time and did not show much cruelty to them, in battle, or otherwise. Islamic tradition holds Muhammad as the last and final prophet but does not claim that he lived a perfect life. He is not analogous to the perception of Christ in most Christian traditions in this manner. Muhammad is the central, mortal figure of Islam, but his own life did not necessarily put him at odds with any Christians or other specific groups.
The Focus on Muhammad
Some Europeans’ attacks on the Islamic faith’s efficacy and message began with their analysis of the Messenger and his life. John V. Tolan exemplified this European focus, writing that “Muhammad figures as the embodiment of Islam [to the Europeans], alternatively inspiring fear, loathing, fascination, and admiration but rarely indifference.” The premodern Christian critics tend to be highly critical of every action that Muhammad made, taking the acts that were arguably necessary and appropriate at the time and dissecting them through a tinted lens. The first polemical biographies of Muhammad emerged as early as the ninth century in Europe. They often looked and still look at the violence of the early Muslims without acknowledging the violent nature of the Near East at the time. The critics attack every action Muhammad made as if he acted in a vacuum and judge the entire faith wholly by their opinions on the actions. However, Islam and Muhammad are far more than the “Christian attacks against [Muhammad]” that became “the most divisive element in Islam’s relationship with Christianity over the centuries.” It is essential to look closely at the life and actions of Muhammad and the setting in which these came about to understand the foundations of Islam and to debunk some of the most destructive criticisms.
A review of the Arab world around the time of Muhammad is crucial in placing his own actions and the actions of his community into proper context. Despite Arabia existing outside the jurisdiction of the two powers (the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires), it did not escape the constant warfare that these entities brought with them. In the time period in which Muhammad was born, according to David L. Lewis, “Arabia was drawn into the Fertile Crescent’s wars without end.” Walid A. Saleh agreed, writing that the polarizing powers were “pulling all of [the Near East] into the fight.” Arabia in the late sixth and early seventh centuries A.D. was far from a peaceful place or a place for a peaceful prophet. This world Muhammad was born into was a world that allowed and even encouraged violence. Karen Armstrong described this Arabia as a “chronically violent society” with a tradition of retaliation that came with the violence that was “nearly impossible to eradicate.” This radically new messenger of God lived in a world that was quicker to fight over differences in opinion than to listen to them. For Muhammad to bring this message of peace, he could not have the luxury of avoiding violence in its entirety, as “peace in the Middle East was war conducted by other means.” Historic (and contemporary) western dissections of this man’s actions rarely consider the violent world surrounding him and threatening his followers. Arabia in Muhammad’s life was not a place where he could avoid total conflict, but that did not prevent him from “[wanting] to cut the cycle of violence and dispossession” and “not continue it.” The context of Muhammad’s world is imperative to analyze properly his actions and the dilemma they may create.
Events from the Life of Muhammad
The difficulties facing Muhammad and his followers presented themselves at the very beginning of the faith in the year 622 A.D. of the Julian calendar. The very beginning of the Islamic calendar centers around the Hijrah (“flight”) in which Muhammad, Abu Bakr, and other followers were forced to flee from their homes to an unknown city in fear for their lives. From the very onset, Muhammad was vulnerable to losing a powerful message that would reach all over the world and unite and divide empires. Seyyed Nasr describes several attempts on Muhammad’s life that forced him to flee to Medina (Yathrib at the time); Lewis describes “Companions” having to stay on guard at all times in Muhammad’s home of Mecca.  Arabia was already a dangerous place at the time of Muhammad, but his challenge put him at an even greater risk—one high enough to prompt his daring escape through the desert. This flight was no easy task. Muhammad narrowly dodged death from his very departure from Mecca, and dangers continued even as he entered Medina. This flight was provoked nearly entirely by the Quraysh who did not like the messages that Muhammad offered within their city; such a provocation in this era of Arabia called for certain retaliation, if possible. Such attempts on Muhammad’s life were far from unexpected in this society, as he was seen as a threat, and the Quraysh knew that this failure in eliminating the threat would ultimately bring trouble once more to their doorstep. This is just another example that is important to consider when understanding the context of the violent world in which Muhammad began his faith.
After learning his lessons from the Hijrah and the battles of Badr and Uhud, Muhammad would not allow his faith to be squashed in its infancy, and he took brutal steps to assure that his faith and followers could prosper. This was perhaps the most controversial episode in Muhammad’s life, and it came just after one of his greatest triumphs. This brutal step was the slaughter of the Qurayza tribe within Medina following the great Muslim victory in the Battle of the Trenches. While slaughter is an accurate term to describe the action, it is not historically appropriate to view the event through a modern lens, as many Christian critics of Islam have done. Lewis argues that this slaughter was used to “end further possibilities of a Quraysh-Jewish coalition” and was “an act of retribution that sent a shiver across the sands of Arabia.” Theophanes, a ninth-century Christian critic, was accurate in stating that Muhammad had kept the Jews close out of fear, but he never mentions the fear that the Muslims lived in fear from the Jews because, at Muhammad’s arrival, they were the “dominant military factor… the owners of fortresses and weapons.” This would have certainly been on the mind of the pragmatic leader. They had taken him in initially but had become suspicious of his growing power base in their city, and this had led to tensions between the groups. If this slaughter occurred in the current age, there would rightfully be uproar; however, this was an intelligent, tactical move to prevent a people he did not trust from aligning with his greatest foe. This was a horrendous slaughter, but, in the tumultuous Arab world, the leader of the young group likely saw it as his best option. Muhammad was attempting to bring up a faith and a people in a hostile environment, and he saw this act as necessary not only for survival but also for asserting that he was willing to defend his message absolutely from those seeking to destroy it.
Some critics have pointed to this slaughter as evidence that the Muslim faith has been intolerant of other religions, but this moment had little to do with religious differences. This was not a religious persecution, as many western Christian scholars portray it. As Jonathan E. Brockopp observed, “that this was a political and not a purely religious persecution seems evident from the fact that other, smaller groups of Jews remained in Medina.” It is apparent that Muhammad struck out only against those whom he saw as a threat to his people and did not simply attack a different faith. To use this event as an indictment on Islamic toleration would not adequately address the circumstances of the situation. While a loss of life as such is nothing to be dismissed, the idea that it was only religiously motivated should be. In the slaughter of the Qurayza, Muhammad took drastic measures to protect his people; these measures were quite normal and almost expected at the time of Islam’s birth, and they should not be critiqued to debase the message of peace brought through Muhammad.
In the capture of Mecca, Muhammad both exemplified his ultimate desire for peace and disproved the ruthless-monster persona popularized throughout the Christian West. He and his followers had been forced out of the city some eight years prior, but, in 630 A.D, Muhammad returned with his army and faced no resistance as he took control of his hometown. The common Arab at this time would not have been the least bit surprised if, upon his reentry, Muhammad defeated any remaining enemies and squashed any possible future retaliation. That was the tradition at this time: crush those who tried but could not crush you. The Muslims felt like they had been unjustly expelled from Mecca in the first place, as Armstrong explained, which justified to them the taking of the city; therefore, it would not have been a stretch to slaughter the unjust expellers as well. Muhammad did not do this, however. He did not want to perpetuate the violent cycle. He gave a different message, so he pushed for him and his followers to act differently. As Armstrong states, “Even in war, Muslims would abjure the savage customs of the past.” Nasr takes this analysis to the next level, declaring, “The Prophet returned in triumph to Mecca, forgiving all of those that had done so much to harm him and his followers.” While Nasr’s statement certainly has a personal bias, there is much truth in both observations, as Muhammad did show great mercy to his enemies in comparison to others at the time. While Muslim aggression was violent and brutal by today’s standards, the Muslims showed restraint and mercy atypical for this era.
The Pertinent Islamic Beliefs and Practices
While Muhammad’s earthly actions showed that his faith was not one of hatred and violence, the Message that he carried to generations long after his earthly departure exemplified this even more. According to the faith’s believers, the Qur’an is the written account of the words given straight from God through his Messenger Muhammad, and this message is not one meant to inspire violence and fear. As Michael Anthony Sells notes, “For Muslims familiar with the Qur’an in Arabic, the notion that it is centered on fear is not only inaccurate but astounding.” These receivers of the message do not detect an aggressive tone. Believers often describe the Qur’an as a work of celestial poetry that brings men to tears upon first hearing, yet translations tend to remove this emotion and lead many to have quite a different experience with the work.
While this Message is certainly not void of any condemnations or warnings, the Qur’an is not abnormal among the monotheistic faiths. Edward Gibbon acknowledged that “the violence of the Qur’an, often the object of Christian polemicists, pales in comparison with that of the Torah.” The message also gives warnings similar to the Bible, which perhaps led Christian critics such as Gautier de Compiegne to call Islam “an illegitimate offshoot of Christianity, a heresy, rather than a distinct religion.” Seeing these similarities, Christian critics could have concluded that Muhammad was just taking what he wanted from Christian teachings and implied that he was doing this in all parts of his Message. However, these similarities could have led to more understanding, though this was not typically the case. Many Christians still viewed, and currently view, this Message as if it was meant to cause them fear. While the words of the Qur’an do include passages of the eternal dangers of disbelief, it is not a message meant solely to instill fear into its adherents and generate hatred toward non-believers.
The intended message of the Qur’an and Islam focuses heavily on the ideals of love, mercy, and compassion, aspects that are usually skipped over by critics of the faith. The easiest observation of this sits as the beginning of every sura. Each sura of the Qur’an (with the exception of the ninth) begins with the basmala, which reads, “In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Caring” (bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm). At the very beginning of every holy recitation, Muslims are reminded of the compassionate and caring nature of God, and they take this message and use it often in their everyday lives. This demonstrates that the Qur’an—the cornerstone of the Islamic faith—does not focus on violence and that Islam is not at its roots a religion intended to bring violence. Armstrong observes that, “constantly, the Qur’an insists upon the importance of mercy and forgiveness, even during armed conflict.” Even when violence is generally understood as acceptable, Muslims are encouraged by their holy Message to show mercy and forgiveness. This Islamic message is far from what many western Christians believe it to be, and it actually shares great similarities with the teachings of Jesus himself. In a society whose cornerstones were crafted out of violence and retaliation, Muhammad still carried a message from God that encouraged the followers to stand apart and to show that they were not part of cyclical destruction.
The word jihad inspires fear, but this should not be the case. Nasr explained that no concept of Islam is more misunderstood or manipulated than the word jihad. Jihad literally translates to mean “to strive to exert effort” and ism only used in the context of war or violence sparingly. Mainstream Muslims have always recognized this term jihad, in reference to war, and war in general, as only being used when necessary and only in defense of oneself. Armstrong traces this to the very beginning for Muslims: “In the steppes, aggressive warfare was praiseworthy; but in the Qur’an, self-defense was the only possible justification for hostilities and the preemptive strike was condemned.” The Qur’an itself commanded, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you but begin not hostilities. Verily God loveth not transgressors.” As these indicate, the Muslim concept of just war is one of defending oneself and not one of ruthless assault, and, “in fact, all Shiite and most Sunni jurists, especially in modern times, believe that jihad is legitimate only as defense (difa’i) and cannot be originated as aggression (ibtida’i).” The Islamic faith certainly does not call for senseless violence, and the faith’s most spiritual Word insists on only conducting violence when it is necessary for defense.
Reasons for Modern Criticism
In today’s age, some western Christians believe jihad to be a full attack against their way of life encouraged by Islamic culture, but the Qur’an and other Islamic theology indicate a very different message. American anti-Muslim extremist groups exemplify this misconception through their belief in a “civilization jihad” in which “Muslims are trying to subvert the rule of law by imposing on Americans their own Islamic legal system.” Those who feel attacked typically believe Muslims are given some sort of “holy” vindictiveness to strike against dissenters, but, as explained earlier, this is not the case. Certain critics have challenged the concept of jihad as a defensive act, citing Muhammad’s life before asking why he and the early Muslims would act so aggressively against Arabian caravans and towns. These certainly were acts of aggression, but Muhammad and his followers saw these as necessary to survive; later Muslims clarified that these were not acts of jihad, an important distinction. Muslims do not enter holy war unless it is to defend. From the time Muhammad protected Islam from extinction to the modern age, the faith itself only justifies war in necessity. It is quite far flung to associate every radical attack and declaration of “jihad” with the mainstream of Islam and true jihad, yet this is common in today’s sociopolitical environment in America and throughout the modern West.
Negative attitudes towards Islam among the critics of the faith peaked with the recent terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the following wars, and the even more recent smaller attacks throughout the West, such as the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the attacks in Paris in November 2015. The SPLC pointed out that anti-Muslim groups were virtually non-existent in the United States until the September 11 attacks. Fear arose in our country comparable to that of the Second Red Scare of the mid-twentieth century. This fear was based heavily on the unknown; the western world became “thirsty for information about Islam, especially [in] America, yet this thirst has generally not been quenched with healthy water.” The information offered to the public did little to assist in this fear, as it recycled opinions from old scholars who portrayed Islam as a completely foreign and dangerous faith that wished to destroy violently the western way of life. The media provided this myopic view of Islam. Amir Hussain has remarked that, in his classroom “after September 11, my students thought that they knew everything about Islam because of what they had learned through the media, particularly from television news.” This phenomenon is extremely detrimental to a western understanding of the faith, an understanding that could cure fears and bring more peace to this current age.
Islam has a long history of misconception by outsiders and specifically by western Christians. Early attitudes propagated by those medieval Christian Europeans appear in modern western culture, as those people formed the early foundations of modern western society. Because of recent radical acts and longstanding misconceptions, the Islamic faith has been portrayed in a negative light. This is an age-old problem that needs to be shaken, and, with the immense access to knowledge in the modern era, it is more possible than ever. If the Christian West could look to the Islamic world with a fresh and respectful insight, it could realize that the faith is not one of violence or opposition, and collaboration could ensue to improve the world.
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Brockopp, Jonathan E. The Cambridge Companion to Muḥammad. Cambridge Companions to Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Cesari, Jocelyne. Muslims in the West after 9/11. London: Routledge, 2010.
Cowans, Jon. Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Lewis, David L. God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
Sala, Monferrer, Juan Pedro, Alexander Mallett, and David Thomas. Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History. Christian-Muslim Relations, Volume 4 (1200-1350). Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Sells, Michael Anthony. Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. Ashland: White Cloud Press, 2001.
Wike, Richard, Bruce Stokes, and Katie Simmons. “Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/07/Pew-Research-Center-EU-Refugees-and-National-Identity-Report-FINAL-July-11-2016.pdf. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
 Monferrer Sala, Juan Pedro, Alexander Mallett, and David Thomas, Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 18.
 Ibid., 23
 Jon Cowans, Early Modern Spain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 145-148.
 Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, and Katie Simmons, “Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs,” Pew Research Center; “Anti-Muslim,” Southern Poverty Law Center.
 Jocelyne Cesari, Muslims in the West after 9/11 (London: Routledge, 2009), 3-4.
 Jonathan E. Brockopp, The Cambridge Companion to Muḥammad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 226.
 Sala, et. al., 19.
 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 27.
 David L. Lewis, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009), 24; Brockopp, 21.
 Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (New York: Atlas Books/HarperCollins, 2006), 129, 149.
 Lewis, 18.
 Armstrong, 151.
 Nasr, 31; Lewis, 39.
 Lewis, 50, 47.
 Brockopp, 227, 67.
 Ibid., 9.
 Armstrong, 128.
 Ibid., 136.
 Nasr, 32.
 Michael Anthony Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (Ashland: White Cloud Press, 2001), 23.
 Brockopp, 242.
 Ibid., 228.
 Sells, 42-43.
 Armstrong, 136.
 Nasr, 256.
 Armstrong, 128.
 Nasr, 266.
 Nasr, 262.
 “Anti-Muslim,” Southern Poverty Law Center.
 Nasr, 262.
 “Anti-Muslim,” Southern Poverty Law Center.
 Nasr, xi.
 Brockopp, 274.