Why Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) is Different
By Yahiya Emerick
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the life and example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. That’s quite a change from previous decades, when there was absolutely no discussion of Islam or its Prophet in the public sphere at all! As a child of the Seventies and Eighties I can tell you that I do not recall ever hearing of either beyond the whole Iran hostage crisis thing. I’m not even sure if we covered Islam as a topic in social studies classes – there’s just no recollection.
What is the catalyst that brought this new awareness and open discussion out of the woodwork? Of course, the Prophet predicted that one day his message would reach to every household in the world, and now it seems that day has come in a warped sort of way! So how did this all come to fruition? How is it that our religion and Prophet are on every talk show and appearing in every dumbed-down excuse for a ‘newspaper’? But before answering this question, let me first make a statement: if anything, I’ve never been a person who likes to mince words. There is a truth, and then there is the truth. (That’s why the Qur’an mentions in many places that God will tell us the true meaning of all that we did on Judgment Day.) Most of the time we hear people telling us their version or truth, but like so much else, our own perceptions and personal prejudices color our view of the meaning of things (and I would never say I am somehow immune from that, too). Donald Rumsfeld and Condolezza Rice tell us their stories, and others tell a different story. People believe, in the end, what they want to, not what they always should.
Really now, as a person who is very interested in objective historical truth – I like to get to the heart of the matter rather than meander over useless hyperbole – I have endured with shock all of the various barbs and charges being thrown out there by the many factions speaking out against Islam and Muslims. Now the attacks have gotten personal in that they’re attacking the character of the Prophet Muhammad, himself, to the point of ridicule. I just have to laugh when I hear Westerners crying about free speech and that no subject should be taboo. Hypocrisy has no better example! Western newspaper editors censure themselves everyday.
Just to digress for a moment, the Westerners are saying that they can make fun of Muhammad, peace be upon him, because newspapers in the Muslim world make fun of Jews and Christians. That is an incorrect comparison. Western newspapers have been making fun of Muslims for years. We can take that, and if newspapers abroad make fun of Christians and Jews, they can take it as well. But no Muslim-owned newspaper, to the best of my knowledge, has ever made fun of, or ridiculed, the person of Moses or Jesus. When you strike at the core personality at the heart of a religion that’s a whole different level. (It’s akin to insulting someone’s own mother – them’s fightin’ words!)
Muslims have endured with patience the mocking of their religion, for in almost every case we can shrug it off as either an untrue portrayal or a misunderstanding. (Do you know how many backward cultural customs there are in the Muslim world that have nothing to do with the religion? Most Muslims know this, too, and thus cartoons of harems or water pipe-smoking overweight sheikhs with BMWs don’t bother us.)
Why does it seem as if the West has gotten cocky – wanting to kick sand in the face of the 98 pound weakling Muslim on the beach? All the talk of a clash of civilizations and a clash of values is so ludicrous it would be funny if gullible people didn’t believe it. And this is where we get to the bottom of things: the West has been dominating the Muslim world, exploiting its resources, and seeking to impose its own cultural norms over its people for so long that people there are just not wanting to take it anymore. To use an analogy, if you had a bunch of brawny neighbors who continually trespassed into your yard, taking vegetables from your garden, beating up your children, punching you when you complained, and helping themselves to whatever they liked in your home, you might get upset after sometime. And if you were too weak and disorganized as a family to protect your own, some of your more unstable family members might resort to dirty tricks to defend themselves.
Unfortunately, people in general have no clue about history or the continuity and interconnectedness of events. I kid you not, almost everyone I know thinks that Al Qaeda, or “the Muslims,” or “the Islamic Threat,” just came out the closet five years ago. One lady told me that the reason why “those people” are against America is because “they want our stuff.” President Bush, in all his astute wisdom, has publicly stated numerous times that “the enemy” wants to “take our freedom from us.” People believe it. Conservatives believe it. New England liberals believe it. Regular folks believe it. (And it helps that most Muslims are non-white!) We Muslims stand with our jaws dropped in disbelief. How can they be so ill-informed, we ask each other. Such is the nature of the human animal. Muslims don’t want to take America’s freedom – they want to get freedom for themselves!
But such is the power of propaganda, perfected by the Nazis! Have you ever wondered how entire populations of normal, everyday people can be suddenly transformed into homicidal maniacs? Think of the Rwandans, the Serbs, the German Nazis, etc… (By the way I do accept that the Holocaust happened, and I have fits trying to understand how ‘good’ people could have been so evil.) Tell your people they have an enemy, and then paint a picture of that enemy that arouses the most fear. Who care’s if it’s a lie, when the dust settles, your side can have a great victory party! (We are all susceptible to such wickedness, I fear.)
Al Qaeda, and the trend of thinking it represents, has its flaws, and they are grievous, but they did not grow up in a vacuum. They grew up during the last days of the Cold War in the contest for Afghanistan. The U.S. and the Soviet Union are responsible for its creation. Where was “the Islamic Threat” during the heyday of the Cold War? There was none. The Muslims at that time were happy to live under cruel dictatorships, were happy to have their religion mocked and suppressed by their own secular countrymen, and were perfectly fine with their resources being sold for a pittance to feed the hungry maws of the Superpowers. (Remember, too, that even Europe was a tiny bit-player at that time.) Even though the Russians had already swallowed a big chunk of Muslim Central Asia centuries before, hey, it was all water under the bridge. But the key thing was that the Americans were at least better than the Soviets, who restricted and suppressed religion. But with the Soviets gone, the rapacious machine of materialistic consumption needed to be fed, even as the emerging powers of independent Russia, India and China needed their share of the world’s resources (oil?), too. The wave of momentous events since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, also peaked the imagination of millions in the Muslim world, who suddenly had visions of taking their own destinies in their hands. That’s where the ‘clash’ is coming from. The West doesn’t want free Muslim states setting their own prices for raw materials, or making independent decisions that may drive up the market (and thus be against ‘our national interests’). Look at how the U.S. is in grief over the way Latin American states are slipping from its grasp!
One wonders, if the U.S. had never installed Sadaam Hussein in Iraq decades ago, or if the U.S. had never landed troops in Saudi Arabia during Gulf War I – and then stayed for some time – or if the U.S. withdrew support for Hosni Mubarak, or if the U.S. hadn’t reinstalled the hated Shah of Iran after he was deposed in a popular uprising, or – wait a minute – do you see a pattern here? No single Muslim country is meddling in the West. No single Muslim country is directing the affairs of the United States. No Muslim is deciding who can be the leader of America, or any other Christian nation. No Muslim government, secular or religious, is supporting rebel movements in North America or Europe. Do you see it now? The West, my own country, in particular, is sticking its hands in someone else’s pot. It’s messing with someone else’s homeland. It’s keeping another man’s house in chaos and oppression – all for their own greed.
Then there’s all this talk of the wave of Muslim immigrants to Europe and the United States. (Visions of the “Yellow Scare,” anyone, when Asians were seen as a swarming threat to the West?) The truth is, most of the immigrants in Europe are underclass or disadvantaged people, akin to the underclasses of any society. They have lower cultural values, less of a sense of propriety and generally mirror the disadvantaged classes anywhere. (Though most have a desire to better themselves just like all the poor huddled masses who came to America did!) Religion plays absolutely no role in the lives of most of them, as any casual perusal of the news will tell you, (for drugs and crime, which are forbidden in Islam, are endemic, just as it is among the ‘Christian’ underclass in America).
What’s different is their complexion and culture. A Libyan or Moroccan will have different cultural norms and look differently than a Dane or a Frenchmen, and thus the differences are more glaring. Think about all the discrimination that Blacks suffered under here in the United States. They protested and finally got their rights, but not without a great amount of national tension. What if the Civil Rights Act was never passed? What if the Jim Crow culture remained to this day? There would have been tremendous dissonance and hostility between Blacks and Whites that would erupt all the time. In Europe you have the same situation. The Arab, African and Turkish immigrants are living under Jim Crow conditions in many European countries: shunted into ghettoes, denied realistic job prospects, discriminated against even if they are third generation, and on and on. It’s a civil rights matter in Europe, not a religious issue. (It is often said that the reason why America’s Muslims are generally peaceful and content is that America has more experience with the melting pot syndrome, and I believe this is true.)
So where is the clash of civilizations? Where is the class of values? What you have is a clash of justice versus injustice, of intervention versus be fair - or at the very least leave us alone. The only ones who have been pushing for the last two hundred years have been the Western powers. Now the weak and disorganized Muslims have been pushed against the wall both in the West and abroad, and they don’t want to take it anymore. Didn’t the American Colonists betray their sovereign England over some lousy taxes? Imagine issues a hundred times more serious.
The dictators whom we supported and fed are no longer effective in oppressing the democratic aspirations of their people (who turned to Islam because they saw the raw evil underbelly of secularism). Now you need democracy, the West says, as long as your leaders obey us. Oh, the hypocrisy! Democracy only works when people are free to choose.
The propaganda against Islam that we face today is Orwellian in nature. The War on Terror is the War without End. The dark, swarthy Mozzlems are coming to take your freedom! They want to restart the Islamic Caliphate! Horrors! (Another example of historical ignorance: the Caliphate system generally worked like the Russian government does today: shenanigans at the top tier of society while the common people are generally left alone to do as they please.) Even the United States is made up of fifty countries called states. What’s wrong if five or ten Muslim countries get together? It would be far more stable than what there is now! Oh, the boogeyman that united Muslims would somehow suddenly wage jihad to convert the unbelievers – I got news for you – jihad has always traditionally been understood to be a defensive war. The Bin Laden crowd’s innovation is an aberration, and there would be no room in a Caliphate for that group, anyway, who have been rightly labeled as Kharajites, the name of heretical sect that was stamped out generations ago and has merely resurfaced. They’re sort of like our David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh extremists.
Now Westerners had better wake up before the hidden movers and shakers among them use this fear mongering to reduce their civilizations to police states. I already foresee it in America. It hurts my heart to admit it. I grew up so proud of my country, but now I see where it’s headed. I’ve been a student of history for almost twenty years and I see it coming, as clear as day. (And I’m not alone in my assessment. Scan the history journals, look into what many are saying now. The wheels of history are turning downwards.) I, as a proud American, cannot even begin to fathom that my country is now in the business of legally torturing prisoners – and Christians are okay with that? It’s like I’m trapped in some nightmare vision and I just want to wake back up into “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
So now the Prophet Muhammad, the ultimate symbol of Islam, is open to attack, and not for historical reasons, but as a way to further dehumanize “the enemy.” How long will it be before we’re back to the previous Western position that Muslims worship Muhammad, or that he is part of a trinity of gods for Muslims, or that he practiced human sacrifice, or that he is the Antichrist? Yes, Westerners pushed these ideas up until two centuries ago. Now they’ve brought all these back, and they’re raising up all kinds of other ludicrous charges based on either misinterpretations or even fantasy. I was in Barnes and Nobles the other day and the Islam section was full of anti-Islamic books! Only about four or five of the fifteen books were positive. When I passed through the Jewish or Christian sections, the hundreds of books there were all generally positive. Not more than a handful of books on Christian bigotry, racism or pogroms, and no Jewish books on the harsh laws of the Talmud or the much-repeated Jewish conspiracies (which I recognize are unfair).
It doesn’t help that Muslims seem to be their own worst propagandists. I mean, besides that Bin Laden guy, who would be in a mental hospital in any civilized society, we have a lot of loud and ignorant fools out there. People with big mouths who think the answer to everything is to make a scene and burn something. I have to be fair though, the majority of Muslims are thoughtful and patient. Where’s the proof? There’s a billion of us, and if a billion people went on the rampage there would be no hope for the rest of the world. It’s the tens of thousands that are taking up all the camera’s attention, and unfortunately, the masses do listen to the carefully crafted propaganda masquerading as ‘news’ on their cable channels. Sometimes I think, “Doesn’t anyone read or at least obey the Qur’an anymore?” In so many verses God tells the Prophet to bear with patience what the unbelievers say, to pay them no mind, to engage them in debate and to not be led into false conundrums. Well, that’s a topic for another day.
All of this attention on our Prophet has given rise to a great interest in his life, both among Muslims and non-Muslims. Whereas non-Muslims tend to look upon him with skepticism, Muslims tend to idolize him and exalt him into a constellation that far removes him from the ranks of ordinary mortals. Both extremes are disingenuous and unfair. The unfairness of the non-Muslims is that they assume, rather naively, that Muhammad, peace be upon him, was some kind of a student of Judaism and Christianity and that he merely copied the Bible and made up his own religion. The foolishness and arrogance reminds me of those who say Jesus was really a Buddhist who lived in India for a time and parroted Buddhist teachings, or at the least, he was just a mystic follower of a Jewish cult. So who did Moses copy? The Pharoah?
It should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about the Prophet that such a simplistic approach is wholly inappropriate. The man couldn’t read or write. There were no Bibles or Bible colleges floating around in Arabia. He grew up as a poor orphan, the little kid at the end of the table in a relative’s house. He was a shepherd for over a decade, alone in the hills with nothing but the rocks to keep him company. He got a job working for a woman and then married his employer when she proposed to him. He had family responsibilities through his thirties and kept a low profile his whole life. Then at forty years old he suddenly ‘makes-up’ a religion that changes the face of history from Spain to China? Yeah, right.
The Muslims, however, sometimes go overboard in exalting him and his life to the point where they make an unrealistic and unattainable picture of him, without realizing it. How can we emulate such a man, as the Qur’an tells us to do, when we’ve mythologized him into the essence of perfection itself? I’ve written many books on Islam as a religion – and it’s a deep faith with many complimentary branches. I’ve also written a full fledged biography of the Prophet’s life that required me to dig deeply into who he was as a person. Now I’m involved with a project to produce an American English rendition of the Qur’an. Sometimes the phrase, “The Education of Yahiya Emerick,” comes to mind. I cannot believe how much I’ve had the privilege to learn. I feel as if, through these three separate types of writing, that I have made the Prophet’s acquaintance. The hadith that says we never truly believe until we love the Prophet the most of all is so true! I’ve been able to do what, I believe, few other Muslims have been able to do, and that is to reconstruct the life of a man who lived over a thousand years ago as if he were someone I knew! I am so happy to produce works that shares some of that with my fellows in this life!
The Qur’an tells us that the Prophet “is no more than a man whom God has favored.” The Prophet was a real person – like you and me. He was not an angel in disguise. He had feelings, emotions, trials, heartaches, triumphs, fears, desires and hopes that were sometimes realized, sometimes not. The reason why we can know him so well is because there is so much biographical material about him that it’s astounding. Think about it: Christians know next to nothing about the day-to-day Jesus, so it’s very easy to iconize him and elevate him into the “he’s whatever you want him to be” syndrome. That’s why everyone can claim him, whether they’re homosexuals, Christian backsliders, fundamentalists, romantics, pop-singers or whatever. His life is mostly a void – a blank space ending in a question mark. (So many books have come out over the centuries trying to fill in the blanks of his life from The Da Vinci Code to the oldest apocrypha!)
What makes Muhammad, peace be upon him, so different, and open to controversy and different interpretation, is that his life and times are so well documented. The Qur’an is there as a record of the growth of the Islamic movement. The hadiths are treasure troves of his personal observations and actions, while the seerah is a telling of the overall story with so many side actors – not to mention all the surviving sahaba stories – that it’s absolutely amazing. Most of us just get the sanitized version of his life, and thus we elevate him into some kind of an unreal figure, with light shining over his head. But for those who care to dig deeper, you find a man who had to deal with so many different things – a man who could become depressed or stressed out, even as he could rise to the challenge and inspire with unworldly charisma and nobility.
One of the goals I had, when I wrote the biography of his life, was to present, as much as possible, a well-rounded picture of him that included both his large-scale public mission as well as his personal life and interactions with others. I wanted people to know him from many facets so they could realize he was not a god, but a man. I wrote an article some time back entitled, “Getting to Know a Friend,” and it was about the Prophet. That’s why Muhammad, peace be upon him, is different for us than Jesus is for Christians. We have the ability to see his life in its totality, and still be grounded in earthy reality. The closest analogy is Moses for the Jews. They also have a pretty good picture of him and thus are very attached to him.
So when we find that people are drawing mean cartoons of him, we get upset because so many of us have studied or learned of his life so well. It’s like someone insulting our own father. Even as Christians protested the Last Temptation of Christ, we must protest anyone poking fun at our beloved guide. When I found out that the editor of the Danish newspaper had previously rejected cartoons poking fun at Jesus as insensitive, I asked the question, “So why then ridicule another equally beloved religious figure?” The answer is crystal clear: the West holds nothing sacred, other than what its most powerful interest groups deem to be sacred, and thus, until Muslims wield political clout we will always be the new it’s-allowed-to-insult-them group.
Can you imagine any newspaper in then West, anywhere, presenting the Pope as a ringleader of child molesters? It would never happen in a million years, and if it did, such a newspaper would be receiving death threats. Jesus never condoned the actions of those thousands of arrested priests, even as the Prophet would never condone indiscriminately killing civilians with bombs. What we Muslims have to do is present our case intelligently, with the full realization that not every Westerner is the same. There has been support for us in the cartoon controversy coming from many Jewish leaders, which we should take note of, for we have more in common with Jews than anyone else. Those who still seek to ridicule our sacred symbols will do so, and we must bear patiently with what they do, even as we protest in every legal way possible, while spreading our message and educating all about the life and work of our dear Prophet, Muhammad. “Reason with them in ways that are better.” -Qur’an