Prejudice is like poison. Unless purged out of one’s mind in early stages, it can spread like cancer and make one incapable of differentiating between right and wrong. Of the many kinds of prejudice, the worst is to believe that one’s own religion is superior to all others, which may be tolerated but never taken seriously or accepted as equally valid as one’s own. The most misunderstood of the major religions today is Islam, which, after Christianity, is the second most widely practiced religion in the world. It also gains more converts than any of the other religions.
Prejudice against Islam was spread in Christendom from the time Muslims gained dominance in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. Christian crusaders failed in their missions to crush Islam in its homeland but continued to vilify its founder, Muhammad (may peace be upon him). The emergence of militant Islamic groups like Al-Qaida and Taliban gave them reasons to do so. The attack on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001 provided fresh ammunition to vilifiers of Islam. Since then Islam-o-phobia has been deliberately spread throughout the non-Muslim world. The two principle contentions of the anti-Islamists are that Islam was spread by the sword and that its Founder-Prophet was not the paragon of virtue that Muslims make him out to be. It can be proved by historical evidence that Islam was not forced upon the people; it was readily accepted by millions because it offered them new values, principally equality of mankind and rights to women that were unheard of in those times. In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Islam was not forced on the population by Muslim invaders but by Muslim missionaries.
Muslims are extremely sensitive to criticism of their Prophet. A popular adage in Persian is: ba khuda diwaana basho, ba Muhammad hoshiar! – “say what you like about God, but beware of what you say about Muhammad.” They regard him as the most perfect man who ever trod upon the earth, a successor of Adam, Moses, Noah, Abraham and Jesus. He was the last of the prophets. If you honestly want to know how Muslims see him, you ought to take a good look at his life and teachings, which had been revealed to him by God. It would be as wrong to judge him by the doings of Al-Qaida and Taliban or by the Fatwas periodically pronounced by Ayatollahs and half-baked mullahs. You do not judge Hinduism of the Vedas and Upanishads by the doings of Hindus who, in the name of Hindutva, destroy mosques, murder missionaries and nuns, vandalize libraries and works of art. You do not judge the teachings of the Sikh Gurus by the utterances of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and by the murder of innocents by his hooligans. Likewise, judge Muhammad by what he taught and stood for and not by what his so-called followers do in his name.
Muhammad was born in Makkah in 570 AD. He lost both his parents while still a child and was brought up by his grandfather and uncle. He managed the business of a widow, whom he later married. She bore him six children. He took no other wife until she died. He was 40 years old when he started having revelations while in trance. They proclaimed Muhammad as the new messiah. Such revelation kept coming at random, sometimes dealing with problems at hand, at other times with matters spiritual. They were memorized or written down by his admirers and became the Qur’aan, which means recitation. It should be kept in mind that Muhammad was not preaching ideas of his own but only reiterating most of what was already in the Judaic creed. Allah was the Arabic name for God before him. Similarly, Islam was ‘surrender’ and salaam was ‘peace’. Makkah was the main market city of the Bedouin tribes. They gathered at the Ka’aba, the huge courtyard with the black meteorite embedded in it during two pilgrimages – the bigger Haj and the lesser Umrah.
Muhammad accepted Judaic traditions regarding food which is Halaal (lawful) or Haraam (forbidden, such as pig meat), names of the five daily prayers and circumcision of male children. Muhammad only asserted the oneness of God that did not accept of any equal such as the stone goddesses worshiped by different tribes. Muhammad never forced people to accept his faith and indeed quoted Allah’s message of freedom of faith. “There must be no coercion in matters of faith – la ikrah f’il deen.” Further: “And if God had so willed, He would have made you all one single command; but He willed otherwise in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then with one another in doing good works!”
As might have been expected, Muhammad’s mission roused fierce hostility. Many attempts were made to assassinate him but he had miraculously escaped. Ultimately, in 622 AD he was advised to flee from Makkah to Medina. This is known as the Hijra (emigration) and recognized as the beginning of the Muslim calendar. Makkans made a few attempts to capture Medina but were ousted. Muslim armies led by Muhammad triumphed and returned to Makkah as conquerors. By the time Muhammad died in Medina in 632 AD, the Arabian peninsula was united as a confederacy of different tribes under the banner of Islam.
Most of the ill-founded criticism against Muhammad is directed towards the number of women he married after the death of his first wife, Khadijah. This has to be seen in the perspective of Arabian society of the time. Tribes lived by warring against each other and looting caravans. There were heavy casualties of men, creating serious gender imbalance. Widows and orphans of men killed had to be provided with homes and sustenance. Otherwise, they took to prostitution or begging. So they were given protection by being taken in marriages. Also, matrimonial alliances were a good way of creating bonds between different tribes. Muhammad did nothing not acceptable to his people. He went further: he was the first teacher to proclaim that the best union was a monogamous marriage and fixed the maximum limit to four, provided a man could keep all of his wives equally happy – which was most unlikely. The pertinent verse in the Qur’aan reads: “And if you have reason to fear you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among other women who are lawful to you, even two or three or four; but if you have reason to fear you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then only one.” Bear in mind that at that time polygamy was the norm in patriarchal societies all over the world.
To make a beginning in clearing your mind of anti-Muslim prejudices, I suggest you read Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. Armstrong is the leading writer on comparative religions today. She is not Muslim.
This article by Khushwant Singh was published in The Telegraph, Calcutta (India)