Monday, July 12, 2010

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Back in the early 1980’s while the Cold War was still raging, I used to joke that I must be on some FBI and/or CIA watchlist because of my growing collection of books on the Soviet Union, including books (in translation) authored by Soviet writers who were not dissidents. My curiosity about all things Russian stemmed from my idea that you can’t "hate" an enemy that you know nothing about.

Fast forward to 9/11 when we realized that we were facing a new enemy, radical Islam. Again, my curiosity was sparked, but finding books about Islam that didn’t demonize it have been difficult to come by. Author Fred M. Donner, a professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, presents us with an objective look at the beginnings of Islam in his book Muhammad and The Believers, which he has been working on since 2000. It is a badly needed perspective on the hotly debated subject of the origins of some of the more radical beliefs espoused by today’s terrorists.

Most books and opinion pieces today take one of two positions. Either Islam is a religion of peace or it is a religion of jihad. Professor Donner shows us that it is both. Islam started out as a radical movement of monotheists in an area of the world dominated by polytheists. Members of the movement, who called themselves The Believers, stood out from other cults and religions because of their piety and righteous behavior. Initially, they embraced Christians and Jews who were also pious. It was only after the death of Muhammad and the question of succession had been settled after two civil wars that Islam was rigidly defined and codified, restricted to only those who followed the teachings of the Koran who were now called Moslems.

Towards the end of Muhammad’s life, The Believers embarked on what we today call jihad, battling the adjacent Persian and Byzantine Empires that they considered ungodly. Within just a few generations, Islam had spread across North Africa and into Spain. Admittedly, the initial impetus to the expansion was the overthrow of neighboring infidel empires, but after some time, the Islamic leadership began to depend on the revenue generated by taxes imposed on subject states.

I think that this is what should concern us in the 21st century. Those who claim that modern day jihadists are twisting Muhammad’s teachings or that jihad is a modern concept are wrong. Jihad and the forced conversion or overthrow of non-Islamic states is nothing new. It has been going on since the founding of Islam. But, just as Christianity was able to evolve from the militancy of the Crusades and the Inquisition, to more peaceful means of recruiting new members, so should Moslem leaders begin to turn their followers from the concept of violent jihad to non-violent jihad, converting new members with missionaries rather than soldiers.

Although written for a popular audience, Professor Donner is unable to break out of his scholarly writing mode. He has taken a subject that is incredibly fascinating and made it dry, dry, dry. Dull, dull, dull. I literally fell asleep several times while reading it. In the future, I would suggest that he employ a ghost writer geared toward popular readership. The topic that he writes about is much too important not to be accessible to as many people as possible.

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