Excerpt of transcript


Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time

Karen Armstrong, YouTube*, 2013

In Europe, we have had a long history of bigotry. It was this kind of bigoted, lazy, prejudiced thinking that had led to the death camps in the 1930s.

In the first place I was after all my ambition in life was not to write about religion at all but to be a university professor teaching English literature but after a series of career disasters I found myself in television and I said that once to Bill Moyers and he said oh we take anybody and I found myself in in Jerusalem, making a program about early Christianity. And there, I had a sort of revelation, a personal revelation. Until that time, despite the fact that I'd had a very strong religious background, I found I knew nothing at all about either Judaism or Islam. I'd never thought about Judaism as anything but a kind of prelude to Christianity.

And I'd never really considered Islam at all. But once you're living in the Holy City, seeing the three religions jostling, sometimes uneasily together around the same sacred sites, you become aware not only of the antagonism that has unfortunately developed between them, exacerbated by political factors, but also of the great affinity and connection that they have between them. So I started to study all three. And I must say it was my study of both Judaism and Islam that brought me back to a set religion. It enabled me to see what my own tradition had been trying to do at its best.

And I was increasingly disturbed to find the current opinion of Islam-- we're talking way back in the early 1980s-- was so much at variance with the facts. And this disturbed me for two reasons.

One, I've been trained at Oxford, and I'm sure that it would be the same of any of your great American universities, too, always to see both sides of a question. That you couldn't just write an essay presenting one side of the question. You had to include and seriously consider the other side. You had to be prepared to change your mind. You had to be accurate and build your theories and ideas on the facts. And it offended me, intellectually offended me to hear what people were saying about Islam, that it was an inherently violent, intolerant faith. It wasn't true.

Second, it disturbed me because in Europe, we have had a long history of bigotry. It was this kind of bigoted, lazy, prejudiced thinking that had led to the death camps in the 1930s. And we didn't seem to have learned anything from this dreadful catastrophe. And so I started to talk about trying to correct the stereotypes.

And I found that our Islamophobia is very, very old in the Western world. It dates back to the time of the Crusades, a time when Europe was beginning to crawl out of the long period of barbarism known as the Dark Ages in the 10th, 11th centuries, and crawl back onto the international scene. And Islam and Judaism both became the shadow self of Europe, a symbol of everything that we hoped we were not and feared that we might be.

And it was during the Crusades, for example, when it was Christians who were fighting brutal holy wars against Muslims in the Holy Land that scholars in Europe in the 12th century began to describe Islam as the violent religion of the sword. It was a kind of projection of a buried worry about their own behavior.

Jesus, after all, had in one gospel told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. and worries about the intensely unchristian nature of their hatred, and it made them push that religion of the sword onto the other. Also, at a time when the popes were trying to impose celibacy on the extremely reluctant clergy, Muhammad the prophet was described with a great deal of ill-concealed envy as a lecture and a sexual pervert.

And Islam was described as a religion that it encouraged Muslims to hand it to their basest instincts. And it was at a time when Europe was extremely hierarchical against the egalitarian ethos of the gospel, that Islam was described as giving too much power and respect to menials, to the lower classes, and to women. So Islam was becoming the shadow self of Europe, as we were trying to redefine ourselves, redefine a new style of Western Christianity, very different from the Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Islam became the bogey in the shadow self. Judaism, too. It was during the Crusades when very often people who couldn't go to the Middle East to fight would attack Jews at home as part of the crusading effort. It was at this time that Jews were first described as child slayers. It was said that every year at Passover, Jews would kill a Christian child and use the blood in the manufacture of matzo, unleavened bread. And this image of the Jew as the child killer reflects, again, an almost oedipal fear of the parent faith, an inability to accept the Jewish roots of Judaism (sic - Christianity). So these prejudices are very deep. And so please forgive me if I start by

talking about jihad and violence. This is the one-- this is the thing that, as I say, has been said about Islam now for nearly a millennium. And I apologize to you because a lot of you are Muslims and know the facts of the matter, and also to Western members of the audience. Because since September the 11th, I've been saying this so often that I feel I ought to apologize for saying it again, because surely people have got the point by this time. But unfortunately, what happens every time there is a crisis like the Danish cartoon crisis. All the old skeletons come out of the cupboard and we have to start from scratch. It's so deeply ingrained are these ideas. And it's rather like that child's game, Snakes and Ladders, whereby you suddenly land on a snake and then go sliding down right back to the beginning again. And off you go again, explaining,

no, Islam is not a religion of the sword. So forgive me if I sort of launch into that right now. Now, the Quran proposed a religion that was not a pacifist religion. It was not the sort of religion that Christianity was supposed to be. Christianity was supposed to be pacifist, but it turned out not to be pacifist at all.

And Islam had a more realistic view. It says that sometimes it was unfortunately necessary to fight in order to preserve decent values, but only in self-defense. There must be no aggressive warfare. And there were strong rules later developed that, for example, you could never kill, in Sharia law, you must never kill civilians. It was illegal for a ruler to attack a country where Muslims were allowed to practice their religion freely. It was forbidden to use fire in fighting, as it was too cruel.

Again, the blazing towers of September the 11th come to mind and entirely an illegal and heretical, not to say inhumane, act was committed in the name of Islam.

The Quran insists that Muhammad was fighting a war of self-defense. Mecca, the powerful city of Mecca, was attacking the Muslim community And had the Meccans prevailed, according to the customs of pre-Islamic Arabia, they would have slaughtered all the men and sold the women and children into slavery. The Muslim community was fighting for survival. But as always happens in warfare, as we found in our own day, warfare has its own awful dynamic. And atrocities are committed on all sides.

And that, in the end, I think, pushed Muhammad to initiate a peaceful, nonviolent repost. The tide was just beginning in Arabia as a whole, though not in Medina, where he had a great deal of opposition.

He announced to his followers that he wanted to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Now on the Hajj, as you know, you may not carry any weapons. You may not fight. You may not even kill an insect or speak a crossword. Now, so for Muslims, in the height of this lethal war with Mecca, to ride unarmed into the holy city of Mecca was going unarmed into the lion's den.

Nevertheless, 1,000 Muslims from Medina volunteered to go on this highly dangerous campaign. And they arrived in-- and the Meccans, when they heard they were coming, sent their cavalry out to kill the pilgrims. But with the help of some friendly local Bedouin, Muhammad managed to elude them and get into the sanctuary of Mecca, where all violence was forbidden. And then he sat down.

It was a demonstration, what in the '60s we used to call a sit-in. And he basically-- the eyes of Arabia were on him. He knew-- he was a brilliant man. And he knew that he was putting the meccans on the spot. Because if they slaughtered peaceful pilgrims who were punctiliously pursuing the rites and denying them the right of every Arab to perform the rights of the Hajj at the Kaaba. They would have violated the sanctities that they had been fighting for and would have lost enormous prestige. They were the guardians of the Kaaba, so they negotiated.

And Mohammad (may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him! - addition by the editor) accepted [the] terms, as the Quran says Muslims must do, that seemed utterly appalling to his followers, because it seemed to give everything away to Mecca, everything that they'd fought for. And yet, nevertheless-- and they almost mutinied the pilgrims who were with him. Nevertheless, he persisted.

And on the way home, he had a revelation whereby he said that this was a manifest victory. It was not a defeat. That the Muslims-- that the Meccans had behaved with all the chauvinism and violence of "jahiliyyah," a word I'm going to talk about in a minute, the pre-Islamic period, and whereas the Muslims had experienced the sakhina, the spirit of peace which had descended upon them.

And it was this spirit of peace that linked them with the Jews and the Christians, the people of the book. It was this, the spirit of peace, that characterizes the human attitude towards God. So the historians, early historians of Islam, agree that this was indeed a victory.

This was the turning point. This two years later, Mecca opened its gates voluntarily to the prophet. Nobody was forced to convert to Islam. And Muhammad had brought peace to war-torn, war-weary Arabia. There is a very important hadith, which has much, much quoted that describes the attitude to war. It's said that on returning from a battle, a very important battle, Mohammad (may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him!) said to his followers,

We are returning from the lesser jihad. And that is the battle. And going back to the greater jihad, the greatest struggle to reform our own society and our own hearts.

Jihad, of course, she says wearily, having said this so many times since 9/11, does not really mean holy war. Whatever the extremists or whatever the media tells us, It means effort or struggle or endeavor. And Muslims are enjoined to struggle on all fronts to put the word of God into practice in a violent and traumatic world. And so-- and sometimes it may be necessary to fight, but you must also engage in an intellectual jihad, a social jihad, an economic jihad to ensure that there is decency and justice in your society, as spiritual jihad, as you struggle with the egotism and hatred that mars human relationships. Now, the so-called wars of conquest need to be addressed after Muhammad's death (may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him!).

The talk continued…

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-last modified: 2023-07-15 11:37 CEST (UTC=11:37 -2h)