The 13th Warrior (1999)

The 13th Warrior is a superb film about the Vikings, seen from the point of view of an Islamic poet. Our unlikely hero has been banished to the North for lusting after someone else’s wife at the court of the Caliph of Baghdad. Well-researched, acted, and directed, this intelligent version of the Beowulf story shows that not all Hollywood historical epics are crap (though most are).

Blasphemy for the Day: The Religious History of Western Europe

A response to the BBC’s Thought for the DayYou don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

Brother Dominique offers a droll, subversive, and erudite deconstruction of the history of religion in Europe, complete with visual aids and pop culture references. Had me hooked, as much for the persona of Brother Dominique as anything else – he’s a natural television presenter. Best explanation I’ve ever heard of how the religious landscape of Europe evolved.

Jesus and Mo: Storm in a Beer Mug?

Good news for University College London’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. They put this cartoon on a FaceBook page, advertising a society event, but the Student Union wanted it taken down. The atheists stuck to their guns, and the Student Union have now backed off. See the Guardian article for a complete account of the brouhaha.

So, a victory for freedom of expression. I’m genuinely surprised there was so much fuss about what is a rather charming cartoon about two friends having a pint together. How do I know they’re friends? Because the cartoon is the second frame in a strip. All 4 frames are drawn the same, but the first has the caption, Today Jesus, Mo, and the barmaid have pledged not to say anything which might cause one of them to be offended. The fourth frame has Mo saying, This is nice, isn’t it? Gentle satire on the stupidity of religious conflict, with a sideswipe at political correctness.

Jesus and Mo is a series. Behind the personae of verbally sparring college room-mates, they are the mouthpieces of Christianity and Islam. They also spend a lot of time in the pub, debating among themselves and with the barmaid, who always wins the argument.

Now let’s turn to a far nastier cartoon. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy is well-known, and I don’t need to rehash it here. The cartoon on the right is the most egregious of them all, and I’m including it only to illustrate my point.

To be completely clear, I’m a atheist, I think all religions are doctrinal nonsense, and none of them should be allowed any institutional power. No belief should be immune from criticism, and I firmly believe that no-one has the right not to be offended.

That said, the devil’s in the motivation. To my mind, the Danish cartoons spring from bigotry, as does the burqa ban in France. Just in case anyone should think I want to condemn Muslim women to living in a sack, there is provision for a fine and imprisonment if convicted of forcing them to wear it. See my previous blog post here for further thoughts on the subject.

It’s telling that while most newspapers recognized the bigotry, and did not reprint the Danish cartoons, the media that thrive on bigotry pounced on them with glee. I give you, reluctantly, Human Events, which glories in the likes of Ann CoulterNewt Gingrich, and Pat Buchanan. The last thing we need is propaganda.

Jesus and Mo, in contrast, is a humane take on religious belief, bringing it right back to human beings where it belongs. Better yet, it’s funny. Exactly what the debate needs, rather than hatred masquerading as fundamentalist principle.

The Life of Muhammad: Holy Peace (3/3)

The Life of Muhammad: The Seeker (1/3)
The Life of Muhammad: Holy Wars (2/3)

Holy Peace takes us from 627, after Muhammad’s victory at the siege of Medina, to his death in 632.  By that time he had defeated the Quraysh in Mecca, in the most extraordinary way, and established Islam as the dominant religion in Arabia.  Holy Peace also brings up some of the most contentious contemporary issues concerning Islam, dealing as it does with Sharia law and its ramifications in terms of government.  Perhaps in response to this, the programme goes out of its way to confront the issues that would offend the average Daily Mail reader.  There is footage of suicide bombers, demonstrations, and even an interview with Muslim activists who went to prison for giving aid to terrorists.  The most chilling thing for me was a placard that read, “Islam is the Answer, Democracy is Cancer.”  Rageh Omaar is the humane, mediating influence in all this, fielding an array of conflicting opinions.

The documentary gives the concept of Jihad a good airing, claiming that most scholars don’t agree that it means a holy war, more a struggle against the baseness and evil in human life.  They point out that there’s a separate word for armed struggle, and that there were no deliberate recorded attacks against civilians in Muhammad’s lifetime.

By 627, Muhammad was arguably the most powerful man in Arabia, having defeated the Quraysh no less than 3 times in battle.  In Medina, through his revelations from Allah, he had established a civil/moral code that emphasized brotherhood, justice and equality.  Blood feuds were abolished, a source of bitterness that must have blighted the lives of those unwittingly born into the conflicts.  There was a tax on all Muslims to help orphans, widows and the poor.  Women were given inheritance rights and the right to own property.  Female infanticide was abolished – unwanted female children were formerly left out in the desert to die.  So far, so enlightened, but there were also brutal punishments. Thieves had limbs cut off, adulterers were stoned (also done by Jews and Christians), and slavery had not been abolished.

Muhammad knew that he could not defeat the Quraysh by military means.  Instead he began to undermine their influence by making alliances with other tribes.  As in medieval and early modern Europe, marriage was an important strategy, binding tribes together in clan loyalty.  Muhammad pursued this strategy, accumulating between 9 and 13 wives (according to different sources).  One was a Coptic slave, who he freed.  The most controversial was Aisha, who might have been 6 or 7 when bethrothed and 9 when the marriage was consummated.  Other experts put her age at 16 or 17.  While polygamy was normal practice in Arabia, and he had taken no other wives during his 25 year marriage to his first wife, Kadijha, this was all grist to the mill for Muhammad’s critics within Medina.

They must have crowed even louder when another revelation prompted Muhammad to restrict the maximum number of wives to 4, and only then if they could be supported and treated equally.  Muhammad was exempt from this restriction.  Stoning was also abolished for adultery, the punishment now being 100 lashes.  Then, when Aisha went missing and was brought back by a man who she knew before Muhammad, it took a revelation to convince him of her innocence.

Further revelations decreed that Muhammad’s wives should wear a veil, perhaps to avoid further scandalous rumours.  General veiling for all women only came in over 100 years after Muhammad’s death.  One of the experts points out that the Qur’an only calls for women to cover their nakedness, and there’s no requirement or compulsion to wear the burqa or the niquab.

In 628, Muhammad astounded his followers by calling for them to go on a Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.  This must have sounded foolhardy in the extreme, particularly since they would be able to carry no weapons.  In the event, Meccan cavalry stopped them outside of Mecca and further negotiations resulted in what seemed like a humiliating defeat for Muhammad.  They would have to return to Medina, stop raiding Meccan caravans, and Muhammad could not be named as Messenger of God in the treaty that formalized the arrangement.  In return, they would be permitted to return on a Hajj the following year.   Muhammad signed, and a subsequent revelation confirmed that this was victory.

Amazingly, it turned out to be true.  Muhammad and his followers went on Hajj in 629 and so impressed the Meccans by their modesty that the tide of public opinion began to turn against the Quraysh.  In 630, they attacked one of Muhammad’s allies.  He marched on Mecca with an army of 10,000, and shocked the Quraysh by forgiving them.  He ordered a general amnesty in which no-one was killed or forced to convert to Islam.  Muhammad’s goal was to return the Kaaba to Allah.  All the pagan statues and images were destroyed.  Then, after this astonishing victory gained by peace and reconciliation, he returned to Medina.  The rest of Arabia soon joined his cause, and the last pagan stronghold converted in 631.

Muhammad returned to Mecca in 632, for what is called his Farewell Sermon.  Speaking to huge crowds outside the city, he reaffirmed his belief that the only reality is the One True God, and accordingly there should be no clan, tribal, or racial superiority: all humans are one.

Muhammad died later that year in Medina, nursed in his final illness by Aisha, who became a political power broker in the years after his death.  Disputes arose among his family, and in the following century Islam split into Shia and Sunni factions.  It also spread through much of the known world, to India, China, North Africa, Spain and France.  The idea of a peaceful jihad was now a dead letter.

Sharia law also changed in response to this dynamic. While based on the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad’s life, it changed to meet the new conditions, and contradictions appeared within it.

In Rageh Omaar’s summing up, he points out that Muhammad left Arabia a better society, achieved ultimately through reconciliation and peaceful methods. His Farewell Sermon, stressing that we are all equal, is certainly admirable.  Unfortunately, however admirable the founders of religions are, it’s their successors who do all the damage.

As an atheist, I find it impossible to believe in divine revelation, although I’m prepared to believe that Muhammad’s initial revelation in 610 is certainly genuine in the sense that he believed it utterly.  Acceptance brought a world of troubles down on his head.  Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that subsequent revelations are rather shrewd adaptations to his predicament while he’s in Mecca, and definite aids to establishing a position of influence for himself and his beliefs in Medina.  That’s not to say they were necessarily cynical manipulations, merely that his mind worked just as cannily in revelation mode.  The Night Journey, for example, dreamed at the Kaaba in 621, is the perfect allegorical basis for an identification with the prophets of the Old Testament, while demonstrating his privileged position as the last Prophet of the One True God.

Muhammad’s decision to go on a Hajj to Mecca was certainly a leap of faith.  It took some balls to do that, and a great deal of self-confidence in his power as a leader to sell it to his followers.  And the acceptance of what seemed like a humiliating treaty must have tested him to the utmost.

He showed an even greater forbearance in seeking reconciliation in Mecca rather than revenge.  It’s hard not to like the figure who emerges from this documentary, despite the actions that run directly counter to 21st century taboos.  In the historical context (mostly) I can see why the reasons would be compelling.

It’s just a pity that Muhammad’s successors were more influenced by realpolitik than promoting a religion of tolerance and equality.  But you could say the same thing about Jesus, that pinko commie, by all the standards of the Religious Right.  If I was Muslim, I would want to reclaim Muhammad from the extremists, as Rageh Omaar and many of the commentators clearly want to do.  I hope they succeed.

The Life of Muhammad: Holy Wars (2/3)

The Life of Muhammad: The Seeker (1/3)

Holy Wars brings us into much more contentious territory.  It goes without saying that any documentary about Muhammad, particularly after 9-11, is bound to attract criticism from both sides of an increasing polarized debate.  The documentary explicitly acknowledges the connection many people make between Islam and terrorism in its introductory footage of the Twin Towers.  No doubt with this in mind, it bends over backwards to be as impartial as possible, while still being a documentary about Islam presented by a practicing Muslim.  Rageh Omaar frequently prefaces his statements with “according to Muslim tradition,” and disputed interpretations are painstakingly referred to Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars for critique.  Only the BBC would go to these lengths.

Holy Wars opens with a revelation contained in a dream.  While still mired in persecution by the Quraysh, Muhammad falls asleep beside the Kaaba, which in his time contained shrines to all the gods and is now the point to which all Muslims pray.  He dreams of being transported on a white horse to the shrine beneath the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.  There he meets all the Biblical prophets, starting with Abraham and ending with Muhammad himself.  For he is revealed as the last prophet.  They pray together – he learns the practice of 5 daily prayers – and is offered a choice of drinks.  You can see the Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality at work in the narrative.  Muhammad chooses milk, symbolizing naturalness.  Then a ladder appears and he is taken up to Heaven, where God speaks to him.

The criticism of Muhammad’s Night Journey is that there is only a very brief account in the Qur’an and Hadith, the rest of the story being a later elaboration.  My criticism rests on the “well he would, wouldn’t he” hypothesis.  If you are a man utterly committed to a religious vision, yet cruelly constrained by the society in which you live, one way out is to dream of transcending the barriers of class and society, being recognized by God as the Last Prophet of the One True God.  This is wish-fulfillment with the dial turned up to 11.

And it fits in with an earlier quibble I had, the idea that Muhammad’s purported illiteracy made him an authentic messenger of god, unable to add his own interpretations.  He was an intelligent man, a very successful trader, who would have learned everything there was to know about Jewish beliefs, including the importance of the prophets (and Jerusalem) in that tradition.  The Night Journey put him in pole position to develop his own religion.

Whatever else it was, the Night Journey focused his mind on the need to find a safe haven for himself and his followers.  A chance meeting with 6 men from the strife-torn city of Yathrib, which later became Medina in Muhammad’s honour, led to him being invited to move there as a prophet and mediator.

Yathrib was a large oasis containing a number of villages, each one held by a different pagan or Jewish tribe.  He and his followers arrived as refugees and Muhammad began to preach, building a small mosque that became a community centre, not only for his followers but for anyone, including slaves.  Their removal from Mecca (Hijra or “cutting off”) in 622 marked the beginning of the Islamic era, and a new calendar, much as Christians locate their origins at the birth of Christ).

So far so good for Muhammad.  The call to prayer evolved from the need to notify his followers of the proper time for the 5 times daily prayer.  Christians used a bell and Jews a horn for their calls to prayer, but Muhammad chose the human voice.  Again, something natural, like his choice of drink in Jerusalem.  A freed African slave was the first muezzin, standing on the roof of the small mosque.  Hence the later development of minarets in mosque architecture.

Muhammad became an influential political leader and prophet in Medina, but his position had no official standing.  He had to persuade the tribes to agree to, and sign, a written agreement, the Constitution of Medina.  This is contentious because no complete copy exists, and the first partial copy only dates from a hundred years after Muhammad’s death.  It’s analogous to the provenance of the New Testament.  It was apparently an “unsurprising” and “practical” agreement that defined ummah, or community, as embracing all the inhabitants of Medina – Jews, pagans, Christians and Muslims.  A charter of rights and obligations that required Muhammad to judge disputes according to the religious law of the disputants.  The authenticity, or otherwise, of the Constitution of Medina is crucial to the interpretation of events that followed.  But however enlightened that constitution might have been, it was first changed, then discarded, after Muhammad’s death.

The Quraysh in Mecca weren’t happy about Muhammad’s flight and sought vengeance.  News of their plotting reached Muhammad and he received another revelation, this one instructing him to fight back.  Again, hugely contentious because it can either be interpreted as permitting a “just” war, or as a justification for killing non-Muslims.  In 624, he planned a preemptive strike against one of their caravans.  The Meccans, who also had their spies, switched the caravan for a small army.  The Battle of Badr was inconclusive, but the fact that the ummah had survived vindicated Muhammad’s faith.

Another revelation followed, one that disturbed some Jewish tribes by its implied insult to Jerusalem.  Muhammad changed the direction of prayer to Mecca so that Muslims had their own spiritual centre.  The relationship between Muslims and Jews was now deteriorating, fueled by their inability to accept Muhammad as a prophet of God, and because of commercial rivalry as Muslims began to achieve economic prosperity.  Some pagan tribes also began to resent his leadership.

A Jewish tribe held secret meetings with the Quraysh, with whom they had commercial ties, and Muhammad found out about it.  He exiled them for treason.  Then, in 625, the Quraysh returned to Medina with an army three times larger than Muhammad’s.  The battle ended in a stalemate.  Because it happened on the Sabbath, the Jewish tribes refused to fight, and one commander deserted with 300 soldiers.  One interpretation is that these tribes were trying to help the Quraysh.

They attacked again in 627, with an army of 10,000 against Muhammad’s 3,000, and besieged Medina.  But the defenders had dug a trench across the only feasible point of entry and the Quraysh were unable to get their horses across.  With supplies running low, they asked their allies to attack from inside Medina, but retreated before that could take place.

If the Constitution of Medina was indeed a real document, and if the tribes had signed it, thus becoming part of the ummah, then their actions would have been treason, punishable by death.  Muhammad captured the Jewish tribes and allowed them choose someone to arbitrate their cause.  The verdict was treason – 800 men were killed and their wives and children taken into captivity.  Appalling to modern sensibilities, but probably few were shocked at the time.  It’s what a leader would do, rather than allow them to join his enemies in Mecca.  If anything, it has a resonance with the situation of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, although unlimited detention is now the preferred method.

The event is still extraordinarily powerful as a source of infection for the relationship between Jews and Muslims.  Genocide, or would have Muhammad have done the same thing to a pagan tribe?

Next week, the series will explore Muhammad’s legacy. Warrior or prophet? Or perhaps a problematical mixture of the two.