Islam is again in the news associated with acts of violence and fanaticism. The death of Chris Stephens, American ambassador to Libya, as a result of an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has shaken not only the United States, but also members of the Muslim community worldwide. My friend Abdallah Omeish, a filmmaker who is visiting Libya, posted on Facebook that the ambassador’s death has been met with shock and grief by everyone he knows in the North African country. As a Libyan American, Abdallah was outraged at how a handful of extremists killed a man that was widely respected by the people of Benghazi. And as a devout Muslim, he was sickened by how the murderers cloaked their vile deeds in the name of Islam.
As a fellow Muslim, I share Abdallah’s revulsion. It is regrettably a feeling that never quite goes away, like a wound that keeps being reopened so that it never properly heals. Ever since I was a child growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, the predominant image of Islam I have seen in the media has been that of a religion steeped in violence and misogyny. A religion of hate and self-destruction. It is an image that is utterly alien to the Islam of love and gentleness I have experienced and lived my whole life. Watching the news is like peering into a bizarro world, where another Islam exists that seems to be the polar opposite of the one that flows in my heart and blood.
The catalyst for the current wave of violence by a handful of extremists in Libya and Egypt has been the release of a small independent film entitled “Innocence of Muslims.” I am of the opinion that it is a film of questionable artistic merit, backed by a group of bitter bigots whose only agenda was to incite hatred and violence by smearing the character of Prophet Muhammad. And yet as an artist and filmmaker myself, I absolutely support the right of these people to say what they want to say. In fact, I encourage them to keep making more such works, as they will actually be doing Islam a great service. I say to those who hate my faith: Make as many films and write as many books as you want insulting Islam and Prophet Muhammad. You will only bring more attention to Islam and make it stronger.
Islam is a powerful religion with more than 1.5 billion followers, a faith that continues to grow despite the best efforts of its opponents to crush it (and despite the stupidity of Muslim extremists who dishonor Islam with their brutality). Islam will not be harmed by any film, book or work of art. Indeed, the foolishness of those who seek to denigrate Prophet Muhammad in this fashion is that their work simply inspires more people to learn about the man who founded humanity’s second largest religion. A man whose life was so remarkable that, 1,380 years after his death, it continues to attract enthusiastic converts to his teaching of the oneness of God and the oneness of mankind.
Attacks on the character of Prophet Muhammad are nothing new. The Prophet himself endured insults, persecution and assassination attempts during his lifetime by his opponents. And yet the Prophet showed remarkable restraint against his enemies. At the end of his life, when Islam had grown from a persecuted minority movement to the dominant social and political force in Arabia, the Prophet had the power to avenge himself a thousand times over. But he showed remarkable clemency to his enemies at exactly the moment it matters the most — when he was powerful enough to act with impunity against his opponents, yet offered them forgiveness.
As a Hollywood storyteller, I can say with confidence that the life of Prophet Muhammad is a remarkable tale, more gripping and filled with better surprise twists than “The Lord of the Rings.” I wrote my novel “Mother of the Believers” to tell his story for a new generation and I refer those interested in learning more details of his life to read my book, or biographies by respected authors such as Montgomery Watt, Karen Armstrong and Barnaby Rogers, among others. What I will share here are two stories that reflect how Muslims remember the Prophet, who is referred to in the Quran as “a Mercy to the Worlds.”
The first story is set in the immediate aftermath of the surrender of Mecca to Muslim forces in 630 C.E. The Prophet had been born in Mecca in 570 C.E. and had received his first revelations from the Angel Gabriel at the age of 40, calling the Arabs to reject polytheism and embrace the One God of Abraham. His critique of the profitable religious cult in Mecca won him many followers from the poor and oppressed classes, and especially among women, who saw him as a champion of their rights in a word where pre-Islamic Arabs often buried infant girls alive. But his teachings earned him the enmity of the ruling class of Mecca, who showered insults and abuse on his followers for over a decade. Finally, in 622 C.E., the Prophet escaped an assassination attempt and was forced to flee to the oasis of Medina, where his followers survived years of military attacks from Mecca meant to annihilate their community.
And yet Islam continued to grow and spread, as it offered a better, more egalitarian way of life than the Meccan cult that served only the wealthy. Eight years after the Prophet fled his home, the beleaguered Meccans surrendered the city to the Muslims who were now the most powerful group in Arabia. The Prophet returned home as absolute ruler, with no fear of reprisal from any of his enemies. The Meccans feared that he would take vengeance on them for 20 years of vicious attacks. The Prophet certainly could have taken revenge; in the cruel world of desert warfare recorded in the books of Old Testament, no one would have been surprised if he killed all of his opponents. And yet he did something that left his enemies flabbergasted.
He forgave them.
The Prophet declared a general amnesty and offered the leaders of Mecca who had fought him positions of honor in the new Muslim community. And most remarkable of all was how he treated Hind, the cruel queen of Mecca who had desecrated the corpse of the Prophet’s beloved uncle Hamza (she had cannibalized Hamza’s liver, an act considered barbaric even by her own people). The Prophet forgave Hind and let her go.
A second story takes place around the same time period, after the Prophet’s victorious unification of Arabia. The Prophet had complex relations with the Jewish tribes of Arabia. When he founded the Muslim community in Medina, he had drawn up a treaty with the Jews of the city, which guaranteed their freedom of religion and sought their alliance against the military attacks from Mecca. But as the Prophet’s power had risen in Arabia, some of the Jewish tribes switched allegiance to the Meccan attackers, leading to warfare between Muslims and Jews. But with the defeat of Mecca, the Prophet sought to repair the breach of trust between the two monotheistic religions and worked for reconciliation. The Jewish chieftain of Khaybar invited the Prophet to a feast to cement better ties moving forward. But not everyone was happy with hosting a banquet in the victorious Prophet’s honor, and one woman of Khaybar poisoned the meal. Several of the Prophet’s companions died, but the Prophet spit out the poisoned food before it could take effect. The assassin was captured and the Prophet asked the woman why she had done this deadly act. She shrugged and responded that Muhammad had defeated her tribe and she was simply avenging them.
The Prophet forgave her and let her go.
Modern critics have attacked Prophet Muhammad for many things. They have attacked the Prophet for having multiple wives, one of whom some have claimed was so young as to be a “child bride.” They have also attacked the Prophet for his military actions at the height of Mecca’s efforts to destroy his community. But as renowned Christian scholar Montgomery Watt has pointed out, the issues that modern opponents use to vilify Prophet Muhammad were never raised as moral problems by his enemies in his lifetime. For example, modern critics of Prophet Muhammad have questioned his sexual propriety in vile terms, calling him a pedophile for his marriage to Aisha, the subject of my novel “Mother of the Believers.” One account claimed that Aisha was only 9 years old at the time of her wedding, but other, more probable, accounts suggest she was between 14 and 19 years of age. Whatever Aisha’s age was, the Prophet’s contemporary enemies never once noted his marriage to her in their vitriolic attacks against him. Neither Arab nor Jewish opponents ever found anything improper about his marriage to a teenage girl who had begun her cycles and could bear children. Indeed such marriages were a matter of survival in a desert world with low life expectancy.
Nor did his enemies have issue with the fact that Prophet Muhammad was polygamous, as polygamy was the norm for that society and many others. Even the Prophet’s opponents understood that his marriages were primarily meant to secure tribal alliances and to take care of widows of his followers who had been slain in battle. The Prophet’s household consisted of about a dozen mostly older women and was embarrassingly modest compared to the harems maintained not only by powerful Arab men of the time, but also by biblical kings. David had at least eight wives and 10 concubines (and probably many more), and his son Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Under such conditions, even the Prophet’s enemies considered his sparse “harem” to be rather monkish and not the trappings of licentiousness.
The Prophet’s military activities have also been subjected to visceral critique in modern day — and yet again were not the basis of criticism in his lifetime. Being forced to fight for his community’s very survival in Medina, the Prophet did indeed engage in warfare, but he showed far more restraint toward his enemies than they showed him (as witnessed by Hind’s cannibalization episode). In one incident, used by bigots to prove the Prophet’s supposed barbarity, the Muslims defeated the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza, which had broken its alliance and offered support to their Meccan enemies during a deadly siege that threatened to destroy the entire Islamic community. When the Meccans were finally defeated, the Qurayza were punished for treason according to their own understanding of the Torah. Based on Deuteronomy 20:10-14, the warriors of the tribe were executed, but the women and children spared. While this punishment may seem harsh for some people today, by the moral standards not only of desert Arabia but also of the Bible, such actions were normal in the bitter struggle for survival in a hostile wilderness. Indeed, as Christian scholar Philip Jenkins has written in “Laying Down the Sword,” Prophet Muhammad’s military activities were remarkably restrained compared to the genocidal bloodbaths gleefully endorsed in the Bible, where God’s holy warriors did not spare even women, children or infants.
One can debate forever whether the desperate struggle for survival exonerates these events in the eyes of history. But what cannot be denied is that they happened in a state of extreme danger that the Muslim community was subjected to by its enemies. And the true proof of the moral essence of Islam can be found in this simple fact. When the danger was over, when Prophet Muhammad had won and had absolute power to do with his defeated opponents as he pleased, the Prophet did what no one expected him to do — he forgave his enemies and let them go. The true test of a man’s character is revealed when he has power, and the Prophet’s actions at the height of his power remain a shining example to Muslims and all human beings of taking the higher road when revenge would be easier and perhaps more satisfying.
Fourteen centuries have passed, and the Prophet’s victory continues. Islam has grown from a handful of refugees starving in the wilderness to a faith embraced by billions. The civilization that the Prophet established has transformed the planet and indeed saved it from the Dark Ages that engulfed Europe. Because of Prophet Muhammad’s call for Muslims to “seek knowledge even unto China,” Muslim scientists advanced knowledge of astronomy, medicine and many other fields while Europe was trapped in a culture of superstition and illiteracy. The works of Plato and Aristotle were preserved in Islamic Spain, even as the Church burned their books in Europe as heresy. Countless Jews survived and thrived in Muslim countries even as they were expelled and murdered by Christian pogroms over the centuries. Indeed, as Neil Asher Silberman recounts in his book “Heavenly Powers,” many Jews viewed the initial Muslim conquest of the Middle East as a blessing from God, who had used their Arab cousins to topple the fanatical Byzantine Christians that persecuted Jews and banned them from Jerusalem.
The world is a better place because Prophet Muhammad survived against his opponents and won. And even as the Prophet showed grace and clemency to his enemies, so must his heirs do so today. With the grace of God, Islam is an unstoppable force that will keep growing. That triumph is assured by history, demographics and its inherent attractiveness as a way of life for humanity. No filmmaker, artist, author, musician — or invading army — can destroy Islam. Secure in that knowledge, it is time for Muslims to relax and ignore the daily offenses and insults thrown at them by denizens of the cheap seats. It is time for Muslims to show the powerful confidence that Prophet Muhammad demonstrated when he had won and his enemies trembled at his feet. The power that comes from three simple words.
I forgive you.