De-Radicalising Muhammad

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by Neil Godfrey

Tom Holland

What do the Charlie Hebdo murders and the rise of the Islamic State owe to Islam? It would be comforting to insist, as many have done, that they owe nothing at all; but Holland, in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture, argues that the truth is more complex. The best way to combat jihadism, he proposes, is to recognise the centrality of Muhammad to Islam – and that he comes in many forms. There is the moral leader who swallowed abuse peaceably; and there is the war leader who ordered people who insulted him put to death. How best, then, to de-radicalise the Prophet? Tom Holland is author of In The Shadow of the Sword, Rubicon, Persian Fire, Millenniumand the new translation of The Histories by Herodotus. Chaired by Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times.” — from the Hay Festival program.

Denouncing Islamic State as not representing “true Islam” is a well-intentioned declaration but counterproductive and seriously problematic, according to historian Tom Holland in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture at the May 2015 Hay Festival. The title of his talk is De-Radicalising Muhummad (available online).

What is wrong with these well-meaning efforts to defuse anti-Islamic tensions?

What it does is imply that there is a normative, authentic Islam, one that embodies ideals that are perfectly compatible with liberal, secular Britain, and then there are misinterpretations of it, distortions of it, that are not really Islam at all. . . . .

Playing the same lethal game as Islamic State

By denying the title of Muslims to Islamic State Western governments are actually playing the same lethal game as the Islamic State themselves. Because what the Islamic State do is to condemn other Muslims as either apostates or heretics — the better then to justify their elimination.

I really don’t think it is for Prime Ministers or Home Secretaries to play that game. Because once you take it on yourself to define what is or isn’t authentic Islam then you are buying into the notion that such a thing as authentic Islam actually exists. 

Now if you’re a believer of course that’s fine. You will accept that indeed Islam was given to you by God and therefore it does have some absolute Platonic essence.

But if you’re not a believer then a religion is just like any other manifestation of human culture. It’s something that is porous, variable, forever mutating, and evolving. It’s a dialogue between people in the present and an inheritance of texts and traditions and people can choose what of those texts and traditions they wish to emphasise. 

So it’s not like religion is the equivalent of a radio station set with a dial and you can definitely find it. It’s a whole series of points on a bandwidth. 

That understanding ought to give us hope, however long-term it may have to be. It certainly ought to contribute to a lessening of social prejudice and a promotion of constructive ways of addressing the problem of violent Islamic groups and individuals.

And obviously what a definition of an extremist is, what a radical is, will depend where you stand on that bandwidth. Because it cannot be emphasised enough that jihadists do not think of themselves as extremists. To them, it’s us, the comfortably secular and liberal kind of people . . . who are the extremists. Jihadists see themselves as models of righteous behaviour. They see themselves as doing God’s will as expressed in the pages of his holy book the Koran and the sayings of his prophet Muhammad. And they also see themselves as obedient to something else — to the example of Muhammad. The Koran is absolutely explicit about this. In the Messenger of God it says you have a beautiful example, an example to follow. 

And so it does matter then, to jihadis no less than to the vast majority of Muslims who would never in a million years set about destroying the antiquities of the Near East, or taking sex slaves, or murdering those who mock the Prophet. But sanction for what they do is indeed to be found within the various biographies and traditions that are associated with the Prophet. 

So what does Tom Holland see as the appropriate response?

Why try to de-radicalize jihadis without also trying to de-radicalise the Prophet who as the “beautiful example” set before them by God is bound to serve them as their surest inspiration and role model? To do so is I think essentially to put a sticking plaster over a deeply buried thorn. 

Non-Muslims can also contribute

English: The Islamic Prophet Muhammad, 17th ce...
English: The Islamic Prophet Muhammad, 17th century Ottoman copy of an early 14th century (Ilkhanate period) manuscript of Northwestern Iran(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Holland says that it is only in recent history that an interest in the literal interpretation of the life of Muhammad has surfaced as a major Islamic interest. Muhammad had long been understood predominantly as the spiritual figure, the symbol of God’s will, the intercessor at the last judgement, etc. (I was reminded of the way Christians have generally tended to view Jesus Christ — as the mediator and saviour figure — with little thought given to uncovering what we can about the historical person.)

The change came about as a result of Western influence via imperialist encroachments into the Muslim world. Western scholarship was geared towards getting back to the historical roots and what we could reliably know about a religion’s origins. The earliest sources were deemed to be the most reliable for this purpose.

Westerners who complain that what Islam needs is a Reformation (as Christianity had) overlook the fact that what we are seeing today is a “Reformation” occurring in Islam right now. The Salafist movement is seeking to get back to the roots of Islam. When we roll our eyes at those naive ones who drop all to go off and join Islamic State we are the equivalent of sixteenth century Catholics who looked down their noses at those who left to join Protestantism.

This all sounds very depressing. Holland argues that part of the solution needs to come from Muslims themselves who can return the focus to the spiritual place of Muhammad as the intercessor and symbol of God’s heavenly will. But non-Muslims can also contribute.

Scholars of Islam increasingly are conceding that we know even less about the historical Muhammad than we do about the historical Jesus. What we know about Muhammad largely comes from writings flourishing from about 200 years after his death.

Is Islam a religion of peace or of violence? Of course it’s both. We can find passages in the Koran to argue both ways. What the evidence we have indicates is that the life of Muhammad was created to justify political interests of the day. Islamic warriors emphasised the military facets of Islamic teaching to justify their military programs. We can see that Muhammad’s traits have been created to represent later political interests.

One might even compare the early writings about Jesus. Critical theologians are generally comfortable with the idea that each gospel represents a Jesus who embodied a particular subsequent theological interest of “the church”.

Understanding the original context of the biographical details

Mohammed and his wife Aisha freeing the daughter of a tribal chief. (Wikipedia)
Mohammed and his wife Aisha freeing the daughter of a tribal chief. (Wikipedia)

In other words, the Prophet was not the model from which religious precepts were drawn; rather, it was the reverse: the Prophet was created out of those precepts the most served the interests of the prevailing powers of later generations.

The first accounts of Muhammad taking Aisha as his bride when she was only six years old and then consummating the marriage when she was nine years of age did not faze the earliest narrators or commentators in the least. Why?

Modern Muslims can explain this by arguing that the cultural mores of the time were quite different from those of today; some even argue that in the heat of the Middle Eastern regions back then girls matured earlier than they do today. But that kind of argument opens another can of worms: if one detail of Muhammad’s life is obsolete because of changing cultural values then how many other Islamic precepts must fall by the wayside?

An alternative approach is to understand the real interests of the original “biographers”. They were not interested in constructing a historically fact-filled authentic historical account as modern biographers and historians tend to want to do. They were not fazed by the details of what today has been relegated to the crime of pedaphilia. The reason is that the details of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha had a political message, not a biographical one. Aisha’s father became the first caliph to succeed Muhammad. The point of describing Aisha’s prepubescent union with Muhammad was to emphasise that she could not possibly have been associated with any other man and that her union with Muhammad was unique and pure.

My own thought by way of comparison: critical scholars or liberal Christians don’t believe Mary was really a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. The story of the virgin birth was not meant to inform us about literal historical facts but to indicate the special and unique place of Jesus between God and the rest of humanity.

This is the sort of critical understanding that, if emphasised over the interest in anachronistic literal readings of the ancient texts, can help contribute towards a religious understanding that deplores literalism and values contrary to normative ethics today.

That is my take on what Tom Holland’s message is. I don’t know what else can be done — apart, of course, of “the unthinkable”: advocating for national-political policies that are informed by genuine understanding and humanitarian values.


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16 thoughts on “De-Radicalising Muhammad”

  1. Holland is always amusing in his ignorance…..

    As I understand it—he is saying that “Islam” should not be “defined” by anyone (muslim or non-muslim)—that to say Islam is this and not that is to be the same as ISIS. Therefore the solution to this is to redefine (de-radicalize) the Prophet and make him into a “hero” figure that will serve as an example to the people by becoming some sort of “sacred” intercessor…etc…
    (and I suppose—once he is made “sacred” then the thing to do is to make him into a myth—following much the same pattern as was done to Jesus….) and somehow—this exercise will supposedly get rid of ISIS…?!!!…..

    Ofcourse this whole thing is based on the (incorrect) premise that ISIS members are following a version of the Prophet and Koran. —studies (actual interviews with those directly involved) have already debunked this myth. Nevertheless it seems to be popular among some type of Westerners…

    The Quran has a better, more pragmatic solution…why not just leave this problem (what is or is not Islam) to Muslims to solve?…

    1. No, Hollands reasoning is some kind of valid, there are some similarities of the protestant reformation and the “conservative” islam as seen today: the literalism, the reorientation to “factual” teachings as it is written in the scriptures, and the tendency to cleanup the “true” faith from late additions. Except the similarities end there. Islam is in essence a person cult where the behavior of Muhammad — an empire builder — is to be emulated. Very few Christians really emulate Jesus by fasting in the desert for 40 days, going into a temple and wreak havoc, and then go be executed, the emulation is almost explicitly restricted to a social attitude. But a reform need not necessarily go into the literalizing direction, most specifically not a violent direction of cultic mental isolationism. A reform could instead lead into a civilizing pragmatic direction where the teachings are adapted to what works for the common believer — this was the main line followed by Luther, although few realize it today, although there were other non-pragmatic protestantisms. Radical Islam is everything but pragmatic — it is violent, dogmatic, warlike and cruel and creating enemies everywhere, who in the long run will smite radical islam. If there are less visible pragmatic peaceful reform muslims anywhere today, they will not attract the same media attention as the violent cruel islamists.

    2. Your comment is actually an illustration of the point Tom Holland was making. All Islamic believers have their own view of what Islam “really” is. It’s the same with Christianity, too. Note how many mainstream or liberal Christians will dismiss various cultists as not being “true Christians”. Protestants used to (some still do) accuse the Pope of being the Great Whore and the Catholic Church as the Beast of Revelation. Jews have long had the same tradition: different factions accusing their rivals of not being “true Jews”.

      Holland is embracing the normative sociological view of religion. I discussed this same model in earlier posts with respect to the emergence of Christianity from Judaism. A search for the word Durkheim will retrieve those posts. The same model is used for the diverse claimants of the Islamic faith as for any other faith.

  2. “Islam” is diverse—There is a framework to this diversity.
    However, IMO, intricacies of diverse interpretations are not the main problem of concern—the problem with regards to Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, ISIS and the like—-is that their propaganda is causing harm by enticing youth to war. (and the west is the same—their war propaganda also gets people excited—leading to death and destruction). It is about what is right/good and what is wrong/bad.

    People on all sides are engaging in unethical and immoral behavior today and good people must criticize ALL such actions—whether it is ISIS burning a pilot or the U.S. and Israel using white phosphorous (it burns the skin) on innocent civilians. It does not matter if the justifications for such inhuman actions is National Security, Islam, Judaism, Patriotism, or anything else…..Wrong actions (actions that cause harm) are wrong…..

    (There are some Jews that are claiming that the immoral actions of Israel/IDF go against the principles of Judaism….)

    What is needed today is simply this….
    Quran 3:104
    Yusuf Ali: Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.

    Shakir: And from among you there should be a party who invite to good and enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong, and these it is that shall be successful.

    What is right and good is that humanity not harm and destroy each other and our planet…and those that do so are doing wrong! …One does not necessarily have to bring God/religion into it to understand something so basic…

    If we are to value freedom of thought/conscience, then we also need to take responsibility when this freedom is abused by those who would spread division, hate, war….it does not matter what label they claim for themselves….
    Ideas are always going to be open to abuse—no matter how you tinker with them….the responsible thing to do is to be aware and vigilant to such abuse.

    As for the diversity within Islam among Muslims who cause no harm—what does it matter to anyone else if it is a “person cult” or not? …or how many interpretations there are…etc…? Such controversies (if any) are for Muslims to solve or not solve…?

    …As for scholarly interests…it is true there is much to explore in terms of narratives, contentions, agendas…etc….with 1400 years of history as well as its wide geographical range…intelligent scholars might bring many new insights.

  3. What is “Islam”? It is the religion of those who accept Muhammad as the Prophet of Allah, minimum definition. This generally entails acceptance of the Qur’an and the practice of the traditional 5 pillars. Problem: does the Qur’an enjoin militant (lesser) jihad in defense of the religious community (Ummah) on all believers, or only some, or not at all? Can we refer to the clerics for guidance on interpretation and activity? Now, there are divisions of opinion among practicing Muslims, some sectarian and others personal. But it is fair to say that Muslims can find in their classical sources grounds not only for active dawah outside the House of Submission but also for militant action (excluding the murder of innocent women and children) in ostensible retaliation against kufar incursions.

    The establishment and expansion of the State of Israel, and the support given to it by the US, can be seen as attacks on the Ummah, not only the Arab sections of it. Now we have the wider propaganda-military struggle between “Zionism” and “Islamism”.

    The first practical problem was the creation of a Jewish National Home in the populated Middle East, and the second was the admission of Muslims in vast numbers for settlement within the “western democracies”. Not just one mistake or the other, but both. And the third problem is that it is “politically incorrect” to see this tragic situation in these terms, i.e. one view is “anti-Semitic” and the other is “racist”.

  4. @ David
    Another way to understand the substance of Hollands argument (in terms of history) may be—How do we counter negative propaganda (propaganda = information that is selective and biased to influence an audience and further an agenda—negative propaganda= agendas that promote justification for unethical/immoral actions)
    Should negative propaganda be countered by positive propaganda or unbiased history? (positive propaganda=information that is selective and biased for promoting positive values)

    Propaganda has a tendency to be emotionally appealing—but unchecked can lead to a distorted/delusion perspective. On the other hand, an unbiased history(=impartial information about human actions/human nature to further knowledge) tends to be intellectually appealing—but this also means that it is slower in turning the tide against emotionally appealing propaganda…..

    for example—to counter racism in the U.S. sometimes people will try to claim that the constitution guarantees equality under the law…an unbiased history might show that the concept has never been consistently understood or practiced…..However, when some people are suffering mass incarceration for petty offenses, often solitary confinement that leads to mental illness, police brutality and racist killing ….it is tempting to correct this situation speedily by resorting to positive propaganda…..appealing to the higher ideals of humanity. Should we (morally) resort to this convenient short-term solution?—even if it means a degree of deception (intentional bias) may be involved?

    One perspective of human nature is that we are a work-in-progress and need to constantly strive for improvement…an unbiased (wholistic) view of history may promote such a perspective and therefore be more beneficial to humanity in the long-term….?….but is an intellectual appeal enough to move humanity towards positive transformative behaviors?

    (My definitions above are somewhat arbitrary—I could not find more appropriate words/labels)

    1. Progress in ethics has been gaining accelerating momentum since the Enlightenment. What is significant is not so much that some people, say, point to passages in the Constitution to bolster their argument, but that they begin with a moral impulse and look for any leverage (e.g. the Constitution) as a tactic to help further their cause and bring pressure to bear on others.

      There’s no deception involved so much as there are a series of decisions to find whatever tools are at hand to advance legal progress to pressure society into the more humane moral ethic.

      It has been this way with respect to religious toleration, attitudes towards violence, women, children, handicapped, gays, animals, the environment.

      1. Would you not agree that the “ethics” attributed – rightly or wrongly – to Jesus have had something to do with “attitudes towards violence, women, children, handicapped” at least?

        Some developments of this “morality” are questionable. It seems reasonable to think of other people as well as oneself, and in some cases even to put them before oneself, but not to put others instead of oneself.

        Also, the “ethics” found in various NT texts themselves have inconsistencies, and limitations of cultural and religious contexts which compromise their social application today.

        1. No. Some of the worst violence imaginable has been part and parcel of Christian cultures. Those responsible naturally believed they were doing it all in accordance with Christian understanding. Animals had no souls so could not really feel pain; children needed the devil beaten out of them; torture was necessary for the higher good of salvation of the soul and as a warning to save other Christians.

          Christian values have adapted to the changes that began with the Enlightenment. Or slightly before — with the exhaustion from religious violence at the end of the Thirty Years War. Yes, some good Christians led anti-slavery campaigns, but the whole notion that slavery was an evil was a product of Enlightenment values.

          Today liberal Christianity is keeping pace with the changing values of the wider society re gays, women, child abuse, etc.

          1. I disagree only over a certain lack of balance. You see Crusades and Inquisitions, but I see also Hospitals, Charities and Sanctuaries. Pope Innocent III v St Peter Claver. Something, if too little, can also be said for the argument by the just recently deceased Owen Chadwick that the “Christian conscience” itself helped to “secularize” Europe. There was a challenge to humanist values. as Nietzsche observed, after the disappearance of an historical “gentle Jesus” and a supernatural authorization for the “golden Rule”.

            While there is not much point, here and now, in comparative “atrocitology” (Matthew White), massive torture and slaughter have not been uniquely excessive in all “Christian cultures”. How about the “worst imaginable” in the Mongol conquests? Under-publicized runners-up: the Muslim invasion of India (Will Durant), the “Red Holocaust” (Steven Rosefielde), Japanese war crimes (Rudolf Rummel) – statistics always subject to revision, of course.

            1. I’m not discussing the pros and cons of Christianity but the simple fact that Christian ethics — what biblical and ethical texts Christians choose to emphasise and the way they contextualize them — throughout history have always changed in accordance with the wider social movements and ethical standards. Christianity has accommodated itself to war, torture, cruelty to women and children and criminals, slavery, just as it has also accommodated itself to their opposites. They have followed the tides. That’s how they have survived in all eras.

              Imagine where the Church would be today if they had not followed the scientific revolutions, however belatedly. It’s following would be reduced to those few still believed the sun moved around the earth. It’s not for nothing that many Christians strongly insist that evolution and the Bible are compatible.

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