Hat tip Campus Watch and Middle East Forum
University of Michigan professor Juan Cole always goes to incredible lengths to defend everything that is Islamic. Now he has come out with a new book on the Prophet Mohammad entitled, Mohammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. If you had any doubts this would be a hagiographic endeavor, Cole's interview with Joseph Richard Preville erases all doubt.
How one can described Mohammad as a "prophet of peace" when he led armies to fight non-Muslims, took women and children as slaves and ordered the murders of his opponents and the beheadings of captives is beyond me. It is true that when Mohammad began his teaching in Mecca, he was peaceful. After he was driven out of Mecca, he and his followers went to present-day Medina, where he consolidated his power and evolved into a warlord. Here are some statements by Cole that strain credulity.
JRP: You write that "Islam is, no less than Christianity, a Western religion that initially grew up in the Roman Empire" and that "Muhammad saw himself as an ally of the West." How does your theory challenge or support other major scholarly interpretations of early Islam?
JC: The Arab Muslim sources emphasize the origins of Islam in Arabia and downplay how integrated the Arabs of late antiquity were into the Eastern Roman Empire, but Roman sources, inscriptions, and Qur'an passages give strong evidence for the Arabs as Roman citizens or allies. As for Muhammad being allied with Constantinople, there is some evidence for it in early Arabic sources and the eminent Princeton classicist G. W. Bowersock has hinted at it in his recent work, but I have taken the bull by the horns and said it explicitly.
It is true that all three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam were born in the Middle East. While the first two successfully spread to the West (the US is a democratic nation founded on Judaic-Christian principles), Islam's spread to the West, largely through recent immigration has hardly been successful. Assimilation has been slight and the clashes are too many to mention especially in Europe today. The fact is that Islam is antithetical to Western ideals of equality and freedom.
JRP: Many biographies portray Muhammad as illiterate and provincial. Would you agree?
JC: The Muslim tradition calls Muhammad "illiterate," I think in part to protect him from charges by polemicists that he learned things by reading the Bible or other works. But the tradition also says he was a successful long-distance merchant who regularly traded up to Damascus and Gaza in the Eastern Roman Empire. Long distance merchants are always literate, and I think Muhammad could read and write Arabic, Aramaic and possibly Greek. The Qur'an shows knowledge of the Bible, of Jewish tradition, and of classical Greek thought. It isn't provincial.
An interesting observation and opinion on the part of Cole since he strays from Islamic teaching that Mohammad was illiterate. Also interesting is the reason Cole thinks Muslims say that Mohammad was illiterate. Critics of Islam do not believe that Mohammad truly received the word of God from the archangel Gabriel (He may have imagined he did), therefore the idea that he read the Bible and initially borrowed from it is open to question.
RP: What was Muhammad's role in the creation of the Constitution of Madinah? How revolutionary was this document for its time?
JC: The Constitution of Madinah was a treaty among groups in Madinah, to which the Meccan pagans expelled Muhammad in 622. Madinah had Muslims, Jews and pagans and possibly some Christians. The treaty pledged all these groups to defend the city militarily if it was attacked. It says that the Muslims have their religion and the Jews have theirs, so it recognizes freedom of conscience and is a political alliance. In the Roman Empire at that time, Jews were placed under disabilities and would not have been treated as equals this way.
And when the Jews supposedly broke the constitution, they were executed, and ever since Jews are hated within Islam. The Koran is replete with hateful verses against Jews (and Christians). Over the centuries Jewish minorities have had to live in a condition of dhimmitude, second class citizenship enshrined in the laws. It is true that in some places, Christians treated Jews as bad or worse as did Muslims, but Cole's answer leaves out tons of facts.
JRP: How did medieval Muslim clerics slight or minimize the Qur'an's peace verses by a theory of abrogation?
JC: Peace-making and turning the other cheek are very important themes in the Qur'an. It allows going to war to defend yourself and innocents, but forbids aggressive, expansionist warfare. The text was very inconvenient for later aggressive Muslim empires. So ideologues developed a theory of "abrogation" where later verses invalidated earlier ones. They interpreted late verses on warfare as permitting aggression (they don't), and then alleged that all the peace verses were thus abrogated. It was an intellectual and spiritual travesty. Some Muslim thinkers, though, said only 5 verses were abrogated (not the peace verses), and rejected the procedure.
For Cole to claim that peace making and turning the other cheek are important themes in the Koran is a hoot. Reading the Koran especially putting the suras (chapters) in chronological order contradicts Cole on its very face. The early Mecca suras do tend to be benign and peaceful, but the Medina suras are clearly not. Put in order of time, it all makes sense. Mohammad evolved from a simple preacher in Mecca to a warlord in Medina. As for the principle of abrogation (which Western-based "moderate" imams are loathe to discuss), it makes perfect sense given the transformation of Mohammad and the obvious contradictory verses in the Koran. Keep in mind that it is the Islamic scholars themselves (not Cole) who are the authorities in Islam since Islam has no Vatican and has no popes.
JRP: You have placed strong emphasis on Muhammad as a "Prophet of Peace." How do you think your book will encourage and strengthen Islamic peace studies?
JC: The peace verses of the Qur'an have been there all along, and have been central, but scholarship has not focused on them. I'd like to see the kind of intersection of Peace Studies with Islam that exists with regard to Christianity. Christians have fought a lot of wars and even been involved in genocide, but we all also know about the Quakers and Mennonites. Only a few authors have written on the history of peace movements in Islam, which include the Murid Sufis of Senegal and the Gandhist Muslims in twentieth-century India.
Yes, the peace verses in the Koran have been there all along, but they are not central because they have been abrogated. Sura 9, the last major sura recorded is arguably the most violent and intolerable. It virtually abrogates every peaceful verse recorded earlier in time. As for Sufists and groups like the Ahmadiya Muslims, it is true they have a good track record of not being involved in the terror and intolerance we see in Islam today, but they are not regarded as Muslims by mainstream Islam. In fact, those that live in Muslim countries are persecuted. As for the wars and genocide of Christians, aside from the Crusades (in which both sides were culpable and Christians killed many Jews in the process), how many wars were fought for purely religious reasons? Genocide? I would argue that Hitler and the Nazis had no religious motivations for the Holocaust. They did not object to the theology of the Jews; they considered Jews as a race to be exterminated. And Hitler, despite his Catholic birth, was no Christian. He derided religion in general. If you want to talk about genocide in the modern sense, look no farther than today's Middle East.
If Cole wants to argue that most Muslims are leading peaceful lives and we should not blame them all for the atrocities being carried out today, that is fine. Cole, however, engages in falsehoods that are so easy to disprove just by scratching beneath the surface. If this is the type of scholarship to be found at the University of Michigan, they might as well stick to football.