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Question: If Muhammad was such a holy man, why was it necessary for him to lead such a violent life?

Hundreds of millions of people all over the world believe in Islam. They come from extremely diverse backgrounds and represent virtually all the known races of humanity. Further, a great number of people, both men and women, convert to Islam regularly. That thousands and thousands of people embrace Islam each year from all around the world should be seen as a testament to the peace, serenity, simplicity and beauty of the precepts and ideals of our Prophet Muhammad’s message. If the Prophet, peace be upon him, preached violence, and led a violent life, it does not stand to reason that so many people would continuously flock to Islam on their own free will.

The Qur’an, the most fundamental scripture of Islam, teaches sanctity of life, not violence. It enjoins peace, justice and compassion as basic tenets for all of humankind, and condemns violence and aggression in all forms. “God enjoins justice and compassion and giving freely to the next of kin, and forbids lewdness, wickedness and oppression. He admonishes you so that you may take heed.” (Qur’an: 16: 90).

In a society where human dignity was measured by race, ethnicity, color, status and wealth, the Qur’an stressed the sacred bond of humanity binding all people: “O mankind, We have created you from a single pair of a male and female, and rendered you nations and tribes so that you might know one another. The most honorable of you in the sight of God is the one who is most conscious of Him. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (Qur’an: 49: 13).

Even the concept of holy war is an anathema in Islam. For, in Islam, war can only be characterized as either just or unjust, not holy. The Qur’an permits only a just war: a war waged to remove tyranny and oppression, or in self-defense. The Qur’an is categorical in denouncing all wars of aggression.

“AND FIGHT in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for, verily, God does not love aggressors. (Qur’an: 2: 190)

“PERMISSION [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged – and, verily, God has indeed the power to succour them.” (Qur’an: 22: 39)

Allah also forbids Muslims from attacking anyone who allows others to live in peace:
“Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them.” (Qur’an:4: 90)

“Hence, if they do not let you be, and do not offer you peace, and do not stay their hands, seize them and slay them whenever you come upon them: for it is against these that We have clearly empowered you [to make war].” (Qur’an: 4: 91)

Muhammad, thus, took up arms only in self-defense.

He was born into a tribal society where the only bond recognized was that of the tribe. When he preached about the Unity of God, and universal brotherhood between all of humankind, the powerful of his society violently opposed him. They subjected him and his followers to relentless persecution, even to the extent of lynching some of them. They were forced to immigrate to Abyssinia and then to Madinah. Even in Madinah, he was not left alone to practice his religion. The tribes from his society rallied forces to eliminate him and his followers. Numerous direct attempts were made to assassinate him.

It was in this context that the Prophet, peace be upon him, was called to take up arms to defend himself and his followers. While doing so, he never compromised the sacred principle of sanctity of life as he and his followers were ordered to govern themselves by the firm ethics of just war and clearly defined rules of engagement.

In a milieu where the killing of a single camel unleashed numerous wars costing thousands of lives, Muhammad waged wars that can be described as minor skirmishes as their casualties were kept to a minimum on both sides. This is because nothing was more abhorrent to Muhammad than killing an innocent soul.

In order to better appreciate the ethics of Muhammad’s wars, we may do well to compare him with the war heroes of the Old Testament. What we read there is total wars often involving putting to the sword the entire populations. To cite a few instances:

“In the cities of these nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you as a patrimony, you shall not leave any creature alive. You shall annihilate them--Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites--as the Lord your God commanded you…..” (Deuteronomy 20: 16).

“Go now and fall upon the Amalekites and destroy them, and put their property under ban. Spare no one; put them all to death, men and women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses.” (1 Samuel 15: 2: 3).

After the conquest of Jericho: “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it-men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys (Jos.6:21)

Contrary to the above, Muhammad never allowed the killing of anyone except the combatants; he clearly issued directives against killing non-combatants, women, children, and even those who were engaged in worship of any kind; he forbade the slaughtering of animals except for food. Unlike the order to kill everything that breathed, he taught his warriors not to harm innocent living creatures. He taught his followers how to observe the sanctity of all life while engaged in a just war by narrating the story of an ancient Prophet: “An ant stung one of the Prophets of old and in a fit of anger he ordered an entire anthill to be burned down; God then Allah revealed to him, “Just because a single ant stung you, how dare you burn down an entire community which glorifies God!” (Reported by Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud and others).

We also have traditions wherein Muhammad, peace be upon him, forbids his warriors from separating mother birds from their babies.

Those who consider the holiness of the Old Testaments figures in spite of their ‘total war policies’ and killing entire populations and every breathing life, and yet fail to recognize the prophetic witness of Muhammad are clearly driven by bias and prejudice rather than objectivity or truth. They may do well to compare Muhammad’s general amnesty to the Makkans who had persecuted him and his followers, and waged wars against him for more than a decade with that of Joshua’s act of putting to the sword the inhabitants of the entire city he conquered. Compare also Muhammad’s interdict against mutilation of enemy soldiers in combat with Old Testament narrative of King David’s feat of producing two hundred foreskins of Philistines as a trophy to get the hand of King Saul’s daughter in marriage.

In quoting these stories of the Old Testament, I must however rush to point out, that I am -God forbid-- in no way implying that we are allowed to make a value judgment about the actions of those great heroes or prophetic figures of the past; it would be unfair on our part to judge them by our own standards and laws that have evolved over the centuries. Theirs are to be strictly studied in their own specific milieu and context and must never be extended to that of ours. As the Qur’an says, “Those are a people who have passed away; theirs was what they did, and yours is what you do. You will not be questioned about their actions.” [Qur’an: 2:134] Historical actions and events must be judged and analyzed contextually and this goes for all religions.

Now coming back to the issue of Muhammad’s wars, I must further add: It is hypocritical to consider Muhammad as a man of war when we know that countless millions have perished over the last few centuries (most of which had nothing to do with Muhammad or any other religion). Indeed millions have perished in our enlightened century in the course of the two world wars and other nationalistic struggles. These include countless men, women, children and other creatures who have been killed or maimed or continue to be killed or maimed as a result of the use of depleted uranium, napalm, mines and nuclear fallout. Indeed many a millions have perished in the name of Godless communism, and in the pursuit of nationalism, secularism, a country’s national interest, and even the pursuit of natural resources. All people of conscience may do well to heed the Prophetic witness of Muhammad, when he said, “If even a little sparrow has been killed unjustly, it will appear before the Lord of the worlds crying for justice!” (Reported by Nasa’i, Darami, and Ahmad).

Lord alone knows how much accounting the ‘civilized nations’ of the world will have to render for their killing of every breathing creature in the lands invaded in the name of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘pre-emption’, ‘humanitarian intervention’, and even ‘progress’. Perhaps the best way to conclude this answer would be by quoting the prophetic words of Jesus, peace be upon him: "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Luke 6:41-42)

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