No God But God
The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam
Reza Aslan

Checks and Balances

The strictures of Bedouin life naturally prevented the social and economic hierarchies that were so prevelant in sedentary societies like Mecca. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the responsibility for maintaining the tribal ethic (essentially, an equal-sharing rule) fell upon the Shaykh of the tribe. Because the Arabs were wary of concentrating all the functions of leadership in a single individual, the Shaykh had little real executive authority. Every important decision was made through collective consultation with other individuals in the tribe who had equally important roles: the Qa'ad, who acted as war leader; the Hahin, or cultic official; and the Hakam, who settled disputes.

In terms of economics, nomadic tribes could certainly be distinguished from sedentary tribes by the simple fact that moving around a lot prevented any significant accumulation of capital. However, I am struck by how power was evidently shared among several individuals, apparently owing to the distrust accorded to concentrations of power. Similar considerations were evident in the Roman republic. Indeed, the power structure of Arab tribes appears similar in some ways to modern day societies. That is, the Shaykh is the president; the Qa'ad is the war secretary; the Hahin is the pope; and the Hakam is the judiciary.

Law of Retribution

In a society with no concept of an absolute morality-a Ten Commandments, if you will-the Shaykh had only one legal recourse for maintaining order in his tribe: the Law of Retribution (lex talionis). Yet far from being a barbaric legal system, the Law of Retribution was actually meant to limit barbarism.

Sure. Good for him for recognizing this. A game theorist might think of the Law of Retribution as a tit-for-tat strategy (a type of history-dependent strategy employed in a repeated game of social interaction). We know from game theory that tit-for-tat can implement "cooperative" outcomes even when agents are inherently non-cooperative (good behavior is enforced by the prospect of retaliation). On the other hand, there may be circumstances where tit-for-tat does not work so well. Imagine, for example, that someone makes a "mistake" and accidentally kills someone. Imagine further that there is some question as to whether this was an honest mistake or not. Suppose that it was and that it is perceived by the offended family as being intentional. Then tit-for-tat calls for retaliation. The family punished in this manner views the retribution as unjust; and so, retaliates in turn. You get the picture: we have a Hatfield and McCoy feud. Sounds a lot like the Middle East today, in fact.

The Root of Islam: Economics, not Religion.

The Arabs were predominantly a nomadic people. It was a difficult existence and survival of the tribe required some degree of cohesion. Weaker members were supported by the tribe; not as an act of altruism, but because survival of the tribe depended on the strength of its weakest members. In sedentary societies like Mecca, this tribal ethic served no purpose. The drive for commercial success created great wealth among some, and great poverty among others (widows and orphans were particularly hard hit). Evidently, it was not uncommon for people in dire straights to take out high-interest loans, default on them, and then be made slaves by their creditors. It is worthwhile to note that Muhammad was an orphan. Mohammad's rise to prominence was attributable to his social (rather than religious) criticisms.

[Muhammad's initial] message dealt almost exclusively with the demise of the tribal ethic in Mecca. In the strongest terms, Muhammad decried the mistreatment and exploitation of the weak and unprotected. He called for an end to false contracts and the practice of usuary that had made slaves of the poor. He spoke of the rights of the underprivileged and the oppressed, and made the astonishing claim that it was the duty of the rich and powerful to take care of them. This was not friendly advice; it was a warning. God had seen the greed and wickedness of the Quraysh, and would tolerate it no longer. This was a radical message, one that had never been heard before in Mecca. Muhammad was not yet establishing a new religion; he was calling for sweeping social reform. He was not yet preaching monotheism (which was prevalent in any case); he was demanding economic justice.

The Quraysh were the dominant tribe in Mecca. Their power derived from the fact that they were the "Keeper of the Keys" to the Ka'ba (a collection of religious idols appropriated from neighboring tribes). As such, Mecca became a center for pilgrims (the city was otherwise far away from any major trading route). The Quraysh collected tolls from the pilgrims and maintained a monopoly over the buying and selling of goods and services to the pilgrims.

Mohammad was eventually driven from Mecca to Yathrib (later, Medina) by the Quraysh. Somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least) was the fact that he was not driven out for his advocacy of the social reforms mentioned above. Many people and groups (for example, the monotheistic Hanifs) had previously criticized their fellow Meccans for the polytheism and greed, without any retribution from the Quraysh. But Muhammad was different.

In 613, three years after the Revelation had begun, Muhammad's message underwent a dramatic transformation, one that is best summed up in the twofold profession of faith: There is no god but God; and Muhammad is God's messenger.

The Quraysh were not so much enraged by the former statement (they had heard it before); but the latter statement evidently went too far.

What made Muhammad unique was his claim to be "the Messenger of God." He even went so far as to identify himself repeatedly with the Jewish and Christian prophets and messengers that came before him, particularly with Abraham, whom all Meccans-pagans or otherwise-regarded as a divinely inspired prophet. By proclaiming himself in this manner, Muhammad was blatantly transgressing the traditional Arab process through which power was granted.

But evidently, the former statement-that there is no god but God-also threatened the Quraysh. It is interesting to ask why. After all, the Hanif were also monotheistic and tolerated by the Quraysh. But the Hanif maintained a deep veneration for the Ka'ba and those in the community who acted as Keeper of the Keys.

But as a businessman and a merchant himself, Muhammad understood what the Hanifs could not: the only way to bring about radical social and economic reform in Mecca was to overturn the religio-economic system on which the city was built; and the only way to do that was to attack the very source of the Quraysh's wealth and prestige-the Ka'ba. "There is no god, but God" was, for Muhammad, far more than a profession of faith. This statement was a concious and deliberate attack on both the Ka'ba and the sacred right of the Quraysh to manage it. With this simple profession of faith, Muhammad was declaring to Mecca that God required no intermediaries.

In short, Muhammad was threatening the Quarayh's monopoly power. It is for this reason that he was eventually driven from Mecca.

Let me summarize. Muhammad was not motivated by any zeal for religious reform. If this was the only thing he was after, he could have remained unmolested in Mecca, preaching whatever brand of monotheism he wished (as many others did). Muhammad was motivated primarily by a zeal for economic reform. He was considered dangerous because he knew the means by which to bring about economic reform; i.e., destroy the Quarysh monopoly on trade-a monopoly whose existence was based on the Quarysh's self-appointed role as "monopoly intermediaries of religious worship" in the region. He was telling people that they could bypass this needless intermediary. Religion entered only indirectly toward this goal in that Muhammad's monotheist view offered the people the means by which to bypass the monopoly intermediary.

One might add that along this dimension, Muhammad differed markedly from another great Jewish prophet; namely, Jesus. According to Baigent's The Jesus Papers (kind of a dumb book, but full of interesting tidbits), Jesus was considered a potential leader by Jewish zealots interested in overthrowing the Roman occupation. At a critical point in his ministry, Jesus was tested with the question of whether the Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. The zealots were greatly disappointed when Jesus proclaimed " Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s." In other words, Jesus was not advocating any worldly (politico-economic) reform (nevertheless, he was evidently considered a threat by someone--but this is another story).

Yathrib (Medina: The City of the Prophet)

Yathrib in the seventh century was a thriving agricultural oasis thick with palm orchards and vast arable fields, most of which were dominated by some twenty Jewish clans of varying sizes. Unlike the Jews who had settled throughout most of the Hijaz (western Arabia), who were mostly immigrants from Palestine, Yathrib's Jews were primarily Arabs who had converted to Judaism. Apart from their religious designation as Jews, little differentiated them from their pagan neighbors.

As the earliest settlers of the region, the Jews occupied Yathrib's most fertile agricultural lands, called "the Heights." By the time a number of Bedouin tribes gave up their nomadic existence and also settled in Yathrib, all the most fertile lands had already been claimed. What remained were the barely cultivable lots situated in a region called "the Bottom." For the most part, the two groups lived in relative peace through strategic tribal affiliations and economic alliances. The Jews regularly employed the Arabs to transport their dates to nearby markets (especially Mecca), while the Arabs maintained a high esteem for the learning, craftsmanship, and heritage of their Jewish neighbors.

The real conflict in the oasis was not between Jews and Arabs, but among the Arabs themselves (and more specifically, between Yathrib's two largest Arab tribes: the Aws and the Khazraj). While the origins of this conflict have been lost to history, what seems clear is that the Law of Retribution, the purpose of which was to deter precisely this kind of ongoing tribal conflict, had failed to solve the long-standing quarrel
(see my comment above regarding the Hatfield and McCoys). By the time Muhammad arrived in Yathrib, what had probably begun as a disagreement over limited resources had escalated into a bloody feud which had spilled over even to the Jewish clans. In short, this conflict was splitting the oasis in two.

What the Aws and Khazraj desperately needed was a Hakam (judge). Not just any Hakam, but an authoritative, trustworthy, and neutral party who was totally unconnected with anyone in Yathrib, some who had the power--bet yet, the divine authority--to arbitrate between the two tribes. How fortunate then, that the perfect man for the job was himself in desperate need of a place to live.

How fortunate indeed.

Muhammad eventually arose to become the most powerul citizen in Yathrib. How was he able to execute this remarkable rise to power? A reasonable guess is that he must have succesfully resolved the conflict in Yathrib; and that by doing so, added to his reputation as a divinely-inspired leader. His growing reputation must have led to a growing number of converts to his cause. Eventually, he had the majority on his side.

The Constitution of Medina

That Muhammad came to Yathrib as little more than the Hakam in the quarrel between the Aws and Khazraj is certain. And yet, the traditions seem to present Muhammad arriving in the oasis as the mighty prophet of a new and firmly established religion, and as the unchallenged leader of Yathrib. This view is partly the result of a famous document called the Constitution of Medina, which Muhammad may have drafted some time after settling in the oasis. This document--often celebrated as the world's first written constitution--was a series of formal agreements of nonaggression among Muhammad, the Emigrants (his small band of followers from Mecca), the Ansar (those in Yathrib that facilitated Muhammad's arrival), and the rest of Yathrib's tribes, both Jewish and pagan.

The Constitution is controversial, however, because it seems to assign to Muhammad unparalleled religious and political authority over the entire population of the oasis, including the Jews. It indicates that Muhammad had sole authority to arbitrate all disputes in Yathrib, not just between the Aws and Khazraj. It declares him to be Yathrib's sole war leader (Qa'id) and unequivocally recognizes him as the Messenger of God. And while it implies that Muhammad's primary role was as Shaykh (leader) of his clan of Emigrants, it also clearly endows him with a privileged position over all other tribal and clan Shaykhs in Yathrib.

No one knows when the Constitution of Medina was written. But it is unlikely to have been written in 622, the year Muhammad entered the oasis. Muhammad was in a relatively weak position when he arrived in Yathrib. He was, after all, forced to flee Mecca and hunted throughout western Arabia like a criminal. For his first few years in Yathrib, not many people would have known who he was, let alone submit to his authority. The Constitution may, however, have reproduced some of Muhammad's arbitration between the Aws and Khazraj. But only after the battle of Badr (624) could Muhammad have dreamed of the powers attributed to him in the Constitution of Medina; indeed, only after Badr could Yathrib even be thought of as Medina.

In short, the traditional view of Muhammad's arrival to Yathrib/Medina is likely wrong. He did not arrive as an all-powerful savior. He arrived in fortuitous circumstances; and like any skilled politician, exploited the opportunity made available to him through hard work and ingenuity. He rose to great power quickly, but not immediately.

Muhammad the Innovator

So Muhammad likely settled the dispute between the Aws and Khazraj to everyone's mutual satisfaction. His small band of Emigrants were then accorded a place in Yathrib's society. His band of followers began to grow over time; in the Quran, they are referred to as the Ummah (the term Muslim did not emerge until many years later). To the other bands in Yathrib, he was likely viewed as little more than a Hakam or Shaykh. But at least, he was now in a position to experiment.

What made the Ummah a unique experiment in social organization was that in Yathrib, far away from the social and religious hegemony of the Quraysh, Muhammad finally had the opportunity to implement the reforms he had been preaching to no avail in Mecca. By enacting a series of radical religious, social, and economic reforms, he was able to establish a new kind of society, the likes of which had never before been seen in Arabia.

In broad terms, his reforms might be usefully classified in two ways. First, he attempted to bring the traditional tribal ethic (sharing) to a sedentary society. Second, he implemented a number of reforms within the traditional tribal ethic itself.

For instance, whereas power in the tribe was allocated to a number of figures, none of whom had any real executive authority, Muhammad instead united all the pre-Islamic positions of authority (Shaykh, Hakam, Qa'id, and Kanin) unto himself.

Perhaps this was not an innovation per se; making oneself a dictator is a time-honored tradition. But one might argue that what made him unique in this regard is that his espousal of the traditonal tribal ethic of sharing and helping the poor made him sort of a "benevolent" dictator.

Also, while the only way to become a member of a tribe was to be born into it, anyone could join Muhammad's community simply by declaring "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God's messenger." Because neither ethnicity nor culture nor race nor kinship had any significance to Muhammad, the Ummah, unlike a traditional tribe, had an almost unlimited capacity for growth through conversion.

This was a masterstroke. But again, it is not entirely unique in history. For example, the Romans commonly offered citizenship to the people they conquered. And in the 12th century, Genghis Khan used a similar technique that allowed his small band of Mongols to absorb and rule a vast empire. The U.S. melting pot may be considered a variant of this basic idea too.

Muhammad also instituted an important innovation in the Law of Retribution.

As was the case with all tribal Shaykhs, Muhammad's primary function as head of the Ummah was to ensure the protection of every member in his community. This he did through the chief means at his disposal: the Law of Retribution. But while retribution was maintained as a legitimate response to injury, Muhammad urged believers toward forgiveness: "The retribution for an injury is an equal injury," the Quran states, "but those that forgive the injury and make reconcilation will be rewarded by God." This was a stark departure from tribal tradition and a clear indication that Muhammad was already beginning to lay the foundations of a society built on moral rather than utilitarian principles.

This modification in the Law of Retribution was also a masterstroke; although it is not entirely original with Muhammad (he most likely took the example from Jesus's advice to "turn the other cheek" and to "love and forgive"). And one might take issue with the author's interpretation that this modification was made on moral rather than utilitarian grounds (to an economist, the distinction is not so clear). This was clearly an innovation that was designed to mitigate socially undesirable blood feuds (the Hatfield and McCoy situation). I mentioned before that the Law of Retribution is a tit-for-tat strategy that can have some desirable outcomes (assuming that everyone starts out playing nice and that there are no "mistakes"). There are circumstances where it may break down, however. Experimental evidence suggests that when tit-for-tat is modified to embed some element of forgiveness, better outcomes are possible (see The Evolution of Cooperation, Axelrod, 1984).

Muhammad instituted several other egalitarian reforms. As for the Law of Retribution, he equalized the blood worth of every member of his community (previously, a Shaykh's eye would have been worth much more than an orphan's eye). He categorically outlawed usuary, the abuse of which was one of his chief complaints against the Meccan religio-economic system. He opened local markets and charged no tax on transactions. Instead, he instituted a mandatory tithe (zakat), the proceeds of which were redistributed to the poor. He greatly expanded the rights of women (especially in terms of inheritance laws). He limited how many wives a man could marry and granted women the right to divorce their husbands. None of these reforms were implemented without resistance.

Interesting aside. Muhammad was an orphan who was rescued by a well-to-do uncle. He became a successful and trustworthy merchant. After a successful trading mission on behalf of an older and wealthy woman, the latter proposed to him, and he accepted. This was, by all accounts a happy and monogamous marriage (unusual for this time). That is, he was by nature in favor of monogamous relationships; and his respect for women was no doubt shaped by his first wife. Both wife and uncle (his protectors in Mecca) died; which was one reason why he fled Mecca. Despite his natural inclination toward monogamy, he did, in the course of his political career, take on many wives (including a Jew and a Christian). It is reasonable to suppose, however, that this was a political necessity; marriage being the primary means by which alliances were formed at the time.

Summary: After arriving in Yathrib, Muhammad quickly became very powerful. He did this by consolidating all power within his small group of followers. His egalitarian message appealed to the masses. His willingness to absorb these masses into his clan led to a rapidly expanding power base. His ingenuity in instituting reforms allowed him to govern his growing mass of followers effectively. His concern for the poor, his generosity, his magnamity, all contributed to his legitimacy as a leader. His followers became known as Muslims (those who submit to God).

The era immediately following Muhammad's death was, as will become evident, a tumultuous time for the Muslim community. The Ummah was growing and expanding in wealth and power at an astounding rate. A mere fifty years after his death, the tiny community that Muhammad had founded in Yathrib burst out of the Arabian Pennisula and swallowed whole the massive Sasanian Empire in Iran. Fifty years after that, it had secured most of nortwest India, absorbed all of North Africa, and reduced the Christian Byzantine Empire to little more than a deteriorating regional power. Fifty years after that, Islam had pushed its way deep into Europe through Spain and southern France.

How and why did this happen?

Inklings of Imperial Ambition?


While the Quarysh in Mecca were aware of Muhammad's success in Yathrib (through a vast network of spies), they did not really care. As long as Muhammad's success remained confined to Yathrib, Mecca was content to forget about Muhammad. Muhammad, however, was not willing to forget about Mecca.

Perhaps the greatest transformation that occurred in Yathrib was not in the traditional tribal system but in the Prophet himself. As the Revelation evolved from general statements about goodness and power of God to specific legal and civil rules for constructing and maintaining a righteous and egalitarian society, so too did Muhammad's prophetic conciousness evolve. No longer was his message to be addressed solely to "the mother of cities [Mecca] and those who dwell around it." The dramatic success of the Ummah in Yathrib had convinced Muhammad that God was calling him to be more than just a warner to his "tribe and close kin." He now understood his role as being "a mercy to all creatures of the world" and the Messenger "to all humanity."

In other words, success got to his head (a very natural human weakness). He interpreted his success as a signal of God's blessing to spread the message beyond Yathrib's borders. I am not sure how he interpreted the success of past rulers, kings, and emperors who made no appeal to Allah, except to say (conveniently), that "God works in mysterious ways."

Of course, no matter how popular or successful or large his community became, it could never hope to expand beyond the borders of Yathrib if the religious, economic, and social center of the Hajiz (western Arabia) continued to oppose it. Eventually, Muhammad would have to confront and, if possible, convert the Quraysh to his side. But first, he had to get their attention.

He did this by declaring Yathrib a sanctuary city; in doing so, he directly challenged Mecca's religious and economic hegemony over the Penninsula. In addition, he sent his followers out in the desert to raid the caravans moving in and out of Mecca (caravan raiding being a time-honored Arab tradition). In 624, Muhammad set out with some followers (perhaps a few hundred men) to raid a large caravan and was confronted by a modest force (perhaps one thousand men) of Quraysh near the city of Badr. The resulting battle (or skirmish, as some have called it) turned out to be a great victory for the hesitant Muhammad, greatly increasing his stature in the Hajiz. After a humbling defeat at Uhad, there followed two years of skirmishes between Mecca and Medina. These were bloody times rife with secret negotiations, clandestine assasinations, and horrific acts of violence on both sides. The Meccans finally laid a failed seige against Medina (the Battle of the Trench). Muhammad then made a pilgrimage to Mecca (a bold move); negotiated a controversial peace; and following some internal Quraysh struggles, returned to Mecca in 630, where he was welcomed with open arms by most of the inhabitants. He had conquered Mecca, setting the stage for future expansion (that would occur after his death in 632).

An Apology for Jihad

There was something more to Muhammad's reluctance at Badr (624) than a fear of annihilation. Although he had known for some time that his message could not expand outside of Arabia without the capitulation of the Quraysh, and while he must have recognized that such capitulation would not come without a fight, Muhammad understood that just as the Revelation had forever transformed the socioeconomic landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia, so must it alter the methods and morals of pre-Islamic warfare.

The doctrine of jihad, as it slowly developed in the Quran, was meant to differentiate between pre-Islamic and Islamic notions of warfare. At the heart of the doctrine was the heretofore unrecognized distinction between combatant and noncombatant. Thus, the killing of women, children, monks, rabbis, the elderly, or any other noncombatant was absolutely forbidden under any circumstances. Muslim law eventually expanded on these prohibitions to outlaw the torture of prisoners of war; the mutilation of the dead; rape, molestation, or any kind of sexual violence during combat; the killing of diplomats, the wanton destruction of propery, and the demolition of religious or medical institutions--regulations that, as Hilmi Zawati has observed, were all eventually incorporated into the modern international laws of war.

But perhaps the most important innovation in the doctrine of jihad was its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars. "Fight in the way of God those who fight you," the Quran says, "but do not begin hostilities; God does not like the aggressor." Elsewhere, the Quran is more explicit: "permission to fight is given only to those who have been oppressed...who have been driven from their homes for saying 'God is our Lord.'"

This all sounds nice, but it seems hard to square with two obvious facts. First, why did Muhammad provoke the Quraysh, when the latter were content to leave him alone? Second, given the natural human inclination toward a "victim mentality," almost any twisted mind could now refer to the Quran to justify almost any perceived slight.

The author does admit that some verses in the Quran instruct Muslims to "slay the polytheist wherever you confront them;" to "carry the struggle to the hypocrites who deny the faith;" and to "fight those who do not believe in God and the Last Day." But the author argues convincingly that these verses were directed specifically at the Quraysh and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib.

Nevertheless, these verses have long been used by Muslims and non-Muslims alike to suggest that Islam advocates fighting unbelievers until they convert. But this is not a view that either the Quran or Muhammad endorsed. This view was put forth during the height of the Crusades, and partly in response to them, by later generations of Islamic scholars and who developed what is now referred to as "the classical doctrine of jihad." The Quran states, for example, that "there can be no compulsion in religion;" "the truth is from your Lord; believe it if you like, or do not;" and asks rhetorically, "Can you compel people to believe against their will?"

Despite all this, the classical doctrine of jihad has had a significant resurgence among several prominent Muslim intellectuals (especially since the recent colonial experience).

In any case, let me return to my main question. One might try to understand the rapid expansion of Islam in the context of the classical doctrine of jihad. But this seems implausible, given that this classical doctrine was formulated centuries later (during the Crusades). Hence, the rapid expansion of Islam in the two centuries following Muhammad must be understood in the context of the jihad as originally defined. But how might this be possible, given that the concept of jihad expressly forbids acts of aggression and compulsive conversion? The only way would have been if neighboring juristictions willingly submitted (the way in which the Meccans, more or less, appeared to do with Muhammad). This seems highly unlikely, but we shall see.

Muhammad on Judaism and Christianity

In the words of Muhammad, "he who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have me as his accuser on the Day of Judgement." I think that this quote, by itself, speaks volumes. But let's delve into it deeper.

The Quran repeatedly reminds Muslims that what they are hearing is not a new message but the "confirmation of previous scriptures." As far as Muhammad understood, the Torah, the Gospels, and the Quaran must be read as a single, cohesive narrative about humanity's relationship to God, in which the prophetic conciousness of one Prophet is passed spiritually to the next: from Adam to Muhammad.


One might further note that when Muhammad came to Medina, he originally made Jerusalem the direction of prayer (qiblah) for all Muslims. He imposed a mandatory fast on Yom Kippur (he subsequently changed the qiblah to Mecca and the feast to Ramadam). He purposely set the day of Muslim congregation at noon on Friday, so that it would coincide with, but not disrupt, Jewish preparations for the Sabbath. He adopted many of the Jewish dietary laws and encouraged his followers to marry Jews (as he himself did). And, as Nabiah Abbott has shown, throughout the first two centuries of Islam, Muslims regularly read the Torah alongside the Quran.

Certainly, Muhammad understood that there were distinct theological differences between Islam and the other Peoples of the Book. There were some theological differences that Muhammad considered intolerably heretical innovations created by ignorance and error. Chief among these was the concept of the Trinity. [However], from the beginning of his ministry, Muhammad revered Jesus as the greatest of God's messengers. Much of the Gospel narrative is recounted in the Quran, though in a somewhat abridged version, including Jesus' virgin birth, his miracles, his identity as Messiah, and the expectation of his judgement over humanity at the end of time.


What the Quran does not accept, however, is the belief of those Orthodox Trinitarians who argued that Jesus was himself God (a number of Christians might agree with this sentiment). It was Muhammad's belief that Orthodox Christians had corrupted the original message of Jesus, who the Quran contends never claimed divinity and never asked to be worshipped, but rather commanded his disciples to "worship God, who is my Lord and your Lord."

As the author points out, Muhammad's tongue-lashing of various Jewish and Christian groups was in thetradition of previous prophets. He was Isaiah, calling his fellow Jews "a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers." He was John the Baptist lashing out against the "brood of vipers" who assumed their status as "sons of Abraham" would keep them safe from judgement. He was Jesus promising damnation for the hypocrites who "for the sake of tradition, have made void the word of God." None of this could be construed as a critique of Judaism or Christianity, per se.

For even though Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the Peoples of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths. On the contrary, to those Jews who say "the Christians are wrong!" and to those Christians who say "the Jews are wrong!" and to both groups who claim that "no one will go to heaven except the Jews and Christians," Muhammad offered a compromise. "Let us come to an agreement on the things we hold common," the Quran suggests: "that we worship none but God; that we make none God's equal; and that we take no other lord except God."

In short, Muhammad considered Jews and Christians a part of the larger Ummah.

Rebellion Against Muhammad and Muslim Expansion

As any student of history can attest, the one constant in any society is political intrigue. Even the great Prophet himself was not beyond being victim to this in his own lifetime. For example, when at one point his caravan had (by mistake) left his wife Aisha behind (who was subsequently returned by a dashing gentleman), the rumors began to fly regarding his wife's chastity. Evidently, he stood among his people one day and, clearly distraught, asked "Why are some men hurting me regarding my family and saying falsehoods about them?" The answer should be obvious: His growing power and prestige did not go over well with the incumbant powerbrokers at the time.

Of course, there was no overt rebellion against Muhammad during his lifetime. The "rebellion" I speak of here was in the way his initial teachings appear to have been twisted over time for political and economic gain. To a large extent, this would have been unavoidable. But Muhammad certainly did not help matters in that he never did lay out clearly how his Ummah were to be governed following his death.

It is unclear to me how far the Muslim influence extended beyond Mecca and Medina in Muhammad's lifetime. It appears that it included most of the Arabian penninsula; and it does not appear that this influence was obtained by war (although, even the vague threat of force may have been enough in some cases). It is worthy to note that, despite his power and inflence, Muhammad refused to become King of Mecca (being content to remain the Keeper of the Keys). The Muslims would at this time collected a tithe (zakat) from the Ummah and various client tribes; and (I think) a protection tax from the dhimmi (Christian, Jews and other non-Muslims, protected by the Muslim community). The clearly defined Muslim enemies would have been the Byzantine Empire to the west, and the Sasanian (Persian) Empire to the east.

As Muhammad's small community of Arab followers swelled into the largest empire in the world (following his death), it faced a growing number of legal and religious challenges that were not dealt with explicitly in the Quran. While Muhammad was still in their midst, these questions could simply be brought to him. But without the Prophet, it became progressively more difficult to ascertain God's will on issues that far exceeded the knowledge and experiences of simple tribesmen.

At first, the Ummah naturally turned to the Companions for guidance; as they were the living repositories of the hadith (the oral anecdotes recalling the words and deeds of Muhammad). They then relied on second and third generation reports; and so on.

Thus, with each successive generation, the "chain of transmission" (isnad) grew longer and more convoluted, so that in less than two centuries following Muhammad's death, there were already seven hundred thousand hadith being circulated throughout Muslim lands, the great majority of which were unquestionably fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimize their own particular beliefs and practices by connecting them with the Prophet.

It is no coincidence that just as they reversed many of Muhammad's social reforms aimed at empowering women, the Muslim scriptual and legal scholars of the following centuries rejected the notion that Jews and Christians were part of the Ummah, and instead designated both groups as unbelievers. These scholars reinterpreted the Revelation to declare that the Quran had superceded, rather than supplemented, the Torah and the Gospels, and called on Muslims to distinguish themselves from the People of the Book.

The author notes that this process was reminiscent of the way the early Christians gradually dissociated themselves from the Jewish practices and rituals that had given birth to their movment by demonizing the Jews as the killers of Christ.

But before any of this happened, Muhammad had died in Medina in 632. At this point, some client tribes openly rebelled against Muslim control and refused to pay the tithe tax.

Even more disconcerting, Muhammad's vision of a divinely inpired state was proving so popular that throughout the Arabian Penninsula other regions had begun to replicate it using their own indigenous leadership and their own native ideology. In Yemen, a man named al-Aswad, who claimed to receive divine messages from a god he called Rahman, had set up his own state independent of Mecca and Medina. In eastern Arabia, another man, Maslama, had so successfully imitated Muhammad's formula that he had already gathered thousands of followers in Yamana, which he had declared to be a sanctuary city. To the Muslims, these "false prophets" signaled a grave threat to the religious legitmacy and political stability of the Ummah.


Yes...not to mention threatening the $$$ (taxes) that would have otherwise flowed from these client tribes. One cannot help note the irony here. Muhammad's original motivation was to threaten the monopoly on worship enjoyed by the Quraysh. And now, just subsequent to Muhammad's death, it appears that various interests were worried about maintaining their own newly-formed monopoly. But while Muhammad was primarily interested in destroying the Quraysh monopoly to meet his egalitarian and religious ends, (some of) his successors appeared more interested in maintaining and expanding their political and economic power.

From an economic perspective, one might note the analogy here with the problem that firms have in enforcing their patent rights on any innovation. As mentioned above, Muhammad was an innovator. As with any successful innovation, it is soon copied with cheap imitations (false prophets), threatening the property rights of the innovator. Modern companies have some recourse to patent law. In the absence of any legal enforcement mechanism, the only recourse is to protect property by force. This has nothing to do with morality; it has everything to do with securing economic power. Securing this economic power by way of force would have been contrary to Muhammad's notion of jihad. But when money is at stake, one can expect any rationalization of force to emerge.

A New Division of Power

There is a tendency to think of Islam as having been both completed and perfected at the end of Muhammad's life. But while that may be true that the Revelation, which ended with the Prophet's last breath, it would be a mistake to think of Islam in 632 as being in any way a unified system of beliefs and practices; far from it. As with all great religions, it would take generations of theological development. By 632, the Quran had neither been written down nor collated, let alone canonized. The religious ideals that would become the foundation of Islamic theology existed in only the most rudimentary form.

Upon Muhammad's death, the first and most urgent concern was to choose someone to lead the Ummah in the face of a number of internal and external challenges. Evidently, there was little consensus as to who that leader should be. The Ansar in Medina (the group that had originally sheltered Muhammad when he had to flee Mecca) had someone in mind. But the Meccan powerbrokers (the former Qurayshi aristocracy) would never agree to submit to being ruled by a Medinan. The new leader would have to be someone from Mecca; i.e., one of Muhammad's Companions. After much controversy, Abu Bakr was selected as Caliph (the Successor to the Messenger of God).

What made Abu Bakr's title so appropriate was that nobody was sure what it was supposed to mean. The deliberate ambiguity of his title was a great advantage for Abu Bakr and his immediate successors because it gave them the opportunity to define the position for themselves, something they would do in widely divergent ways. As far as Abu Bakr was concerned, the Caliphate was a secular position that closely resembled the traditional tribale Shaykh. But because the restriction of his authority to the secular realm kept him from defining exactly how one was to worship God, the door was opened for a new class of scholars called the Ulama (learned ones) who would take it upon themselves the responsibility of guiding the Ummah on the straight path.

The power of the Ulama and their influence in shaping the faith and practice of Islam cannot be overstated. Caliphs will come and go, and the Caliphate as a civil institution will rise and fall in strength, but the authority of the Ulama and the power of their religious institutions will only increase over time.


Muhammad's Successors

Abu Bakr (632-634)

The selection of Abu Bakr as Caliph was by no means unanimous. Abu Bakr was one of Muhammad's closest friends. The only other serious contender was Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, who was also very close to Muhammad (but considered by some to be too young for the job). Evidently, the meeting to select the new Caliph excluded Ali (who, at the time, was washing the Prophet's body). Both the Basu Hashim (Muhammad's tribe) and the Ansar publicly refused to swear allegiance to the new Caliph. This resistance was eventually beaten down by the threat of force; and for the sake of peace, Ali and his entire family surrendered their claim to leadership and swore allegiance to Abu Bakr.

Abu Bakr's reign was short, but highly successful. His principal achievements as Caliph was his military campaigns against the "false prophets" and those tribes who had ceased paying taxes.

Recognizing that the defection of these tribes would greatly weaken the political stability of the Ummah and economically devastate the small Muslim regime in Medina, Abu Bakr sent his armies to deal ruthlessly with the rebels (a campaign known as the Riddah Wars). These [wars] must not be mistaken for religious wars; the campaigns were intended to reinforce the purely political interests of Medina. Still, the Riddah Wars did have the regrettable consequence of permanently associating aposty (denying one's faith) with treason (denying the central authority of the Caliph).

I wonder what Muhammad would have thought of all this.

Umar (634-644)

When Abu Bakr fell sick and saw that the end was near, he unilaterally chose Umar as his successor (thereby avoiding the traditional shura that would have inevitably revived the debate over the rights of the family of the Prophet). Needless to say, this did not go over so well in certain quarters (although Ali remained loyal).

As Caliph, Umar was exactly what Muhammad had always considered him to be: a brilliant and energetic leader. A warrior at heart, he maintained the Caliphate as a secular position. His superior skills in battle led to the defeat of the Byzantine army in southern Syria in 634 and the capture of Damascus a year later. With the help of the oppressed Syrian Jewish community, whom he had freed from Byzantine control, Umar then devasted the Iranian forces at Qadisiyyah on his way to subduing the great Sasanian Empire. Egypt and Libya fell easily to Umar's army, as did Jerusalem: the crowning achievement of his military campaigns.

Surprisingly, however, Umar proved to be a far better diplomat than anyone would have imagined. Recognizing the importance of appeasing the non-Arab converts, who even at this time were beginning to outnumber the Arabs, the Caliph treated his vanquished enemies as equal members of the Ummah and strove to eliminate all ethnic differences between Arab and non-Arab (at this point, however, the latter still had to become a client of the former to convert to Islam).


Again, this is reminiscent of Muhammad's technique for expanding the Ummah; a strategy adopted earlier by the Romans, and later by the Mongols.

The wealth that poured into Medina as a result of his military victories was distributed proportionately to everyone in the community, including the children.

How nice of him; but I wonder what the foreign tax base thought of this.

Umar went out of his way to curb the power of the former Quraysh aristocracy and strengthened his central authority by appointing governors (amirs) to administer the Muslim provinces. At the same time, he gave his amirs strict instructions to respect the existing traditions and mores of the provinces, and not to attempt any radical changes in the way the local peoples had previously been governed.

In other words, the man was brilliant -- the Romans would have been proud to call him one of their own. Umar was killed by a mad Persian slave (would Muhammad have approved of slavery?).

Uthman (644-656)

On his deathbed, Umar called for a shura to select a new leader. The two primary candidates ended up being Ali and an aged Uthman; the latter a member of the Umayyad clan--the clan of Muhammad's fiercest enemies.

Uthman was a Quraysh through and through. Although an early convert to Islam, he had never exhibited any leadership qualities; he was a merchant, not a warrior. Muhammad deeply loved Uthman, but never once entrusted him with leadng a raid or an army on his behalf. But it was precisely his inexperience and lack of political ambition that made Uthman such an attractive choice. He was, more than anything else, the perfect alternative to Ali: a prudent, reliable old man who would not rock the boat.

Ah, politics.

Unfortunately, Uthman rocked the boat. First of all, his selection over widely-popular Ali infuriated the the latter's supporters. Moreover, it was obvious to many that the selection of Uthman was a deliberate attempt to accommodate the old Quraysh aristocracy, who were eager to regain their previous status as the elites of Arab society. Ironically, the House of Umayya was once again in charge of the Hijaz, just as it had been before Muhammad had conquered it in the name of Islam. To make matters worse, Uthman only exacerbated the growing rift through his unabashed nepotism and inept leadership.

First, Uthman replaced nearly all the existing amirs throughout the Muslim lands with members of his immediate family. Then, he dipped regularly into the public treasury to dole out huge sums of money to his relatives. Finally, and most dramatically, he broke with tradition by giving himself the heretofore unthinkable tile Khalifat Allah: "Successor to God," a title that Abu Bakr had explicitly rejected.

Ah, politics.

Uthman's claim to fame was in authorizing a single universally binding text of the Quran in about 650. But the man proved so inept and so despised, that he was eventually assassinated by a group of Muslim rebels who had had enough.

Ali (656-661)

Finally, it was Ali's turn (although, he was initially quite hesitant, given the resulting turmoil). He was basically placed in an impossible situation. Among other things, he had to contend with Islam's first civil war (the opposition being led, of all people, Aisha--Muhammad's beloved wife!). Among his many supporters were several large bodies of non-Arab Muslims (especially in modern day Iraq) who together were loosely labeled the "Party of Ali;" or the Shi'ah. Ali was also assassinated with a superficial wound from a poisoned sword.

For millions of Shi'ah throughout the world, Ali remains the model of Muslim piety: the light that illuminates the straight path to God. He was "the best in speech...the best in worship...the best in faith." It is this heroic vision of Ali that has been firmly planted in the hearts of those who refer to the person they believe to have been the sole successor to Muhammad not as the fourth Caliph (a title he did not take, by the way), but as something else, something more. Ali, the Shi'ah claim, was the first Imam: the proof of God on earth.

And so ended what became known as the "Golden Era of Islam."

Theological Debates and the Shariah

Does humanity have the free will to choose between right and wrong, or are we all predetermined for either salvation or damnation? This, and other age-old philosophical questions were debated furiously among Muslim theologians for centuries. By the ninth and tenth centuries, the debate over determinism and free will was loosely divided between two major strands of thought: the so-called "Rationalists," and the "Traditionalists."

The Rationalists were inclined to argue that God exists within the context of human reason. This view challenges the notion that religious truth can only be accessed through divine revelation; and suggests that all theological arguments must adhere to the principles of rational thought. Even the interpretation of the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet are subordinate to human reason. It was precisely this emphasis on the primacy of human reason that the Traditionalist Ulama so strenuously opposed. The Traditionalists were inclined to argue that human reason, while certainly important, must nevertheless be subordinate to the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. If religious knowledge could be gained only through rational speculation, there would be no need for prophets and revelations; the result would be a confusion of theological diversity that would allow people to follow their own wills rather than the will of God. Human reason is unstable and changing, while the prophetic and scriptural traditions are fixed and stable.

With regard to the question of free will, Rationalist theologians adopted and expanded the view that humanity was perfectly free to act in either goodness or evil, meaning that the responsibility for salvation rested directly in the hands of the believer. After all, it would be irrational for God to behave so unjustly as to will belief and unbelief upon humanity, then reward one and punish the other. Many Traditionalists rejected this argument on the grounds that it seemed to compel God to act in a rational, and therefore human, manner. As the omnipotent creator of all things, God must be the progenitor of all good and evil. As for any rational incongruities and internal contradictions that resulted from their rigid interpretation of religious doctrine, the Traditionalists cultivated a formula of bila kayfa (Don't ask why).

You get the idea. But these debates were not merely inconsequential academic banter; the winning side could expect to exert their political (legal) will on the Muslim community. (The winning side, in this case, turned out to be the Traditionalists, whose views largely shaped the development of the Muslim legal system--the Shariah).

As one might expect, the Traditionalist position had a profound influence on Quranic exegesis. First, it provided the orthodox Uluma with sole authority to interpret what was now widely considered to a be fixed and immutable text revealing the divine will of God. Second, because the Quran could not possibly be considered a product of Muhammad's society, historical context could not play any role in its interpretation
(contrary to the claims of the Rationalists). What was appropriate for Muhammad's community in the seventh century must be appropriate for all Muslim communities to come, regardless of the circumstances.

One big problem with the Quran in terms of guiding behavior, however, is that the Quran is not a book of laws (say, in the manner that the Torah does for the Jews). One might ask here why the Muslims at this point in time did not simply adopt the Torah (given the high esteem this document had for Muhammad); but of course, the answer is obvious--I imagine that it was not in anyone's political interest to do so.

Relying on the Prophet's saying that "my community will never agree on error," the Ulama posited that the unanimous consensus of the legal scholars of a particular age on a particular issue could create binding legal decisions, even if those decisions seemed to violate Quranic prescriptions (as was the case with the practice of stoning adulterers). This emerging legal framework was developed specifically to create orthodoxy among the Muslim community. But more importantly, it served to consolidate the authority of the Ulama as the sole determiners of acceptable Muslim behavior and beliefs.

There emerged over time a number of legal schools of thought. The modern Sunni (orthodox) school has four such schools (the Shafii School in Southeast Asia; the Maliki School in West Africa; the Hanafi School of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent; and the Hanabali School, which can be found throughout the Middle East. Added to this is the Shi'ite School, which I imagine is centred primarily in modern day Iran).

The Ulama associated with these four (Sunni) schools entrenched themselves as the sole interpreters of Islamic beliefs. As these schools of thought gradually transformed into legal institutions, the diversity of ideas and freedom of opinion that characterized their early development gave way to rigid formalism, strict adherence to precendent, and an almost complete stultification of independent thought.


In short, if you did not subscribe to what was now considered the devine and infallible Shariah, you were branded an unbeliever. It is remarkable to note how fully some have succumbed to this indoctrination. Consider the following remarkable statement, made some some unamed Muslim "scholar:"

"The Islamic law has not come into being the way conventional law has. It has not had to undergo the same process of evaluation as all the man-made laws have done. The case of Islamic law is not that it began with a few rules that gradually multiplied or with rudimentary concepts refined by cultural process with the passage of time; nor did this law originate and grow along with the Islamic community."

Question: Does whoever wrote this really believe what he said? If yes, then the level of ignorance is stupendous. If no, then the level of cynicism is appalling. In any case, the author shows quite plainly how the very opposite of the statement above is, in fact, true.

Nevertheless, the heirs of Traditionalism have managed to silence most critics of reform, even when that criticism has come from their own ranks. In the 1990s, a Muslim professor at Cairo University was branded a heretic and forced to divorce his wife for claiming that the Quran, while divinely revealed, was a cultural product of seventh century Arabia. When a renowned Sudanese legal reformer claimed that the Medinan and Meccan texts of the Quran differed so greatly because they were addressed to very specific historical audiences and should be interpreted as such, he was executed.

I mention these examples because, if this is the way they treat "heretics" within the Muslim community, imagine how they might feel about criticisms emerging from outside their community!

While the debate over the nature and function of the Quran and the Shariah has in no way ended, the dominance of the Traditionalist position continues to have devastating consequences for the development and progress of law and society in the modern Middle East.

It would be interesting to ask, as a development economist might, to what extent the triumph of this rigidity eventually led to the downfall of the Muslim empire (initially to the Mongols) and to the subsequent era of economic backwardness that allowed the modern colonial powers to gain control of the region.

The problem is that it is practically impossible to reconcile the Traditionalist view of the Shariah with modern conceptions of democracy and human rights. Any modern Islamic state has only three alternatives for incorporating the Shariah into its legal systems. It can accept the Shariah as a legitimate source of civil law, but choose to ignore it in all but the most obvious family, divorce, or inheritance cases, as Egypt and Pakistan do. It can fully apply the Shariah to the state with no attempt to modernize it or adapt it to contemporary norms of law and society, as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban have done. Or it can attempt to fuse the traditional values of the Shariah with the modern principles of democracy and human rights through a comprehensive reform methodology--the way Iran is attempting to do.

Note that it is no coincidence that the Iranian Islamic ideal is patently a Shi'ite one (and the Shi'ah have never been eager to identify themselves with the majority (Sunni) Muslim community).

The Response to Colonialism

Of course, by "colonialism," the author refers to "Western-European Colonialism." It appears (to me) to be a common view that western colonialism was somehow a unique episode in human history; characterized by an uncommon level of exploitation and humiliation. Perhaps there is an element of truth to this. But I am inclined to think that this is not true; and that the modern-day view is shaped primarily by the fact that western colonialism is simply humanity's most recent experience with imperial expansion and exploitation. In any case, this is largely beside the point (although it helps to keep things in historical context).

I am not exactly sure about the history here, but my understanding of events is as follows. Following Muhammad's death, there was a rapid expansion in the Arabian Empire (from Spain, across North Africa, the Middle East, and to Persia). The Arabs were remarkable scholars and were responsible for many technological innovations. Moreover, there were relatively tolerant an enlightened rulers (unlike, for example, many Christian-based empires). But the Arabs were relatively few in number; and their empire gradually fell in control of people from older power bases, like Egypt, Turkey, and Persia (especially with the fall of Baghdad, following the Mongol invasions). By the time of Europe's rise to power between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, the Muslim world revolved around the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Unfortunately for the Ottomans, they chose the wrong side in WWI and their empire (already in a long decline) came to and end in 1922. Enter the British (who were already in India for some time).

And so we are presented with a laundry list of British "bad boy" behavior. The British did this, the British did that, they killed, they exploited, they humiliated, blah, blah. I am not about to apologize for the British (or any other empirialists), but all of this is really beside the point. The British behaved the way virtually all empirialists behaved in the past. And it is not like the populations that fell under British control were unfamiliar with the behavior of the endless sequence of local despots. No, the problem was, in my view, much deeper than the simple despotic rule of some foreign power. The problem is best illustrated by making reference to the following quote:

The astonishingly rapid expansion of Islam into what had to this point been considered the impregnable domains of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires was, for most Muslims, proof of God's divine favor.

Of course, the Muslims were not the only ones to succumb to this line of thinking (the British, no doubt, thought the same thing as they were busily conquering the world). To me, this sentiment makes about as much sense as asserting that, given the obvious success that Satan has had in worldly matters, this constitutes proof that Satan has God's divine favor. But of course, for religious fundamentalists (in particular, the dominant Traditionalist position in the Muslim community), human logic is irrelevant. To them, the spread of Islam constitutes proof of God's divine favor. This interpretation works well when an empire is expanding. But it opens the door to trauma: How does one account for the obvious success of these blasted infidels who now rule over us? Logic suggests that they are the ones that must now be blessed with God's divine favor. But such logic is too painful to accept; which is perhaps why human logic is so despised by the Traditionalists.

To me, it seems that the great conflict in Islam today is occurring within the hearts and minds of Muslims themselves. How to square the obvious success of western Christian-based powers with the idea that Islam represents the will of God? (American Christians will one day be asking themselves a similar question, no doubt, just as the Byzantine Christians did).

Recent Developments

At the risk of oversimplification, the modern day Muslim response to this internal conflict appears to have branched in two, with both branches claiming a return to the original (Medinan) Muslim vision. Loosely speaking, these two branches can be thought of in terms of the "Traditionalists" and "Rationalists," as described earlier.

The Traditionalist response appears centred around the radically puritanical "fundamentalist" sect of Islam, popularly known as Wahhabiasm, centred in Saudi Arabia. Modern manifestations of this sect include the Hamas in Palestine, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Al Quaeda, led by the infamous Osama bin Laden (of the prestigious and wealthy Saudi Arabian bin Laden family). As might be expected from radical puritans, their main message appears to be that western domination can be explained as God's punishment for a Muslim community that has strayed from its original roots. Their message appears to be easily absorbed by a population trained to distrust human logic and bend to the will of the learned Traditionalist Uluma (the only ones who can be trusted to interpret God's will). Unfortunately for the vast majority of humanity, the author hits the nail on the head with the following passage:

Fundamentalism, in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Kill its leaders, and they become martyrs. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it, and it will turn against you. Try to appease it, and it will take control.

The Rationalist response appears to be centered, of all places, among the Shi'ah Iran (although this school of thought is scattered throughout the Muslim world). Of course, we should keep in mind here that the author is Iranian (and no doubt Shi'ah, although, I don't think he ever says so). In any case, note that the author makes no excuses for Khomeini's despotic rule. To the Rationalists, Muhammad's original message was hugely distorted over time (a perfectly legitimate argument, in my view). The western colonial experience can be explained by the vulnerability of the region that grew out of centuries of stifling rigidity in a changing world. To counter the fudamentalists:

The foundation of Islamic pluralism can be summed up in one indisputable verse: "There can be no compulsion in religion." This means that the antiquitated partitioning of the world into spheres of belief and unbelief, which was first developed during the Christian crusades but which still maintains its grasp on the imaginations of Traditionalist theologians, is utterly unjustifiable. It also means that the ideology of those Wahhabists who wish to return Islam to some imaginary ideal of original purity must be once and for all abandoned. Islam has always been a religion of diversity. The notion that there was once an original, unadulterated Islam that was shattered into heretical sects and schisms is an historical fiction.

If one were truly to rely on the Medinan ideal to define the nature and function of an Islamic state, it would have to be characterized as nothing more than the nationalist manifestation of the Ummah (a pluralist society). As Abu Bakr so wisely stated upon succeeding the Prophet, Muslim allegiance is owed not to any earthly authority, but to the community and God. As long as this criterion is met, then what form an Islamic state is irrelevant. So, then, why not democracy?

The fact is that the vast majority of the more than one billion Muslims in the world readily accept the fundamental principles of democracy
(which he defines as pluralism, not secularism). Democratic ideals such as constitutionalism, government accountability, pluralism, and human rights are widely accepted throughout the Muslim world. What is not necessarily accepted, however, is the dinstinctly Western notion that religion and the state should be entirely separate, that secularism must be the foundtion of democracy.

In short, it seems to me that the Rationalists are more inclined to interpret Muhammad's mission and the Quran in an historical context. Muhammad, as noted above, was originally motivated by egalitarian concerns. He took the Jewish and Christian ideals of "love thy neighbor" seriously and founded a religion (that he regarded as consistent with Judeo-Christianity) based on this and other ideals. Muhammad was committed to religious pluralism. Sure, he did not hold the same respect for polytheism as he did with monotheism, but this was primarily a consequence of the fact that the Revelation was revealed during a bloody and protracted war the the "polytheist" Quraysh. In fact, the Quranic designation of "protected peoples" was highly flexible and was routinely tailored to match public policy (the dhimmi included, for example, both dualist Zoroastrians and certain polytheistic Hindu sects as Islam spread eastward). Likewise, I might add that the prohibition of usury must be understood in a similar way. That is, the prohibition was not against usury per se, but rather, it emerged in light of the horrendous lending practices of the Quraysh (one might note that most states in the U.S. have usury laws in place).

Despite the tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent terrorist acts against Western targets throughout the world, despite the clash-of-civilizations mentality that has seized the globe and the clash-of-monotheisms reality underlying it, despite the blatant religious rhetoric resonating throughout the halls of governments, there is one thing that cannot be overemphasized. What is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander--an unwary yet complicity casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write its next chapter.

The author likens the current struggle to Europe's destructive Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between the forces of the Protestant Union and the Catholic League.

The West: Screwing Up Big-Time

By "the West," I mean primarily the U.S.

Supporting the despotic rule of the Shah in Iran was a big mistake. Alligning themselves with the despotic rulers of Saudi Arabia was also a big mistake. Training and arming Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afganistan to fight the Russians was also a big mistake. Furnishing Saddam Hussein with chemical and biological weapons to fight the new Iranian regime (following the downfall of the Shah) was a big-time boo-boo. If anything, the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s served simply to consolidate Khomeini's grip on what was otherwise a popular movement for democratic reform. Finally, defining democracy as a separation between church and trying to impose this ideal in Muslim societies is both counterproductive and somewhat hypocritical (given the influence of religion in shaping America's political environment).

In the immortal words of Rodney King: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"