Ever since I was a child growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, the predominant image of Islam I have seen in the media has been that of a religion steeped in violence and misogyny. It is an image that is utterly alien to the Islam of love and gentleness I have experienced and lived my whole life. Watching the news is like peering into a bizarro world, where another Islam exists that seems to be the polar opposite of the one that flows in my heart and blood.
The catalyst for the current wave of violence by a handful of extremists in Libya and Egypt has been the release of a small independent film entitled “Innocence of Muslims.” I am of the opinion that it is a film of questionable artistic merit, backed by a group of bigots whose only agenda was to incite violence by smearing the character of Prophet Muhammad.
Attacks on the character of Prophet Muhammad are nothing new. As a Hollywood storyteller, I can say with confidence that the life of Prophet Muhammad is a remarkable tale, more gripping and filled with better twists than “The Lord of the Rings.” I refer those interested in learning more details of his life to read my book, or biographies by respected authors such as Montgomery Watt, Karen Armstrong and Barnaby Rogers, among others. What I will share here are two stories that reflect how Muslims remember the Prophet.
The first story is set in the immediate aftermath of the surrender of Mecca to Muslim forces in 630 C.E. The Prophet had been born in Mecca in 570 C.E. and had received his first revelations from the Angel Gabriel at the age of 40, calling the Arabs to reject polytheism and embrace the One God of Abraham. His critique of the profitable religious cult in Mecca won him many followers from the poor and oppressed classes, and especially among women, who saw him as a champion of their rights in a word where pre-Islamic Arabs often buried infant girls alive. But his teachings earned him the enmity of the ruling class of Mecca. Finally, in 622 C.E., the Prophet escaped an assassination attempt and was forced to flee to the oasis of Medina, where his followers survived years of military attacks from Mecca meant to annihilate their community.
Eight years after the Prophet fled his home, the beleaguered Meccans surrendered the city to the Muslims who were now the most powerful group in Arabia. The Prophet returned home with no fear of reprisal from any of his enemies. The Meccans feared that he would take vengeance on them for 20 years of vicious attacks. In the cruel world of desert warfare recorded in the books of Old Testament, no one would have been surprised if he killed all of his opponents. And yet he did something that left his enemies flabbergasted.
He forgave them.
The Prophet declared a general amnesty and offered the leaders of Mecca who had fought him positions of honor in the new Muslim community. And most remarkable of all was how he treated Hind, the cruel queen of Mecca who had desecrated the corpse of the Prophet’s beloved uncle, Hamza (she had cannibalized Hamza’s liver, an act considered barbaric even by her own people).
The Prophet forgave Hind and let her go.
A second story takes place after the Prophet’s victorious unification of Arabia. When the Prophet founded the Muslim community in Medina, he had drawn up a treaty with the Jews of the city, which guaranteed their freedom of religion and sought their alliance against the military attacks from Mecca. But as the Prophet’s power had risen, some of the Jewish tribes switched allegiance to the Meccan attackers, leading to warfare between Muslims and Jews. With the defeat of Mecca, the Prophet sought to repair the breach of trust between the two monotheistic religions. The Jewish chieftain of Khaybar invited the Prophet to a feast, but not everyone was happy with hosting a banquet in the victorious Prophet’s honor, and one Jewish woman poisoned the meal. Several of the Prophet’s companions died, but the Prophet spit out the poisoned food before it could take effect. The assassin was captured and the Prophet asked the woman why she had done this deadly act. She shrugged and responded that Muhammad had defeated her tribe and she was simply avenging them.
The Prophet forgave her and let her go.
Modern critics have attacked Prophet Muhammad for many things, but as renowned Christian scholar Montgomery Watt has pointed out, the issues that modern opponents use to vilify Prophet Muhammad were never raised as moral problems by his enemies in his lifetime. For example, modern critics of Prophet Muhammad have questioned his sexual propriety, calling him a pedophile for his marriage to Aisha, the subject of my novel “Mother of the Believers.” One account claimed that Aisha was only 9 years old at the time of her wedding, but other, more probable, accounts suggest she was between 14 and 19 years of age. Whatever Aisha’s age was, the Prophet’s contemporary enemies never once noted his marriage to her in their vitriolic attacks against him. Neither Arab nor Jewish opponents ever found anything improper about his marriage to a teenage girl who had begun her cycles and could bear children. Indeed such marriages were a matter of survival in a desert world with low life expectancy.
Nor did his enemies have issue with the fact that Prophet Muhammad was polygamous, as polygamy was the norm for that society and many others. Even the Prophet’s opponents understood that his marriages were primarily meant to secure tribal alliances and to take care of widows of his followers who had been slain in battle. The Prophet’s household consisted of about a dozen mostly older women and was embarrassingly modest compared to the harems maintained not only by powerful Arab men of the time, but also by biblical kings. David had at least eight wives and 10 concubines, and his son Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Under such conditions, even the Prophet’s enemies considered his sparse “harem” to be rather monkish and not the trappings of licentiousness.
The Prophet’s military activities have also been subjected to critique in modern day — and yet again were not the basis of criticism in his lifetime. The Prophet did indeed engage in warfare, but he showed far more restraint toward his enemies than they showed him. In one incident, used by bigots to prove the Prophet’s supposed barbarity, the Muslims defeated the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza, which had broken its alliance and offered support to their Meccan enemies during a deadly siege that threatened to destroy the entire Islamic community. When the Meccans were finally defeated, the Qurayza were punished for treason according to their own understanding of the Torah. Based on Deuteronomy 20:10-14, the warriors of the tribe were executed, but the women and children spared. Indeed, as Christian scholar Philip Jenkins has written in “Laying Down the Sword,” Prophet Muhammad’s military activities were remarkably restrained compared to the genocidal bloodbaths gleefully endorsed in the Bible, where God’s holy warriors did not spare even women, children or infants.
One can debate forever whether the desperate struggle for survival exonerates these events in the eyes of history. The true proof of the moral essence of Islam can be found in this simple fact. When the danger was over, when Prophet Muhammad had won and had absolute power to do with his defeated opponents as he pleased, the Prophet did what no one expected him to do — he forgave his enemies and let them go. The true test of a man’s character is revealed when he has power.
And even as the Prophet showed grace and clemency to his enemies, so must his heirs do so today. No filmmaker, artist, author, musician — or invading army — can destroy Islam. Secure in that knowledge, it is time for Muslims to relax and ignore the daily offenses and insults thrown at them by denizens of the cheap seats. It is time for Muslims to show the powerful confidence that Prophet Muhammad demonstrated–the power that comes from three simple words.
I forgive you.
Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of Shadow of the Swords, a novel on the Crusades (Simon & Schuster; June 2010). For more information please visit: http://www.kamranpasha.com. This article is an edited version of the original piece.