Then, in 610 C.E., a 40-year-old Arab merchant named Muhammad claimed he was another in the line of Biblical prophets, met the ancient challenges that confronted all the Biblical figures, and won. Monotheism at last triumphed in the Near East, and the Children of Abraham were finally at the center of a great and growing religious empire.
But there was a problem. Another religious empire, dedicated to the same God, was also on the rise across the Mediterranean. Christianity and Islam have challenged and competed with one another ever since. The relationship has spurred both civilizations to greater creativity, but has also been the source of conflict over the centuries, which is now reignited on both sides of the divide.
In a recent 60 Minutes broadcast, the Rev. Jerry Falwell calls Muhammad a "terrorist." Falwell says, "In my opinion.Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses, and I think that Muhammad set an opposite example." This comes on the heels of comments from conservative Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson that Muhammad was an inherently violent man.
One answer to these kinds of charges is to point out that Moses was a much bloodier figure than Muhammad. Leviticus 20 might be one place to cite. There Moses proclaims the penalties for various crimes, including death for anyone who curses his father or mother, commits adultery, or engages in homosexual sex. Or Numbers 31, where Moses chastises his army for sparing the women and children of the vanquished Midianite and orders his men to "Slay every male child and every woman who has had intercourse with a man. But you may spare and keep for yourselves all the girls who had no intercourse with a man."
There are more examples. David is praised in Samuel 18 for slaying his "tens of thousands," and in Judges 14 Samson kills 30 random Philistines in revenge for losing a bet.
There are other examples that could be offered. But citing such examples to say that Muhammad was either more or less violent than other Biblical figures is meaningless and anachronistic. By the standards of the world we live in today, there is an appalling amount of violence associated with many of these people.
Both proclaimed the existence of One God against stiff opposition. Both were accused of preaching foreign ideas, and Muhammad was said to be threatening the livelihood of his hometown of Mecca, which made most of its money from being one of the centers of pagan pilgrimage. As the Egyptians did with Moses, the Meccans threatened and ridiculed Muhammad. Muhammad, in fact, often thought of Moses during this period, and the Qur'an is filled with many references to him, citing him as a model of patience and forbearance that all Muslims should follow.
In time, the attacks became more deadly. Some of Muhammad's followers were killed. Others were forced to flee to a nearby Christian Kingdom that gave them shelter. When an assassination plot was hatched against him, Muhammad himself had to leave and led his followers out of Mecca, as Moses led his out of Egypt.
Muhammad went to the nearby city of Yathrib, later renamed Medina. In his new home, Muhammad faced more of the challenge of bringing social and political order to his people, which is something that Jesus did not face. So while Jesus was left to mainly talk about ethical principles--since the Roman Empire already provided law and order--Muhammad and Moses had to talk about crime and punishments. Muhammad and Moses also both faced the challenges of feeding and protecting his followers in a harsh world, another burden that Jesus did not face.
The accepted practice in the Biblical period when times were hard was to steal from neighboring communities. Moses and Muhammad both did this, though Muhammad limited the raids to only Meccan caravans.
Muhammad also was forced to be a general. Three times the Meccans sent large armies to killed Muhammad and slaughter the small but growing Muslim community. Like Moses, Muhammad proclaimed special permission to fight his enemies, but within limits, and he offered comforting visions of paradise to the wives and mothers of fallen Muslims who died in the fighting. They were martyrs, he said.
It is in the course of this fighting that the actions and words of Muhammad are cited as examples of his inherently violent nature, just as in the case of Moses in the passage quoted above. During this period also comes most of the Qu'ranic quotes about fighting and killing "infidels" or unbelievers, who are in this context the Meccan attackers.
Though such words and actions, or those of Moses, may horrify our modern sensibilities, in the context of the Biblical period it was not only accepted, but also commonplace. In an earlier battle that the Meccans won, they mutilated faces of the fallen and the Meccan women danced on the Muslim corpses. That is why the most earnest wish of all the religious figures in the Bible is that a better world--a post-Biblical world--characterized by civilization, justice through the rule of law, and compassion eventually would come to the earth.
It did. The Biblical period ended in an event that happened toward the end of this period of fighting between Muhammad and the Meccans. Exhausted by its futile attempts to destroy the Muslims, Mecca eventually capitulated without a fight when Muhammad turned the tables on them and marched an army to the city.
Abandoned by all their allies, the Meccans cowered in their homes as the Muslim army entered the city, expecting the customary slaughter.Some of Muhammad's followers expected one, too. It is difficult today to register their utter shock and surprise when instead Muhammad granted everyone amnesty and forgiveness for past sins. But more than that, he announced that a new era was beginning in the Land of Abraham. No more tribal warfare. No more exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. The rule of law finally began to take hold in the land. Tribal barriers began to break down, allowing the people to combine resources. at and science became possible, and Islamic Civilization grew.
Today, as the voices of conflict on both the Christian and Muslim sides grow louder, Muhammad may present an example that might benefit the world. Humanity took one giant step for the better when one man in a position of religious authority stood on the shoulders of giants like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and instead of the expected recriminations, uttered words of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Was Muhammad a terrorist? He would have made a different choice when he entered Mecca if he were, and the Biblical period would not have come to an end.