One of the biggest challenges for Muslims around the world is the plethora of negative stereotypes that have come to be associated with Islam, many with a very long history. Among the most pervasive of these are related to the Prophet Muhammad, who is still not understood by many non-Muslims. Throughout my life, I have been repeatedly asked about the Prophet’s life and specifically his role as prophet, statesman, and in some situations military leader. Many find it disconcerting that he led his followers into battle. They often compare him to Jesus to show that he was not peaceful. However, the Prophet did not engage in indiscriminate warfare, but instead opted for diplomatic options whenever possible. Being a statesman does not take away from his prophethood; rather, his conduct as a statesman and military leader serves as an example of leadership.
What many people may not know is that the Prophet Muhammad spent about 13 years of his mission without engaging in any kind of fighting–defensive or offensive, which means it was only in the last ten years that any kind of fighting occurred. In fact, during the early part of his mission, the Muslims in Mecca were heavily persecuted; yet, they did not fight at all. It is only when the Muslims migrated to Medina, called the hijra, that he received a revelation to fight when the persecution exceeded limits:
And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers. (191) But if they desist, then lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (192) And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers. (193) (Qur’an 2:191-193)
I have written about verses like this one that are often cited to illustrate the violent nature of Islam. However, if one reads the above verses carefully and understands them within their specific context and the larger Qur’anic message, it will be clear that the verses actually create guidelines for warfare. The Prophet Muhammad, as the leader of a burgeoning community in Medina, was called to protect them, which in some situations meant going to war against attackers. But it is clear that when the Meccans desisted, the Muslims were to stop fighting. As the leader, he now found that he was called upon to do more than be a spiritual guide: he had to become a statesman who maintained the security of his community.
The point about the Prophet’s role as a statesman is important because it is often used to say that violence was part of the faith from the beginning, especially now in a post-9/11 world. In other words, Muslims are violent because their Prophet was. However, learning about the Prophet Muhammad’s life and the early Muslim community in Medina will show that violence is not central to the faith, but that warfare within clear guidelines might be needed when diplomatic efforts fail.
This is important to highlight, also, for some Muslims who use violence as a means to achieve certain ends and have contributed to the negative image of the faith. The Prophet used it as a last resort and never used it to instill fear into a people nor did he use it against his own. Terrorism and the violence we have seen by leaders in the Middle East against protesters, for example, deviate from the example set by the Prophet Muhammad over 1400 years ago. Would he condone either? I doubt it.
What do you think about the Prophet Muhammad’s role as a statesman? Can we learn anything from it today? Does he matter in understanding Islam today? Please share your comments below.