Many moderate Muslims and their apologists in the West have challenged the view that the actions and beliefs of ISIS and like-minded terrorist organizations are truly Islamic. Islam, they argue, is a religion of peace and has strict codes calling for the humane treatment of non-Muslims. The real religion, they say, allows only defensive jihad – Muslims may attack only those who have first attacked them; even so, they are to prefer mercy over retribution.
For example, in response to the Atlantic cover story by Graeme Wood “What ISIS Really Wants,” a Muslim professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross (rather ironic!) named Caner Dagli argues that the behavior and religious interpretations of ISIS fall outside the pale of true Islam, and that in fact these extremists do not take seriously the texts and traditions of the religion. However, there seem to be more and more reports of other self-named Muslim groups who carry out similar atrocities. Are they all outside true Islam – illegitimate and un-Islamic? Apparently so, according to these moderates and intellectual elites.
Recently I read of an attack by a small army of Muslims against a wealthy agrarian tribal community in the Middle East. The goal of the attack was to capture, plunder, enslave and kill until the entire community surrendered to the Muslims. The Muslim leader had already executed the elder leader of this tribe in a previous encounter. Now he was intent on conquering the tribe as a whole and claiming for himself and Islam the reportedly sizable treasure that they had hidden in their village. After a significant number of the men of the tribe had been killed by the Muslim army’s surprise attack, the Muslims began to divide up the significant booty as well as to claim the captive women as slaves or wives. However, the reputed treasure could not be located. The Muslim commander found the treasurer of the village and ordered him to reveal its location. When the treasurer refused, the commander ordered that he be tortured until he gave up its whereabouts. The man was stretched out on the ground, and a fired was kindled on his chest which burned until the man was near death, now incoherent with pain and confusion. Unable to extract any helpful information, the commander ordered the treasurer beheaded, and the order was carried out with alacrity. On top of all this, the treasurer’s new bride, considered the beauty of the village, was claimed by the commander as his own possession. It turns out that she was the daughter of the former chieftain of the village, whom the Muslim commander had previously ordered executed. Now she had just lost her husband to torture and murder, and earlier that day had lost her brother in the surprise attack at dawn. As the Muslim army withdrew that evening, they stopped and set up tents so that the commander could “marry” his new bride and seal the deal by consummating the relationship in his tent while the rest of the army waited.
What do moderate Muslims and their apologists say concerning this horrific series of events carried out by other Muslims? Mr. Dagli and many others no doubt would like to argue that these actions were un-Islamic, and that the protagonists are either not really Muslims at all, or that they are at the very least bad Muslims. I wish that were true. Unfortunately it cannot be.
You see, the account I summarized is not a contemporary event. It happened in 629 AD. The commander was Muhammad, the army was his companions (the Muslim faithful), the community attacked was Khaibar, an oasis town some 95 miles north of Medina, populated by Arab Jews. The treasurer’s name was Kinana al-Rabi, and his wife was Safiyya, who subsequently became one of Muhammad’s fourteen wives.* All the details of this story are known even by half-awake Muslims, for this account is celebrated within the Muslim world for its violent victory over Jews, who are routinely vilified in Muslim teaching. One of the regular Arabic rhymes chanted by Muslim crowds whenever Jews are killed by terrorists, or Israel is attacked by Hamas or Hezbollah is: “Khaibar, Khaybar, ya Yahud, jaysh Muhammad sawfa ya’ud” which translates as “Khaybar, Khaybar, O you Jews, the army of Muhammad will return!)”
To denounce this event would be to denounce Muhammad, something no Muslim is willing to consider. Indeed, far from being an account about which Muslims are embarrassed, it is one in which they glory. And if Muhammad is held within their thinking to be the “perfect man,” the one whose behaviors are to be imitated by the faithful, then who today appears to be the more true or faithful believer: the ISIS radical, or the Western moderate Muslim?
Apologists for Islam can mewl all they wish, but until the worldwide Muslim community is willing to denounce such stories of their prophet rather than celebrate them, the rest of us will continue to take radicals at their word that they are truly disciples of their religion’s founder, and we Christians will continue to point people to a better Master, in whom alone there is salvation for the world.
* The full story of the attack on Khaibar can be found in the earliest biography of Muhammad (written before any of the collections of Hadith traditions, and generally accepted by Muslims to be the most authoritative sources for information on the actual life of Islam’s prophet), penned over 100 years after the death of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq and handed down to posterity in an edited form by his student Ibn Hisham, translated in 1964 into English by the Arabist and Islamic scholar Alfred Guillaume. See pp. 510-22, 757-8.