About Mohammed II: Debunking Three Myths

February 4, 2021 Category: Religion

In part 1 of this series, I explored the hyper-romanticization of Mohammed of Mecca (MoM).  As I mentioned, many who claim to be “scholars” of Islam don’t want to risk “offending”–and possibly eliciting reprisal from–1.5 billion people; so abstain from bringing to light anything that supplicants would much prefer remain in the dark.  Consequently, many expositors demure–and even dissemble–when pressed on such matters.

The most exalted of folkloric figures become fixed stars in each culture’s constellation.  The (proverbial) heavens are thus populated with something to admire; and to wonder at.  Each retelling of the folk-tale is more overwrought (maudlin, fantastical, enthralling) than the last.  Consequently, the audience becomes increasingly invested in the tale’s extraordinary-ness and its sanctity…whilst the tellers become ever-more-stoked on their souped-up flights of fancy.  Before too long, the folk-heroes are larger than life; beacons in an otherwise dark night.

E.O. Wilson put it well in “The Social Conquest of Earth”: “The creation stories gave the members of each tribe an explanation for their existence.  It made them feel loved and protected above all other tribes.  In return, their gods demanded absolute belief and obedience.  And rightly so.  The creation myth was the essential bond that held the tribe together.  It provided its believers with unique identity, commanded their fidelity, strengthened order, vouchsafed law, encouraged valor and sacrifice, and offered meaning to the cycles of life and death.  No tribe could long survive without the meaning of its existence defined by a creation story.”

In his next book, “The Meaning of Human Existence”, Wilson elaborated on the point: “Unfortunately, a religious group defines itself foremost by its creation story–the supernatural narrative that explains how humans [or at least the humans that matter; i.e. the in-group] came into existence.  This story is also the heart of tribalism.  No matter how gentle and high-minded, or subtly explained, the core belief assures its members that god favors them above all others.  It teaches that members of other religions worship the wrong gods, use wrong rituals, follow false prophets, and believe [farcical] creation stories.  There is no way around the soul-satisfying but cruel discrimination that [religious communities] must practice among themselves” (p. 151).

Again, while it is our yearning for MEANING that impels us, it is sheer PRACTICALITY that dictates the nuts and bolts of the Grand Narrative, from etiology to eschatology (from origins to destinations).  We homo sapiens are, as Max Weber pointed out, meaning-making machines; and we are also eminently pragmatic creatures.

Exaltation of the in-group is the sin qua non of most romanticized origin stories.  Exalted legacy translates to exalted destiny.  Ergo etiological myths (origin stories) are often the handmaidens of tribalism.  Interestingly, one of the earliest thinkers to connect historiography with a tribalistic mindset (“asabiyyah”) was the celebrated Tunisian thinker, Ibn Khaldun in his “Muqaddimah” c. 1377.  The work is significant for acknowledging the role of systemic bias in evaluating versions of one’s own tribe’s history.

Ibn Khaldun recognized that conflicts of interest–and false certainty–often hamper endeavors to provide an objective account of historical events.  He held that all chronicling is prone to error for any of seven reasons:

  • A strong partiality towards an ideology 
  • An over-confidence in one’s chosen sources
  • A failure to understand the motivations of the sources
  • Mistaken belief in what constitutes “truth”
  • An inability to place an event in its proper context
  • A desire to curry favor with those in authority
  • An ignorance of the laws governing the transformation of society

Perhaps Ibn Khaldun’s greatest insight was that “asabiyyah” (tribalism; partisanship) can sabotage attempts to chronicle historical events.

In fact, many of the same mechanisms as when sycophants (especially those with a tribalistic mindset) cling to sanctified narratives are at play when ANYONE flocks to escapist media–be it a novel or a film or a video game…or orally transmitted folklore.  We are all hungry for myth because we are all hungry for enchantment.  We are especially drawn to narratives that cater to our needs.  In our eagerness to consume what’s on offer, we sometimes lose track of the MYTHICAL aspect of myth.  When we are so earnest to believe in something fantastical, any captivating narrative will do.  If the narrative serves as a compelling vehicle for an ideology, then all the better.

We all like to think that WE (however defined) have had a glorious past–a bygone “golden” age to which we can harken back.  This comes in handy whenever we need some kind of validation–or, as the case may be, consolation.  A well-woven etiological yarn serves as a touchstone–something wonderful to “get back to” in times of strife (a touchstone in a time of existential disorientation).  In the event that one can’t find a source of pride in the present, one may resort to an embellished past to “do the trick”.

Anyone who deigns to bring the dubiousness of a sanctified narrative to light is invariably persona non grata; and often excoriated for heretical thinking.  For such a person is tampering with a homeostasis.  Those who have the audacity to upset sacred apple-carts are, as it were, threatening to bring down a house of cards (a dogmatic edifice on which others have come to depend).  Such un-welcome interlopers are–to mix metaphors even further–raining on a very important parade.

It’s as if the marplot has impugned the believer personally (rather than that which he believes).  Rather than shooting the messenger, this posturing is often a matter of pretending that one has been SHOT BY the messenger, then pressing charges accordingly.

It comes a little surprise, then, that few disinterested parties have made an effort to summarize MoM’s life candidly–that is: infusing the account with oodles of maudlin apocrypha.  One of the more notable attempt at a sincere biopic was made in the 1840’s by the American man of letters, Washington Irving.  In composing the work, he merely sought to capture the MYTHOS of MoM–replete with apocrypha, though without the raft of overwrought exposition with which such works are typically festooned.  The result of this project was a dramatization entitled “Mahomet and His Successors”.

Reactionaries indulge in confabulation as the need arises–so as to accord with whatever version of events they have adopted, and maintain their sanctified dogmatic edifice.  Most people tend to prevaricate whenever their cherished claims collide with mountains of countervailing evidence.  Meanwhile, TRUTH is a nuisance to be disposed of whenever it undermines our most cherished beliefs.  So anything that does fit comfortably into the narrative is summarily jettisoned.

We often forget that “received wisdom” (alt. “conventional wisdom”) is often not wisdom at all.  It is simply what we’ve been notified we’re supposed to believe; or it is simply what someone said about something once, and happened to catch on.  Contrary to received wisdom:

The Egyptian pyramids at Giza were not built by enslaved workers (of ANY ethnicity, let alone Hebrews).  The Hebrews were never enslaved ANYWHERE.  And the Egyptians did not practice slavery.  There was never an “exodus” from Egypt.

Abraham Lincoln was not a died-in-the-wool abolitionist.  (Though he was not a fan of slavery, only after much hesitation did he finally issue the Emancipation Proclamation; and then primarily for strategic–rather than explicitly moral–reasons).

Walt Disney did not invent Mickey Mouse. (Ubbe Eert Iwerks did.)

However…It is easier to just hold that the Egyptian pyramids were built by (Hebrew) slaves, that Abrahamic Lincoln thought blacks were equal to whites, and credit Disney himself for Mickey.  That it’s all technically untrue needn’t pose a problem for most of us.  After all, why complicate what is a marvelously straight-forward (conventional) narrative with (disruptive) technicalities like, well, what ACTUALLY HAPPENED?

We might bear in mind that MoM is not the only figure about whom tall tales proliferate in Islamic lore.  In the Koran, we hear stories about an Arabian prophet named “Saleh” of Thamud / A[a]d.  The character seems to have been nay, re-purposed for Ishmaelite sensibilities; and thus co-opted into Mohammedan lore from antecedent pagan lore (rather than from extant Abrahamic lore).  Another prophet, “Idris” [ibn Yard ibn Mahla’il] (19:56-57) is considered to be the oldest Abrahamic prophet (after Adam).  Based on WHAT is anyone’s guess.  It seems to have sounded plausible at the time; so it stuck.

A minor folkloric Arabian figure was a woman named “Omm Kharija”, known for her many temporary marriages.  Whether she was a Mohammedan invention or was adopted from (pre-Islamic) Arabian folklore is hard to say.  But she caught on as well.

In the Maghreb, the “Taghribat Bani Hilal” [a.k.a. “Sirat Abu Zeid al-Hilali”] has played a prominent role in Arab folklore.  It tells of the Fatimid Caliph sending the (Arab) Banu Hilal to Tunisia to put down the Zirid [alt. “Zenata”; i.e. Sanhaja Berber] rebellion in the 11th century.  For centuries, this tale was orally-transmitted.  Unsurprisingly, it was crafted to glorify the in-group.

Shiites tell tales about their patriarchs–the heirs of Ali ibn Abi Talib: imams Husayn, then Ali “Zayn al-Abidin” [adornment of the worshippers], then Muhammad “al-Baqir” [revealer of knowledge], and then Jafar “al-Sadiq” [the Truthful].  Much of the lofty claims are dubious; but it serves an ideological purposes, so it touted with unassailable fervor.

Another example is the “Ali’d” [Shia, Persian] mystic, Shams al-Din Mohammad of Tabriz (a.k.a. “Shams-i Tabrizi”).  Variously described as Sufi or Isma’ili, he is said to have been the mentor of the famous Sufi poet, Jalal ad-Din Rumi (in Konya); and is best known for his “Maqalat” [Discourse].  (Shams-i Tabrizi was himself said to have been a disciple of a figure named “Baba Kamal al-Din Jumdi”.)  He is often downplayed by mainstream Muslims, though, as one of his beliefs was that his own tongue (Middle Persian) was so marvelous that the meanings and elegance found in Pahlavi literature could not be duplicated in Classical Arabic.  (Heresy!)

Also of note is the legend of “al-Khidr”, a mystic who was not explicitly identified in the Koran, yet who has cropped up in myriad Islamic folktales–specifically in Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s “Al-Zuhd” and Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari’s “The History”.  (He also appears in both Bukhari’s and Bayhaqi’s writings.)  The moniker is a variation on the Arabic term for “the Green One” (“al-Akhdar”)–which might explain why that particular color has often been accorded a prominent role in Islam.  This enchanting figure was probably a take-off on the Canaanite (Ugaritic) mystic, Kothar-wa-Khasis of Memphis–legends of whom date back to the late 3rd millennium B.C.  We know that the Semitic tale likely proliferated in the Hijaz, as it is referenced on Sumerian tablets from Ebla (Syria); and the Nabataeans were likely familiar with the figure.  (Curiously, Kothar-wa-Khasis was connected with the ancient Canaanite deity, Baal.)

There are also tales about Salman al-Farsi [“Salman the Persian”; actually named Roozbeh] in Islamic lore.  Salman was purportedly one of the Sahabah.  He eventually came to be governor of the Mesopotamian city of Al-Mada’in.  The credence of his historicity is anyone’s guess.  But, hey, it was surely fun to talk about; so the tale eventually caught on.

Before proceeding, we might survey the Koranic basis for the glorification of MoM.  Notably, in 3:31-32, god instructs MoM to tell everyone that “If you love god, then you will follow ME.”  The Koran then instructs followers to obey god and MoM together.  Mercy is therefore conditional–in part–on obeying MoM (i.e. following his “teachings”).  It is no wonder, then, that fabrications about MoM abound.  For many feel that they are–as it were–forced to countenance Mohammedan farce in order to lend their Faith credence.  To eschew said farce would be, in their minds, to abandon their Faith.  Insofar as fealty to MoM is a PROXY FOR fealty to the Abrahamic deity, the former becomes imperative.

There’s more.  4:65 tells us that Islam is about completely submitting not only to the Abrahamic deity, but also to MoM’s commands.   (This notorious verse effectively arrogates absolute authority to MoM.  His judgement / example is the final word on all matters.)  Thus, the Seal of the Prophets is a surrogate for divine authority: his edicts are to be taken as proxies for divine law.  If he decrees it, it is by the authority of the Abrahamic deity.  To reiterate this point, both 4:80 and 33:36 announce that to obey MoM IS to obey god.  And as if that still weren’t clear enough, 9:24 puts MoM with god as the object of ultimate devotion.  This “forces the hand” of any supplicant.  To wit: It sets Muslims up for HAVING to exalt MoM…lest their theology be undermined (and their holy book betrayed).  This ties the hands of the confessor.

In general, the concept of “nubuwwah” [prophethood] does not involve making obedience to the prophet HIMSELF a condition for salvation–as prophets often claim only to be facilitators.  So this “fealty to MoM” routine is a red herring–a deviation from the standard prophetic template.  This is a deviation, it turns out, that is in keeping with the modus operandi of ALL demagogues.  Bear in mind that the “I’m god’s mouthpiece” leitmotif had been in use since the Bronze Age.

It is insofar as MoM is rendered a proxy for the godhead that the Sunnah has purchase the lives of most people in Dar al-Islam.  Supplicants are compelled to not only submit to the Abrahamic deity, but to cow-tow to his designated proconsul on Earth.  4:65 and 33:36 make this cosmogenic arrangement crystal clear.

Indeed, we all have ancestors who believed outlandish things.  That needn’t reflect poorly on US.  Those of us who are well-adjusted to Reality have gotten past it.  Should the rest of mankind think so lowly of Muslims as to think them incapable of doing with THEIR heritage what the rest of the world can clearly do with theirs?

Reticence to come to terms with (actual) history stems from an anxiety about losing one’s spiritual moorings, one’s moral compass, and perhaps even the basis for one’s very identity.  This anxiety is compounded by the sense that one must avoid wounded pride by persisting in one’s dogmatic indulgences.  (Reactionary thinking is largely about fear.)  The difficulty in UN-doing conditioning is also a factor.  The deeply-ingrained mental habits that are endemic to hard-line religiosity (what neuro-scientists refer to as pathway dependency) is not an easy thing from which to extricate oneself–a matter I explore in Appendix 3 of the previous essay.

Most people are smitten with the lore that they’ve inherited from their forefathers.  For the True Believer, though, HOW it (actually) came to be what it now happens to be is entirely beside the point.  It is what it is; and that’s the bottom line.  It’s sacrosanct; so we’re NOT SUPPOSED to question it.

To reiterate: Embellishment has a ratcheting effect.  This is true for ALL of us; as it is how memory tends to work.  Once it has been thoroughly inculcated, we are reticent to subject our coveted impression–which takes on the status of an ironclad conviction–to critical scrutiny (let alone to relinquish it if it comports marvelously with our sensibilities).  The psychology here is quite straight-forward: Once firmly instantiated, it becomes difficult to rescind an enticing IDEA from one’s memetic repertoire.  Why disrupt a glib psychic homeostasis with discursive perturbations?  If a long-coveted narrative seems to serve its purpose, we will be strongly-inclined to continue to covet it.

What makes this ordeal exasperating is that much overt religiosity is a masquerade.  Few REALLY BELIEVE that which they publicly profess to believe.  Mullah Omar, faithful leader of the Taliban, banned music in Afghanistan–though apparently liked very much to listen to Rod Stewart behind closed doors.  Homosexuality is forbidden in Islamic theocracies, yet there are countless Saudi oil billionaires and Iranian ayatollahs and Pashtun mullahs who covertly maintain boy harems.  Etc.  What we often find with objects of fetishization–like Islam’s holy book and its prophet–is a second-order belief (BELIEF IN believing something; without actually believing the thing itself).  Due to its hyper-ritualized nature, religion is often more a performance than a sincere enterprise.

MoM a humble man?  Hardly.  According to his own wife, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, MoM once relayed to her that “the angel in charge of the mountains” had called out to him and said, “May god praise you and keep you safe from all evil!  Oh, Muhammad, I will do whatever you command me to do.  If you want, I can bring the Akh-Shabain mountains together and crush them all!” (Bukhari no. 3059). {17}

Let’s suppose for a moment that this REALLY HAPPENED.  What is the appropriate response to such a swaggering pronouncement from one’s spouse?  “Really, dear?  THAT is what ‘the angel in charge of the mountains’ said to you today?  Splendid.  Now eat your dinner.”

It should go without saying that these are the words of a deluded popinjay.  Only a man who was–shall we say–rather full of himself would utter such a thing (no matter how “special” he may have purportedly been*).  So let’s assume MoM actually said this.  In real life, what role could such a statement possibly play?  None.  It is an utterly inane thing to say.

But here’s the thing: Such words might be put into the mouth of a story’s protagonist for NARRATIVE reasons…which is precisely why we encounter this rather silly anecdote in the hadith.  Note that it is in keeping with passages in the Koran like 68:4, in which MoM notified everyone that god said to HIM: “You are of magnificent character.”  Thus we have a first-person communique addressed to MoM in Islam’s holy book.  (Other verses of this nature (in the first person) include 21:107-8, 33:46-47, and 68:5.)  The lesson to learn: MoM was of magnificent character.  “That’s what god told ME.  So YOU must believe it.”  

The “I am the god’s mouthpiece” gimmick is simple: By fashioning oneself as god’s vicar on Earth, one renders oneself unimpeachable.  For if a man is a proxy for the godhead, then to rebuff that man is tantamount to rebuffing the godhead.

Meanwhile, we encounter a memo composed in the SECOND person (addressed to the general audience) in 33:21: “In the prophet of god, you have an excellent example.”  Also see 9:128; as well as two other verses in Surah 33 (41 and 57).

Additionally, there are verses in the THIRD person to reiterate the point (e.g. 48:29).  This is also done in the Hadith.  In Bukhari (129/36/22), MoM refers to himself in the THIRD person, declaring: “I have been commanded to fight the people until they bear witness that none has the right to be worshipped but god; and that Mohammed is the messenger of god.”  He then switches back to the first person: “If they establish ‘salat’ and pay the ‘zakat’, then their blood and wealth are protected from me.”  The implication here is plain to see: If one does not submit, one is not safe.

In any lived experience, such bumptious declarations about oneself serve no purpose other than indulging one’s own braggadocio.  There are psychological diagnoses for people that say such things; yet hagiographers expect the world to exempt their figure-of-choice from any frank diagnostic scrutiny.

In the summary that follows, we will look at what MoM DID, not at what he is said to have said.  There are other points that are readily made via the most elementary of deduction.  It seems not to occur to many Islamic apologists that men who might accurately be described as “mild-mannered” tend not to become military commanders obsessed with conquest, assassination, and plunder.  Vengeance was incontrovertibly MoM’s forte–just as with the protagonist of his recitations.

As we saw in part 1 of this series, MoM’s movement was–first and foremost–based on piracy; and thus on militancy.  (Show me a tender-hearted pirate, and I’ll show you a carnivorous vegan.)  As I attempted to show, the “nabi” of Islamic lore is more a dramatis personae than a historical figure.  Having become so infatuated with this fictional character (the product of centuries of hagiographic artifice), many have succumbed to what can only be described as institutionalized paramnesia.  This enables them to take a sordid career and pass it off as the most sterling of records (then summarily accuse anyone who doesn’t play along of being–somehow–bigoted).  There is, of course, nothing wrong with revering a kind, caring prophet who urged nothing but good will.  However, when one prizes a fictional character more than one prizes Truth, things can’t help but go awry.

Step one in forging a Progressive version of Islam is disabusing ourselves of fanciful impressions that have no basis in reality.  After all, one cannot reform something without first acknowledging what, exactly, it is that is in need of reforming.  Here, we’ll debunk three myths.

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