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Michael Cook on Why Muhammad Matters

Posted by on October 1, 2013

How and Why Muhammad Made a Difference

This is a lecture by Michael Cook to mostly journalists concerning the legacy of Muhammad and why he mattered. The link provided includes the Q&A session as well as the lecture, cut below:


May 22, 2006

How and Why Muhammad Made a Difference

Key West, Florida

Some of the nation’s leading journalists gathered in Key West, Florida, in May 2006 for the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle conference on religion, politics and public life. Conference speaker Michael Cook, widely considered among the most outstanding scholars on the history of Islam, is the author of several classic works on Muhammad and early Islamic theology, including A Brief History of the Human Race (2005) and Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (2001) In this presentation, Cook vividly described the merging of politics and religion in the life of Muhammad and how this legacy shapes the Muslim world today.

Michael Cook, Cleveland Dodge professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Adviser, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In Mr. Cook’s presentation, he refers to a packet of visual aids he provided to the audience, which are relevant to his remarks. We recommend the reader download and print a copy of this packet before reading the transcript.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Welcome to Key West. We’re delighted you could be here. We have a group of your colleagues who meet twice a year for lunch to talk about what the next conference should be about, and what topics we should cover. When we met last time, it was at the height of the cartoon controversy, and we wanted an expert on Islam and Muhammad to speak. Everybody in the room agreed that if we could get Professor Michael Cook, it would be great because Dr. Cook is one of the leading authorities, not only in this country but in the world, on the subject.
Professor Cook holds the Cleveland Dodge chair of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, a chair formerly held by his teacher, Bernard Lewis. He’s the author of many books. One of his most recent books is called A Brief History of the Human Race. One of our first questions to him will be: How does one write a brief history of the human race? I hope he’ll tell us.

MICHAEL COOK: I ought to start by apologizing for the fact that I am bringing you stale news. I’m a card-carrying medievalist. I’m here to talk about how and why Muhammad made a difference. Just about everything I’m talking about will be events that happened in the seventh century — (laughter) — but don’t get the idea that those events are therefore irrelevant to the present day. I suspect that some of them are deeply relevant, though sometimes in ways that I’m not good at articulating. I’ll try and come back to that at the end.

I’m not going to drop you straight into the seventh century. That would be unkind. I want to back up a few centuries and give you some background about the rise of monotheism. Maybe you know all about that already. In that case, I’m just reminding you.

The rise of monotheism happened late in the day. For something like a thousand years, you had monotheism, and it didn’t make a significant dent on world history. For many centuries, it was the religion of the ancient Israelites, a small Near Eastern people, and of their descendants, the Jews. Even when it started to spread to non-Jews in significant numbers in the form of Christianity, Christianity remained for the best part of three centuries the religion of a persecuted minority. But that changed dramatically in the fourth century, and the guy who changed it was the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Constantine adopted Christianity as his religion and, by extension, as the religion of the Roman Empire. At that point, monotheism, in its Christian form, for the first time became a bandwagon. Down until the time of Constantine, you had to be pretty strongly interested in your eternal salvation for it to make sense to convert to Christianity. After Constantine, people like you and me are jumping on the bandwagon. Well, I shouldn’t speak for you, but people like me are jumping on the bandwagon. It makes excellent sense in this world to convert to Christianity.

What’s relevant from my point of view, from our point of view, is that this bandwagon effect is not confined to the Roman Empire. It’s very strong there, but it’s also pulling and tugging on peoples outside the empire. From the fourth century onward, a whole series of peoples around the Roman world decide to give up their ancestral paganism and convert to Christianity. It’s the Franks; it’s the English; it’s the Irish; it’s the Goths; it’s the Armenians, the Georgians, the Ethiopians — you name them. This is a big historical trend. But whenever you have a big historical trend, there’s going to be somebody out there bucking the trend.

For example, you have pagan holdouts — people like the Lithuanians who are so incredibly obstinate that 1,000 years after Constantine, they still insist on worshiping their pagan gods. Or you have people who like to play the field, like the Khazars. The Khazars turn up their noses at Christianity, and they decide to take their monotheistic medicine in the form of Judaism.

Both those peoples are of some consequence if you study the history of the regions they lived in. But they didn’t, either of them, make a significant dent on world history; the Arabs did. How did the Arabs do it? First and perhaps most important of all, the Arabs did not convert to Christianity like everybody else. Neither did they cling obstinately to their ancestral paganism. Nor did they turn up their noses at Christianity and adopt Judaism. What they did was to come up with a monotheist religion of their own. That initiated an extraordinary series of events.

The Arabs, in their Arabian homeland, came together to form a state. Then they set out from their homeland and conquered an empire that stretched all the way from Spain to Central Asia and northwestern India. That empire was the crucible in which the Islamic world as we know it began to come into existence.

It’s an extraordinary sequence of events, and lots of people are involved in it. But the most crucial person is Muhammad, because he was the one who gave the Arabs their new monotheism and established their state.

How and why did he manage to make that difference, a difference that has made an enormous dent on the history of the world and continues to dent the world as we know it today? The prosaic answer is that he was 1) a successful prophet and 2) a successful politician.

First, Muhammad as a prophet. Muhammad was born about 570. Forty years later, around 610, he began to receive revelations from on high. He continued to receive those revelations for something like 20 years, and collectively, those revelations constitute the Koran. The Koran was put together in the exact form in which we have it today something like 20 years after his death in 632. Some time around 650 — give or take a few years — the Koran is put together the way it is now.

What I have to do now is give you the message of the Koran. How do I do that? In a talk of this length, I have reduced the Koran to a sound bite. I feel bad about that. What authority do I have to reduce God’s message to a sound bite? Fortunately, the early Muslims come to my aid. They didn’t have the concept of a sound bite, but they did develop by the end of the seventh century a concept to which I can give the name of a “coin bite.”

Let me show you a typical coin, a completely non-Islamic coin, an American quarter (Page 3). Does that look vaguely familiar? This is a classic recipe for a coin. One side is political; the other side you could call religious. On the political side, you have a guy’s head, and he’s your king, or if not, then some equivalent figure. This side, you have an eagle, because either you guys worship an eagle god, or else maybe the eagle is a national symbol.

Here is a seventh century coin, and it’s exactly the same recipe (Page 4). This is typical of the design of coins minted by the Persian Empire, which is the empire the Arabs knocked down when they set out to conquer the world. This style is a little different, but it’s the same recipe. You’ve got the guy’s head there — that’s the Persian emperor. Unlike George Washington, he has a crown on his head. Over here, we have a Zoroastrian fire altar and a couple of attendants on either side. There’s the political side and the religious side — same basic design.

But the odd thing about this coin is, as some of you may have noticed, we have a bit of Arabic script. What’s that doing here? This coin was minted long after the Persian Empire disappeared, some time in the 690s, and it was minted not under Persian rule but under the rule of the Arabs — the Muslims. What on earth were the Arabs doing making propaganda for an empire they had destroyed and for a religion theirs had superseded? It’s a good question, and eventually they started to ask themselves that question. They decided it was time for something different (Page 5). It’s recognizable as a coin: It’s round, has two sides, but everything else is changed. There is nothing but words here. Nobody’s head, nobody’s symbol, just words. In fact, 45 words in Arabic script, and those 45 words are the coin bite.

I guess you guys don’t readily decipher Arabic script on seventh century coins, so let me make it a bit easier. If you can’t read it, never mind; I can.

First, there are eight words used for a purely business purpose. This dirham — that’s the kind of coin this is — was minted in 733 or 734. That’s all we get. No name of any ruler is mentioned. Everything else on this coin is made over to God, and the words are derived from the Koran. Here we have the Koran reduced to a coin bite, and let’s see what the Muslims in the late seventh century decided to put there.

“There is no God but God alone without companion.” That’s good: no-compromise, no-nonsense monotheism — very clear. We flip to the other side, and here in the center we have a rather longer passage: “He is God, One. God, the everlasting refuge, who has not begotten and has not been begotten and equal to him is not anyone” (Koran, chapter 112.) That’s the same uncompromising monotheism, but note also a side swipe at the Christians. The Christians are notorious for believing that God has a son; hence, the denial here that God has begotten anyone.

Finally, down here around the margin, we have: “Muhammad is the messenger of God” — that’s a parting of the ways with the Jews and Christians, who don’t believe that Muhammad is a prophet — “whom He has sent with the guidance and the religion of truth” — so Muhammad’s religion is the religion of truth, Islam is the religion of truth, and this Jewish and Christian stuff is not — “that He may uplift it above every religion, though the unbelievers be averse” — that’s what, in religion departments, is called triumphalism.

There might be things I personally would have liked to see included on their coin, but let’s just leave it at that; that’s what they chose to put there. That’s as much as I wanted to say about Muhammad as a prophet, so you’ve got his message.

Now, Muhammad as a politician. In the timeline I’ve given you (Page 1) there are three events from the career of the prophet as a politician: the migration from Mecca to Medina, the raid on the Banu ‘l-Mustaliq and the submission of Mecca. Two of those events are very important — the migration to Medina and the submission of Mecca — but they’re not the ones I’m going to talk about at any length.

The migration from Mecca to Medina is the central political event of the prophet’s career. The prophet has a problem in Mecca, and he finds the solution in Medina.

The problem in Mecca is he and his followers are unpopular with the pagan population. Why? Because of their monotheist incivility: They go around trashing pagan gods, and that’s not appreciated. Muhammad has to get his followers out of Mecca and find somewhere where they’ll be more secure. The answer, after a long search, is Medina.

Medina is an oasis about 200 miles north of Mecca that is in an awful political mess. Some of the Medinans had a hunch if they brought in Muhammad, he could clear up the mess, get things together and life could be more tolerable for them. They invite Muhammad to come, and they let him bring his followers along, too.

Muhammad establishes himself in Medina, and once he’s established in Medina, he starts to build a state — a rudimentary, rather tribal state. This is the depths of Arabia, but it’s a real state. Between 622 and 632, he is expanding the power of his state. One of the milestones in the expansion of that power over Arabia is the submission of his own hometown of Mecca in 630.

What about this raid on the Banu ‘l-Mustaliq? By the standards of the other events just mentioned, this is a trivial event. That’s exactly why I’m going to tell you about it: Because I can use it to give you a sense of the texture of Muhammad’s political career. The map on Page 2 shows you Arabia — in context — Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Roman Empire up there, Persian Empire up there, and here is Medina where the prophet in 622 is beginning to establish his state.

Who are these Banu ‘l-Mustaliq? They are a small tribal group that lives in the desert between Mecca and the sea. Why does Muhammad decide to attack them? He gets intelligence that they’re about to attack him, so it’s a preemptive strike. Of course, we don’t have their account of it. That’s how the story is told in our sources: that this is a preemptive strike.

Muhammad comes down from Medina with his troops, his followers, and he catches the Banu ‘l-Mustaliq — the tribe — by surprise at a watering place, and there’s a battle. I think 10 members of the tribe get killed. Two hundred of them are taken captive; that means they are slaves. Some of those 200 are men, but many of them are women and children.

Muhammad has scored a victory. What has it cost him? Very little. Only one Muslim has been killed on the battlefield. Only one of his followers has been killed, and I’ll come back to that.

At this point, the military operation is over, and Muhammad turns around and takes his followers back to Mecca. At least that’s the military side of it. What about the politics?

First of all, there’s the Muslim that got killed in the battle. What I didn’t tell you is he didn’t die heroically fighting the enemy. It was a case of friendly fire. Another of Muhammad’s followers mistook him for the enemy and killed him, and this creates problems. The family of the slain man, under Muslim rules, has a claim to blood money. The slain man has a brother who lives in Mecca. Mecca at this time is pagan — the brother is pagan — but he comes to Muhammad’s camp, and he pretends that he’s converted to Islam. Muhammad thinks that the guy is playing by Muslim rules, and he makes arrangements for the guy to get the blood money. But when nobody is paying attention, the guy, who’s actually playing by pagan rules, kills the killer of his brother and absconds. He goes back to Mecca, extemporizing poetry about how now he’s through with being a Muslim and is going back to being a good old-fashioned pagan.

Muhammad has been had, and there’s nothing he can do about it. But not quite nothing. A few years later in 630, when Mecca submits to him, Muhammad behaves magnanimously, but he does have a hit list of certain people that he’s not going to forgive. This guy who had pretended to be a Muslim and killed the killer of his brother is one of them.

Now let me tell you about an incident that was much more threatening and dangerous. First, two bits of background. One, we’re still by the watering place, and a watering place in western Arabia is a pretty small affair. This is a very arid part of the world. If people are crowding around the watering place, there’s going to be pushing and shoving. Two, you may tend to think of Muhammad’s followers as being a band of brothers who will fight for each other to the death, who are totally loyal to each other, etc., and, at a certain level, you may be right. But it could be more accurate to think of Muhammad’s followers as a shaky coalition. One of several fault lines that runs through this coalition is the distinction between the prophet’s Meccan followers and his Medinan followers. The Medinans don’t like the Meccans that much. They feel resentful. Their view is: “We were so decent to these Meccan guys. We let them come here as refugees, and look at them! Now they’re taking over our oasis. Why are we putting up with this?”

So what happens at the water hole? Two men get into a shoving match. These two men are not people of any particular consequence, but they do have some connections, and one of them is connected to the prophet’s Meccan followers; the other is connected to the prophet’s Medinan followers. The shoving match escalates into a fight, and the two men then call out for help from their people.

I should mention here a character called Ibn Ubayy. He is a Medinan, and he’s a lukewarm Muslim. He goes along, but he’s not happy. The reason he’s not happy is before the prophet came to Medina, Ibn Ubayy was a powerful man with ambitions to make himself king of the oasis. When Muhammad comes, his ambitions disintegrate, and he’s sulky about it. He will never miss an opportunity to go to the prophet’s Medinan followers and say, “Why are you putting up with these Meccans?” That’s exactly what he’s doing on this occasion of the shoving match at the water hole. He’s going around, out of earshot of the prophet, saying to the prophet’s Medinan followers: “The first thing we should do when we get back to Medina is throw those Meccans out.” It’s not a good situation, and the prophet hears about it.

What is Muhammad to do? Like any sensible politician, the first thing he does is ask for advice. He gets advice from one of his Meccan followers who says: “You’ve got to take Ibn Ubayy and kill him right now.” But Muhammad is not happy with that idea because he’s afraid of the backlash. He gets advice from one of his Medinan followers, and the guy says: “You should be nice to this guy, because the bottom line is you are in a stronger political position than him.”

What does Muhammad actually do? As politicians often do, he does nothing. No, that’s not quite right. He does do something. He orders his followers to march back to Medina on the double. The result is they’re so exhausted they don’t have any energy left for bickering. Luckily, they don’t encounter a hostile armed force; that could have been a disaster. The plan works — Muhammad gets them back to Medina. After that, Ibn Ubayy fades out; he loses credit with his own people and dies soon after. Muhammad can’t resist congratulating himself for making the right decision.

I’ve given you lots of detail. Let’s stand back from the trees and see if we can find a wood here.

The first one is the extraordinary success of Muhammad in initiating a chain of events that establishes the Islamic world. We’ve seen he has a message from on high. He has skill as a military leader and a politician. But how does he make the leap from a being a guy with a message and political skill to having this enormous impact on world history?

Let’s go back and think for a minute about Arabia. I’ve mentioned before that Arabia is an arid part of the world. Before the days of oil, Arabia is also poor. Very poor compared to the densely settled agricultural lands outside Arabia, and immensely poor compared to, say, northwestern Europe or southern China or the eastern United States. Poor environments are an unfriendly place for states. If you want to establish a halfway decent state, you need a nice, fat tax base, and you’re not going to find that in Arabia. Instead of states in Arabia, what you find are tribes. Because of the impoverished environment, these tribes tend to be rather flat — they don’t have steep social hierarchies. That means in Arabia basically every adult male has to be a warrior and a politician in his own right. It’s a society with a high level of military and political skill and activity, but it’s also a society without any central coordination. The result is, through the centuries, the Arabs fritter away their military and political energy in small-scale conflict among themselves. That’s why, before the seventh century, the tribes are never a big danger to their neighbors outside Arabia. Sure, they come and raid and steal the chickens and kidnap a few people, but it’s nothing big.

What Muhammad somehow did — using not only his political skills but also his monotheist message that came from outside the tribal system — was to get the Arabs on the same page. If you could do that, even temporarily, you could send the Arabs out to conquer the world. Not in Muhammad’s lifetime, but a couple of years after his death, starting in 634 — that’s when his followers conquer this empire stretching from Spain to Central Asia. They had never done it before, and they never did it again. Muhammad, in his dual role as prophet and politician, is the absolutely crucial factor that made it possible.

That’s one angle. For the other angle let me go back to what I was saying about Christianity becoming a bandwagon in the fourth century. Any world religion must have become a bandwagon at some stage in its history, or it wouldn’t be a world religion. But world religions vary with regard to the timing of the bandwagon effect. In the Christian case, you have to wait until the fourth century for the Christian bandwagon to start rolling. Before the fourth century, you have to be pretty concerned about your eternal salvation for it to make sense to become a Christian.

In the Muslim case, the timing is quite different. Once the prophet gets to Medina, once he establishes this state, there is already the beginning of a bandwagon. In other words, the bandwagon effect in Islam comes extremely early. What does this mean? It means three things. One is that the historical experiences of early Christianity and early Islam are completely different. In the Christian case, you have a religion that remains the religion of a persecuted minority for the best part of three centuries. All the basic shapes of the religion are already set before the bandwagon starts. By contrast, in the Islamic case, you have less than 12 years in which the Muslims are a persecuted minority in Mecca. From that point on, once they get to Medina, and the prophet starts building his state, the bandwagon is rolling.

If, as you listen to my stories of the prophet, you have the Gospels in mind, you must have a sense that these stories are very, very different. They not only relate different historical circumstances, but they are told to a different audience. The audience of the Gospels is people who are seriously concerned about their salvation. The audience of the stories I’ve told you — well, the salvation-minded might be listening, too — but these stories cater to the military and political elite of the Arab-Islamic Empire. They address people who are interested in military operations, who like to know about preemptive strikes and incidents of friendly fire. These stories are told for people extremely interested in politics, who are fascinated by the judgment calls required to keep a shaky coalition together.

I hope you see this difference, this interest in military and political affairs, which makes the life of Muhammad, as it is written, so different in texture from the life of Jesus, as it’s written in the Gospels. Think what it means that you have, at the present day, these two utterly different heritages, these two utterly different ways of approaching and describing the life of the founder of the religion. I think that helps explain both why Islamic fundamentalism has been such a relative success in recent decades, and why people coming from a Christian background find it incredibly hard to understand it.


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