On 10 May 1994, Yasir Arafat gave what he thought was an off-the-record talk at a mosque while visiting Johannesburg, South Africa. But a South African journalist, Bruce Whitfield of 702 Talk Radio, found a way secretly to record his (English-language) remarks. The moment was an optimistic one for the Arab-Israeli peace process, Arafat having just six days earlier returned triumphantly to Gaza; it was widely thought that the conflict was winding down. In this context, Arafat's bellicose talk in Johannesburg about a "jihad to liberate Jerusalem," had a major impact on Israelis, beginning a process of disillusionment that has hardly abated in the intervening years.
No less damaging than his comments about Jerusalem was Arafat's cryptic allusion about his agreement with Israel. Criticized by Arabs and Muslims for having made concessions to Israel, he defended his actions by comparing them to those of the Prophet Muhammad in a similar circumstance:
I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca.
Arafat further drew out the comparison, noting that although Muhammad had been criticized for this diplomacy by one of his leading companions (and a future caliph), 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, the prophet had been right to insist on the agreement, for it helped him defeat the Quraysh and take over their city of Mecca. In a similar spirit,
we now accept the peace agreement, but [only in order] to continue on the road to Jerusalem.
In the five years since he first alluded to Muhammad and the Quraysh, Arafat has frequently mentioned this as a model for his own diplomacy.
Though this allusion to events in early Islamic history is completely obscure to non-believers, many Muslims are familiar with the prophet's agreement with the Quraysh. Mentioning it in Johannesburg and often times since permits Arafat to send an almost clandestine message about his intentions toward Israel, one intelligible to Muslims but not to the rest of the world. What intentions did Arafat convey with his reference to the prophet's biography? An answer requires a historical excursus to the original incident nearly fourteen centuries ago.
There is a second reason carefully to review Arafat's reference, for it set off an unsettling debate in the United States, one which provoked some threatening comments. These in turn raise freedom-of-speech issues when the topic concerns Islamic sensitivities.
The Prophet Muhammad's life is by no means a conventional topic of research, and so requires a few words of introduction.
A century ago, the French critic Ernest Renan famously observed that Muhammad was the only religious leader who lived "in the full light of history." By this, he meant that the Arabic literary sources - religious texts, biographical accounts, chronicles, and much more - are replete with information about Muhammad's life. Beyond the impressive level of detail, they also provide plenty of evidence that can be interpreted as detrimental to the prophet's reputation - which of course only adds to their credibility.
But the sources that seemed so solid in Renan's time soon came under a sustained critique from scholars who cast severe doubts on their accuracy. Starting with the publication in 1889-90 of Muhammadan Studies by the great Hungarian orientalist Ignaz Goldziher, orientalists such as the legal scholar Joseph Schacht and the religious historian John Wansborough have developed a complex theory about the origins of Islam. In very brief, they note that the conventional biography of Muhammad was only recorded in literary sources decades or even centuries after the events they described. The scholars theorize that the information about Muhammad was not (as Muslims hold) passed down from one generation to another via an oral tradition; instead, it was conjured up only much later as ammunition for heated arguments about the Islamic religion. To score points, Goldziher and others argue, the latter-day polemicists associated their own views to the life of Muhammad.
Scholars who accept this approach more or less ignore the standard Muslim account about early Islam and the life of the prophet. In their new version of those events, Mecca, Muhammad, and the Qur'an are all quite transformed. In perhaps the most radical of these efforts, Hagarism, a 1977 study by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, the authors completely exclude the Arabic literary sources and reconstruct the early history of Islam only from the information to be found in Arabic papyri, coins, and inscriptions as well as non-Arabic literary sources in a wide array of languages (Aramaic, Armenian, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Syriac). This approach leads Crone and Cook in wild new directions. In their account, Mecca's role is replaced by a city in northwestern Arabia and Muhammad was elevated "to the role of a scriptural prophet" only about A.D. 700, or seventy years after his death. As for the Qur'an, it was compiled in Iraq at about that same late date.
While these ideas are fraught with implications for the Islamic religion, many of them potentially beneficial, believing Muslims have for the most part studiously avoided paying any attention to this line of research. And so a strange - and ultimately unsustainable - duality now exists, with the scholars in the role of termites, eating away at the magnificent traditional structure and the believers acting as though the beams and joints were as strong as ever.
Turning to the Treaty of Hudaybiya and the conquest of Mecca: every last detail about these subjects comes from the Arabic literary sources. For the purposes of this discussion, which has to do with Arafat's statement and his audience's interpretation of it, the issue is not at all what happened in the seventh century but what the Arabic written sources tell about those events and how Muslims today understand them. In other words, we need only look at the literary sources - which greatly simplifies matters, for all analysts work from precisely the same texts.
This much established, what do the Arabic literary sources say?
The sources tell of tensions between Muhammad and the grandees of the Quraysh tribe who controlled Mecca, his home city. The Quraysh leaders viewed the upstart prophet as a direct threat to their interests for his monotheistic message undermined Mecca's status as a pilgrimage destination for followers of the polytheistic Arabian religions. Tensions between Quraysh and the nascent Muslim community eventually forced Muhammad to flee the city in 622 C.E., when he found refuge in Medina, a town to the north of Mecca. By 628, Muhammad had built enough strength in Medina to challenge the Quraysh and possibly to vanquish them and take their city; instead, he reached an agreement with them. Named the Treaty of Hudaybiya after the town where it was signed, this pact disappointed many of the Muslims, who were spoiling for a fight. The treaty held that the two sides
agreed to remove war from the people for ten years. During this time the people are to be security and no one is to lay hands on another. . . . Between us evil is to be abstained from, and there is to be no raiding or spoilation.In the twenty-two months after signing the treaty, Muhammad significantly built up his power base. He made new conquests and formed alliances with powerful tribes, in particular with the Bani Khuza'a. As a result, by 630, he was considerably stronger vis-à-vis Quraysh than at the time of the signing. Quraysh did less well in terms of making new alliances, but it did ally with another strong tribe, the Bani Bakr.
Now, the Bani Khuza'a and the Bani Bakr lived near each other and had a long history of feuding - and feuding in Arabia, as in Appalachia, was passed on from generation to generation. In December 629, some of the Bani Bakr, possibly with Quraysh help, took vengeance on a party of the Bani Khuza'a, killing several of the latter. On hearing this news, Muhammad instantly opted for the most drastic response - to attack Mecca. It appears that he had decided the time had come to challenge the ultimate power base of Quraysh in their home city.
In response, Quraysh sent a delegation to Muhammad, petitioning him to maintain the treaty, and offering (as was the Arabian fashion) material compensation for the lives of the dead men. Muhammad, however, had no interest in a compromise and rejected all Quraysh entreaties. In an act of desperation, Abu Sufyan, leader of the Quraysh delegation, went to the mosque in Medina and proclaimed, "O people, I guarantee protection for all!" To this, Muhammad dryly replied, "You say this, O Abu Sufyan, not any one of us."
Muhammad had already made quiet preparations for an assault on Quraysh. This meant once the desultory negotiations ended, he was ready in short order to advance with a huge force on Mecca. So impressive was his army that the Meccans made no effort to resist it. Instead, they surrendered their city without a fight in January 630. And so ended the Hudaybiya incident.
What is one to make of this sequence of events? Two points stand out. First, Muhammad was technically within his rights to abrogate the treaty, for the Quraysh, or at least their allies, had broken its terms. Second, it is equally clear that his response was disproportionate to the infraction: a raid by an allied tribe, even possibly with Quraysh connivance, hardly warranted conquest of the enemy's entire territory.
Combining these points leads to this conclusion: If there is no basis to accuse the Muslims of breaching their promise, there is reason to wonder what validity the treaty had if the Muslim forces were at the ready, seemingly prepared to exploit any minor incident to destroy a rival. The issue here is not a legal one but a moral and political one.
Nearly all Western historians agree with this judgment. Here, in rough chronological order, is how a few authorities have assessed Muhammad's actions. Note that while the earlier writers used harsher language (pretext, casus belli), the later authors do not disagree with them on the essentials:
William Muir, writing in 1861: "the alleged infraction . . . by the Coreish afforded Mahomet a fair pretext for the grand object of his ambition, the conquest of Mecca."
Carl Brockelmann, 1939: Muhammad "was simply waiting for a pretext to settle accounts with [Quraysh] once and for all. A brawl between a Bedouin tribe converted to Islam and some partisans of Quraysh, in which some townsmen from Mecca itself are supposed to have taken part, presented a pretext for declaring the peace broken."
Bernard Lewis, 1950: "the murder of a Muslim by a Meccan for what appears to have been a purely private difference of opinion served as casus belli for the final attack and the conquest of Mecca."
Montgomery Watt, 1956: "In the year 628 at al-Hudaybiyah it had suited Muhammad to make peace and end the blockade, for he was then able to devote greater energy to the work among the nomadic tribes. In the twenty-two months following the treaty, however, his strength grew rapidly; and when his allies of Khuza'ah appealed for help he apparently felt that the moment had come for action."
John Glubb, 1970: "It is possible that the Prophet himself was ill content at the prospect of having to wait ten years before he could march on Mecca, which now seemed as ready as a ripe plum to fall into his lap. He may consequently have welcomed the opportunity Beni Kinana had supplied, enabling him to break the truce."
Marshall Hogdson, 1974: "Muhammad interpreted a skirmish between some Bedouin allies of the Quraysh and of the Muslims as a breach of the treaty by the Quraysh."
Frank Peters, 1994: "The violation might have been settled in other ways-the Quraysh appeared willing to negotiate - but in January 630 A.D. Muhammad judged the occasion fit and the time appropriate for settling accounts with the polytheists in Mecca for once and for all."
And Arafat - what does the reference to Hudaybiya suggest about his future actions? It appears that he made the comparison with the Prophet Muhammad to make several points to a Muslim audience about his own actions:
- He made unpopular concessions that will turn out well in the end.
- He will achieve his goal - though what that goal is remains ambiguous: it might be just the city of Jerusalem (in parallel to the city of Mecca) or the whole of Israel (in parallel to the whole Quraysh dominion).
- He intends, at the right moment, to exploit a minor transgression to attack his enemy.
It bears noting how easily Arafat or a future Palestinian leader will find this to do-legally. Arafat has already signed five complex agreements with Israel that include hundreds of pages of mind-numbing detail. The Oslo II agreement of 28 September 1995, for example, runs 314 pages without attachments and includes a myriad of specifics. To take just one clause: Israeli authorities have obligated themselves to help the Palestinian Authority maintain a statistical system by transferring the "estimation procedures, forms of questionnaires, manuals, coding manuals, procedures for and results of quality control measures and analysis of surveys." The Hudaybiya precedent implies that Arafat can choose any lapse or transgression (say, not receiving the results of quality control measures) and turn this into a casus belli for an all-out attack on the Jewish state.
Muhammad as a Perfect Human
Arafat's Hudaybiya reference has reverberated for over five years, spurring debate about both the Hudaybiya episode itself and his intentions. Newspapers and magazines not usually in the business of opining on seventh-century events, much less with the sacred history of Islam, find themselves thrust into a wholly unfamiliar (and thoroughly discomforting) subject area. Often they make mistakes. Whether they deal with this topic accurately or not, the response of American Muslim institutions bear close watching. In general, they respond to any criticism of Muhammad's actions with unvarnished rage and sometimes even with intimidation.
Before delving into the American scene, some background is again needed, this time on Muslim attitudes toward the Prophet Muhammad:
Early Muslims saw Muhammad as an exemplary human but by no means a perfect one. Indeed, they dared not. The Qur'an itself refers to Muhammad as "erring" (93:7) and includes much information that reveals his foibles. Perhaps the most damning concerns the Satanic verses episode when, for evidently political reasons, Muhammad recognized the validity of pagan Meccan gods (53:19-21), thereby temporarily making Islam into a polytheistic religion (and appeasing his Quraysh critics). Internal evidence suggests to Muhammad's leading modern Western biographer, Montgomery Watt, that the Satanic verses incident must be true: "It seems impossible that any Muslim could have invented this story."
Then, over the centuries, Muhammad's blemishes faded. That is because, as Annemarie Schimmel explains in her study of the prophet's place in the Islamic faith, "the personality of Muhammad is indeed, besides the Koran, the center of the Muslims' life." The jurists, the mystics, and the pious turned Muhammad into a paragon of virtue, explaining away his apparent faults. Fundamentalists took this process a step further; in their eyes, Muhammad has acquired a Jesus-like perfection. As concerns the Satanic verses episode, for example, an influential Egyptian intellectual simply dismissed information about it as "fabricated (even though it is in the Qur'an itself)," indeed, he calls it nothing less than "a fable and a detestable lie."
This Muslim attitude of protectiveness toward Muhammad also breeds deep resentment of Western Christians, who have never been shy about expressing their own, rather less elevated, views of Islam's prophet. To get the flavor of these it may suffice to note that one of Muhammad's medieval names, Mahound, is defined in The Oxford English Dictionary, as meaning the false prophet Muhammad, any false god, a monster, or the devil. In modern times too, disagreement on matter of Muhammad remains widespread and intense. On occasion, it even has direct political consequences. Encountering the Christian hatred of Muhammad made the European imperialist venture that much more unacceptable to Muslims; for example, Schimmel argues that this "is one of the reasons for the aversion of at least the Indian Muslims to the British."
The sanctity of the prophet among the believers is such that Muslims resist any but a completely pious discussion of his character and actions-and all the more so coming from unbelievers. As Shabbir Akhtar puts it in his aptly titled book, Be Careful with Muhammad!, "endorsement of Muhammad's prophethood was the distinguishing feature of the Muslim outlook. It was the responsibility of the Muslims, therefore, to guard the honor of their Prophet." Even the allegation of Muhammad's faults is deemed an insult against Islam and in some places is legally punishable. Pakistani law mandates imprisonment or death for "wilful defiling, damaging or desecration of the Holy Quran, and directly or indirectly, by words either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by an imputation, innuendo or insinuation defiling, the name of the Holy Prophet." This law has been often implemented, with several Christians sentenced to death under the law (one specifically for telling a Muslim that Salman Rushdie depicted the Prophet Muhammad accurately), though no capital sentences have yet been carried out. In addition, dozens of people are awaiting trial in Pakistan on blasphemy charges.
The sort of open-ended discussion that the West holds on virtually every topic is precisely what Muslims most do not wish to permit about their prophet. Accordingly, Westerners doing what comes naturally to them, saying just what they think about Muhammad, find themselves under a barrage of bitter criticism from fundamentalist Muslims. The most celebrated case, Salman Rushdie's, happens to involve a Muslim living in Great Britain, but the same sort of threat could befall a person of any religion living in any country (which explains, for example, why the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim felt constrained to write under a pseudonym).
This long legacy and vehement set of attitudes meant that when American journalists, scholars, and politicians opined about the Treaty of Hudaybiya, the Muslim institutional reaction was predictably hostile. The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization credibly said to have a "close connection" to Hamas, the Middle Eastern terrorist group, took the lead in trying to suppress critical discussion of Arafat's Hudaybiya reference. When a commentator or politician had the temerity to raise this subject, CAIR orchestrated an abusive Muslim response. The first instance occurred in an editorial in U.S. News & World Report on 10 June 1996, when the magazine's editor-in-chief, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, touched briefly on Hudaybiya:
The Israelis have a historic question: Is Arafat a true peacemaker, or does he believe his own rhetoric when he echoes the doctrine of the prophet Muhammad of making treaties with enemies while he is weak, violating them when he is strong?In the next issue of U.S. News & World Report, dated 17 June, the editors noted publicly in a "word to our readers" that "Many Muslim readers have called or written to complain that we spoke badly of the prophet Muhammad and his legacy"; privately, they told of feeling "under seige." In a lengthy and carefully worded retraction, the magazine made the following key points:
Readers ought to be assured that no disrespect for Islam as a religion or for the prophet Muhammad was intended in any way. . . . The 10-year truce was broken two years later by the Meccans.Still, the outraged messages kept coming in, for the magazine had not repudiated the notion that Muhammad had a "doctrine" of breaking his word. A week later, the editors addressed this point, and wrote what their Muslim critics insisted on hearing:
We deeply regret any ambiguity in the language; Mr. Zuckerman meant no insult. He was referring to Mr. Arafat's reference to the Prophet and did not intend to state that this was the doctrine of the Prophet. . . . ...it was the Meccans, not the prophet Muhammad, who broke the peace of Hudaybiah of 628.This abject apology did the trick, and the controversy came to a close.
In a second incident, Yehoshua Porath, a well-known professor of Middle Eastern history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote in The New Republic of 8 July 1996:
Arafat repeatedly equated the Oslo agreement with the Hudaybiya agreement, which the prophet Muhammad concluded during his wars with the Quraysh tribe. Muhammad broke the agreement eighteen months after its conclusion, when the balance of power changed in his favor, and it has become a guiding precedent in Islamic law for how to deal with non-Muslim powers.
Porath's credentials and stature perhaps explain why the reaction to this passage was particularly vehement. The New Republic editors explained in the 15 July issue:
Within days of publication, TNR was the target of hundreds of abusive phone calls, letters and e-mail accusing us of defamation of the Prophet and worse. It turned out that CAIR had, through CAIR-NET, its Internet site, exhorted the faithful to tell us off, and they did.Then follows a selection of foul, abusive, and threatening letters. A typical one read:
You guys had better watch out, ok? Because this is not going to go on further anymore, ok? You'd better watch out that f *ing Jew ... tell him where he is coming from, ok? Because you know mother-f *er bastard, mother--his mom is a bastard. ok? He can't talk about Muslim shit and you get your act together ... all of you. We don't want to hear anymore about this problem, ok? You got that right?The final case involved a politician, Representative Jim Saxton, a Republican of New Jersey. He wrote of Arafat in December 1998,
how can anyone trust an agreement compared to the Treaty of Hudaibiya enacted by the Prophet Muhammad, in which a treaty lasts as long as political expediency dictates[?]CAIR had Saxton's office deluged with aggressive but not threatening hate mail, making the congressman feel, in his words, "uncomfortable." He wrote CAIR a letter on 5 January 1999 in which he quoted the U.S. News & World Report editor's note cited above (that "The 10-year truce was broken two years later by the Meccans"). CAIR wrote a triumphant press release on 11 January quoting this phrase, then gilding the lily by adding five words in parenthesis and ascribing them to Saxton:
The 10-year truce (of Hudaibiya) was broken . . . by the Meccans (not by the Prophet Muhammad).
Reviewing these three cases suggests that Islamic organizations like CAIR either do not fully understand or do not accept the First Amendment and its strictures about freedom of speech. The rough-and-tumble of American life does not allow for a taboo to descend on certain subjects, no matter how holy they may be to a portion of the population. Even the most delicate issues - Holocaust denial, Jesus portrayed as a practicing homosexual, genetic black inferiority - get a full and lively airing. Attempts by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and like-minded organizations to impose on Americans the Middle East's notions of sacredness, censorship, and privilege are doomed to fail.
Given the vigorous U.S. tradition of free speech - indeed, its near-sanctity - American Muslims might be advised that they can best protect the Prophet Muhammad's reputation (as well as forward the other views of most concern to them) not by demanding silence, much less by threatening those who disagree, but by convincing the audience of their views. The sooner they accept this approach, the better they will represent their interests and the healthier the American body politic will be.
Sep. 1, 1999 update: For more on this subject, see my weblog entry, "Arafat and the Treaty of Hudaybiya - Updates."