The Hijra and its significance

Devout Muslims mark the Hijrah — or Muhammad’s migration from his ancestral town of Mecca to Medina some 200 miles North in 622 CE — as Year One of the Islamic calendar. Without a doubt, this event is seen as one of the most important dates in history since it started a new era in the nascent faith’s progression:

  • Before the Hijrah (B.H.): Mohammad and his followers were the minority, faced persecution and co-existed in a conciliatory and defensive manner with the more numerous non-believers.
  • After the Hijrah (A.H.): A consolidation of power occurred and the unified group of believers (called the Ummah), had a distinctly different tone. Muhammad’s teachings and actions had shifted to offense. This shift is clearly manifested in subsequent surahs of the Quran, Mohammad’s actions and words as recorded in the Hadiths, and a litany of battles and raids that became Islam’s hallmark and vehicle for expansion over the next 14 centuries.

Therefore, key to understanding Muhammad’s actual teachings is a knowledge of the history surrounding the Hijrah. Note that the Quran itself was recorded over the span of 20 years (before and after the Hijrah) and was not even compiled into a single volume until many years after Muhammad’s death. The book’s chapters (surahs) were ordered from longest to shortest, without any regard to the reference of time. This makes it easy to confuse the markedly different tones before and after the migration event. This also makes it more difficult to ascertain when the doctrine of abrogation was used and for what verses. The Quran itself establishes the principle of Abrogation (Naskh):

If we abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten, We will replace it by a better one or one similar to it. Do you not know that God has power over all things? (2:106)

Nevertheless, separating what was taught before and after the Hijrah is a good way of understanding the original intent of the doctrine.

Teachings B.H.

Here are some oft quoted passages that appear in the Quran written in the Mecca period (610-621 C.E.). These are oft quoted because they are softer, kinder and denote a tolerant world view. But because most were from before the “night flight” to Medina, many have been “abrogated” in later teachings, specifically by 9:5 (the so-called “verse of the sword”):

  • No forcing people: There is no compulsion where religion is concerned 2:256
  • Altruism is its own reward: The reward of goodness is nothing but goodness. 55:61
  • War is defensive: You may fight in the cause of Allah against those who attack you but do not aggress. Allah does not love the aggressors. 2:190
  • Aggression is bad: You may also fight them to eliminate oppression, and to worship Allah freely. If they refrain, you shall not aggress; aggression is permitted only against the aggressors. 2:193
  • Treat prisoners well: And feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Him (saying) : We feed you, for the sake of Allah only. We wish for no reward nor thanks from you.  76:8-9
  • Tolerance enjoined: The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve. 18:29
  • More Tolerance: To you be your religion, and to me my religion 109:6
  • Counter bad with good: A good action and a bad action are not the same. Repel the bad with something better and, if there is enmity between you and someone else, he will be like a bosom friend. (41:34)
  • Don’t compel belief: Had your Lord so willed, all people on earth, in their entirety, would have believed. Do you, then, try to compel people to believe? 10:99

See a larger list of which verses have been abrogated here.

Teachings A.H.

Contrast those which appear after the Hijrah (622 C.E. and beyond)

  • Don’t bother warning the disbelievers: “As for the faithless, it is the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them,they will not have faith.” 2:6-7
  • Jews are the greediest of all humankind: “Thou wilt indeed find them, of all people, most greedy of life,-even more than the idolaters: Each one of them wishes He could be given a life of a thousand years: But the grant of such life will not save him from (due) punishment. For Allah sees well all that they do.” 2:96
  • Allah caused disease in unbelievers: “In their hearts is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves). 2:10
  • Allah blinds the disbelievers: “Allah taketh away their light and leaveth them in darkness, where they cannot see, Deaf, dumb and blind.” 2:17-18
  • Punishment for trying to imitate the Quran: “But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.” 2:24
  • Sabbath-breaking Jews are apes to be despised and hated: “And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath: We said to them: “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.” 2:65-66
  • Kill disbelievers wherever you find them: “And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.” 2:191-2
  • Kill until there is no more persecution (i.e. all are Muslim): “And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.” 2:193
  • Don’t befriend unbelievers: “Let not the believers Take for friends or helpers Unbelievers rather than believers: if any do that, in nothing will there be help from Allah: except by way of precaution, that ye may Guard yourselves from them.” 3:28
  • Unbelievers are out for your ruin: “O ye who believe! Take not into your intimacy those outside your ranks: They will not fail to corrupt you. They only desire your ruin: Rank hatred has already appeared from their mouths: What their hearts conceal is far worse. We have made plain to you the Signs, if ye have wisdom.” 3:118
  • Allah responsible for killing infidels, not Muslims: “It is not ye who slew them; it was Allah: when thou threwest (a handful of dust), it was not thy act, but Allah’s: in order that He might test the Believers by a gracious trial from Himself: for Allah is He Who heareth and knoweth (all things).” 8:17
  • Kill only those who don’t convert: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” 9:5
  • Fate of believers who join with unbelievers: “And those of the People of the Book who aided them – Allah did take them down from their strongholds and cast terror into their hearts. (So that) some ye slew, and some ye made prisoners.” 33:25-26
  • Fate of warring infidels: “Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): “I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.” 8:12
  • Behead the unbelievers: “Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are ye commanded): but if it had been Allah’s Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of Allah,- He will never let their deeds be lost.” 47:4
  • War is ordained by Allah; fighting mandatory: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not.” 2:216
  • Fate of infidels not offering peace: “Others you will find that wish to gain your confidence as well as that of their people: Every time they are sent back to temptation, they succumb thereto: if they withdraw not from you nor give you (guarantees) of peace besides restraining their hands, seize them and slay them wherever ye get them: In their case We have provided you with a clear argument against them.” 4:91
  • Kill infidel “friends” who go rogue: “They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks” 4:89
  • Amputation for thieves: “As to the thief, Male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from Allah, for their crime: and Allah is Exalted in power.” 5:38

Muhammad as the “Ideal Man” and Example

Fundamental to Islamic doctrine is the concept of Mohammad as the consummate human being, the “perfect man”. The Quran makes this point over 90 times. Here is but one example:

“Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of Allah.” (Qur’an 33:21)

This viewpoint has developed into it’s own Islamic doctrine, as explained in Wikipedia:

In Islamic theology, al-Insān al-Kāmil (Arabic: الإنسان الكامل‎‎) also rendered as Insān-i Kāmil (Persian/Urdu: انسان کامل) and İnsan-ı Kâmil (Turkish), is a term used as an honorific title to describe the prophet Muhammad. The phrase means “the person who has reached perfection.” It is an important concept in Islamic culture of the prototype human being, pure consciousness, one’s true identity, to be contrasted with the material human who is bound by one’s senses and materialism. The term was originally used by Sunni Sufis and is still used by them, however it is also used by Alawis and Alevis. This idea is based upon a hadith, which was used by Ibn Arabi, that states about Prophet Muhammad, ‘I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay’.

Not only this, but Muslim scholars also agree that Mohammad represents the prime example of how to live everyday life. Beyond what was recorded in the Quran, there exists thousands of historical and semi-historical anecdotes (primarily from the Hadiths) that provide a model for behavior in almost every conceivable circumstance. The very existence of the Sunnah (i.e. “the way”) testifies to how seriously Muslims are to understand and follow Mohammad’s example.

Having said that, the reverence and near deification of Muhammad also implies that his words and deeds cannot simply be regarded as a “product of the times” in order to explain away some of his unpleasant teachings. To do so would obligate the believer to concede the fact that the Quran is outdated and portions not relevant to the modern world (as is widely held regarding many passages from both the Old and New Testaments). From an Islamic perspective, this viewpoint is impossible to maintain since the Quran transcends time itself. It is not simply ‘inspired’ but the very words of Allah, dictated by an angel directly to his final messenger. Hence, Muhammad’s actions are (and always will be) morally acceptable to believers. This “excellent model of conduct” has also become known as the Islamic principle of “Uswa Hasana”. See here for the Wikislam perspective.

Profound Teachings?

There are books and websites devoted to the wonderful and profound truths that Mohammad taught. This is without a doubt. See here and here for some splendid examples. Unfortunately, there’s some bad news here. First, almost without exception these teaching refer to how believers are to regard and treat fellow believers. For the unbelievers, well, it’s a different story. And secondly, none of these profound truths actually originated with Muhammad. They were already known and recorded in both the Old and New Testaments hundreds and sometimes thousands of years prior.

Peculiar Teachings

Nevertheless, we are accustomed to discounting historical foibles as products of their time (think of famous astronomer William Herschel positing in the Eighteenth Century in great detail about the inhabitants on the sun) and have no trouble separating these errors from truth. Not so with Muhammad. Precisely because he was held up as the standard of behavior of all men, his words, deeds and everyday utterances must of necessity be timeless and profitable to follow today.

This is unfortunate, because it puts a devout Muslim in a jam, requiring them to believe things that are clearly fallacious given what we know today. The following are just a few examples to show specific teachings of Mohammad (which can’t possibly be construed as “allegorical” by the way) that continue to have sway in modern Islamic life, regardless of their anachronistic, barbaric and unscientific basis:

  • Women are deficient in mind (2:541 and 3:826).
  • The majority of people in Hell are women (1:28, 301; 2:161; 7:124).
  • Women are a bad omen (7:30).
  • Drinking camel urine will make you healthy (7:590).
  • A fly in your drink can cure you of disease (4:537).
  • Fever comes from the heat of Hell (7:619).
  • If you speak badly about a deceased person, that person will go to Hell (2:448).
  • The Sun orbits the Earth (13:2, 21:33, 35:13)
  • The Earth is flat (13:3, 15:9, 50:7, 88:20)
  • The Earth is fixed and does not move (27:61)
  • Hail comes from mountains (24:43)
  • Allah made the stars as projectiles to fight devils (67:5)
  • The Moon gives off its own light (71:16)
  • Semen is not formed in the testicles (86:5-7)

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