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If Islam is ever to be understood and appreciated by Americans, then Muslims will need to stop trying to convince them that it is a “religion of peace.” Having just completed my 35th Ramadan – the month of fasting – I find it neither representative of nor true to the faith to portray it in any way as passive.
If America is to reap the vitality that Islam can offer a society, then Americans will have to look beyond Muslim terrorists to see a religion that blossomed in a remarkably short span of time from one man’s vision in a cave to the world superpower that conquered the Persian and Byzantine empires and brought enlightenment to Europe. To understand this history as a continuing spiritual phenomenon, Americans will need to understand the religion’s founder, Muhammad, and the text he brought, the Qur’an.
The quote attributed to Jesus in the Book of Matthew provides an apt description of Muhammad’s life: “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.” It was 600 years after the time of Christ and during Ramadan – the ninth month in the Islamic (lunar) calendar – that Muhammad, a 40-year-old Arab businessman, while meditating in a cave about the greed and corruption in society, had a revelation that he was called to preach the oneness of God.
This brought him enmity from his fellow Arabs, who were polytheists; from the Christians who taught that Jesus was God; and from the Jews who rejected the prophecy of Jesus.
It also brought him intense enmity from the political and business leaders, who saw him as detrimental to Mecca remaining a hub of world commerce and were insulted by his message that their wealth and power was no match for God.
After 13 years of preaching the Qur’an, which Muhammad maintained was just him reciting the word revealed to him by God like previous prophets, his persecution in Mecca became such that he was forced to flee. He and a companion escaped to a cave just ahead of a group of assassins who had come to kill him, and during his 200- mile desert journey to the City of Medina his pursuers were uncannily thwarted.
In Medina, Muhammad established a community constituted on the Qur’an, whose 114 chapters, called Suras, were recited by him over a 23- year period. The Qur’an, which says throughout, that it is meant for all mankind, touches on every aspect of life, including property, marital, inheritance and contract rights, the manner of prayer, caring for the poor, and even how to argue with adversaries.
Sura VIII describes how two years after Muhammad and his followers had settled in Medina, God called them to go to war. It was Ramadan, and Muhammad’s ill-equipped army numbering 300 decisively and surprisingly defeated a vastly superior army of over a thousand, with the Ethiopian Muslim, Bilal, slaying on the battlefield his former slave master.
Muhammad Assad describes how the permanent psychological effect of this war has profoundly shaped history in his transliteration of the Qur’an:
“The spirit of passive sacrifice, so characteristic of their [Muslims’] earlier days, received its compliment in the idea of sacrifice through action,” Assad writes.
“The doctrine of action as the most fundamental, creative element of life was, perhaps for the first time in the history of man, consciously realized not only by a few select individuals but by a whole community; and the intense activism, which was to distinguish Muslim history in the coming decades and centuries was a direct, immediate consequence of the battle of Badr.”
What Americans need to understand is that since the battle of Badr 14 centuries ago, acting against injustice is dearer to a Muslim than peace.
Eric E. Vickers is a board member of the American Muslim Alliance.