Prophet with more than a message

God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers
April 21, 2000

single act of supreme greatness or self-sacrifice, which puzzles Christians. True, the persecuted prophet embarks on the road to exile at 53; and he forgives his enemies ten years later when he re-enters Mecca in bloodless triumph. But there is no cross - he succeeds too greatly. How-ever, some Christians believe they have caught Muhammad in his supreme act of betrayal: the exodus to Medina, a city from which he challenges the pagan Meccan aristocracy. But, as Juvenal writes in his Satires: " Nemo repente fuit turpissimus ": No one suddenly became extremely wicked.

Reverend David Marshall examines the Muslim predicament at Mecca: a motley band, headed by Muhammad, confronting the Meccan powers. He scrutinises the Koran's punishment narratives, in which the events of sacred history are made to mirror Muhammad's own struggles against the Meccans. A messenger arises and counsels his people to eschew dead idols in favour of the living God. The audience mock the messenger and ignore threats about retribution. The community is annihilated. The patient prophet and those who heeded him are miraculously rescued.

While at Mecca, Muhammad, argues Marshall, gives encoded messages of imminent divine punishment. The former prophets were eventually vindicated by God; as would Muhammad be. At Medina, however, the messages become directly violent. Why? About 18 months after the exodus to Medina, there is a decisive battle between Muhammad and the flower of Arab aristocracy. The Battle of the Full Moon ( Badr ) is an opportunity, Marshall continues, for the Prophet to transform the idea of divine penalty. The Koran says that the Prophet's only duty is to convey the divine warning: vengeance belongs to the Lord. Yet Muhammad becomes the instrument of God's wrath. For this, however, there is no parallel in the punishment narratives, where God alone was the agent of nemesis. The holy war is mediated divine punishment. The Meccans fear Muhammad for he does not bear the sword in vain.

Marshall's implication is that the Prophet has functionally identified himself with God. He does not note that the personal name "Muhammad" occurs just four times in the Koran: the Arabian Apostle is preoccupied with his religious destiny. Marshall adds that God invites his Prophet to eliminate his sinfully weak attitude of compassion for his disbelieving countrymen and thus become like God. In the struggle to attain this "untroubled simplicity of the divine verdict on unbelief", Muhammad's emotional vacillations, implies Marshall, betray a greater mercy in his own character than in the character of the God he serves.

But there is an untroubled simplicity in this account. Marshall ignores the Battle of Mt Uhud, which takes place after Badr , where the Muslims are defeated. They fly their flag half-mast, while the Koran offers an elaborate explanation in the face of pagan derision. In its third chapter, there are more than 50 verses covering the reverse at Uhud: greed for booty by a group of Muslim archers is partly blamed; and Satan is mentioned. God has an opportunity to take martyrs for his cause and also see how his faithful react to worldly defeat. There is no blame on God or his Apostle. No pessimistic conclusion is drawn. The only cure for failure is success; and this is promised.

Of the 114 chapters of the Arabic Koran, Marshall quotes from all but 24. He omits all the Uhud passages, and does not quote verse 256 of the second (Medinan) chapter: "Let there be no compulsion in religion" - a welcome endorsement of freedom of conscience and worship. There is no reference to the (Medinan) chapter 110 where the Apostle is reminded of the need to repent so that his victory is appropriate to authentic religion. These are decisive omissions in what would otherwise be a comprehensive study.

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers

Author - David Marshall
ISBN - 0 7007 1086 8
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £40.00
Pages - 222

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