Islam, as a later and last monotheistic faith appearing in Arabia in the seventh-century, never considered itself just another religion, but the last and final religion totally complete in doctrine and superior in rule.1 The Muslim believers sought power for Islam as the supra-successor faith to Judaism and Christianity, and the ultimately universal faith for all of mankind. The frenzy of religious struggles in history would, from that moment on, set Islam on an ineluctable course to conquer the world. The Qur`an elucidated the religion’s warring spirit by praising those Muslims “who fight for the cause of Allah” (4:95-96) rather than those who avoid the battle and prefer to stay at home. In distinction from Judaism and Christianity, the Muslim community considers that “the holy war is a religious duty because of the universalism of the mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force”; and this, added the classical 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun, is because “Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.”2
Islam cannot be compared with any other religion or understood by analogy. It bears a unique militant ethic from its origins. This cannot be said of ascetic Buddhism or otherworldly Hinduism. Judaism, though equipped with “commandments for war”, did not promote conquest or experience power in any exceptional way. Christianity was born beset with sin, preaching poverty and practicing withdrawalism by fasting and virginity, pining for martyrdom through persecution.3
Islam evoked a far different collective sensibility. It brandished the sword, yelled Allah Akbar (God is Great) – as at Qadisiyya in southern Mesopotamia/Iraq in 637 – charged into battle, and plundering its spoils with delight.
We live at the beginning of the 21st century when the “return of Islam” has raised the challenge against the Jewish state of
The legendary abuse of Jews in Muslim history was illustrative of the inferiority of dhimmis who were by law, however, to enjoy protection under Islamic domination. There were some bright moments in the Muslim Orient, two examples being: the role of a Jewish mercantile class in Abbasid times centered in Iraq beginning in the eighth-century,4 and the Ottoman Turk “open door” policy welcoming Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492. But the evidence of co-existence is mixed and the daily toll of humiliation should not be overlooked. Muslim soldiers housed their horses and donkeys in a Tiberias synagogue in 1852 and the enlargement of a synagogue in
The Strategy of Muslim Victory
In its early emerging period for the first hundred years after the death of Muhammad in 632, Islam conquered the lands of the Middle East, like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, while penetrating into Europe and Central Asia.6 The Arabs of Arabia, who founded the faith and initially manned the armies of Islam, then settled en masse in their conquered lands: mosques hovered high above older churches, Arabic replaced native languages, and Muslim states arose as representative of a new brand of religious imperialism in history. The local Berber peoples of
For Jews and Christians, and especially for the premier monotheists stubbornly rejecting Muhammad’s prophetic claim and Qur`anic revelation, life was precarious and humiliating. A powerful Jew like Samuel the Nagid, secretary and counselor to the Muslim Sultan in
Another Jew, Saad Al-Dawla, who headed the administrative bureaucracy in a late 13th-century Muslim regime stretching across
Paying the jizya poll-tax, as prescribed in the Qur`an (9:29), demonstrated that the hierarchy of power and social status depoliticized and impoverished the dhimmis. Undeterred and unintimidated, Maimonides nonetheless definitively rejected Muhammad in his Epistle to the Yemenite Jews, as did European Christian authors who considered him an imposter.
This did not, however, dissuade Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed from respectfully pondering Muslim philosophical and theological works that dominated the intellectual climate of the era.
The methods of conquest, colonization, and conversion are today the very same methods of Muslim struggle and victory in the world. In the earlier Islamic centuries, conversion struck down subjects shamed by the poll-tax, tempted by public opportunities, and attracted by the simplicity of the conversion process.7 In our days, conversion is influenced by the modern Western spiritual plight that has convinced many to find meaning in an Islam radiating tranquility and unity, communal vitality and self-assertive power. In
It was reported that the startling impact of September 11 attracted new Muslim converts in
Unlike other minority immigrant communities that have made their way to
The Muslim jihad in all its aspects is now mobilized to redress Islamic losses suffered at the hands of the West centuries ago. The Muslims had earlier impotently witnessed
But perhaps the central lesson of Islamic history is that even when the Muslims lose, they are really not defeated. The Crusader interlude in the Holy Land, that began in 1099 and finally ended in 1291, left no impression on Muslim social, political, let alone religious or cultural life. In the modern period, following the termination of European imperialism and colonialism in the Muslim Arab lands of the region, one could not identify any major foreign Western impact on the deeper recesses of Muslim thought and belief, or in the arenas of politics and ideology.
Virulent anti-Western Arab nationalism as a native ideological sentiment erupted on to the political stage. Under the charismatic leadership of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser (1953-70), Pan-Arab politics converged comfortably with socialist economies, political dictatorships, and pro-Soviet alliances as their national panoply. Islamic fundamentalism, as another nativist belief-system, proposed a radical program for a comprehensive and integral religious way of life.
Fundamentalism was, therefore, not just a return to God but a cultural statement against the godless West.
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