(This is the second in a series on Islam as liberation theology and Muhammad as a prophet for our time. The series is inspired by Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time” (London: Harper Perennial, 2006)
To understand Islam as liberation theology, it is important to place Muhammad in his historical and economic context. That setting shares important elements with the world’s current socio-economic circumstances shaped by an ethic of corporate globalization which ignores responsibilities for the world’s most vulnerable. Contextualizing Muhammad also helps us understand why Muslims consistently describe the United States as “the Great Satan,” or more accurately as the Great Shaytan.
Begin by trying to understand early seventh century Mecca. By the time the prophet had received his call, Mecca was already a prosperous focal point for Arabian culture. It had remained independent of control by both the Byzantine and Persian Empires which were then fighting for regional supremacy.
However, both empires found the hostile desert terrain of the Arabian Peninsula too forbidding for them to concern themselves with the area’s mostly Bedouin population. Moreover those constantly moving herds-people resisted domination in virtue of their fierce independence and absolute commitment to their tribes and ancestral ethos.
Bedouin culture lionized the karim – the tribal hero who was courageous, arrogant, violent and vengeful.The karim ideal was absolutely generous (not to say profligate) in dealing with his own people, but ruthless with others who were always considered inferior and expendable. Mired in chronic circumstances of scarcity, the karim economy required periodic wealth-redistribution in the form of “acquisition raids” on neighboring clans. Those attacks considered normal and necessary by the standards of the time, were careful to pillage but not kill – if only to avoid reprisals and vendettas.
In the 7th century, all of this was changing with the emergence of a strong commercial class interested in maintaining inter-tribal peace for purposes of facilitating business interactions. Hence, the merchant class developed a culture and ethos markedly different from the Bedouins’. Peace and order became much more important to doing business than they had been to Bedouin tribes struggling over scarce pastures. So conflict, violence, vendetta and vengeance were outlawed. Acquisition raids were particularly taboo.
This need for pragmatic peace was intensified by new technology related to commerce. The recent invention of a saddle for camels had dramatically increased the volume of goods capable of being transported. Consequently the quantity of foods, sandalwood, fabrics, spices and other products sold throughout the Arabian Peninsula increased dramatically. This impacted Muhammad’s birthplace (Mecca) in especially powerful ways.
Long since, Mecca had been important to Arab merchants. A “miraculous” water source (Zamzam) had been discovered there making it a natural stopping point for caravans circulating among a series of markets set up around the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula. A temple (Kabah) identifying the spring as a divine gift had been erected and included representations of all tribal deities from across Arabia. The final market of the year was held in Mecca and tribal merchants celebrated with inclusive “ecumenical” religious rites at the Kabah. There circumambulations of the Kabah helped the pilgrims integrate their mercantile journeys around the Arabian Peninsula into the divine scheme of things.
With all of this, Mecca became the logical location for a new religion emphasizing an empire-resistant trans-tribal Arab unity focused on peace and non-violence. At the time of Muhammad’s birth, there was great expectation of an Arabian prophet to crystalize such often-unspoken religious aspirations coherent with Mecca’s commercial and religious standing.
Before that would happen however, a downside to cultural dominance by the commercial class emerged. Slowly but surely tribal ties with their ancillary ethos were weakened. Ancestrally established obligations towards the widow, orphan, and infirm members of the community became less pressing and even rejected. Tribal arrogance reasserted itself in a new form of self-sufficiency that implicitly (and at times explicitly) denied the need for what we today would call “social justice.”
All of this strongly impacted the young Muhammad. True, he was born into one of Mecca’s leading commercial families. However, it had recently fallen on hard times. Muhammad himself had been orphaned early on. He was handed over to a series of clan care-takers who lovingly trained him in the ways of business and commerce. Though able strong and charming, Muhammad struggled to find his place in Mecca’s bustling marketplace. He would never forget those early struggles or his (non) status as an orphan. The poor would be centralized in his new religion.
At last, Muhammad improved his economic life by marrying a wealthy widow and businesswoman called Khadija. (In a culture that encouraged polygamy, she always remained his favorite wife.) It was Khadija who served as the prophet’s main support, confidante and advisor as he experienced his surprising call to become the prophet his culture generally expected.
Muhammad’s vocation story is reminiscent of similar accounts of Jewish Testament prophets. In a cave, he’s seized by God’s Spirit experienced (in Rudolf Otto’s terms) as fascinans et tremenda. The Spirit commands him to “recite.” (Qur’an means “recitations”).
Muhammad objects; he is unworthy. He is no orator or poet; he can’t even read or write. Yet he is literally pressed into the service of Allah and begins reciting sutras of extraordinary beauty and depth of meaning – even by exalted Arab standards of poetry. After an initial experience of this type, he is abandoned by the Spirit for a period of two years, only to have it return with even greater insistence and frequency. It would remain with him for 23 years, leading him to speak out on all manner of community problems.
The thrust of the prophet’s revelations was profoundly counter-cultural. It contradicted not only tribal arrogance, but also the ostentatious profligacy of the karim as well as the self-sufficiency of the commercial classes. Instead, Muhammad’s faith called for humility, service of others, complete submission (the very meaning of the word “Islam”), and care for the poor and weak.
Belief was to be backed up by action – almsgiving was centralized. But there were also ritual reminders of Islamic commitment. Five times each day Muslims were to adopt the position of a slave before Allah – on believer’s knees, prostrate, with forehead touching the ground. With all of this, it is no wonder that the first Muslims (like the first Hebrews and Christians) came from the poorer classes, with women more receptive than men.
Islam as conceived by Muhammad was inclusive and tolerant of other faiths – especially the ones just mentioned. Along with the rest of the Arab world, Muhammad deeply admired Judaism and Christianity for having their own Sacred Scriptures. Now with the emergence of the Qur’an, Islam joined that club as well. The notion of converting sisters and brothers in faith was a foreign concept for Islam’s great prophet.
Because of its counter-cultural thrust, the rest of Muhammad’s story is one of rejection and persecution by the guardians of the status quo. Muhammad is driven into exile in Medina. But eventually he returns to Mecca. His trans-tribal faith succeeds in uniting the Arab world conferring upon it a unifying power that is subsequently used by others the way Christianity was used by Christendom’s “Holy Roman Empire.” Islam becomes the unifying force behind an Islamic order that stretches from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees.
All of this is to say that imperial Islam (like the imperial Christianity that began under Constantine in the 4th century) is out-of-keeping with the faith of its founding prophet. Social justice, care for the poor, and recognition of transcendent human community, are not.
In the eyes of contemporary Muslims, all of this makes Muhammad particularly relevant to their situation in a world dominated by corporate globalization. As in the prophet’s day, globalization’s celebration of self-sufficiency contradicts Islam’s basic values of community, compassion and care for society’s most vulnerable.
As the leader and embodiment of the values that run so counter to Islam’s basic thrust, the United States is viewed as “Shaytan” (which is often translated for us simply as “Satan”). For Muslims however, Shaytan is not the prince of demons as he appears, for instance, in Dante’s Inferno. Instead, Shaytan is “the great deceiver,” whose promises mislead, corrupt and immiserate those who believe them.
In fact, while promising peace, prosperity, and happiness, the elevation of commercial values to a position of supremacy in the moral hierarchy could not be (in Muslim eyes) more deceptive and disastrous. Without care for society’s poor and vulnerable, commercial values lead to individualism, competition, war and unhappiness.
No wonder the U.S. is identified with Satan!
(Next: Islam and Violence)