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Contours of the EarlyMuslim Jihad

Muhammad and his followers definitely did not place Christians and Pagans on the same level. They distinguished sharply between those who bowed before idols and those who stood by the revelations of Moses and Jesus. After all, according to Islam, Moses and Jesus also honoured Islam. Their revelations are all recognized as being of divine origin, the difference between them being that the revelation to Muhammad was higher, came later and went further. Thus Christians were viewed as knowing Allah at an earlier period and were walking the right path. They only went wrong when they refused to accept the later and higher revelation. This and this only was their offence. It is similar to the way Christians honour the Jews in so far as they follow Moses, but we fault them only for being blind towards the later and fuller revelation that came in Christ. So Muslims judge that Christians did indeed obey the revelation that till that point was the highest, but they willfully closed their eyes to the even higher light that came with Muhammad. Here they determined the limits of the Holy Book. Jews had the Holy Book of the Old Testament; Christians honoured the Holy Book of the Old and New Testament, but both rejected the even holier Book of the Qur’an. But even though, according to Muhammad’s judgement, the others were at a lower level, they could be tolerated as backward or deficient kindred. That is why all Christians were not only tolerated but were given a degree of freedom of worship, on condition that they acknowledge the authority of the Muslim ruler, if not in religion, at least in politics.

From the beginning this demand for nations and non-Muslims to acknowledge the superiority of Islam governed their relationship. Since Allah is omnipotent over the entire world, His faithful warriors are automatically entitled to control that entire world. Strictly speaking, only the followers of Islam have a right to exist or human rights. Allah is the Lord of lords, while the supreme leader of Islam is His representative on earth. With this high sense of calling, in 629 AD or thereabouts, thus only five years after the hijira, before his power was secure in Mecca, Muhammad wrote a letter to all neighbouring rulers, even to the King of Persia and the Emperor at Constantinople, in which he called upon all these rulers to convert to Islam and to subject their lands and peoples to the Prophet of Mecca.2626In a fine modern touch and, I suspect, in imitation of these letters from the Prophet, Khomeini wrote a similar letter to Gorbachov during their days in power (The Pen, a discontinued Nigerian Muslim bi-weekly, 27 January, 1989, p. 8). These letters were marked by his seal that read, “Muhammad the Representative of Allah.” It may seem strange, but these letters written by the head of a new, unknown, cult actually made a deep impression. In Arabia, the rulers of Yemen and Bahrain submitted immediately. The response of the Christian ruler of Ethiopia was friendly. The Byzantine viceroy of Egypt demonstrated his cowardice by sending Muhammad two young Coptic girls for his harem. Last but not least, Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople responded in very courteous terms. Only Khosrau II, King of Persia, in quick-tempered fashion, tore up the letter in the presence of the messenger and instructed his general to find Muhammad, attack him and take him prisoner forthwith. If nothing else, these letters demonstrated the position of Islam from its early inception. How strong must his conviction of his own exalted position have been, to dare to make such a bold demand for total subjection to the most powerful rulers around him, even the prestigious Emperor of Constantinople, while his own domain was no more than a small strip of territory.2727We read the following about the Prophet’s letter campaign in the Wikipedia article “Khosrau II:” But it is precisely to this strong consciousness of divine calling and of his God-given supremacy over the entire world that Islam owes its inextinguishable enthusiasm and the indomitable courage of its horsemen by which he simultaneously pursued the strongest propaganda and overtook the mightiest of spirits by surprise. Islam did not negotiate with any earthly power on basis of equality but demanded that everyone simply capitulate, that is, that everyone recognize the supremacy of the Commander of Islam and accept all conditions of peace from him as grace or favour. The “capitulations” in vogue those days were treaties of subjugation in which the victorious sovereign would grant certain privileges to his new vassal only as a free privilege. The same situation obtained when it came to tolerance granted to Jews and Christians in any country militarily occupied by Muslims. They would find favour in the eyes of a conqueror only on condition that they recognize his right to rule over them and, if necessary, to force them to accept Islam, with violence even. The tolerance awarded Christians was also such a “capitulation.” Under whatever conditions they capitulated, granting them tolerance was pure grace.


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