Who was Muhammad? It depends on when you look at him. We’ve already seen his resemblance, at various times in his career, to earlier figures in the Abrahamic tradition, notably Moses and Jesus. There are other biblical characters we could add to the list. Indeed, it’s possible to depict Muhammad’s whole career as a kind of rotation among Abrahamic predecessors.
It was in Mecca that Muhammad had much in common with Jesus. He led a small band of devotees, warning that Judgment Day was coming. The message fell on deaf ears, after which he started to sound a bit like Second Isaiah. Second Isaiah, while enduring the humiliation of exile, had dreamed of a day when the nations that had oppressed his people would bow to a restored Israel and to its God. Now Muhammad envisioned his present persecutors getting their comeuppance as his faith in the one true god was grandly vindicated. In glorious detail, he imagined Judgment Day, again and again.
Next he spent some time as a kind of Moses, leading his harassed followers toward the promised land, the town of Medina. In Medina he came to resemble the apostle Paul. Paul had tried to convince extant Abrahamics—the Jews—that his brand of the Abrahamic faith was essentially the same as theirs, even if it had a few new twists. Muhammad made much the same case to the Abrahamics of his day, a group that, thanks to Paul’s only mixed success, now included both Jews and Christians. Muhammad had little if any more success than Paul; most of his followers, it would seem, came from the ranks of pagans.
But there is a big difference between Muhammad and Paul. Paul was working wholly outside formal political power, and had no real choice about that. His fledgling church had to settle for being a nongovernmental organization. Muhammad, in contrast, could aspire to run a municipal government, and he succeeded, securing control of Medina.
Now the Pauline side of Muhammad fell away, and he started to resemble King Josiah, the man who put the ancient Israelites on the path toward monotheism in the course of gathering power. For Muhammad, as for Josiah, the exclusive devotion to God that he demanded was intertwined with—was almost identical with—the political obedience he sought. And, like Josiah, Muhammad wanted to expand the scope of obedience, via conquest if necessary.
So that’s Muhammad: a one-man recapitulation of some great moments in Abrahamic history, not exactly in chronological order. If a primary thesis of this book is correct—if the tone of scripture is set by the circumstance of its creation—then you would expect Muhammad’s checkered past to leave a scriptural legacy that defies easy generalization. If the last several chapters show nothing else, they show that.
But generalize we must. The parallels between Muhammad’s circumstances and circumstances of biblical authorship raise a question that people tend to raise anyway: How does the tenor of Islamic scripture compare with the tenor of Jewish and Christian scripture? Actually, that’s the polite way of putting it. What many of these people want to know is: Which scripture is, you know, best? Which is on the highest moral plane? That this is a question we can’t easily answer doesn’t mean it’s a question we shouldn’t tackle. Religions aren’t reducible to a checklist of moral qualities, but comparing them across such a checklist has its illuminating aspects.
Brotherly Love, and Hate
The Koran lauds those who “master their anger, and forgive others! God loveth the doers of good.” Such values had been in the Abrahamic tradition since the Hebrew Bible was written. In fact, such values are a feature of pretty much all traditions. Tensions between people must be subdued for any society, or any religion, to cohere, and the punishment for lack of coherence is often extinction. (If the people themselves don’t perish, the culture may.) After all, there is often a competing group poised to profit from disarray. The Koran is fairly explicit about the logic: “The infidels lend one another mutual help. Unless ye do the same, there will be discord in the land and great corruption.”
This ultimately pragmatic nature of intrasocial bonding can drain seemingly high-minded scriptures of their idealism. As we’ve seen, scholars doubt that the Hebrew Bible’s “Love thy neighbor as thyself” was meant to extend beyond the borders of ancient Israel. Some of the Koran’s odes to brotherly love are sufficiently candid to need no such scholarly deflating. “Only the faithful are brethren,” says one sura attributed to the late Medinan period. Another from the same period says that Muhammad’s comrades are “vehement against the infidels but full of tenderness among themselves.”…