It is the duty of every Muslim to emulate the example of his prophet as recorded in the Hadith. By ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has only acted in accordance with that orthodox, 14-century-old principle. It would have been eminently un-Islamic, in fact, for “MbS” to allow an outspoken critic of a divinely ordained polity to go on living.
THE CONTEXT – Islam is a revealed religion focused on its grounding in history—specifically on the person of Muhammad, his revelation and his example. Events as they happened, dominated by the “Prophet’s” words and deeds recorded in the Hadith, are the foundation of the Islamic faith, law, and social custom. His actions and utterances are passed on as rules and mode of conduct, in accordance with the Kuranic statement that Muhammad is “a beautiful pattern of conduct” (Kuran, 33:21). They guide the lives of Muslims to this day: whereas imitatio Christi is a voluntary spiritual endeavor for a pious Christian, a bona fide Muslim is obliged to imitate Muhammad.
The hadithic literature is the essential guide in this endeavor. It contains thousands of instances in Muhammad’s life which serve as binding models. The “approved” ones supply the precedents for legal and religious duties (ahkam), and define what is allowed (halal) or forbidden (haram) to a Muslim. Here Muhammed provides the model of behavior for every little detail of everyday life: when to blow the nose, how to urinate, how to conduct sexual union in marriage . . . No mere mortal has ever been revered to the point of regulating whether one’s hair is to be cut from left to right or vice versa. Authoritative hadithist Bukhari attests that Muhammad encouraged the trend, saying he was the apex of all the generations of the children of Adam” (Al Hadis, Vol 4, p. 316). “I have been sent to perfect good character”; and, most remarkably, “Nobody truly believes until I become dearer to him than his parents, children, and all mankind.” (Al Hadis, Vol. 1, p. 97).
Allah is so distant and abstract that his prophet perhaps inevitably acquired quasi-divine status. The Muslims nevertheless insist that Islam is not “Mohammedanism,” the religion of Muhammad, corresponding to Christianity, the religion of Christ. They do not worship Muhammad but Allah, they contend; the former is only the messenger. Theoretically, perhaps; yet imitatio Muhammadi as the source of daily moral and legal guidance elevates the prophet of Islam to divinity. The difference between Allah and Muhammad becomes blurred once a mortal and sinful man is recognized as the absolute authority on the will of the creator and sustainer of the universe. In reality Islam is “Mohammedanism” indeed, de facto bi-theism.
Between them, the Kuran and sunna stand above reason, conscience, or nature. A thing is right—including acts abhorrent to the superceded biblical or natural morality—because Allah says so, speaking through his prophet; or because Muhammad had thus spoken or acted, as recorded in the Hadith. The lack of any pretense to moral basis of Shari’a is explicit: there is no “spirit of the law” in Islam, no discernment of the consequences of one’s deeds. Revelation and tradition must not be questioned. No other standard of judgment, least of all any notion of “natural” justice inherent to men, can be invoked. Where a command of Allah exists, or an example of his Prophet, no Muslim can presume to form an independent judgment. This applies to princes and their subjects alike.
THE RECORD – It took Muhammad two years to become de facto absolute ruler of Medina after the Hijra in July 622. The turning point came when Muhammad led some 300 of his fighters in the attack on a large Meccan caravan making its way home from Syria. The battle, which took place near the village of Badr on March 15, 624, turned into an unexpected victory for Muhammad. It was interpreted as a “miracle” that had eluded Muhammad in his daily life.
The triumph at Badr was the most decisive moment in Muhammad’s life. A new side of his personality came to the fore, as the severed head of his old Meccan critic Abu Jahl was thrown before him. The preacher and warner of Mecca turned into a vengeful warlord, who jubilantly exclaimed that the spectacle of his slaughtered enemies pleased him better than “the choicest camel in Arabia.” As he executed those prisoners who had caused him displeasure in the past, Allah duly commented with a suitable revelation from on high: “It is not for any Prophet to have captives until he hath made slaughter in the land” (8:68).
Muhammad returned to Medina in triumph, and proceeded to settle scores with his detractors there. An atmosphere of fear descended on the city. “Informers passed all disrespectful or merely careless remarks to the prophet,” Ibn Warraq notes, who followed them up with “proceedings that were sometimes both cruel and unscrupulous.” Medina soon morphed into an early exercise in the total blending of religion and self-referential political ideology, of mosque and state.
Muhammad’s first known victim was Asma bint Marwan, a poetess who had mocked him and his teaching in verse. In one poem she urged her fellow-tribesmen not to obey “this preposterous stranger.” Upon his return from Badr, anticipating Henry II’s outburst, Muhammad exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this daughter of Marwan?” One Umayr duly did, that same night, stabbing her as she nursed her youngest child. Muhammad praised the killer and assured him that “two goats won’t butt their head about her.” This presumably excluded her children and her family, but the following day they all converted to Islam. This detail is reminiscent of the sickening spectacle of Khashoggi’s son having to shake the hand of his father’s murderer.
The prophet of Islam took a dim view of poets and wits generally, but especially those who dared mock him in public. Allah accordingly conveyed the verdict that these early-medieval equivalents of journalists are inspired by Satan (26:224) and possessed by him (37:35-36). This soon became an obsession with Muhammad. He never mastered the complicated canon of Arab poetry. That he could not respond to his eloquent detractors in kind must have pained him greatly, since the fact had to be explained away by Allah: “We have not taught versification to our prophet” (36:68-69).
Like his princely namesake today, Muhammad was unable to provide a rational rebuttal to his detractors. Also like MbS, Muhammad had other means at his disposal. That was the undoing of Abu Afak, supposedly over a hundred years old, who protested previous murders by Muhammad’s gangsters. Abu Afak also mocked Muhammad in verse, and especially his desire to control people’s lives, “Saying ‘Permitted,’ ‘Forbidden,’ of all sorts of things.” As Ibn Ishaq records, the apostle simply cried, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?” Yet again, one of his faithful followers did. That a person of so advanced an age should be murdered for a verbal slight would have been inconceivable to the pre-Islamic Arab custom.
Another critic doomed by his words was a Jew by the name of Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, who bewailed the defeat of the Meccans at Badr. That was his undoing, with the prophet simply saying, “O Lord, rid me of the son of Ashfar, however You wish.” Characteristically, Muhammad approved of subterfuge in arranging his murder. As Bukhari records, the assassins achieved their goal by pretending to be friendly to the victim until they got him out of his house. Ka’b’s severed head was brought to Muhammad, who rejoiced at its sight.
Over 30 individuals, known to us by name thanks to the impeccably Islamic sources, were murdered on Muhammad’s specific orders between January 624 and his death in 632. Of course this does not include hundreds of Jews and other “infidels” killed for not obeying him.
THE FRUITS – In Mecca, Muhammad had hoped to be accepted as God’s messenger. By the summer of 627, however, he had transformed himself into an absolute ruler. The attendant change of his personality did not escape the notice of his contemporaries. The shrewd Meccan politician Abu Sufyan noted, “Prophetism is finished, the empire is beginning.” The sight of a victorious leader, resolute in battle and merciless with the defeated infidel, generous to his followers and feared by his foes, worked wonders for Muhammad. “Upon what meat has this our Caesar fed that he has grown so great?” wondered Shakespeare’s Romans, and the Meccans may have asked the same on January 12, 630, when the victorious Muslims rode into their streets.
It is evident that Muhammad’s actions and words, as immortalized in the Kuran and recorded in the Hadith, are shocking by the standards of our time. They are also punishable by its laws that range from war crimes and murder to rape and child molestation. There are contemporary Western authors, however, who argue that we must not extend the judgmental yardstick of our own culture to the members of other cultures who have lived in other eras. In response, it should be pointed out that the “culture”of Muhammad is timeless and eternally valid for all true Muslims.
Muhammad’s practice and encouragement of bloodshed are unique in the history of religions. Murder, pillage, rape, and more murder are ubiquitous in the Kuran and in the Traditions. They have impressed his followers with a profound belief in the value of bloodshed, and prompted countless Muslim princes through history to refer to Muhammad’s example to justify their own murders and destruction. MbS is only acting accordingly, in Yemen and Istanbul alike.
Islam stands or falls with the person of Muhammad—a deeply flawed man by the standards of his own society, and even by the new law of which he claimed to be the divinely appointed medium and custodian. The problem of Islam, and the problem of the rest of the world with Islam, is not the remarkable career of Muhammad per se, undoubtedly a great man in terms of his impact on human history. It is the religion’s claim that the words and acts of its prophet provide the universally valid standard of morality as such, for all time and all men.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is no exception to this rule. He is a sadistic despot, a murderer, and a depraved savage by every civilized standard of law and morality; but that deucedly does not make him a bad Muslim.