Is Muhammad the better Paul?

In Romans 9-11, Paul lays out what he believes to be God’s plan for Paul’s work as the apostle to the Gentiles. Though the rejection of Jesus as messiah by the vast majority of Jews seems to be a huge defeat, God is actually using it as an opportunity to achieve something even greater: extending his promises to all nations. By Paul’s reckoning, once the Jews see the Gentiles enjoying the messianic life opened up by Jesus’s death and resurrection, they will be so jealous that they will ultimately embrace Jesus. From a contemporary perspective, this view is appealing because it radically relativizes actual-existing Gentile Christianity — it is just a detour, an elaborate ploy in God’s bank-shot attempt to win over the Jews, who remain his real priority. And yet from a contemporary perspective, we must also admit that the plan does not seem to have worked out.

Yesterday I was reviewing some material from ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad. Reading the whole of this vast and unwieldy document is not possible in the context of my course, so I selected portions on the religious and political background of the Arabian penninsula, Muhammad’s early life and ministry in Mecca, his work in Medina, and the events leading up to his triumph over the authorities in Mecca. One issue that will surely arise in this context is the question of “Islam and violence,” because it’s impossible to give a fair or comprehensible account of Muhammad’s life and the rise of Islam without taking into account such key events as the Battle of Badr. If commenters have any ideas for how I might address it in class discussion, I’d be eager to hear it (though I also expect that Shimer students will by and large be bending over backwards to be as fair-minded as possible and to avoid cliches about Islam, so perhaps it won’t be an issue).

One thing that struck me, amid all the undeniable brutality, is how often Muhammad chose not to press his advantage. This is clearest after the Battle of Badr, a victory so decisive that it is attributed to miraculous forces (divine intervention into weather patterns and angelic warriors). After this victory, he seemingly has the chance to take Mecca, but he instead calls for a ten-year armistice, during which the Quraysh (the dominant tribe in Mecca and Muhammad’s own kinsmen) will be free to pursue their pagan ways and are even given a “recruiting” advantage. This move causes serious dissent among his followers, particularly as it leaves some faithful Muslims “stranded” in Mecca under Quraysh rule.

Subsequently, two tribes with a long-standing feud wind up breaking the armistice between the Muslims and the Quraysh, allowing Muhammad to sweep in and take the city. Yet he by and large doesn’t slaughter his enemies en masse as would be expected, except for a few particularly galling traitors and mockers (a few of whom wind up getting clemency as well). The Quraysh agree to accept Islam and are enthusiastically welcomed into the fold, to the point of causing some resentment among Muhammad’s more long-time followers.

I wonder if we can understand Muhammad’s strategy here as a version of Paul’s. Muhammad’s message is largely rejected by his own kinsmen, and his account of previous prophets throughout the Qur’an seems to indicate that destruction is their only option. Instead of calling down divine vengeance, however, Muhammad flees to another stronghold and begins recruiting allies from other tribes. Ultimately this puts him in a position to win over his own tribe. Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the violence involved, but much of the violence seems to be symbolic. The Battle of Badr, for instance, shows that the Islamic community in Medina is a major military player, demonstrating that Muhammad’s teaching is compatible with a society that is recognizably powerful and healthy by the standards of his time and place. (Another example: an attack that violates a traditional “truce day” shows that previous arrangements are no longer valid and that Islam must be the sole organizing principle of the emerging society.)

Better: perhaps we can see Muhammad as combining the strategy of the Maccabees, who were willing to “take matters into their own hands” rather than waiting for divine intervention, and Paul, whose ultimate purpose is conciliatory rather than puritanical. And it seems hard to deny that the end result was both more durable than the Maccabean theocracy and more in line with the founder’s intention than the proto-Catholic order that emerged from the Pauline communities. Muhammad’s community provided a flexible and attractive model that adapted relatively easily to an astonishing range of cultures, largely without forced conversions, while maintaining recognizable continuity across widely separated times and places. Starting shortly after its founding, for the next thousand years Islam was clearly the hegemonic global social and political form.

This raises the question (on the model of the anonymous theologian’s claim that “Lenin is the better Jesus”): is Muhammad “the better Paul”? For someone like me who is a bit satiated on Christian pacifism and contemporary “apocalyptic” poetics, Muhammad’s willingness to enter into the ugly realities of power and politics actually strikes me as refreshing. And given his unquestionable political success, I wonder if some of the leftist attention to Paul should be redirected to the figure of Muhammad.

9 thoughts on “Is Muhammad the better Paul?

  1. If the criteria for attention is solely success, shouldn’t everyone from Bismark, Mao, Pinochet and Tony Blair be given some?

    Muhammad used the ideology of Islam to unite several nomads into a political state (a novelty for Arabia), under his successors this state expanded to cover a large area (unprecedented for its continuity and cohesion), finally this empire created the conditions for a continent spanning civilisation from sea to shining sea (a big step forward for civilisation).

    But so what?

    These events took place in circumstances so different from today that they hold little relevance. Are we divided into tribes in conflict with each other, are we prevented from worshiping God as we see fit by the Byzantine or Persian Empires? Do we need a stable state so that we can trade? Are we stuck in an oppressive Caste system that denies us equality before the law? Do we require a writing and legal system so that we can stand up to outsiders?

    Monotheism was gaining ground in Muhammad’s time. Both in Arabia and around it (Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, Ethiopia). For example several of his relatives in the generation above converted to Christianity or Judaism. Likewise before going to Medina, Muhammed sent some of his followers to Ethiopia under the protection of that states King. Muhammad was able to adapt this rising tide to the particular circumstances of Arabia; he was not working in an overly hostile environment. One key factor for the success of Islam in the middle east was that the people there perceived Islam as being closer to their Christianity than the religion forced on them by their rulers. Secondly through his developed Ishmael story he was able to present conversion to Islam as fidelity to being an Arab as people are much more willing to change if they believe they are still being true to their heritage.

    Would any of these strategies work for the “left”?

    But enough history, what can “leftists” do with this legacy in the ugly reality of power and politics in the 21st century?

    Isn’t the recent “leftist” focus on Paul et al because of the perception of Christianity as the “revolt of the slaves” not because it it the most poplular religion? Is the same true of Muhammed and Islam? Probably not.

    (For the record this post shouldn’t be construed as supporting any alternative religion as deserving of attention instead)

  2. Obviously if you choose only the most literal construals of the circumstances leading up to the rise of Islam, it will seem irrelevant — but it strikes me as an empty objection because it could be used against any historical comparison whatsoever, including Paul’s “slave revolt” (which seems to have gotten a lot of people killed while leading to at most moderate reforms of a decaying empire).

  3. I think we might have misunderstood each other a bit, so if I get the wrong end of the stick then just say :)

    My read of your post was that it was a comparison of Paul and Muhammad. You’ve highlighted the differences between them and their legacies. So Muhammad created “…the hegemonic global social and political form” (for a thousand years) while Paul’s legacy was “a lot of people killed while leading to at most moderate reforms of a decaying empire”.

    ( It’s worth noting that Muhammad was more successful in his lifetime and the mid term but Christianity is the world’s most popular religion, so maybe Paul was the winner after all)

    You then went a step further and said that leftist attention should be refocused on Muhammad as opposed to apocalyptic Christianity. I think this would be a complete waste of time. Why should any “leftist” should pay attention to Muhammad? I don’t think you answer this question in a systematic way.

    The reason why I bothered to describe the causes of Islam is to show how those circumstances have literally no relevance for the left today. All historical comparisons have some similarities and some differences to the person who is reading them. Some situations have more similarities than others. For example Trotsky and Stalin would look at the French Revolution for comparisons with their situation because they could see enough similarities for it to have some relevance to them. They didn’t spend time reading about, I don’t know, the Great Trek for what to do next.

    The left needs to be better at politics and establish it’s own state (at least for a time). Muhammad was a good politician and established a state. That’s it. There are no similarities beyond that. You might as well as spend your time looking at state formation in Mesomerica for all the good it will do. If it’s simply that “leftists” should be willing use violence if necessary and compromise in order to achieve long term objectives, then who could argue with that? I’m sure you’d laugh at the banker who reads the Art of War in order to meet his targets but how is this different?

    Of course the history of Islam is important from a theological and historical point of view but not beyond that.

  4. I found the comments from Owen mostly unhelpful and a bit, I don’t know, parrotting “common sense” in a way I normally am allergic to. That said, I’ve always struggled to understand why people were so into Paul and only really got it when I read Taubes. In regard to a radical restructuring of the world Muhammad certainly is another interesting example, though if the goal is to find models I’m not sure I would understand how that would look. So, I don’t find this stupid.

  5. There is a sense within early and medieval Christian-Muslim dialogue (better known as polemics) where Muhammad is contrasted (sometimes explicitly more often implicitly) as superior to Paul. I’m thinking here of Ibn Hazm, al-Jabbar, Ibn Taymiyya and others discussion of tahrif and the way they interpret Paul as going too far–too otherworldly really–in his appropriation of Jesus’ reforming teaching. This comes out strongly in their worry about an idealized or wholly dualistic Christian account of law/shari’a. Not sure if that is what you are after, but there is some history here…

  6. part of my dissertation which I’ll be hawking at AAR, although connected more to how 20th century Muslim Critiques of Secularism are related to earlier Muslim views on Christian issues of law. Here are some of the sources that might get you started (that I engage), although if you just search Paul and Tahrif that will also help:

    Theodore Pulicini, Exegesis of Polemical Discourse: Ibn Ḥazm on Jewish and Christian Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

    ‘Abd al-Jabbar, Critique of Christian Origins: A Parallel English-Arabic Translation. Translated and Annotated by Gabriel Said Reynolds and Samir Khalil Samir (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2010),

    Gabriel Said Reynolds, A Muslim Theologian in the Sectarian Milieu: ‘Abd al-Jabbar and the Critique of Christian Origins (Leiden: Brill, 2004),

    Rifaat Ebied and David Thomas, eds., Muslim-Christian Polemic during the Crusades: The Letter from the People of Cyprus and Ibn Abi Talib al-Dimashqi’s Response (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

    Thomas F. Michel, A Muslim Theologian’s Response to Christianity. (abridged version of Ibn Taymiyya that is really poor translation)

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