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.