Pandaemonium

A BOOK IN PROGRESS [PART 6]: ISLAM, ORIGINS AND ETHICS

Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, here is an an excerpt from  Chapter 7, a chapter that explores the origins of Islam and of Islamic ethics. (Sharp-eyed readers of this blog might have noticed that Chapter 6 is missing from the series. That chapter explores early ethical thought in India and China and for pragmatic reasons I will not be writing it till later.)


THERE WAS NOTHING ABOUT MUHAMMAD’S MONOTHEISM THAT WOULD HAVE surprised or scandalized Arabs. The Arabian peninsula was home to significant Jewish populations, whose presence could be traced back to the Babylonian exile. Indeed, so close was the relationship between Jews and pre-Islamic Arabs that Arabs considered themselves to be descendants of Abraham, or Ibrahim as they knew him, whom they thought had built the Ka’ba and to whom an idol had been dedicated in the sanctuary. A number of Arab tribes had also converted en masse to Christianity. And even before Muhammad, there had been a tradition of Arab prophets, called hanifs, who preached the virtues of a single God.

What made Muhammad different was the marriage of belief in a single, transcendent, omnipotent God, to whom one had to submit, to a social ethic that echoed traditional tribal ideas of virtuous behaviour but that also challenged the mores of the Meccan ruling elite, and that appealed to large sections of a society disenchanted with the transformation of their world. Muhammad’s social ethic gave his God moral content. His God gave his social ethic a sense of power.

As Muhammad’s following swelled, inevitably he came into conflict with Mecca’s ruling families. He was eventually driven out of the city in 622 and found a new power base in a small agricultural oasis 250 miles to the north of Mecca, called Yathrib. It was soon given a new name: Medinat an-Nahi, the City of the Prophet, or more simply Medina.  The secret journey of Muhammad’s followers from Mecca to Medina, the Hijra, marks for believers the beginning of Islam as a community, the abandonment of a wicked, pagan society and the creation of a new people living according to the moral guidance of Allah, the first day of the Muslim era. From his Medina power base, Muhammad was drawn into an armed struggle with the Quraysh, especially over the all-important trade routes.  He triumphed in a series of battles through which he established control not only over Mecca but also the surrounding areas.

It was in this period of conflict that Muhammad’s Revelations took their final form and out of which Islam acquired its initial shape and temper. In traditional Arab tribes, power was distributed within a collective leadership. The Shaikh ensured the moral integrity of the tribe. The Qa’id led it in times of war. The Kahin was the seer or priest who ensured observance of religious rituals. The Hakam acted as a magistrate, settling disputes. In Medina, Muhammad became all of these and more.  His authority as Prophet and Lawgiver was absolute, a man whose supremacy came from God and so could not be challenged.

As Muhammad’s authority as Lawgiver became unquestioned and unquestionable, so the character of the angel Gibreel’s Revelations changed.  There was now much greater concern with defining ritual observances and with social rules governing property, marriage, inheritance, the role of women and relations between the sexes, many in response to a crisis or to a debate among the faithful.

The Islam that developed in Medina was separated more clearly from Judaism and Christianity, a breach symbolically expressed in Muhammad’s new stricture that, when praying, his followers must face not Jerusalem, as previously, but Mecca. And increasingly it became a religion not simply of compassion and benevolence but also of struggle and expansion. Allah provided divine permission for war, violence and even slaughter.  When the Quarayzah, one of Medina’s Jewish tribes, sided with Mecca during the Battle of the Trench, a fortnight long siege of Medina in 627, Muslim forces imposed upon them the most savage of punishments.  Muhammad’s men laid siege to Medina’s Jewish quarter for twenty five days until the Quarayzah unconditionally surrendered. Every one of the surviving men was executed, every woman and child enslaved. The eighth century Muslim historian Ibn Ishaq described the slaughter of the men:

They surrendered… Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches.

Such savagery was not uncommon in seventh century warfare and, shocking though it was, the slaughter in the marketplace tells us more about the premodern moral universe than about the distinctive character of Muhammad’s ethics or that of Islam. But the fact that it does not tell us much that is distinctive about the ethics of Islam is itself revealing. Muhammad breathed in the moral air of seventh century Arabia. There was in Mecca deep unhappiness at the impact of the Ka’ban taxes and a sense of moral drift that Muhammad sought to address.  He did so not by creating a novel moral framework but by drawing upon pre-existing notions of right and wrong and of virtuous behaviour. This is as true of what we now see as Muhammad’s ‘good’ ethical injunctions – to be compassionate, benevolent, generous, merciful – as of what we recognize as the bad, such as his savagery towards those whom he regarded as enemies.

Islam transformed the moral landscape in the same way as Christianity did – through establishing not so much a set of new moral rules as a new reason for being moral.  Morality was anchored in Allah’s will. Prayer and alms-giving was required by God. So was the annihilation of enemies. The butchering of the Quarayzah was, in Muhammad’s eyes, a moral necessity, an act sanctified by God.

This is not to say that Islam did not have a major impact on moral life.  The acceptance of a monotheistic god transformed, as it had in the case of Christianity too, the moral idea of belongingness and the moral shape of the community. A traditional Arabian tribe had been a closed unit. Only those born into the tribe could become members of the tribe. In Medina, Muhammad’s followers defined themselves as the ‘ummah’, whose boundaries were set not by race, ethnicity or descent but by conviction. Anyone could join Muhammad’s community by avowing that ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s Messenger’. Here was crafted a new kind of tribe, a universal tribe, a community defined by tribal norms, rules and rituals, and yet one that appealed not to a restricted group but to the whole of pagan Arabia, and indeed, eventually, to the whole of the world. It was not universalism in a modern secularist sense – moral worth was defined by a willingness to submit to Allah – but nevertheless Islam continued the development of the idea of a universal community that had begun with the Stoics and had had subsequently been developed by Christians.

As with Christianity, Islam’s insistence on a single transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent, absolutely good God helped consecrate the idea of a rule based-morality.  Goodness was to be found not in the cultivation of laudable habits, or in the ability to negotiate the mean between lack and excess, or in the aspiration to wisdom through self-examination, but in the ability to accept unconditionally God’s law and to follow faithfully the rules that He set down for entry to heaven. In tribal Arabia, morality had referred not to a set prescribed and proscribed behaviours but to the process of negotiating relationships both within and between tribes through which each tribe sought to defend its honour and protect its collective good. With the emergence of Islam, that process of negotiating social relationships became transformed into a set of rigid rules that defined social relations. The triumph of Islam did not resurrect a tribal ethic, nor create a more egalitarian society.  As with Christianity, Islam combined an ethics as malleable as clay with the iron rod of God’s Word.