In a November 27 address at Georgetown University’s Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU), University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole discussed his new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His sympathetic audience of about forty in ACMCU’s conference room included ACMCU Professor John Voll, Georgetown University imam Yahya Hendi, and the former Foreign Service Officer Benjamin Tua, a persistent Israel critic.
As Georgetown professor and ACMCU founder John Esposito moderated, Cole discussed his findings on “peace in the Quran and early Islam.” “I am swimming against the stream here,” he said, “as that isn’t the word that comes to mind for most people with regard to Islam.” Yet his elaborated revisionist history was unconvincing.
Cole explained his dubious thesis that any violent characteristics in Islam involved an ex post facto recasting of Islam’s supposedly peaceful seventh-century prophet Muhammad. During the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), “when the classical Arabic-Muslim corpus of work about Islam was formulated,” Muhammad’s biographers “wrote down his biography in such a way as to militarize it.” “It is very stark, if you follow the Quran itself as your primary source, how different it is from these later times,” Cole stated.
Later Bedouin converts supposedly supplanted the benign teachings of this imagined, little-followed prophet Muhammad with Bedouin warfare traditions. Early Arabic poetry “is all about raiding; how the great warriors are able to raid and they are able to defeat their enemies,” Cole noted. These Arabs “wake up in the morning, and they get drunk on wine, and they go off berserk to the battlefield.” After Muhammad’s death in 632, this “Bedouin ethos of raiding took over to some extent in early Islam,” so “you have to make a big distinction between the life of Muhammad and the later group.”
Cole contrasted that in “Arabic culture a haram was a sanctuary. It was a place of peace” where pagan Arab tribes would gather during special religious pilgrimages under agreed prohibitions of violence. “A lot of the Quran is taking the side of these practices of sanctuary, of creating a zone of peace where the tribes can’t engage in their blood feuds.” In particular, Muhammad’s Banu Hashem clan managed Mecca’s Kaaba shrine, so that his origins were a “peacemaking clan, a clan that is in charge of the sanctuary and in charge of enforcing peace and mediating.”
Cole supported this skewed perspective with cherry-picked Quran verses while ignoring fundamental questions about whether Islamic doctrine supplants peaceful, chronologically earlier Quran verses with later warlike ones. Illustrating his points with slides, he interpreted Quran 7:19-25, on Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as man’s descent into violence. To correct the resulting introduction of sin, “in the Quran the solution is everybody has to be a peacemaker.”
Tellingly, Cole’s exegesis omits this same chapter’s less savory verses. Quran 7:80-84 tell of Sodom’s divine destruction with its attendant condemnation of homosexuality. Quran 7:166 describe Jews as “apes, despised and rejected” while Quran 7:179 condemns non-Muslims as “like cattle.”
Cole similarly whitewashed Quran 48’s account of the conquest of Mecca by Muhammad’s army in 630. Using the traditional Islamic euphemism “Opening of Mecca,” in which conquest “opens” territories for Islam, Cole first acknowledged the thesis of modern Muslim histories. “In the later sources, the Muslims are coming in and they are armed and they have battle standards and there some skirmishes and then they kill some people or execute them.” He spuriously claimed “there is nothing like that in this chapter of the Quran. It is a peace procession” and “nonviolent noncooperation; it’s what Martin Luther King did.”
This grossly distorts Quran 48. The chapter title is “Fatah,” variously translated as “opening” or “victory,” the source of the name for the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Fatah terrorist group. Quran 48:1 opens, “Indeed, We have given you, [O Muhammad], a clear conquest.” Quran 48:29 closes by claiming Muhammad’s followers “are forceful against the disbelievers, merciful among themselves.”
Cole next claimed preposterously that the only departure “in the Quran from a fairly consistent pacifism” is an Islamic “just war” theory. “This is never aggressive warfare,” he stated, as the “Quran is very insistent that conscience should never be forced.” Noting early Christian just war thinkers like St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), Cole concluded “you can take the City of God and just put it next to the Quran on these issues and they are almost identical; it’s incredible.”
Such an analysis ignores key Quranic passages, such as the chapter titled Anfal “Spoils of War,” as delineated in Quran 8:41. Seeking a veneer of religious legitimacy, Saddam Hussein illustrated Anfal’s historic meaning in the eponymous 1988 genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds. Quran 9:29also describes the humiliation subjugated non-Muslims should experience under Muslim rule, the basis of dhimmi oppression.
Yet Cole dismisses the copious evidence on Islamic imperialism by such contemporary scholars as Efraim Karsh and ignores histories of Islam’s ravaging of historic Christian societies as manufactured “Black Legend accounts.” These are part of a “good 1,300 years of Christian polemic against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, which characterize him and his religion as violent.”
Far more compelling than Cole is Raymond Ibrahim’s recent book Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. His analysis that Islam appealed to Arabic aggressive traditions and reconstituted them into an Islamic “Super Tribe” better explains the Quran than Cole’s revisionist account. While he unquestioningly accepts the Quran as a historically accurate “primary source,” there is no doubting the violence of Islamic expansion just after Muhammad’s death. Despite Cole’s channeling of his personal mythical Muhammad into the absurd historiography of modern Middle East Studies, that Islamic violence finds strong justification in the Quran is undeniable.