If you were to start a new religious movement or an entirely new religion, people would hurl insults at you, guaranteed. Those who cherish the status quo may even threaten your life. But how would you respond? Would you show patience and take it? Would you walk away? Would you return the insults, calling them names? Would you engage in a verbal sparring match, disarming your opponents with your wit?
Or would you do the unthinkable? Would you get a gun and kill the insulters? Or would you send a follower to kill an opponent stealthily in the night?
Two founders of religious movements, which eventually became world religions, heard insults and serious challenges thrown at them by skeptics and mockers. Sometimes their lives were threatened. Though Jesus and Muhammad sometimes reacted in the same way, showing patience and walking away, in the final analysis, their reactions were different.
How did each one react, specifically?
Muhammad's reactions are analyzed in chronological sequence, after his Hijrah or Emigration from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. It is then that he grows in military power and conquests — and in violence. [More detail on the following events can be found here and here.]
After the Battle of Badr (AD 624)
The Battle of Badr saw about 320 Muslims defeat about 1,000 Meccans, seventy to eighty miles west of Medina at the wells of Badr, near a frequented trade route which led up to the King's Highway and on to Syria. Muhmmad was now strong enough to commit the following acts of violence and persecution without a substantial fear of reprisal.
(1) Before Muhammad's Hijrah, he used to sit in the assembly and invite the Meccans to Allah, citing the Quran and warning them of God's punishment for mocking his prophets. A Meccan named Al—Nadr bin al—Harith would then follow him and speak about heroes and kings of Persia, saying, 'By God, Muhammad cannot tell a better story than I, and his talk is only of old fables which he has copied as I have.' On other days al—Nadr would interrupt Muhammad until the prophet silenced him.
It was al—Nadir's bad fortune to join Mecca's army, riding north to protect their caravan, which Muhammad attacked at the Battle of Badr. The story—telling polytheist was captured, and on Muhammad's return journey back to Medina, Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son—in—law, at Muhammad's order, beheaded him instead of getting some possible ransom money. He was one of two prisoners who were executed and not allowed to be ransomed by their clans—all because he wrote poems and told stories critiquing Muhammad.
[Source: Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, (Oxford UP, 1955, 2004), pp. 136 (Arabic pages 191—92); 163 / 236; 181 / 262; 308 / 458. Reputable historians today consider Ibn Ishaq to be a good source of early Islam, though they may disagree on his chronology and miraculous elements.]
(2) A similar story can be told about Uqba bin Abu Muayt. He too harassed and mocked Muhammad in Mecca and wrote derogatory verses about him. He too was captured during the Battle of Badr, and Muhammad ordered him to be executed. 'But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?' Uqba cried with anguish. 'Hell,' retorted the Prophet coldly. Then the sword of one of his followers cut through Uqba's neck.
[Sources: Bukhari, Spoils of War (online source); Muslim nos. 4421 , 4422, and 4424; Ibn Ishaq, p. 308 / 458. Bukhari and Muslim are reliable collectors and editors of the hadith (words and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran). Ibn Ishaq shows Muhammad taunting them in their graves.]
(3) Asma bint Marwan was a poetess who belonged to a tribe of Medinan pagans, and whose husband was named Yazid b. Zayd. She composed a poem blaming the Medinan pagans for obeying a stranger (Muhammad) and for not taking the initiative to attack him by surprise. Perhaps in March 624, when the Allah—inspired prophet heard what she had said, he asked, 'Who will rid me of Marwan's daughter?' A member of her husband's tribe volunteered and crept into her house that night. She had five children, and the youngest was sleeping at her breast. The assassin gently removed the child, drew his sword, and plunged it into her, killing her in her sleep.
[Source: Ibn Ishaq, pp. 675—76 / 995—96.]
(4) Abu Afak, a centenarian elder of Medina, belonging to a group of clans who were associated with the god Manat (though he may have been a Jew), wrote a derogatory poem about Muhammad, extolling the ancestors of his tribe who were strong enough to overthrow mountains and to resist submitting to an outsider (Muhammad) who divides two large Medinan tribes with religious commands like 'permitted' and 'forbidden.' Before the Battle of Badr, Muhammad let him live. After the battle, in April 624, the prophet queried, 'Who will deal with this rascal for me?' That night, Salim b. Umayr 'went forth and killed him.'
[Source: Ibn Ishaq p. 675 / 995.]
(5) Muhammad did not just assassinate individuals. Expulsion was at his disposal. In April 624 (or a month or two later) Muhammad expelled the Jewish tribe of Qaynuqa. Muslim Emigrants had moved from a trading and artisan town (Mecca) to an agrarian town (Medina), so they were impoverished. The Qaynuqa tribe controlled the market of craftsmen in Medina—the exact skills of the Emigrants. Though the Prophet's motives are unclear, he waged war on these Jews. They retreated to their strongholds, and he besieged them for fifteen days. He gave them three days to collect the debts owed to them and to get out of Medina, but to leave their tools behind. The clan departed northward for Wadi'l—Qura, where a Jewish community lived. Then a month later they left for Syria.
[Sources: Bukhari, Military Expeditions (online source); Muslim no. 4364; both editors record that the tribe violated a treaty, but these other sources say differently. Ibn Ishaq p. 263 / Arabic p. 388 and p. 363 / 545; Tabari, the Foundation of the Community, trans. M. V. McDonald, vol. 7 (SUNYP, 1987), 85—87 / 1359—62. Reputable historians today consider Tabari to be a good source of data on early Islam, though they may not agree on his chronology or miraculous elements.]
(6) Kab bin al—Ashraf, of mixed ancestry (pagan father and Jewish mother), heard about the Muslim victory at the battle of Badr, and he was disgusted, for he thought Muhammad the newcomer to Medina was a trouble—maker and divisive. Kab had the gift of poetry, and after the Battle of Badr he traveled down to Mecca, apparently stopping by Badr, since it was near a major trade route to Mecca, witnessing the aftermath. Arriving in Mecca, he wrote a widely circulated poem, a hostile lament, over the dead of Mecca. So what happened to him? The early Muslim historian named Tabari reports that five Muslim thugs attacked him in the night, severed Kab's head, and brought it to Muhammad, in September 624.
[Sources: Bukhari, Military Expeditions (online sources: here and here; this one shows Muhammad giving permission to his assassin to say anything, i.e. lie; Muslim no. 4436 ; Ibn Ishaq 364—69 / 548—53; Tabari, vol. 7, pp.94—98 / 1368—73.]
(7) It is on the heels of this assassination of Kab that Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant, was assassinated, perhaps also in September 624. With the success of the five conspirators, Muhammad said, 'Kill any Jew that falls into your power.' Shortly afterwards, Muhayyisa b. Masud leaped upon and killed Ibn Sunayna. His only crime was being Jewish.
[Source: Ibn Ishaq p. 369 / 534.]
After the Battle of Uhud (AD 625)
After the Battle of Uhud in March 625, which the Muslims lost, Muhammad was stung. He and his Muslim community suffered a loss of prestige, though the community did not crumble, but quickly recovered and grew, so the loss was not material.
(8) This recovery came on strong. In late August and early September 625, Muhammad besieged the Jewish Nadir tribe in their strongholds for fifteen days until he started destroying their date palms. Their livelihood undergoing destruction and theft, they departed to the city of Khaybar, seventy miles to the north, where they had estates. This takeover helped relieve the ongoing poverty of many Muslims, who took over their date orchards.
[Sources: Bukhari, Military Expeditions (online source, and scroll down to see many hadith); Muslim nos. 4324 and scroll down to others; Ibn Ishaq pp. 437—38 / 652—54; Tabari, vol. 7, pp. 156—61 / 1448—1453.]
(9) In July—August 625, in revenge for an ambush on some Muslim missionaries, Muhammad sent Amr bin Umayya and a companion to assassinate a leader of the Meccans. The assassins failed in their attempt. They had to flee under pursuit. Umayyah hid in a cave, but not before murdering a man along the way. As the pursuit was dying down, a tall, one—eyed, unnamed Bedouin entered the cave, driving some sheep. Umayyah and the Bedouin introduced each other. After they settled down, the shepherd sang a simple two—line song in defiance of Muslims and Islam. Then he fell asleep, snoring. Umayyah recounts what he did in retaliation for insulting Islam: . . . 'I went to him and killed him in the most dreadful way that anybody has ever been killed. I leaned over him, stuck the end of my bow into his good eye, and thrust it down until it came out of the back of his neck.' He fled back to Muhammad, who said, 'Well done!' The account ends: The prophet 'prayed for me [Umayyah] to be blessed.'
[Source: Tabari, vol. 7, pp. 149—50 / 1440—41; a later editor incorporated some of Tabari's account into Ibn Ishaq's biography, pp. 674—75.]
(10) In May 626 Muhammad succeeded in assassinating a Jew, Sallam bin Abi'l—Huqayq (Abu Rafi), of the Nadir tribe, who had been banished a year earlier. He sent a Muslim who had a Jewish foster—mother and spoke Hebrew; who managed to gain entrance into Abu Rafi's house at night with four companions and easily kill him. They hid until the search died down and then returned to Medina, with the blessing of Muhammad—he was the one who sent out the hit squad.
(11) In February—March 627, a second assassination of another Jew named Usayr (or Yusayr) bin Razim was more deceptive. Under the guise of ambassadors from Muhammad, thirty Muslims traveled up to Khaybar (a predominantly Jewish city) and invited Usayr to Medina to negotiate peace between him and Muhammad. Despite warnings, thirty Jews set out with the Muslims. W. M. Watt rightly says that the Jews were unarmed (Muhammad at Medina, p. 213). The Muslim leader surreptitiously made his camel carrying himself and Usayr lag behind, and then the Muslim killed him. The other Jews were also killed with one exception.
Thus, Muhammad engaged in assassinations, and a deceptive one at that, to deal with two Jewish leaders who intrigued with his enemies.
Sources for these two assassinations: Bukhari, Military Expeditions (online source and scroll down); Tabari 99—105 / 1375—83; Ibn Ishaq pp. 482—84 / 714—16; 981 and 665—66 / 981.
After the Battle of the Trench (AD 627)
The Battle of the Trench in 627 saw a confederation of Meccans and their allies marching north to Medina. They were fed up with the Prophet's continual harassment of their trade. But Muhammad had dug trenches around Medina to neutralize Mecca's superior cavalry. Wisely, the Muslims never confronted the enemy head on. After about a month, the attackers returned south, no side suffering serious losses. So Muhammad's power, though always growing, increases exponentially in Medina, even more so than after the Battle of Badr in 624.
(12) In fact, Muhammad is so powerful that shortly after the Battle of the Trench he lays seize to Jewish strongholds in Medina, captures them, decapitates 600 male Jews of the Qurayzah tribe, enslaves their woman and children, though he keeps a beautiful Jewess for himself, and confiscates all of their property, which was considerable (Sura 33:25—27). It is sometimes argued that this tribe broke a treaty of neutrality, or a pro—Jewish Muslim made the final decision, not Muhammad. In reply, however, Muhammad could have called off the 'trial' at any time. Plus, if we assume that they really did break a treaty (and that's a big assumption), could not Muhammad have punished only the leaders? And did all the men have to be slaughtered, and did all the women and children have to be enslaved and sold? Muhammad's reaction was excessive and therefore unjust.
[Sources: Bukhari, Military Expeditions (online source and scroll down to see many hadith); Ibn Ishaq, p. 466 / 693; Tabari, The Victory of Islam, vol. 8, trans. Michael Fishbein, (SUNYP, 1997), pp. 27—41 / 1485—1500. See the article linked above, 'Muhammad and the Jews' for Muslim polemics and a reply to them.]
After the Conquest of Mecca (early AD 630)
(13) An apostate named Abdullah bin Khatal enjoyed the company of two singing—girls in Mecca. One was murdered after the conquest because she had sung satirical verses about Muhammad, which Abdullah had composed. Incidentally, he was also killed, though he clung to the curtains of the Kabah shrine. The other singing girl was not killed because of her repentance.
[Sources: Bukhari, Military Expeditions, (online source); Ibn Ishaq, pp. 550—51 / 819]
To sum up, Muhammad assassinated, banished, enslaved, or slaughtered three classes of non—Muslims: individual poets or poetesses; individual political leaders, and entire communities in Medina, the Jewish tribes of Qaynuqa, Nadir, and Qurayza (not to mention the wars).
What did Jesus do?
Jesus did not engage in violence and retaliation, so only four examples of insults, challenges, and threats are analyzed, along with his reactions. The examples are arranged in chronological and textual order, mostly from the Gospel of Luke.
(1) In the immediate context of Jesus' baptism by John and the temptation by Satan, in which Jesus turned down all the kingdoms of the world, including by military conquests, he returned to his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:14—30). Entering the synagogue, he got up and read from one of the most beautiful passages in Isaiah, which says that good news will be preached to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and relief for the oppressed, because now was the time of the Lord's favor (Isaiah 61:1—2a). Significantly, he stopped in the middle of verse two, the rest of which predicts vengeance from God. He rolled the scroll back up and said: 'Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing' (Luke 4:21). He meant that he himself now fulfills this scripture.
The people were amazed at Jesus' words of grace. But they also had some doubts. 'Isn't that Joseph's son?' (v. 22). That is, 'Who does he think he is?' But Jesus laid down a challenge. His message will also be for Gentiles, especially if those in his hometown reject him. He pointed to two Gentiles who had received blessings from God through Elijah: a widow from Sidon who was given miraculous provision and the resurrection of her recently deceased son (1 Kings 17:7—24); and Naaman, a Syrian military commander, who was healed of leprosy (2 Kings 5:1—27).
How did the listeners react to Jesus' words? They were furious and tried to kill him:
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up and drove him out of town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:28—30, New International Version (NIV), which is used throughout, unless noted)
We should absorb two things—what he did and what he did not do. What he did was simply walk away, either by his commanding presence or by a miracle (or both), though the text is not explicit. It was not his time to die (cf. John 7:30). But the second thing is equally important. He did not memorize the faces of the instigators of the mob, in order to send an assassin to kill them (or one of them), stealthily in the night, as a clear message—'Don't mess with me!' This conversation never took place: 'Assassin, here's a dagger. Now go and kill so—and—so from the synagogue, at night. I'm justified, because he tried to kill me, a mighty prophet (though I'll reveal later that I'm the very Son of God!). Return to me when the pursuit dies down, and I'll pray a blessing over you, if you 'succeed.' Remember, you're on your own. If you get caught, I knew nothing about your attempt.'
Jesus had just read a passage from Isaiah that proclaims the year of favor from the Lord. Earlier, he had resisted Satan's temptation to take matters into his own hands and spread the ways of God by diabolical methods like raids, wars, and conquests. So why would he engage in assassinations? He put his trust in God.
(2) Samaria is located between Galilee in the north and Judea and Jerusalem in the south. In the first century, Samaritans were half—breeds who had some unorthodox views about the Bible and centers of worship. Hostility developed between them and Jews. But Jesus gladly ministered to a Samaritan town, when the need arose (John 4:4—42). However, this time he was on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, possibly to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. John 7:1—10), and to minister in Judea (Luke 9:51—13:21). He sent messengers on ahead to get things ready for him in a certain unnamed Samaritan village. When the villagers heard that he and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem, the villagers rejected them. Lewis Foster, commentator on Luke and Acts for the NIV Study Bible, explains:
Samaritans were particularly hostile to Jews who were on their way to observe religious festivals in Jerusalem. It was at least a three—day journey from Galilee to Jerusalem through Samaria, and Samaritans refused overnight shelter for the pilgrims. Because of this antipathy, Jews traveling between Galilee and Jerusalem frequently went on the east side of the Jordan River. (note on Luke 9:52)
To this rejection how did Jesus react? He did not have time, because James and John, nicknamed Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17), reacted for him:
When the disciples James and John saw this [rejection], they asked, 'Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy them?' (Luke 9:54).
This call for the fire of God, echoing Elijah's divine punishment (2 Kings 1:9—16), was no idle threat. In addition to seeing up close a lot of healings and exorcisms with authority, the disciples had also seen Jesus calm a storm.
'In fear and amazement they asked one another, 'Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him'' (Luke 8:25).
They saw him miraculously feed five thousand men, plus women and children, from only five loaves of bread and two fish (Luke 9:10—17). They saw him in a transfigured, glorified state, talking with Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets) (Luke 9:28—36). Jesus took their call for fire seriously. If the wind and waters obeyed him, then why not fire from heaven? This is why he rebuked James and John immediately (Luke 9:55—56):
'But Jesus turned and rebuked them and they went to another village.'
Besides this rebuke, it is important to note what Jesus did not do. He did not stealthily assassinate an individual leader of the Samaritan village or destroy the entire community. He showed divine restraint at the hostility thrown at him by these Samaritans, who were despised by the larger culture and who returned the contempt.
Jesus was proclaiming the year of favor from the Lord, not a season of vengeance. This season is reserved only for the Last Day, during divine judgment of the entire world (Matthew 13:24—30, 36—43; 25:31—46).
(3) This happened in the last week of Jesus' life. He had predicted his own death—he was sent to die, after all (Luke 9:22, 43—45; 12:50; 13:32—33; 18:31—34). He has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:18—44). Now hostility against him heated up because the large crowds favored him, among other reasons, such as his criticism of the authorities. It is in this context that the teachers of the law and the chief priests kept a close watch on him to catch him in committing treason against Rome or in breaking the law, so they could arrest him and turn him over to 'the power and authority of the governor' (Luke 20:20).
So the leaders asked him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Apparently, they saw him as a political revolutionary who opposed Roman occupation. Would he endorse the taxation of his fellow Jews for the benefit of unclean Gentiles? However, they did not know that he was a king, but that his kingdom was not of this world. So he replied with these famous words that are often quoted, though people may not know the exact reference and context (Luke 20:20—26; cf. Matthew 22:15—22; Mark 12:13—17).
24 'Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?' 25 'Caesar's,' they replied. He said to them, 'Then give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God's.' 26 They were unable to trap him in what he said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
One way to disarm the opposition is by wisdom in a rejoinder. Jesus replied to their trap with a logic that silenced the teachers and chief priests. He did not send Simon the Zealot, one of the Twelve, to follow an antagonistic leader, mingle in the large amalgam of pilgrims during the Feast of Passover, sneak up on him, stab him, and disappear in the crowd again. These kinds of assassinations were not unknown in the decades before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. But violence was not necessary. God was with Jesus.
(4) The fourth and final example of insults and threats takes place during Jesus' arrest and trial. All the way through this baptism by fire or ordeal leading to death, he resisted violence, so the will of God would be fulfilled.
First, Jesus rebuked Peter for using a sword during the arrest of Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane. A crowd of enforcers intruded into Jesus and the disciples' time of prayer. Sizing up the threat, the disciples ask Jesus, 'Lord, should we strike with the swords?' Before Jesus could answer, Simon Peter cut off the right ear of the servant (Malchus) of the high priest. But Jesus said, 'No more of this!' And he healed the servant's ear (Luke 22:51).
Then Jesus informed Peter that he could call on more than twelve legions of angels to deliver him (Matthew 26:52—54):
52 'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him [Peter], for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that it must happen this way?'
Jesus was destined to fulfill those aspects of the Old Testament that predicted the death of the Messiah, such as Isaiah 53. Calling on angels to deliver him would thwart this fulfillment.
Finally, while Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, he told the governor that his disciples (and the large crowds) do not fight for his release because his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).
36 Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.'
In all of these passages about the last week of his life, Jesus remained true to his original calling. He resisted the temptation by the devil to receive all the kingdoms and realms of the whole world if he would only worship Satan (Luke 4:1—13). But when Peter cut off an enemy's ear, it seems that the disciple still did not grasp that God was ushering in a new era of salvation, which does not include raids, wars, and conquests—hitting people with swords. God could have sent more than twelve legions of angels to rescue his Son, but God's true kingdom is a spiritual one, which gets worked out in the people of God throughout history.
Jesus was sent to proclaim the season of favor from the Lord; he was not commissioned to assassinate individuals, to rain fire down on whole communities, or even to call on the legions of angels to destroy the Roman Empire. The kingdoms of this world will be judged and overthrown at the Last Day. Now is the era of favor and salvation.
Let's step back and look at the big picture: the overarching mission of the two founders.
It is asserted that Muhammad was called to lead people towards a new law that superceded the paganism of Arabia in the seventh century. He was another lawgiver, like Moses. He intended to establish a new order here on earth. In contrast, Jesus was a spiritual leader whose kingdom was not of this earth. He was not a new lawgiver like Moses. Jesus was 'heavenly minded.'
What if the law of Muhammad absorbed his pagan social environment too fully? He ordered the hands of male and female thieves to be cut off. He ordered the hands and feet of highway robbers to be cut off, along with crucifixion. He allowed sex with slave—girls and female prisoners of war. He and his community practiced the slave trade. He even tortured some hapless victims, such as an old woman. He reinstituted stoning for adultery, in his own way. He beat alcoholics. And as we have seen in this present article, he ordered assassinations and wars. So what kind of mission was this, anyway?
For the ten years that Muhammad lived in Medina (AD 622—632), he either went out on or sent out seventy—four raids and wars, ranging from small assassination hit squads to full—scale, large battles. After his death of a fever in 632, his leading Companions followed his example, waging wars on Arab pagans, forcing them either to convert or die. After that, Islamic armies stormed out of the Arabian Peninsula and conquered territories, north, east, and west. For the next four centuries Islam embarked on its own Crusades, long before the Europeans responded with their own. What kind of mission was this, anyway?
As for the mission of Christ, he gave us principles of dignity. Society can draw from them in practical ways, such as helping and restoring alcoholics and adulterers instead of whipping and stoning them. Jesus seeks to transform sinners from the inside out. He paid for their sins by his atoning death on the Cross, so they do not have to suffer from old, harsh punishments. He offers everyone inner freedom. All peoples have the choice to follow him. If they do not, then they are free to go their own way. Christians do not (or should not) harass and persecute them by legal or other means.
Further, Satan tempted Jesus to grab all of the kingdoms of the world, by ways other than God's. In his times, these ungodly ways included military conquests and political control. He blessedly turned down Satan's offer. So it is true that his kingdom is not of this world. After his propitiatory death and resurrection, he told his disciples to preach his message of love around the Roman Empire. His disciples carried out his nonviolent mission, and for the next few centuries they transformed the empire by proclamation alone.
Thus, the two missions of the two founders are different indeed.
James M. Arlandson may be reached at email@example.com