wish I could crawl into the head of British historian Karen Armstrong, whose comments about Islam and the prophet Muhammad are astonishing. In good conscience, how does she say the things she does?
My occasion for asking is a new PBS documentary, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, that debuted Wednesday night. The filmmakers take pains to show how cuddly and non-threatening a religion Islam is, but the most mind-blowing words in the two hours of footage are from Ms. Armstrong. She says, "Muhammad had nothing against the Jewish people per se, or the Jewish religion. The Koran continues to tell Muslims to honor the People of the Book."
Referring to Christians as well as Jews, that famous phrase, "the People of the Book," comes up whenever someone is trying to paint a friendly face on Islam. The truth is that Muhammad typically means it not in praise but as an expression of bitter irony, as if to say: These people have Scripture, yet they reject me! Author of Mohammed: A Biography of the Prophet and Islam: A Short History, Armstrong presumably has studied the Koran carefully enough to know this. Or has she?
Muhammad takes a lively interest in Jews and Christians, whom he deals with explicitly in many, many passages. Here's a quick sample.
God is quoted by prophet as saying, "The unbelievers among the People of the Book and the pagans shall burn forever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures." " those that disbelieve Our revelations and deny them are the heirs of Hell." Of the Jews in particular: "God has cursed them in their unbelief."
As to how one is to deal with such unbelievers, the Koran's message is vigorously expressed. "Muhammad is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another." "If you do not go to war, He will punish you sternly." "Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them." "Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends to one another."
A couple of verses suggest a pacifistic perspective: "Requite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend." But these are isolated thoughts. Much more representative are the passages that describe, with satisfaction, the destruction of the cities and nations of the unbelievers in the past, the ruin of their lives and fortunes in the future.
"Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and deal sternly with them. Hell shall be their home, evil their fate." "God loves those who fight for His cause in ranks as firm as a mighty edifice." In the surah titled "That Which Is Coming," we find verses that sound weirdly like 9/11: "They [the unbelievers] shall dwell amidst scorching winds and seething water: in the shade of pitch-black smoke, neither cool nor refreshing." "On that day woe betide the disbelievers! Be gone to the Hell which you deny! Depart into the shadow that will rise high in three columns, giving neither shade nor shelter from the flames, and throwing up sparks as huge as towers, as bright as yellow camels!"
As I was making my way through the text, occasionally I would read a particularly vivid passage aloud to my wife. "But you're taking that out of context," she'd say. "You must be."
Actually, on page after page, sentiments like these are the context.
Karen Armstrong is either one of the biggest liars on the planet, or, more likely, self-deluded in the way only professional scholars can be. She mystifies me.
David Klinghoffer is the author of a spiritual memoir, The Lord Will Gather Me In, as well as the forthcoming The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism.