Muhammad is like Jesus

By Alexander Görlach5.10.2015Culture and Society

Author and Islam critic Hamad Abdel-Samad has unpacked the stereotypes about the prophet of the Muslim faith and compiled them in a new book. But this is not religious criticism’s finest hour.


They say that Muhammad was a human butcher, one who married a child and put whole populations to the sword. These allegations are nothing new: people have been bringing them against the Prophet of the Muslim faith for hundreds of years. Now Hamed Abdel-Samad, a self-described “critic of Islam”, has compiled these historical resentments anew, and it’s assumed that this work will find a large following. A civilized and above all else scientific criticism of religion arose very differently in the West, where the criticism was at its core a critique of the revelation: can it be that a god speaks in this world? Why does he do that? Who does he choose as his addressee? Out of this revelatory criticism grew the institutional critique of the church and its claim to power ¬– which had indeed deviated from the original revelation.

As a consequence of the past centuries, most people from the West are metaphysically unsuspicious of the old revelation criticism: religion (from the heritage of the Enlightenment) contributes to the teaching of values and is the pillar of morality… good honest piety. From theological dogma, the cause of the religious schism and the Thirty Year’s war, morals and ethics have come to the foreground, promoting people to live good and successful lives. In such a spiritual environment, to speak of a Christian or Atheist Europe only gets us off track. Western Europe no longer has religious roots in the sense that a certain revelatory belief could lead its population to take up arms. In his unsurpassed work, “Crowds and Power”, Elias Canetti puts things into perspective: people in Europe don’t believe in the afterlife anymore. That makes the military mobilization through the guise of Christianity impossible.

Religions provide the grand narratives

Up to the crusades church officials steadfastly stood by promises to warlords that eternal life is granted to soldiers that killed as many infidels as possible on the field battle. This is argued extensively by historian Thomas Asbridge in his work about the crusades. Young European men, masquerading as knights, roving around in large numbers, became increasingly a danger to the local populations of Europe, which led to this papal defense position to send them abroad. And history books are full of the carnage and massacres the young, power-hungry Christians perpetrated in the Holy Land. More surprising seems the fact that the great First Crusade army, according to Asbridge, bought their provisions on the way to Constantinople rather than pillaged for it. But that’s just a marginal side note.

Today, the afterlife holds no allure for many people, who identify as cultural Christian and are no longer believers in a metaphysical sense. In this frame of mind, they may actually come closer to the words and example of Jesus Christ, than the pious heaven-crazed zealots of bygone centuries, which is certainly an irony of history. Parallels to a “cultural Islam” however don’t exist in the Muslim World. There the revelatory claims of the religion go untouched. Arguments for the truth of the Islamic Revelation go as follows: Muhammad was illiterate. And because he couldn’t write, the very existence of the Koran proof of its miraculous revelation. Or: because up to the time of Muhammad there weren’t any books and the Arabic language in this beautiful form was unknown, proves that the origin of such a book, written as such, could be nothing short of divine. It is quite clear, to the discerning Western mind that these arguments do not have stock. Because Koran research, and which does indeed exist, tells us that the Caliph Uthman, one of the first successors of Muhammad, formed the Koran from the various versions that existed at the time and had all the other variants destroyed, and it was he who arranged the holy text in descending order, with long surahs in front, and shorter surahs in back. But the majority of Muslims are not aware of these findings. In Egypt for example, the homeland of Abdel-Samad, between 40 and 50 percent of the population is illiterate, with neither access to good education nor alternative information sources.

Religion, so writes the historian Yuval Harari is his book, “Sapiens – A Brief History of Mankind”, is the godfather of human development, first emerging as a way for Homo sapiens to use their newly acquired ability to think abstractly, and bundling these thoughts into concepts. Religions provide the grand narratives that distinguish Homo sapiens from his evolutionary relatives. These narratives create trust: trust in man’s determination and man’s purpose. That was now about 32 thousand years ago. Religious narratives are not the only abstractions that can determine the further development of our species: trust in a particular currency, for example, is a similar abstract concept to that of original sin, to be used to cleanse oneself under certain conditions. Legislative texts, as laid down in the Hammurabi Code, in Sharia, or in Canonical Law, reflect a common competence for abstraction. Harari uses in his book an economic example, which is encountered daily in the business world: a firm is an entity in and of itself apart from a private person. This innovation, which places the potential liabilities in the company rather than the entrepreneurs that form them, has made modern economies possible, according to Harari. The shift in abstract models in the realm of politics is similarly familiar: to a certain point, the people of France believed in the divine right of the king, and then at a certain point in the Republic and the universal rights of individuals.

A bulwark against race ideology and xenophobia

Would the Europeans then take up arms for their liberal state? Is there a liberal narrative? There are different ones with effects of varying strengths: it is no accident that in France, the country with the most powerful post-religious narrative, has advanced furthest the notion of the separation of Church and State. The narrative of the Republic of the French People replaced the story of the Frankish Kingdom, the oldest and most prestigious child of the Catholic Church. If today a French president, an immigrant from the former colonies, or a farmer from Brittany pronounces the word “République”, then we hear in every corner of Europe a semantic additive that is bound to the peculiarity of French history and its own narrative.

In Germany this secular narrative has taken a weaker shape. After two disastrous dictatorships in the twentieth century, the country has been far from positioning itself beyond a religious narrative. It has even been reversed: after the end of the Second World War Christianity made a resurgence, since being repeatedly pulverized for decades by The Labor Movement, Modernity, Bismarck, Nietzsche, and Darwinism, which is perfectly understandable given the lack of alternatives. Dressed in full regalia, Christianity is more powerful now than it has been for a long time in the history of the country: man’s responsibility before God exists in the German Constitution as a permanent reminder, that the self-sufficient, self-arising man, which the Nazis offered as the completion of history in their interpretation of Nietzsche and Darwin, only ends in concentration camps and total destruction. When today, especially in the eastern part of this country, PEGIDA and its offshoots the write the secularly embellished myth of a Christian Europe on their banners, one can take note of the reevaluation of all the values, this time ascribed to the German Constitution. The symbols and the rhetoric of Christianity, installed after the war as a bulwark against the return of race ideology and xenophobia, have been taken today by the enemies of freedom, serving as the mascots for their crusade. Fitting, perhaps, are the words of Max Liebermann, “I cannot eat as much, as I would like to puke.”

Political Islam is at its end

Christianity is an enduring historical legacy, not an instruction booklet for maintaining political order. The Bible has for a long time not been the guiding principle for politics in a way like the Muslims use the Koran. Some Muslims may think that there must exist a power vacuum, because they intertwine political thought with religious, dogmatic, and missionary ideas. There is no power vacuum though, for there are also things beside religious narratives to organize society. The Germans are becoming aware of this at the moment, likewise with other Europeans. The refugees are not the reason, rather just the occasion. It’s important that Europe does not play the various forms of secularism against each other and tilt at windmills, we who now have gotten best of the separation of Church and State. The separation has long been completed, especially, and most importantly, in the minds of the baptized and unbaptized alike. This retooled, new edition of this historical spectacle can give itself to society. To those who worry about the political strengthening of Islam in Europe ¬– many of whom are Muslims themselves -– we can confidently give the answer: political Islam, as it has burst on the scene since the so-called Arab Spring, popping up in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Iran, in Yemen, and given new life by ISIS, is at its end. World Wide people are running from this super-authoritarian form of Islam and are casting votes with their footsteps: the majority of Muslims don’t want theocracy ruling their lives.

The historical Muhammad is unknown to us, much like the historical Jesus. Today these two very different religious founders come to us through the sources and the history of the faiths whose start they were. The “real life” of these figures is unknown to us. A distinction is made between “Jesus of Nazareth” as a historical figure and “Jesus Christ”, the believed Son of God and the Messiah. We are unable to determine and understand who those historical figures really were, that you have to hand it to Mr. Abdel-Samad. We know the most about them only through the assertions of their followers, which were always given with a political implication, a claim to power. The pamphlet “Treatise of the Three Imposters” is a blasphemous text from France during the Enlightenment. In it, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are crudely insulted and depicted as the deceivers of mankind. The author is unknown, an Abdel-Samad of his time. But religious claims must be confronted today differently: with scientific calm and enlightened pathos: the narrative of 70 years of peace in Europe is evidence that less nationalism and less religion is good for people. We must promote this message further, both at home and to other regions of the world. What Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were really like, only the gods know.



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