Muhammad and the Litmus Test

Does the truth need to pass a litmus test? When you tell the truth about anyone’s religion, the answer isn’t so clear. Before I engaged in writing a novel on the life of Muhammad, the risks were only too apparent. Islam was a hot-button issue. Tempers were running high. Looming large were the fatwa and Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, and the worldwide uprising among Muslims over a cartoon in a Danish newspaper that was thought to blaspheme against the Prophet. Therefore, simply to set down the events of Muhammad’s life — events that are by turns gripping, exciting, disturbing, and inspiring — leads directly into an inflamed debate.

To me, the danger of writing about Muhammad are, frankly, a red herring. You can’t know what is safe to say these days and what isn’t. Before he backed down at the urging of President Obama and others , an obscure Florida pastor with less than a hundred in his congregation, proposed, against all sense, decency, and caution, that everyone join in Burn-a-Koran Day to commemorate 9/11. Terry Jones feels perfectly safe to incite potential violence, because he has prayed over it, and apparently his God can’t stand Allah (I thought they were the same God) and favors ignorant intolerance. By lineage, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share The Book, meaning the same antecedents in the Old Testament, which each faith interprets so that it comes out number one. Being “people of The Book,” a term frequently used when discussing the relationship between Islam and Judaism, hasn’t stopped historical feuding and bloodbaths.

To keep their claims of absolute divine truth, each religion has learned to moderate its criticism of other faiths. It’s not so much live and let live as people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Your founder walked on water? Yours heard a voice in a burning bush? Yours was visited in a cave by the angel Gabriel? From inside the faith, these are articles of belief that cannot be questioned. If you stand outside the faith, they seem unreasonable, to use the mildest term possible. As a non-Muslim, I was writing from outside the faith. Therefore, I didn’t challenge the accepted life of Muhammad as taught for over a thousand years to all devout Muslims. Yet at the same time I couldn’t give them only the aspects of their Beloved that are the most attractive. Muhammad, viewed as a historical figure, was involved in military campaigns; he asked God to strategize the battles. At one point he ordered the execution of Jews who had collaborated with the enemy. He was told by God to marry a girl of six who was betrothed to another man.

I didn’t judge any of this from a modern perspective. Child marriage was part of a society that existed across enormous gulfs of time and mores, just as the ancient Greeks do. Once you apply litmus tests to someone else’s faith, the result is guaranteed to be explosive. Fundamentalists in all religions don’t care. The benighted Terry Jones has counterparts in the Islamic world who are just as disturbing, and both say “God wants me to do this.” It’s not up to me or any chronicler of Islam to judge either side of religious conflict. To me, putting on my writer’s cap, the only muse that must be honored is the truth, told with respect and without distortion. The great enemy here is denial. None of us has the right to deny another person the dignity of faith, and by the same token, no person of faith has the right to claim sole ownership of the facts. Outsiders are allowed to peer in the window of churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues. Those inside then have a choice: slam t window shut or open it and let in some light.

Published San Francisco Chronicle