The convert-or-die fallacy

Most people view Muhammad as a Prophet or man of religion. However, we must not forget that long before Muhammad became a Man of God he was a successful businessman. Hence he knew the power of commerce. And to defeat Mekah you must first undermine its economy.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

In yesterday’s article, ‘Evolution of the species’, many readers had the impression that I was propagating Darwinism. That happens quite a lot. Readers would just look at the heading of the article or read just the first few paragraphs and then jump to a conclusion as to what I am talking about (and then start posting comments).

In fact, even reading just one article is not enough. Today’s article is number seven since ‘No god but God’ of last week. And even if you read all seven articles, that still would not mean you know what my ‘ideology’ is unless you have followed my ‘thoughts’ since, say, the mid-1990s.

Okay, maybe the word ‘evolution’ made you jump to the conclusion that I am talking about Darwinism and that I am suggesting that humankind evolved from apes. Evolution does not have to mean that humankind evolved from apes. It can also mean that humankind evolved from hunter-gathers to settlers — which is what really happened if you study anthropology, sociology, archaeology, etc.

And why since about 10 days ago have I started writing almost daily about the subject of religion, in particular that of the Abrahamic faiths? Is it not obvious and have I not already explained why? It is because of late the Christians and Muslims in Malaysia have been quarrelling about religion and both sides think they know what their religion is all about.

So I want to show you two things. One is that you don’t really know your own religion, and worse, you do not know the religion of ‘the other side’ that you are condemning. Second is to show you that this whole thing is not really about religion but about politics — and it has always been about politics since the beginning of these religions.

Okay, since Jesus Christ came first, let us talk about Jesus.

The Romans were not too bothered about Jesus preaching his new brand of Judaism. In fact, the Romans quite liked it because Jesus was preaching love and peace and not the more militant form of Judaism that existed around that time. And Judaism was militant, have no doubts about that. They even had a team of assassins to get rid of those who opposed Judaism (and some were even reported to have ‘defected’ to Jesus and were said to be amongst his disciples).

Jesus opposed the institutionalisation of Judaism and its system of priesthood and ‘church’ hierarchy. As far as Jesus was concerned the Jews had deviated from the true teachings of the religion and Jesus wanted to restore Judaism to what it used to be and was supposed to be.

In short, Jesus challenged the powers-that-be and this was a threat to those who walked in the corridors of power. Hence they had to act against Jesus or else suffer a loss of power. And so the Jewish leaders went to meet the Romans and asked the Romans to take action against Jesus. It was the Jews and not the Romans who wanted Jesus brought down.

Was this dispute between the Jewish leaders and Jesus about doctrine? No, it was about political power. Jesus was challenging their political power and they had to retaliate or else suffer a loss of power. Hence, my conclusion is that it was about politics and not about religious dogma — although the church would most likely disagree with my opinion.

In Muhammad’s case it was the same thing. Muhammad, just like Jesus, challenged ‘the system’. Hence Muhammad too was a threat to those who walked in the corridors of power and they too plotted to get rid of Muhammad. However, Muhammad was spared assassination when he escaped to Yathrib together with Abu Bakar the day he was supposed to be killed.

In Yathrib, now called Medina, Muhammad entered into an alliance with the locals, many who were Jews. The pendatang (the ‘outsiders’ from Mekah) had only the clothes on their backs. Hence Muhammad made a deal for the local to ‘adopt’ the immigrants — basically extend food and shelter to these now homeless followers of Muhammad.

Now, Mekah’s strength lay in the fact that it was the centre of religion for the Arabian Peninsular. And that, therefore, also made it the centre of trade. Hence Mekah’s strength depended not only on it being the centre of religion but also on it being the centre of commerce. And this was the first thing that needed to be undermined — Mekah’s domination of economic activity.

Most people view Muhammad as a Prophet or man of religion. However, we must not forget that long before Muhammad became a Man of God he was a successful businessman. Hence he knew the power of commerce. And to defeat Mekah you must first undermine its economy.

And that was the first thing that Muhammad embarked upon — defeat Mekah by first sabotaging its economy (just like what the west does today to its perceived enemies).

Mekah transported goods from all over the Middle East through the trade routes that passed by Yathrib. So Muhammad organised caravan raids that caused a severe dent in Mekah’s economy.

One day, Muhammad received word that one of the largest caravans ever — estimated to be at least 1,000 camels — was making its way from Yemen to Mekah. Muhammad organised a raiding party of 313 soldiers to lie in ambush at Badr. The Jews of Yathrib then sent word to Mekah that Muhammad was going to ambush this caravan with 313 men and Mekah sent a force of 1,000 to intercept them.

This was not the first battle but was certainly the biggest battle so far where Muhammad’s force was outnumbered three-to-one. Nevertheless, Muhammad’s army won and the Mekah force surrendered. My opinion is that this was the turning point for Muhammad who was in the beginning perceived as just a rebel but now suddenly emerged as a military leader.

In short, this battle changed the entire course of history not only for that region but also for the entire world over more than 1,000 years to come. For their treachery the Jews were punished and that started the animosity between the Muslims and the Jews where earlier they had lived peacefully as neighbours.

Thereafter it was time to conquer Mekah and a year before he died Muhammad led an army of 10,000 men into Mekah that surrendered without a fight. So, first came economic sabotage. Then came military action. Finally came the propagation of the new religion called Islam.

Actually, Muhammad did not compel the conquered people to convert to Islam. Even after the death of Muhammad the Caliphs were quite happy to allow the people of the conquered territories to retain their original religion — contrary to what many think.

You see, the non-Muslims have to pay a poll tax, which they would be exempted from paying if they convert to Islam. Hence it was economically viable to allow non-Muslims to remain non-Muslims. The more territories the Muslims conquered, the bigger the territory they had to rule and the larger the army they would need to retain these territories.

Hence it was not of any economic interest to convert all these people to Islam. If everyone became a Muslim then that would hurt the economy because the amount of taxes they would be able to collect would dwindle.

Hence this convert-or-die thing is not quite true.

If the non-Muslims attacked Muslim territories or rebelled, and if the Muslim army defeats them, they would be put to death and their family taken as slaves and their property confiscated. This was actually the ‘Rules of War’ at that time the world over. There was no concept of prisoners of war. You lose a war and the entire community gets massacred and the towns plundered and women folk and children taken as slaves.

This was not just what they did in the Middle East. Everyone did that whether in Europe, India or China. It was the custom of that era.

However, if after suffering defeat the enemy lays down his arms and declares that he is converting to Islam, it is haram (forbidden) to kill the person who surrenders. Hence the Muslims were basically the first to recognise surrender in war.

So the non-Muslims used this ‘escape clause’. Fight the Muslim conquerors and if you win you massacre them. However, if you lose, then drop your sword and scream, “I am converting to Islam!” The Muslims have no choice but to spare your life and treat you as a brother, a fellow Muslim.

And that was why during the time of the Caliphs many went to war with a copy of the Qur’an. When you lose you tie the Qur’an to your spear and surrender. The Muslims would be forced to accept your surrender and spare your life.

Now, you may ask, why in the first place did the Muslim army want to conquer other territories? But that is what they all did at that time. It is called colonisation. Everyone did it. The powerful nations attacked and/or colonised the weaker nations for economic gain. They are still doing that till today.

The Persians did it. The Greeks did it. The Roman did it. The Norwegians did it. And so did the English, French, Germans, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Americans, and so on. As your population grows you need to feed the people so you need to expand your territory to gain more natural resources. And you do that by colonisation. Hence the Muslims of that era were no better or no worse than the rest of the people all over the world.

The Muslims of that era were not bad. They were just being ‘normal’. And, as I have written so many times before, ‘normal’ is subjective to time and place.