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Why I Am Still Standing Up For Islam " and Against Terrorism
Why I Am Still Standing Up For Islam " and Against TerrorismBy Mustafa Akyol*
A few weeks ago, Frontpage published a very long article titled "Jihad Killings of POWs and Non-Combatants," written by Andrew G. Bostom. Mr. Bostom's piece was basically a rebuttal against my two earlier articles appearing on the National Review Online, titled "The Prophet and Paul Johnson" and "Al-Qaeda vs. The Koran". In both of these articles, I had argued that indiscriminate killings by al-Qaeda and its ilk are unacceptable from a true Islamic perspective.
However, this proved to be unacceptable for Mr. Bostom. For him, and for other like-minded authors such as Robert Spencer, who also criticized me at his "Jihad Watch" website, the very faith of Islam is the source of today's radical Islamist terrorism and al-Qaeda is doing exactly what the Koran advocates. In another article that disapproved my argued, Hugh Fitzgerald summed this up. "Bin Laden is a good Muslim," Mr. Fitzgerald wrote, "an orthodox Muslim."
I can well understand the concerns of these authors about radical Islamist terrorism. But they are mistaken in the way they connect it to the Muslim faith. It seems to me that they are applying a selective use of knowledge, a method in which one only uses the data that seems to support a preconceived thesis while ignoring the data that does not. They overlook the many examples of really humane and tolerant teachings and episodes in Islam and its history. Moreover, they attribute Islamic religious motives for every bloodshed in the history of the Islamic civilization--ignoring the fact Muslims can do evil, not because Islam directs it, but because they themselves individually choose to do so.
In this response to Mr. Bostom, I will examine all the issues raised in his article and will disclose the facts he neglected or misinterpreted. And I will be doing this not in a spirit of rebutting Mr. Bostom, or other critiques of Islam, but rather to help them, and others, see the Islamic faith more fairly.
At the outset, I should clarify the meaning of the term jihad. It does not necessarily mean a military struggle. Yes, it was understood and used often in that denotation throughout Islamic history; however, it might also mean quite peaceful efforts for the sake of God. I personally believe that an intellectual jihad is necessary for today's Muslims against materialism, both as a philosophy and as a worldview. That is why I call Muslims to be active in the scientific and intellectual challenge to materialism, hand in hand with other fellow theists, Christians and Jews. Many other Muslims emphasize the importance of such a "war" of ideas. On a popular Muslim website, under the title "The Final Jihad", the author defines the enemy as "western secular materialism" and adds that, "the weapon in this jihad must be knowledge."
Mr. Bostom asks for a Koranic source for this "non-military campaign against atheism." Well, that is what much of the Koran is all about. In verse 2:28, for example, atheism is intellectually challenged: "How do you deny God when you were dead and He gave you life?" And there are hundreds of verses starting with the command "Say," and among the facts to be said comes first the existence, power, mercy and benevolence of God. Refuting atheism and its related philosophies is just a modern version of telling about God. In fact, it has been a primal intellectual Islamic effort since the days of Ghazali " the Muslim equivalent of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Mr. Bostom also asks what will happen to atheists if they are not convinced. Of course, nothing. Let them deny the obvious. "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) and Muslims are ordered to say "The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve." (18:29)
Here is another Koranic verse telling what to do with non-Muslims:
If they argue with you, say, ?I have submitted myself completely to God, and so have all who follow me.' Say to those given the Book and those who have no Book, ?Have you become Muslim?' If they become Muslim, they have been guided. If they turn away, you are only responsible for transmission. God sees His servants. (3:20)
Yet probably this will not convince Mr. Bostom, because he will think that such Koranic verses of tolerance should have been abrogated by "war verses" that came later.
He is right in pointing out that such a dangerous doctrine of abrogation exists, but wrong in accepting it as the legitimate way of understanding the Koran.
The Myth of Abrogation
The doctrine of abrogation is actually a late invention, introduced by some classical jurists during the fourth century (late 10th century) of Islam. These scholars came up with hundreds of cases of abrogated verses to the extent that they formulated a whole science of the subject filling lengthy books and references.
Yet they were in error and many Muslim thinkers are pointing this out since the 19th century. Dr. Khaleel Mohammed, a professor of Religion at San Diego State University, has a very good article that summarizes the refutations against the doctrine of abrogation. "The allegation that 120 verses on the invitation to Islam were abrogated by the verse of the sword (9:5)" says Dr. Mohammed, "is in fact one of crassest stupidity."
The error of the classical exegetes who developed the doctrine of abrogation, explains Dr. Mohammed, was that they "followed an atomistic typology of interpretation, wherein every verse of Islam's main document was treated as an independent unit." Thus, a later verse on waging war against unbelievers was taken to invalidate all previous verses and define the Islamic political doctrine all by itself. However, a more consistent method is to stop treating verses as independent units and to try to understand their meaning by referring to their contexts and the overall meaning of the Koran.
Actually the Koran itself declares that it includes no contradictions (4:82), thus its verses should be seen not as conflicting and calling for abrogative passages, but rather as complimentary parts of a single mosaic.
If we try to build that mosaic, we will see that the war verses describe only an abnormal state of affairs " in which the Muslim community faced an enemy that sought its annihilation " and verses that promote peace and tolerance describe the Islamic ideal.
This becomes clear when we remember the context in which the Koran was revealed. During the initial thirteen years of Islam, Muslims were a totally pacifist community in the pagan-dominated city of Mecca. They simply tried to practice and evangelize their faith and told to the pagans, "You have your religion and I have my religion" (109:6) as the Koran ordered them to do. If the pagans of Mecca had accepted this formula, Muslims would not have needed to flee from Mecca, and then establish a state in Medina and afterwards get into a war of survival with Meccans and their allies.
Thus the "Meccan verses" of tolerance tell us about the ideal Islamic mission. "Medinan verses" of war tell us about a situation that we rarely face in the modern world " a religious community faced with a threat of annihilation, "merely for saying, ?Our Lord is God'." (22:40)
We should build the modern Islamic doctrine of politics based on Meccan verses, since the original Islamic model of mutual tolerance " which did not work in Mecca because of the bigotry of the Pagan establishment " does work in the modern world in which religious freedom is firmly established.
That said, I now want to focus on the real issue that Mr. Bostom brought forth against me: The issue of the true Islamic rules of war. I have argued that these rules do not allow indiscriminate killing. This means attacks against non-combatants and POWs " such as we have seen in 9/11, suicide bombings in Israel, and recent kidnappings in Iraq " are illegitimate from a true Islamic point of view.
To argue otherwise, Mr. Bostom quotes many incidents from Islamic history in which Christians, Hindus or other non-Muslim populations " including POWs, and more horribly, women and children " were massacred by "Muslims." The long quotes he cites from the eyewitnesses of such tragedies might persuade many readers that Islam is indeed a violent faith. When we take a closer look however, it turns out that the picture that Mr. Bostom presents is quite different from the objective truth.
Let's see how. First, we have to start with the Prophet himself.
The Sword " and the Mercy " of the Prophet
After the Koran, and before everything else, the practice of Prophet Muhammad is binding for all Muslims. The way he treated non-combatants and POWS is thus crucial. In my previous articles on the issue, I have mentioned that he ordered his fellow Muslims to care for non-combatants in war and treat POWs well. In fact, the Koran explicitly orders the good treatment of POWs. (76:8)
To argue that the Prophetic treatment of POWs was in fact violent, Mr. Bostom quotes from W.H.T. Gairdner, who tells us about "the greatest vindictiveness and bloodthirstiness" at the end of the Battle of Badr, which took place between Muslims and pagan Meccans in the year 624. Although Gairdner vaguely tells us there was some killing and "The Prophet checked these excesses," he doesn't explain that killings POWs after a battle was the standard Arab custom of the day and Prophet Muhammad intervened to preclude that norm. Karen Armstrong, a British historian and former nun, writes about the aftermath of the fighting at Badr:
The Muslims were jubilant. They began to round up prisoners and, in the usual Arab fashion, started to kill them, but Muhammad put a stop to this. A revelation came down saying that the prisoners of war were to be ransomed. He also stopped the Muslims squabbling over the booty, and the 150 camels, ten horses and pile of armour and equipment were divided up equally. Then the victorious army began the trek home with seventy prisoners of war . . . On the way home, Muhammad received a revelation for the prisoners themselves:
O Prophet, say to the prisoners in your hands: 'If God knows of any good in your hearts, He will give you better than what has been taken from you, and He will forgive you. Surely, God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.' (8:70)
Thus "the greatest vindictiveness and bloodthirstiness" that Mr. Bostom's source attributes to Islam was in fact a pre-Islamic practice stopped by the Prophet of Islam.
It is known that the Prophet allowed the execution of two specific POWs at Badr. These were Nadr bin el-Haris and Ukba bin Ebi Muayt, who were notorious for repeatedly persecuting Muslims and insulting Islam in Mecca. In today's terms, this would be tantamount to an execution of war criminals.
There is a tradition which claims that taking POWs at the end of Badr was a mistake and Prophet was warned about this by later verse (8:67). But this is not widely accepted and even radical interpreters of the Koran such as Mawdudi find this unconvincing. This issue has been considered recently in Time magazine and it was reported,
According to some hadiths, Muhammad was left wondering what to do with the resulting prisoners. This, the texts claimed, was the context for God's Koranic statement "As to prisoners of war, we have not sent you as an oppressor of the land." One 10th century gloss further asserted that the Prophet took God's word to mean he should kill the captives so as not to continue to be a prisoner holder, and that is probably the proof text al-Zarqawi had in mind [while referring to Badr as a justification for beheadings].
But according to Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Western and Islamic law at UCLA, that reading was discounted long ago. He says the vast majority of classical jurists subscribed to a more intuitively obvious version, whereby God's words prompted Muhammad to free his captives. They saw the "off with their heads" reading as insupportable. "Al-Zarqawi," says El Fadl, "searches for the trash that everyone threw out centuries ago and declares the trash to be Islam."
Mr. Bostom also raises the issue of the alleged massacre of the men of Bani Qurayza, the Jewish tribe who conspired against Muslims when Medina was besieged by the pagan army of Mecca in the year 627. Yes, I don't accept the traditional view that the men of Bani Qurayza were beheaded and there are good reasons for that as stated in the article by W. N. Arafat.
Mr. Bostom faults me for failing to mention the supposed reference in the Koran to the alleged Bani Qurayza massacre. That supposed reference is verse 33:26:
He [God] brought down from their fortresses those of the People of the Book who supported them [pagans] and cast terror into their hearts. You killed some of them and some you took prisoner.
Well, I think it is pretty self-evident that the verse describes a heat of battle, not a slaughter. In fact, the verse tells us that some men of Qurayza were taken as prisoners " thus spared. As W. N. Arafat points out that,
In the Qur'an the reference can only be to those who were actually in the fighting. This is a statement about the battle. It concerns those who fought. Some of these were killed. Others were taken prisoner. One would think that if 600 or 900 people were killed in this manner the significance of the event would have been greater. There would have been a clearer reference in the Qur'an, a conclusion to be drawn, and a lesson to be learnt. But when only the guilty leaders were executed, it would be normal to expect only a brief reference.
Yet Mr. Bostom insists on believing in the slaughter of Bani Qurayza. He also refers to the Sahih Bukhari (a hadith collection) supporting that story, and as a pre-caution to my possible rejection to that, he says, "once you start questioning the sacralized Muslim sources and texts- Koran, hadith, sira (sacred biographies of Muhammad)- this cannot be done selectively."
My dear friend Mark Hartwig also pointed out the Sahih Bukhari source in a letter to NRO that discussed my previous articles.
Well, I don't question the Koran, which I believe to be the infallible Word of God, yet I, like many other contemporary Muslims, feel free to question traditional Islamic sources such as the hadith and sira. These were written at least one and a half centuries after the Prophet and we already know that there were many fake sayings attributed to and fables made up about Prophet Muhammad. The collection we have today was compiled by men most of whom had the best intentions, but good intentions are not enough to create an infallible source.
The overall evidence relating to Prophet Muhammad shows us that he never sanctioned indiscriminate killing. He is on the record for saying, "Do not kill the very old, the infant, the child, or the woman." Abu-Bakr, his closest companion and successor as the first caliph of Islam, is also on the record for saying to Muslim soldiers, "Do not kill a young child, an old man, or a woman. Do not uproot or burn palms or cut down fruitful trees... You will meet people who have set themselves apart in hermitages; leave them to accomplish the purpose for which they have done this."
And although "the humanizing influence of Islamic teaching was in some ways diminished by [later] developments," as Bernard Lewis, undoubtedly one of the greatest Western experts on Islam, explains , it never sought to justify the indiscriminate killings that Mr. Bostom insistently attaches to Islam.
Muslim Jurists on POWs and Non-Combatants
Mr. Bostom quotes several Islamic jurists to show that killing of non-combatants and POWs are justified in Islam. We should be wary of the fact that the Muslim jurists, who gave permission for the killing of POWs, and some of whom are quoted by Mr. Bostom, always referred to the Bani Qurayza incident. Ibn Kathir, the author of one of most respected tafsirs (Koranic commentaries) explain that,
The majority of the scholars say that the matter of prisoners of war is up to the Imam. If he decides, he can have them killed, such as in the case of Bani Qurayzah. If he decides, he can accept a ransom for them, as in the case of the prisoners of Badr, or exchange them for Muslim prisoners.
However, as I explained above, while the sparing of POWs in Badr is evident in the Koran, the killing of Bani Qurayza is not, and its authenticity is highly suspect. Thus, from a purely Koranic " one could say, Sola Scriptura " point of view, there is no justification for killing POWs. That is what I have been arguing in my recent articles on the issue, and what I still maintain.
Moreover, even if one takes the Bani Qurayza at face value, still it doesn't justify indiscriminate killing, because this Jewish tribe in question was much different from ordinary prisoners of war. They were living in Medina and had an alliance with the Muslims there. When the pagan army from Mecca besieged the city, however, they secretly collaborated with them--an act of treason that could well lead to the annihilation of all Muslims. One can reason that their attack against Islam was crueler than the pagans.
This unique situation is why some Muslim jurists, who allowed the killing of POWs by referring to the Qurayza incident, emphasized that only such cruel foes deserve that punishment. For example, Abu Yusuf, as quoted by Mr. Bostom, writes "one can kill prisoners who might prove dangerous to the Muslims." (Such as Saladin's execution of Reynauld de Chatillon and Templars, while sparing many other ordinary POWs.) It is evident that such considerations can not legitimize the killing of women, children, and recently kidnapped individuals in Iraq who would not even dream of "being dangerous to Muslims."
Mr. Bostom also quotes jurists who opined on issues like the usage of catapults against fortresses that include civilians. That was actually a debate on "collateral damage," and with our recent memories of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that should not seem so unusual even to modern minds. In fact, the very existence of such debates on catapults indicate the concern for non-combatants in traditional Islamic law. Bernard Lewis confirms this and explains that,
Fighters in jihad are enjoined not to kill women, children, and the aged unless they attack first, not to torture of mutilate prisoners, to give fair warning of the resumption of hostilities after a truce, and to honor agreements. The medieval jurists and theologians discuss at some length the rules of warfare, including questions such as which weapons are permitted and which are not. There is even some discussion in medieval texts of the lawfulness of missile and chemical warfare, the one relating to mangonels and catapults, the other to poison-tipped arrows and the poisoning of enemy water supplies. Some jurists permit, some restrict, some disapprove of the use of these weapons. The stated reason for concern is the indiscriminate casualties that they inflict. At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder. At no point " as far as I am aware " do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders.
There is also a much neglected truth about classic Muslim jurists: in some cases, they were forced by the secular authorities to give religious permission to their planned conquests or attacks. It is well known that 11th century Shafi jurist al-Mawardi was imprisoned because he did not condone the plan of the Abbasid leader to break a truce with the Byzantines, without prior notice. The political leadership and army would often press the jurists to give laxer rulings on the laws of combat " a fact that raises questions about the legitimacy of those rulings. According to UCLA professor Khaled Abou el Fadl: "The army would tell the jurists 'Give us this or that ruling, or the enemy will come for you and all your dear books will go up in flames.' "
As a result, as pointed out by Rashid Rida, a reformist Muslim of the early 20th century, "men of learning (ulama), who were charged with the responsibility for maintaining the sharia, became corrupted through compromise with temporal authority (sulta) and consequently often lent themselves to the support of tyrants"
Still, many jurists stood against the exploitation of Islamic principles for tyranny or worldly profits. Bernard Lewis tells that a common concern among Muslim jurists was the corrupt Muslims who tried to justify their plunders by exploiting the concept of jihad:
The jihad, to have any validity, must be waged "in the path of God" and not for the sake of material gain. There are, however, frequent complaints of the misuse of the honorable name of jihad for dishonorable purposes. African jurists in particular lament the use of the term jihad by slave raiders to justify their depredations and establish legal ownership of their victims.
Actually, Bernard Lewis points to a crucial fact. Many "Muslims" indeed carried out quite secular campaigns on non-Muslims and labeled them as jihads simply for fake legitimacy in the eyes of other Muslims.
And most of the horrible episodes that Mr. Bostom presents us as the proofs of the supposed violence of Islam would fall into that category.
To see how, let's take a closer look at history.
The Early Expansion of Islam
Mr. Bostom and other critics of the Islamic faith continually tell us about how "Islam" spread around the world and conquered territories extending from Spain into India. Yet, the historical reality was not that monolithic. Instead of a single "Islam" spreading all around, we find a very diverse history of Islamic civilization, made up of many different states, empires, emirates, dynasties, renegades and sects who strived to expand their territories sometimes for the sake of Islam, but most of the time for the sake of their worldly interests. The internal bloody conflicts and wars among them also testify to this complex historical reality.
Thus, to judge the Islamic faith within these diverse historical events, we should first of all consider the conquests which were really driven by a passion to serve Islam. The most prominent examples would be, of course, the wars of Prophet Muhammad and, after those, the conquests of the four "rightly guided" caliphs.
The conquests of these four "rightly guided" caliphs, especially of Caliph Omar, were directed to the Byzantine and Persian ruled Middle East.
Most of these conquests were not bloody excursions, they were more like liberation wars. The peoples of both empires were hardly happy with their sovereigns. That's why most of them welcomed the advent of Islam. Franco Cardini, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Florence and one of the most prominent historians of Italy, in his book Europe and Islam, confirms the above view:
The expansion of Islam never resembled an inexorable military conquest, much less a Völkerwanderung [migration of peoples]. It was in fact a continuous, not always consistent process of conversion, imposed although seldom provoked, of groups belonging to exhausted or crisis-ridden societies " for example the Monophysite Christians of Syria and Egypt, harshly treated by the basileus of Byzantium, or the subjects of the Sassanian emperor; these people were eager to shake off aged, ossified forms of authority and to find a new identity with a new catalysing agent, in this case submission to the Word of God, as propagated by his rasul, Mohammed. Many nevertheless preferred to remain loyal to their own faith . . . They thereby demonstrated, incidentally, their opinion of government by the infidel as being preferable to government by their co-religionists.
Thomas Brown, historian at the University of Edinburgh, agrees: "Coptic- and Aramaic-speaking Monophysites in Egypt and Syria saw their Arab fellow Semites as deliverers from Greek tax-gatherers and orthodox persecutors" and the early Islamic Empire under Umayyads (661-750) was for them "a regime which resembled a benign protectorate rather than an empire."
Francis E. Peters, in his article on "The Early Muslim Empires," writes, "The conquests destroyed little: what they did suppress were imperial rivalries and sectarian bloodletting among the newly subjected population."
Franco Cardini writes that this pattern holds in further conquests of Islam, such as the ones over North Africa and Spain:
All those who were dissatisfied with the heavy yoke of Byzantine rule, from Jews to heterodox Christians, joined forces with the Arabs. This time, an element of passionate religious enthusiasm had found its way into the attacking armies, and many Christians converted to Islam. The inexorable driving force, therefore, behind the Islamic conquests in Syria, Anatolia, North Africa and Spain could be said to have been conversion.
In contrast, Mr. Bostom's article presents us a history of Islam from which blood is dripping through every spot. He manages this by picking exclusively the many different bloody episodes in the history of Islamic civilization. The fair thing to do, however, is not to collect episodes of violence and neglect others, but to see the whole picture. And Norman Cantor, professor of history, sociology and comparative literature at New York University, tells us about the general picture of Islam:
The old myth that the Arabs burst forth with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, offering the Mediterranean peoples either conversion or death, has long been discredited. In fact, the Arabs tolerated the religious practices of the Christians and Jews they conquered, only placing a head tax and limitation of political rights on those who would not recognize Mohammed as the Prophet of Allah . . .
That very issue of Islamic tolerance, however, is under attack by Mr. Bostom and especially by his colleague, Bat Ye'or. Mrs. Ye'or is famous for her strong criticisms of the status of non-Muslims in classic Muslim states. But in most of her writings, Mrs. Ye-or uses an anachronistic method. She compares the dhimmi ("protected peoples") status of Jews and Christians in medieval Islamic empires with the human rights of the modern world.
A fairer approach would be to compare each historical episode with its contemporaries and when we do that, the Islamic civilization has a better record than that of the West. "By medieval standards," says Hugh Goddard, historian and theologian at Nottingham University:
. . . the Muslim treatment of Jews and Christians was relatively tolerant and liberal, though it was clearly, by modern standards, still discriminatory to some extent. Comparisons can only fairly be made with other medieval societies, and on this basis the Muslim world scores extremely well."
Of course, trying to establish dhimmitude in today's world would be a gross error that would deserve some of the criticisms of Mrs. Ye'or. But she should not compromise her objectivity as a historian for such a political concern.
Corsair Plunders or Jihad Campaigns?
If it is a myth that Muslims "burst forth with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other", then what about all the bloody "jihad campaigns" that Mr. Bostom devotedly tells us about?
Before examining each case, we must get a general picture of what we are dealing with. Mr. Bostom's favorite method is to find some horrible massacre committed by some Muslims of any kind and then to label it as "jihad capture" or "jihad campaign." However, to define an action as jihad, we must be confident that it was carried out for religious motives. On the other hand, there of course were many kinds of "Muslims" who looted and pillaged simply for profit and other worldly gains.
For example, Mr. Bostom writes about "the jihad capture and pillage of Thessaloniki in 904" and quotes an account of the horrible massacre perpetrated on the city which deserves every kind of denouncement. There is a little catch, however: Mr. Bostom fails to tell us that the city was sacked not by a regular Muslim army leading a jihad, but by Muslim corsairs! It is well known that Thessaloniki was plundered by a group of pirates led by Leo of Tripoli, who was a Greek convert to Islam, but whose full-time job was pirating ships all over the Mediterranean.
In his book, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination, historian John V. Tolan tells that neither the sacking of Thessaloniki nor other attacks and plunders around the Mediterranean, had any religious motive:
In the 720s and 730s Arab and Berber forces fought and raided north of the Pyrenees, well into what is now France. Over the course of the next several centuries, Arab navies based in Spain and North Africa conquered most of the major islands of the Western Mediterranean... These incursions were not a unified effort to conquer Europe. The Muslim world was increasingly fragmented, both politically and religiously, and these raids by pirates and fortune-seekers were the fruits of individual ambition and greed, not of a coordinated Muslim expansion.
We will see how other wars of individual ambition and greed are labeled as "jihad campaigns" by Mr. Bostom.
The Conquests Against Byzantium
But before that, we should deal with the very early Islamic conquests in Syria, Iraq and Egypt which were carried out during the reign of the four "rightly guided caliphs" and were very much linked with the doctrine of jihad.
And that doctrine was humane according to the norms of the day, both in theory and practice. As I noted before, Muslim conquest into the Middle East was somewhat a liberation for unorthodox Christians and Jews, who had been persecuted by Byzantium. That is why some of these communities welcomed and even helped Muslim armies. For example, in Damascus, as historian Martin Sicker writes, "with the help of a disgruntled Christian bishop who was probably a persecuted Monophysite, the gates of the city were opened and the Byzantine governor soon surrendered on the basis of the following rather generous terms offered by Khalid" the Muslim commander. Khalid's terms were as follows:
"In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful. This is what Khalid ibn-al-Walid would grant to the inhabitants of Damascus if he enters therein: he promises to give them security for their lives, property and churches. Their city wall shall not be demolished, neither shall any Moslem be quartered in their houses. Thereunto we give to them the pact of Allah and the protection of His Prophet, the caliphs and the believers. So long as they pay the poll tax, nothing but good shall befall them."
Khalid kept his word. So, some fifteen years after the taking of Damascus, we find the great church at Damascus being used both by Christians and by Muslims at the same time. That is why a Nestorian bishop wrote, "These Arabs, to whom God has given in our time the dominion. . . fight not against the Christian religion; nay, rather they defend our faith, they revere our priests and saints, and they make gifts to our churches and monasteries."
The Islamic war was against Byzantium, not against Christianity. Muslims were stern in this war, but also careful not to "transgress limits" (Koran, 2:190) such as killing non-combatants. Walter E. Kaegi, professor of history from the University of Chicago, in his meticulous work, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests, gives us a fair picture of Islamic wars while discussing the conquest of Gaza by the Muslim army:
Gaza did not finally surrender to the Muslims until August or September of 637. At that time 'Amr gave security to its civilian inhabitants, but not to its soldiers. They were removed to Eleutheropolis and then to Jerusalem, where they were executed after refusing to abjure Christianity. At least some of them had wives and children, all of whom were spared... Their execution appears to have been exceptional. It is possible that the severity of their fate, although not inconsistent with Islamic law, which was then only in the process of developing, may have been exacerbated by their prolonged resistance at Gaza. But in particular... they may have been executed because of the continuing anger of 'Amr at Gaza ant its officers because of their leader's attempt to murder him and other Muslim envoys during a parley early in the conquests.
Kaegi also notes that "The unsuccessful tricky negotiations between the commander of the Byzantine troops at Gaza and 'Amr... may have led to the execution of these Byzantine soldiers in 637." This points out to the fact that killings of POWs was not the Islamic norm, but was done in exceptional cases. It was also linked with also military considerations. In the battle of Yarmuk, the greatest encounter between Byzantium and Islam in the 7th century, Byzantine soldiers were killed on the battlefield to secure the Islamic victory, but soldiers who escaped from the battlefield were later captured, but not killed.
When we look at the conquest of Egypt and North Africa, however, the picture changes. The historical record tells us about Muslim armies that killed indiscriminately, sparing neither women nor children. A curious fact, however, is that these accounts of horrible Muslim violence is based on the writings of a single historian, John of Nikiu. The violent episodes of killing innocents that Mr. Bostom mentions, such as the campaigns against Fayyum and Nikiu (a.k.a. Nikiou) in the mid-7th century are based on the writings of John of Nikiu.
However, some historians doubt the accuracy of this man. In a work that deals with Egyptian resistance to invaders, historian Samuel K. Eddy describes John of Nikiu's writings about the horrific episodes of the Persian conquest as "the realm of pure phantasy." According to Eddy, the "horror tales" such as the ones told by John of Nikiu, "show how neurotic and unrealistic Egyptian hatred of alien conquest was. Foreigners, as Ipuwer had said, were not even people."
One might suspect that the same attitude could have influenced John of Nikiu's accounts on the Islamic conquest of Egypt.
Even if we take those accounts at face value, we should note that killings of non-combatants have no explanation but being deviations from the Islamic norm. On the killing of enemy soldiers, we should recognize that the Byzantine " thus Christian " behavior was not different. When Alexandria was retaken by the Byzantine navy, "The Arabian garrison of 1000 men was slaughtered." Then Muslims regained the city and, this time, "the Byzantines suffered a heavy slaughter." Violence was a bitter reality of the day, not necessarily a jihadist practice.
Berbers and Spain
Another episode of violence that Mr. Bostom quotes about is the Almohad violence in Spain, which included the slaughter of some Jews and Christians.
Who were the Almohads? They, and their precedors, the Almoravids, were Muslim Berbers who came from North Africa in order to benefit from the wealth of the already Muslim ruled Spain, also called Andulisia. Actually the Almoravids, another Berber dynasty, came to Spain first to help the Muslims there against Christians, but quickly became tyrants on the former. In her recent book, The Ornament of the World, a term referring to the medieval Muslim city of Cordoba, Maria Rosa Menocal tells us that,
The Almoravid attempts to impose a considerably different view of Islamic society on the Andulisians provoked relentless civil unrest: in 1109, not even twenty years after these newcomers had been invited in as allies, anti-Almoravid riots broke out in Cordoba following the public burning of a work by al-Ghazali, a legendary theologian whose humane approach to Islam, despite its orthodoxy, was too liberal for the fanatical Almoravids. Such violent disagreements about the nature of Islam were far from unique.
Mr. Bostom tells about the cities that these fanatical Berbers sacked, but he fails to mention that they sacked Muslim cities as well. In 1009, the beautiful city of Madinat al-Zahra, "one of the most fabled architectural and urbanistic achievements of the Islamic world," was destroyed by "marauding and rampaging Berbers ferociously venting all manner of resentments." There was no Islamic sentiment in destroying an Islamic city; it was brutal politics as usual.
It was a standard Western view to attribute the motive of the Berber invaders in Spain and other coasts of the Mediterranean to Islam. Mr. Bostom reiterates that view. However, that is a mistake. According to Italian historian Franco Cardini,
The Berber Arabs, with their raids, were part of a complex political struggle to which religious motives were ascribed only tens of years later, when collective memory, fuelled by epic poetry, had worked its transformation.
Cardini points to the misunderstanding in labeling such conflicts as the outcomes of jihad, i.e. war for religion:
The incursions made by the Muslims and their attempts at establishing themselves have been too often interpreted as the outcome of expansionist ambitions fired by deliberate choices. This was not always the case. On the contrary, the Saracens [Muslims] frequently became involved in local disputes . . . For example the Saracens who were in the process of conquering Sicily and who had recently captured Palermo were on several occasions invited by the rulers of the city of Naples to help them in their struggle against the Longobardi and the Byzantines.
The overall picture about the Muslims of the Mediterranean is much different from that depicted in Mr. Bostom's article. Franco Cardini tells that the reality was much more complex and accounts about Muslim violence was based on exaggerations:
. . . The Muslims were not, therefore, the sole perpetrators of the continual raids carried out along the coasts of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean islands during the final two centuries of the early medieval Europe . . . they were occasionally also the victims of raids. Nevertheless, the Western Europeans considered the Hagarenes [Muslims] to be largely and most directly to blame. As time passed, memories of the Mediterranean raids and the wars in the Iberian Peninsula seem to have become exaggerated out of proportion.
Mr. Bostom seems to be misled by that exaggeration.
The Jihad against Edessa
Mr. Bostom also writes about "the jihad destruction of the Christian enclave of Edessa in 1144-1146 C.E., during the Crusades" and quotes historians who tell about horrible episodes of massacre in the city. Yet, when we look deeper, a somewhat different picture emerges.
First of all, Mr. Bostom does not tell us that Edessa's Christian communities had been existing peacefully in a Muslim environment for several centuries. What changed the situation was the Crusades. Bernard Lewis explains to us how the idea of perpetual military jihad was abandoned by Muslims in the ninth century, but it was revived when Crusaders invaded the Muslim Middle East:
By the ninth century the rulers of Islam were becoming reconciled to the fact of a more or less permanent frontier subject to only minor variations, and a more or less permanent non-Muslim state beyond that frontier, with which it was possible to have commercial, diplomatic, and at times even cultural relations. The interruption of hostilities . . . became in fact a peace agreement, no less stable and no less permanent than the treaties of eternal peace that European states were wont to sign with one another. So far had the idea of jihad faded from Muslim consciousness that when, at the end of the eleventh century, the Western crusaders occupied Palestine and captured Jerusalem, their presence and their actions aroused hardly a flicker of interest in the surrounding Muslim countries.
Why were the Crusaders so provocative? The answer is their bloodlust. According to historian P. M. Holt, "The taking of a town during the First Crusade was usually followed by the slaughter of its inhabitants." The greatest slaughter was in Jerusalem, in the year 1099. When the Crusaders roamed in, they killed all its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, sparing neither women nor children. The city was soaked in a lake of blood, pouring from the men, women and children put to the sword of the Crusaders " or "Franks" as the Muslims called them.
The military campaign against Edessa was in fact the first step of the Muslim jihad to liberate the Middle East from the Franks, the barbarians from the West. As Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese Christian living in France and writing in French tells us, "Edessa was no more than an outpost of the Frankish presence." Moreover, the native Christians in the city were so unhappy about their Frankish rulers, that some were willing to be liberated by the Muslim army. Maalouf writes,
The most stirring account of the conquest of Edessa was bequeathed to us by an eyewitness, the Syrian Bishop Abu' l-Faraj Basil, who was directly involved in the events. His attitude during the battle graphically illustrates the tragedy of the Oriental Christian communities to which he belonged. Since his city was under attack, Abu' l-Faraj actively participated in its defence; but at the same time, his sympathies were more with the Muslim army than his Western 'protectors', whom he did not hold in high esteem.
Before attacking Edessa, the Muslim ruler, Zangi, "constantly sent peace proposals to the besieged," yet "was answered with stupid rodomontade and insult." Then the Muslim army attacked the city, and when they breached the walls, yes, unfortunately, massacred some of its unarmed citizens.
Mr. Bostom tells us about the details of that horrible massacre. However, that is not the whole story:
Zangi intervened personally to halt the killing, and then dispatched his top lieutenant to see Abu' l-Faraj. 'Venerable Abu' l-Faraj', he said, 'we want you to swear to us, on the cross and the New Testament, that you and your community will remain loyal. You know very well this city was a thriving metropolis during the two hundreds years that the Arabs governed it. Today, the Franj have occupied it for just fifty years, and already they have ruined it. Our master Imad al-Din Zangi is prepared to treat you well. Live in peace, be secured under his authority, and pray for his life.
After the battle, "the Syrians and Armenians were brought out of the citadel, and they all returned to their homes safe and sound." M. W. Baldwin, an authority on crusades, also mentions that Zangi "spar[ed] the native Christians and their churches to the best of his ability".
However, all valuables of the Franks were taken and after their priests and notables were spared, all their soldiers, a hundred men, were executed.
The episode still looks unacceptably violent for us today, but at that time, when Crusaders were killing all Muslims indiscriminately, this was actually seen as a just response.
Antioch, Cannibals and Seljuk Turks
Mr. Bostom also tells us about "two devastating jihad attacks (1144 and 1146 C.E.) by the Seljuk Turks to Antioch." We should put those event into their historical context, too.
Those "jihad attacks" were in fact a payback for the capture of Antioch by the Crusaders some fifty years before. The Crusaders captured Antioch in 1098 and massacred all its inhabitants so that "there was not a Turk left alive in the city." The native Christians who had been co-existing peacefully with Muslims until then were also hit: "In their bloodlust, the invaders killed many Christians too." Muslims were also horrified to learn a most inhumane savagery had been done in Antioch: Cannibalism. Radulph of Caen, an embedded reporter in the Crusader army, wrote that "our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled." The official excuse, offered in a letter to the Pope, was that the troops were hungry.
Seljuk Turks were, in their mind, avenging these horrific memories when they brutally hit Antioch in 1144 and 1146. In fact, Islam wouldn't even condone that, but Seljuk Turks were hardly perfect representatives of this faith. As Italian historian Cardini notes, "Seljuk Turkish militia were newcomers to Islam and somewhat heavy-handed". In fact, their brutality had hit fellow Muslims, too: Seljuk invaders captured Jerusalem from Arab Muslims in 1070 and "massacred a large part of the remaining Moslem population when they rebelled in 1076."
The "heavy hand" of Seljuk Turks and other Turkish or Turkic peoples of the time was inherited from the atrocious pagan practices of Central Asia. Such practices are well known from the horrible mass slaughters of Genghis Khan, one of the most ferocious conquerors the world has ever seen.
Nevertheless, the civilizing impact of Islam transformed the Seljuks and other Turks by time. That's why the Seljuks were much more civilized and humane when compared to Mongols like Genghis Khan. Historian A. K. S. Lampton, in a book edited by Abraham L. Udovitch, a real authority in medieval Islamic history, compares Muslim Seljuks with pagan Mongols:
The circumstances of the Seljuq invasion had been very different from those of the Mongol . . . The Seljuqs were converted to Islam before their invasion of Khurasan. Their leaders were familiar with settled life and had inherited the existing traditions of Islamic society. Under their rule Islamic civilization flourished . . . The Mongols, on the other hand, were pagans, and their invasion was accompanied by the destruction of many cities, the massacre of many thousand of their inhabitants, and the devastation and abandonment of much cultivated land.
Yet, in some cases, the Mongolian tradition of violence posed as Islam. This was very evident in the life " and killings " of Temur.
A Closer Look at Temur's "Jihad" Campaigns
Mr. Bostom is interested in Temur, too. He tells us about "Amir Timur [who], during his jihad campaigns through Northern India (1397-99 C.E.) conducted what may have been the greatest mass slaughter of prisoners ever chronicled." I completely agree with him that Temur " also known as Tamerlane, a derivative of "Temur the Lame" in Persian " was a brutal, wicked, bloodthirsty tyrant. Yet, his slaughters were hardly "jihad campaigns."
In a very recent book, titled Tamerlane, British historian and journalist Justin Marozzi tells us a lot about Temur's real motives. Although the book's subtitle reads Sword of Islam, Conqueror of The World, Marozzi explains that the man was indeed a sword for his blood lust, not Islam:
Temur drew freely from both Islam and the laws of Genghis to justify his actions, be they military conquest or domestic political arrangements. He was, above all else, an opportunist . . . That Islam and wholesale slaughter were incompatible bedfellows was beside the point.
Temur's horrific violence did not stem from an observance of Islam. On the contrary, his militancy was directed mainly at fellow Muslims:
Temur's interpretation of jihad, or holy war, cast further doubt on his credentials as a good Muslim. In his eyes it justified the use of force and savagery against virtually anyone . . . As high-born leaders, lowly soldiers, desperate women and innocent children all discovered to their cost, professing the faith of Islam was no guarantee of safety from Temur's armies. Muslim Asia, after all, was their stamping ground. They swept through its heartland . . . raining down death on the sons and daughters of the Koran. Who could count the nameless millions of Muslims who perished at their hands? These were the people who suffered his worst atrocities, Two thousand were piled on top of one another and cemented alive into towers of clay and bricks in the city of Isfizar in 1383. In Isfahan, holy city of Persia, seventy thousand were slaughtered in 1387; the sacking of Baghdad in 1401 left ninety thousand dead, their heads cemented into 120 towers. Damascus and Aleppo witnessed unimaginable horrors. And yet this was a man who aspired to the title of Ghazi, Warrior of the Faith.
While labeling Temur's bloodshed as "jihad campaigns," Mr. Bostom tells us about the 100.000 Hindu POWs he mercilessly put to the sword. That is horrible indeed. However, in fact, according to Justin Marozzi, from the wrath of Temur, "Christians, Jews and Hindus . . . escaped lightly by comparison. Only occasionally, as though to make up for his massacres of brother Muslims, did Temur unleash his wrath on them."
It is true that Temur sometimes referred to Islam to justify his conquests, but his "observation of the Muslim faith was based on pragmatism rather than principle." In fact,
Temur was a chameleon. Whatever worked or furthered his cause in any way was good. This was a cynical interpretation, certainly, but what his message of jihad lacked in intellectual coherence and consistency, it made up for in the sheer protection of force. It was, quite simply, the creed of conquest.
That Temur was not a sincere follower of Islam was evident in his life:
Temur dipped freely into the laws of Islam, picking up and retaining those aspects of the faith he found useful, disregarding those which were inconvenient. He had no time, for instance, for the Prophet's recommendation of a maximum of four wives for a man. More important, despite a lifetime's wanderings, he never found time to honour one of the five pillars of Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca, a badge of honour for dutiful Muslims who can afford the journey.
His inner circle was quite hypocritical, too. Marozzi tells us about the "orgies" of Temur's men:
The Spanish ambassador Clajivo was one of the witnesses among many to bacchanalian orgies which owed more to the heathen traditions of Genghis Khan and the Mongols than the strictures of Islam. A beautiful cup-bearer was assigned to each man at the feast, the Spaniard noted . . . Feasts invariably ended in a drunken blur. Those warriors who could still stand would grab a companion for the night and stagger back to their tents. There was nothing Islamic about that.
However, Temur was careful to look as if Islamic. "It was in the public displays that Islam shone brightest." Temur loved to lead prayers in public and give the impression of a pious ruler. According to Marozzi, "in his understanding that appearances were everything, and with his instinct for choreographed expressions of piety, Temur demonstrated a profoundly modern approach to the politics of his day.
One modern figure that resembles Temur is undoubtedly Saddam Hussein " the butcher of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who had no glimpse of faith in his life, yet was careful to pose before cameras in mosques and cynically wrote "God is Great" to the Iraqi flag when he needed to foster popular sentiment.
That Mr. Bostom uses Temur, this medieval Saddam, as evidence for the supposedly inherent violence of Islam is neither appropriate nor convincing.
Mohammed Qasim and The Misquoted "Seat of Cruelty"
About India, Mr. Bostom also informs us that the "Hindu combatants captured during jihad campaigns were killed in orgies of brutal violence" by Muhammad bin Qasim around 711-712 C.E. Mr. Bostom quotes a source which tells us how "(Qasim) sat on the seat of cruelty, and put all those who had fought to the sword," adding yet another bloody episode to his historical survey.
Before looking at these events, let me reveal a very interesting fact. When I checked the original source of Mr. Bostom's quote on Muhammad bin Qasim, I noticed that he deliberately omitted some parts. Just right before and after the sentence starting with, "(Qasim) sat on the seat of cruelty", there a phrases which he preferred not to use. The original quote goes like this:
"Protection was given to the artificers, the merchants and the common people, and those who had been seized from these classes were all liberated; but he sat on the seat of cruelty and put all those who had fought to the sword. It is said that about six thousand fighting men were slain, but according to others sixteen thousand were killed and the rest were pardoned."
Mr. Bostom deliberately omitted the parts that I put in bold, which tell us about people who were spared by Qasim, and he only picked the part that tells us about Qasim's "cruelty." This is a good example of selective usage of knowledge: Mr. Bostom selects the data that seem to support his case, but simply overlooks the data which doesn't fit in his view of history.
On the other, Mr. Bostom takes events out of their contexts. For example, he doesn't tell us why Muhammad bin Qasim was in India and why he acted so. Let's have a closer look on these.
Muhammad bin Qasim was the first Muslim conqueror to the subcontinent. And he went there not to slaughter its inhabitants, but, in the first place, to rescue some captives:
The first Muslim military incursion carried out by Muhammad Bin Qasim also in the 8th century CE was a rescue mission . . . A ship carrying widows and children of Arab traders that had died in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) ran aground at Debul near the modern city of Karachi in Pakistan. Dahir, a Hindu ruler of the area known today as Sindh, took them captive. The first two expeditions sent to free these Muslim women and children failed . . . This third expedition was lead by Muhammad bin Qasim who defeated Dahir and captured the city of Brahmanabad. He ruled over Sind for only two years between 712 and 714.
The killing of Hindu POWs by Muhammad bin Qasim was actually not his decision, but an order he received from his superior, Al-Hajjaj bin Yousuf, the notoriously brutal governor of Iraq. Encyclopedia Britannica defines Hajjaj as "fearsome, "stern" and "ruthless". Actually, Muhammad bin Qasim was at the age of seventeen then and he was the nephew and protégé of Al-Hajjaj. The massacre in Brahmanabad was carried out by the direct orders of the latter.
Hajjaj was cruel to Muslims as well. One of the twelve imams of the Shiite school, Mohammed al-Baqir, wrote,
Al-Hajjaj is the worst person mankind has ever known throughout history . . . This sinful criminal (al-Hajjaj) went too far in punishing, forcing, and abasing the people. He made them submit to oppression and injustice. He created in the country, under his influence, an atmosphere of crises the people had never seen.
"When Hajjaj died, some 20,000 women and 50,000 men were found unjustly imprisoned." Soon after his death, the Caliphate passed from al-Walid I, Hajjaj's boss, to Sulieman, who was a more generous ruler. Muhammad bin Qasim, the conqueror India and Hajjaj's naive apparatchik, was called back and killed.
However, not withstanding the fact of the killing of Hindu POWs in Sindh, Muhammad bin Qasim had established a tolerant rule in India during his short reign. In Medieval India under Mohammedan Rule, historian Stanley Lane-Poole writes the following about the conquest of Qasim,
The fall of Multan laid the Indus valley at the feet of the conqueror. The tribes came in, 'ringing bells and beating drums and dancing,' in token of welcome. The Hindu rulers had oppressed them heavily, and the Jats and Meds and other tribes were on the side of the invaders. The work of conquest, as often happened in India, was thus aided by the disunion of the inhabitants, and jealousies of race and creed conspired to help the Muslims. To such suppliants Mohammad Kasim gave the liberal terms that the Arabs usually offered to all but inveterate foes. He imposed the customary poll-tax, took hostages for good conduct, and spared the people's lands and lives. He even left their shrines undesecrated: 'The temples,' he proclaimed, 'shall be inviolate, like the churches of the Christians, the synagogues of the Jews, and the altars of the Magians.' "
Other Episodes in India
The state founded by Mohammed Qasim in India was short lived. Several centuries later, there was a second Muslim penetration into the subcontinent and some bloody episodes that Mr. Bostom quotes about are from this second period. Two Muslim rulers, Mahmud Ghaznavi and Mohammad Ghori carried out bloody campaigns into Hindu lands. Mr. Bostom refers to those massacres and, as usual, assigns the blame to "jihad." There are many similar arguments put forward by other critics of Islam and by radical Hindus.
I agree with them in denouncing the savagery inflicted on countless Hindu civilians. However, as in Temur's case, the perpetrators of these crimes were acting for political and economic interests, not for religious belief. The fact that they were newcomers to Islam, who retained some of their pagan Turkish and Mongol inclinations for violence, also was a factor.
Historian Stanley Lane-Poole points out to this fact. About the "rule of the Turks" in India, he writes, "Their invasion was no part of the expansion of Islam as a religious movement. It was merely the overflow of the teeming cradle-land of Central Asia."
Secular Indian historians such as Mohammad Habib or Mahdi Husain also much emphasized the worldly motives behind the "Islamic" conquests of rulers such as Mahmud Ghaznavi and Mohammad Ghori. According to Islam in Asia, a publication of Jerusalem University,
These historians do not deny that invaders such as Mahmud of Ghazna (971-1030) destroyed many Hindu temples and looted their treasures, took large numbers of Hindus into slavery for sale in the markets of central Asia and perpetrated numerous acts of indignity against the Hindus, but these should be viewed as acts of Turks or Persians or Afghans who were, incidentally, also Muslims and used Islam as a justification for their atrocities.
Mohammad Ghori was cruel to Muslims as well. Before attacking the Hindus, "he rid himself of all Muslim rivals in India", a policy which included the slaughter of the preceding Gahznavids. On Ghori and his commanders, Lane-Poole writes, "The wealth of India could not satisfy these hungry hill men." Therefore they tried to invade Khwarizm, the modern Khiva, but utterly failed.
There are other examples of Muslim violence against Muslims in Ýndia. "In 1155 Ala-ad-din Husain, reprobated for all time by the title of 'World-burner' (Jahan-soz), burst into Ghazni on a wave of slaughter and destruction, slew the men without mercy, enslaved the women and children." These may help us to see that the violence in question derived from political, not religious, motives and creeds.
These details help us to see that incidents that are bluntly labeled as "jihad wars" by Mr. Bostom are in fact outcomes of many historical factors, in which secular motives and the nature of the individual rulers played a great role. One can find brutal tyrants and invaders in virtually every episode of human history and Islam has its share, too.
Mr. Bostom also mentions Buddhists, who, according to him, became the victims of "jihad campaigns waged by Muslim armies against infidel" in the Indian subcontinent. By asserting so, he once again picks a single episode and presents it as the Islamic norm. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, in his 1600-page monumental work, The Venture of Islam, warns us against such biased views:
The record of the massacre of one monastery in Bengal, combined with the inherited Christian conception of Muslims as devotees of the sword, has yielded the widely repeated statement that the Muslims violently "destroyed" Buddhism in India. Muslims were not friendly to it, but there is no evidence that they simply killed all the Buddhists, or even all the Buddhist monks. It will take much active revision before such assessments of the role of Islam, based largely on unexamined preconceptions, are eliminated even from educated mentalities.
Perhaps, the well-educated Mr. Bostom should take a hint.
The Ottomans and The Fall of Constantinople
Mr. Bostom also writes about the horrific scenes played out during the conquest of Constantinople " today called Istanbul, the city where I live " by Ottoman Turks in 1453. That massacre of innocents deserves denunciation and I would condemn it with all my heart. Yet we have to put the event in context and see how much, if any, of this is related to Islamic principles.
In his book The Ottomans, British historian Andrew Wheatcroft tells us about that context and points to the motive of revenge " a secular sentiment " that drove the Turkish soldiers who raided Constantinople:
The Turkish troops had suffered from the long siege almost as much as the Christian defenders, and they had not forgotten the bodies of Turkish prisoners hanging from the tower and battlements. The chronicler Kritovoulos tells how the janissaries and other soldiers killed 'without rhyme or reason', because they had been roused by the 'taunts and curses' hurled at them from the city walls all through the siege.
Wheatcroft also reminds us that, "the Turks were soldiers of Islam, but most had come for the booty." He also tells us about Byzantine eyewitnesses who "told how young girls and boys were raped on altar tables" by the invading soldiers. Those evils would count as adultery and sodomy in Islamic law and they could have been committed only despite Islamic teachings, not because of them.
We should also note that the whole event was a plunder, not extermination. Once the city was taken under full control, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed initiated a policy of tolerance to his non-Muslim subjects:
Mehmet the Conqueror, once his conquest was complete, wished to show that he regarded the Greeks as well as the Turks his loyal subjects. The Christian Empire was ended; but he saw himself as the heir to its emperors, and as such he was mindful of his duties. First among these duties was to see to the welfare of the Orthodox Church. . . [The Greeks] were to form a millet, a self-governing community within his empire, under the authority of their religious head, the Patriarch, who would be responsible for their good behaviour before the Sultan.
It is a widely known fact that Christians and Jews were tolerated in the Ottoman Empire as distinct millets, which had the right of self-governance and private property. In fact, the Ottoman Empire is often hailed for being tolerant and multi-cultural, especially when compared with the more repressive and homogenizing states of Europe at the time. In the last decade of the Ottomans, the parliament included many Jewish, Greek or Armenian MPs and some non-Muslims supported the Turks even during their War of Liberation (1918-22).
Mr. Bostom speaks about the Armenians, too. But in a different way. He writes about the "Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks during the initial two decades" of the 20th century, adding yet another link to his chain of evil.
But that is an argument by assertion. "Armenian genocide" is not an established historical fact, it is the "Armenian thesis" that some prominent historians such as Bernard Lewis find erroneous. The Turkish thesis is that there was not an extermination policy against the Armenian population of Turkey in 1915, as has been alleged, but rather the tragedy was mutual killing in war conditions. The slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslim (Kurdish and Turkish) civilians by the Armenian militias aligned with the invading Russian army gives credence to that assessment.
Justin McCarthy, professor of history at Louisville University, in his book titled Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, documents this view. As historian Daniel Pipes well summarizes, McCarthy's book, "Puts into perspective the deportation of Armenians in 1915 and turns this from an act of hatred into one motivated by fear (had the Armenians, with Russian support, rebelled, Ottoman Muslims could have expected to be slaughtered)."
In his book, Justin McCarthy examines many of those incidents in which Armenian rebels killed local Muslim populations. During the Armenian revolt, which preceded the alleged "Armenian genocide,"
Everything Islamic in Van was destroyed. With the exception of three antique buildings, all the mosques were burned or torn down. The entire Muslim quarter was destroyed. When the Armenian work and the battle between Ottomans and Armenians were finished, Van more resembled an ancient ruin than a city . . .
When the Armenians attacked Muslims' own villages or nearby villages, Muslims fled with whatever moveable property they could carry. On the road, Armenian bands first robbed them, then raped many of the women and killed many of the men. Usually, but not always, a number of women and young children were killed as well.
In fact, "After the Armenian retreat, much of eastern Anatolia was a graveyard."
What is called the "Armenian genocide" was partly the attacks of revenge on the Armenian population by local Turks and Kurds. That was indeed inter-communal violence. On the other hand, the decision by the Ottoman government to deport the Armenians in Eastern Turkey caused many deaths and that is horrible, but it was not a genocidal policy either. According to McCarthy,
The Ottoman response to the Armenian Revolution was approximately the same as that taken by other twentieth-century governments faced with guerrilla war: isolate the guerrillas from local support by removing local supporters.
Thus, McCarthy concludes, "The blame for the deaths of Armenians in the convoys must be shared by the Ottomans -- shared
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