Muhammad Was a Terrorist?

By Juan Cole

Mr. Cole is professor of Middle East and South Asian

history at the University of Michigan and author of

Sacred Space and Holy War (I. B. Tauris, 2002). His

web site is

Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist televangelist, has

said, "I think Muhammad was a terrorist." On CBS's

Sixty Minutes, the reverend contrasted Moses and Jesus

as men of peace with Muhammad, whom he saw as warlike.

News of the slur ricocheted through the Muslim world,

and crowds rioted in Kashmir, raising questions as to

whether Falwell himself is exactly promoting love and


Falwell's comments are problematic for many reasons,

not least with regard to historical accuracy. Muhammad

forbade murder and the killing of innocents, and never

used terror as a weapon in his struggles against his

aggressive pagan enemies. Far from glorifying

aggression, the Koran says (2:190), "Fight in the way

of God against those who fight against you, but do not

begin hostilities, for God does not love aggressors."

As for the contrast to other prophets, it is not as

clear as Falwell suggests. Biblical narratives depict

Moses as a murderer and leader of a slave revolt, and

while he was a liberator, it is difficult to see him

as a pacifist. The Romans crucified Jesus of Nazareth

because they saw him as a subversive, and historians

know too little about his life to be sure they were

entirely wrong. Many of the patriarchs and prophets

celebrated by Christian fundamentalists were arguably

terrorists or even genocidal, including Joshua.

Quite aside from the historical record, Falwell's

remarks are misleading as to his own position. He and

other fundamentalist leaders have repeatedly condemned

Christian pacifism and have militantly supported a

whole raft of wars and military interventions. If he

believes that Jesus preached love and peace, Falwell

has not exemplified those teachings himself. In the

1980s, Falwell even vocally supported the Reagan

administration's military aid to the radical Muslim

extremists who later coalesced into al-Qaeda and the


European civilization has long been perplexed and

scandalized by Muhammad, who succeeded in founding a

world religion that rivals Christianity. Most early

Christian attacks on Islam actually depicted it as an

idolatrous religion, one of the great black legends

ever fostered. Islam is nothing if not single-mindedly

monotheistic. The first Latin translation of the

Koran, carried out in 1143 by Robert of Ketton, was

incomplete and marred by sarcasm and even obscenity.

Its motive was not understanding but refutation.

Dante (1265-1321) placed Muhammad in the ninth circle

of hell, writing:

How mutilated, see, is Mahomet;

In front of me doth Ali weeping go,

Cleft in the face from forelock unto chin;

And all the others whom thou here beholdest,

Disseminators of scandal and of schism

In fact, since Muhammad and the Meccans had never been

Christians, it is difficult to see how they could be

condemned for fomenting Christian schism.

Martin Luther promoted and wrote a preface to a 1543

Latin edition of the Koran by Theodore Bibliander,

saying "I have wanted to get a look at a complete text

of the Qur 'an. I do not doubt that the more other

pious and learned persons read these writings, the

more the errors and the name of Muhammad will be

refuted. For just as the folly, or rather madness, of

the Jews is more easily observed once their hidden

secrets have been brought out into the open, so once

the book of Muhammad has been made public and

thoroughly examined in all its parts, all pious

persons will more easily comprehend the insanity and

wiles of the devil and will be more easily able to

refute them." The dangers of this sort of religious

bigotry, which once directed at Muslims can begin to

spill over onto other religious communities, should be


In contrast, the Romantic sage and writer Thomas

Carlyle (d. 1881) spoke for moderns in insisting on

Muhammad's sincerity. (Another Western black legend

about Muhammad was that he knew he was a charlatan).

Of the prophet he wrote, "A false man found a

religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick

house!" He went on to observe of Islam, "To the Arab

Nation it was as a birth from darkness into light;

Arabia first became alive by means of it. A poor

shepherd people, roaming unnoticed in its deserts

since the creation of the world: a Hero-Prophet was

sent down to them with a word they could believe: see,

the unnoticed becomes world-notable, the small has

grown world-great; within one century afterwards,

Arabia is at Grenada on this hand, at Delhi on that;

-glancing in valor and splendor and the light of

genius, Arabia shines through long ages over a great

section of the world . . . I said, the Great Man was

always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men

waited for him like fuel, and then they too would


The admiration of Muhammad's achievements visible in

this modern writer marks a turning point in Western

culture, away from narrow religious bigotries and

toward a humanist ability to appreciate the best in

world civilization. Falwell in contrast is promoting

religious hatred for his own purposes. The rest of us

should resist his scary agenda by learning more about

Muhammad and Islamic civilization, and gaining a

secular appreciation of their contributions to our



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