Islam Undressed: The View from Outside - an Introduction
There are always many different ways to view any event, any individual life, or any movement in history. Though various perspectives may yield very different conclusions, all can be correct from the vantage point of different observers. For example, the world looks very stark and hostile from the viewpoint of a rabbit in the pot just placed over the fire, but hungry children looking at the simmering stew are likely to see a brighter day ahead. Both viewpoints are perfectly reasonable and sound.
Viewing Muhammad from 'inside' the benefits and social structures of Islam yields a very appealing magnanimous character whose company his friends sought and relished. On the other hand, the viewpoint of those looking in from 'outside' Islam has always been very different. Muhammad had two faces that he showed to others, with the difference between the countenances, to put it mildly, quite profound. Which face Muhammad revealed to you depended on whether you were a believer …or not.
It must first be noted that this work will concentrate on the life and personality of Muhammad from the outside-looking-in perspective, essentially from someone who does not believe that the man was a representative of God. As such, this view of the man is bound to be unpalatable to 'insiders' who justify his every word and act as infallible, divine, and unimpeachable. For any Muslim reading this, consider that this study is made strictly from facts extracted from Islamic texts, but without the usual Islamic excuse-making or divine-justifications. This evaluation will make an attempt to be complete, logical, fair, with any judgment compared only to universal standards of human civil behavior now considered acceptable to modern societies. Essentially what will be done is to hold up a looking-glass to Islam, so that it can see the face that has (and is) being shown to Westerners. The vast majority of data evaluated herein is sourced from inside sacred Islamic works and well-known irrefutable historical facts, in an attempt present an image that is both accurate and undistorted. Of course it would be patently unfair to blame the holder of the mirror for the clear reflected image. If Islam is concerned about this objectification, and the growing number of other works documenting the face which Islam shows infidels, then this particular mirror-holder suggests that Islam work to change that projection, instead of issuing ever more fatwas, which only serve to deepen the distrust of outsiders.
There is an abundance of work generated from 'within' Islam that characterizes who Muhammad was and his relationship with fellow Muslims, which will not be repeated in great detail here. That being said, we will do a quick review of Muhammad from the 'inside' Muslim perspective, for the sole purpose of illustrating the dramatic difference in viewpoints between insiders and outsiders.
The following favorable summary of the chief character traits of Muhammad comes from 'THE LIFE OF MAHOMET', by WILLIAM MUIR Vol. II. p.28. [Smith, Elder, & Co., London, 1861]
Though advancing age may have somewhat relaxed the outlines of his countenance and affected the vigor of his carriage, yet his form, although little above the ordinary height, was stately and commanding. The depth of feeling in his dark black eye, and the winning expression of a face otherwise attractive, gained the confidence and love even of a stranger. His features often unbended into a smile full of grace and condescension. "He was," says an admiring follower, "the handsomest and bravest, the brightest-faced and most generous of men. It was as though the sun-light beamed in his countenance." Yet when anger kindled in his piercing glance, the object of his displeasure might well quail before it: his stern frown was the certain augury of death to many a trembling captive.
Simplicity of his life
A patriarchal simplicity pervaded his life. Custom was to do every thing for himself. If he gave alms he would place it with his own hand in that of the petitioner. He aided his wives in their household duties; he mended his own clothes; he tied up the goats; he even cobbled his sandals. His ordinary dress consisted of plain white cotton stuff; but on high and festive occasions, he wore garments of fine linen, striped or dyed in red. Mahomet, with his wives, lived in a row of low and homely cottages built of unbaked bricks … The Prophet must be addressed in subdued accents and in a reverential style. His word was absolute. His bidding was law.
Urbanity and kindness of disposition
A remarkable feature was the urbanity and consideration with which Mahomet treated even the most insignificant of his followers. Modesty and kindness, patience, self-denial, and generosity, pervaded his conduct, and riveted the affections of all around him. He disliked to say No; if unable to reply to a petitioner in the affirmative, he preferred to remain silent. "He was more bashful," says Ayesha, "than a veiled virgin; and if anything displeased him, it was rather from his face, than by his words, that we discovered it; he never smote any one but in the service of the Lord, not even a woman or a servant." … He possessed the rare faculty of making each individual in a company think that he was the most favored guest. When he met any one rejoicing he would seize him eagerly and cordially by the hand. With the bereaved and afflicted he sympathized tenderly. Gentle and unbending towards little children ... He shared his food, even in times of scarcity, with others; and was sedulously solicitous for the personal comfort of every one about him. A kindly and benevolent disposition pervades all these illustrations of his character. Mahomet was also a faithful friend. …his affections were in no instance misplaced; they were ever reciprocated by a warm and self-sacrificing love.
Moderation and magnanimity
In the exercise at home of a power absolutely dictatorial, Mahomet was just and temperate. Nor was he wanting in moderation towards his enemies, when once they had cheerfully submitted to his claims…
Earnestness and honesty of Mahomet at Mecca
As he was himself the subject of convictions so deep and powerful, it will readily be conceived that the exhortations of Mahomet were distinguished by a corresponding strength and urgency. Being also a master in eloquence, his language was cast in the purest and most persuasive style of Arabian oratory. His fine poetical genius exhausted the imagery of nature in the illustration of spiritual truths; and a vivid imagination enabled him to bring before his auditory the Resurrection and the Day of Judgment, the joys of believers in Paradise, and the agonies of lost spirits in hell, as close and impending realities. In ordinary address, his speech was slow, distinct, and emphatic; but when he preached, "his eye would redden, his voice rise high and loud, and his whole frame become agitated with passion, even as if he were warning the people of an enemy about to fall on them the next morning or that very night." In this thorough earnestness lay the secret of his success. … His inspiration was essentially oracular. His mind and his lips were no more than a passive organ which received and transmitted the heavenly message.
Benefits of Mahometanism
And what have been the effects of the system which, established by such instrumentality, Mahomet has left behind him? We may freely concede that it banished for ever many of the darker elements of superstition which had for ages shrouded the Peninsula. Idolatry vanished before the battle-cry of Islam; the doctrine of the unity and infinite perfections of God, and of a special all-pervading Providence, became a living principle in the hearts and lives of the followers of Mahomet, even as it had in his own. An absolute surrender and submission to the divine will (the very name of Islam) was demanded as the first requirement of the religion. Nor are social virtues wanting. Brotherly love is inculcated within the circle of the faith; orphans are to be protected, and slaves treated with consideration; intoxicating drinks are prohibited, and Mahometanism may boast of a degree of temperance unknown to any other creed. (also: Alms are collected and distributed to the needy).
This picture and representation of the man, beloved and worshiped by Muslims worldwide, sounds like the kind of person anyone would want as a friend or neighbor. Unfortunately this is the side reserved for believers only, and would not be offered to anyone who did not accept his claim of prophethood. But keep this image in mind, as the contrast between this pleasant personality, and the face he offered non-believers, will be the focus of the remainder of this work.