Understanding Muhammad

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It has become a familiar headline: A religious cleric rejects calls for tolerance and understanding and castigates a US president; an argument is made that peace will only come when nonbelievers convert; and American values of pluralism and religious freedom are fundamentally questioned.

Yet in recent weeks, these headlines aren't being generated by distant Muslim fanatics, but by some of the most respected Christian leaders in America.

Pat Robertson has taken issue with the president, after Mr. Bush recently reaffirmed his belief that Islam is a peaceful religion that has a welcomed place among the other faiths practiced in America.

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In rejecting the president's words, Pat Robertson and other Christian leaders once again are asserting that Muslims are dangerous, Islam is fundamentally warlike, and that Muhammad was primarily a military leader.

These assertions, of course, tap into the fears of many Americans. As one of the coproducers of a new PBS documentary airing on Dec. 18 titled, "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," I have become well acquainted with the story of Muhammad and believe that the program will shed light on a debate that is currently generating only heat.

The idea that there must be something in Islam that nourishes the kind of violence seen on Sept. 11 certainly is understandable.

But it should be remembered that no religion is inherently violent, or for that matter, inherently peaceful. Not Islam, not even Christianity.

All religious scripture is subject to interpretation, therefore all can be misused. We need only go back a couple of dozen years to the Jim Crow era to find examples of how Christianity was shamefully misused and distorted. Then, Biblical scripture was routinely cited (most notably, Genesis 9) as the divine basis for racial separation and superiority. The most famous American terrorist organization, the KKK, used overtly Christian symbolism and scripture to justify its decades-long campaign of violence, murder, and intimidation in pursuit of its goals of turning America back into a "true" Christian nation.

Was there something about Christianity that bred or at least nourished such racism? Of course not. Religion in general aims people toward peace and justice, but people disposed to evil can always find scriptural justification for their position. Just as for a time the KKK was a significant political force in this country, so, today, Al Qaeda is a political force in the Muslim world. These organizations, not the religions they claim to represent, are the enemy.

Historical context must likewise be remembered when judging Muhammad. The notion that Muhammad was a man of war as contrasted Jesus or Moses, as Jerry Falwell recently asserted, ignores the fact that Muhammad fought only a handful of battles in his lifetime, resulting in barely 1,000 casualties on all sides.

This might be compared to such Biblical figures as David, who is praised in I Samuel 18 for killing his "tens of thousands," famously earning the murderous jealousy of Saul who only killed his "thousands"; or to Moses, who in the book of Numbers 31 chastises his army for sparing the women and children of the vanquished Midianites.

To compare Muhammad to Moses or Jesus, or against some contemporary standard, is meaningless and anachronistic. The world that Moses and Muhammad lived in was lawless and violent, different from even the Roman dominated world in which Jesus lived. Strong vested interests opposed the monotheism each preached, genocide was commonplace, slavery was taken for granted. Women had few rights, and might was the only law.

In this context Muhammad and Moses and all the other Biblical figures sought to create a new society based on justice and on the belief in a compassionate God. Their achievements in accomplishing this in lasting ways form the only relevant contemporary standard by which they can be truly judged.

"Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" attempts to present as clear and honest a portrayal of Muhammad as possible. Yet the very way it was made is itself a clear statement. As a collaborative venture, the documentary drew on the talents and hard work of many dozens of people, including Christians of various denominations, Muslims, and Jews, who worked together for more than two years.

At a time when so many voices are creating division and conflict, people not just from several different faiths, but from these three faiths in particular - Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - have come together and proven that pluralism is alive, understanding is still possible, and tolerance is not beyond our furthest hopes.

Alex Kronemer, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, is a coproducer of the new PBS documentary 'Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet.'

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