Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Muhammad and the Natural Law: Introduction

THE NATURAL LAW PROVIDES US sure guidance in both our personal life and our life in common. The natural moral law, a law resident in our hearts, is a law placed there by God the creator of men and women. It reflects his ordered reason, his ratio ordinis, and it informs us, through self-evident principles, through inclinations (intellectual feltness), and finally, through the application of practical reason in further determinations to know the good and the discover legitimate means to that good. Writ large, it is what ought to inform our political institutions and our laws, for our laws are directed to the common good of all men and women, and any person keen on promoting the common good of all humans will recognize that, above all, humans are embodied rational creatures, called to do the good and avoid evil, to grow in virtue, and, ultimately, to find their natural end in the contemplation of God, the First Cause of all things. And all this ordering exists before the question of God revealing Himself through supernatural means, through Revelation. Accordingly, the natural law ought to be the common language, the lingua franca, by which and through which all men of good will can speak. It is the law universal and shared by all men, superior to, and precedent of, all positive revelation and all moral convention.

It serves yet another purpose. Since the natural law, albeit natural, is God's own law, that is, of his design, it follows that God's revealed law cannot contradict the natural law: by definition God, being perfect, cannot contradict himself. It necessarily follows that the law which God has writ in man and his nature, and which is discoverable (albeit with some difficulty) by and through reason ought not to conflict or contradict, though it may be supplemented with and supported by, revealed law. Similarly, the message of one who claims to be a purveyor of God's revelation, whether it be Moses, or Jesus, or Muhammad, or anyone else, can be tested through the compatibility of that claimed revelation with natural law. Equally, someone who claims to be a prophet, or one whose moral teachings (or revealed laws, such as that of Moses, of Jesus, or of Muhammad) are claimed to have divine warrant, ought to be measured by conformity with the natural law. The natural law, then, serves as a litmus test to any claimed revelation and any man who claims to be a messenger of God. A man who claims to be a prophet but lives a life that contradicts the natural law may be confidently rejected as an authentic prophet. We may accept here the admonitory words of Jesus which are eminently reasonable:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them.

Matt. 7:15-20. The fruit of which Our Lord speaks in this part of Matthew's Gospel is the conformity of a man with moral reality, moral truth, with the good. This moral truth, this moral reality and moral good, is one based upon the natural moral law and it is common and universal among all men, all men being creatures of the one God.

The next various postings will tackle what is perhaps a controversial subject, but one that needs to be approached honestly and forthrightly. How does Muhammad fare when his life is judged against the natural moral law? What are his fruits?

Muhammad in Arabic Calligraphy

While we are unable with certainty to judge the subjective sincerity of Muhammad, we are able to make an assessment of his external actions, at least as those are reported to us by Muslim sources. The question is particularly important because moral perfection is a quality that Muslims generally ascribe to Muhammad. Muhammad is described by the Muslims as al-Insān al-Kāmil (الإنسان الكامل), a man who had reached moral perfection. Indeed, the Qur’an itself attests to the supposed moral excellence of Muhammad:
لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة ٌ لِمَنْ كَانَ
يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الآخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرا
Indeed in the Messenger of Allāh you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the Meeting with) Allāh and the Last Day and remembers Allāh much.
Qur’an, 33:21.*

Obviously, a man who has reached a moral perfection must live a life in perfect conformity with the natural moral law in addition to one in conformity with any revealed law. The moral perfection ascribed to Muhammad by the Muslims necessarily means that Muhammad could not have been trapped by convention. Though he could live within convention and custom to the extent that these were not in contradiction with natural moral law, as a prophet whose ear was in tune with the voice of God, one would expect him to be able to overcome or criticize conventions to the extent that these contravened natural moral law.**

In making this assessment, we are fortunate to have Islamic sources upon which we can rely to form a fairly accurate description of Muhammad's life. Although the Qur’an is not particularly biographical, there is quite a wealth of narrations concerning the words and the deeds of Muhammad [called in Arabic (s.) al-ḥadīth (الحديث) or (pl.) aḥādīth;(أحاديث)], and these have been gathered in a number of authentic collections such as the Sahih al-Bukhari, the Sahih Muslim, the Sunan as-Sughra, the Sunan Abu Dawud, the Jāmi at-Tirmidhi, and the Sunan ibn Majah. Moreover, there are some fairly old and traditional biographies of Muhammad (sīrat rasūl allāh or al-sīra al-nabawiyya), such as that by Ibn Ishāq, and stories of his military expeditions (maghāzī), such as that by al-Waqidi. The biography of Ibn Ishāq is considered the earliest of the traditional biographies that survives in some form. Earlier works allegedly written by Urwah ibn al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwam [who died in 92 AH/710 AD and whom Ibn Ishāq, al-Waqidi, and at-Tabari are all said to have used as a source], Abban ibn Uthman ibn Affan (d. 105 AH/723 AD), and Wahb ibn Munabbih al-Yamani (d. 110 AH/728 AD) have not survived. Indeed, the original work by Ibn Ishāq does not survive, but it does survive in later renditions or editions the writers Ibn Hisham and at-Tabari.***

Given what we are asked to believe of Muhammad by his followers (and indeed by Muhammad's own claim to be the final and definite prophet of God), we must demand more of him than we would from an ordinary mortal; and his suffering from human foibles and peccadilloes (or worse), while forgivable or at least understandable in a mere man among men, are not forgivable and are anomalous in a man who has set himself up as a divine standard against which there is no appeal, the normative canon by which human virtue is to be measured. This is particularly true since his messages were buttressed by no miracle, and his flesh has not yet risen from the dead, but lies smoldering, like that of all men, in his mausoleum, the Rauda, at Medina, waiting the Resurrection both he and Jesus preached.

*Muslims regard Muhammad as the model of the perfect man—the al-insān al-kāmil—a model to be imitated. The Qur’an is full of verses to that effect, and either explicitly or implicitly enjoin the faithful to imitate, follow, and/or obey Muhammad. See also Qur’an 3:32, 3:132, 4:13, 4:59, 4:69, 4:80, 5:92, 8:1, 8:20, 8:46, 9:71, 24:47, 24:51, 24:52, 24:54, 24:56, 33:33, 47:33, 49:14, 64:12, 68:4. (cited in Robert Spencer, The Truth About Muhammad (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2006), 8. He is referred to by some Muslims as the "living Qur’an" and so is considered "the witness whose behavior and words reveal God’s will." John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) (3d ed.), 11. Muhammad’s personality is so perfect, that any visual depiction of him is imperfect, and therefore blasphemous. For some of the Muslim faithful, the imitatio Muhammedi (imitation of Muhammad) is taken to legalistic extremes, and includes even the particulars of the toilette, such as the proper use of antimony in the eyes, the dying of the hair, and the use of toothpicks (miswak). The requirements of istinja (cleansing of private orifices) and istibra (cleansing of the urethra after urination) and the use of only the left hand, preserving the right for eating and for ritual cleansing or wudu prior to a Muslim’s prayer are well-known. Following the principle of inclusio inius exclusio alterius, one of Muhammad’s early followers, Bayezid Biestami, refused to eat watermelon because there was no recorded instance that Muhammad ate that fruit. In the 19th century, Sayyid Ahmad Khan suggested it was meritorious not to eat mangoes if his motive was to imitate the Prophet who is not recorded to have eaten them. Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad is his Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 45. The great medieval Muslim theologian Ghazzali states in his Ilhya ‘ulum ad-din: “Know that the key to happiness is . . . to imitate the Messenger of God in all his coming and going . . . . That means, you have to sit while putting on trousers, and to stand when winding a turban, and to begin with the right foot when putting on shoes. . . .” Schimmel, 31.
**And in some commendable ways Muhammad did. For example, he fought against the customary exposure (or live burial) of infant girls, and there is a Qur’anic revelation that is generally held to have prohibited such barbaric custom among the Arabs. See Qur’an 81:8-9:
وَإِذَا الْمَوْءُودَةُ سُئِلَتْ
بِأَيِّ ذَنْب ٍ قُتِلَتْ
And when the female [infant] buried alive [as the pagan Arabs used to do] shall be questioned.
For what sin she was killed?
But as will be seen in these series of postings, Muhammad's ability to overcome all Arabic convention, including those clearly contrary to the natural law was extremely limited. In some ways, additionally, Muhammad exhorted his followers to behavior against convention that was retrograde. An example of this would have been his violation of the conventional truce (the "Sacred Month") between the tribes in the matter of raids.
***Some of the summary of ahadith are conveniently available at University of Southern California's website sponsored by the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, Two of the classical biographies of Muhammad are readily available in English. The rendition of Ibn Ishāq's by Ibn Hisham is available through the translation of A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 1967). Al-Waqidi's biography has recently become available by a translation by Rizwi Faizer, Amal Ismail, and AbdulKader Tayob, The Life of Muhammad (Al-Waidi's Kitab al-Maghazi) (New York: Routledge, 2011).

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