Perspectives on marriage, politics, and war

June 26, 2009 at 5:42 pm (Christianity, Islam, moral issues, society)

The documented lives of Muhammad and Jesus exemplify some of the major ideological differences between Islam and Christianity.

Number one, marriage. Jesus is not recorded to have married; Muhammad had several wives. The fixation with celibacy throughout the history of Christianity is probably influenced to a large part by Paul’s letters, contained in the New Testament. Paul was celibate, and wrote that it is good not to marry, but not wrong to do so; that it is better to marry than to burn with passion. In other words, marriage is for weak people who can’t control their desires.

While protestants – including fundamentalists – do not require celibacy of their ministers, and nor do they necessarily see celibacy as the ideal for everyone, there is still an effect on their approach to marriage which I don’t think I really noticed until I learnt about the Islamic perspective. I know many Christians that are afraid to be proactive in looking for a spouse incase they are going against God’s will. They have in mind that God may not wish them to marry, and so they expect that if God wants it to be, then the right person will come into their life and there will be some sign.

Having a Christian background makes all of Muhammad’s marriages a little hard to understand. I used to have a problem with why he was allowed more than four, but then I heard that he married them all before that verse came. Not sure if it’s true. I do find it impressive though that all of them except Aishah were widows or divorcees. It does make it seem like it could have been some sort of mercy rather than hedonistic womanising. Anyway, it’s interesting that there’s such a stark difference between the two faiths in terms of the importance of sexual fulfilment.

Number two, politics. Jesus lived in a stable, civilised Jewish society which was part of the Roman empire. He focused on moral teachings rather than politics. Muhammad lived in Arabia which was tribal and there was frequent conflict between tribes. When the Muslims escaped persecution in Mecca by fleeing to Medina, they essentially became a self-governing community not unlike a traditional tribe. There were no overarching rules or laws so they had to make their own. To this day, Islam is seen as a nation or society whereas Christianity has never been that.

Number three, war. This really follows on from the politics. Fighting between tribes was just normal in 7th century Arabia, it was a harsh environment and they wouldn’t have survived otherwise. On the other hand there are a number of pacifist movements in Christianity and these are inspired by Jesus’s message about turning the other cheek – a message of non-retaliation and surrender. Persecution was just accepted in early Christianity, there was this sense of following Jesus and carrying one’s cross, surrendering unto death as he had.

I am at this point pretty uncomfortable with both. I think forgiveness and non-retaliation is good, and I know this is encouraged in Islam too. But I know from experience that turning the other cheek and loving people unconditionally can sometimes hurt you, and I would prefer an interpretation that allows you to maintain your diginity and protect yourself from harm. Jesus said “love your neighbour as yourself” – he didn’t say “more than yourself”, and I think it’s this loving yourself part that I’ve had trouble with. Maybe being uncomfortable with self-defense is a consequence of taking some of Jesus’s teachings too literally, and not considering the context of who he was speaking to.

As for conquering lands and bringing them under Muslim rule, I am uncomfortable with this even although Muslim rule might have been generally good (there has been no better example of coexistence throughout history than Moorish Andalucia) and even although it might have overthrown tyrannous rulers. This is how the USA and allies have justified imposing democracy (like that’s not a contradiction in terms) in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I haven’t agreed with that. Nor have very many Muslims. I can see a case for overthrowing oppressive dictators when I look at places like Zimbabwe, but the trouble with it as a general principle is that what one group thinks is a better regime, another group doesn’t.

It’s been interesting trying to step outside of the pre-conditioned mentality that we all inherit from religion and culture combined, and think about these matters objectively. This is why I love the diverse influences on my life, however much of a headache it can be sometimes. 🙂



  1. Lisa said,

    One of the hardest things about Islam has been resolving my issue of man’s sexual fulfillment which sometimes seems to be at the forefront of the religion. I think it’s honestly harder for me than giving up on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and even the Trinity.

    I know that the Prophet meant well, but I just feel bothered by his divide and conquer mentality when it came to killing the husbands and marrying their wives. Maybe I just haven’t heard a good enough explanation for why it was necessary. Or perhaps I just don’t feel that the wives were THAT much better off with the Prophet than their own husband. I know that’s so wrong, and I feel terrible for saying it. Again, it may just be a lack of reading on my part.

    I so want to believe, but like you I also have questions Sarah.

    • Aynur said,

      “Having a Christian background makes all of Muhammad’s marriages a little hard to understand. I used to have a problem with why he was allowed more than four, but then I heard that he married them all before that verse came. Not sure if it’s true. I do find it impressive though that all of them except Aishah were widows or divorcees. It does make it seem like it could have been some sort of mercy rather than hedonistic womanising.”
      What I’ve read is that by marrying those different women, besides the fact that they were divorced or widows, he was doing it for tribal reasons. They weren’t all young virgin women… And even now, what Muslim man wants to marry a divorcee or a widow? Not many.

      • Sarah said,

        Yes, I’ve heard that too. In a lot of modern-day tribal systems there is the same thing. The leader has marriages to forge tribal unions and has more wives than the average.

    • Sarah said,

      Lisa: I don’t know enough to be able to put forward an answer, but I hope someone out there will!

      A lot of things that were shocking, like taking of war prisoners as slaves, were just commonly done at the time. I suppose there are three possibilities:
      1. it was OK at the time (moral relativism or whatever)
      2. it was wrong and they didn’t realise or acknowledge it
      3. it was wrong but they weren’t ready for such an abrupt change as to give up practices like this, and that slow process of change was OK

  2. ellen557 said,

    The war thing is a big thing for me too at the moment… I really do adore Christianity’s view on it, but I agree with you in that it’s not like loving unconditionally and accepting everything. Rather I think that when Jesus spoke about turning the other cheek, it was more so about practicing patience (which is definitely a quality in Islam as well) as best you can.

    I don’t really agree with the conquering thing either. But then I look at the history of all religions and it seems that each has had that view. I would go as far as to say that “Christians” (only in name really) practiced the worst form of this, e.g. in all of the Crusades. To be honest, I haven’t read anywhere in the Qur’an about conquering but then I haven’t read all of it yet. Is there something in there about it?

    I really like the Islamic view on sexuality actually. It’s so much better than the dominant Christian view where the woman, like Eve, is being punished all the time, etc etc. It’s so much better to hear that a man should fulfill his sexual needs with his wife, but his wife should be able to fulfill her needs too – instead of “don’t marry unless you’re weak”.
    Then again, some of Paul’s writings on love are also quite beautiful.
    I wish I could end this loooongggg period of confusion!

    • Sarah said,

      Ellen: yes, I was troubled by some of the psalms that talk of the Israelites under God’s blessing wiping out their enemies and conquering the promised land. Yet somehow I managed to be a Christian despite it. Maybe it’s something we shouldn’t feel we have to agree with.
      I don’t know if there’s anything in the Qur’an about it… I’ve probably read less of it than you have!
      I wish I could not be confused as well!

  3. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    About the Prophet marrying many women, there are 2 reasons I know of:

    1- to make tribal alliances;
    2- to show people what kind of women they could marry. He married a Jew, a Christian, a widow, a slave, his friends daughters, etc etc – to set examples for other Muslims and say it’s okay to marry these women.

    No one would have taken the Prophet or Islam seriously if they had tried to be peaceful. 7th century Arabia functioned in a certain way, and so the Prophet had to also function this way. It is clear that the overall message of the Qur’an is about PEACE, but to spread Islam, yes, there had to be violence. Of course in today’s world it would be unacceptable. The problem is we are judging them by our 21st century perspective which is obsessed with human rights. It doesn’t make sense to do that.
    The fact that the Prophet refused to kill as much as other Arabs, or refused to cut down trees, for example, shows that he tried to be as peaceful as possible. But hey, back then if you didn’t kill, you’d be killed.

    One more thing – when the Muslims conquered lands outside Arabia, no one was forced to convert (at first at least).

  4. NeverEver said,

    Salam Sarah,

    About the wars…
    Most conflict during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was for mostly defensive purposes in order to protect the Muslim community. Warring and conquering after the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was primarily for economic purposes. There aren’t just mountains of resources in the desert and of course a functioning society needs some kind of movement of assets in order to keep running. I would say then that in neither case is warring an acceptable means to actually propagate the religion, even though in some cases conversion was the result. And of course there is no compulsion in religion.
    [Of course it should be noted that this is just my take on the situation in conjuction with information from my World Civ class, lol]

    About the wives…
    I would agree with Sara, lol. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was supposed to be our example, right? So… he was exampl-ing, lol.

    About the S-E-X, lol…
    I agree that Islam’s take is much more healthy. I even read on article that described it as an act of worship. If you are trying to fulfill your partner, then you are fulfilling your Islamic husbandly or wifely duties and it is pleasing to Allah subhanu wa ta’ala.

    About the slaves…
    At the time slavery was accepted, and I do think that in Arabic culture it is VERY difficult to make sudden changes. Slavery was allowed at the time, but provision was also made for it’s dissolution. In fact releasing your slaves was a common occurrance and highly encouraged by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Slaves were treated with respect in the community as well. Just look at the story of Belal. Also they were commonly married to believers which elevated their status greatly.

    • Sarah said,

      Salam, NeverEver, and Sara too whose comment I seem not to have responded to.
      Conquering and slavery are still issues for me. I have read that they went and attacked and looted Quraysh caravans. They would also take prisoners of war, kill the men and marry the women or keep them as slaves. I find it hard even in a relativistic understanding of morality to see why this was OK.

  5. Achelois said,

    “I do find it impressive though that all of them except Aishah were widows or divorcees.”

    That is how I understood it as well. And I understood it as Sara (Cairo) explains. However, (and it took me months to collect this info) when I read up more on his wives I couldn’t help but notice that only Khadija and Sauda were *older* women. He was still older than Sauda but she was not a young bride. It all stopped with her. All his later wives and slaves were in their teens. Surely they were not as young as Aisha but all were in their teens. Most were widows because their husbands were killed in wars with Muslims or plain executed. And the divorcee, Zainab, was divorced because Muhammad wanted to marry her.

    I guess we don’t really go into these details because they hurt us and shake our faith and we find out things we don’t like to know. For instance, Muslims always forced Pagans to convert. I said that before on another post. The only people they didn’t force to convert were Jews and Christians because they paid the jizya.

    • Wrestling said,

      It’s fun re-reading some of this stuff! Thanks for all these great comments – you’re on a roll!

      It’s funny, when we think of widows and divorcees we naturally assume it would be older women. I’m sure I made that assumption. I hadn’t really done any research on it.

      I LOVE this line from Lisa up there:

      “I know that the Prophet meant well, but I just feel bothered by his divide and conquer mentality when it came to killing the husbands and marrying their wives.”

      – made me laugh! I’m not sure I noticed how cute that was the first time around! Probably I was too stressed out by it to notice.

      I remember reading something in Tariq Ramadan’s “The Messenger” about booty, something that made me suddenly realise that the “booty” was humans. I don’t know why authors drop these bombshells in without explaining. Are they hoping we won’t notice how horrific it was by presenting it as if it’s normal?

      And then I found another way of looking at Islam that denied all of this really happened.

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