Old and New Testament, Mecca and Medina: Different Views of Religious Narrative
It is starting to seem to me that for a religion to actually be successful, by which I mean transcend any particular time, place and set of social conditions to spread beyond them into a variety of eras and places, it is always helpful to be able to call upon an early narrative that is rich and varied. In the case of Christianity and Islam, the narrative is sort of dualistic. In Christianity, that dualism is represented by the Old Testament and the New, and in Islam, in the extraordinarily life of the Prophet Muhammad and, specifically, his life and times in both Mecca and Medina.
Now I don't think any Christian sort of dismisses either Testament as totally irrelevant, and certainly no Muslim I know regards the Meccan period, or the Medinan, as being worthy of neglect. Nevertheless, given the dichotomy, it is inevitable that one period is read in light of the other, one understood in the context of the other, and therefore one effectively representing the truer and more pure form of Islam.
For those unschooled in the outlines of the parable, the Prophet Muhammad lived in Mecca, and received his first relevations from the angel Gabriel while in Mecca. He continued on in Mecca, preaching his message and gaining converts until forced out in an emigration known as The Emigration, or the Hijra. That's when a state was formed, in Medina, and rules came down and wars eventually broke out, etc.
You take an average Muslim in America, and he bristles at the notion promulgated by Islamophobes that Islam compels him to violence, almost always calling upon the Meccan example. Clearly you know nothing of my faith, he says, as if you did, you'd know that the Prophet Muhammad lived for years among people who did not respect his right to practice his beliefs as America's system (and countless Americans, even if there is a loud and persistent and annoying minority who are an unfortunate exception) does and yet he did not wreak violence upon them. They hated him, they tormented him, but he did not pick up arms, and God through Gabriel exhorted him in the words of the Qur'an, again and again and again, "on you is the deliverance of the Message, and on us is the Accounting on the Final Day." It's repeated dozens of times at various points in the Qur'an.
This Muslim, and I don't just mean a maverick liberal like me, I mean people like the very influential Imam Qazwini in his book American Crescent (second time I'm plugging it, as I don't get how anyone can ask where are the moderate Muslims who don't believe in violence and yet this man's book lies at #449,000 on Amazon--though buy my book first, on the sidebar) calls on the Mecca narrative, and a particular story I heard in my own American mosque maybe fifty times, so that we as kids started to roll our eyes on hearing it AGAIN, of the man who left garbage in front of the Prophet's house every day, and one day it was no longer there. The Prophet grew concerned, what happened to this fellow that he neglected to insult me today and went to visit the man, who turned out to be sick, to ensure his well being. THAT's the Prophet we knew and grew up with, the one who cared about all people, even those who despised him, and was so trustworthy, scrupulous and honest that he was nicknamed, Al Amin, the safe one.
Take the Muslim conservative, and he starts with the Medina story. The one where the Prophet brought together a community, led it under a "constitution" (really a treaty among tribes, though I guess it helps get modern constitutionalism accepted among modern Muslim polities by calling it a constitution, and so I won't stand in the way), instituted the perfection of God's Rule on Earth, and brought Mecca, the home of Abraham, back to the worship of the one true God. How can you say we must tolerate unbelievers, this conservative asks, when the Prophet says in a war against the unbelievers "I have been commanded to fight until they say there is no god but God"?
Now again, I don't think most of us disregard the other period, any more than you'll find a Christian who says he doesn't much care about Moses. But the liberal and the moderate point to Mecca first, I think. In some cases, particularly the liberal, they will claim to. Fazlur Rahman and Mahmoud Taha, for example, both liberals (one was at the University of Chicago until deceased, one killed in the Sudan, so yeah I'll acknowledge they are a marginal force in today's Islam even if I and lots of American Muslims admire them) view the Meccan period as being the ideal, and Medina not bad of course, but one in which necessary compromises are made, as they always are in this profane world. Rahman says there was slavery and misogyny everywhere in Medina, the Qur'an's Medinan recitations (slavery with limits, four wives maximum) were meant as a floor, a minimum, a necessary and immediate change, one that over the course of time would become unnecessary as society developed and, to use Taha's phrasing, the true "Second" message of Islam, the one developed in Mecca, burst forth.
But even voices more within the mainstream than the assassinated and those in American universities tend to say something like this, though not quite as stark. They might not touch polygamy, but they will attack the tradition about killing people until they say no god but God. There are shari'a professors in Iraq criticize this as a misreading, look, the Prophet was saying this while criticizing, severely, a companion of his, Khaled Ibn Waleed, who killed a man in battle after the man had recited that there was no god but God. Khaled said he just recited faith because he was afraid of losing his head, this was what the Prophet was responding to and criticizing when he said "I have been ordered to kill them until they say "no god but God", the point is that when the man in battle recites the profession of faith, fighting, with him, is over. There was an Afghan fellow teaching shari'a in Kabul who I met at the AALS conference who said precisely the same thing--it's a rule of war and meant to say, the fighting is over at a recitation of faith irrespective of motive, it is akin to accepting a surrender. The Prophetic statement, he said, has no application beyond war, to argue that it does makes this one statement of the Prophet at odds with dozens of (Meccan) verses which say repeatedly that God punishes, the Prophet only delivers a message. Shari'a professors in the Muslim world are important figures, not to be lightly ignored.
Of course, the conservative replies that there are verses that indicate one should kill the polytheists wherever found, and that therefore the Meccan verses must be read in light of these later verses or abrogated. The Prophet's statement is therefore a broad one here, not narrow. The liberal responds, this isn't a human law, God doesn't realize he made a mistake in an earlier verse and abrogate, the Meccan verses are the pure, true ones, the Medinan verses, and Prophetic statements have to be understood as necessary compromises given human foibles in light of the purity of Mecca, and round and round we go.
So what's the point of all of this? Well, you take someone like me, raised in this country, proud of this country, and proud of my strong and continuing connections to Iraq and proud of my faith, and the Muslim narrative appeals to me, largely through the Meccan stories. The Medinan stories play a huge role, of course, when they don't conflict with the Meccan, and when they seem to, well Mecca was the true Islam. And the conservative, deeply attached to traditional notions of shari'a, reverses that presumption,again not necessarily disclaiming Mecca, but viewing any potential inconsistency as one capable of resolution through favoring later in time.
And thus does Islam find a way to speak to us all, in the same way that Christianity has found a way to speak to everyone from Jefferson Davis to Martin Luther King. Ultimately then, I guess the point is, it isn't hard to reform Islam doctrinally, we've already got a narrative, the real problem is getting the social, political, and cultural conditions right such that people are receptive to that reform.