Once upon a time in a primitive land of polytheist idolaters far, far away, an egomaniac zealot with high ambitions hit on a bright idea. On learning of the ancient Jewish prophecy of a Messiah, and the newish Christian communities’ worship of Jesus as the “Chosen One”, he decided to nominate himself as the latest in the line – the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets. If the Angel Gabriel could give the name ‘Jesus’ to Mary, why couldn’t Gabriel be recruited to authenticate Muhammad’s pronouncements?
The polytheists who worshipped 360 idols in the Ka’aba of Mecca thought this was fake news and made life difficult for the would-be prophet-poet. In thirteen years he attracted only 150 followers. So he decamped to another town. The Jews of Medina first welcomed him as a protector, but after they heard his story about travelling to Jerusalem and then to Paradise on a winged white horse with a human head, and questioned him on religion, they declared him a phony. Muhammad decided a new business model was needed: conversion by the sword. Beginning as a highwayman raiding passing caravans, he invented a unique rallying cry: “Allahu Akbar!” (My) God is the Greatest! The shout inspired his followers to kill, loot and enslave. It continues to terrify the world 1400 years. later.
I have paraphrased and simplified a complicated and disputed history of the origins of the most powerful movement the world has seen. Nobody can be certain of these events because the first account, by Ibn Ashaq, relying on hearsay and legend, was not set down until a hundred years later. But what is clear from Islam’s texts is that Muhammad set himself up as spokesman for Allah and, therefore, gatekeeper to hell and paradise. What sets Islam apart from Western notions of warfare, and the horrific excesses of the most brutal dictatorships (which it resembles), is that holy war is a central tenet, waged essentially for spiritual reward. Often seemingly irrationally. But before his death Muhammad could claim: “I have been made victorious with terror.”