A barbarian, a mass murderer - that’s how Dutch MP Geert Wilders says he will portray the prophet Mohammed in a new film. Hirsi Ali sees him as depraved, the Pope as tyrannical. Others think of him as elusive or an invention, and some consider him a tolerant philosopher or a human rights activist. Six views to assess Wilders’ claims about Mohammed.
By Klaas den Tek and Myrtille van Bommel
The murderous Mohammed
The cruel leader of a band of plundering, murderous, rapist robbers from Medina - that’s how Dutch MP Wilders says he wants to depict the prophet in his new film, due in 2012 as a sequel to his 2008 anti-Qur’an short Fitna. To support his view Wilders cites a biography of the prophet written by Flemish psychologist Herman Somers: “The sources describe orgies of savagery in which hundreds of people were strangled, their hands and feet chopped off, eyes pricked out and entire tribes exterminated.” Wilders says he wants to “unmask” Mohammed so Muslims can turn their backs on Islam.
The invented Mohammed
Friendly, intelligent, peace-loving or murderous - according to Sven Kalisch, a former professor of Islam and current professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Münster in Germany, it doesn’t really make any difference. He has come to the conclusion that the prophet most likely never existed. The first biography of Mohammed, for example, didn’t appear until a century after his death, notes Professor Kalisch, a former Muslim, who refused to shake hands with women and defended Islamic Sharia law. “I already doubted the existence of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. As a scientist, however, you are also obliged to examine the basis of your own faith.”
Mohammed the human rights activist
Dutch Islam expert Abdulwahid van Bommel sees a compassionate Mohammed concerned with society’s weakest. “The first verses of the Qur’an all deal with the rights of orphans, widows and the needy.” The true meaning of the reforms Mohammed carried out can only be grasped when placed in their historical context. This is especially true of Mohammed’s views on women’s rights, which nowadays often draw fierce criticism. “Mohammed precisely tried to give women more rights than they had before the emergence of Islam. Girls used to be buried alive shortly after birth - he ended that practice. Women used to be part of men’s inheritances - he made them heirs. Polygamy used to have no limits - he limited the number of women a man could marry to four. Had he lived in our time, Mohammed would very likely have championed human rights.”
Mohammed the tyrant
In September 2006 Pope Benedict XVI compared Mohammed with a contemporary jihadist. During a lecture at a German university the Pope quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The lecture angered Muslims and the Pontiff eventually apologised, declaring he had not intended to insult anyone but had meant to start a frank dialogue.
Mohammed the depraved
“By Western standards Mohammed is a perverse tyrant,” said former conservative Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali in an interview in 2003. “If you don’t do what he says, you come to a bad end.” The Somali-born feminist and publicist also speaks of the prophet’s “posthumous blackmail.” “Mohammed says a woman should stay indoors, wear a veil, is not allowed to do certain work and should be stoned if she commits adultery.”
The human Mohammed
“As long as you don’t take everything literally, the human prophet Mohammed can teach us many life lessons.” This is how Tariq Ramadan, professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, explains his motivation to write a biography about the founder of Islam. The book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad (2007), depicts its hero as a spiritual man with a great respect and love for women. Mohammed, in his view, was not without faults (he once ignored a blind old man) but was open to criticism. “And unlike his followers, he allowed Muslims to abandon their religion, and personally permitted an Abyssinian Muslim to convert to Christianity.”
The elusive Mohammed
Is Mohammed a murderer? Does he have blood on his hands or did he have to defend himself because he was attacked? Both supporters and opponents rely on the same written sources. “But these can be interpreted in different ways,” says Maurits Berger, Professor of Islam in the West at Leiden University. “Wilders, Muslim feminists, fundamentalists—they all have their own interpretation. It’s impossible to give a truly complete picture of the historic sixth-century Mohammed.”