Please enjoy this guest post by A.A. Leil, he contacted me about L. Jagi Lamplighters story in Forbidden Thoughts and wanted to offer a response. Please enjoy.
Sins of Omission A Critical Response to Lamplighter’s ‘Test of the Prophet’
Note: This essay contains spoilers for two stories: Test of the Prophet from Forbidden Thoughts and Platinum Blonde.
In the Forbidden Thoughts anthology we find a collection of stories meant to provoke thought and discussion about a number of modern issues. As a Muslim-American I found Test of the Prophet ripe for discussion, especially when juxtaposed with my recent publication in Sci Phi Journal, Platinum Blonde. Both deal with the source of violence in the Muslim world, but Test of the Prophet comes up with stereotyped answers that not only deride Islam but also depicts Jesus as a bully.
Jagi Lamplighter’s short story, Test of the Prophet (TotP), recounts a young Muslim woman’s journey to Pakistan to save her beloved cousin Kabir. Shazia learns from Kabir’s distraught sister that he has joined the Taliban. The idea that Kabir would join the Taliban clashes with Shazia’s memories of him as a kind and noble boy who wanted to make the world a better place. She resolves to save Kabir and finds him near the entrance to the Khyber Pass among a cadre of Daesh extremists, his sword raised and ready to behead a Pakistani soldier.
It is here that we arrive at the heart of the story, a vital and complex question: what is the source of violent extremism in the Muslim world? Shazia, who is gifted with the ability to see djinn, demons and angels, discovers a group of evil spirits surrounding the extremists to exert their influence on them. She calls for help, and the Angel Gabriel appears.
What follows is TotP’s exposition on the perceived ills of Islam as voiced by the demons and the Angel Gabriel, the ultimate gist of which is to identify the Prophet Muhammad (and his failure to pass Gabriel’s fictional test) as the root of violence in the Muslim world. The reason? Muhammad wrote falsehoods into the Quran in order to gain power for himself.
To prove this theory, TotP gives a very shallow recount of the migration of Muhammad and the early Muslims to the city of Medina. Speaking to Shazia, a ram-horned demon in TotP states that “the very first thing your Dog-rutting Prophet did—after receiving instructions from Oh-So-High-and-Mighty-Gabriel, here, telling him to be kind to the followers of the Slaughtered Lamb and the People of the Book—was to move to Medina and to put those very People of the Book to the sword.”
The historical record says otherwise. Lamplighter’s demon refers to Muhammad’s invitation to Medina to arbitrate between two battling clans that had drawn their Jewish clients into a bloody civil war. To bring peace to the region, Muhammad arranged for Medina’s Jewish, Muslim, and pagan clans to sign a mutual protection pact. The pact held for several years despite multiple attempts on Muhammad’s life. Eventually the pact would be tested when the Meccan army (the Meccans had long sought to extinguish the nascent Muslim community) laid siege to Medina.
None of these facts are mentioned in TotP.
The largest omission, however, revolves around the actions of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe during this siege. Upon learning that the Banu Qurayza intended to betray the pact and join the Meccan army, Muhammad tried keep them on his side. Despite this, the Banu Qurayza signaled the Meccan army that they were ready to act against Muhammad, but an exhausted and defeated Meccan army lifted siege and marched home, abandoning the Banu Qurayza.
The Muslim army then lay a 25-day siege upon the Banu Qurayza’s castle, which led to both sides agreeing to arbitrate. Rather than do so himself, Muhammed chose Sa’d ibn Muadh, a former ally of the Banu Qurayza, as judge. He ruled that the Banu Qurayza had committed treason by not honoring their agreement to protect Medina and ordered 700 men of the tribe to be executed. This is harsh, but it comes directly from Deuteronomy 20:12-14:
“If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.”
Given that Islam views itself as an extension of Judaism and Christianity, it should not come as a surprise that the Muslims in 622 A.D. acted by the example laid out by previous Abrahamic religions. But instead of crediting the executions to Deuteronomy, Lamplighter places the blame with Muhammad – who wasn’t even the judge.
TotP further attempts to justify its view of Islam with a revisionist characterization of the Crusades where Crusaders were shining lights of liberty and freedom and Muslims were just blood-thirsty expansionists who forced the conquered to convert or die. However, in Islam: The Straight Path, author John L. Esposito recounts a different picture. He states that “some Jewish and Christian communities (particularly those persecuted by the Orthodox Church) aided the invading armies, regarding them as less oppressive than their imperial masters.”
Entire chapters could be written on the further sins of omission riddled within TotP, from its selective descriptions jihad and polygamy to its cartoonish use of the word ‘infidel’, all of which serve to further stereotypes about Muslims. However, further exploration of those topics are beyond the scope of this piece and would distract from the greatest irony of TotP.
Once Shazia discovers that Kabir is about to murder the Pakistani soldier, her existence as a Muslim woman with her own ideas ends and she becomes an empty vessel. From the point of view of ToTP, she must be first cleansed of her Muslim beliefs so that she may become a prophet for a ‘new’ religion. A few of her cliche ‘say-it-aint-so’ moments notwithstanding, she weakly accepts the narrative that the Angel Gabriel and the demons feed her despite her life-long existence as a Muslim. It doesn’t occur to her that demons, as agents of Satan, may be lying to her in exactly the way both the Quran and Bible suggest. Or that Gabriel might not be an angel but a demon disguised as one.
As her desperation increases, she once again calls for help and now Jesus himself appears in the form of a lion, declaring that “last time, I came as a lamb and thus went meekly to the slaughter. That time has past. Soon, I shall come again. This time, I come as a Lion.” Shazia’s reaction is a stammering recognition that the lion is indeed Isa Ibn Maryam (“Jesus son of Mary” the Arabic name for Jesus as it is written in the Quran).
The Lion is not willing to act immediately on Shazia’s behalf, suggesting that though Isa Ibn Maryam is one name for him, invoking this version will not aid her now. She asks if she must convert, turn her back on her people, and drink (presumably) the blood of Christ. The Lion initially ignores her, choosing to neither confirm nor deny the requirement. After she presses the question further, the Lion roars, “Do you think me so small as that?”
Apparently the reader is supposed to think Jesus is exactly that small, because it is only when Shazia calls out “I banish thee in the name of Jesus Christ” does the Lion act to drive off the demon. Note that the Jesus of TotP refused to aid her when she invoked the Quranic version of his name.
To a Muslim, this is more than a simple invocation of Jesus’s name. The use of “Christ” is a forced acceptance of the idea that Jesus is the son of God, a notion that Islam rejects. As Mathew 26:63 explicitly connects the title of ‘Christ’ to the notion that Jesus is the son of God, Shazia’s invocation of the title is tantamount to a rejection of her Islamic beliefs and an acceptance of Jesus as God’s son and of God as his father.
In effect, TotP, which claims that Islam forces people to convert or die, concocts a scene in which Shazia is forced to convert or die.
And so, after thoroughly mischaracterizing the Prophet Muhammed and Islam, Test of the Prophet mischaracterizes Jesus as well. Neither the Jesus of the Bible nor the Jesus of the Quran would become Jesus the hostage-taker. Are we to believe that Jesus, who cured the sick and fed the poor, would not act to save someone whose life is at stake?
In John 8:1-11, Jesus saves the life of an adulterous woman despite the fact that she shows no explicit remorse for her actions and does not even ask for his help. He saves her first before telling her, “Go and sin no more.” In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus cleanses a group of lepers without asking them to repent for their sins, and in Luke 7:11-17, he resurrects a widow’s son not because the widow repented of anything, but out of compassion for her. The Gospels are replete with examples of Jesus saving individuals and only asking for their faith later (if at all). Why then would he treat Shazia so differently?
This is, in effect, “sinner’s prayer” Christianity: the idea that saying a few words in the right order will convey supernatural blessings even if the person doesn’t fully understand what she’s saying. And it bears noting that this form of salvation is coming under more and more criticism by Protestant theologians. Prayer doesn’t force God to act, nor is God’s ability to act restrained by a human’s failure to pray. Every Christian denomination agrees that God’s grace is given first, and humans may then choose how to respond to it.
By forcing Shazia to convert or lose everything, the story’s Jesus is overriding her free will. Meanwhile, salvation history shows that all along, God honors our free will, even when we make stupid or destructive decisions. Shazia’s conversion can’t be genuine if the alternative is death.
Put another way, “there is no compulsion in religion (Quran 2:256).”
As stated earlier, TotP poses a complex and important question as to the source of violence in the Islamic world. Through convenient sins of omission, it paints a negative view of Muhammad to arrive at a pat answer to this question. Yet when Lamplighter’s characters misrepresent not only Islam but Jesus, how can a reader view the story’s answers as in any way credible?
Last year, without knowing about Lamplighter’s story, I also wrote a response to violence in the Muslim world with the story Platinum Blonde, published in SciPhi Journal on February 6th. In Platinum Blonde, Adam, a young man who has been indoctrinated with an extremist interpretation of Islam by his father, decides to teach a Muslim family a violent lesson for singing and dancing in the streets and for not enforcing the hijab upon their daughter. Adam sticks to the plan despite his own misgivings and despite some outside pushback, but in the end he tries to go through with the homicide. And in the end, the character Najat pronounces this judgment on Adam: “He thought he knew God, but he really only knew his father.”
The essence of Najat’s lament is this: an individual’s religious belief system, when acquired through the intercession of fallible sources, is in of itself fallible. Despite Adam’s belief that killing the dancing girl was an act of faith in God, it was in fact an act of faith in his human, and extremist, father.
This is similar to Lampligher’s answer, but she puts the extremism and the hatred into the mouth of Muhammad rather than into the methods of transmission and teaching. She blames the source rather than the human interference.
Platinum Blonde therefore suggests that the source of violence in the Muslim world originates from interpretations of the Quran, not the Quran itself or any imagined additions that Muhammed may have made. The idea that some Muslims’ belief systems are derived from the faulty interpretations of parents, friends, and imams may not fully answer the question posed by TotP and Platinum Blonde, but it does open the door to discussing these questions in a more thoughtful fashion. Through an unbiased study of history from the birth of Islam, to the Crusades, to Islam’s Golden Age, the rise and influence of Wahhabism, all the way to how the partitioning of the Middle-East echoes in the modern world, we may step through this door. Bolstered by an understanding of the differences between culture and religion and the realization that the actions of individuals often do not align with the guidance of religious doctrine, we may begin to walk towards the answer. Christians and Muslims can walk there together.
One more provision, however, is required if we really wish to answer the question of violence in the Muslim world. We must understand the Quran, like the Bible, is not a book that can be read the way one would read an instructional guide, a history book, or a memoir. For in reality, it is in any particular section any of these things, and the discerning reader must understand that which ‘genre’ they are reading depends on which sura(chapter) and aya(verse) of the Quran they are reading.
None of the critique written about Test of the Prophet is to say that you shouldn’t read it. To the contrary, you should. Read it, and also read Platinum Blonde for the questions they raise and the discussions they initiate. If the answers these stories posit don’t ring true for you, seek your own answers, but do so with an open, sincere heart unfettered by the politics of the day, and do not do so in isolation of those who hold viewpoints different from your own. It is only through the earnest exchange of ideas that we may arrive at answers to complex questions.
You can find more from A.A. Leil at his website http://www.aaleil.com/