A Brief Inquiry Into Cognitive Dissonance Arising From The Perfection Of Muhammad

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I am thinking about the life of the Prophet, and how it is so odd how some of the more controversial things that he did (or “allegedly” did, depending on whom you talk to) are so uncomfortable for Muslims.

I am no scholar, so people can feel free to correct me with their own understandings of the Prophet’s life. But according to at least some accounts, the Prophet was responsible for assassinations; for the slaughter of an entire Jewish tribe; for raids and banditry toward the Quraish (after he left for Medina). I am not saying those things are all 100% true or that they were not perhaps more complex than I’ve written here, but this is my understanding and I am pretty sure that these ideas are at least based on real events from the Prophet’s life.

Now here is the thing: Many Muslims have a lot of trouble even HEARING these things (and I did not even mention anything about his wives). Why? Why is it that I can admire Abraham Lincoln, but I don’t get upset if people say he may have been bipolar and at least a little bit racist? Why can I admire Gandhi but not take it personally when people tell me he might have had weird sexual practices, and was a jerk to his wife and kids?

The reason I can do that is because I understand that while I admire those men, they are not Gods. They may have done great things, but they need not have been perfect, and in fact they may have been very imperfect. In fact, their human failings make their outstanding accomplishments seem all the more amazing.

Moreover, I also am aware that the people who write and relay history are not perfect. Nobody alive today has ever met Lincoln- forget about Muhammad. Even for a man whose life was as well documented as Abraham Lincoln, we do not have the luxury of knowing his thoughts, of knowing everything about how he really was. As much as I know about him, as much as I realize that his life was very well documented, I always remember when I read conflicting accounts of him that “Hmmm… I guess that’s possible… who knows?” It doesn’t change the lessons I may have learned from the stories I heard about them. It doesn’t make them any less good.

Yet we are so certain that Muhammad was really being merciful when he allowed the slaughter of the Qurayza. We are so certain that either the tales of assassinations are slanderous lies OR that they had it coming to them. We are so certain that the raids on the Quraysh caravans were simply a natural reaction to their persecution of him, that anyone would have done the same thing.

What does this do to a person’s mind? When their static belief is that Muhammad was perfect? That means that any recollection of him that challenges this belief must either a) be not true, or b) have a more complicated explanation (and that the person who challenges the belief must either be politically motivated or uneducated). It simply must, it’s only logical, because we know that A is true so B cannot be. And so when any evidence of such recollections surfaces that meets that need, they are gobbled up by believers.

I wonder about the effects of this concept, whether it makes it easier for people who buy into it to similarly dismiss evidence that contradicts their cherished perception in other areas of their lives. I wonder if the cases that happen that many of us have seen, where a pious person is alleged to have been committing some wrongdoing, are parallels.

“You say he raped you?

But we know he is a good Muslim.

And good Muslims don’t rape women.

So he can’t have raped you.

And that means you are lying.

And good Muslims don’t lie.

So YOU must not be a good Muslim.”

It’s so logical.


The above post is a guest post by Ibn bin Rushd.

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