For all the emphasis that today’s clerics put on the Prophet’s war record, he spent a total of less than a week in actual battle in the twenty-three years of his prophethood. He advised his followers to “be moderate in religious matters, for excess caused the destruction of earlier communities.” A moderate himself, he smiled often, spoke softly and delivered brief sermons.
“The prophet disliked ranting and raving,” wrote Imam Bukhari, the ninth-century Islamic scholar of the Prophet’s sayings. Ayesha, the Prophet’s wife, reported that “he spoke so few words that you could count them.” His most famous speech, during the Haj pilgrimage in AD 632, which laid down an entire covenant, was less than 2,800 words (see The Sermon that Changed the World).
Muhammed was respectful of Christians and Jews. Hearing the news that the King of Ethiopia had died, he told his followers, “A righteous man has died today; so stand up and pray for your brother.” When a Christian delegation came to Medina, he invited them to conduct their service in the mosque, saying, “This place is consecrated to God.” When Saffiyah, one of his wives, complained that she was taunted for her Jewish origins, he told her, “Say unto them, ‘my father is Aaron, and my uncle is Moses.’”
Yet angry Muslims, not unlike African Americans not to long ago, pay little heed to voices of moderation. This is partly a reflection of the fact that there is no central religious authority in Islam. Only the minority Shiites have a religious hierarchy of ayatollahs, who instruct followers on religious and sometimes political matters. The majority Sunnis do not have the equivalent of the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. A central tenet of their faith is that there is no intermediary between the believer and God. This makes for great democracy – everyone is free to issue a fatwa (religious ruling) and everyone else is free to ignore it. But the “fatwa chaos” does create confusion – among non-Muslims, who are spooked by the red-hot rhetoric, and also among Muslims, who are left wondering about the “right answers” to some of the most pressing issues of the day.