DURING THE past week Muslims in cities as varied as Jakarta and Bradford have been celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed. Though he was an Arab, he is seen by Muslims as simply the "Messenger of God" to all nations. But how do non- Muslims regard him?
In 1992, during the 500th anniversary of the fall of Muslim Spain, a Catholic friend said to me: "The Arabs had no right to be in Spain anyway. Like their Prophet, they were imperialists." I was brought up as a Pakistani Muslim and had never thought of Islam as an Arab religion or of the Prophet Mohamed as an Arabian imperialist, even though I had always resented the openly racist attitudes displayed by virtually all Arabs towards non-Arab Muslims.
But it is an accusation Muslims need to address if they hope to settle the imperialist question: if Muslims deplore the Western experiment with power as completely treasonable to the cause of Jesus of Nazareth, how can they justify their own conquest of the world in the name of Allah?
No one sees the Buddha or Jesus as imperialists. Mohamed, however, did lead armies if only in self-defence. His alleged political delinquencies have always shocked Jews and Christians. Virtually all Muslims, however, even in this ideologically self-conscious age, still proudly call him "the warrior-prophet". Only Westernised liberal Muslims seem embarrassed by the Prophet's military record.
The Koran does authorise conquest of the whole world though not enforced conversion. Man is appointed as God's deputy (khalifah) on earth but he is to assume rulership on condition that he himself accepts rulership under God. The right to be an imperialist in the created order is conditional on the duty to be a servant of God and other human beings. The wars in the time of the Prophet were all defensive; most of the conflicts during the reigns of the four caliphs were however for universal conquest. This extension of the witness to the greatness of God beyond the strict confines of the Arabian peninsula is seen these days as in need of apology.
According to official Islamic apology, the ruler receives the right to be a ruler on condition that he remains accountable as a servant. The Koran is always there to remind him both of his double status and of the fact that authority is graciously bestowed, not acquired by force or inheritance. In principle, Islamic rule, when free of worldly ambition, is meant to stand robust witness for a style of sovereignty in which the pride of rulership is founded on the humility of service. Where one dominates, one brings submission (which is …