Did you ever hear that Mohammed and after him the Muslims spread Islam „with the sword in one hand and the Qur’an in the other“? This idea goes back to the British historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote in 1781:1
- Mahomet, with the sword in one hand and the Qur’an in the other, erected his throne on the ruins of Christianity and of Rome.
However, the sword and the book should not be taken literally, as little as the ruins: it is only a representation. But a little further in the same chapter, Gibbon was carried away by his own rhetorics in his description of the martyrdom of Alīs son Husain at Karbalā’:
- On the morning of the fatal day, he mounted on horseback, with his sword in one hand and the Koran in the other […]
This sentence reads as if Husain on the day of his death had really swung himself into the saddle with these attributes. But it is more likely that he only carried his sword with him. The Qur’an did not exist yet as a paperback.
Apparently, also D’Ohsson owned a copy of Gibbons‘ work. This Armenian had been the interpreter of the Swedish ambassador in the Ottoman Empire and lived in Paris for a long time. His book on the Empire2 spread both knowledge and ignorance about Turkey and Islam. And lo and behold, on the title page of his work, he took Gibbon’s idea literally. One immediately recognises how nonsensical that is: had the Qur’an already existed as a book, who would take it in the left hand? Moreover, it would be rather difficult to fight this way. Behind the Prophet some turbaned men divide the activities among themselves: some deal with the Scripture, others wave around with swords. On the left is the Ka’ba, on whose roof the idols stand that were to be destroyed. According to tradition, these statues stood inside the Ka’ba, but that had not looked good on a picture.
Much earlier, the Dutch engraver Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708) had depicted Mohammed on a copper engraving with a sword in his right hand and a pen in his left.3 De Hooghe probably referred to the pen that is mentioned in Koran 96:4: ‘… who taught by the pen’. His engraving reflects the idea that Mohammed wrote the Koran himself, as was once believed in Europe. During the 18th century, the pen then developed to a book.
Regardless of the Prophet, the sword of Islam has played a role in European thought for centuries. Generally, Europeans had a negative idea of the Islamic world, although they always liked to buy beautiful textiles and delicious spices there. They realised how strong a military threat the Arabs had been in the early Middle Ages, and the Ottoman Empire until about 1700. In the 18th century, the threat had faded away and the image of the Orient became more positive. To the absolutist princes of Europe, oriental rulers could even be held up as an example of tolerance and enlightenment (G. E. Lessing, Nathan the Wise). In the 19th century, when the colonial powers subjugated half the world, the image became more negative again. Edward Said, in his Orientalism of 1978, showed that European views of the Orient were even deliberately distorted to make it easier to rule the colonies. The Orient should be beautifully exotic, but also backward and antiquated, and incredibly cruel. Oriental despots only had to snap their fingers and someone was beheaded summarily, of course picturesquely with a sword, as in the painting by Regnault.4 In this way the Orient gave the viewer a pleasant shudder, a thrill. Images of Arabs with swords are imprinted in the collective memory of Europe.
Of course, the ancient Arabs and the early Muslims had used swords; in their days they were common weapons everywhere. But later, Muslims resorted to more modern methods of execution, like everyone else. The Ottoman Empire, which included Syria and Iraq, practiced execution by hanging since the mid-nineteenth century.5 Capital punishment by means of beheading is not provided for in the Hanafi law school. Hanbali law books, however, that are followed by both the Saudis and the Iraqi-Syrian terrorist group „Islamic State,“ prescribe the sword. In Saudi Arabia, the sword is indeed used for executions, but since when? The state exists only since 1932, and there are only a few accomplished executioners in the kingdom, which is why a gunshot is preferred there.
It is likely that both in Saudi Arabia and in the „Islamic State“ people wanted to revive prophetic traditions (hadith), which amounts to a re-invented tradition. According to several such hadiths, caliph Umar (r. 634–44) suggested more than once that he would cut off someone’s head for the Prophet. At the time, that was not an exotic proposal. But in such cases the Prophet mostly suggested a milder punishment.
I suppose, however, that the ‘Islamic State’ with its swords — even more than to hadiths — referred to the Orientalist tradition of images of the ‘West’ and used them for PR-purposes. IS fighters liked to be photographed with swords. Maybe swords were indeed used in executions, although the footage often looked unconvincing. I did not look at the videos of these executions so closely, and certainly not for a second time. At times, may have mistaken a butcher’s knife for a sword. That would prove that I am also programmed to see Muslims with swords. Which of the terrorists really beheaded someone with a sword strike? That art must be learned. A lot of physical strength is needed and it requires extreme concentration until it succeeds in one go.
Anyway, the IS wanted to use the centuries-old imagery of the sword. They knew very well that Muslims with swords have made Europeans shudder since centuries. It is another example of how Muslims set themselves up as role models that were derived from ‘Orientalist’ Europeans. The ‘West’ gets exactly the Muslims it imagines. Of course, the sword is just one aspect of their style. In any case, the whole thing does not have that much to do with the Dark Middle Ages.
One should ask oneself why archaic ways of killing like beheading or stoning cause so much horror and disbelief, while machine guns, bombs and drones are considered commonplace.
1. Edward Gibbon, The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Vol. 3, London 1781, chap. 50.
2. Ignatius Mouradgea d’Ohsson, Tableau Général de l’Empire Othoman, 7 vols., Paris 1788-1824.
3. In Gottfried (Godfried) Arnold, Historie der kerken en ketteren van den beginne des Nieuwen Testaments tot aan het jaar onses Heeren 1688, vol. 1, Amsterdam 1701, p. 469. I thank the Dutch historian Martin Hillenga for this reference. A high-resolution reproduction is found here.
Both Gibbon and d’Ohsson were Freemasons. Could it be that it was a Masonic tradition to depict Muhammad with these attributes? De Hooghe, however, can not have been a Mason, as the first lodge in the Netherlands was opened in 1734.
4. So again in Sacha Baron Cohen’s film The Dictator (2012).
5. Adolf Heidborn, Manuel de droit public et administratif de l’Empire Ottoman, 2 vols., Vienna 1909–1912, i, 370.