When satirical depictions of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper sparked a worldwide wave of Muslim violence early this year, observers naturally focused on the wanton destruction of Western embassies, businesses, and other institutions. Less attention was paid to the words that often accompanied the riots–words with ominous historical echoes. “Hurry up and apologize to our nation, because if you do not, you will regret it,” declared Khaled Mash’al, the leader of Hamas, fresh from the Islamist group’s sweeping victory in the Palestinian elections:
This is because our nation is progressing and is victorious. By Allah, you will be defeated. Tomorrow, our nation will sit on the throne of the world. This is not a figment of the imagination but a fact. Tomorrow we will lead the world, Allah willing. Apologize today, before remorse will do you no good.
As a historical matter, the birth of Islam was inextricably linked with empire. Unlike Christianity and the Christian kingdoms that once existed under or alongside it, Islam has never distinguished between temporal and religious powers, which were combined in the person of Muhammad. Having fled from his hometown of Mecca to Medina in 622 c.e. to become a political and military leader rather than a private preacher, Muhammad spent the last ten years of his life fighting to unify Arabia under his rule. Indeed, he devised the concept of jihad shortly after his migration to Medina as a means of enticing his local followers to raid Meccan caravans. Had it not been for his sudden death, he probably would have expanded his reign well beyond the peninsula.