As with every message directed to the West, Osama bin Laden’s most recent address begins and ends with his hallmark sentence: “Peace to whoever follows guidance.”
What exactly are Americans and Europeans to understand by this simple statement?
Considering that it is always anchored in messages rife with grievances and accusations, which culminate with threats of reciprocal treatment, those addressed most likely assume that bin Laden’s “guidance” is for the West to terminate hostilities against the Islamic world, and thereby purchase peace for itself.
In fact, “payback” — you attack us, we attack you — is the over-arching theme of al Qaeda’s propaganda. For instance, in this last message he states early on, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” In past communiqués, bin Laden has said things like: “The time to settle accounts has arrived: just as you kill, so shall you be killed; just as you bomb, so shall you be bombed. Expect more to come.”
In context, then, the overall impression that bin Laden gives, suggests that whoever follows “right guidance” — i.e. whoever follows his advice and deals “justly” with Islam — will have peace. Live and let live.
Nonetheless, a long and bellicose history revolves around this seemingly peaceful proverb — “peace to whoever follows guidance”– and it is a history of which those addressed are often quite unaware. Bin Laden is not the originator of this statement; it was, in fact, first uttered by the prophet of Islam, Mohammed, and had nothing to do with “payback,” or a desire to live and let live.
After Mohammad had converted most of Arabia to Islam by the power of the sword, he set his sight on his neighbors — including the Byzantine Christians to the north and west (known in the Arabic sources simply as “the Romans”).
It is in this context of war and rumors of wars, that bin Laden’s oft-quoted proverb –was first made. Addressing the Christian emperor, Heraclius, Mohammed sent the following terse message in the year 628 AD:
In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. From Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, to Heraclius, the Roman emperor. Peace to whoever follows guidance. To the point: Embrace Islam and you shall have peace [al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa’l-Muluk 8:104-105].
In Arabic, “Embrace Islam and you shall have peace” is simply a two-word pun: aslam taslam, which most literally means “Submit, have peace.” In fact, perpetual warfare — that is, jihad — has been the true legacy of Mohammed’s ominous missive to the Christian emperor. After Heraclius refused to submit to Islam, an infinite barrage of jihad campaigns erupted, for centuries, until Constantinople — seat of Christendom — was finally conquered by, and incorporated into, the Abode of Islam in 1453.
In classical terminology, the “Abode of Islam” (Dar al-Islam) denotes all the regions that are governed under Islamic law. During the 800 years when Mohammed first made his demand of Heraclius, and the subsequent fall of Constantinople, the Abode of Islam grew into a vast empire through jihad, an empire that extended from Spain to India. Constantinople, first attacked by Muslim hordes in the seventh century, was often seen as the “ultimate” prize — but by no means was it the final goal.
A fundamental tenet of Islam is that jihad must persevere until the entire globe is either converted to, or at least governed by, Islam. When the “Abode of War” — i.e. the non-Islamic world — has been subsumed into the “Abode of Islam,” then and only then will there be peace.
Indeed, the above scenario best explains the etymological relationship between the words “Islam” and “peace” — a relationship often distorted through conflation. Even though “Islam” and the Arabic word for “peace” are formed from the same three-lettered root “s-l-m” — and thus are in fact related — only the word “Salam” means “peace.” “Islam” means “submit” or “surrender.” The connection between the two words, then, is clear: In Islam, peace is the goal, but only through submission — just as Mohammed plainly proclaimed to Heraclius.
Even though bin Laden prudently omits the conclusion of Mohammed’s message when addressing the West, he achieves three goals by constantly quoting the famous opening line — “Peace to whoever follows guidance.”
First, powerful allusions and imagery — and thus context — are established, earning bin Laden more legitimacy within the Islamic world. For now, he is seen as walking in the footsteps of Mohammed, using his exact terminology — even if incomplete — and repeatedly addressing it to the spiritual descendants of Heraclius and Christian Rome, that is, the West, as the age-old struggle between Islam and Infidelity, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War, rages on. Indeed, by always relying on this symbolic sentence, bin Laden, is transformed from a murderous thug into a pious Muslim leader — a modern-day caliph of sorts, attacking his infidel neighbors in the name of Islam.
Second, as with all of Mohammed’s habits, his approach to infidels — first, demanding that they submit, then attacking them if they refuse, has become standardized. In other words, before attacking infidels, Muslims, like their prophet, should first call on them to submit to Islam. By evoking the opening sentence of Mohammed’s paradigmatic message, bin Laden somewhat legitimizes the subsequent terror he visits upon the infidels.
Third, and most importantly, he accomplishes all of the above while simultaneously fooling the people of the West, who, according to their own epistemology assume that the “guidance” through which bin Laden predicts peace is simply a poetic way of saying “Leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone.” Yet the all-important historical and religious connotations — much acknowledged and appreciated in the Islamic world — are altogether missed in the West.
Thus, wily bin Laden satisfies both diametrically opposed audiences: The liberal West, which honors peace and therefore must appreciate his apparently prudent guidance, “live and let live,” and the Islamists, for using the same uncompromising approach the Muslim prophet did whenever he called upon infidels “to submit — or else.”
– Raymond Ibrahim is editor of The Al Qaeda Reader.