Obama's Handshake Diplomacy: What Would Muhammad Do?

May 19, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

There has been a great deal of outrage in right-wing circles over President Barack Obama's very public handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and his efforts to thaw relations with Cuban President Raul Castro. The hyper-nationalist crowd is predictably calling Obama a traitor who is sucking up to foreign dictators and endangering America's interests.

Many people in the same chorus have also expressed suspicion about Obama's Muslim ancestry, seeing him as some kind of Manchurian Candidate installed by the Great Islamic Conspiracy into the White House. His efforts to reach out to world leaders like Chavez is seen as proof positive of Obama's intent to undermine American power and move our capital from Washington D.C. to Mecca.

In the spirit of such interesting speculation, let me pose the question - what would Islam's Prophet Muhammad do under the same circumstances?

The Prophet was not only a religious leader, but also a military general and statesman who transformed Arabia from a chaotic wasteland into a unified nation that, within a century of his death, had conquered half the known world.

Many people focus on Prophet Muhammad's military activities as the primary basis for his success. Indeed, his prowess on the battlefield is one of the most controversial aspects of the Prophet's life. Critics of Islam cite Muhammad's role as a warrior to paint him, and the religion he founded, as inherently violent. And it is sadly true that Muslim extremists look to the battles of the Prophet's time as a justification for their own bloody activities today.

But neither the Muslim extremists nor their critics in the West truly understand the basis for Prophet Muhammad's success. While the Prophet did indeed engage in warfare against his opponents (as did Moses, Joshua and David in the Bible), he himself credited the final triumph of Islam to the single most unpopular act of his career -- the peace treaty of Hudaybiya in 628 A.D.

In my novel "Mother of the Believers," I portray this remarkable moment in history. Against the advice and sentiments of most of his followers, the Prophet made a surprise truce with his enemies in Mecca, ending the state of war that had been in effect since Muhammad had first challenged the oppressive pagan rulers of Arabia. The truce was heavily one-sided in favor of the Prophet's adversaries, requiring Muslims to return Meccan defectors, while exempting Mecca from a reciprocal obligation.

At the signing of the treaty, some of the most prominent Muslim leaders began to question the Prophet's motivation, even his claim to divine inspiration. Muhammad's diplomacy was seen as selling out his followers, who had sacrificed everything in support of the Prophet's vision.

But the Qur'an responded to Muhammad's critics in Surah 48:1, saying: "Truly We have given you a great victory." The Prophet told his followers that history would show that the peace treaty was the moment that Islam won the decade-long conflict with the pagan Arab tribes who had sought to destroy the new religion.

And he was proven right.

Over the next two years, with the cessation of hostilities and the lifting of a trade boycott between the Muslims and their enemies, Islam spread rapidly among the Arab tribes. Not through violence, but through dialogue and commerce. Islamic scholars estimate that the amount of converts during that two-year period exceeded the entire size of the Muslim community in the two decades prior.

In the end, when the Meccans and their allies broke the treaty, the Prophet was able to raise an army of ten thousand in response, and a humbled Mecca surrendered peacefully. By then, the Prophet had become the unquestioned leader of Arabia and he was free to exact revenge against his enemies without fear of consequences. But he continued with his policy of diplomacy toward his adversaries and declared a general amnesty, pardoning even the Meccan queen Hind who had killed and cannibalized his beloved uncle Hamza.

And again, the Prophet's foresight was rewarded. The former opponents of Islam were now incorporated into the new order, and their energies were redirected to expanding the Islamic state they had once sought to destroy. Within 30 years, the son of Muhammad's greatest enemy in Mecca became the Caliph of Islam and ruled over an empire that stretched from North Africa to Central Asia.

Prophet Muhammad's victory came from his preference for diplomacy over warfare, and it is a lesson that President Obama clearly understands as he navigates international waters that have been poisoned by the brutishness of his predecessor. Obama's willingness to take the high road with men like Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro does not show weakness, but strength.

Like Prophet Muhammad, whose grandson Hussein inspired the President's middle name, Obama has demonstrated that he is confident in his position and the values he represents. President Obama understands that the best way to effect political change in other countries is through dialogue and trade. And his willingness to show courtesy to his opponents gives him the moral high ground when dealing with them, as well as with his critics at home.

As Prophet Muhammad demonstrated, a handshake can shake up the world far more than a sword.

Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of "Mother of the Believers," a novel on the birth of Islam as told by Prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha (Atria Books; April 2009). For more information please visit: www.kamranpasha.com.