History Lesson: "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda"
President Ahmadinejad's letter [html, pdf] to President Bush, widely interpreted as a peaceful overture, is in fact a declaration of war. The key sentence in the letter is the closing salutation. In an eight-page text of the letter being circulated by the Council on Foreign Relations, it is left untranslated and rendered as "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda." What this means is "Peace only unto those who follow the true path."I'm familiar with this Muslim tradition but can't find it at the moment. I have found one of the hadith on which the tradition is based. The Muslim Students Association of the University of Southern California has helpfully provided an English translation of Sahih Bukhari, Book 60: "Prophetic Commentary on the Qur'an" (Tafseer of the Prophet):
It is a phrase with historical significance in Islam, for, according to Islamic tradition, in year six of the Hejira -- the late 620s -- the prophet Mohammad sent letters to the Byzantine emperor and the Sassanid emperor telling them to convert to the true faith of Islam or be conquered. The letters included the same phrase that President Ahmadinejad used to conclude his letter to Mr. Bush. For Mohammad, the letters were a prelude to a Muslim offensive, a war launched for the purpose of imposing Islamic rule over infidels.
Let me make a couple of points about this hadith. First, it is considered by Western scholars to be an invented tradition, though Muslims accept it as historical. Second, it is ambiguous as to whether the threat for rejecting Islam is a military attack by Muhammad or punishment in hell by Allah.
Volume 6, Book 60, Number 75: Narrated Ibn Abbas:
"In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. This letter is) from Muhammad, Apostle of Allah, to Heraclius, the sovereign of Byzantine........ Peace be upon him who follows the Right Path. Now then, I call you to embrace Islam. Embrace Islam and you will be saved (from Allah's Punishment); embrace Islam, and Allah will give you a double reward, but if you reject this, you will be responsible for the sins of all the people of your kingdom (Allah's Statement):--"O the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians)! Come to a word common to you and us that we worship None but Allah....bear witness that we are Muslims.' (3.64)"
However, in keeping with other Islamic traditions, interpreting the threat as one of military attack makes sense. The Muslim Students Association of the University of Southern California has again helpfully provided an English translation of a foundational Islamic collection of hadith, this time from Sahih Muslim, Book 19, "The Book of Jihad and Expedition (Kitab Al-Jihad wa'l-Siyar)," in which we find Hadith 4294:
Given this tradition, then the putative letter to Heraclius and Ahmadinejad's actual letter to Bush take on ominous overtones:
It has been reported from Sulaiman b. Buraid through his father that when the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him to fear Allah and to be good to the Muslims who were with him. He would say: Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war.... When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them.... If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah's help and fight them.
Will you not accept this invitation? That is, a genuine return to the teachings of prophets, to monotheism and justice, to preserve human dignity and obedience to the Almighty and His prophets?
A "genuine return" to these things would mean a return to Islam. One might object that Bush never was a Muslim and thus can't be expected to 'return' to Islam. From an Islamic perspective, however, this call makes sense. Muslims believe that Christians have corrupted the true revelation brought by Jesus, who was a Muslim. The call most likely refers to this. Also possible is an allusion is to the Muslim belief that everyone is born Muslim but that most are corrupted away from it by the false religious systems in which they are raised.
At any rate, Amadinejad is not merely suggesting that Bush become a better Christian, for a return to the teaching of the prophets would include the greatest of them, Muhammad.
Obviously, Bush is not about to convert to Islam, and the New York Sun's editor has provided an astute reading of Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda: "Peace only unto those who follow the true path."
Only to those...
UPDATE: Better translation: "Peace be to the one who follows the right/true path." Thanks to an "Anonymous" reader who noted this and to Nathan Bauman for help in correcting the translation. The lack of "only" lessens the implicit threat, in my opinion.