Earlier this year on HBO’s Real Time, host Bill Maher declared that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”
Maher was likely referring to Islam’s “blasphemy” laws, which ban on pain of death any “insult” — as found in a statement, a picture, a book — to Islam and especially to its prophet Muhammad.
While Maher has been criticized for his “Islamophobic” assertion, he and others may be surprised to learn that the similarities between Islam and an organized crime syndicate such as the mafia far exceed punishing those who say, draw, or write “the wrong thing.” In what follows, we will examine a number of these similarities.
We will begin by looking at the relationship between Allah, his messenger Muhammad, and the Muslims, and note several parallels with the relationship between the godfather, his underboss, and the mafia.
Next, we will examine the clannish nature of the mafia and compare it to Islam’s tribalism, especially in the context of the Islamic doctrine of “Loyalty and Enmity.” For example, in both Islam and the mafia, members who wish to break away, to “apostatize,” are killed.
We will consider how the mafia and Islam have both historically profited from the “protection” racket: Islam has demanded jizya from non-Muslims under its authority/territory, and the mafia has demanded pizzo from people that fall under its jurisdiction.
Finally, we will consider what accounts for these many similarities between Islam and the mafia, including from a historical perspective.
1. Allah and Muhammad/Godfather and Underboss
The padrino of larger mafia organizations and families — literally the “godfather” or “boss of bosses” — has absolute control over his subordinates and is often greatly feared by them for his ruthlessness. He has an “underboss,” a right-hand man who issues his orders and enforces his will. The godfather himself is often inaccessible; mafia members need to go through the underboss or other high-ranking associates.
Compare this with the relationship between Allah and his “messenger” Muhammad (in Arabic, Muhammad is most commonly referred to as al-rasul, “the messenger”). Unlike the Judeo-Christian God — a personal God, a Father, that according to Christ is to be communed with directly (Matt 6:9) — Islam’s god Allah is unreachable, unknowable, untouchable. His orders are revealed by his messenger, Muhammad. The Judeo-Christian God calls on the faithful to “come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18); Allah says “Do not ask questions about things that, if made known to you, would only pain you” (Koran 5:101). Just follow orders.
2. A “Piece of the Action”
The godfather and his underboss always get a percentage of all spoils acquired by their subordinates. Allah and Muhammad do as well: Koran 8:41 informs Muslims that “one-fifth of all war-booty you acquire goes to Allah and the messenger,” followed by Muhammad’s family, and finally the needy.
The godfather, through his underboss, regularly sends men to assassinate those deemed enemies of the family. So did Allah and his messenger.
One example: A non-Muslim poet, Ka‘b ibn Ashraf, insulted Muhammad, prompting the latter to exclaim, “Who will kill this man who has hurt Allah and his messenger?” A young Muslim named Ibn Maslama volunteered — on condition that to get close enough to assassinate Ka‘b he be allowed to lie to the poet.
Muhammad agreed. Ibn Maslama traveled to Ka‘b and began to denigrate Islam and Muhammad until his disaffection became so convincing that the poet took him into his confidence. Soon thereafter, Ibn Maslama appeared with another Muslim, and when Ka‘b’s guard was down they slaughtered the poet. The poet’s head was brought to Muhammad, accompanied by triumphant cries of “Allahu Akbar.”
4. Circumstance is Everything
While the mafia adheres to a general code of conduct, the godfather issues more fluid orders according to circumstances. This is reminiscent of the entire “revelation” of the Koran, where later verses/commands contradict earlier verses/commands depending on circumstances. This is known in Islamic jurisprudence as al-nāsikh wal-mansūkh, or the doctrine of abrogation.
Whereas Allah supposedly told the prophet that “there is no compulsion in religion” (Koran 2:256), once the messenger grew strong enough, Allah issued new revelations calling for all-out war/jihad until Islam became supreme (Koran 8:39, 9:5, 9:29, etc.). While other religions and scriptures may have contradictions, only Islam rationalizes them through “abrogation.” Islam gives prominence to later verses, which are seen as the “latest” decision of the deity.
5. Clan Loyalty
Loyalty is fundamental in the mafia. Following elaborate rituals of blood oaths, mafia members are expected to maintain absolute loyalty to the family on pain of death. Similarly, mafia members are expected always to be available for the family — “even if your wife is about to give birth,” as one of the mafia’s “ten commandments” puts it — and to defend the godfather and his honor even if it costs their lives.
Compare this to the widespread violence and upheavals that occur when Allah or his prophet is offended by non-Muslim “infidels” blaspheming them, as Bill Maher referenced. Islam’s “Loyalty and Enmity” doctrine (al-wala’ wa’l bara’) — which calls on Muslims to be loyal to one another even if they dislike each other — is especially illustrative. Koran 9:71 declares that “the believing [Muslim] men and believing [Muslim] women are allies of one another” (see also 8:72-75). According to Muhammad, “A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim. He neither oppresses him nor humiliates him nor looks down upon him. … All things of a Muslim are inviolable for his brother in faith: his blood, his wealth, and his honor,” precisely the three things mafia members respect among each other.
U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan’s “worst nightmare” was to be deployed to fight fellow Muslims.
6. Death to Traitors
Once a fledging mafia member takes the oath of loyalty, including the Omertà code of silence and secrecy, trying to leave the “family” is seen as a betrayal and punishable by death. Any family member, great or small, is given authority to kill the traitor, the “turncoat.”
To be born to a Muslim father immediately makes the newborn a Muslim — there are no oaths to be taken, much less any choice in the matter. And, according to Islamic law, if born Muslims at any point in their lives choose to leave Islam, they are deemed “apostates” – traitors — and punished, including by death. Any zealous Muslim, not just the authorities, is justified in killing the apostate. Muslim families that kill apostate children are rarely, if ever, prosecuted.
In the words of Muhammad: “Whoever leaves his Islamic faith, kill him.”
7. Distrust and Dislike of “Outsiders”
Aside from loyalty to the family, mafia members are also expected not to befriend or freely associate with “outsiders,” who by nature are not to be trusted, as they are not of the “family,” unless such a “friendship” helps advance the family’s position.
Similarly, the second half of the doctrine of Loyalty and Enmity — the enmity (al-bara’) — calls on Muslims to maintain distance from and bear enmity for all non-Muslims, or “infidels.”
Koran 5:51 warns Muslims against “taking the Jews and Christians as friends and allies … whoever among you takes them for friends and allies, he is surely one of them.” According to the mainstream Islamic exegesis of al-Tabari, Koran 5:51 means that the Muslim who “allies with them [non-Muslims] and enables them against the believers, that same one is a member of their faith and community.” That is, an apostate, an enemy.
Similar scriptures include Koran 4:89, 5:54, 6:40, 9:23, and 58:22. The latter simply states that true Muslims do not befriend non-Muslims: “Even if they be their fathers, sons, brothers, or kin.” Koran 60:1 declares: “O you who believe! Do not take my enemy and your enemy [non-believers] for friends: would you offer them love while they deny what has come to you of the truth [i.e., while they deny Islam]?” And Koran 4:144 declares: “O you who believe! Do not take the infidels as allies instead of the believers. Do you wish to give Allah [“godfather”] a clear case against yourselves?”
8. Deception and Dissimulation
As mentioned, close relations to non-mafia individuals that prove advantageous to the family (for example, collaboration with a “crooked cop”) are permissible — as long as the mafia keeps a safe distance, keeping the outsider at arm’s length.
Compare this to Koran 3:28, which commands “believers not to take infidels for friends and allies instead of believers … unless you but guard yourselves against them, taking precautions.” According to the standard Koran commentary of Tabari, “taking precautions” means: “If you [Muslims] are under their [non-Muslims’] authority, fearing for yourselves, behave loyally to them with your tongue while harboring inner animosity for them … [but know that] Allah has forbidden believers from being friendly or on intimate terms with the infidels rather than other believers — except when infidels are above them [in authority]. Should that be the case, let them act friendly towards them while preserving their religion.”
After interpreting Koran 3:28 as meaning that Muslims may “protect” themselves “through outward show” when under non-Muslim authority, Ibn Kathir, perhaps Islam’s most celebrated exegete, quotes Islam’s prophet as saying: “Truly, we smile to the faces of some people, while our hearts curse them.”
Similarly, a few years ago, Sheikh Muhammad Hassan — a leading Salafi cleric in Egypt —asserted on live television that while Muslims should never smile to the faces of non-Muslims, they should smile, however insincerely, if so doing helps empower Islam.
The idea of hating “outsiders” is apparently so ingrained in Islam that another leading Salafi cleric, Dr. Yasser al-Burhami, insists that while Muslim men may marry Christian and Jewish women, they must hate them in their heart — and show them that they hate them in the hopes that they convert to the “family” of Islam.
(For more on the doctrine of “Loyalty and Enmity,” including references to the exegetical sources quoted above, see al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman Zawahiri’s comprehensive treatise by that name in The Al Qaeda Reader, pgs. 63-115.)
9. “An Offer You Can’t Refuse”
Although the novel-turned-movie The Godfather is fictitious, it captures much of the mafia’s modus operandi. Consider, for example, that most famous of lines — “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” — spoken by the Godfather to one of his “godsons,” an aspiring actor and singer. After being turned down by a studio director for a role that he desperately wanted, the godson turned to his Godfather for aid.
As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the offer that can’t be refused consists of nothing less than violence and death threats: after the Godfather’s messenger to the director asking that the actor be given the role is again rejected, the director awakens the next morning to find the bloodied and decapitated head of his favorite stallion in bed with him. The godson subsequently gets the movie role.
Throughout the context of the entire Godfather trilogy (which captures well the mafia’s approach to business) making someone “an offer they can’t refuse” means “do as I say or suffer the consequences,” possibly death.
Compare this to Islam’s threefold choice. On Muhammad’s orders, whenever Muslims conquer a territory in the name of Islam, its non-Muslim inhabitants are given three choices: 1) convert to Islam, 2) keep your religious identity but pay tribute (jizya, see below) and live as an “outsider,” a subjugated dhimmi, or 3) execution.
Throughout history, converting to Islam has been an “offer” that countless non-Muslims could not refuse. In fact, this “offer” is responsible for transforming much of the Middle East and North Africa, which were Christian-majority in the 7th century when the jihad burst forth from Arabia into the “Muslim world.”
This offer is still alive and well today. For example, several older and disabled Christians who were not able to join the exodus out of Islamic State-controlled territories opted to convert to Islam rather than die. Like the mafia, Islam’s offer to conquered non-Muslims (“outsiders”) is basically “join our ‘family,’ help us and we will help you; refuse and we hurt you.”
10. The “Protection” Racket
Once the mafia takes over a territory, one of the primary ways it profits is by collecting “protection money” from its inhabitants. While the protection racket has several aspects, one in particular is akin to an Islamic practice: coercing people in the mafia’s territory to pay money for “protection,” ostensibly against outside elements. In fact, the protection bought is from the mafia itself — that is, extortion money, or “pizzo.” Potential “clients” who refuse to pay for the mafia’s “protection” often have their property vandalized and are routinely threatened and harassed.
Compare the collection of pizzo with the Islamic concept of jizya: The word jizya appears in Koran 9:29: “Fight those among the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] who do not believe in Allah nor the Last Day, nor forbid what Allah and his Messenger have forbidden, nor embrace the religion of truth, until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued (emphasis added).”
In the hadith, Muhammad regularly calls on Muslims to demand jizya from non-Muslims: “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 jizya, seek Allah’s help and fight them.”
The root meaning of the Arabic word “jizya” is simply to “repay” or “recompense,” basically to “compensate” for something. According to the Hans Wehr Dictionary, the standard Arabic-English dictionary, jizya is something that “takes the place” of something else, or “serves instead.”
Simply put, conquered non-Muslims were to purchase their lives, which were otherwise forfeit to their Muslim conquerors, with money. As one medieval jurist succinctly puts it, “their lives and their possessions are only protected by reason of payment of jizya” (Crucified Again, p. 22).
Just as the mafia rationalizes its collection of “protection money” by portraying it as money that buys mafia protection against “outsiders” when the money/tribute serves only to protect the client from the mafia itself, so too do Islam’s apologists portray the collection of jizya as money meant to buy Muslim protection from outsiders. In fact, the money/jizya buys protection from Muslims themselves.
“Mafia”: What’s In a Word?
What accounts for the similarities between Islam and the mafia? One clue is found in the word “mafia,” which means “hostility to the law, boldness.” It is derived from the Arabic word mahya, which means “bragging, boasting, bravado, and swaggering.”
This etymology is a reminder that Sicily, birthplace of the mafia, was under Arab/Islamic domination for over 200 years. Aside from a borrowed etymology, could some of the mafia’s modus operandi also have been borrowed from Islam? Isolated on their island, could native Sicilians have co-opted the techniques of social controls that they had lived under and learned from their former overlords, albeit without an Islamic veneer?
The mafia is not the only historical example of a non-Muslim criminal organization to be influenced by Islam. The Thuggees — whence we get the word “thug” — were a brotherhood of allied bandits and assassins who waylaid and savagely murdered travelers in India, often by first feigning friendship. Along with assassinating his opponents, including through treachery, Muhammad also personally engaged in banditry, ransacking the caravans of enemy tribes. Although the Thuggees were later associated with the Hindu cult of Kali, the original Thuggees were all Muslim. As late as the 19th century, a large number of Thuggees captured and convicted by the British were Muslim.
When Bill Maher recently proclaimed that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book,” he was just scratching the surface of the similarities between the mafia and Islam.