Growing up in a family with a large number of Muslims, I first heard the story of Muhammad when I was very young. I would hear of Muhammad’s return to Mecca, his clearing the Kabah of pagan idols, and his fight for social justice and the empowerment of Women. It’s a version of Muhammad I can understand. It fits my family.
“The history of a religious tradition is a continuous dialogue between a transcendent reality and current events in the mundane sphere.”
But this image has become muddled. It’s clear that there are many visions of who Muhammad was and what he means. Much of my life has taken place against the backdrop of a cosmic war — planes flying into buildings, invasions, car bombs and police raids. And Muhammad has been invoked, repeatedly, by all sides. Used to justify all manner of atrocities. This tension has become especially meaningful in the past few months, as gunmen attempt to police his image on our own doorsteps.
“We have a long history of Islamophobia in Western culture that dates back to the time of the Crusades. In the twelfth century, Christian monks in Europe insisted that Islam was a violent religion of the sword, and that Muhammad was a charlatan who imposed his religion on a reluctant world by force of arms; they called him a lecher and asexual pervert.”
So, who was Muhammad? The benevolent and merciful figure that I’ve grown up with? The man who inspires the billion plus Muslims who go about their days peaceably, who we never hear from? Or was he the great Muslim crusader that the Islamic Fundamentalists tout? How about the bloodthirsty tyrant that many of his obstreperous critics claim? As the cosmic war of the past decade is joined by a culture war, increasingly on our own doorsteps, this is a question that needs answering. And so, I turned to Karen Armstrong.
“The work of Muhammad’s first biographers would probably not satisfy a modern historian. They were men of their time and often included stories of a miraculous and legendary nature that we would interpret differently today.”
Muhammad has had many biographers, the first emerging a hundred or so years after his death. However, like many other religious figures, the bulk of our knowledge comes from the scriptures, which in turn rely on an oral history. Armstrong begins the story with Muhammad’s first revelation, when he was forty years old. But she quickly backtracks and takes us through the religious, cultural and economic context of Muhammad’s time. Aspects of his life that are inseparable from his teachings and legacy, but are rarely mentioned now. We learn about his birth into the Hashim clan in Mecca, an important clan in a powerful city. His marriage to Khadijah in his twenties Khadijah was employer and a rich widow with whom he would remain monogamous (not the norm) until her death. And as the short 200-odd pages go by, we follow the slow creation of Islam, the Muslim exile to Medina and their struggle to return. All set in the context of the wider Arabian world that both influenced and was influenced by them.
“Muhammad literally sweated with the effort to bring peace to war-torn Arabia, and we need people who are prepared to do this today. His life was a tireless campaign against greed, injustice, and arrogance. He realised that Arabia was a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.”
This focus on context is brilliant. After all, Muhammad’s tale is like many other stories from pre-modernity - awful when the context is removed. However, there are also weaknesses with Armstrong’s account. The most obvious is that it is entirely uncritical. Apart from a brief mention at the beginning, there is scarce reference to the fact that the entire story is built upon an oral history of Muhammad’s followers. And yet, it is also written with absolute certainty. There are no questions given to the possibility of bad memory, an incomplete historical record, or alteration through retelling. This problem is especially clear when Armstrong repeatedly asserts Muhammad’s reputation for honesty and grace - it may be so, but his followers would say that wouldn't they? And since the scriptures are God’s revelations channeled through Muhammad, from where does this survey of his contemporaries emanate? Even worse, such hagiographic characterisations are often accompanied by literary flourishes and insights into the Prophet’s own mind - what are the sources for these intrusions? I would greatly love to read the tome in which his every sigh and facial expression are also recorded.
“The Qur’an is the holy word of God, and it’s authority remains absolute. But Muslims know that it is not always easy to interpret. Its laws were designed for a small community…”
For those who don’t mind a critical account, there is another big issue - the question of Muhammad’s agency. The context-centric approach means that most of the events are portrayed as a reaction to external cultural and political events. For example; the rival Quraysh clan does something, and suddenly Muhammad is gifted the perfect revelation and strategy. What comes off is both a God and Prophet in thrall to outside events, responding to the world rather than shaping it. Armstrong repeatedly asserts Muhammad’s disdain for metaphysics, but should we come away with such an emphasis on politics? A cynical reading could conclude that Muhammad doesn’t have agency, and that many of these revelations are quite convenient. Is that the intention? If so, who exactly is the target audience of this account?
“If we are to avoid catastrophe, the Muslim and Western worlds must learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another. A good place to start is with the figure of Muhammad: a complex man, who resists facile, ideologically-driven categorisation, who sometimes did things that were difficult or impossible for us to accept, but who had profound genius and founded a religion and cultural tradition that was not based on the sword but whose name — “Islam” — signified peace and reconciliation.”
To answer my conundrum from earlier, Armstrong paints a picture of Muhammad quite close to the one I was brought up with. Only much richer than my family could ever manage. He wasn't the man claimed by the fundamentalists on either side, but a man of his time. The context she provides is eye opening, and definitely an important addition to our current debate. But Armstrong's lack of criticism is really the takeaway. It invalidates it for anyone who wants as “true” a picture as possible. Granted, in our current climate it is understandable why Armstrong could not do for Muhammad what Reza Aslan did for Jesus, but Muhammad already has enough hagiographies. Muhammad by Karen Armstrong is the best biography I have found so far. So, for now at least, I will recommended it. But I’m going to keep looking for a more definitive biography.
Author: Karen Armstrong
Pages: 249 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 2/5
Amazon Link: Muhammad - Prophet For Our Time