April 16, 2013 By Vijaya Krishnan Bhaskaran

How Muhammad Matters

safiBiographies of Prophets are written not just for passive reading. Edification is one of the intentions of early writers of Sira. All authors of Muhammad’s biography have explored/explore how the life of the last Prophet of God matter to them, their society and culture. So have/do the the encomiums being sung as part of mawlid celebrations. Prophet Muhammad has reached each watershed of his followers’ imaginings in distinct ways. Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters explores the imaginings of Muhammad in various contexts and milieu. Omid says about his intention of authoring the book in the following words:

“If our aim is to develop an understanding of the significance and centrality of Muhammad for Muslims, then we have to step in and out of his life narratives and look at how Muslims have remembered and interpreted these significant episodes. Our approach, then, oscillates between the “historical Muhammad” and the “Muhammad Grace” , to evoke two ideas of Muhammad. I go over the main episodes of Muhammad’s life and in each case pause to reflect on how Muslims have seen these events in both historically and spiritually meaningful ways.

(Photo caption: Omid Safi)

Omid proceeds to explain this statement by way of an example. I would like to share with you an example from my childhood.

My parents as well as myself are party workers (euphemism for the members of  the Communist Party of India-Marxist). We struggled hard to prove that Marx’s comment on religion as an opiate of masses was the last of his four statements (Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people) and was well-intentioned. We hung the pictures of the triad (Marx-Lenin and Stalin); Sreeramakrishna Paramahamsa; Sreenarayana Guru on our walls (Until I read Omid Safi’s book, I did not know Prophet Muhammad had a portrait. Even if I had, I would not have hung  it).

On Mawlid days, my father was invited to speak on Prophet Muhammad on the premises of mosque. When the procession of madrassa children goes past our home, we would distribute sweets to them. We used to wait for the evening, when the sweet-smelling Biriyani would reach us. Some wealthy Muslims used to help debt-ridden people and farmers with cashes. The beneficiaries included followers of all religion. The Muhammad Grace continued despite opposition from a certain section of Muslims who wanted to foreground the historical Muhammad. Omid Safi’s book has helped me explain the significance of printing T-shirts with Che Guevara’s insignia in it to the critics, who say Bolivian Diary is more important than Che’s pipe. It is not only the actions and words of historical figures, but whatever keeps them in our memory that will maintain the continuity of history. What if there had been no Che Guera? Our youngsters still keep wearing T-Shirts. With Arnold Schwarzenegger and a machine gun as insignias.

But in view of the yawning gap between the upper class and the lower class among Muslims in our locality with extravagantly built castles interspersed with shabby huts, I can’t help but reflect how far his own followers are from the historical Muhammad. The most important role mawlid and all other celebrations play in the Muslim lives around me is to fill a vacuum of mirth and happiness. One day of compassion followed by a year of cold-bloodedness. Muhammad as a social reformer and a compassionate saviour of the poor has not percolated down to the social psyche around. Unfortunately, we don’t have poor leaders here. Whether Marxist or Hindu, Muslim or Christian, they are all travelling in air conditioned cars. The story of Muhammad fighting in a battle with stones tied around his stomach to defend hunger is just an item to be served via loudspeakers.


Omid Safi’s book metters a lot to me because, as a non-Muslim and a follower of Marxism (not of Politburo), this book has uncovered a Prophet to me from both self-serving and negative propagandas constructed around his personality. Omid Safi gives us the historical and political context in which the Propaganda grew around Muhammad: “Anyone who reads volume after volume by western authors who accuse Muhammad of espousing violence as an essential and cardinal virtue might have to wonder whether there is some measure of what psychologists call “projection” going on there. Could it be that the United States itself, which has become a colonising and occupying empire, is attempting to deal with its present violence by projecting it onto a past other? Could it be that our own oversexualised American society uses sex to sell everything from flavoured water to cars? Could it be that our own society is still challenged in profound ways with the struggle for gender equality? And could it be that all the talk about heresy and deviation has something to do with the anxiety many Americans and Europeans have about increasing levels of “foreign” migration.” (Page 30) In that way Omid has placed the Danish cartoon controversy in the context of rising tide of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments.’ (page 15) Any imaging of Muhammad, both laudatory and denunciatory, is not separate from its historical context. The much celeberated Michal Hart’s ranking of Muhammad should be studied in the context of orientalism, in view of the racism of the author which Omid Safi brings to fore in the book.


If a Sunni Muslim reads the book, he will be shocked by the pictures of Muhammad in it. When this book was given to me to review it, editors wanted me to give a gloss on it. Portraits of Muhammad are ubiquitous prominently in Iran and Turkey. When Omid Safi and his parents migrated to the US he ‘carried it with him to each home he lived.’
‘The image is a lovely depiction of a kind, gentle, yet resolute Prophet, holding on the Quran and looking straight at the viwer with deep and penetrating eyes.’
‘Whenever Iranians came to our home, they would recognise the image as a common one they had seen on posters in Iran. But something strange would happen when we invited to our home Sunni Muslim friends from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Egypt who experienced a cognitive dissonance of sorts.’

Omid Safi brilliantly sums up the issue: ‘My family’s display of the image remains part of our devotion, and the friends’ protest was also part of their devotion to make sure that the memory of the Prophet was not sullied by undue innovations.’

When we accept the fact diversity is inherently built in the tradition of Islam the world over, we will not be able to prioritise one conception of Muhammad over another.


The theme underlying in the book is tolerance and diversity. Omid Safi presents his conception of Muhammad in the seriousness of someone pained by mutual hatred and intolerance of people and communities, fanned by the neo-conservative state philosophers and intellectuals as well as their by-products -the terrorists of all ilk. When historical Muhammad lost in the hullabaloo of right-wing ideologies, of consumeristic vulgarities, and of self-styled fanaticism, the book tries to retrieve Muhammad’s grace in a fitting time.

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