May 5, 2014 By KS Shameer

Life of Muhammad: A Critical Engagement

The-first-muslimThe life of Prophets are never their alone. Their life links us with the Eternity, the Source of all lives. Whatever they do even in the inner chamber of their home is monitored and justified or corrected by the Revelation. Their life is added to the text of Revelation in order to interpret the latter. Truly, a Prophets are interpretations of how the supernatural comes in communion with the natural. They are the receptacle of the Word.

Prophet Muhammad was identified as a human by the Quran ( “I am only a human like you, to whom has been revealed that your god is one God. So whoever would hope for the meeting with his Lord – let him do righteous work and not associate in the worship of his Lord anyone”). Among Muslim historians and scholars, some people have tried to sort out the wheat of divinity from the chaff of humanness in Prophet Muhammad. Some have seen the practice with suspicion, taking his personality as all compact. Some have considered rationalization of Prophet’s life as disrespect to him. Seerat (loosely translated as biography) of the Prophet has been written since the eight century, when arguably the first hagiographer Ibn Ishaq lived. We have also Mawlids and biographies to look at the Arabian receptacle of the Divine Word, not to mention thousands of traditions passed down through generations.

Biographies of Prophet Muhammad written by non-Muslim scholars might be less hagiographic. It is because non-Muslim scholars start from the premise that they are about to engage with a human being.  Karen Armstrong and Barnaby Rogerson are the two authors I have read before. The difference between the two is that while the former writes the history, the latter makes the history relevant to our own time. Lesley Hazleton’s The First Muslim throws light on the life of Prophet Muhammad with the conviction and assumptions of our own time. When we read the book, we are not just reading the life of a man who lived 1443 years ago, but trying to understand the life in the context and reality of the 21st century without restricting him to the vagaries of this millennium.

Read how she analyses Hijra: ‘Yet no exile ever really breaks the ties of home. Even someone who leaves by choice tends to focus on the place left behind. Emigrants turn first each day to the news from their country of origin. They search out places to buy familiar foods, and befriend fellow emigrants they would never have talked to “back home.” This is more than simple nostalgia. It’s as though by such actions they might lessen the degree of physical separation, even assuage a certain guilt at having left. If they are lucky, this will ease as they adapt. But when emigration is not chosen but forced, the place left behind assumes ever greater proportions in the mind.
“Exile is the un-healable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home,” wrote Edward Said, referring to the modern Palestinian exile. The feeling of having suffered a great wrong does not fade with time, but increases and then crystallizes. Even as the exile establishes a new life, the place left behind remains the homeland, the focus of all hope for a perfect future.’

Prophet’s life is sketched from different angle, using different narrators at a time. None expects Nietzsche, Kafka, Graham Green, St John of the Cross on the pages of a biography of Prophet Muhammad. She brings them all to make a dialogue of many civilizations, many times, and many assumptions on a hallowed, deeply studied, and caricatured life.

Also there is earnest attempt to understand the social political milieu of Arabia so that the author separates the milieu of Prophet with her own, thereby preventing herself from imposing her criteria on the Prophet and his time. She analyses the gentrification and hierarchy of the time when she narrates the breast-feeding practice of the time: The prime role of an aristocratic wife was to produce male heirs, but with infant mortality so high that barely half of all infants born alive survived into adulthood, this was not easy. Obviously the chances were improved the more often a wife became pregnant, so it was important that she be fertile again as quickly as possible after giving birth. Since nursing inhibits ovulation, the best way to ensure this was for someone else to breast-feed her infant. (The obverse was that the peasant and nomad women who served as wet nurses had far fewer pregnancies. The ugly upper-class stereotype of the lower class “breeding like rabbits” was in fact quite the reverse: the upper class were the breeders, and the lower class the feeders.)

She also finds parallels between the two milieux:  To the urban elite of Mecca, Bedouin poetry spoke to everything they wished to be and was uneasily aware that they were not. Their passion for it was fuelled by nostalgia: a longing for a highly romanticized idea of a purity that once was, for a strong moral code uncontaminated by the exigencies of trade and profit. The Bedouin warrior was a simpler, more honourable man for a simpler, more honourable time. Much as eighteenth-century Europe romanticized the presumed simple life of shepherds and shepherdesses, and twentieth-century America idealized the strength and flinty honour of the John Wayne cowboy, so sixth-century Meccans saw the Bedouin as the human bedrock of Arabia.’

A believer can’t help reading those parts of book, where she narrates the Prophet’s treatment of Jewish tribes, including Qureyz (Banu Quraydha) and where she sketches the Hypocrites in glittering colour tones with a pinch of salt. This is not to say that those incidents are not so problematic as to be dismissed in the background of the larger-than-life image of the Prophet, as most Muslim historians and hagiographers have done. But there are many explanations, including that of Montgomery Watt, which want us to put those events in perspective. I think many parts of the Quranic text is so scathingly critical of Hypocrites as to equate them with deniers (O Prophet, strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them 66:9), which prevents us from simply taking them as rebels.

I read this book with my wife. There are areas in the book which pushed us into confusions. We read about a cunning Aisha, sincere Abdullahi Ibn Ubayy, politically crafty Umar and Abubakar, about Prophet’s politics as reflected in the words of Machiavelli, etc. She got confused, especially because she was born and brought up in the hagiographic tradition. ‘Even Malik Ibn Anas called Ibn Ishaq a liar,’ I told her in order to explain how brittle our authentic certainties of the Prophet are. ‘Which version of the Prophet do you believe in – the hagiographic, apologetic, orientalist, mystical etc?’, she asked. ‘Only that version,’ I said, which the Almighty God declares to be true on the day of Last Judgement.’

Saying this I closed the book, which ends on a note of the question of the heir to the Prophet motivating us to read Lesley’s another book in the series After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam.

Book Details

Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition  (January 24, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1594487286
ISBN-13: 978-1594487286
Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches

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