February 5, 2013 By Annemarie Schimmel

Muhammad: In History and Piety


A manuscript copy of the Koran, written probably in the twelfth century in eastern Iran in a rather simple, late Kufic hand, has one notable peculiarity: the whole of Sura 112, the profession of God’s Unity, is written in unusually interlaced, powerful letters, and on another page, the word Muhammad rasul Allah, “Muhammad is the messenger of God”, are likewise distinguished by their eye-catching calligraphic form from the rest of page. The unknown scribe has expressed, in a tangible way, the central position of the Prophet in the religion of Islam. Indeed, the passage he has chosen to celebrate comprises the second half of the Muslim profession of faith, La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadun rasul Allah, “There is no deity save God, [and] Muhammad is the messenger of God.” By this position in the profession of faith, Muhammad defines the borders of Islam as a religion.

In an article on Ibn ‘Arabi’s prophetology, Arthur Jeffery wrote: Many years ago… the late Shaikh Mustafa al-Maraghi remarked on a visit to his friend, the Anglican Bishop in Egypt, that has the commonest cause of offence, generally unwitting offence, given by Christians to Muslims arose from their complete failure to understand the very high regard all Muslims have for the person of their Prophet.” This comment from the Egyptian theologian hits the mark precisely. Misunderstanding of the role of the Prophet has been, and still is, one of the greatest obstacles to Christians’ appreciation of the Muslim interpretation of Islamic history and culture. For, more than any other historical figure, it was Muhammad who aroused fear, aversion, and hatred in the medieval Christian world. When Dante in his Divine Comedy sees him condemned to eternal pain in the deepest abyss of Hell, he expresses the feelings of innumerable Christians of his era who could not understand how after the rise of Christianity another religion could appear in the world, a religion that ___ even worse! ___ was active in this world and politically so successful that its members occupied large parts of formerly Christian Mediterranean areas.

This is not the place to discuss in detail the deformation of the image of Muhammad as found in medieval and even rather modern European literature. There is scarcely any negative judgement that the western world has not passed upon this man who had set in motion one of the most successful religious movements on earth; and the study of his image as reflected in history, drama, poetry, and last but not least scholarship would require a voluminous work of its own.

In our day the new self-consciousness of the Muslims has come as a great surprise in the West, where Islam has been so long regarded as moribund. This new self consciousness, however has forced the West to reconsider some of the basic religious and social ideas of Islam in order to reach a better understanding of the values that have been and still are central for the Muslims. This may justify our attempt to depict how pious Muslims have seen the Prophet Muhammad through the centuries, even though their picture was not always historically correct. Certainly it reflects his enormous influence over their lives, and the non-Muslim reader will perhaps understand from the witness of theologians and poets, of Arabs, Persians, and Turks, of Muslims in India and in Africa, how deep the Muslims’ love for him, how warm their trust in him are, how widely he has been venerated and called upon throughout the ages, and how he has been surrounded with the most glorious epithets. He will find that Muhammad indeed constitutes the exemplar and model for every Muslim believer, who is called to imitate him in all, even seemingly insignificant, actions and habits, and he will likely be amazed by the way in which the mystics developed the doctrine of Muhammad’s primordial light and accorded to him, in his position as The Perfect Man, an almost cosmic status and function. For Muhammad, the last in the long chain of Prophets beginning with Adam the father of mankind, is the one who brought the final revelation that comprehended all earlier revelations and at the same time recapitulated them in their pristine purity.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith is right when he states that “Muslims will allow attacks on Allah; there are atheists and atheistic publications, and rationalistic societies; but to disparage Muhammad will provoke from even the most ‘liberal’ sections of the community a fanaticism of blazing vehemence.”  Indeed, when in late 1978 in Pakistan the Principle of Nizam-I Mustafa, the Order of the Chosen One (that is, the Prophet), was introduced as a guideline for all actions and some voices critical of this notion were heard, the leading daily news paper of the country published in response an announcement nearly half a page long by one Mohammad Ismail from the Karachi area, with the title “A fantastic fallacy”. In this piece, the writer attacked those who wanted to define the status of the Prophet before entering a discussion about the principles taught by him. The central paragraphs read:

Who can measure and define the greatness of the Holy Prophet? We will not be surprised if such insolent persons, for their own ulterior      motives, go even a step further and start saying that the status of Almighty Allah should also be determined before speaking about Islam in Pakistan, presupposing that crores [500,000s] of Muslims of Pakistan are ignorant of God and the Holy Prophet.                                                    

It is an acknowledged and undisputed fact that the status of the Holy Prophet comes next to God, who alone knows the glory of His Prophet which He has bestowed on him. It has been very well ex-pressed by the famous poet and Saint Shaikh Saadi: Ba’ad Az Khuda Buzurg Tuee qissa Mukhtasar, “In short, after God you are the greatest”.

In Europe, where Muhammad has at times been understood as an idol-worshipper or transformed into Mahound, the Spirit of Darkness, his historical biography was studied from the eighteenth century onward, and although he was generally depicted as a kind of Antichrist or a Christian heretic and arch-schismatic, he also appeared to some philosophers of the Enlightenment period as representative of a rational religion, one devoid of speculations about Trinity and Redemption and, even more importantly, a religion without a powerful clergy. From the nineteenth century onward Western Scholars began to study the classical Arabic sources, which hence-forward slowly became available in Europe. However, even during that period biographies of the Prophet were often marred by prejudices and in no way did justice to the role of the Prophet as seen by pious Muslims. It is understandable that the Muslims reacted with horror to the European image of their beloved Prophet, with which they became acquainted, particularly in India, through British educational institutions and missionary schools. Small wonder that they as Muslims loathed this Christian attitude, which contrasted so markedly with the veneration they were wont to show to Jesus, the last Prophet before Muhammad, and to his mother the Virgin. This encounter with such a distorted image of the Prophet is one of the reasons for the aversion of at least the Indian Muslims to the British.

It was as a consequence of this confrontation that the Muslims, reacting to works like William Muir’s Life of Mohamet, began to study the historical role of the Prophet. For in the course of the centuries his historical personality had almost disappeared behind a colourful veil of legends and myths; the bare facts were commonly elaborated in enthusiastic detail, and were rarely if at all seen in their historical perspective. The new interest in the study of the life of Muhammad, which runs almost parallel, in Muslim India, with the emergence of interest in the Leben-Jesu-Forschung (the quest for the historical Jesus) in the Protestant West, resulted in a number of serious, but also numerous superficial purely apologetic writings. Syed Ameer Ali’s Life and Teachings of Muhammad, or The Spirit of Islam, published in 1897, showed the direction in which modern Islamic biographies of Muhammad were to develop in the following decades.

At the moment there are available in Western languages a considerable number of biographies of the Prophet or discussions of his pivotal role in Islamic life and culture that have been written by Muslim authors and hence reflect different approaches to his personality in the Muslim community. An important introduction is Muhammad Hamidullah’s Le Prophete d’ Islam, which, based on his lifelong penetrating studies into the original Arabic sources and his deep personal piety, depicts the life of the Prophet as it appears to a devout Muslim had received his academic training mostly in Western Universities. Similarly, Emel Esin’s beautiful book Mecca the Blessed; Medinah the Radiant contains a fine account of the Prophets biography and, more importantly, an excellent description of the feelings of a highly cultured modern Turkish lady at the threshold of the Rauda (mausoleum) of the Prophet in Medina. Martin Ling’s Muhammad, a life of the Prophet as depicted in the oldest sources, is an excellent introduction to the subject and very well written. These are only three typical examples from a large number of publications.

On the non-Muslim side, biographies of the Prophet Muhammad written during recent years by European scholars are certainly much more objective than the works of earlier generations and try further to do justice to his personality. W.Montgomery Watt’s Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman is perhaps the best known of these studies. We may also mention here as one of the latest, and certainly most controversial attempts the book by Gun-ther Luling, Die Wiederentdeckung des Propheten Muhammad, in which Muhammad is presented as the Engelsprophet (Angelic prophet) who continued the unmitigated, pure tradition of Semitic, that is, Judaeo-Christian religion as contrasted to the Hellenised Christianity that (according to Luling’s claims) was prevalent in Mecca. Adolf von Harnack’s remark, based on centuries old deprecatory Christian allegations, that Islam was essentially a Christian heresy is thus again revived, although now with a more favourable attitude toward the Prophet.

Some years ago Maxime Rodinson, himself a biographer of the Prophet, provided a very useful survey of the various approaches to the Prophet among western students of Islam. But of these scholars only one has tried specifically to depict Muhammad’s role in Islamic piety. Even today Tor Andrae’s Die person Muhammad’s in lehre und glaube seiner Gemeinde (1918) remains the standard work in this area, unsuperseded by any other major study, though complemented by random remarks in numerous modern works of Sufism. It is, however, unfortunately too little known as even among Islamicists. Shortly before Andrae’s masterly study appeared, the German Scholar Max Horten published his Die religiose Vorstellungswelt des Volkes im Islam, which also had fallen almost completely into oblivion; relying upon classical and contemporary sources, he gives numerous poignant examples of the veneration of the Prophet in popular religion. Almost half a century later, Hermann Stieglecker described the role of Muhammad in theology and, to a lesser extent, piety in his dogmatic handbook Die Glaubenslehren des Islam (1964).

Among works in English, Constance E. Padwick’s Muslim Devotions (1960) leads the reader into the very heart of Muslim piety, namely the life of prayer, in which the Prophet Muhammad occupies a truly sublime position. This book on Muslim religious life is equally knowledgeable and lovable and contains abundant material about the veneration of the Prophet, called from prayerbooks and devotional literature of the entire Islamic world. It is, to my feeling, the best introduction to the topic. Good translations of the most crucial Arabic accounts of Muhammad’s life and work are offered by Arthur Jeffery in his Reader on Islam.

However, none of these authors has devoted himself to the study of the area in which love of the Prophet is expressed most beautifully and most eloquently: the poetry of the Islamic Peoples. Not only is poetry in the classical languages Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish worthy of attention here, but even more the popular verses in the various vernacular Islamic languages. These are the poems through which children imbibe the love of the Prophet from early childhood, poems that have helped to form and shape the image of the beloved Prophet, the intercessor on Doomsday and luminous seal of the Prophets, in the hearts of the Muslim masses. To this day Muslim children like to write little poems, using traditional imagery, to express their love of and trust in the Prophet. Their elder relatives may interpret the Prophet’s words as the message of change and dynamism, of social justice, of democracy, or of intellectual progress.

The different facets of the image of the Prophet offer the historian of religion rich material for comparative studies, as James E. Royster has shown in a critical article. Parallels to the lives of the other major founders of religious traditions are evident, and in the mystical veneration of the Prophet one can detect influences from or similarities to Christian or Hellenistic-Gnostic ideas. The phenomenologist of religion as well as the psychologist will discover that Islam offers highly interesting examples of loving devotion to the Prophet. All will agree that the personality of Muhammad is indeed, besides the Koran, the center of the Muslims’ life; the Prophet is the one who forever remains the “beautiful model” (Sura 33:21) for the life of all those who acknowledge in the profession of faith that he is truly “the messenger of God”.

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