February 19, 2014 By K Ashraf

Prophet: An Account Against the European Grain


None may be unaware of the widely popular animosity and ignorance of European writers about Prophet Muhammad. There are, however, several Europeans who have looked on and written about the Prophet as well as about the history of Islam without the baggage of having to share popular claims and narratives. In spite of being far from the politics and religion, they engaged with the history of Islam and the life of prophet with fresh sensibility.

Henry Stubbe (1632-1676) was the first English writer to transcend the epistemological divides between Islam and other worlds and acknowledged the limitations of his world of experience. He wrote The Originall and Progress of Mahometanism in 1670 about Prophet Muhammad. Stubbe’s contribution came to light when Cambridge University Press published a comprehensive essay written by Dr Nabil Matar in collaboration with Association of Muslim Scientists in 2012 about this less known biography of prophet. The Palestinian-American Proff. Nabil Matar is author of numerous works on Islam and Europe including the critically acclaimed trilogy: Islam in Britain, 1558-1685 (Cambridge UP, 1998), Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (Columbia UP, 1999), and Britain and Barbary,1589-1689 (UP of Florida, 2005). In 2013, Colombia University Press published a work edited and introduced by Matar himself with detailed notes on Stubbe’s work on prophet Muhammad with the title Henry Stubbe and the Beginnings of Islam: The Originall & Progress of Mahometanism.

According to Nabil Matar, discussions about this new prophetic biography should be in the context of enormous changes that are taking place in translation and the study of various societies in 17th century England where Henry Stubbe lived. It was during this time several works in non-European languages like Turkish, Arabic and Persian were translated into Latin. The above mentioned languages and their civilizations had absorbed their Greek-Latin origin that English people believed as their tradition in their style and context. These translations and civilizations gave new vigour to the cultural life of the time. Historians give surprising accounts of Hayyu bin Yaqsan, a towering figure in Islamic philosophy in that period , who dragged huge crowds of spectators to the drama theatres in London. Stubbe’s biography of Prophet is an outcome of intellectual context such special Islamic interests created. The 60,000 words biography stays odd in rectifying prevailing prejudice and misinterpretations regarding Islam.

There is the question of the relevance of 17th century here. Scholars like John Tollen indicate that the European representaions of Prophet Muhammad were full of animosity. Fabricated narratives went on without any change till 17th century.  It is in this context that the intellectual adventures of an English physician without any academic interest or political ambition become a knowledge revolution that changes the course of history.

According to Nabil Matar the sources Henry Stubbe relies on to unravel the history of Prophet are three Arab-Christian historians: Girjis Ibn Al Amid Ibn Makin (1205-1273) Syed Ibn al Bathrik 1205-1273, Abu Al Faraj (1226- 1286). Stubbe looks into the prophetic biographies in Islamic societies.  According to Matar there are two reasons why Stubbe selects these three historians. Firstly, only the works of these three were meticulously translated from Arabic to Latin during that period. Secondly, Stubbe was attracted to them because though they were not Muslims as such Muslims revered their writings and opinions.

Ibn Makin refered to the work of 9th century Muslim historian Imam Tabari, Tharrekhul umami valmulook to write his biography of prophet. A christian, he starts his biography with Bismillah. Apart from this he followed hijri Calendar like Muslims to chronicle the history of Islam. Makin’s biography gave Stubbe a different picture of Muhammed from what he understood in hitherto known Muhammed in Europe. In Makin’s historical accounts, Stubbe could read about a prophet who bowed down only before Allah, who propogated the messages of intransigence, compassion, love and kindness, who considered orphans, poors and destititues.

What struck Stubbe most were the records Makin introduced about Prophet’s wonderful relationship with Christians of his time. Stubbe perceived these documents with immense significance in the context of Judo-Muslim-Christian harmony of his time. Another source he relied on was Ibn Al Kathrij, a physician like Stubbe. Bathrik wrote about the Christian living in Islamic khilafat and the following Muslim empire and emphasized it was a period of consensus rather than conflicts. The third source Abu Al-Faraj is a Christian historian who meticulously records events narrated by historians from Ibn Hisham, including the incident where prophet meets the Christian saint named Baheera. Stubbe was attracted to these three historians because none of them inserts myths about Prophet in their works. One such popular myth spread in Europe was that he got revelations from a pigeon known as sacred ghost. Rejecting all these Stubbe relied on Arabic sources, trustworthy and free from prejudice. However there are other myths his sources adopted which Stubbe didn’t adopt in his work.

Nabil Matar sees five major characteristics in Stubbe’s biography of Prophet. Firstly, Stubbe’s selection of Islamic historic resources was entirely different from the European tradition. Secondly, he perceived Islam as a successor of other Semitic religions. Hence he regarded Injeel and Quran in their originality as parts of Vedic texts. Thirdly, Stubbe could challenge the dominant representation of Prophet Muhammad and thus emend the depiction of Prophet as an ignorant, poor and savage camel rider by contemporary historians; fourth, contrary to many Muslims’ popular opinion Stubbe didn’t believe that Muhammad was an illiterate man. He contradicts with two major views. Firstly; as far as Muslims are concerned the illiteracy of prophet validates the authenticity of Quran, the revelations. Secondly, many Europeans had argued that the illiteracy of Muhammad is enough to question the base of Islam. Before his European counterparts Stubbe argued that Muhammad was literate, Matar says. His main aim was to correct the prevailing notions of his contemporary European scholars about Prophet Muhammad, fifth, while writing Prophet’s biography, Stubbe didn’t take erraneous English translations of Quran at that time into account. He never referred to them.

According to Nabil Matar, the most significant feature of Stubbe is that he was never going to new sources rather he read the works others read in a different way.   He read the texts translated from Arabic into Latin in 17th century as well as new writings by Dutch, Swiss, and English Orientalists. He then wrote about Prophet adding inputs and insights from these. He made only one significant difference: he did not attempt to read Greek-Roman civilization as a footnote of Islamic civilization.

Stubbe opened new horizons in writing biography of Prophet. Nabil Matar installs Stubbe as a towering figure who questioned the Eurocentric knowledge from Europe. As a physician he treated not only physical ailments but diseases which grew out of ignorance by identifying symptoms and reasons. Yet no one was intersted in what Stubbe thought and wrote from the slumbering streets of Stratford. Stubbe’s perceptions have been preserved as manuscripts in London University’s Senate library. Nabil avers: While the tombs of his contemporaries-those writers who vehemntly opposed him and spat venom against Islam and Prophets-are being celebrated each and every year in the same city, Stubbe, who wanted to study the Prophet afresh and represented him in all glittering colours, is rememberd by none.


For further reading about the hsitory of European representation of Prophet Muhammad see John Tollen’s essay ‘European Accounts of Muhammed’s life’ in The Cambridge Companion to Muhammad (Cambridge University Press, 2010) edited by Jonathan Brockopp.      

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