BOOK REVIEW: Image of the Prophet in early and modern Islamic sources

22nd May 2015

Images of Muhammad: Narratives of the Prophet in Islam Across the Centuries. By Tarif Khalidi. New York: Doubleday. Pp 342. HB. $27.00

Tarif Khalidi is currently the Shaykh Zayid Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University of Beirut. Prior to this, he was Sir Thomas Adam’s Professor of Arabic and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. As an academic and scholar of Arabic and Islamic Studies, he has published several titles including Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (Cambridge University Press, 1996), The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (Harvard University Press, 2001) and a new English translation of The Qur’an (Penguin Classics, 2009).

In the book under review, he explores the image of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) as depicted in the Muslim sources from the earliest times up to the present in a remarkable sweep. I am not aware of another book like it in English, looking at a vast subject covering more than 14 centuries of Sirah (biographical) literature. The author’s logical approach to his subject and simple style of writing made it a pleasurable read even when his views and opinions were wide off the mark.

The author rightly states that ‘The sources are truly vast. There is hardly any work in any branch of Islamic studies written by Muslims, ancient or modern, that does not refer to Muhammad and his sayings or actions. He is simply everywhere, prose or verse, of his community…In telling the story of the Sira, and of other portrayals of his life that are not strictly Sira, I have kept away from historicity, from issues that have to do with their value as a factual source of information on Muhammad’s life, although much history can of course be learned from historiography.’ (pp-vii-viii)

The book is divided into 10 very interesting chapters, an Introduction, Conclusion and useful Notes and Index. In the Introduction, the author reflects on the life of the Prophet and his biography, and explored how early and modern Muslim scholars and biographers had portrayed the venerable Prophet, his life, mission and teachings.

According to the author, ‘The name “Muhammad” means “worthy of all praise”. For fifteen centuries or so this name has reverberated around the world so that today one in every five human beings calls down daily praises and blessings upon him, feels secure in his faith and intercession, holds him up as a model of virtue and good manners, and goes on pilgrimage to the holy sites he designated, treading the same ground he once trod…How has his community narrated his biography? And why is Muhammad still such a commanding and fascinating figure in the twenty-first century?’ (p1)

In seeking to answer the above questions, the author explores how the two most authoritative scriptural sources of Islam, namely the Qur’an, the Divine revelation, and Hadith literature (recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet) portray him. Here the author argues that, while the historicity of the Qur’an was not in doubt, the same was not true of the Hadith literature, as there are at least two versions of the latter – Sunni and Shi’a collections. Furthermore, he contends that neither the Qur’an nor Hadith provide a story line in the way that the Sirah literature does. Although that is true, the author’s observations on the historicity of Hadith literature – or lack of it – is far too brief, inaccurate and misleading due to the fact that he concludes this crucial discussion by simply making passing references to two European Orientalists and critics of Hadith, namely Ignaz G Goldziher and Joseph S Schacht, and by mentioning Qaddafi’s dismissal of Hadith as unnecessary. It is unfortunate that the author did not take this important issue more seriously.

Instead he swiftly moves onto exploring the image of the Prophet as presented in Prophetic biographical literature (Chapter 3). Here the author examines the role played by the early Sirah writers in projecting an image of the Prophet that became defining, both in a narrative sense as well as the Prophet as an exemplar par excellence (Chapter 4). Chapters 5 and 6 are equally interesting as the author explores leading early Shi’a and Sufi biographies of the Prophet to show how they had appropriated the Prophet and his teachings for the benefit of their own audiences.

If the early Sirah writers determine how the Prophet was going to be portrayed, then their successors of the ‘new canonical age’ ensured that their contributions to this literature, in turn, was canonized, thus taking the subject of Prophetic biographies to an even higher level. The author argues that Ibn Qutayba (d. 889) and al-Jahiz (d. 868), among others, had played a critical role in this development, but he surprisingly completely over looks Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham (d. cir.833) whose Sirah al-Nabawiyyah (Biography of the Prophet) was arguably the most influential work to have been produced during that period.

In Chapter 8 the author examines several later medieval biographers of the Prophet and their works under the heading of ‘The Universal Model’. They projected the Prophet as a model to be emulated. Here al-Qadi Iyad’s (d 1149) al-Shifa bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa (The Cure concerning the Just Merits of Chosen One), Ibn Hazm’s (d 1064) Jawami al-Seerah al-Nabawiyyah (Epitomes of the Prophetic Biography), al-Suhayli’s al-Rawd al-Unuf (Virgin Pastures) and Ibn Sayyid al-Nas’s (d 1333) Uyun al-Athar (Highlights of Prophetic Biography), among others, are discussed in some detail.

In the last two chapters of this book, the author examines several modern and contemporary biographies of the Prophet and their authors. He argues that the majority of the modern biographers portrayed the Prophet as a ‘hero’ in the light of the Orientalists misrepresentations. Works of Syed Ameer Ali, Muhammad Husayn Haykal and Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, among others, are considered in this chapter, but no mention is made of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s pioneering work, Essays on the Life of Muhammad (1870). By contrast, most of the contemporary biographers presented the Prophet as a ‘liberator’, written as they were after the Second World War. Husayn Ahmad Amin, Ma’ruf al-Rusafi and Ali Dashti’s contributions have been briefly explored in the last chapter of the book.

In conclusion, the author argues that the life and teachings of the Prophet had influenced Muslim history, thought and culture in a remarkable way, even when the ideal of the Prophetic paradigm was at odds with the reality of life in the Muslim world. In other words, the Prophetic legacy continues to be powerful and enduring today as it was back in the early seventh century. This is an informative and beautifully written book. Well worth reading.

Muhammad Khan.M author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)

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