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Interpreting the Prophet’s legacy, then and now

28th Jul 2017
Interpreting the Prophet’s legacy, then and now

The Lives of Muhammad. By Kecia Ali. London: Harvard University Press. Pp 342. HB. $29.95.

The author of this book is an American Muslim academic and author. Currently, she serves as a Professor of Religion at Boston University and has published several books on aspects of Islam including Sexual Ethics and Islam (2006), Islam: Key Concepts (co-author, 2008) and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). The book under review is one of her latest contributions.

In this work the author engages with the life of the Prophet of Islam (peace be on him) from a rather different perspective, that is to say, instead of writing yet another biography of the blessed Prophet, she engages with the subject by exploring his biographies written by both Muslims and non-Muslims – from the earliest times to the present. In so doing the author explores how different authors have portrayed the life and teachings of the Prophet, who is arguably the single most influential and enduring figures in human history.

In the author’s own words, ‘Far from being uniform or unchanging, both non-Muslim and Muslim views of Muhammad have been diverse, multifaceted, and subject to dramatic changes over the centuries. This is widely known. Less well known is that since the nineteenth century they have become increasingly interdependent. In the twenty-first century, it makes no sense to speak of Muslim views of Muhammad in opposition to Western or Christian views. Instead, the images of Muhammad that contemporary Muslims hold fervently and defend passionately arose in tandem and in tension with western European and North American intellectuals’ accounts of his life. At the same time, Muslim sensibilities and beliefs have affected the way many non-Muslim authors write his life.’ (p2)

This prompted the author to explore the writings of countless biographers of the Prophet (such as early classical Arabic works as well as many modern authors), and in so doing she focuses on the interconnections, circulations and shifting attitudes that has taken place over centuries of engagement between Islam and the West, revolving of course around the life, work and contribution of the Prophet.

And whilst the writings of the majority of the Muslim authors, both classical and modern, have been hagiographical, it is equally true that most Western biographers of the Prophet had pursued a polemical approach to their subject. But there is also an overlap between the two approaches: one that is critical but at the same time based on authentic historical sources because the authors ‘wanted to know the facts about Muhammad’s life.’ (p231)

Such an overlap serves another important purpose, argues the author because it ‘illustrates the futility of appealing to a timeless clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. In Muhammad’s own era, identities were fluid and factionalized. In the fourteen hundred years since then, neither Islamic nor Western civilisation has been a unified entity politically, economically, or religiously.’ (p232)

In other words, just as ‘Intra-Muslim dissension exists over everything from whether one ought to stand when reciting blessings on the Prophet, to whether one can depict Muhammad’s face, to which of his wives are trustworthy as sources of information, to whom, if anyone, he designated as his successor. Much less has Christianity or the West been a cohesive unit. The idea of “Europe” is of fairly recent origin. Christianity was perhaps more brutally riven by the Reformation than Islam was by the Sunni-Shi’a divide. The repeated Protestant invocation of Muhammad and the Pope as twin antichrists foils any simple Christianity-versus-Islam story.’ (p232)

Consisting of six chapters, a useful introduction and an insightful conclusion, this is an interesting, well-written and thoughtful book. The author deserves credit for engaging with this subject at a time when Islam and its venerable Prophet is being misrepresented by some and openly mocked and vilified by others.

Muhammad Khan.

M Khan is the author of Great Muslims of the West: Makers of Western Islam (Kube Publishing, Sept 2017).

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