BOOK REVIEW: Prophet of Islam and his enduring legacy

31st Oct 2014

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad. By Lesley Hazelton. London: Atlantic Books. Pp320. PB. 2014. £8.99. Muhammad: His Character and Conduct. By Adil Salahi. Leicester: The Islamic Foundation. Pp285. PB. 2013. £12.99

We are living at a time of considerable difficulties, challenges and opportunities. If Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were to visit us today, he would no doubt be proud of the fact that there were over one billion Muslims in the world but, at the same time, very unhappy that there has never been so many ignorant Muslims. One in every four people in the world is a Muslim who claims to follow the ethical code introduced by the Prophet, and his legacy has profoundly influenced both Eastern and Western cultures, transcending language, custom and tradition.

His achievements have also proved to be remarkably durable, as many empires and great powers have come and gone, the teachings of the Prophet of Islam has remained as powerful and pertinent today as it was more than 1400 years ago. People from all different culture, race, colour and background claim to have been changed and transformed for the better by his message, and that is why Prophet Muhammad (p) matters today more than ever before.

In the book under review, Lesley Hazelton asks, “How did this man shunted as a child to the margins of his own society…come to revolutionize his world? How did the infant sent away from his family grow up to redefine the whole concept of family and tribe into something far larger: the umma, the people or the community of Islam? How did a merchant become a radical re-thinker of both God and society, directly challenging the established social and political order? How did the man hounded out of Mecca turn exile into a new and victorious beginning, to be welcomed back just eight years later as a national hero? How did he succeed against such odds?” (pp7-8)

The author argues that the Prophet and his mission must be seen in its entirety if we are to do justice to him and his legacy. The believers demand for absolute perfection, the author contends, denies the humanity of the Prophet, while his critic’s inability to move beyond their own prejudices only reflects negatively on them.

As an award-winning author and journalist who reported from the Middle East for more than a decade, Hazelton’s prose is impressive as it is captivating. Her book consists of three parts, namely ‘Orphan’, ‘Exile’ and ‘Leader’ covering the life and times of the Prophet in a remarkable sweep.

Though the author is generally sympathetic (unlike many other non-Muslim biographers of the Prophet), her interpretation of aspects of his life is largely based on her imagination than historical facts. Not being able to access original Arabic sources on the life of the Prophet did not help the author either.

For example, Hazelton’s interpretation of the Prophet’s relationship with the Jews of Madinah in general and Banu Qurayza in particular, is inaccurate and misleading (see pages 232-238). Likewise, the author’s narrative about Aishah, the Prophet’s wife, and her lost necklace is more imaginative than factual (see pages 216-222). Lack of space does not allow me to highlight other similar examples of misleading interpretations. In short, this book is aimed at an agnostic (non-Muslim) readership who are often impressed by aspects of the Prophet’s worldly achievements but always struggle to make sense of the spirituality of his message.

By contrast, Salahi’s book is a detailed study of the ethical code introduced by the Prophet in seventh century Arabia. Unlike Hazelton’s book, this work is based on both traditional and modern Islamic sources, skilfully interpreted by the author for English-speaking readership, both Muslims and non-Muslims.

As expected, the author, a devout Muslim and prolific translator, projects the Prophet as a paragon of ethics and morality. To Salahi, the Prophet was not only a theorist but also a practical realist who transformed individuals and the society as a whole – not by preaching only – but through his impressive character and conduct. Consisting of twenty detailed chapters, the author surveys the behaviour, attributes and characteristics of the Prophet as an individual, head of a family, leader of his people, spiritual guide, social reformer, military strategist, dispenser of justice, legislator and as a peacemaker.

According to the author, the Prophet “did not tell people that he would work miracles for them, or show them spectacular feats that left them stunned with amazement. Instead, he offered a system of life that provided for all the needs of body, soul and emotions. Moreover, he elevated their aspirations towards a sublime ideal.

Through his actions, he showed them the way to achieve all this in a very simple, direct and honest manner. What they had to endeavour to achieve was within everyone’s reach. There were no complications or arbitrary impositions.” (pp vii-viii)
Being acutely aware that the Prophet of Islam has been consistently attacked, vilified and misrepresented by his Western detractors focusing particularly on his marriages and his treatment of the Jews, the author tackles such charges head-on, explaining that there is nothing to criticise. He also points out that most Muslims do not know their Prophet well enough otherwise their words and deeds would not be poles apart. Consequently, there is an urgent need for better education, honesty and understanding on both sides. This is an indispensable book and needs to be read to be appreciated.

Muhammad Khan, Acclaimed author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)

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