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Book Review: Interpreting the Prophet’s legacy in the modern world

30th Dec 2016
Book Review: Interpreting the Prophet’s legacy in the modern world

Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy. By Jonathan A. C. Brown. London: Oneworld. Pp362. PB. 2015. £10.99

The author of this book is an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He has authored several books on aspects of Islam including Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (2009) and Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (2011).

Inspired by Bart Ehrman’s best-selling book, Misquoting Jesus, in this book the author explores how a ‘faith tradition that came to believe that God had revealed the truth to humankind in the form of revelation to His Prophet and that was then faced with the challenge of understanding what that truth meant in distant times and places, both as an ideal and as a practiced reality binding that community together… It is about how that tradition has responded, sometimes turning inward to defend its integrity and sometimes adopting the novel and the strange…’ (p13)

As a young Muslim scholar of Hadith literature, the author engages with the rich and vibrant science of Prophetic traditions – the sayings and actions of the Prophet of Islam (peace be on him) as recorded and transmitted by his companions. The latter passed that knowledge onto their immediate followers who conveyed it to the next generation who, in turn, transmitted it to their students before the classical scholars compiled them in the form of anthologies for the benefit of posterity.

In so doing, the life, work, and teachings of the Prophet was transmitted, interpreted and disseminated by the scholars of Islam, of both early and modern times, in order to preserve and protect the integrity of that great legacy. Not surprisingly, this interpretive tradition became very rich as well as complex, thanks to more than 14 centuries of unbroken scholarship.

In other words, our understanding of Islam and its teachings are largely based on the Qur’an, the Divine revelation, and the Hadith or Sunnah, the words and deeds of the Prophet. The former is considered by the Muslims to be the very word of God which was revealed to the Prophet over a period of 23 years and it has remained pure and unaltered to this day, whilst the Hadith had to be subjected to careful scrutiny by the Muhaddithun (specialists in Hadith) in order to ascertain their veracity using a rigorous methodology before they finally incorporated them into their anthologies of Prophetic traditions.

In the book under review, the author not only provides an overview of how the Islamic interpretive tradition was developed and disseminated by the classical and modern Muslim scholars, he also questions and critiques aspects of this tradition. In so doing he highlights the strengths and weaknesses of that tradition focusing on a number of controversial and contentious issues (such as women acting as prayer leaders, penalty for apostasy and the conduct of war and violence in modern times).

Whilst the author engages with the Prophetic tradition, highlighting its role and relevance in the contemporary times, he was right to be mindful of the negativity and sensationalism that has come to be associated with Islam and its teachings in recent times especially in the Western world.

If the scholarly tradition that was developed by the ulama (Islamic scholars) over 14 centuries of Islam is a minefield that cannot be fully understood and appreciated without undertaking extensive study over a prolonged period, then the deliberate distortion and sensationalist interpretation of aspects of that tradition are most unhelpful, if not counterproductive. Having said that, there is no doubt that Islamic scholars need to urgently revisit their scholarly tradition and provide clear and cogent answers to growing challenges and difficulties facing the Muslim world at the moment, but throwing the baby out with the bath water is certainly not the way forward.

In other words, attempts to understand and interpret Islam through the Qur’an and the vast legacy of Prophetic traditions by reconciling revelation with reason, science with religion and the eternal truths with ever-changing values and practices is never going to be easy, but Muslim scholars cannot shy away from this overdue task. To his credit, the author of this book has made a start, even if his efforts are far from being perfect!

Consisting of seven chapters, an introduction, and four appendices, this is an interesting, well-written and thought-provoking book. The author deserves credit for engaging with a highly complex and equally pertinent subject at a time when Islam and its Prophet is being openly mocked and vilified in parts of Europe and America.

Muhammad Khan, author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of the West (Kube Publishing, forthcoming).

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