Book Review

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The book, Muhammad A Biography of The Prophet by Karen Armstrong

Book Review: Muhammad A Biography of The Prophet by Karen Armstrong

The book, Muhammad A Biography of The Prophet by Karen Armstrong, consists of ten chapters. It also includes two charts outlining the genealogy of the prophet and two maps of 7th century Arabia.

Unlike many other biographies of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Armstrong begins her book by describing the perception of the Prophet in the West. She begins in the 9th century and ends at the present day. Interestingly, she titles the first chapter as Muhammad the Enemy to summarize the Western perception.

In this chapter, she discusses 9th century Muslim-Christian relations in Muslim Spain. She also discusses the crusades and the image of Muhammad that they had created to legitimize their invasions. She makes comparisons between the way that Muslims were treated in Christendom and that of Christians living in the Muslim world as minorities. One of the descriptive points that she makes throughout the chapter is to unfold the image of Muhammad in western literature by referring to R. W. Southern, Dante, Pseudo-Turpin, Bernard and Abbot of Clairvaux, Zwingli, M. Lefebvre, L. Rauwolf, B. d’Herbelot, Prideaux, Voltaire, Fay Weldon and Conor Cruise O’Brien. In their writings Muhammad is often mentioned as Mahomet. Muslims are referred to as Scarcenes or Mohammedans. Islam is referred to as Mohammedanism. In this chapter the author provides us a virtual tour of the perception of the Prophet especially in medieval western literature because, she quotes from Umberto Eco, “both Americans and Europeans are inheritors of the Western legacy, and all problems of the Western world emerged in the Middle Ages.” (p.32)
This chapter is the backbone of the book. The rest of the book is constructed to change this wrong western perception of the Prophet Muhammad.
Armstrong entitles the second chapter “Muhammad the man of al-Llah”. Armstrong depicts Muhammad as a prophet who receives a revelation from God. This revelation is called the Qur’an. She describes him as not an enemy as perceived in the West, but rather a prophet who communicates with God and teaches people God’s Oneness, which was a totally new idea for the residents of Arabia. Another subject that she touches on here is the Qur’an and its perception in the West. She says “Western people tend to find the Qur’an tediously repetitive, because it seems to go over the same ground again and again, but the book was not designed for private perusal but for liturgical recitation.”
The third chapter deals with the concept of Jahiliyah. Jahiliyah is the term used to describe the Arabian social life prior to Muhammad. This term is defined as ignorance. The idea is that as a man of Allah, Muhammad came and transformed this ignorant society to a society of values. In this section of her work Armstrong discusses subjects like muruwwa, tribal relations, life in the desert, and understandings about the terms like dahr, ajal, rizq, kahins, and poets. She also presents the beliefs of Jahiliya in regard to idols (banat’ul-lah), the hereafter, and Ka’ba. As in the previous chapter, in this
chapter as well she occasionally makes comparisons between these terms and Western understandings and perceptions of such concepts.
The fourth chapter is called Revelation. In this section, Armstrong narrates about how the Prophet received the word of God. This chapter seems to have a more narrative character than the previous ones. Nevertheless, we also occasionally see that Armstrong has criticisms of the Western perception about this phase of the life of the Prophet. Among them is, the concept of being ummi.
Chapter five is entitled “The Warner”. This chapter mainly describes the messenger and the message in terms of its universality. For her, especially for the early period of his mission, Muhammad was nothing more than a messenger sent to Arabs and the message that he brought was basically what Arabs were missing for centuries. Jews and Christians received their own scriptures from God, yet until now Arabs received neither a messenger, nor a prophet. Thank God Muhammad was who they were awaiting and the Qur’an was what they were longing for. She says “now God had finally sent a prophet to the Qurays, who had never had such an envoy before.” (p.91) Similarly, “the Qur’an was not revealing anything novel: it claimed to be a Reminder of things that everybody knew already.” (p:95)
The Satanic Verses is the title of chapter six. Like chapter four, this section of the work has a narrative character as well. Armstrong, in this chapter, narrates about the incident of the Satanic verses and discusses both affirmative and negative accounts of the subject. She also talks about the concept of God in Islam and how it is introduced in the Qur’an, the voyage of early Muslims to Abyssinia, Makkan opposition toward the Prophet and its pioneer Abu Jahl. Again in this chapter we find Armstrong trying to find ways to ease the Western mind in regard to Islamic concepts, understandings and approaches. Her trial to explain the beauty of the Qur’anic text in pages 126 and 127 can be seen as one of the great accomplishments of this chapter or even the book.
The remaining chapters are, in consecutive order, as follows: Hijra: A New Direction. It deals with the migrations of Muslims from Makka to Madina. Holy War, which covers the period of the Prophet’s life from Badr until Hudaybiya. Holy Peace, which recounts the treaty of Hudaybiya and partially the disputes among the family of the Prophet. The final chapter is entitled Death of the Prophet. This chapter introduces the pilgrimage of the Prophet, his last sicknesses, and a valuable discussion to make connections between Western perceptions and Islamic concepts.
Overall, the book makes considerable accomplishments in creating a bridge between the Western mind and main Islamic approaches through the narration of the life of the Prophet. In this regard, the book differs from almost all other biographies and plays a crucial role in creating understanding between the East and the West. The other merit of the book is the power of its narration. Without any doubt, Karen Armstrong is one of the great narrators of our age. The language that she uses, her style of introducing the events and their circumstances, her ability to picture the events, people, thoughts, and
feelings are refreshing. As a result, this biographical account of the Prophet’s life actually reads more like a novel. It enables the book to reach a larger audience. Another virtue of the book, which keeps the reader motivated, is the enthusiasm of the author. Armstrong’s great admiration towards the accomplishments of the Prophet and his character is evident throughout the book.
Despite its great merits, the book has some problematic aspects as well. First of all, the biography is not based on the early sources in their original language. Armstrong only refers to the translations of Ibn Ishaq and Tabari. Moreover, there is no mention of Ibn Hisham. Secondly, she is not well qualified in the subject that she can criticize orientalist scholars like Watt. Especially, in the subjects like the universality of the message and relations with Jews, the influence of Watt is evident, which she does not deny. Due to this scholarly inadequacy, the book is not free of misinformation. For instance, she claims that the Qur’an was revealed in the seventieth night of Ramadan (p:46) and it was compiled some twenty years after Muhammad’s death (p:50). She also refers to the young slave girl who took care of the Prophet after his mother as Bahira (p:75). Armstrong claims that, according to the Quran, Satan will be forgiven on the Last Day (p:114). Additionally, she asserts that Muslims made their daily prayers three times a day during the first years of Madina (p:148, 163). She also misspells mahr as mahl (p:190). Along with these examples, there is also her claim about Aisha being 9 years old at the wedding (p:157). These and other statements such as the one that the Prophet modeled religious life of the umma on that of Judaism (p:179) are questionable.
Between these problems and merits, Muhammad A Biography of The Prophet is a must read book. Some of its problems may be a result of deficiencies in the 1993 edition, which we based our critics on.

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