History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

Darwiniana header image 2

Armstrong on Muhammad

December 20th, 2006 · No Comments

Times on Armstrong.
Having endured Armstrong’s disastrous treatment of the Axial Age, it is with caution that one approachs here biography of Muhammad. Then again, I welcome an attempt at defense, even as I welcome the recent attempted exposes or revisionist bios (some of them from current rightist Islamophobes). Personally I find the figure of Muhammed compelling, but that doesn’t mean I have to place him on a special pedestal before examination.
First, it is a question of the facts, and many of these facts have been suppressed or denied. Here it would seem Armstrong is too hagiographic.
Beyond this lies the much more difficult question of really understanding Muhammed with sentimentalizing him. This question is very hard to answer in the same way that trying to understand sufism is very difficult. We don’t really understand the phenomenon of early Islam, a most mysterious eruption indeed, and its place in spiritual history is likely to founder in all sorts of myths. But it is probably true that there is a spiritual dimension to Muhammad that we miss. But then again, so what? People think nothing of denouncing gurus with more spirituality than Muhammed, yet with the Prophet we are backed into a corner where we must accept transcendental claims under the threat of violence. So the muddle continues.
Also, Armstrong has shown prior confusion over Islam and the Axial Age, on which I have commented before, but here that seems to be sanitized out.

The question is confusingly mixed. One can only welcome a defense, yet rush to defend the new scholarship exposing the layers of myths on this question.

The religion with the most adherents on the planet is Christianity, and few people would say they are unfamiliar with the story of its founder and prophet, Jesus. The second largest faith is Islam, and yet there is boundless ignorance among non-Muslims about the story of its founder and prophet, Muhammad, even after 9/11 set off a global panic about whether Islam fuels terrorism.

Skip to next paragraph

Graham Clark
Karen Armstrong

A Prophet for Our Time
By Karen Armstrong

249 pages. HarperCollins/Atlas Books. $21.95.

Readers’ Opinions
Forum: Book News and Reviews
Since then Muhammad has been defined by his detractors: who have called him a terrorist, a lunatic and most colorfully — by the Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention — a “demon-possessed pedophile.” Even Pope Benedict XVI, whatever his intention, created an uproar by unearthing a remark from a 14th-century emperor who cited Muhammad’s contributions to religion as “only evil and inhuman.” Is this the prophet of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims?

It may be time then to put down the biographies of John Adams and Ronald Reagan and devote a little attention to Muhammad. But beware. Several new biographies picture Muhammad through the lens of a suicide bomber, and ultimately these books reveal more about suicide bombers than Muhammad.

To glimpse how the vast majority of the world’s Muslims understand their prophet and their faith, Karen Armstrong’s short biography is a good place to start. The volume is part of a series called “Eminent Lives”: small profiles of big-name subjects by big-name authors.

Ms. Armstrong, best known for “A History of God,” is a scholar and a former nun with a genius for presenting religions as products of temporal forces — like geography, culture and economics — without minimizing the workings of transcendent spiritual forces.

She profiles Muhammad as both a mystic touched by God on a mountaintop and a canny political and social reformer. He preached loyalty to God rather than tribe; reconciliation rather than retaliation; care for orphans and the poor; and in many ways, empowerment of women, which will be a surprise to some. The Koran gave women property rights and freed orphans from the obligation to marry their guardians: radical changes at a time when women were traded like camels.

Ms. Armstrong writes: “His life was a tireless campaign against greed, injustice and arrogance. He realized that Arabia was at a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.” In a nod to her subtitle, “A Prophet for Our Time,” she argues that as of Sept. 11, 2001, we have entered a new historical era that requires an equally thorough re-evaluation.

This notion that we have entered a new era was one of the reasons that Ms. Armstrong decided to revisit a subject she had already covered in 1992 with “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.”

Muhammad (570-632) was born in a nouveau riche Mecca. Unlike most Arabs, the Meccans were not nomads but traders and financiers who profited from the caravans that stopped in Mecca for water from its underground spring. The site was holy to the Bedouin because it housed the Kabah, a cube-shaped granite building that was tended by Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh.

Muhammad was orphaned as a child and taken in by relatives, but his fortunes changed at the age of 25 when he married Khadija, an older widow who hired him to manage her caravans. At 40 Muhammad declared he had been seized by a terrifying force and commanded by God to recite scripture.

Khadija was his first convert. At first he shared his revelations with a small group of friends and family members, who became his disciples, “convinced that he was the long-awaited Arab prophet.” As Muhammad, who was illiterate, recited new passages, believers wrote them down: a compilation that became the Koran.

The Meccans were offended by Muhammad’s preaching that the ideal was submission. (Islam means submission.) He taught that the proper way to pray was to bow, forehead to the earth, “a posture that would be repugnant to the haughty Quraysh,” Ms. Armstrong notes. Muhammad also insisted that the Meccans abandon the worship of their three stone goddesses, because there was only one God, Allah.

Muhammad and his followers were exiled to Medina, 250 miles north of Mecca. He did not conquer Medina so much as form alliances and win converts. But there were epic battles with the Quraysh and other tribes, and Muhammad was a fighter and tactician.

“Muhammad was not a pacifist,” Ms. Armstrong writes. “He believed that warfare was sometimes inevitable and even necessary.”

This is why some passages in the Koran are rules for warfare. Terrorist groups cite these selectively — or contort or violate them. The Koran says not to take aim at civilians; some terrorist groups declare all Israelis to be combatants because Israelis are required to perform military service.

Ms. Armstrong declines to stand in judgment of events that have scandalized other biographers; as when Muhammad falls for the wife of his adopted adult son and takes her as his fifth wife. Ms. Armstrong writes: “This story has shocked some of Muhammad’s Western critics who are used to more ascetic, Christian heroes, but the Muslim sources seem to find nothing untoward in this demonstration of their prophet’s virility. Nor are they disturbed that Muhammad had more than four wives: why should God not give his prophet a few privileges?”

Muhammad ultimately took back Mecca and reclaimed the Kabah, still the destination for the Muslim pilgrimage. Ms. Armstrong argues that he prevailed by compassion, wisdom and steadfast submission to God. This is the power of his story and the reason that more parents around the world name their children Muhammad than any other name.

Tags: History · The Axial Age

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment