This Blog Has Moved


New Address:

All posts are available in the new blog

Please do not post any comments here. Go to the new address to comment. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Muhammad - A Biography of the Prophet, by Karen Armstrong

I bought Armstrong's book about Muhammad about a year ago, after reading her short book about the history of Islam. I liked that book, as it covered the main topics about Islam quite well, so I thought I would enjoy reading her previous, longer book about the founder of that religion: Muhammad - A biography of the Prophet.

In Muhammad Armstrong paints a loving and sympathetic picture of the man who created the world's second largest religion (soon probably to become the first largest). The prophet is described as a gentle and caring person who possessed charismatic skills and spiritual deepness, that succeeded to transform Arabia from pagan belief to monotheistic belief in a remarkably short period of time. Armstrong depicts Muhammad in glowing colours, even when she admits his wrongdoings. In the 8th chapter, "Holy War", Armstrong recounts the massacre and summary executions of the Jewish community in Qurayzah and apologetically describes them as "a reminder of the desparate conditions of Arabia during Muhammad's lifetime" (p. 208). She continually reminds the reader that the word "Islam" means peace and reconciliation, but some of the events described in the book (and the atrocities committed in the name of Islam in our times) leave us wondering about the application of these virtues by Muslims throughout history.

Prof. Emanual Sivan, one of Israel's leading historians of Islam, wrote a review about Muhammad in Ha'aretz a few months ago. He described Armstrong's book as "history soaked in rose water" and claims that the author shed all sense of criticism before writing the book and failed in distinguishing between historical facts and myths which evolved long after Muhammad died. I am no expert of Islam, but I tend to agree; I feel I know more about the life of Muhammad now, but I am left with a sense of an unbalanced view of this great man.

There was one observation in the book which I liked very much. When she starts describing Muhammad's rising success as a skilled and respected politician, Armstrong mentions that the Christian world has always judged this part of the prophet's life with distrust. The Western view has traditionally seen Muhammad's political success as proof that he was an impostor using religion as a means to power. To explain this attitude, Armstrong offers the following insight:

Because the Christian world is dominated by the image of the crucified Jesus, who said that his kingdom was not of this world, we tend to see failure and humiliation as the hallmark of a religious leader. We do not expect our spiritual heroes to achieve a dazzling success in mundane terms. (p. 164)


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I for one do not think Armstrong has done justice to the person of Muhammad. She did try and she should not be discouraged from pursuing the truth about Islam and Muhammad, but she has a long way to go before she can truly appreciate the magnanimity of this blessed Messenger of God. What’s interesting is that she does equate Muhammad with Moses, David and other great prophets, but is, understandably, being pulled down by her own Pauline Christian presumptions that what she holds as the truth is indeed the only truth. I do not disrespect her for that, but writing about any prophet of God, in my view, requires belief in what that prophet brought. Thank you.

Sharvul said...

Thanks for your comment. I beg to differ, as the implications of what you write means that to write a book about Muhammad one needs to be a believing Muslim.

Whilst I agree with you that from a theological perspective you are right, I do not think that non-believers cannot write about prophets of God. Although I would probably disagree with most of what a secular biographer might write of Moses, I might still enjoy reading the biography from an intellectual perspective.