Many Views Of Muhammad, As A Man And As A Prophet

Oct 19, 2014
Originally published on November 3, 2014 5:21 pm

The Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was one of the most influential men in human history — but there's little we can say about his life with historical certainty. The details of his life have been debated and manipulated ever since he walked the earth in the seventh century.

Boston University professor Kecia Ali's new book, The Lives of Muhammad, examines those divergent narratives. In it, she explores the different ways the prophet's life story has been told and retold, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, from the earliest days of Islam to the present.

As Ali tells NPR's Arun Rath, "There are a lot of ways in which Muhammad's life has been understood and experienced and celebrated in the past 1,400 years" — including, but not limited to, a wealth of different versions of his life story.

Ali tells Rath how changing political and theological concerns have shaped how European Christians described Muhammad's biography, and why the realities of life before the printing press led Muslims to use Muhammad's life story as a lens through which to approach the Quran.


Interview Highlights

On the Western biographical depictions of Muhammad

Non-Muslims have been writing about Muhammad almost as long as Muslims have. And the things that they had to say about him were very much shaped by what knowledge they did have — much of it inaccurate — but also by current theological, political, social worries. So that when paganism was a concern, Muhammad was a pagan idol or a god. When heresy was a concern, Muhammad was akin to a Christian heretic. When fraud and impostors were a concern, Muhammad was a fraud. He was the arch-impostor.

Over the centuries, European Christian accounts of Muhammad, in particular, went through a variety of stages and depictions. What begins to happen in the modern era is that European researchers begin to look at Muslim historical chronicles and sources and to merge their scholarly interests with their interest in Christian evangelism. And those depictions, which claim to be historically accurate and based on early Muslim sources, then engender a reaction from Muslim biographers.

On the ongoing debate in the Muslim world: Was Muhammad divine, divinely inspired or a man like any other man?

I certainly think that the view that has prevailed among Muslims has always been that Muhammad is a man. But the Muslim response to the traditional saying that Muhammad is a man is, "Yes, but like a ruby among stones." Which is to say Muhammad is a man, but he's a very unusual sort of man. He's not divine, but he has the divine in him, in the sense that he is divinely inspired. His character is luminous. His ability to intercede on behalf of Muslims has historically been a very important part of his persona. He is the beloved of God.

The way in which he surpasses humanity has historically been very, very important. I would say it's been downplayed somewhat in some modern Muslim biographies. But that tension has always been present.

On the biographical interpretation of Muhammad's life by extremist groups, like the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State

They're making interpretive choices too. They are saying, "We're going to focus on a particular" — and not a particularly well-supported — "version of a political program of establishing God's rule. We're going to focus on particular norms that we want to see implemented."

But it's actually been very striking to me how little direct appeal there is to the kind of interpretive tradition that looks at translating Muhammad's life and Muhammad's example and Muhammad's precedent into rules for Muslims of later generations to follow. Because, of course, that has been a major concern of Muslim jurists for well over a thousand years.

On the significance of the Quran, as compared to a biography, when considering Muhammad

That's a hugely complicated question. "Isn't the Quran supposed to be the thing?" And the reality is that of course the Quran is the thing. But the idea that it can be separated out from the life of Muhammad makes no sense for the vast majority of Muslims.

I have a colleague who likes to say, "Muhammad wasn't just a UPS delivery guy. He didn't just bring this book and say, 'Here you go, good luck.' " And for the vast majority of Muslim history, people have really interpreted one by means of the other.

And the other thing, of course, is that most Muslims didn't have access to printed copies of the Quran or online copies that they could keyword search. You had to get this from somewhere. Just like most Christians didn't have copies of the Bible until relatively recently. And so that process of looking at the text has almost always taken place through the lens of looking at the life of the prophet.

Now, was it the historical events of the life of the prophet or was it something about his luminous character that was revealed in the things that we know about his life but also things passed down through, in some cases, a charismatic lineage of mystical teachers? There are a lot of ways in which Muhammad's life has been understood and experienced and celebrated in the past 1,400 years, and not all of them are captured by biography, to be sure.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH: Muhammad is without a doubt one of the most important men in human history. But when it comes to Muhammad's own life, there's not too much we can say with historical certainty. The details of his life have been debated and manipulated since the birth of Islam in the seventh century. Kecia Ali's new book, "The Lives Of Muhammad," examines the different ways his life story has been told from the earliest days of Islam to the present.

KECIA ALI: Non-Muslims have been writing about Muhammad almost as long as Muslims have. And the things that they had to say about him were very much shaped by what knowledge they did have - much of it inaccurate - but also by current theological, political, social worries.

So that when paganism was the concern, Muhammad was a pagan idol or a God. When heresy was a concern, Muhammad was akin to a Christian heretic. When fraud and imposters were the concern, Muhammad was a fraud. He was the arch-imposter. Over the centuries, European Christian accounts of Muhammad in particular, went through a variety stages and depictions. What begins to happen in the modern era is that European researchers begin to look at Muslim historical chronicles and sources and to merge their scholarly interests with their interest in Christian evangelism. And those depictions which claim to be historically accurate and based on early Muslim sources then engender a reaction from Muslim geographers.

RATH: In the Islamic world, one of the most intense debates seems to be about whether Muhammad was divine or divinely inspired or a man just like any other man. Can you talk about what's at stake in that debate and if one particular view has prevailed?

ALI: Well, I certainly think the view that has prevailed among Muslims has always been that Muhammad is a man. But the Muslim response to the traditional saying that Muhammad is a man is, yes, but like a ruby among stones, which is to say Muhammad is a man. But he's a very unusual sort of man.

He's not divine, but he has the divine in him, in the sense that he is divinely inspired. His character is luminous. His ability to intercede on behalf of Muslims has historically been a very important part of his persona. He is the beloved of God. The way in which he surpasses humanity has historically been very, very important. I would say it's been down-played somewhat in some modern Muslim biographies. But that tension has always been present.

RATH: And it's interesting how that fits in with, as you note, some of the more ecumenical-minded Western thinkers who would put Muhammad in with that idea of genius - natural genius.

ALI: Absolutely. And it's so striking to see the ways in which we move from Muhammad the imposter to Muhammad the genius, where you're unveiling what's real underneath. And of course this is in keeping with trends in the West to thinking in a different way about the presence of the divine, where it's not revelation from on high, but something innate in the core of the human being or at least certain human beings.

RATH: But what about what we might turn more reactionary groups - modern groups, say, like ISIS? How does their version of Muhammad's life diverge from what we might call mainstream view?

ALI: They're making interpretive choices too. They are saying we're going to focus on a particular - and not a particularly well-supported - version of a political program of establishing God's rule. We're going to focus on particular norms that we want to see implemented.

But it's actually been very striking to me how little direct appeal there is to the kind of interpretive tradition that looks at translating Muhammad's life and Muhammad's example and Muhammad's precedent into rules for Muslims of later generations to follow. Because, of course, that has been a major concern of Muslim jurists for well over a thousand years.

RATH: All that's disputed about the actual life of Muhammad, it seems that the Quran is really the closest source to the man in terms of text that we had. And isn't the Quran supposed to be, you know, really the thing anyway? What's it - you know, how important is the biography?

ALI: (Laughter) So that's a hugely complicated question actually. Isn't the Quran supposed to be the thing? And the reality is that of course the Quran is the thing. But the idea that it can be separated out from the life of Muhammad makes no sense for the vast majority of Muslims.

I have a colleague who likes to say Muhammad wasn't just a UPS delivery guy. He didn't just bring this book and say here you go, good luck. And for the vast majority of Muslim history, people have really interpreted the one by means of the other.

And the other thing, of course, is that most Muslims didn't have access to printed copies of the Quran or online copies that they could keyword search. You had to get this from somewhere. Just like most Christians didn't have copies of the Bible until relatively recently. And so that process of looking at the text has almost always taken place through the lens of looking at the life of the prophet.

Now, was it the historical events of the life of the prophet or was it something about his luminous character that was revealed in the things that we know about his life but also things passed down through, in some cases, a charismatic lineage of mystical teachers? There are a lot of ways in which Muhammad's life has been understood and experienced and celebrated in the past 1400 years and not all of them are captured by biography, to be sure.

RATH: That's Kecia Ali. Her new book is called "The Lives Of Muhammad" and it's out now. Thanks so much.

ALI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.