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Meva Onyurt

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A Biography Of The Prophet Muhammed'
by Meva Onyurt   

Last edited: Sunday, February 16, 2003
Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

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This work is a review and criticism of Karen Armstrong's book 'A Biography Of The Prophet Muhammed'. I did this study comparatively; showing both a western writers' understanding of the Prophet's life and a muslims understanding of his life.


I found Karen Armstrong’s approach to ‘Islam’ a very genuine questioning and an objective attempt to explain Prophet Muhammed’s life as true as possible to a Western reader. Her sincereness is easily acknowledged because unlike many writers of the Prophet’s biography, she used the accepted and proved Islamic sources starting from the Holy Book ‘Qur’an’ to Tabari who is one of the most reliable historians for Prophet’s life. Why I said, unlike the other western writers is that because in their accounts usually the Western interpretations of the Qur’an plays the most important part than the main and direct sources. Wouldn’t it be like we are reading Shakespeare from its Turkish translation rather than the original and trying to comment on his use of language? Of course it would lack richness and loose meaning that it originally has.
On the other hand, when she is telling us some controversial issues she tries to draw the social, moral and economic milieu clearly for us to see the Prophets’ life in his own enviroment. Sometimes, she shows the justness of his deeds which would seem to be the contrary to a Westerner. But in doing so she encounters a barrier which for centuries hindered the Western writers to explore true Islamic realm. Think of the concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Aren’t their content vary enormously from culture to culture form century to century? Their subjectivity is in the sense that to one person which seems to be ‘evil’ can be seen as ‘good’ to the other. When Karen Armstrong interprets Prophet Muhammed’s life, she inevitably uses her own cultural ethics thus a specific ‘good-evil’ understanding. Even I as a Muslim use the generally accepted ethical judgement when I read Prophet’s life; because we are all influenced by contemporary Western thought. So, there is a shortcoming in her account as she tries to justify Prophet Muhammmed’s life. Her giving excuses for some events or giving credit to the Prophet for some reasons are all in the scope of her own ethical values and understanding of justice. But we mustn’t forget that for a true beliver the ‘supreme justice’ and ethic is what Allah has ordered to his prophets. Thus a believer never suspects the rightness of his/her Prophet’s deeds knowing that they are all what God sees as ‘good’, ‘just’ and ‘proper’. As a result, while we live in a world where there is no complete agreement on the concepts of ‘evil’ and ‘good’, religions are the opportunity for us to understand what ‘divine’ justice is. Karen Armstrong uses todays’ ethical standarts to understand Prophet Muhammed and his creed but nevertheless because of the ninety percent similarity of religious terms and beliefs between Christianity and Islam she makes acceptable interpretations in general.
Christianity and Islam originating in the same territories and having somewhat a similar creed have always been in competition since the birth of Islam. I think this accounts for the political writings and anti-propagandas of both Western and Eastern writers for their rivals’ religion. But now when we come to the 21th century people like Karen Armstrong tries to understand what it would be like to be in the shoes of the Prophet or a Muslim.
There have been many names and adjectives attested to Prophet Muhammed’s life and person either praising or despising by the Orientalists. But there are several arguments which make up the main stream idea about ‘Islam’ that I want to show how Karen Armstrong handled them.
For example one of the most debated one is the so-called ‘Satanic Verses’ and our writer gives a full chapter for this incident in her book. She tells us how Tabari accounts the story that the Prophet made a mistake when he was revealing God’s message to people, but in an instance Allah warns him and the Muslims by a new revelation that ‘There is no God other than Allah’. This happening is interpreted by many such as Maxime Rodinson, another Orientalist who wrote Prophet’s life, in these words;
When he came to the verse:
Have you considered Allat and al-Uzza
And Manat, the third, the other?...
The demon put upon his tongue what he had been saying to himself and would have liked to hand on to his people:
They are Exalted birds
And their intercession is desired indeed. (Rodinson 106)
Prophet Muhammed is depicted here as a man who uses the revelation to his own purposes and merit trying to gain more supporters. What strikes my attention in Armstrong’s interpretation is that she goes more deep into it and gives examples from other prophets ‘satanic’ slips and mistakes right from the start like Adam the first great Prophet. Furthermore, she shows us how this not firmly grounded story is in contrast both with Qur’an and Prophet’s later life. She implies that if he was trying to reconcile polytheism why wouldn’t he simply proceed in that road or if he was trying to be political to have more converts than again why wouldn’t he go on in the same way and teach his ‘umma’ a polytheist creed.
Another polemic regarding his life was polygyny, his marrying more than one woman. Some criticised him for being lustful or others saw him a chauvanist as a religous leader. Armstrong gives a much more accurate tableau of Prophet’s so-called harem. She claims that actually most of the woman whom the Prophet married were old or widows who needed to be looked after. She shows the Qur’anic message of ‘at most four wives’ in an Arabian context and says that rather than repressing women it puts a limitation for marriage. But apart from the wives’ issue, it was widespread agreed that Islam gives permission to numberless concubines who were catched as slaves.
“These opinions are not muslim opinions at all; both right and wrong, they are a collection of Western beliefs about Muslims. San Pedro included in his account of the Qur’anic instruction an important element usually omitted by Western writers: the requirement that wives must be treated equal.” (N.Daniel 136)
Armstrong goes one step further when she proves that the Islamic legislation was a revolution for women in a time when all the world was seeing them as a mere property.
There have been a tendency to regard the Prophet as a political leader rather than a true spiritual leader in the Western world till now. It was claimed that his social and economic background in Arabia which was lacking a uniform body of legislature and morality, made him to rise as a Prophet. As Rodinson implied, he used the events adventagously because of his genius and reliable character. Although, Armstrong explains this background of ‘Jahiliyah’ in detail to show Prophet’s circumstances, she doesn’t support the idea that he became a prophet just because of the social chaos. Of course, Allah had sent prophets in such critical and chaotic times when people need the pure message more desperately than in any other tranquil times. She again cites incidences from other prophets’ life such as Jesus Christ. Even if there were no social disorder when he lived during the so-called ‘Pax Romana’, there were other problems like moral deformity. To sum up, Armstrong suggests that Prophet Muhammed’s coming in the midst of a chaos didn’t give him extra power as a religious or political leader. Actually he had to start a never-ending struggle which is also called ‘jihad’. According to her this kind of ‘jihad’ is not only the characteristic of Islam but also all the other religions as each prophet or saint had to face and fight back hardships of their own enviroments.
On the contrary when Westerners talk of ‘jihad’ there comes a bloody image of ‘Islam’ to the minds from terrorism to wars. In fact ‘jihad’ is an intrinsic property of any monotheistic religion in the sense that the believers struggle with the non-believers trying to preserve their own spirituality and to propogate it. As Armstrong puts it there is many aspects of ‘jihad’ apart from warfare. She quotes from one of the Prophet’s hadisths as an example:
“ We turn from the little jihad to the greater jihad” (Armstrong 168)
He meant the spiritual and mental jihad which is much more important than the warfare. In conclusion, Armstrong sees ‘jihad’ as only a tool to protect the believer community but she also shows its necessity in any religion.
Now I want to give you a counter-voice from a Muslim source in order to see the difference even if Armstrong is one of the most sincere Western interpreter than her predecessors.
As-sayyid Abdulhakim-i Arwasi said, “Every prophet is superior to all his people in every respect, in his time, and in his place. Yet Muhammad (alaihissalam) is the highest of all of the creatures which have come and will come to the world from the day it was created to Doomsday. No one is superior to him in any respect. This fact is not difficult to realize. Allahu ta’ala, who makes what He wills and what He likes, created him so. No person has power enough to praise him. No human being is able to criticize him.” (Endless Bliss 51)










ÃWorks CitedÃ

¨Armstrong,Karen;Muhammad A Biography Of The Prophet, Phoenix Press,London, 2001
¨Daniel, Norman; Islam and The West The Making Of An Image,The Edinburgh University Press, London,1960
¨Rodinson,Maxime; Muhammad, Pantheon Books, New York, 1971
¨Hüseyin Hilmi Işık, Seadet-i Ebediye Endless Bliss, First Fascicle, Waqf of Ihlas Publications, 1993

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