Title: Muhammad – A Prophet for Our Time
By: Karen Armstrong
249 pages. $21.95. HarperCollins/Atlas Books.
Reviewed by Laurie Goodstein – in The New York Times (International Herald Tribune)
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 Sept. 11 caused unease about whether Islam fuels terrorism.
Since then Muhammad has been defined by his detractors, who have called him a terrorist, a lunatic and most colorfully — by the Reverend Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention — a “demon-possessed pedophile.”
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.
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.
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 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.
At 25, Muhammad married Khadija, a widow who hired him to manage her caravans. At 40, he 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,” Armstrong notes.
Muhammad and his followers were exiled to Medina, 250 miles, or 400 kilometers, 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,” 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.
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.
Muhammad ultimately took back Mecca and reclaimed the Kabah. Armstrong argues that he prevailed by compassion, wisdom and steadfast submission to God. This is the power of his story and the reason more parents around the world name their children Muhammad than any other name.