Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ways of Looking at the Prophet

Devout Muslims see him as the model for human behavior. Non-Muslims have seen him as lustful, barbarous or worse.

By Eric Ormsby, WSJ
Jan. 9, 2015 5:13 p.m. ET

The Prophet Muhammad might justly be described as the Jekyll and Hyde of historical biography. For centuries, he has been “alternately revered and reviled,” as Kecia Ali, an associate professor of religion at Boston University, notes in her excellent overview of the abundant literature. As a result, Muhammad presents two violently incompatible faces to the historian. For devout Muslims, relying both on the Quran and the vast corpus of sacred traditions, the hadith, he serves as the unimpeachable model for human behavior, not only in matters of faith and ritual but in the most humdrum aspects of daily life, from marital and business relations to personal hygiene, including even the proper use of the toothpick. For non-Muslims, drawing on the same sources, he has been viewed from the earliest times as lustful and barbarous, as a raving impostor aping the ancient prophets; nowadays he is further charged with misogyny and pedophilia. The contrast is so stark as to appear irreconcilable.

The Lives of Muhammad
By Kecia Ali
Harvard. 342 pages, $29.95

Instead of attempting to skirt this divergence, Ms. Ali uses it to structure her inquiry. Each of her chapters is prefaced by a capsule account of some episode in the Prophet Muhammad’s career taken from traditional Muslim sources, most of which involve some age-old point of contention. She follows these up with lively and often intricate discussions of Muslim and non-Muslim reactions. In this manner, she addresses such fraught matters as Muhammad’s “multiple wives” or the brutal seventh-century massacre of the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza in Medina.

Two of the book’s best chapters deal with the most prominent of Muhammad’s 12 or so wives: the saintly Khadija, a Meccan businesswoman 15 years older than he; and the more spirited—and controversial—Aisha, the child-bride who became Muhammad’s “favorite wife” in later years. For both Muslim and non-Muslim biographers, Khadija represents a model wife. She is Muhammad’s comforter in moments of doubt or distress—an “angel of mercy,” according to the modern Egyptian biographer Muhammad Husayn Haykal—and their household is an abode of domestic felicity. Much is made of the fact that Muhammad took other wives only after Khadija’s death.

(More here.)

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