Apr. 6th, 2015

ewx: (penguin)

Muhammad: A Biography Of The Prophet, Karen Armstrong, 1-84212-608-3

This is a sympathetic biography of the Prophet Muhammad. While the (very broad) outlines of his life and achievements are familiar to me from a variety of works, I didn’t really have any of the detail, so there was much here that was new to me.

The book is specifically aimed at western audiences and as such includes a fair bit of material intended to put the story into context, for instance to square the religious figure with the military leader. Of course this is aimed squarely at the long-standing and widespread western perception of Islam as inherently violent - though I think anyone even slightly familiar with the period would conclude Muhammad was no more violent than any other leader of the time: the Byzantine Emperor of the day, “God’s vicegerent on Earth”, for instance, was busy invading Persia at the same time Muhammad was prosecuting his conflict with the Quraysh.

It’s based on the Qu’ran and a handful of biographies written in the 8th and 9th centuries in the middle east. This is a tricky collection of source material to deal with: the Qu’ran is not even a narrative much less a biography, while even the earliest of the rest was written over a century after the death of their subject. While well-referenced it does not really display much interest in establishing the accuracy of its sources, so while it may well be a good presentation in English of the traditional understanding of Muhammad’s life, it seems reasonable to wonder how close to the facts it may be.

It’s definitely picking a particular viewpoint, too. Armstrong writes of the hijab: “in the Qu’ran it was simply a piece of protocol that applied only to the Prophet’s wives”. But it’s not hard for even an amateur to find statements in the Qu’ran that at least superficially seem to have more general application and Wikipedia makes it clear that there’s a variety of views on the subject.

Still, in a book that is about the person as traditionally understood, rather than about the theology, these aren’t major criticisms. Worth a read if you’re unfamiliar with the details of the background to Islam.

In The Shadow Of The Sword, Tom Holland, 978-0-74811-951-6

An alternative, wider and more questioning, view of the history of Islam, this book starts with a discussion of the historical background to the appearance of Islam: the Roman and Persian empires, the conflicts between them, and the religious and cultural situation within and beyond both. This is excellent stuff and it would make a good standalone work with only a little expansion. However the point of the exercise is to set the stage for the second half of the book.

The author is skeptical about (in particular) the location of the events of Muhammad’s life. As an alternative to the traditional story he proposes that they took place not far from the boundaries of the Roman empire of the time, essentially among the Arabic tribes that from time to time provided mercenary service for one empire or another (essentially analogous to foederati such as the Franks in northwestern Europe), historically attested examples being the the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids.

Various arguments are advanced in favor of this proposition. However I wasn’t entirely convinced; many of the arguments turn out not to be as strong upon further investigation as they may seem from the text in isolation.

Take one locational arguments, for instance. The traditional view is that Muhammad lived in Mecca and in 622CE fled to Medina. Holland argues that Mecca is exceptionally obscure in the 7th century and earlier, with very little material from the time referring to it. This does seem to be so. The only certain reference to it in the Qu’ran is to ‘the valley of Mecca’ (48:24) though the reference to Bakkah (3:96) is traditionally held to refer to the same place (or to some part of it). Holland suspects that this interpretation is mistaken, and that there really are two different places with two different names here, and that the latter was the original home of Muhammad and site of the Ka’aba (surah 3 mandates pilgrimage to it), with the significance of Mecca being a later development.

However, surah 48 immediately follows its reference to the valley of Mecca with a discussion of past and future access to the Sacred Mosque (a phrase also used in 2:144 when discussing the direction of prayer). Unless this is to be read as a non-sequitur, the location is evidently one that Muhammad considers to have non-trivial religious significance.

Holland also suspects that the qibla was not originally in the direction of Mecca. (Tradition does indeed claim a change from praying towards Jerusalem to praying towards Mecca, but puts it in 623CE, i.e. shortly after the flight to Medina and within Muhammad’s lifetime. This book is arguing for a much later change.) Various texts and archaeological sites are offered in support of this argument, for instance the remains of a mosque at Be’er Ora in the Negev Desert appears to have prayer niches pointing both south and east. A justification for interpreting both features as Muslim prayer niches isn’t given, unfortunately. Another bit of evidence is only alluded to but on tracking it down it seems to be a passage by the ninth century writer Al-Baladhuri, in which an arrow is fired towards the qibla and further arrows north, east and south, at the start of the construction of Kufa, a city in Iraq. As far as I can tell, which isn’t very well, the archaeologically discoverable remains at Kufa have a fairly conventional qibla; nevertheless for a ninth century writer to allow without comment the implication of a western-pointing qibla is somewhat curious.

All this does leave a question to be answered, and Saifullah et al put a lot of effort into challenging a version of it. I admit to only having skimmed it, but one can skip to the conclusion which is roughly that accurate methods of determining the prayer direction were simply not available in early Islam and the heuristics used instead were (by modern standards) not particularly accurate.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s an interesting book, engagingly covering a pivotal time in history.

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