Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (Eminent Lives Series)by Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong's immaculately researched new
Muhammad was born in 570 CE, and over the following sixty years built a thriving spiritual community, laying the foundations of a religion that changed the course of world history. There is more historical data on his life than on that of the founder of any other major faith, and yet his story is little known.
Karen Armstrong's immaculately researched new biography of Muhammad will enable readers to understand the true origins and spirituality of a faith that is all too often misrepresented as cruel, intolerant, and inherently violent. An acclaimed authority on religious and spiritual issues, Armstrong offers a balanced, in-depth portrait, revealing the man at the heart of Islam by dismantling centuries of misconceptions. Armstrong demonstrates that Muhammad's life--a pivot point in history--has genuine relevance to the global crises we face today.
Ms. 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.
The New York Times
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A Prophet for Our Time
By Karen Armstrong
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Afterwards he found it almost impossible to describe the experience that sent him running in anguish down the rocky hillside to his wife. It seemed to him that a devastating presence had burst into the cave where he was sleeping and gripped him in an overpowering embrace, squeezing all the breath from his body. In his terror, Muhammad could only think that he was being attacked by a jinni, one of the fiery spirits who haunted the Arabian steppes and frequently lured travellers from the right path. The jinn also inspired the bards and soothsayers of Arabia. One poet described his poetic vocation as a violent assault: his personal jinni had appeared to him without any warning, thrown him to the ground and forced the verses from his mouth.1 So, when Muhammad heard the curt command "Recite!" he immediately assumed that he too had become possessed. "I am no poet," he pleaded. But his assailant simply crushed him again, until--just when he thought he could bear it no more--he heard the first words of a new Arabic scripture pouring, as if unbidden, from his lips.
He had this vision during the month of Ramadan, 610 CE. Later Muhammad would call it layla al-qadr (the "Night of Destiny") because it had made him the messenger of Allah, the high god ofArabia. But at the time, he did not understand what was happening. He was forty years old, a family man, and a respected merchant in Mecca, a thriving commercial city in the Hijaz. Like most Arabs of the time, he was familiar with the stories of Noah, Lot, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus and knew that some people expected the imminent arrival of an Arab prophet, but it never occurred to him that he would be entrusted with this mission. Indeed, when he escaped from the cave and ran headlong down the slopes of Mount Hira', he was filled with despair. How could Allah have allowed him to become possessed? The jinn were capricious; they were notoriously unreliable because they delighted in leading people astray. The situation in Mecca was serious. His tribe did not need the dangerous guidance of a jinni. They needed the direct intervention of Allah, who had always been a distant figure in the past, and who, many believed, was identical with the God worshipped by Jews and Christians.*
Mecca had achieved astonishing success. The city was now an international trading center and its merchants and financiers had become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Only a few generations earlier, their ancestors had been living a desperate, penurious life in the intractable deserts of northern Arabia. Their triumph was extraordinary, since most Arabs were not city dwellers but nomads. The terrain was so barren that people could only survive there by roaming ceaselessly from place to place in search of water and grazing land. There were a few agricultural colonies on the higher ground, such as Ta'if, which supplied Mecca with most of its food, and Yathrib, some 250 miles to the north. But elsewhere farming--and, therefore, settled life--was impossible in the steppes, so the nomads scratched out a meagre existence by herding sheep and goats, and breeding horses and camels, living in close-knit tribal groups. Nomadic (badawah) life was a grim, relentless struggle, because there were too many people competing for too few resources. Always hungry, perpetually on the brink of starvation, the Bedouin fought endless battles with other tribes for water, pastureland, and grazing rights.
Consequently the ghazu (acquisition raid) was essential to the badawah economy. In times of scarcity, tribesmen would regularly invade the territory of their neighbors in the hope of carrying off camels, cattle, or slaves, taking great care to avoid killing anybody, since this could lead to a vendetta. Nobody considered this in any way reprehensible. The ghazu was an accepted fact of life; it was not inspired by political or personal hatred, but was a kind of national sport, conducted with skill and panache according to clearly defined rules. It was a necessity, a rough-and-ready way of redistributing wealth in a region where there was simply not enough to go around.
Even though the people of Mecca had left the nomadic life behind, they still regarded the Bedouin as the guardians of authentic Arab culture. As a child, Muhammad had been sent to live in the desert with the tribe of his wet nurse in order to be educated in the badawah ethos. It made a profound impression on him. The Bedouin were not very interested in conventional religion. They had no hope of an afterlife and little confidence in their gods, who seemed unable to make any impact on their difficult environment. The tribe, not a deity, was the supreme value, and each member had to subordinate his or her personal needs and desires to the well-being of the group, and fight to the death, if necessary, to ensure its survival. Arabs had little time for speculation about the supernatural but were focused on this world. Fantasy was useless in the steppes; they needed pragmatic, sober realism. But they had evolved a chivalric code, which, by giving meaning to their lives and preventing them from succumbing to despair in these harsh conditions, performed the essential function of religion. They called it muruwah, a complex term that is difficult to translate succinctly. Muruwah meant courage, patience, endurance; it consisted of a dedicated determination to avenge any wrong done to the group, to protect its weaker members, and defy its enemies. To preserve the honor of the tribe, each member had to be ready to leap to the defense of his kinsmen at a moment's notice and to obey his chief without question.
Above all, a tribesman had to be generous and share his livestock and food. Life in the steppes would be impossible if people selfishly hoarded their wealth while others went hungry. A tribe that was rich today could easily become destitute tomorrow . . . .
Excerpted from Muhammad
by Karen Armstrong
Copyright © 2006 by Karen Armstrong.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Karen Armstrong is the author of nearly twenty books, including The Great Transformation, A History of God, and The Spiral Staircase, a spiritual memoir, among other bestsellers. An internationally renowned expert on religion, Armstrong is a powerful voice for interfaith understanding. She lives in England.
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The book was very balanced and honest. The historical facts are very accurate. It showed (me) the human side of the prophet which I forgot. Very useful to Muslims and hopefully to people from other faiths.
A short, sympathetic, very readable biography of an all too human prophet
Karen Armstrong deserves applause for writing such an outstanding book on Muhammad (P.B.U.H)! It proves that somewhere in the West people are rational enough to discard their prejudice against Islam and are ready to delve into unbiased research to discover the truth about the most important figure and the most discussed personality in History. Her study produced a positive vision and understanding of Islam which is a marked difference from majority of people of the West who have closed their eyes to truth and refuse to go by reason. Peace, Love and tolerance are the essentials of Islam. Jihad has also been beautifully defined as a struggle to bring God¿s Will into action. With Perseverance ,patience and Wisdom Muhammad (P.B.U.H)spread the word of God to the Faithless and succeeded in winning the hearts of the people of Arabia and is still a role model for billions. The Prophet of Islam performed actions by Divine inspiration and conveyed to mankind what was inspired by the Lord. His military mission and strategy shows intelligence and insight of the highest order . Karen Armstrong urges the people of the world to make an effort to understand the Quran and Muhammad (P.B.U.H)by probing into history to discover a man of extraordinary vision and qualities whose message(Quran) can benefit people of all ages! Tayyaba Haq
A well written book describing the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad. The book is an excellent primer for those of us curious about Islam. The book describes the Prophet's standing in his community during the early years and the subsequent rift that led to his hijrah to Medina. Ms. Armstrong recounted the events in the Prophet's life in a manner that reflected his humanity. She describes the traditions and relationships during the 7th century that formed the backdrop for the Prophet's recitations and describes the circumstances behind some of the misunderstood events in the Qur'an, such as the slaughter of the Jewish Qurayzah tribe for their betrayal during the Battle of the Trench. There is a small but useful glossary to assist the novice in understanding the text. The book serves as a great stepping stone to further learning.
Reading about the Life and mission of the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H)one cannot help admiring the vision and understanding of Karen Armstrong who delved so deep into Islamic history , its true spirit and succeeded in painting an accurate picture of a religion which is badly misnuderstood in the present times.Forgiveness,Peace and Love are the true essentials of Islam and many examples in the book prove it. At the same time the defination of jihad is also beautifully explained as a struggle to bring the Will of God into action.Patience, perseverence accompanied by strategy were adopted by the Prophet to spread the word of God and win the hearts of the faithless.His military mission stands out for it wisdom and tact in history even after the passage of 15 centuries. The book should inspire the West and Non Muslims of the world to probe deeply in the ideals of Islam and discover what is at the heart of a religion spread by a Man of God Gifted Vision and qualities. Tayyaba Haq
In Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, author Karen Armstrong demonstrates how Muhammad ibn `Abdullah went from being an unfortunate orphan to a messenger of one of the most important world religions today, Islam. Armstrong¿s compassionate ¿Western Eyes¿ interpretation approaches the subject matter in an easy-to-read manner, complete with accurate sources, in a fluid narrative of the Prophet¿s physical and psychological struggle for his lifelong dream to bring the word and will of God to the people of Arabia, however falls short of persuading the reader from their initial negative disposition towards Islam.
Early on Armstrong is quick to point out young Muhammad¿s misfortunes: his father died before he was born, and six years into his life he was sent off by his mother to live with the outlying nomadic peoples, enduring their harsh reality of desert life. He then returned to Mecca, his birthplace, to live with his mother. Shortly after his return, his mother died and the young Muhammad then lived on the goodwill of his relatives, moving from family member to family member. It was these series of ill-fated events that inspired the framework of Muhammad¿s compassion for orphans as well as charity in which he carried throughout the rest of his life.
After the first visit from the Archangel Gabriel at the age of forty, Muhammad became a messenger of Allah, a Prophet chosen to extend the word of God to the people of Arabia. Since the ¿Night of Destiny¿ as it is referred to, the courier received indistinct revelations from Gabriel that ¿¿he had to listen to the undercurrent of events, trying to discover what was really going on¿ (Armstrong 45). Armstrong recounts the physical toll taken on him from trying to decipher these divine visits: ¿He would grow pale with effort and cover himself with his cloak, as if to shield himself from what was really going on¿ (he) ¿would perspire heavily, even on a cold day, as he turned inwards searching his soul for a solution to a problem¿ (Armstrong 45).
In addition to the revelations, another factor had a material effect on the Prophet. War between the Meccans and Medinians broke out after Muhammad and his followers fled to Medina. After cultivating in their Islamic beliefs, the Muslims wished to partake in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, a spiritual right every Arabian practicing the Old Religion was granted. But the people of Mecca did not share the same modified beliefs of the Old Religion that constituted Islam. Consequently, Muhammad and his followers were denied access. As a result of protecting their heritage from the spoiled people (Muslims) and the right of entry to the Kabah, the Meccans declared war on the Muslims. Several battles began shortly thereafter and continued on for six to seven years, all of which Muhammad did partake in. While Muhammad did not sustain any detrimental battle wounds, it was the every-day rigors of war encampment that he felt. By the time the last fight took place, the Prophet was into his sixties and would have begun to feel the physical effects the war and his divine visions had on his aging body.
While supporting his Islamic crusade, those who closely witnessed the tireless Muhammad¿s ordeal saw an even more detrimental outcome: mental exhaustion. Prior to converting to Islam Muhammad had a different ideology of the Arabic life compared to his neighbors. He first realized his tribe had lost all of its original cultural values except
Christianity is the true faith.