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This vivid and detailed biography strips away centuries of distortion and myth and presents a balanced view of the man whose religion continues to dramatically affect the course of history.
It has been difficult for Western people to understand the violent Muslim reaction to Salman Rushdie's fictional portrait of Muhammad in The Satanic Verses. It seemed incredible that a novel could inspire such murderous hatred, a reaction which was regarded as proof of the incurable intolerance of Islam. It was particularly disturbing for people in Britain to learn that the Muslim communities in their own cities lived according to different, apparently alien values and were ready to defend them to the death. But there were also uncomfortable reminders of the Western past in this tragic affair. When British people watched the Muslims of Bradford burning the novel, did they relate this to the bonfires of books that had blazed in Christian Europe over the centuries? In 1242, for example, King Louis IX of France, a canonised saint of the Roman Catholic Church, condemned the Jewish Talmud as a vicious attack on the person of Christ. The book was banned and copies were publicly burned in the presence of the King. Louis had no interest in discussing his differences with the Jewish communities of France in a peaceful, rational way. He once claimed that the only way to debate with a Jew was to kill him `with a good thrust in the belly as far as the sword will go'.1 It was Louis who called the first Inquisition to bring Christian heretics to justice and burned not merely their books but hundreds of men and women. He was also a Muslim-hater and led two crusades against the Islamic world. In Louis' day it was not Islam but the Christian West which found it impossible to coexist withothers. Indeed, the bitter history of Muslim-Western relations can be said to have begun with an attack on Muhammad in Muslim Spain.
In 850 a monk called Perfectus went shopping in the souk of Cordova, capital of the Muslim state of al-Andalus. Here he was accosted by a group of Arabs who asked him whether Jesus or Muhammad was the greater prophet. Perfectus understood at once that it was a trick question, because it was a capital offence in the Islamic empire to insult Muhammad, and at first he responded cautiously. But suddenly he snapped and burst into a passionate stream of abuse, calling the Prophet of Islam a charlatan, a sexual pervert and Antichrist himself. He was immediately swept off to goal.
This incident was unusual for Cordova, where Christian-Muslim relations were normally good. Like the Jews, Christians were allowed full religious liberty within the Islamic empire and most Spaniards were proud to belong to such an advanced culture, light years ahead of the rest of Europe. They were often called `Mozarabs' or `Arabisers'.
The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! all talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books.2
Paul Alvaro, the Spanish layman who wrote this attack on the Mozarabs at about this time, saw the monk Perfectus as a cultural and religious hero. His denunciation of Muhammad had inspired a strange minority movement in Cordova whereby men and women presented themselves before the Qadi, the Islamic judge, and proved their Christian loyalty by a vitriolic and suicidal attack on the Prophet.
When Perfectus had arrived in gaol he had been extremely frightened, and the Qadi decided not to pass the death sentence because he judged that Perfectus had been unfairly provoked by the Muslims. But after a few days Perfectus cracked a second time and insulted Muhammad in such crude terms that the Qadi had no option but to apply the full rigour of the law. The monk was executed, and at once a group of Christians, who seem to have lived on the fringes of society, dismembered his body and began to revere relics of their `martyr'. A few days later another monk called Ishaq appeared before the Qadi and attacked Muhammad and his religion with such passion that the Qadi, thinking him either drunk or deranged, slapped him to bring him to his senses. But Ishaq persisted in his abuse and the Qadi could not continue to permit this flagrant violation of the law.
Ninth-century Cordova was not like Bradford in 1988. The Muslims were powerful and confident. They seemed extremely reluctant to put these Christian fanatics to death, partly because they did not seem in control of their faculties but also because they realised that the last thing they needed was a martyr-cult. Muslims were not averse to hearing about other religions. Islam had been born in the religious pluralism of the Middle East, where the various faiths had coexisted for centuries. The Eastern Christian empire of Byzantium likewise permitted minority religious groups liberty to practise their faith and to manage their own religious affairs. There was no law against propaganda efforts by Christians in the Islamic empire, provided that they did not attack the beloved figure of the Prophet Muhammad. In some parts of the empire there was even an established tradition of scepticism and freethinking which was tolerated as long as it kept within the bounds of decency and was not too disrespectful. In Cordova the Qadi and the Amir, the prince, were both loath to put Perfectus and Ishaq to death but they could not allow this breach of the law. But a few days after Ishaq's execution, six other monks from his monastery arrived and delivered yet another venomous attack on Muhammad. That summer about fifty martyrs died in this way. They were denounced by the Bishop of Cordova and by the Mozarabs, who were all extremely alarmed by this aggressive cult of martyrdom. But the martyrs found two champions: a priest called Eulogio and Paul Alvaro both argued that the martyrs were `soldiers of God' who were fighting bravely for their faith. They had mounted a complex moral assault against Islam which was difficult for the Muslim authorities to deal with because it seemed to put them in the wrong.
The martyrs came from all levels of society: they were men and women, monks, priests, laymen, simple folk and sophisticated scholars. But many seem to have been searching for a clear, distinct Western identity. Some appear to have come from mixed homes, with a Muslim and a Christian parent; others had been urged to assimilate too closely with Muslim culture - they had been given Arab names3 or had been pushed into a career in the civil service - and felt disoriented and confused. The loss of cultural roots can be a profoundly disturbing experience and even in our own day it can produce an aggressive, defiant religiosity as a means of asserting the beleaguered self. Perhaps we should remember the martyrs of Cordova when we feel bewildered by the hostility and rage in some of the Muslim communities in the West and in other parts of the world where Western culture threatens traditional values. The martyr movement led by Alvaro and Eulogio was as bitterly opposed to the Christian Mozarabs as to the Muslims and accused them of being cultural defectors. Eulogio made a visit to Pamplona in neighbouring Christendom and came back with Western books: texts of the Latin Fathers of the Church and Roman classical works by Vergil and Juvenal. He wanted to resist the Arabisation of his fellow Spaniards and create a Latin renaissance which looked back with nostalgia to the Roman past of his country as a way of neutralising the influence of the dominant Muslim culture. The movement fizzled out when Eulogio himself was put to death by the Qadi, who begged him to save his life by making a token submission to Islam nobody would check his subsequent religious behaviour - and not give in to this deplorable and fatal self-destruction' like the other `fools and idiots'.4 But Eulogio merely told him to sharpen his sword.
This curious incident was uncharacteristic of life in Muslim Spain. For the next 600 years members of the three religions of historical monotheism were able to live together in relative peace and harmony: the Jews, who were being hounded to death in the rest of Europe, were able to anjoy a rich cultural renaissance of their own.
Posted November 3, 2002
everyone else thats reviewed it seems to enjoy talking smack about islam and reading books about the few negative verses in the quran. if you read this book with a truly open mind its great
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Posted November 5, 2006
I was divided between rating this book a 5 because of the style that I found very interesting or a 3 for its historiography. Karen Armstrong writes a biography of Muhammad that bucks the trend of today (2006) to criticize Muhammad and writes a fairly unbiased biography showing some of his warts and blemishes, but also what she apparently believes is sheer genius and inspiration. Armstrong is somewhat of a mystic herself, and writes from that point of view than from a Christian or Islamic POV. Her many stories about how early Muslims converted after hearing the 'beauty of the Qur'an' (consistently misspelled Qu'ran in my copy) hit home with me. A few weeks ago I was listening to a recording of the recitation of the Qur'an to brush up on my Arabic when my wife walked through the room. She paused, then staid 'That's beautiful! What is it?' It is particularly difficult to recommend a biography of Muhammad to the general American reader during this time of spreading Islamophobia. Books do take a point of view, but the same book about Muhammad is likely to be condemned by both sides of the debate for bias toward the other side. Armstrong has written an interesting book for the general American reader that can hardly be accused of anti-Islamic bias. I personally felt that it leaned a little too far toward mysticism, and I would bet the author could write a very interesting book on Sufiism. Recommending a book with a different POV and stronger on facts and stories of Muhammad's life, I'd lean toward Muhammad Haykal's The Life of Muhammad. The author is Egyptian, eastern in POV but attempting to be western in viewpoint. This book was written in the 1950's, so missing the current trend of Islamism, but it tends to be apologetic. There are many comparisons of incidents in Christianity contained in the book. Of course the oldest and most authoritative biography is Sirat Rasul Allah by ibn Is.haq translated by A. Guillaume and available in an inexpensive edition of about 800 pages. Written about 750 AD, the most obvious difficulty is the writing style and the fact that most of us are totally unfamiliar with the nature of medieval Arab historiography. As was common then, many stories are told in two or three versions with no real clue as to which is the most reliable. We would tend to believe that which is most realistic or best fits our prejudices from a 21st century POV, but is a 21st century POV fair for an 8th century book? Another difficulty is that most of us are unaware of the circumstances under which the book was written (the period when the Umayyad Caliphate had just given way to the Abbasid Caliphate) or what that means for the POV and prejudices of ibn Ishaq himself. But Armstrong's book contains a fair, fairly complete, but brief biography of Muhammad and is a good bet for the first attempt to understand the prophet's life and trials.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 15, 2005
Anyone who has the slightest interest in Religion, or Islam should read this book. It is analytical and well stated. As a student of comparative religion I find this book very useful and utmost inspiring. It cleared alot of misconceptions about Prophet Muhammad and Islam which people percieve today. Being Born a Hindu, I was always told to stay aloof from Islam or anything related to something Islamic. And Also, Being Born a Hindu I found much of my inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita which is said to house the basic fundamentals in all religions. When I read this book, I could see Prophet Muhammad as an example to the Instructions Lord Krishna gave on the battlefield. Lord Krishna had said it, and Prophet Muhammad had shown it. It just gives me another reason to believe that all come from the same source, no matter whether Hindu, or Muslim.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2004
The author is not a muslim, she is not writing the book to plce Islam above other religions, but rather to give a more accurate view of the Prophet's teachings and what Islam is based on. We read this book in my 'History of Islam' class and it was very informative for the students to say the least. Those who say Armstrong is to apologetic in her portrayal of Muhammad should note the propaganda against Islam that has been spreading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 5, 2004
While Karen Armstrong's book is clearly intended for readers with a limited knowledge and understanding of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), it is a good place to start for readers seeking background information on Muhammad as a historical figure and great leader, and she makes several important points about the bias shown towards him and his acheivements in the present day. Of course depending on the source, bias can be found either way. Of course, Ibn Warraq's book 'Why I Am Not A Muslim' is completely written against Islam, taking any potential 'bad' part of the religion and highligting it, while ignoring the inherent beauty and tolerance that the Prophet fought to instill. For a less biased look at Islam and a more in-depth analysis, I recommend books by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Khaled Abou El-Fadl. For readers wishing to touch the tip of the iceberg and learn about the life of this incomparable man, Karen Armstrong's book will suffice.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 17, 2003
How can people say that this book is biased, when as a reader, we interperet the information biasedly I believe that Armstrong did a good job writing this book. She didnt twist the truth to make it more or less friendly to the readers. She gave a clear and honest description on the Prophet's (peace be upon him) life. She also incorperated many fitting quotes from the Holy Quran into her writing. I esp. enjoyed the of the Prophet(pbuh) that she included at the beginining of the book. It makes it easier as a reader to understand the realtions of the family. Good book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 22, 2002
Posted May 28, 2002
'Nuff said. Anyone seeking an objective, analytical approach to the life of the Prophet of Islam has come to the wrong place. Ancient histories of dubious credibility are distilled and presented as simple fact. The more controversial questions concerning the evolution of Islamic practice during Muhammad's life are mostly ignored and when not, are glossed over with a rosy wash. Finally, if the author had controlled her desire to enter into irrelevant hostile commentary on Western civilization, she could have saved us half the length of the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 4, 2000
There is no balance in this book. The overriding message here is that the west, Christians, Jews and non-Muslims in general have all misunderstood Muhammad owing to their prejudices and misperception. Throughout the book the author heaps criticism on Muhammad's critics, specifically those who are Christians, even the ones who have studied Muhammad not from the point of view of Christianity but of modern, enlightened, rational, scientific inquiry. One gets the impression that the book, which evidently targets a Christian reading audience (I am not a Christian myself), tries to stop Christians from raising valid questoins about Muhammad and Islam by trying to make them feel guilty about themselves. To paraphrase: Judge not lest ye be judged yourselves. Indeed the book begins with the author drawing a parallel between the present-day assassination threats against Salman Rushdie for offending Muslim sensibilities in his book 'The Satanic Verses' with a thirteenth century Talmud-burning campaign by King Louise of France. On the other hand, as far as Muhammad is concerned, the author tries to justify everything including the earliest known genocide of Jews in Arabia. Here is an example from page 208 of the book: 'The massacre of [the large Jewish tribe] of Qurayzah is a reminder of the desperate conditions of Arabia during Muhammad's lifetime. Of couse we are right to condemn it without reservre, but it was not as great a crimes as it would be today.'Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 28, 1999
I would recommend this book to the reader. It is a bit too apologetic, however. I would ask that to get a more rounded picture, ``Why I am not a Muslim'' by Ibn Warraq should be consulted.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 25, 2011
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