a first look at the prophet (Islam’s prophet, that is) – book review

My mother-in-law recommended the audiobook of Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time, narrated by the author.  Also, I’ve wanted to learn something more about Islam’s history, as two of the countries I work in (the Gambia and Sierra Leone) are heavily Muslim.

I listened to it: it was informative but it took me a while.  My thoughts:

informative if generous introduction to the prophet and his context

Karen Armstrong, noted religious historian, writes here her second biography of the prophet Muhammad, this time with the explicit intention of combating the rampant Islamophobia of the West.

I knew almost nothing of the prophet before reading this book, and so Armstrong’s is a welcome (if not scintillating – she can be a bit dry) introduction. I appreciated the historical and cultural context she placed him in, the stories from his life, and her non-condescension towards the spiritual. That said, her bias seems clear by the end: This is a favorable portrayal. Muhammad eschews luxury (“not simply a waste of money, but ingratitude, a thankless squandering of Allah’s precious bounty”), he champions religious tolerance, non-violence, and women’s rights (the veil was only for his wives, to protect them from his enemies). Armstrong seeks to put his repeated marrying and his sometimes brutal actions (beheading several hundred Jews, for example) into an – again, sympathetic – cultural context. Of course, with books like The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion on the market, a sympathetic portrayal from a learned outsider is perhaps welcome. Yet I would have appreciated a more balanced-feeling book. And Armstrong gives no clues to the gap between the Muhammad she portrays and the perceptions of Islam by the West today (oppression of women, religious intolerance and violence among certain subpopulations). That said, as Laurie Goodstein writes, this may be a good way “to glimpse how the vast majority of the world’s Muslims understand their prophet and their faith” [1].

With those caveats: I would recommend this to a novice desiring to learn of the prophet; but of course, since I haven’t read any others, perhaps I’m not the one to ask. (Once I tried Introducing Muhammad but drifted on to other books.)

I located three professional reviews easily available on-line. One is positive: “Ms. Armstrong argues that he [Muhammad] prevailed by compassion, wisdom and steadfast submission to God. This is the power of his story and the reason that more parents around the world name their children Muhammad than any other name” [1]. The other two are negative, one on content (the book “is a thinly veiled hagiography” [2]) and the other on style (“Readers will find her style stilted” [3]).

[1] Laurie Goodstein, “Seeing Muhammad as Both a Prophet and a Politician,” New York Times, 20 Dec 2006. [Also published in the International Herald Tribune.]
[2] Efraim Karsh, “The Perfect Surrender,” The New York Sun, 25 Sep 2006.
[3] Ilan Stavans, “The path of the prophet,” Boston Globe, 29 Oct 2006.

* I listened to the unabridged audiobook, narrated by the author. It was only six discs but took me a while, as this isn’t exactly a page-turner (or track-turner, if you will).

** One aspect I found particularly interesting was that some stories paralleled stories from my own faith tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For example, when one antagonist went to attach Muhammad and was instead converted, followed by another; this is evocative of a story about early Mormon apostle Wilford Woodruff. And when an army of Muslims is slaughtered but their bravery leads to the conversion of many of the attackers, the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis in the Book of Mormon comes to mind.

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