Good Book

A good book: Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet

by  Karen Armstrong.

Brief  Review by Alagi Yorro Jallow.

The Book

Fatoumatta: An excellent biography of Prophet  Muhammad (PBUH) follows him throughout his life. If a person is used to some spellings of Arabic words, it will take time to learn other spellings. This book is a great companion to the holy Qur’an and will allow the reader a greater understanding of the development of one of the world’s greatest religions: Islam. I have read several biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, but this book is unique.

The Author

Karen Amstrong is respectful and yet not reverential. Although she uses orthodox Muslim historical sources (Ibn Ishaq, Tabari, Muhammad Ibn Sa’d, and al-Waqidi), her outsider approach produced some surprises in what I thought was a familiar topic. An acclaimed authority on religious and spiritual issues, Karen Armstrong, offers a balanced portrait of this revered figure. Through comparison with other prophets and mystics, she illuminates Muhammad’s spiritual ideas; she uses the facts of his life, from which Muslims have drawn instruction for centuries, to make the tenets of Islam clear and accessible for modern readers of all faiths. This vivid and detailed biography strips away centuries of distortion and myth to reveal the man behind the religion of Islam. Karen Armstrong, bestselling author, scholar, and journalist, is among the world’s foremost commentators on religious history and culture. Post-9/11, she has become a crucial advocate for mutual understanding between the world’s major faiths. Her books include Buddha: A Biography, The Battle for God, and Islam: A Short History.

Fatoumatta: She is respectful without being reverential, knowledgeable, pedantic, and, above all, readable. It succeeds because  Karen Armstrong brings Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to life as a fully rounded human being. It is interesting to read a biography about the Prophet Muhammad  (PBUH) from a western and non-Muslim woman’s perspective. I loved how her analysis went so profoundly to shed light on the different aspects of the Prophet’s life and then relate them to today’s misunderstood conceptions of Islam. However, the most astonishing part was when she talked about the holy  Quran. The way she spoke about it was remarkably marvelous, and I could not believe that she was not a Muslim! However, she did not only talk about the holy Quran’s tolerable teachings. Still, her deep analysis extended to consider the decadent, allusive language used and its spiritual effects on humans’ consciousness. When I first started reading this remarkable book, I was doubtful, considering that; a book about  Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) or Islam written by a non-Muslim and a woman would be biased, inaccurate, or misleading. However, to my surprise, this book was beyond my wildest expectations! Karen Armstrong was concerned enough to write a book about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to clarify some of the most controversial and debatable issues about him and Islam. Especially after the wake of September 11 and all the Islamophobic attitudes which increasingly started to break out in the air. In her book, Karen Armstrong does an excellent job in introducing an analytical, well-written, decent biography of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) with a cleverly clear emphasis on issues that have always been subject to significant criticism by westerns, such as the concept of jihad and war, his multi wives and hijab. She also portrays the ideology of Arabia amazingly in the 6th century before Islam would be introduced and before the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) to show the massive complex challenges faced by the Prophet when he began to reform the social, political, and economic systems.

Fatoumatta: Karen Armstrong seeks to encourage a new understanding of Islam taking Muhammad (PBUH) as a starting point. It was crystal clear also that she is trying to advance understanding and appreciation of one another religion. Finally, although her research and study are notably valid as she refers to people like Ibn Ishaq and Tabari, some of the events and facts were inaccurate. She tries to rationalize several incidents and the sources and searches for a more credible explanation. An early example is an army of Abraha, the Abyssinian governor of southern Arabia, which attempted to destroy the Kaaba on the year of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) birth, relating that “at the very gates of the city, it seems that his army was stricken by plague and forced to beat an ignominious defeat.” This is not a weakness, though, as it provides historical context and forces an evaluation of the sources, whether they could be romanticized, tweaked, or exaggerated in retelling. She also firmly contextualizes many incidents, providing significant political background to the conflict with the Jewish tribes of Medina. One of the most exciting things about the narrative was the attention paid to the socio-economic situation in Arabia through the period, explaining it from several generations before the Prophet’s birth to his death in more detail than the sources or any secondary ones I have seen yet come across. This brings an understanding of the power dynamics in the community, how various factors interplay with the newly founded religion of Islam, and the complex motivations of different characters. She claims that the tribal solidarity ethic of nomadic Arabs was ill-suited to a more cosmopolitan life when Quraysh settled in Mecca and discussed the slow dissolution of society as the first generation to be born without the daily risk of desert life became mercantile and obsessed with financial profit, neglecting the weak and creating a rapidly-growing wealth and class divide which was new to Arabs. The youth, who felt growing malaise and a lack of belonging in this new Arabia, were naturally among the first to be attracted to Islam, given that social solidarity was one of the first messages preached.

Fatoumatta: Ultimately, it ends positively, balancing the just war theology with the strong evidence for a complementary paradigm of peace evidenced by the treaty of Hudaybiyah, the opening of Mecca, and the subsequent reconciliation with and forgiveness of the Quran. Written at the time of the Rushdie crisis, the opening chapter discusses the modern climate of fear and hatred towards Islam and Muslims and historical trends in Eastern-Western relations and calls for an attempt to come to mutual understanding and fight Western media and academic bias against Islam.

Fatoumatta: I think she succeeded in presenting a sympathetic, accessible portrayal relevant to our modern times, so I happily recommend it.

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