Table of Contents
The Biography of The Prophet written by Karen Armstrong, is made up by ten chapters. There are some clear time charts to outline the genealogy of Muhammad, as well as two different maps from the 7th Century.
There is an interesting approach within the book, which focuses on not the importance of Muhammad in his own religion, but in the West. Armstrong looks back to the 9th Century and follows the western reaction. Later she goes through the biographical data, to provide us with enough information to evaluate the importance and characteristics of Muhammad as a prophet, as well as a historical figure. Some critics mention that she uses a sympathetic approach, and this can be followed up throughout the book. The impartial and factual description, as well as listing pro-s and con-s makes the author believable. However, we need to look at all the chapters and features to judge the book according to its values.
The Main Message of the Book
Armstrong reveals many Western misconceptions regarding the reception of Muhammad. She states that the main reason why the western authors are wrong is that they do not know, study, or take into consideration the cultural background and general customs at the time of Muhammad. The author first provides the readers with background information to enable the readers to understand the time when Islam was born. In contrast with the first chapter, which focuses on Muhammad’s reception as a rebel, even Evil among Christians. Finally, the author reviews the early reception of Muhammad, after his death, including the first steps towards Islam’s expansion in the region.
The Importance of Revelations
Muhammad was more than 40 when he received his first revelations at around 610 CE. However, the first revelation was followed by many more for 22 years. The book reveals the importance of these messages and their role in building Muhammad’s reputation as a prophet. One of the most important revelations was the exodus of Muslims to Medina from Mecca. (the Hijra in 622 CE), Muhammad also played the role of a religious and political leader of the “umma”, and he soon became the chief of the many tribes residing in Arabia.
The strength of \Muhammad’s belief in the revelations is expressed in the way he held up against the opposition. The traditional faith: pagan considered Allah as chief God, however, there were other minor gods as well. The author shows the similarity between the Hebrew early religion and the pagans. Hebrews also had other gods than Yahweh. Both of the religions had gone through a transition from allowing multiple gods to monotheism.
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Culture and Biography
The main findings the author publishes in the book, relevant to the biography of Muhammad are that polygamy was allowed, and the tribal system was extremely strong. Muhammad had a large Harem, after the death of his wife, Khadija in 919, and this made his enemies target him ethically. Muhammad’s wives were from different tribes, and this made him become a universal father of Islam.
The Two Phases of Muhammad’s Life
The first phase of Muhammad’s life is similar to Jesus’ adulthood. He became a missionary of God and a prophet, who wanted to create a new and cleaner universal religion. He was passionate and wanted to get to all people. This phase lasts from the first revelations in 610 to Hijra in 622. In 622 CE, in Hijra, Muhammad started a fight against non-believers, until his death in 632. The second phase is also often called Medina, and it shows more passion, even extreme violence.
Comparison to Jesus
As we have mentioned before, in the first phase of his life, Muhammad was similar to most of the prophets preaching in remote locations and trying to share their knowledge of God. This way, it is easy to draw an analogy with Jesus. However, when he entered the second phase, he was more like the warrior kings of Judea, like King David and Joshua, who fought for their religion and had political motivations, as well as religious devotions. Muhammad started to consolidate all political power in the Arab land. His teachings and acts during the first phase of his life are extremely similar to Jesus’, however, the violence and massacre of Jews betraying him in 627 are against the teachings of peace and forgiveness, Jesus was teaching.
The author also notes that these massacres, just like King David’s actions against the Philistines and the Jericho violence committed by Joshua should not be measured with today’s ethical norms. The constant threat nations lived in at the time and lack of regulations did create the society’s own rules at the time of the prophets and Muhammad. The author also finds an important contradiction; while today’s perception does judge Muhammad’s actions, King David’s book is in the Bible, next to Jesus’ teachings, clearly stating that violence and killings were the act of Satan.
The very end of Muhammad’s life was peaceful, and he did also achieve political success, apart from laying the foundations of the Islam and writing the Qur’an. Although today’s theological writers argue that the peace was achieved by violence and intrigue, the end reslts in the eyes of today’s Muslims have the same weight as some of the most spectacular miracles of Jesus or the Prophets. Also, most of the teachers of the Qur’an consider the actions as self-defence. Jesus also said that no violence was allowed, other than self-defense. The author seems to accept this conception, however, there are further questions raised based on this type of perception. If Muhammad, the prophet, leader and politician acted of self-defense, then President Bush had every right to invade Iraq in 2003, without doubt.
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After the Revelations
In the third chapter, Armstrong deals with the concept of Jahiliyah. The term Jahiliyah is created to describe the way Arabian society lived prior to the revelations of Muhammad. In most cases, authors translate the term as ignorance. Allah created the world, while he sent his man, Muhammad, to transform the ignorant society into a faithful one, that realizes values of life, relationship and faith alike. One of the most important aspects Armstrong examines is the muruwwa, tribal relations. She also examines the life people lived in the desert, studies poets and spiritual writers from the history, and tries to explain the most often used and misunderstood terms: dahr, ajal, rizq, and kahins. Ka’ba and the idols are also studied, based on the records of the life in Arabia at the time. The main aim of this chapter is to compare the Western type of thinking with the one that ruled in the time of Muhammad. This way, the readers are able to analyse the texts and events more accurately, according to the former structures of society.
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“The Warner”, title of chapter file shows the universality of the messages sent by Allah through Muhammad. This way the author is able to help non-Muslim readers relate to the message of Islam, without any misconception. It is interesting to see that Armstrong sees Muhammad as a messenger of a general God, and not as a “Muslim” prophet or activist. The message he delivered was something the Arab world had been waiting for. Although Jews and Christians did get their messages “delivered” by prophets, apostles and Jesus, there is no communication at the same level in the Arab world. According to the author, Qur’an was the only thing missing from the Arab religion to prosper. Armstrong says: now God had finally sent a prophet to the Qurays, who had never had such an envoy before.” And later, “the Qur’an was not revealing anything novel: it claimed to be a Reminder of things that everybody knew already.”
Rational Viewpoint of the Islam?
Although the author claims that she is impartial, some parts of the comparison show that she looks at Islam and Judaism with a critical eye. This itself is not a bad thing, especially when we consider that Armstrong is the first biography author of Muhammad, who is attempting to look at the events and reputation of the church placing the events into their realistic context. The actions of people should only be valued with the measures they had at the time, and the social norms. For example, today, we would say that feeding girls to be fat in Mauritania is immoral, but still it is a custom of the nation. She provides us with an actual timeline of events and rational explanation of killings, unlike some apologists. She also discussed the reception of Christian and Muslim faith and their relations in Spain, which is another undiscovered area. The different treatments and the minority of Jews shows the basic issues of the European misconception about Islam and Muhammad. As she says: both Americans and Europeans are inheritors of the Western legacy, and all problems of the Western world emerged in the Middle Ages.” Although the biography is not created based on the original texts in the language of Qur’an, it does still provide enough relevant information for the reader to rethink the development of religions and the similarities between Judaist, Christian and Mormon religions.
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