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The Islamic Optimist


No one would deny that the Prophet Muhammad is one of the most influential men in human history. Of all the founders of world religions, he is also the most controversial. Unlike the Buddha and Christ, he not only founded a new religion but created a theocratic state, with all that entails for the idea of a divinely constituted moral order.

The story of Muhammad’s life has a long but problem-filled history. The first of many Muslim accounts was written by one Ibn Ishaq who died in 767 CE, 135 years after Muhammad’s death. By then the Muslim armies had long defeated the Persian Empire, wrested control of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt from the heirs of Constantine and Justinian, and established a fragile imperium that stretched from Iberia to the Indus Valley. The Arabian prophet whose exemplary life and preaching inspired this astonishing series of conquests was already famous, and his biography came supplied with many of the supernatural details that adorn the lives of other holy persons.

The text of the Koran, the “discourse” or “recitation” that is said to contain the exact words dictated by God to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel, is supposed to have been fixed by Uthman (r. 644–656), the third caliph, or successor to Muhammad’s worldly power. It may provide some clues to Muhammad’s biography—but they are only clues. The text is not arranged chronologically, and tends to be highly allusive and elliptical. There are few extended narratives comparable to those in the Bible: Muhammad’s auditors were evidently familiar with the materials in his discourses, which include stories and themes from the Hebrew Bible and the Midrash (biblical commentaries), stories about Jesus similar to those that are found in some Gnostic sources, and stories about Arabian prophets and sages who do not appear in the Judeo-Christian literature. The Muslim exegetes—many of whom were Persian converts to Islam and far removed culturally from Muhammad’s Bedouin milieu—were inspired to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography in order to understand the holy text, in particular the allusions to events in the Prophet’s life or “occasions of revelation.” There is a sense in which the Koran’s textual history conforms to Muslim piety: far from Muhammad being its “author” the Koran is, in a literary-historical sense, the “author” of Muhammad.

To their credit the earliest scholars of this new religion (a rejuvenated version of Hebrew monotheism, with Midrashic, Christian, Gnostic, and Arabian colorings) were meticulous in recording and documenting variant versions of the oral histories they researched in order to reconstruct the Prophet’s life. The process of canonization was remarkably transparent given the circumstances. The scholars were working under social, political, and cultural conditions that differed radically from those that prevailed during the Prophet’s lifetime. Each tradition, or hadith, was traced to its source in the Prophet or one of his companions through a chain of oral transmitters that were rated according to their reliability and ethical standing.

While some modern scholars have adapted methodologies from biblical studies to pick holes in the received Islamic tradition, the central bastions of the faith have so far remained largely intact. Revisionist theories that question the received account (using archaeological data or its absence, form criticism, paleographic data, linguistic analysis, and other tools of the scholar’s trade) have yet to shake the foundations of Islam in the way that “higher criticism” challenged Christian certainties in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Recent biographies of the Prophet, of which there are many, have tended to confirm the general outlines of the received tradition while placing emphasis on different aspects of the narrative. Muhammad began preaching around 610 in his native Mecca, the site of an ancient pagan shrine to which Arabs made regular pilgrimages. His attacks on the local gods brought him into conflict with the city’s rulers and in 622 he and his band of followers migrated to the neighboring settlement of Yathrib—later known as Medina, the Prophet’s “city”—where he formed an alliance with local tribes, three of which were Jewish. After a series of raids and battles (to which there are allusions in the Koran, but no descriptions), he overcame the Meccan polytheists and restored the shrine at Mecca to the true worship of the God of Abraham. The recalcitrant Jews who refused to accept his message were expelled from Medina—and in one instance massacred for allegedly treacherous dealings with Muhammad’s Meccan enemies.

In producing a new biography aimed at Western readers, Tariq Ramadan enters a field already crowded with excellent books. The best is still Mohammed (1961; English translation 1971) by the French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson. He presents a convincing portrait of the religious revolutionary who transformed world history, using the cultural materials available to him. Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Western Attempt to Understand Islam (1991) sketches a sympathetic portrait of an inspired visionary whose religious experience she finds to be authentic, while taking full account of a historical setting that made it necessary for him to assume political power, with all its controversial consequences. Barnaby Rogerson in The Prophet Muhammmad: A Biography (2003) captures the epic quality of the era in an elegant, fast-paced narrative.

Of the popular and accessible books on Muhammad only Michael Cook’s short but pithy biography in the Oxford Past Master series (1983) seriously questions the validity of the traditional source materials. There are, however, other scholarly texts in English that expose the fragile historical ground on which the edifice of the Prophet’s biography rests. Of these the most valuable is Muhammad and the Origins of Islam (1994) by F.E. Peters. Aware of the deep sensitivities surrounding his subject, Peters constructs his biography using the traditional source materials, which he quotes at considerable length, condensing his doubts into an appendix entitled “The Quest of the Historical Muhammad.” Unlike several more radical scholars who suggest that the Koran might have been “cobbled together” out of materials that might predate or postdate the Prophet’s lifetime, Peters is persuaded that the Koran “has a very strong claim to being authentic”—which is to say that it contains the words and notions that issued from Muhammad, and that when he alluded to the biblical and other stories, his Arab audience knew what he was talking about “better in many cases than we ourselves do.” However, the Koran, he insists, “is of no use whatsoever as an independent source for reconstructing the life of Muhammad”:

It is a text without context. For Muhammad, unlike Jesus, there is no Josephus to provide a contemporary political context,…no Qumran Scrolls to illuminate a Palestinian ‘sectarian milieu.’… [It] therefore stands isolated like an immense composite rock jutting forth from a desolate sea, a stony eminence with few marks upon it to suggest how or why it appeared in this watery desert.


Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss-born academic and a prolific writer on Islam who has achieved fame—and notoriety—on both sides of the Atlantic for his engagement with the issues that concern the millions of Muslims now living in Western countries. In France, especially, he has been depicted as an Islamist wolf in sheep’s clothing. Strip off the wool, say his critics, and you will find a hard-line fundamentalist hostile to the values of freedom and democracy he claims to espouse. Two causes célèbres have been, first, the fierce polemics arising from Ramadan’s claim that leading French intellectuals including Bernard-Henri Levy, Daniel Gluckstein, and Bernard Kouchner put their commitments to Israel before their humanitarian concern for Palestinians; and, second, the famous encounter with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003, before six million French television viewers, when Ramadan at first refused to condemn outright the penalty of stoning for adulterers, but called for a “moratorium” while the Muslim world engaged in “debating” this issue along with other harsh punishments. He went on to say that “we should stop” the practice. But this has not satisfied his critics.

Part of the animus against him derives from his family history: he is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna (1906– 1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East Sunni movement that originally advocated the establishment of an Islamic state. After the suppression of the Brotherhood in Egypt, his father, Said Ramadan, settled in Geneva and established an influential center of Islamist ideology with financial support from Saudi Arabia.

As is now well known, Ramadan has been prevented by the US government from taking up a tenured professorship at the University of Notre Dame. The reasons are obscure. While Ramadan has numerous intellectual critics in France as well as in the United States,* it seems unlikely that any official can seriously believe that such a well-known figure could himself pose a security risk to the United States. The only official mark against him appears to be a donation of eight hundred euros made some ten years ago to a Palestinian charity that was subsequently put on a watch list.

Notre Dame’s loss has been Oxford’s—and Europe’s—gain. Ramadan’s current position as research fellow at St. Antony’s College has enabled him to carry on his work as a teacher and spokesman for European Muslims while keeping in touch with his Continental following. In Britain he has been an adviser to the government—though in view of the unpopularity of the Iraq adventure among British Muslims, he has avoided close relations with officials. He declined an invitation by the outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair to attend a highly publicized conference of “moderate” Muslim leaders in June. Politically street-smart, he fears he might lose credibility among his younger followers if it were thought that the British government was “using” him.

Fluent in French, English, and Arabic, with degrees in Western philosophy—his Ph.D. was on Nietzsche—and a year spent at al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest and most prestigious academy in the world of Sunni Islam, Ramadan is admirably qualified to interpret Islam and its founder to uninformed, skeptical, or just curious Western readers. But for a nonbeliever In the Footsteps of the Prophet is disappointing. One would have expected him—at the very least—to have alluded to the vigorous scholarly debate surrounding the origins of Islam, if only to dismiss it—as several orthodox Muslim scholars have done—as a conspiracy to undermine Islam at its source. Instead he has produced a faith-promoting narrative, pleasant enough, but bland and colorless, that avoids any serious attempt to engage with the traditional sources critically (as Cook and Peters do) or to fully explain the setting of the Prophet’s actions (or alleged actions, allowing for the skepticism that some scholars still feel about the sources) in the harsh and cruel environment of the stateless society where the Prophet is recorded as spending his life (as Rodinson and Armstrong have done in their different ways).

Extraordinary events, where supernatural actors have walk-on parts, are recounted in the flat terminology of a police report:

The Angel Gabriel appeared to him several times. The Prophet was later to report that the angel sometimes appeared to him in his angelic persona and sometimes as a human being…. While he was walking in the surroundings of Mecca, the Prophet received a message from the Angel Gabriel, who taught him how to perform ablutions and practice ritual prayer…. The Prophet followed the Angel Gabriel’s instructions one by one, then went home and taught his wife, Khadija, how to pray.

  1. *

    See for example, Paul Berman’s lengthy article “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?,” The New Republic, June 4, 2007.

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