It says something for the vital personality of the Prophet Muhammad that, after nearly fourteen centuries, his life and work should still be the subject of agonized discussion, not merely by Muslims but by writers of all races and creeds. Muhammad is certainly one of the most challenging and even baffling of history’s great prophetic figures; and the mystery that surrounds him seems paradoxically to stem from the fact that we know so much about him—much more than we do about, say, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, or even Jesus.

He was born in Mecca in A.D. 570 (it is fashionable nowadays to question this traditional date, but there seem to be no valid grounds for doing so) and was orphaned at an early age, being brought up by his grandfather, head of the Hashim clan of the leading Meccan tribe of Quraish. As a young man he followed a commercial career, and this led in due course to marriage with a wealthy widow whose business affairs he was managing. Until the age of forty, indeed, there was nothing remarkable about his way of life; but in about A.D. 610 he underwent a religious experience that changed his whole being, launching him successively into the roles of religious teacher, community organizer, military leader, elder statesman, and father of his people. Conflict with the Meccan authorities, including many of his own relations, subjected him to the stresses and strains of persecution, exile, war, diplomacy, and finally his triumphant return to his birthplace as the leader and propounder of a religious teaching that even before his death in 632 was sweeping over the whole of Arabia.

What makes this career all the more remarkable is that Muhammad was reported to have been illiterate, while the environment in which he came forward and carried out his mission was that of a backwater of civilization, a fringe area between the primitive nomadism of the Arabian desert and the sagging seventh-century empires of Byzantium and Persia. Yet—far more than in the case of his predecessors in the prophetic mold—his followers felt impelled to commit to memory and later to writing the smallest minutiae of his life and activities.

There was sound theological reason for this. Essentially, Muhammad was no more than a mouthpiece, the Messenger of God charged to pass on His revelation to mankind. This revelation became crystallized in the Koran, and it is this book rather than the person of Muhammad himself that is revered by Muslims, who orthodoxly believe that it was not created by God with the rest of the created universe, but existed from eternity as an emanation of God himself. It was thus the final authority on the religious, social, political, and economic problems that faced the expanding Muslim community as it spread out of Arabia and embarked on the conquest of the Persian Empire and a great part of the Byzantine. But inevitably there was a great deal that was not covered in its pages, and so Muhammad’s successors were compelled to look to his actions and rulings for precedent and guidance, not because he was regarded as in any sense divine (this was a much later development of Islamic mysticism), but because he was believed to have been in direct communication with God and guided by Him in his daily life.

Thus grew up the practice, almost science, of tradition-collecting—records of the words and actions of the Holy Prophet passed on by his immediate circle to their disciples, and so on in an unbroken chain of transmission. There were obvious opportunities here for the interpolation of false traditions, especially as time passed and religious controversy sharpened. Even so, there is a mass of information in the early Muslim chronicles, some written within a century or so of the events in question.

It is therefore a little puzzling to find Professor Rodinson claiming that “a biography of Muhammad limited only to absolutely unquestioned facts would amount to no more than a few dry pages.” Certainly if we reject the evidence of the isnad, the “chain of transmission,” we shall have to discard most of what we are told of the Prophet’s life; there will scarcely remain a few lines, let alone a few pages. But so much of what is recorded in the early biographies has the ring of truth that it seems unnecessary to cavil at the lack of documentary proof—unless one is anxious to discredit altogether the presentation of Muhammad as a divinely inspired religious and political leader.

It is precisely here that the problem of writing the biography of Muhammad becomes acute. Any biographer is bound by the very nature of his subject to be writing from a committed point of view. He is either a Muslim, in which case he must accept unquestioningly the divine inspiration of the founder of his faith, or he is the adherent of some other religion, in which case he must in the last resort deny it. Or like Professor Rodinson he is an atheist, in which case he is forced to reject altogether the possibility of divine inspiration.


The Western approach to Muhammad has particularly suffered from this dilemma. The tradition established in medieval Christian Europe (so well described by Norman Daniel in his Islam and the West) was that Muhammad was an impostor and a libertine, or at best a savage enemy of Christendom inflicted as a punishment for sin and backsliding. The attitudes established at this time sank deep into the European consciousness and have never been wholly eliminated. Rodinson is only one of a long line of writers who, apparently all unconsciously, repeat stories and interpretations of Muhammad’s behavior that originated in the early Middle Ages.

A good example is the story of Muhammad’s marriage to Zainab, the divorced wife of his adopted son Zaid. Though the revelation in the Koran that made this permissible was merely a general ruling denying consanguinity in an adopted relationship, medieval Christian writers cited the story as an example of Muhammad’s duplicity in forging divine commands to facilitate the satisfaction of his passions. Rodinson follows this version of the story without making clear its source in the writings of such early polemicists as Ramon Marti, Ricoldo de Monte Croce, San Pedro Pascual, and others. Certainly Islamic tradition itself is not wholly without support for this interpretation; and it is noticeable that Rodinson’s skepticism about the value of Islamic sources often breaks down when it comes to stories discreditable to the Prophet.

In any case he is not breaking new ground, but returning full circle to the traditional Christian view of Muhammad as impostor, a now largely discredited view that prevailed well into the nineteenth century—Prideaux (1697), Akehurst (1859), even George Sale (1734), whose translation of the Koran is still one of the best available. But equally the rationalist approach was no safeguard against prejudice. One of the most scurrilous attacks on Muhammad was made by Voltaire, who was not really interested in Islam at all, but used it as a disguise for his onslaught on religion in general. The romantic movement of the nineteenth century brought another twist in the story, without really changing the fundamental attitude. Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1841 on “The Hero as Prophet,” roundly rejected the conventional view of Muhammad as a deliberate fraud. But even his blend of romanticism and rationalism could not stomach the idea that the Prophet might really have been divinely inspired, that he was in truth the Messenger of God.

His view—that Muhammad’s teaching sprang from the impact of his heroic personality on scarcely understood fragments of Jewish, Christian, and pagan doctrine—was eagerly seized on by the academics, from Sir William Muir, whose Life of Mahomet first appeared in 1861, to Professor Montgomery Watt, also of Edinburgh, who began writing about Muhammad in 1953. But even in these two sound scholars academic objectivity wars with religious conviction. Muir was a devout Christian, while Watt is an ordained minister. It is not, therefore, as with Voltaire and Rodinson, the possibility of divine inspiration that is rejected; but for neither of them can there be any true channel of divine inspiration that is not Christian. Watt does his best to escape this conflict of interest by adopting the sociological approach; he virtually ignores the theological aspect, simply attributing Muhammad’s ideas to his “creative imagination,” without attempting to identify this further. This is to beg the fundamental question, one that, but for his denominational commitment, Watt would have been well qualified to discuss.

Maxime Rodinson carries Watt’s method a stage further, not however to escape the conflict between the human and the divine interpretation, but because he does not believe that it exists. For the spiritual he substitutes the psychological as well as the sociological (in this apparently following the Dane Frants Buhl, whose account of Muhammad as a “hysteric” appeared in 1903). If the result is not a success, it is not through lack of scholarship. He has not indeed produced much information that cannot already be found in Muir and Watt; but the ground has been so thoroughly worked over already that it would be surprising if anyone did turn up any new facts.

What we are entitled to hope for is a new interpretation, more valid than the Christian, rationalist, romantic, academic, and Muslim interpretations of the past, and this we do not get. On the one hand we find an air of objectivity suggested by the rather repetitious skepticism toward traditional stories, and at the same time we become increasingly aware that Rodinson’s evaluation of these sources is less objective than he would have us believe. He seldom examines the critical, historical, or political criteria by which the authenticity of a particular account should be assessed. For instance, he might have recalled that stories discreditable to A’isha, the Prophet’s favorite wife, are probably Shi’i in origin, while those criticizing his son-in-law Ali are likely to be Sunni—a basic sectarian division that complicates research. But Rodinson prefers to leave himself free to select those versions that accord best with his own interpretation of the world, fundamental to which is atheism (as he is at pains to make clear).


Now of course there is nothing wrong about writing as an atheist, provided both writer and reader recognize the limitations this imposes. Religious and spiritual interpretations become meaningless, and have to be ignored; but it is perfectly legitimate to try to explain religious phenomena in nonreligious terms. Unfortunately Rodinson has succumbed to the temptation to debunk the whole prophetic claim, to cut the hero down to size from a divinely inspired messenger of God to a sincere hallucinator—or a calculating planner.

The incidents recorded have a curious way of fitting neatly into one or another of the recurring themes of Rodinson’s biography. First, he is anxious that we should not attribute to Muhammad any qualities that might seem to set him apart from other men. We must on no account accept “traditional exaggerations which made him…a model of physical, intellectual and moral perfection.” With some lack of consistency, Rodinson has to attribute his teachings not to some outside inspiration, but to Muhammad himself. “It is obvious to non-Muslims,” he writes, “that the words which Muhammad heard…were dictated to him by his unconscious.” “If we consider that the voice of Allah was in fact [my italics] the voice of Muhammad’s unconscious….”

But how then does Rodinson explain the appearance in the “unconscious” of this ordinary little man of ideas that gave rise to a new world faith, that inspired and still inspire millions of adherents of all races, types, and classes? And would it not have been at least “objective” to indicate that his own assessment of Muhammad’s character lies at the opposite extreme to that recorded by the Prophet’s contemporaries, who saw in him (to quote the words used by Syed Ameer Ali in his Spirit of Islam, written in 1890) “humility of spirit, austerity of conduct, refinement and delicacy of feeling, stern devotion to duty, patriarchal simplicity, noble clemency and forbearance, a majesty in his face, an air of genius…”?

Having dismissed the divine origin of Islam, Rodinson must find some other source, and it is unsurprising, though disappointing, when this turns out to be a reversion to the familiar medieval view, revived by Carlyle and Muir in the nineteenth century, that Muhammad’s teaching was no more than an amalgam of half-understood Jewish and Christian ideas, picked up from conversations in Mecca and on business trips to Syria, leavened by a basic intuition induced within Muhammad the man by the conditions of his personal existence and the structure of the society in which he lived. Now no one would deny that such matters will be relevant to any man’s life; but the idea is not a new one, even where Muhammad is concerned, and Rodinson has added little to what has already been said by other sociological writers like Montgomery Watt.

One has in any case the uneasy impression that Rodinson is more interested in clearing the theological rubbish out of the way in order to set the stage for an all-out personal attack. At first this is muted, but by the middle of the book, and especially in the chapter “The Prophet in Arms,” Rodinson has abandoned all pretense at sympathetic objectivity, Muhammad, he implies, may not have been the classic impostor of Voltaire, but he was at best self-deluded and motivated by ambition and greed; his “revelations” were frequently concocted by him to serve some personal motive, to get himself out of some private difficulty. Rodinson even professes to find “commercial” language in the Koran that God presumably would not have used, and recites with relish the story of Abdallah, the secretary who had been writing down revelations at Muhammad’s dictation, and who claimed later that he had interpolated his own words without the Prophet noticing.

And sex, of course. Like a good Freudian, Rodinson eagerly retails every legend of Muhammad’s marital life that might serve to show him as a helpless victim of frustrated sexual urges. The mood is set with a wholly irrelevant quotation (as early as page 54) from a medieval rabbi on the propensity of the Arabs toward fornication, and he reverts constantly, almost obsessively, to this theme. The somewhat sensual picture of paradise painted in the Koran is only to be expected from “the ardent husband of the elderly and already twice married Khadija.”

No opportunity is missed for underlining Muhammad’s “fondness for women.” The wives, often elderly widows, whom Muhammad married in later life for political reasons, are automatically labeled by Rodinson as “pretty,” “beautiful,” “lovely,” and we are usually told that the ceremonies took place with the greatest precipitancy. Nor can we absolve Rodinson by crediting him with an attempt to present Muhammad as the modern “liberated” man, free of the sexual inhibitions that according to many have turned Christians into repressed neurotics. Perhaps he was, though the idea is somewhat of an anachronism; but in any case Rodinson does not say so—nor, evidently, does he think so.

The effect, even if not the intention, of all this is to prejudice the Western reader, brought up on the Christian image of the ideal religious leader, against the founder of Islam. The qualities traditionally embodied in the person of Jesus—chastity, asceticism, self-denial, humility, gentleness—have come to be regarded, even in a society no longer practicing Christian, as those to be expected of any prophet worthy of the name. Even some modern Muslim apologists seem to have been affected by this Western ethic. We must remember, however, that Christianity, regarding Jesus as divine, was obliged to find divine, that is nonhuman, qualities in him.

For the orthodox Muslim the Prophet is an ordinary man—God’s chosen messenger, certainly, and therefore presumably possessed of the necessary qualifications for such a task, but with no superhuman characteristics. This was indeed how the early Muslims saw him. Later on legends accumulated around his name, partly out of the delight of ordinary folk in such tales, partly as vehicles for the Sufi mystical thought and imagery. Rodinson relates many of these in his final chapter, without explaining their source or significance, and so still further distorts his over-all picture.

The trouble is that Rodinson’s portrait of Muhammad as a rather insignificant little man caught up in a whirlpool of his own passions and of political and social upheavals simply does not square with the historical facts. This was a man whose personality and teaching so dominated and impressed even those who had never seen him that within fifty years his followers had overrun one great empire and seriously crippled another, and in the course of the next century or so established not only their rule but their faith over a vast area.

Inspired by the teachings of the Koran, the Arab tribesmen, numbered in no more than tens of thousands, swept out of the Arabian peninsula, westward through Egypt and along the North African coast, and eastward through Persia into Afghanistan. Everywhere they went, rulers and empires collapsed, while the common people rose to welcome them and to hear the message from God that they brought with them. By 712 the whole of Spain was in Muslim hands, and an era of intellectual and cultural splendor was inaugurated that did not finally end until the fall of the last Muslim ruler of Granada in 1492. In the opposite direction Muslim (no longer purely Arab) armies pressed on into India and as far as the borders of China.

In all these lands Islam inspired marvels of art and architecture, of literature and science. The impact of Islam in the world has never been reversed, in spite of military setbacks and the material superiority of the West. To this day the Islamic world extends from Morocco to Indonesia, and is spreading rapidly throughout Africa; there are major Muslim communities in the Balkans, China, and the Soviet Union—and adherents everywhere. All this stemmed from the message brought by one man.

Why did this man have this effect, when others—like Maslama, for instance, whose teachings Rodinson describes as “very similar to those of Muhammad”—were never heard of again? Was it because he was a man of outstanding personality and genius? Or because he was the chosen instrument of God’s will? Or because his teachings met the needs of a people ripe for change? Rodinson does not pose or answer these questions.

It is regrettable that Rodinson is just as dogmatic in his views as his Christian and Muslim predecessors. This is not to criticize him for being an atheist (or Watt for being a Christian, or Syed Ameer Ali for being a Muslim). It is rather to point out that all such committed believers have, when dealing with religious phenomena, to overcome blocks within themselves that stand in the way of exploration of important areas of experience. As impartial historians they ought to question—question not only the facts presented to them in the chronicles but also the interpretations of them, their own as much as anyone else’s.

But few committed Christians or Muslims can dare to question their own faith; and in the same way Rodinson fails to question the validity of his own atheist faith—so much so that he is unwilling to allow a role even to the power of religious belief, let alone to anything more mysterious that may or may not lie behind it. It is unthinkable that he should consider even the possibility of extra-human intervention in human affairs. Yet after all this is not quite such an unfashionable idea as it was thirty or forty years ago. There is far less excuse for a present-day historian to ignore it for fear of ridicule. Indeed to do so is to emulate the example of the medieval inquisitors who refused to consider Galileo’s theory that the earth was round.

One final point. Rodinson is dealing with beliefs that still grip and inspire millions. This is no reason for a deferential attitude toward them, but it does suggest that they ought not to be treated with contempt. One would not expect the same biography of Muhammad to be written by a Muslim, a Christian, and an atheist, but one might feel that a satisfactory biography would be one that was acceptable to open-minded members of each conviction. Rodinson’s book is strictly a rationalist, atheist interpretation. It will be unconvincing to Christians and offensive to Muslims.

Probably the ideal biography can never be written; the man and his role in history are extraordinary, too complex for any one biographer to encompass. The complete portrait will only emerge when we have assembled all the component parts. In this sense Rodinson’s book, for all its bias, is another piece to be slotted into the puzzle already partly completed by Sale, Carlyle, Muir, Watt, Ameer Ali, and others. But it is not the whole story.

This Issue

January 27, 1972