Muhammad Muckraked


by Maxime Rodinson, translated by Anne Carter
Pantheon, 361 pp., $8.95

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…

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