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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.