Book review: A book for all —by Samia Saleem

  Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time By Karen Armstrong
Harper Collins; Pp 249

Reviled by her critics and applauded by her admirers, Karen Armstrong has revealed her story-telling skills, brilliant perception and painstaking research yet another time in Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. Written expressly with the purpose of removing misunderstandings about Islam in the West in the aftermath of 9/11, the book goes beyond simply highlighting the tolerant and pluralistic character of the faith proclaimed by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in 7th century Arabia while recounting his life’s journey. She brings it alive through her vivid narration and insightful interpretations. And this is what makes this book a priceless contribution to the literature in the West on early Islam.

Karen Armstrong starts her book with a telling account of the socio-economic and political circumstances and the attendant moral vacuum prevailing at the time of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). She explains at length that this was a result of traditional Arab tribes settling in Makkah, which had emerged as the business and spiritual centre of the entire Arabian peninsula. The barren terrain, not conducive for farming, left the people of Makkah, who guarded the sacred house and the well of Zamzam, with only one profession — trade and commerce. All trade from north and south passed through the secluded city of Makkah, which also hosted the final business fair of a series that were held at various times of the year in various parts of Arabia. The tribes of Makkah retained the negative characteristics of the traditional tribal code that governed life in the desert: the haughty superciliousness and the sense of superiority over humbler people and “easily flying into violent rage if they think their honour has been impugned”. On the other hand, the traditional generosity and care of the weak had been gradually replaced by unbridled greed for private fortunes and moral turpitude with the establishment of the new economic order. The new generation had started to feel a moral emptiness and some of them had already withdrawn from mainstream life. This situation urgently called for a new moral code of social justice and surrender to a higher authority. When Gabriel visited Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a cave on Mount Hira, it was to cultivate him to become the saviour of Arabia, which later expanded to include the entire humanity.

It is hard for Muslims today, who are generally fed on the stories of superhuman characteristics of prophets and their infallibility since childhood, to realise the difficulties that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had to face when he proclaimed himself a prophet who had brought a new religion. Armstrong gives a detailed picture of the tribal structures that governed life in the desert and which had extended into the urban settlement of Makkah. Nobody could imagine life without tribal affiliation because it was fair to kill anyone without the protection of a group. Criticising the prevailing customs meant inviting the strong opposition of the tribes, including your own, and depriving yourself of its protection. The Prophet (PBUH) suffered all these consequences at some point of his career.

A whole chapter of the book is dedicated to explaining the notion of jahiliyyah, which is generally thought to prevail at the time when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in Makkah. Armstrong demonstrates that jahiliyyah does not only refer to the pre-Islamic period of Arabia or the ‘Time of Ignorance’ as most Muslim scholars translate this word. To her, jahiliyyah is a mindset. It was the chief vice of the kafirun, those who are impervious to the true meanings of the signs of God’s benevolence in His creation and fail to translate their beliefs into action. Tracing the root of jahiliyyah she says: “Its primary meaning is ‘irascibility’: an acute sensitivity to honour and prestige: arrogance, excess, and above all, a chronic tendency to violence and retaliation. Jahili people were too proud to make the surrender to Islam.” Islam, she explains, means surrender to God. In contrast to jahiliyyah was the virtue of hilm taught by the Quran, which meant forbearance, patience and mercy. Men and women of hilm could “control their anger and remain calm in the most difficult circumstances instead of exploding with rage; they were slow to retaliate; they did not hit back when suffered an injury.”

Karen Armstrong had earlier written a biography of the Prophet (PBUH) titled Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. She felt the need to address questions about Islam arising after 9/11. Therefore, in the book under review, which is part of Harper Collins biographical series ‘Eminent Lives’, she has particularly addressed the Western criticism on Islamic sanction of the institution of polygamy, purdah, jihad and the treatment of women. While tracing the origins of these institutions in the requirements of those times, Armstrong highlights the benign face of Islam. She diligently explains in detail the causes of the various wars that took place in the times of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), thus negating the common Western perception that Islam is a violent religion. For instance, the extermination of an entire Jewish clan who had been guilty of treason after the Battle of the Trench sounds like a heinous act to us today, and has been duly criticised by Western scholars, but Armstrong casually mentions it as part of their culture. However, she makes it clear that although it was deemed essential to deal with the enemies of the nascent Muslim society who were out to harm it through overt and covert means, later the Prophet (PBUH) recognised the urgent need to end this cycle of violence, which was no different from what was happening before the advent of Islam. Thus the Prophet (PBUH) assaulted the last vestiges of the jahili spirit while making peace with the Quraish of Makkah at Hudaibiya. He conceded to all the demands of the Quraish against the explicit wishes of his followers to buy peace.

Karen Armstrong further argues that Islam is an extension of the existing tradition of monotheistic religions and the Prophet (PBUH) never really expected the Christians and the Jews to ‘convert’ to his faith. She quotes several verses of the Quran, which state that there are men of faith among the people of the Book who pray to God and do good deeds, to highlight the pluralistic nature of Islam, which validates other faiths as opposed to the general perception. Responding to the need of current circumstances where the world is being divided along religious lines as a result of fundamentalist mindsets gaining ground on both sides of the divide, Armstrong affirms that Islam allows, rather encourages, the peaceful coexistence of different strands of faiths in a society, because there is no coercion in Islam. It was not religious or ideological, but political differences that had led to the Muslims’ clashes with the Jews in Madina. Had Muslims not been pushed to the wall, they would have happily coexisted with the inhabitants of Madina. It is in line with her belief that “all the great traditions are saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences”. They each have in common, she says, an emphasis upon the overriding importance of compassion.

It was very refreshing, and reassuring, to read this book at a time when one finds oneself confronted with self-styled defenders of Islam who consider killing unarmed innocent civilians fair game to avenge opposition. Armstrong directly assaults the jahili spirit of a section of the present-day Muslims as well as the fundamentalist elements in the West, who blame Islam for this violence. Both espouse jahiliyyah, thus illustrating how Muhammad (PBUH) is a prophet of our times, as the title of this book suggests.

Samia Saleem is a freelance writer and can be reached at