In the name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate.
Despite its relatively recent publication, Dr. Meraj Mohiuddin’s Revelation: The Story of Muhammad (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) has quickly become one of the more popular, publicized, and widely-distributed additions to the growing corpus of English literature on the prophetic biography (sīrah). Boasting an aesthetically-pleasing, simple, and modern design, Revelation enjoys a long list of endorsements by well-recognized Muslim personalities in the West and a foreword by the American Muslim academic Dr. Sherman Jackson.
The author, a physician by training, has taken great pains to design a book that is rich in illustrations to complement a condensed chronicle of the Messenger of Allah’s life (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). Mohiuddin includes a wealth of graphics: maps, family trees, and timelines that help visualize complex lineages and familial relationships, track the movements of armies, and contextualize significant events in time. Deceptively large in size, the book’s historical material is in fact quite concise, providing first-time readers of the sīrah a summarized version of the contents of, for the most part, Martin Ling’s Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources and Ṣafī al-Raḥmān al-Mubārakpūrī’s The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet (al-Raḥīq al-Makhtūm).
Readers will be able to immediately appreciate the overall quality of the printing: the heavy paper, strong binding, professional typesetting, minimalist design, etc… Unlike some sīrahbooks available in the market, which – despite some excellent content – are commonly discredited due to their poor grammatical constructions, imprecise translations, archaic prose, sophomoric transliteration, or simply the use of flimsy paper that allows text to bleed through to the other side, Revelation ensures that no reader will superficially dismiss it on the basis of appearance alone.
Once the curious reader opens the textbook to grade it on the basis of its actual substance, however, some serious limitations of the work begin to emerge. The graphics, timelines, glossaries, and quality printing become quickly and regrettably obscured by a paucity of sources, a careless narrative, an excessive poetic license, and a general reductionistic historical revisionism, amongst a laundry list of other issues.
Of course, there is little reason to doubt the noble and sincere intentions of the author, who despite admitted academic limitations, goes to great pains to present readers with a biography that reflects his appreciation of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) while also appearing to be a critical and reflective narrative. Our intention in writing this review is not to place doubt on the author’s aims or motives. It is simply an attempt to bring to light some of the book’s shortcomings, be they obvious or subtle, so that readers may be equipped to read it with a critical eye. Our hope is that despite the work’s historical and methodological failings, readers will learn to appreciate its limitations while still taking advantage of the book’s noteworthy contributions, and that the author will benefit from the suggestions of this review – as harsh or extensive as they may seem – in producing future editions.
Method of Critique
In this critique, we attempt to address some of the key issues of methodology and sources in the work under separate headings and with only a few examples from the text for each. Should it be requested or required, a future, more exhaustive corrigendum may be provided with a more detailed, systematic inventory of errors arranged in order of their appearance in the book. For the time being, we suffice with four main headings – poverty of sources, reductionist historical revisionism and cultural presentism, factual inaccuracies, and poetic license. We have not intended, by any means, to exhaustively list the book’s failings. We have also chosen not to focus on typographical or spelling errors, transliteration issues, or other minor points in this review. However, in some instances, when it is useful for the reader to address smaller matters, we have done so. A case in point is the author’s choice to exclude Arabic text in the book so that the reader “will not have to treat it with ceremonial care”, despite the cover of the book being adorned with a beautiful calligraphic print of the Prophet Muḥammad’s name (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), which even if not a verse of the Qurʾān, demands a certain degree of veneration and ceremonial care.
Due to this ill-equipped reviewer’s own academic limitations and owing to the urgency with which this review was prepared, I am certainly under no illusion that my critique has sufficiently or comprehensively addressed the book’s flaws, nor that every particular assessment is accurate. It is my sincere hope that any mistakes found in this review will be rectified in the future, with help from the reader, for the general benefit.
Poverty of Sources
One of the more pivotal shortcomings of Dr. Mohiuddin’s Revelation is immediately obvious from the author’s introduction. Admitting a lack of expertise, the author laudably concedes to being “neither an Islamic scholar nor an amateur historian” and later admits to his “unfamiliarity with seventh-century Arabian customs” and an “unsophisticated understanding of tribal history and politics”. The self-admission helps to explain the author’s paucity of references and inattention to Arabic primary sources for the construction and verification of his narrative, due to which any original contribution to the sīrah genre of literature in terms of substantive research is minimal, perhaps even negligible. Omitting the visual aids and the multitude of overlong verbatim quotations, the actual body content of the book lacks much of the substance that is found in easily-available sīrah books in the market today.
Many of these books, despite their own imperfections, could have tremendously benefited the author in compiling his narrative. Some are translations of Arabic primary source documents, like Alfred Guillaume’s reconstructed translation of the second-century historian Muḥammad b. Iṣḥāq’s (d. 159/770) maghāzī work, and are indispensable to any writer limited to English-language sources (See Ibn Isḥāq, Muḥammad. The Life of Muḥammad: A Translation of Ibn Isḥāq ‘s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Translated with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume. London and Karachi, 1955. See also Dr. ‘Abdul Latif Tibawi’s important critical review: The Life of Muhammad: A Critique of Guillaume’s English Translation in Tibawi, A. L., Arabic and Islamic Themes: Historical, Educational and Literacy Studies, London: Luzac, 1976, 25-52). For priceless descriptions of the Messenger of Allah’s (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) names, character, habits, miracles, and physical countenance, Mohiuddin could have used Aisha Bewley’s translation of Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ al-Yaḥṣūbī’s (554/1149) Kitāb al-Shifāʾ (‘Iyāḍ, al-Qāḍī. Muhammad, Messenger of Allah, Ash-Shifa of Qadi ‘Iyad. Translated by Aisha Bewley. Madinah Press, January 1, 2006) or Darussalam’s translation of the abridged Zād al-Maʿād (al-Jawziyyah, Ibn Qayyim. Provisions for the Hereafter. Summarized by Imam Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab At-Tamimi. Darussalam)
Similarly missing is Trevor Gassick’s translation of Ibn Kathīr’s (774/1373) celebrated and critical sīrah volume (Ibn Kathīr. The Life of the Prophet Muhammad. Translated by Trevor Le Gassick and reviewed by Dr. Ahmed Fareed. Garnet Publishing, September 1, 2000), the indispensable historiographical discussions in Shiblī al-Nuʿmānī’s Sīrat al-Nabī (Al-Nu‘mānī, al-Shibli. Sirat-un- Nabi. Translated by M. Tayyib Bakhsh Budayūnī. Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delhi, reprinted in 1983) or Idrīs al-Kandhalwī’s critical hadith examinations in his Sīrat al-Muṣṭafā (Kandehlawī, Idrīs. Siratul Mustafa. Translated by Mufti Muhammed Kadwa. 3 vols. Zam Zam Publishers, January 1, 2011), as well as Abū-l-Ḥasan ʿAlī al-Nadwī’s (d. 1999) invaluable cultural and socio-political comments in his al-Sīrat al-Nabawiyyah (al-Nadwī, Abu al-Ḥasan. Prophet of Mercy. Translated by Dr. Mohiuddin Ahmad. Turath Publishing, 2014).
Given that the author expresses interest in the extraction of meanings and lessons from the historical narrative, the omission of Muḥammad Saʿīd Ramaḍān al-Būṭī’s or Muḥammad al-Ghazālī’s respective Fiqh al-Sīrah books is puzzling (al-Būṭī, M. Sa‘īd Ramaḍān. The Jurisprudence of the Prophetic Biography. Translated by Nancy Roberts and revised by Anas al-Rifā‘ī. Dār al-Fikr, January 1 2006; al-Ghazālī, Muḥammad. Fiqh-us-Seerah, Understanding the Life of the Prophet Muhammad. International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations and distributed by International Islamic Publishing House, revised second edition 1420/1999), just as is the exclusion of the 3-volume English translation of ʿAlī Muḥammad al-Ṣallābī’s al-Sīrat al-Nabawiyyah (as-Sallaabee, ‘Ali Muhammad. Noble Life of the Prophet. Translated by Faisal Shafeeq. Dar-us-Salam Publications, October 1, 2005) or Dr. Muḥammad Ḥamīdullah’s The Life and Work of the Prophet of Islam (Hamidullah, Muhammad. The Life and Work of The Prophet of Islam. Translated by Mahmood Ahmed Ghazi. Adam Publishers, January 1, 1998).
As a result, the reader is left with, besides al-Mubārakpūrī and Lings, an unhealthy reliance on extractions from a handful of controversial figures and questionable authorities like Montgomery Watt, Reza Aslan, and Karen Armstrong. Without any direct reference to the ḥadīth, maghāzī, or shamāʾīl collections of the critical ḥadīth scholars, like al-Bukhārī, Muslim, Abū Dāwūd, al-Tirmidhī, or al-Nasāʾī (whose canonical texts have long been translated into the English language) or their encyclopedic commentaries, readers are forced to rely on a slew of such secondary or tertiary sources and their wide array of fantastical imaginations born out of dated, reductionist attitudes. A simple internet search for critical reviews of Martin Lings or Montgomery Watt’s works (see for example, G. F. Haddad’s A Critical Reading of Lings’ Muhammad or Muhammad Mohar Ali’s The Biography of the Prophet and the Orientalists with Special Reference to the Writings of William Muir, D. S. Margoliouth and W. Montgomery Watt) helps bring to light some of most glaring problems in Mohiuddin’s quotations: secular/materialistic reductionism, misinterpretation of socio-economic context, chronological snobbery, poetic license, and factual inaccuracy.
As for other Mohiuddin’s other sources, Hamza Yusuf’s lecture notes are indeed valuable (even if not from a written or early source, or even necessarily original), as are most of the Tariq Ramadan’s reflections. From the journalist Adil Salahi the author actually takes very little, and the lengthiest selections he quotes from him are from Salahi’s most controversial and poorly-researched revisionist positions, foremost amongst them the issue of the age of ʿĀʾishah (may Allah be pleased with her).
It is entirely possible that this reviewer simply had too high of an expectation from the book from the onset, an expectation fed by the outstanding quality of print and the long list of endorsements. Yet, one cannot but imagine how many of the failings this review highlights could have been easily avoided had the author simply accessed the vast treasure of historical data available in the original, Arabic source material (or at least had his work thoroughly reviewed by a critical Islamic scholar or two trained in the use of such sources). To demonstrate how limiting Mohiuddin’s list of sources truly is – or for that matter any sīrah book composed using only non-Arabic sources – we have compiled a list of some published, accessible Arabic books on sīrah today, some of which span 14 volumes or more (and have chosen to leave out hundreds of other works from various sub-genres of historical literature, including the innumerable ḥadīth collections which would take too much space and time to add and some of which are published in over 50 volumes):
- Ibn Isḥāq, Muḥammad. al-Mubtadaʾ wa-l-Mabʿath wa al-Maghāzī. (recensions and portions of which are published in Ibn Hishām, al-Ṭabarī, and others)
- Ibn Hishām, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Malik. Tahdhīb al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah. Ed. Muḥammad Khalīl Harās. Cairo: Maktabat al-Jumhūriyyah, 1389.
- Ibn Ḥibbān, Abū Ḥātim Muḥammad. al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah wa Akhbār al-Khulafāʾ. Ed. ʿAbd al-Salām ʿAlūsh. al-Maktab al-Islāmī.
- al-Qayrawānī, ʿAbd Allah b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān. al-Jāmiʿ fī-l-Sunan wa-l-Ādāb wa-l-Maghāzī. Ed. ‘Abd al-Majīd Turkī. Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī.
- Al-Rāzī, Abū Zakariyyā Aḥmad b. Fāris. Awjaz al-Siyar li Khayr al-Bashr. Ed. Muḥammad Maḥmūd Ḥamdān. Dār al-Bashr.
- al-Andulusī, Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī b. Aḥmad b. Saʿīd b. Ḥazm. Jawāmiʿ al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah. Ed. Dr. Iḥsān ʿAbbās and Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Asad and reviewed by Aḥmad Shākir. Egypt: Dār al-Maʿārif.
- al-Namirī, Abū ʿUmar Yūsuf b. ʿAbd Allah b. Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Barr. al-Durar fī-l-Maghāzī wa-l-Siyar. Ed. Dr. Shawqī Ḍayf. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif.
- al-Qurashī, Abū al-Qāsim Ismāʿīl b. Muḥammad. al-Mabʿath wa-l-Maghāzī. Muḥammad b. Khalīfah al-Rabbāḥ. Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm.
- al-Suhaylī, Abū-l-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAbd Allah. al-Rawḍ al-Unf. Ed. ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-Salām al-Salāmī. Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1421.
- al-Maqdisī, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ghanī b. ʿAbd al-Wāḥid. Mukhtaṣar Sīrat al-Nabī Ṣallā Allāhu ʿAlayhi wa Sallam. Ed. Khālid b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Shāyiʿ.
- Ibn Abī Rukab, Abū Dharr Muṣʿab b. Abī Bakr. Sharḥ Tahdhīb al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah. Egypt: 1329.
- Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Ṭabarī, Abū-l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. ʿAbd Allah. Khulāṣat Siyar Sayyid al-Bashar.Ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ghaffār Khān. Hyderabad, India: al-Jāmiʿah al-ʿUthmāniyyah (academic treatise) 1991, then published by Dāʾirat al-Maʿārif al-ʿUthmāniyyah, 2005/1426.
- al-Dimyāṭī, Abū Muḥammad Sharaf al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Muʾmin b. Khalaf. al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah.Ed. Asʿad Muḥammad al-Ṭayyib. Aleppo, Syria: Dār al-Ṣābūnī, 1416.
- al-Kinānī, Badr al-Dīn Abū ʿAbd Allah Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm. al-Mukhtaṣar al-Ṣaghīr fī Sīrat al-Bashīr wa-l-Nadhīr. Muḥammad Kamāl al-Dīn ʿIzz al-Dīn. ʿĀlam al-Kutub.
- al-Kinānī, ʿIzz al-Dīn b. Badr al-Dīn Abū ʿAbd Allah Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm Ibn Jamāʿah. al-Mukhtaṣar al-Kabīr fī Sīrat al-Rasūl Ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhu wa Sallam. Sāmī Makkī al-ʿĀnī. al-Bashīr.
- Abū-l-Fatḥ, Fatḥ al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Muḥammad. ʿUyūn al-Athar fī Funūn al-Maghāzī wa-l-Shamāʾil wa-l-Siyar. Ed. Ibrāhīm Muḥammad Ramaḍān. Beirut: Dār al-Qalam.
- Abū-l-Fatḥ, Fatḥ al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Muḥammad. Nūr al-ʿUyūn fī Talkhīṣ Sīrat al-Amīn al-Maʾmūn. Ed. Sulaymān Ḥarsh. Dār al-Nawādir.
- Quṭb al-Dīn, Abū ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Karīm b. ʿAbd al-Nūr. al-Mawrid al-ʿAdhb al-Hanī fī-l-Kalām ʿalā al-Sīrah li-l-Ḥāfiẓ ʿAbd al-Ghanī. Ed. Nūr al-Dīn Ṭālib. Dār al-Nawādir.
- al-Dhahabī, Shams al-Dīn ʿAbū ʿAbd Allah Muḥammad b. Aḥmad. Mukhtaṣar al-Rawḍ al-Unf al-Bāsim fī al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah al-Sharīfah. Ed. Dr. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Ḥarfūsh. Damascus: Dār al-Bashāʾir al-Islāmiyyah, 1426.
- ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Mughlaṭāʾī, b. Qalīj b. ʿAbd Allah. al-Ishārah ilā Sīrat al-Muṣṭafā Ṣallā Allāhū ʿalayh wa Sallam. Ed. Muḥammad Niẓām al-Dīn al-Fatīh. al-Qalam, Dār al-Shāmiyyah.
- ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn Mughlaṭāʾī, b. Qalīj b. ʿAbd Allah. al-Zahr al-Bāsim fī Sīrat Abī-l-Qāsim. Ed. Aḥsan Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Shakūr. Riyadh: Dār al-Salām.
- Ibn Kathīr, Abū-l-Fidāʾ Ismāʿīl b. ʿUmar. al-Fuṣūl fī Sīrat al-Rasūl Ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa Sallam. Ed. ʿAbd Allah b. ʿAbd al-Muḥsin al-Turkī. Cairo: Dār Hijr.
- Badr al-Dīn, Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥasan b. ʿUmar. al-Muqtafā min Sirah al-Muṣṭafā. Ed. Dr. Muṣṭafā Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Dhahabī. Cairo: Dār al-Ḥadīth, 1416.
- al-Fayrawzabādī, Majd al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Yaʿqūb. Sifr al-Saʿādah. Aḥmad Muṣṭafā al-Ṭahṭāwī. Dār al-Faḍīlah, 2004.
- Sibṭ Ibn al-ʿAjamī, Burhān al-Dīn Abū-l-Wafāʾ Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad. Nūr al-Nibrās ʿalā Sīrat Ibn Sayyid al-Nās. Ed. by a team under the supervision of Nūr al-Dīn al-Ṭālib. Dār al-Nawādir.
- al-Maqrīzī, Taqī al-Dīn Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. ʿAlī. Imtāʿ al-Asmāʾ bimā li-l-Rasūl min al-Anbāʾ wa-l-Amwāl wa-l-Ḥafadah wa-l-Matāʿ. Ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd al-Namīsī. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah.
- al-Yamānī, Abū Zakariyyā Yaḥyā b. Abī Bakr. Bahjat al-Maḥāfil wa Baghyat al-Amāthil fī Talkhīṣ al-Siyar wa-l-Muʿjizāt wa-l-Masāʾil. Ed. Anwar b. Abī al-Shaykhī al-Dāghistānī. Jeddah: Dār al-Minhāj, 1430.
- Zayn al-Dīn, ʿAbd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl. Ghāyat al-Sūl fī Sīrat al-Rasūl. Ed. Muḥammad Kamāl al-Dīn ʿIzz al-Dīn ʿAlī. Beirut: ʿĀlam al-Kutub.
- al-Qasṭallānī, Abū-l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. Muḥammad. al-Mawāhib al-Ladunniyyah bi-l-Minaḥ al-Muḥammadiyyah. Ed. Ṣāliḥ b. Aḥmad al-Shāmī. al-Maktab al-Islāmī.
- Baḥraq, Muḥammad b. ‘Umar. Ḥadāʾiq al-Anwār wa Maṭāliʿ al-Asrār fī Sīrah al-Nabī al-Mukhtār. Ed. Muḥammad Ghassān Naṣūḥ ʿAzqūl. Jeddah: Dār al-Minhāj.
- al-Shāmī, Muḥammad b. Yūsuf. Subul al-Hudā wa-l-Rashād fī Sīrat Khayr al-ʿIbād. Ed. by a group of researchers. Cairo: al-Majlis al-Aʿlā li-l-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyyah bi Miṣr, 1418.
- Ibn Burhān al-Dīn al-Ḥalabī, Abū-l-Faraj ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm. Insān al-‘Uyūn fī Sīrat al-Amīn al-Maʾmūn. Dār al-Nawādir.
- al-Zurqānī, Abū ʿAbd Allah Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Bāqī. Sharḥ al-Mawāhib al-Ladunniyyah li-l-Qasṭallānī. Ed. Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Khālidī. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah.
- al-Tamīmī, Abū Sulaymān ʿAbd Allah b. Muḥammad. Mukhtaṣar Sīrat al-Nabī Ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa Sallam. Ed. Quṣayy Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb. al-Maktabah al-Salafiyyah, 1397.
- Daḥlān, Aḥmad b. Zaynī. al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah wa-l-Āthār al-Muḥammadiyyah. Dār al-Nawādir, 2013.
- al-Banjāwī, Muḥammad b. Hārūn. Mulakhkhaṣ al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah. Beirut: al-Maktabah al-Thaqāfiyyah.
- Jamāl al-dīn, Muḥammad b. Muḥammad. Shadhrah min al-Sīrah al-Muḥammadiyyah. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Manār, 1321.
- al-Khuḍrī Bak, Muḥammad b. ʿAfīf. Nūr al-Yaqīn fī Sīrat Sayyid al-Mursalīn Ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa Sallam. Ed. ʿAbduh ʿAlī Kushk. Dār al-Bashāʾir al-Islāmiyyah.
- Riḍā, Muḥammad Rashīd. Khulāṣat al-Sīrah al-Muḥammadiyyah wa Ḥaqīqat al-Daʿwah al-Islāmiyyah. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Manār, 1353.
- al-Ṭabbākh, Muḥammad Rāghib b. Maḥmūd. al-Fatḥ al-Mubīn ʿAlā Nūr al-Yaqīn fī Sīrat Sayyid al-Mursalīn Ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa Sallam.
- al-Banjāwī, ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn. Tahdhīb Sīrat Ibn Hishām. Kuwait: Dār al-Buḥūth with Muʾassasat al-Risālah in Beirut, 1408.
- al-Miṣrī, Muḥammad al-Ghazālī. Fiqh al-Sīrah. With the takhrīj of al-Albānī. 6th ed. Egypt: Dār al-Kutub al-Ḥadīthah, 1965.
- al-Albānī, Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah. Oman: al-Maktabah al-Islāmiyyah.
- al-Junaynī, Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Sīrat al-Nabawiyyah. Introduction and chapter arrangement by Dr. ʿUmar b. Sulayman al-Ashqar. Oman: Dār al-Nafāʾis.
- al-Mubārakpūrī, Ṣafī al-Raḥmān. al-Raḥīq al-Makhtūm. Dār Ibn al-Jawzī.
- al-Mubārakpūrī, Ṣafī al-Raḥmān. Rawḍat al-Anwār fī Sīrat al-Nabī al-Mukhtār. Saudi Arabia: Wizārat al-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyyah.
- al-Jazāʾirī, Abū Bakr Jābir. Hadhā al-Ḥabīb Muḥammad Ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa Sallam Yā Muḥibb. Madinah: Maktabat al-ʿUlūm wa-l-Ḥikam.
- al-ʿUmrī, Akram Ḍiyāʾ. al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah al-Ṣaḥīḥah.
- Mahdī, Rizq Allah Aḥmad. al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah fī Ḍawʾ al-Maṣādir al-Aṣliyyah. Dār Imām al-Daʿwah.
- Mahdī, Rizq Allah Aḥmad. Ṣafwat al-Sīrat al-Nabawiyyah fī Sīrat Khayr al-Bariyyah Ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayh wa Sallam. Riyadh: Wizārat al-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyyah wa-l-Awqāf wa-l-Daʿwah wa-l-Irshād.
Some of the works from the maghāzī genre of prophetic biography that are published and available today:
- Maghāzī ʿUrwat b. al-Zubayr. Published by Nabīhah ʿAbūd. Chicago: al-Bardiyyāt al-ʿArabiyyah, 1378.
- Maghāzī Wahb b. Munabbih al-Ṣanʿānī. Published by Nabīhah ʿAbūd. Heidelberg, Germany.
- Maghāzī Maʿmar b. Rāshid al-Azdī. Published by Nabīhah Maʿbūd. 1378.
- al-Wāqidī, Muḥammad b. ʿUmar. Maghāzī al-Wāqidī. Ed. Ṣabāḥ Muṣṭafā Aḥmad al-Ḥashshāsh. Cairo: 1424.
- Ibn Abī Shaybah, Abū Bakr ‘Abd Allah b. Muḥammad. al-Maghāzī. Ed. Dr. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Ibrāhīm al-ʿUmurī. Dār Ishbīliyā.
- al-Andulusī, Abū Marwān ʿAbd al-Malik b. Ḥabīb. al-Maghāzī. Ed. Khūrkhī Ajwādī. Madrid: 1411.
- Ibn Qāḍī Shuhbah, Taqī al-Dīn Abū Bakr b. Aḥmad. Aḥādīth Muntakhabah min Maghāzī Mūsā b. ʿUqbah. Ed. Mashhūr b. Ḥasan Āl Salmān. Muʾassasat al-Rayyān.
- al-Qurashī, Abū-l-Qāsim Ismā‘īl b. Muḥammad. al-Mabʿath wa-l-Maghāzī. Ed. Muḥammad b. Khalīfah al-Rabāḥ. Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm.
- al-Andulusī, Abū al-Rabīʿ Sulaymān b. Mūsā. al-Iktifāʾ fī Maghāzī Rasūl Allāh wa-l-Thalāthah al-Khulafāʾ.
Reductionist Historical Revisionism and Cultural Presentism
The problem of the paucity of Revelation’s source material is exacerbated by the author’s relatively injudicious selection of complimentary sources. The regular and uncritical extractions from Montgomery Watt, Karen Armstrong, Reza Aslan, Adil Salahi, and Martin Lings results in, among other things, an overall presentation of the prophetic biography with some fairly obvious cognitive biases: reductionism, presentism, chronological snobbery, etc… By reductionism, we are referring to the general unwillingness of some of the above authors to consider spiritual or religious factors in their historical explanations. By presentism, or “the fallacy of nunc pro tunc”, we are referring to the problem in their historical analysis of an anachronistic projection of present-day ideas and perspectives onto the past, while chronological snobbery is a reference to the often subconscious presumption that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present. These cognitive and cultural biases are particularly replete in the Watt, Aslan, and Armstrong excerpts, together which present an overall misleading view of the Prophet’s life (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) and his motives rather than what the author alleges is objective and critical historical context.
About Montgomery Watt in particular, Fred Donner, professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, notes how important it is to view his contributions to the prophetic biography as a product of their time. He states:
“The social sciences, after a period of gestation in the first half of the twentieth century, became in the years following World War II the regnant academic disciplines in much of the Western academy (and outside it, in the arena of policy formation). Watt’s work, like that of everyone else in that time, reflects this. His interpretation of Muḥammad’s life, for example, focuses on the economic and social tensions that, he argued, had developed in Meccan society because of the nascent inequality produced by the burgeoning commerce of Mecca. He spoke of the demise— under the corrosive effect of the growing rift between rich and poor – of what he called “tribal humanism,” the ethos of mutual responsibility according to which members of a tribe shared and looked after each other. Watt saw Muhammad’s teachings as, in part, a response to this essentially socio-economic and, hence, moral dislocation in Meccan society. There was relatively little emphasis on the impact of Muḥammad’s religious ideas as a factor in Islam’s appearance.
Watt’s work on Muḥammad resembled in some respects the earlier work of Hubert Grimme (1864-1942). Grimme had argued that Muḥammad was not a religious preacher, but a social reformer, concerned with succoring orphans and widows, and the poor generally. This view was, however, almost immediately criticized by other scholars, who emphasized the centrality in Muḥammad’s teachings of the idea of God’s oneness and concern with the Last Judgment and the afterlife, concerns that went far beyond merely mundane social issues.
Watt did not deny Muḥammad’s religious role—far from it; indeed, he seems to have accepted that Muḥammad had been sincere in presenting himself as a prophet, and always spoke of Muḥammad in a tone of respect that bordered on reverence. But he did not expend much ink in elaborating how Muḥammad’s religious message contributed to the success of the movement he had begun, nor did he explore very deeply how Muḥammad’s religious message fit into currents of religious thought in the seventh- century Near East. This tepid engagement by Watt with the religious aspects of Muḥammad’s mission was also in keeping with the outlook of the social sciences of his day. Social scientists at that time, and secular-minded historians above all, were uncomfortable talking about religion, and had particular difficulty accepting religion as a factor of historical explanation. So they often engaged in a kind of reductionism when speaking of early Islam, explaining away Islam’s worldly success as being due to something else, searching for what they considered the “real” cause—anything other than religion: the desiccation of Arabia, the lust for booty among Arabian tribesmen, the desire to open new commercial markets, the expression of a presumed “Arab” national feeling, the exhaustion of the two great empires, the social integration brought by Islam that unleashed the latent energy of a hitherto fragmented tribal society (this last one being my own contribution to the reductionist agenda). Watt was swimming in these secular waters too; the secular tone of his work was pronounced enough that the French Islamicist Georges-Henri Bousquet (1900-1978) gave his review of Watt’s Muḥammad at Mecca the wonderfully ironic title “A Marxist interpretation of the origins of Islam by an Episcopal clergyman.”” (Fred Donner, The Study of Islam’s Origins since W. Montgomery Watt’s Publications, paper presented on Friday, November 23, 2015, at the University of Edinburgh)
In fact, Donner is only one of several writers to highlight the biases in Montgomery Watt and other Orientalists’ works. Before him, Dr. Muhammad Mohar Ali (d. 2007), former professor of Islamic History at the University of Madinah and PhD graduate of SOAS, University of London, wrote a multi-volume critical analysis entitled: The Biography of the Prophet and the Orientalists: With Special Reference to the Writings of William Muir, D. S. Margoliouth, and W. Montgomery Watt(See Muhammad Mohar Ali, King Fahad Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an: Madinah, 1417/1997) in which he highlights a long list of instances in which Watt, amongst others, portrays the Prophet’s (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) motives as purely political, tribal, or economic. Zafar Ali Qureshi likewise commits two volumes to convincingly demonstrate that Watt is little better than some of his predecessors in portraying an imaginative prophet of the Orientalist discourse (See Zafar Ali Qureshi, Prophet Muhammad and His Western Critics: A Critique of W. Montgomery Watt and Others, Idāra Maʿārif Islamic, Lahore, 1992, 2 Vols, p. 1103).
The pluralist Reza Aslan’s No god but God, a sloppily researched publication by an often vulgar sensationalist, essentially regurgitates the spurious scholarship of Watt, Muir, and Margoliouth and advances much of their fantastical imaginations on the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). While one can understand the author’s desire for alternative voices and critical scholarship, the belief that Aslan “may represent the voice of a younger generation of Muslims that respect traditional teaching, but have become increasingly unsatisfied with its lack of critical analysis” is deeply problematic. After all, the assumption that traditional teachings lack critical analysis requires first a deep and scholarly engagement with the rich Islamic critical hadith and historical traditions, which neither the author nor Aslan are able to demonstrate.
Particularly striking is the sheer proportion of Watt and Aslan’s quotes that present the reductionist bias highlighted above: Within the sixty-five occasions in which the author chooses to quote Watt, one may identify at least forty which confirm a reductionist bias (over 61%), and of the forty-two Aslan quotes in the book, at least thirty-one (nearly 74%) exhibit such a bias. In other words, the large majority of the Watt and Aslan quotes the author selects from their books are guilty of reductionist bias, not to mention widespread factual inaccuracy, poetic license, and pejorative language. We provide below a few selections from the book, some being extractions from Watt, Aslan, or Armstrong, and some being the author’s own verbiage, that demonstrate the presence of the aforementioned reductionist bias:
On page 58 the author quotes Aslan:
“This trade, modest as it may have been, was wholly dependent on the Ka’bah; there was simply no other reason to be in Mecca. This was a desert wasteland that produced nothing. By inextricably linking the religious and economic life in the city, Qusayy and his descendants had developed an innovative religio-economic system that relied on control of the Ka’bah and its pilgrimage rites – rites in which nearly the whole of the Hijaz participated – to guarantee the economic, religious, and political supremacy of a single tribe, the Quraysh.”
In Aslan’s poorly constructed narrative, the religious life of the Makkans is almost entirely reduced to economic incentives and deliberate manipulation of sacred rites to serve political or economic agendas. Aslan is unabashedly oblivious to the well-established reverence of the Makkan Arabs for sacred rites and the sanctity of the Kaʿbah, as well as the long-standing traditions that testified to their regard for religious custom.
Similarly problematic is Aslan’s unsubstantiated claim quoted on page 71 that “the Abyssinians tried to destroy the Ka’bah… not because the Ka’bah was a religious threat, but because it was an economic rival.” Even if the two were mutually exclusive motivations, all historical accounts contradict Aslan’s claim of exclusivity. All the historically authenticated accounts we were able to find present Abrahah as a ruler who was primarily and initially motivated in the construction of the al-Qullays cathedral by a desire to appease the Abyssinian Negus and to direct the attention of the Arab pilgrims to the cathedral built in the Negus’s name. And he was motivated in his attack on the Kaʿbah by a fury incited by a man from the Kinānī Arabs who provocatively soiled his cathedral. Ibn Isḥāq and Ibn Hishām both transmit that when Abrahah built his matchless cathedral (al-Qullays) in Ṣanʿā, Yemen, and wrote to the Negus in Abyssinia that “he had built a cathedral of such magnificence whose like had not been built for a ruler before him” and that Abrahah would not rest until he could divert the Arab pilgrimages to it, and when news of Abrahah’s goals reached some of the Arabs, a Kinānī Arab from the tribe of Banū Fuqaym b. ʿAdī b. ʿĀmir b. Thaʿlabah b. al-Ḥārith b. Mālik b. Kinānah set out towards the cathedral in Ṣanʿā and soiled it and then returned to his lands. Upon learning of the incident, Abrahah took an oath to march upon the Kaʿbah and raze it to the ground. (Ibn Hishām, al-Sīrat al-Nabawiyyah pg. 50-54)
On the very same page (71) one will also find Watt’s imaginative claim that ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib’s negotiations with Abrahah “ought to be interpreted as a party move of a small group of Quraysh” and that “‘Abd al-Muttalib was presumably trying to get support from the Abyssinians against his rivals among Quraysh, such as the clans of ‘Abd Shams, Nawfal, and Makhzum”. Watt’s assertion here is neither explicitly nor implicitly supported by any historical evidence. It disappointingly reduces the role of morality and religio-ethical motivations in ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib’s narrative, replacing them instead with purely political or economic ones.
Only a few pages later (pg. 74) Aslan is quoted as stating that “the nomadic lifestyle is one that requires a religion to address immediate concerns. Which god can lead us to water? Which god can heal our illnesses?”, which in light of Aslan’s larger reductionist lens appears to suggest that theological realizations were little more than a result of immediate, mundane, and secular concerns, not intellectual reflection and spiritual introspection. Aslan’s chronological snobbery, a term coined by C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield to describe the cognitive bias that pre-modern thinking and learning must be inherently inferior simply by virtue of its temporal priority, grants little credit to the nomadic intellect and the clarity of bedouin wisdom, such as is demonstrated in the well-transmitted statement of a bedouin Arab: “If camel dung gives evidence of a camel, and footsteps give evidence of a traveler, does not the overshadowing night, the tranquil day, and the sky full of constellations give evidence of (the existence of) the All-Knowing Creator?” (al-Jāḥiẓ, al-Bayān wa-l-Tabyīn 1:163)
This sort of reductionist historical revisionism is also apparent in Watt’s denial of altruism in the Pact of Chivalry on page 80, his overemphasis of economic factors on page 98 (as well as the author’s own overemphasis of social justice motivations on the same page), Karen Armstrong’s reductionist focus on concerns about the aggressive market economy and social reform instead of theology and morality on pages 93, 100, and 103, etc… On page 103, in fact, Armstrong’s reductionism is coupled by an odd, indefensible error. She states, “In his desire to avoid a serious dispute, Muhammad did not, at this stage, emphasize the monotheistic content of his message… It was more important to practice the ‘works of justice’ than to insist on a theological position that would offend many of the people he was trying to win over.” It should be clear to any reader – be they expert or amateur – of the sīrah literature that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) undoubtedly emphasized monotheism in the early stage of his prophethood regardless of who it offended from amongst those who were dear to him. He was not simply advocating sweeping social reform. From the very first public statements the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) made was the unequivocal and emphatic claim that he (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) is the one God’s messenger and that he was sent to warn his people of the Last Day. Clearly, these were theological positions that he realized would offend many of the people he was trying to win over (the Messenger of Allah’s encounter with Waraqah immediately after prophethood is also sufficient proof that he was aware that his proselytizing would offend his fellow Makkans to the extent that it would eventually lead to his expulsion from Makkah).
The author likewise quotes Watt’s bizarre claim that “Muhammad’s original message was not a criticism of paganism. It appears to be directed to people who already had a vague belief in God, and to aim at making this belief of theirs more precise by calling attention to particular events and natural processes in which God’s agency was to be seen…” He then adds, “What, then, is the point of the Qur’an’s insistence on God’s goodness and power? Against whom is it directed? It is directed against the materialism of the Meccan merchants who thought that, because of their wealth and influence, they were little gods, disposing of Meccan commerce and politics as they pleased.” How is one to understand such a claim when faced with clear and incontrovertible evidence from the Qurʾān’s earliest verses indicating that the original message of Muḥamad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) no doubt emphasized rejection of paganism and provided critique of it in remarkable detail? Of course, if one were to identify all the passages in which Watt’s reduction of motivations to the socio-economic and material is on full display, this review would become detailed beyond readability (for just a few more examples, see pages 112, 115, 141, and 186).
Aslan’s imaginative reductionism is also replete throughout his quoted passages, as demonstrated in the several examples provided above. Below are some more egregious examples: On page 115, Aslan seems to imply that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) intentionally directed an attack on the status of the Kaʿbah in order to overturn the religio-economic system. Not only is the claim categorically false, to my knowledge their appears to be no historical evidence to indicate that the Makkans perceived the Prophet’s call to monotheism as a necessary attack on the sanctity or status of the Kaʿbah. On page 117, Aslan repeats his unsubstantiated claim that the Messenger of Allah’s (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) initial concern was not with how many gods there were but with revealing what kind of god Allah was. Aslan appears to struggle with the idea that part of the Prophet’s revealing what kind of god Allah is necessitated a focus on His oneness. To instead focus on the “more urgent message” of abolishing false contracts and the practice of usury is also to ignore the clear and simple historical fact that usury was prohibited only much later in the late Madinan period.
Below are a few more examples of reductionist historical revisionism evident in the passages quoted by Mohiuddin:
- Armstrong (pg. 134) claiming that “Muhammad had no quarrel with the beliefs of Abu l-Hakam [Abu Jahl] or Abu Sufyan. In fact, much of their theology was quite correct…”
- Armstrong (pg. 139): “This new religion was not about achieving metaphysical certainty: the Qur’an wanted people to develop a different kind of awareness.” The fallacy of both statements is quite apparent.
- Watt (pg. 141): “The situation which confronted Muhammad was a malaise which had social, economic, political, and intellectual symptoms. His message was essentially religious in that it attempted to remedy the underlying religious causes of the malaise, but it affected the other aspects, and consequently the opposition had many facets”, in addition to, “He [Muhammad] doubtless accepted the Qur’anic view that he was only a warner, and sought for no more than a religious function….” Both quotes demonstrate that Watt is unable to comprehend the larger political, social, and economic message in revelation, both early and later revelation. The second passage makes it appear as if the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, initially sought no political position but later realizes that secular leadership was necessary to carry forward the word of God, hence his push to conquer Makkah. Of course, the injunction to conquer Makkah and the Prophet’s eventual establishment as a social, political, and economic leader can not, in Watt’s eyes, itself be a result of God’s revelation and divine injunction.
- Watt (pg. 175): “Muhammad’s reasons for thus waiting until the majority had reached Medina were probably to ensure that waverers did not abandon the enterprise and to make it certain the he would be in a strong and independent position when he reached Medina and would not have to rely solely on the support on the Medinan Muslims.” Clearly, this conjectural statement is but a reflection of Watt’s general reductionist commitment.
- Armstrong (pg. 308): “Muhammad had never planned to overthrow the Quraysh but had simply wanted to reform the social system, which, he was convinced, would bring the city to ruin.” In light of Armstrong’s general narrative, it may be tolerably assumed that by “ruin” she refers to worldly ruin, whereas the Prophet’s (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) concerns for the Makkans and mankind in general extended far beyond worldly social reform or economic and political ruin. Instead, his concern was primarily focused on their ruin in the next life and their failure in the eyes of Allah.
With such an abundance of choice quotations in which this sort of reductionist historical revisionism is evident in Dr. Mohiuddin’s book, it should not be surprising that such revisionism is also evident in the author’s own narrative. On page 106, for example, Mohiuddin appears to imply that the only things that troubled the prophet Muḥammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) in his 30’s was personal aggrandizement, wealth inequality, and social injustice, not polytheism, immorality, rejection of an afterlife, etc… On page 114, a similar uncorroborated focus on the problem of wealth inequality in Makkah leads into the problematic Watt and Aslan quotes on the following page. On page 110, the author exclusively mentions the Prophet’s charisma and determination in discussing his influence on “a number of ambivalent Meccans”, failing to identify the profound effect of the Qurʾān’s inimitable message, the appeal of Islam’s unadulterated monotheism, and the Prophet’s unparalleled honesty and good character, amongst other factors. For the sake of relative brevity we will suffice with the above examples. Otherwise, the curious critical reader will find more examples on the following pages (Aslan 67, Aslan 93, Armstrong 132, Watt 155, 168, 169, Aslan 187, Aslan 189,Watt 190, Watt 205, Watt 206, Watt 207, Watt 238, Watt 263, Watt 291, and Watt 292)
A standard practice in the world of academic writing is peer (and often blind) review. Given the author’s self-admitted lack of expertise in the field of history and the Islamic sciences, it is not unreasonable to have expected him to have commissioned a review to be performed not only by peers but more importantly by a group of experts. To the reader’s great misfortune, however, it appears that the involvement of traditionally-trained and qualified Islamic scholarship in the Revelation project was more or less limited to a list of endorsements and testimonials. Had some of the project funding been spent on a thorough expert review, it is possible that many of the factual inaccuracies and exaggerations could have been identified before publication. Admittedly, many of these errors are relatively minor. Others, however, are quite remarkable and require more attention in this review.
From the long list of comparatively minor errors is the author’s assertion on page 47 that Ibrāhīm (upon him be peace) “was born into a family of staunch polytheists”. Although it is established that his father, Āzar (also known as Tārikh amongst other names), was a committed polytheist (as opposed to those minority of scholars who posit that Āzar was in fact his uncle), little is known about the faith of his family elders other than that of his father. Although it was certainly the norm in Ibrāhīm’s (upon him be peace) time for people to have worshipped stone or wood idols, celestial bodies, or political leaders, we don’t know enough about his entire extended family to be able to make a categorical judgment on their beliefs.
Another minor error occurs on page 71 on which the name the author gives to the “grand cathedral in Sana’a” is the “Yemeni Al-Ka’bah”, which is not only a grammatically incorrect construction but also deviates from the name given in the early sīrah literature: “Qullays”. (See Ibn Hishām, al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah pg. 49; Mughulṭāʾī, al-Zahr al-Bāsim 1:198-200. Although Mughulṭāʾī also quotes al-Qasṭāllī as providing the alternate spellings Qulays and Qalīs; See also al-Shihāb, al-Ḥāṣhiyah ʿalā Tafsīr al-Bayḍāwī or ʿInāyat al-Qāḍī wa Kifāyat al-Rāḍī 9:567 sub Sūrat al-Fīl)
Transliteration inconsistencies and spelling errors are also relatively minor issues despite their frequency in the work. A thorough scholarly edit would likely have resolved these problems. For example, Medina al-Munawwarah should be al-Madīnah al-Munawwarah or al-Medina al-Munawwarah with the particle “al” before Medina to avoid confusing the ṣifah construction with the iḍāfah construction (pg. 59). On page 78, Ḥarb al-Fijār is misspelled as Harb al-Hijar. On page 198, “Umm Makhtum” should be “Umm Maktūm”. On page 295, “ghayr” is improperly spelled and should instead read “ghayra” or “ghayrah”. … etc…
A scholarly edit by a properly-trained historian/ḥadith expert would also have helped the author identify the strength – or lack thereof – of many of the narrations he relies upon to construct his narrative. For example, the narrations of Ṭabaqāt Ibn Saʿd that indicate that Muḥammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) learned how to swim and fly kites in Yathrib include the narrator Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Wāqidī, whose historical reports are considered highly suspicious by investigative hadith scholars who would view this narration, in its uncorroborated form, as unreliable at best and fabricated at worst.
Some potentially more significant errors include Mohiuddin’s incorrect identification of “belief in black magic” as a pagan superstition on page 64. Likely the author intended the “practice of black magic” since belief in siḥr, often understood to be encompassing of what is often referred to today as black or dark magic, as real and effectual is neither antithetical to Islam nor Judaism. (See Sūrat al-Falaq 4 and its exegesis for Qurʾānic evidence of the reality of magic; See also Kitāb al-Furūq 4:149 in which Imam al-Qarāfī categorically declares that indeed “magic has a reality, and the one affected by magic may die (of it), or at least his nature or habits may change (as a result of it) even if he does not come into direct contact (with the sorcerer), and this is the position of al-Shāfiʿī and (Aḥmad) Ibn Ḥanbal.”
On the same page the author quotes a fanciful and unsubstantiated claim of Reza Aslan that “the origin myths of the Ka‘bah indicate that it was a Semitic sanctuary with its roots dug deeply in Jewish tradition.” It is not clear what Aslan is referring to, as the Abrahamic origins of the Ka’bah seem to have had little effect on Jewish cultural or religious practices. No historical evidence is provided by Aslan to indicate Jewish veneration of the Ka’bah, nor an explanation for the lack of a Jewish presence in Makkah.
Similarly, the author uncritically presents Aslan’s claim on page 71 that Arab society had “no concept of an absolute morality as dictated by a divine code of ethics”. This is only true so far as the Arabs had no written code of ethics passed down from the time of Ibrāhīm and Ismāʿīl, upon them be peace. The oral tradition, however, carried many of the Abrahamic ethical codes down to the Jāhilī Arabs, albeit in an adulterated form. Yet, it is a far claim to make that the society had no concept of an absolute morality dictated by a divine code of ethics when it continued to revere much of the Abrahamic tradition and its sacred rites. Certainly the moral structure of society had broken down. However, one must be careful to avoid careless absolutes.
As forgiving Mohiuddin is of Aslan’s poor research, he is equally forgiving – if even aware – of Aslan’s perennialist commitments and their influence on his portrayal of the Prophet’s biography (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). It is not as if Aslan is private about his pluralistic views. In an article in the Washington Post, Aslan states:
“It’s not [that] I think Islam is correct and Christianity is incorrect. It’s that all religions are nothing more than a language made up of symbols and metaphors to help an individual explain faith.” (Roig, Manuel (2013-08-08). “Reza Aslan: A Jesus scholar who’s hard to pin down”. The Washington Post)
In an interview with The Young Turks, Aslan publicly described Islam as:
a man-made institution. It’s a set of symbols and metaphors that provides a language for which to express what is inexpressible, and that is faith. It’s symbols and metaphors that I prefer, but it’s not more right or more wrong than any other symbols and metaphors. It’s a language, that’s all it is. (Aslan, Reza (October 13, 2014). “Reza Aslan – Bigotry, Fundamentalism and Neo-Atheism in the Media”. The Young Turks (Interview). Interview with Cenk Uygur)
On page 67 of Revelation, Aslan’s perennialism is subtly discernible in his reduction of the importance of monotheism as the distinguishing feature of Hanifism. Aslan alleges that “at the heart of the movement was a fervent commitment to absolute morality. It was not enough merely to abstain from idol worship; the Hanifs believed one must strive to be morally upright.” In fact, at the heart of the Hanifism movement was not primarily an absolute morality (as Aslan would define it) but pure monotheism (or at the very least a rejection of idol worship and polytheism); morality was secondary and subsequent to it. (See the available biographical information on the renowned Ḥanīfs Qass ibn Sāʿidah al-Iyādī in Dalāʾil al-Nubuwwah of Abū Nuʿaym al-Aṣfahānī, Ibn Kathīr’s al-Bidāyah wa-l-Nihāyah 2:231-237 and Zayd ibn ʿAmr ibn Nufayl in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, bāb Zayd ibn ʿAmr ibn Nufayl, and Sīrat Ibn Hisham 1:224-232 and Waraqah ibn Nawfal ibn Asad in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, bāb Kayfa Kāna Badʾ al-Waḥy, and Umayyah ibn Abī al-Ṣalt ibn ʿAwf al-Thaqafī, all of which confirm that their distinguishing feature was an uncompromising tawḥīd, a belief in the Hereafter and the Resurrection, and an absolute repudiation of polytheism.)
The author similarly forgives Aslan’s fallacious statement on page 81 that “Islam does not establish a closed universe of reference but rather relies on a set of universal principles that can coincide with the fundamentals and values of other beliefs and religious traditions.” Worse, he forgives Aslan’s untenable translation of al-nabī al-ummī as “the Prophet for the unlettered” instead of “the unlettered Prophet”. Aslan’s translation and interpretation are in fact not consistent with the grammar of the sentence as he claims (pg. 94). The problem of interpreting the construction of the phrase as possessive (iḍāfī) instead as descriptive (tawṣīfī) should not be lost on those with a basic familiarity with the rules of Arabic grammar. Further, is it not puzzling that Aslan equates illiteracy with scripture-lessness such that the verse may be used for that purpose? Is it not bizarre that Aslan does not hesitate to discard a millennium of grammatical expertise and exegetical tradition for the linguistically inaccurate suggestion of Kenneth Cragg?
Amongst the more egregious issues in the book is the author’s claim that the noble Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) is “terrified that he is possessed” after first receiving prophethood. No doubt the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, was overcome with natural fear and sudden alarm as a result of his awe-inspiring supernatural encounter with the archangel Jibrīl (upon him be peace). However, the fear was not of being possessed as the author claims. Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, commenting on the expression “I feared for myself” found in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, states that the fear or terror that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) experienced was either due to the intensity of that first encounter with the angel Jibrīl, that it was so straining that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) feared he would not be able to endure it, or due to the realization of the intense burden that had suddenly been placed upon him and his apprehension of being incapable of fulfilling that duty. (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī 1:24) The response of his noble wife Khadījah (may Allah be well-pleased with her) and her enumeration of his moral virtues corroborates this latter understanding.
A further blunder in that early narrative, although one not unique to this sīrah book, is the author’s uncritical acceptance of the idea that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) attempted on numerous occasions to commit suicide due to his apprehensions about his sanity. On page 95, the author quotes Aslan as stating, “But it is safe to say that if it were not for Khadijah, Muhammad might have gone through with his plan to end it all, and history would have turned out quite differently.” On the following page the author himself claims that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) begins “to doubt his own sanity. On several occasions he nearly throws himself off mountain cliffs, but each time he is greeted by Gabriel, who reminds him that he is, indeed, God’s messenger.” Both the idea that he doubted his sanity and that he nearly throws himself off a mountain cliff are simply not authentically established in the hadith and sīrah literature. Although mentioned by al-Bukhārī secondarily in his Ṣaḥīḥ, the portion of his narration of the story that speaks of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) intending to “end it all” and throw himself off a mountain are transmitted through a mursal (interrupted) chain of Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī who appended it to a sound transmission that has an uninterrupted chain. In other words, al-Bukhārī, in narrating the credible portion of the hadith with its uninterrupted and sound chain, secondarily includes a piece of information as an addendum that the narrator al-Zuhrī claims had reached him but through an incomplete or dubious chain. Experts of al-Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥrecognize that such an addendum does not receive the guarantee of authenticity or soundness that al-Bukhārī provides for all those narrations in his work which contain a complete chain. Then when it comes to the mursal narrations of al-Zuhrī, including this one mentioned in passing by al-Bukhārī in his Ṣaḥīḥ, the majority of the investigative hadith experts agree that they are unreliable. Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, for example, notes in his Tadrīb al-Rāwī:
“(About) the mursal narrations of al-Zuhrī, Ibn Maʿīn and Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd al-Qaṭṭān state: ‘They are nothing (i.e. they are not reliable)’. Al-Shāfiʿī states something similar. He explains, ‘…because we find him narrating from Sulaymān b. Arqam’. Al-Bayhaqī narrates from Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd that he states, ‘The mursal narrations of al-Zuhrī are worse than the mursal narrations of others because he is a ḥāfiẓ and whenever he is capable of naming (the narrators above him) he names them. He only omits those who he does not prefer to name.” (al-Suyūṭī, Taḍrīb al-Rāwī3:167 Dār al-Minhāj ed. Muḥammad ʿAwwāmah or 1:232 Dār Ṭaybah, ed. Abū Qutaybah Naẓr Muḥammad al-Faryābī) Note: the editor of the Tadrīb, the Ḥalabī ḥadīth master Shaykh Muḥammad ʿAwwāmah does add in his gloss that the early Egyptian ḥāfiẓ Aḥmad b. Ṣāliḥ disagrees with Yaḥyā’s criticism of al-Zuhrī’s mursal reports even though the prominent (mashhūr) position is that they are weak. See also Marāsīl Ibn Abī Ḥātim 1:2 and for al-Shāfiʿī’s statements al-Bayhaqī’s al-Manāqib 1:531 and his al-Madkhal 850.
Shaykh ʿAwwāmah’s detailed comments on the report in question in his single-volume study on al-Dhahabī’s al-Kāṣhif is useful to quote here in totality. He remarks about this interrupted narration of al-Zuhrī which runs through ʿĀʾishah (may Allah be well-pleased with her):
The ḥadīth of Sayyidah ʿĀʾishah, may Allah be well-pleased with her, in narrating the beginning of divine revelation upon the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, is well known. Al-Bukhārī and others narrate it through various paths; amongst them is al-Bukhārī’s transmission of it in the beginning of the Book of Dream Interpretation in his Ṣaḥīḥ through the path of ʿUqayl and Maʿmar – both independently – from al-Zuhrī from ʿUrwah from ʿĀʾishah, and at the end of it is: “…then Waraqah passed away immediately afterward and revelation paused for a period until the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, became downcast – according to what has reached us – to the extent that he repeatedly set out so that he may fall off the tops of lofty mountains. (Yet) every time he drew near the summit of a mountain so that he may fling himself from it, Jibrīl would manifest himself to him and say, ‘O Muḥammad! Truly you are the messenger of Allah!’ Hence his agitation would find calm and his heart (nafs) would become settled, so he would then return.”
Some of the opponents of the prophetic tradition (sunnah) refer to this narration – out of heresy, not ignorance -, claiming that in these attempts by the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, (is evidence of) an intent to kill his noble self, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and that this is not possible, for killing oneself is prohibited by consensus of all sacred law codes (sharāʾiʿ). They intend by this to discredit Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī, the first (preeminent) book of the sunnah!
The reply (to this claim) is that this postscript (ziyādah), starting from the statement “the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, became downcast – according to what has reached us – to the extent…” is a postscript of al-Zuhrī, one of the narrators of the chain. It is evident from the postscript that he appended it to the previous chain and did not mention his chain of transmission for it. Al-Ḥāfiz (Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī) states in al-Fatḥ, commenting on this narration, “The one stating ‘according to what has reached us’ is al-Zuhrī, and the meaning of the statement is that ‘amongst the various things that have reached us regarding the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in this story…’. (The report is thus) from the unsourced/incompletely sourced reports (balāghāt) of al-Zuhrī and is not connected (mawṣūl, i.e. possessing an uninterrupted chain of transmission). The report is hence from those mursal reports whose grading amongst the scholars of ḥadīth is well-known – that they are nothing (not established) – according to al-Shāfiʿī, Yaḥyā al-Qaṭṭān, and Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn. In the wording of Yaḥyā al-Qaṭṭān, ‘The mursal narrations of al-Zuhrī are worse than the mursalnarrations of others.’”
(Shaykh ʿAwwamah then says:) I certainly know that we are not lacking in capability to provide answers containing various explanations, justifications, reconciliations, etc… to this postscript from the perspective of meaning, but this answer is the most appropriate and through it the dogged opponent will be deterred. (Dirāsāt al-Kāṣhif li-l-Imām al-Ḥāfiẓ al-Dhahabī, second ed., Dār al-Minhāj 1:199-200 )
For a more detailed discussion and refutation of the notion that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, attempted to take his own life during this pause in revelation, see also Jamīl Ḥalīm’s Laṭāʾif al-Tanbīhāt ʿalā Baʿḍ mā fī Ṣaḥīḥay al-Bukhārī wa Muslim min al-Riwāyāt.As such notions potentially challenge the foundational theological doctrine of the prophets’ ʿiṣmah (protection from sin, or sinlessness), they should not be taken lightly and deserve further investigation.
On the margins of page 118, we also find the author stating that “a number of Muslim historians relate that Satan had inspired the Prophet to suggest that the three sister idols were intercessors for God, and that the verse was later removed from the Qur’an (53:19).” The verse in question appears in the accounts of the early Muslim historians Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Wāqidī (ca. 130-207/ca. 747-823) and Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-923). Regarding al-Wāqidī, critical hadith scholars view his historical reports with a great deal of suspicion, especially in relation to critical issues such as these Qurʾānic verses, in which the standards of authenticity must be applied most meticulously. Ibn Ḥajar, for example, grades al-Wāqidī as a disclaimed (matrūk) narrator despite the vastness of his knowledge. According to Ibn Ḥibbān (d. 354/965), it is because of inaccuracies and omissions in al-Wāqīdī’s transmissions that Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal considered him unreliable. Al-Dhahabī (d. 748/1348) stated, “He is a ḥāfiẓ, an ocean, yet I have not provided his biographical entry here due to the consensus (of the scholars) on disclaiming his hadith. He was amongst the vessels of knowledge but he was not proficient in hadith. He was a leader in maghāzī and sīrah, (though) he transmitted from every type (of narrator).”(See Ibn Ḥajar’s Tahdhīb al-Tahdhīb and Taqrīb al-Tahdhīb and al-Dhahabī’s Tadhkirat al-Ḥuffāẓ. Also, see T. Khalidi, Arabic Historical Thought In The Classical Period, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 47-48). As for al-Ṭabarī, despite his preeminent status as a jurist and historian, the challenge with al-Ṭabarī’s Taʾrīkh is that it is not a critical historical work. Rather, it is an indiscriminate compilation of historical reports that reached al-Ṭabarī through chains of varying degrees of authenticity, all of which the author includes so that experts could sift truth from falsehood. Unfortunately, the uncritical dependence of Western writers – and of the committed Muslim imitators of their historical fantasies – on the works of al-Ṭabarī has helped introduce highly dubious ideas into the sīrah narrative, including the thoroughly debunked myth that Satan was actually capable of inspiring the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, to suggest that the three sister idols were intercessors for God. In an attempt to avoid further elongation of this section we will not produce here a full refutation of this problematic idea. Instead, we would simply like to bring to the reader’s attention the need for any compiler of the prophetic biography to be aware of the methodology of reading al-Ṭabarī’s Taʾrīkh work before its utilization. In fact, it is al-Ṭabarī himself in the introduction to his first volume of the Taʾrīkh who highlights this need, warning:
“Let he who examines my work know that I have exclusively relied upon, in everything I mention therein which I stipulate to be described by me, what has been transmitted to me by way of reports which I cite therein and traditions which I ascribe to their narrators, to the exclusion of what may be apprehended by rational argument or deduced by the human mind, except in very few cases. This is because knowledge of the reports of men of the past and of contemporaneous views of men of the present do not reach the one who has not witnessed them nor lived in their times except through the accounts of reporters and the transmission of transmitters, to the exclusion of rational deduction and mental inference. Hence, if I mention in this book a report about some men of the past, which the reader of listener finds objectionable or worthy of censure because he can see no aspect of truth nor any factual substance therein, let him know that this is not to be attributed to us but to those who transmitted it to us and we have merely passed this on as it has been passed on to us” (Taʾrīkh al-Ṭabarī: Tāʾrīkh al-Umam wa-l-Mulūk, Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1997 1:13, translation provided by Waqar Akbar Cheema whose refutation entitled “The Lie of Satanic Verse Exposed” is worth reading).
We finish this section with one last error, this one again found in one of the author’s many quotes of Reza Aslan. On page 204, Aslan claims, “But perhaps the most important innovation in the doctrine of jihad was its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars.” It is perhaps defensible to mention that some historical reports are attributed to early scholars like ʿAtaʾ b. Abī Rabāḥ, Abū Salamah b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (d. 104/722) and Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161/778) that argue against an obligation upon the individual to participate in an offensive jihad. It is also perhaps justifiable to argue that in the bigger picture, like in the case of Badr, even preemptive offensive military advances were and are part of a larger defense of Islam and the protection of its values. However, a categorical prohibition of all but defensive wars is simply untenable in light of the many campaigns in the prophetic biography that were indisputably offensive in nature and in light of the dominant classical opinion of Muslim jurists since the earliest generations. Perhaps the motivation behind a restriction of jihad to the defensive is to refute the false equivalence of jihad with forceful conversion of non-Muslims, a notion often wrongly associated with Islam. However, propounders of this restriction must reflect first on the verses of the Qurʾān which explicitly instruct Muslims to engage in offensive campaigns (such as Q 4:75 and 9:29) as well as the numerous prophetic military campaigns that were not preempted by the aggression of non-Muslims.
Poetic License and Excessive Liberties with the Sources
Poetic license is one of the key problems Dr. Gibril Haddad underscores in his valuable review of Martin Lings’s Muhammad, a work that is a key source for Mohiuddin’s narrative and is often quoted both verbatim and at length. This issue of poetic license and taking excessive liberties with the sources similarly plagues the recurrent Reza Aslan passages and even occasionally Mohiuddin’s own narrative. About Lings’ work specifically Dr. Haddad observes:
“Poetic license marks off Muhammad [may Allah bless him and grant him peace]: his life based on the earliest sources from all other serious Prophetic biographies. It is fair to say Lings often has more imagination than knowledge of what he describes and never takes to heart the absolute prohibition of fiction in Islām with regard to the Prophet [may Allah bless him and grant him peace]. Consequently, his constant embroidery detracts from the reliability of his book and, much as it is meant to enhance reading, brings it down to the romance level from which its titlepage homage to ‘the earliest sources’ had promised to exempt it. It is also possible that Lings spent little time in Muslim lands (although he kept company with René Guénon in Cairo for a while), where he normally would have absorbed some of the sensibilities of Muslims and might have avoided or at least suppressed, after the fact, the two or three more momentous misinterpretations in Muḥammad: his life based on the earliest sources. He defended them in reprint after reprint by beefing up his footnotes with references he thought provided enough justification. Instead, surely, he should have done away altogether with those passages. One of them is the “lightly clad” Zaynab scene – in his defense an error of taste that predates him; but an error, nevertheless, that “betokens ignorance of the immense rights and merits of the Prophet [may Allah bless him and grant him peace]” according to Qaḍī Abū Muḥammad al-Qushayrī al-Mālikī as cited by Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ in al-Shifā. (How greatly would Lings and many other biographers of the Prophet [may Allah bless him and grant him peace] have profited from reading that book before they set to their task!).” (Haddad, A Critical Reading of Martin Lings’ Muhammad)
In the case of the non-Muslim Orientalist Montgomery Watt, the issue extends well beyond that of mere embellishment, which Lings may also be guilty of, but Lings nevertheless maintains his commitment to the faith and a deep reverence for the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). Watt, on the other hand, shows relatively little regard for the immense rights and merits of Islam’s noble Prophet Muḥammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and his language throughout his two-volume work undoubtedly reflects his educational and religious background as well as his overall skeptical view of Islam as a true religion. Still, such skepticism is to be expected from an outsider to the faith and no doubt many readers of Watt’s books will assume that they are reading the biography of the Prophet of Islam through the perspective of a distant and even occasionally admiring “Other”. What is unexpected, however, is when a presumedly devout Muslim demonstrates such a lack of discretion in quoting any of the many distasteful and erroneous claims that Watt espouses in his biography, such as his assertion (pg. 195) that “it is tolerably certain that Muhammad himself had few scruples about fighting in the sacred months, but that he had to respect the scruples of an important section of his followers and to guard against repercussions which might weaken his prophetic authority.” Is one being led to believe that the prophet Muḥammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, would have had few scruples about violating the sanctity of the sacred months despite himself conveying Allah’s immutable message regarding their sanctity in the Qurʾān?
Indeed, the number of months with Allah is twelve (lunar) months in the register of Allah (from) the day He created the heavens and the earth; of these, four are sacred. That is the correct religion (i.e. way), so do not wrong yourselves during them. (Sūrat al-Tawbah 9:36)
Should one argue that the verses of Sūrat al-Tawbah were revealed in the later Madīnan period (9 AH according to Ibn Kaysān; see al-Ālūsī, Rūḥ al-Maʿānī, Muʾassassat al-Risālah 10:201) and thus before the revelation the Prophet of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) may have not attached much value to the sanctity of these months, they would be overlooking the reference in the verse to the months being “the correct religion” or “way”, a reference to the months’ sanctity being an Abrahamic tradition, passed down from the prophets Ibrāhīm and Ismāʿīl, a tradition that was deeply honored and revered by the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) throughout his life, before and after prophethood. Again, that this positive view of the Messenger of Allah’s character and moral code (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) would be lost upon Watt is not unexpected. Nevertheless, it should not have gone unchallenged.
It is also not unexpected that Reza Aslan, given his particular background and upbringing, would demonstrate relatively limited constraint in questioning the Companions’ committed loyalty and obedience to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. Note, for example, his tone and language when he casually pontificates (pg. 233): “If Muhammad’s male followers were disgruntled about the new inheritance laws, they must have been furious when, in a single revolutionary move, he both limited how many wives a man could marry and granted women the right to divorce their husbands.” It is, however, disappointing that Mohiuddin fails to identify the various errors and insensitivities in the above statement: first, that it incorrectly asserts that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) granted women the right to divorce their husbands when the prerogative of divorce in Islam is in fact the husband’s by historical and juristic consensus (although a wife may initiate a request for divorce by offering financial motivation in the form of a khulʿ); and, second, that Aslan asserts that the male Companions were disgruntled (i.e. angry or dissatisfied) with the new inheritance laws, for which I am not aware of any evidence to suggest such a strong emotional response, and then, adding fuel to the fire, presuming that the Companions must have been furious with the ruling on the restriction on the number of wives they could marry.
Of course, the distasteful rhetoric the author reproduces from the pen of Reza Aslan is not limited to his portrayal of the Companions. Perhaps in an attempt to portray himself as a neutral commentator or to appease hyper-skeptical Western readers of Islam, Aslan generously extends his sloppy and hyperbolical diction to the depiction of the blessed Prophet of Allah’s persona, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. In describing the Prophet’s emigration to Yathrib (later called al-Madīnah), Mohiuddin quotes Aslan as remarking (pg. 189):
“That Muhammad came to Yathrib as little more than the Hakam [arbitrator] in the quarrel between Aws and Khazraj is certain. And yet the traditions seem to present Muhammad arriving in the oasis as the mighty prophet of a new and firmly established religion, and as the unchallenged leader of the whole of Yathrib… His movement represented the tiniest fraction of Yathrib’s population; the Jews alone may have totaled in the thousands. When Muhammad arrived in the oasis, he had brought fewer than a hundred men, women, and children with him.”
To illustrate the blunders of Aslan’s above depiction, let us examine a few important facts about the Prophet’s emigration and relationship with the people of Yathrib. First, it was during the eleventh year of prophethood, a full two years before the Emigration (hijrah), that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) invited some pilgrims from the Khazraj tribe to accept Islam. Upon observing him and hearing him recite verses of the Qurʾān, they are able to immediately recognize that Muḥammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) was the very prophet about whom the Jews had foretold, and thus they remarked, “By Allah! This is the very same prophet whom the Jews longingly speak of. Take heed! Let not the Jews beat you to this good fortune and virtue.” (al-Kāndhalwī, Sīratul-Mustafā 1:363) No historical evidence lends weight to the idea that the leaders of Khazraj (Asʿad b. Zurārah, ʿAwf b. al-Ḥārith, Rāfiʿ b. Mālik, Quṭbah b. ʿĀmir, ʿUqbah b. ʿĀmir, and Jābir b. ʿAbd Allāh b. Rabāb, may Allah be well-pleased with them all) who first embraced Islam in that eleventh year of prophethood viewed the Prophet of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), at this instant or even later, as merely an arbitrator, or that in the many excited communications they had with their people upon returning to Madīnah that they viewed his message of God and the new faith as one of primarily a political importance. The nature of the pledges made by the Anṣār in the twelfth year in what is called the Bayʿat al-ʿAqabah al-Ūlā (the First Pledge of ʿAqabah) further reinforces the notion of primarily spiritual and moral motives and that the allegiance of the Anṣār was founded on the belief of the oneness of God (or the pledge to abstain from ascribing partners to Allah), abstinence from theft, adultery, infanticide, false accusations, and slander. Further, the deputation of Musʿab b. ʿUmayr al-Qurashī al-ʿAbdarī to the people of Madīnah for the purpose of teaching them about divine unity (tawḥīd), the Qurʾān, ritual prayer, and other basic religious legal rulings (which at this time comprise almost exclusively issues of ritual worship and good character), and the rapid increase of the Muslim population in a small period of time establishes that the spread of Islam amongst the Madīnans was built on theological and spiritual foundations, not merely political expedience. The actual historical reports about the hijrah are even more telling. Take, for example, the enthusiasm with which the Madīnans awaited the arrival of the blessed Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿUwaymir b. Sāʿidah reported that a number of men from his community from the Companions stated that when they heard of the Messenger of Allah’s departure (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) from Makkah, they began to await his arrival. They would leave towards the outskirts of the city after offering every morning prayer in wait, and swore by Allah that they would not waver until they could no longer find any shade, after which they would return, all of this taking place during days of scorching heat. This continued until finally the day of the Messenger’s arrival came, when they sat as they always had, and when the shade disappeared they returned to their homes. The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) arrived some time after they had returned home. Hence, the first person to actually see the Prophet’s arrival was a Jewish man who had been observing the Muslims’ eager and enthusiastic daily exoduses in anticipation of a possible arrival. The Jew thus bellowed with his loudest voice, “O Banū Qaylah (i.e. the Anṣār), your good fortune has arrived!” Such was the joy of the occasion that Imam al-Bukhārī transmits in his Ṣaḥīḥ that Barāʾ b. ʿĀzib (may Allah be well-pleased with him) remarked that “I have not witnessed the Madīnans as ecstatic as they were for (the arrival of) the Messenger of Allah (may Allah be well-pleased with him), to the extent that (even) the slave girls were exclaiming, ‘The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, has arrived!’” (Bukhārī, Manāqib al-Anṣār, bāb maqdam al-nabiyy ṣalla-Llāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam wa aṣḥābuhu al-madīnah) The women of the city clambered upon the rooftops of their homes and sang. The young girls of Banū Najjār chanted, “We are the maids of Banū Najjar, Oh! What a pleasure to have Muḥammad as a neighbor!” The residents of Madīnah sent impassioned and fervent pleas of invitations in hope that they would be honored to play host to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). In the face of all these details of the Emigration furnished by empirically authenticated traditions, are we expected to instead mindlessly accept Aslan’s claim that the Prophet’s coming “to Yathrib as little more than the Hakam [arbitrator] in the quarrel between Aws and Khazraj is certain”? I invite readers to thoroughly read themselves the chapters of the inception of Islam in Madīnah and the Emigration from the wide variety of available sīrah books, especially those written from primary and early secondary sources, and then to formulate an informed opinion on the attitude of the people of Madīnah before and during the Hijrah.
Certainly not all embellishments found in Mohiuddin’s Revelation are equally egregious. Nevertheless, even the lighter cases of its embellishments result in unfortunate and unnecessary factual distortions. Take, for example, the extraneous details the author mentions on page 28 where he describes that when two lonely riders, one of them Ṣafwān ibn Umayyah, “crested the next hill, Safwan remembered how just a few months ago, another friend, Khalid ibn al-Walid, unexpectedly fell for the Prophet and begged Safwan to come with him to Medina”. No source for the details of this account are provided, thus one is unable to verify from where the author procured the detail that it was when Ṣafwān crested the hill that he remembered and reflected on Khālid’s conversion, or later on that “for the first time in his life, Safwan stopped to look into the Prophet’s eyes”. Perhaps these are relatively minor infractions. Nevertheless, they are unnecessary, unsourced, and extending into the realm of fiction. Similarly troublesome is Mohiuddin’s embellished narrative of Salmān al-Fārisī’s conversion to Islam in which he states that “Salman (al-Farisi) ended up in the remote valley of Quba, where he embraced the Prophet the moment he laid eyes on him”. In reality, the well-established reports of Salmān al-Fārisī’s conversion (may Allah be well-pleased with him) report that at Qubā Salmān al-Fārisī only began a long process of enquiry to verify that the prophecies about the last messenger applied to Muḥammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and that the process involved three tests, only one of which took place in Qubā, the second taking place in Baqī al-Gharqad, and the last in Madīnah at a later time. Similarly unnecessary embellishments can be found on page 71 in one of several instances in which the author quotes Lings’s Muhammad verbatim. See for example the expressions “…from the direction from the sea…” and “survivors said that they flew with a flight like that of swifts…” as well the other verbatim quotes of Lings.
As Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī al-Nadwī so aptly notes to introduce his own sīrah work (translated into English with the title Prophet of Mercy),
“A work of this nature should also be compatible with the spiritual truths and realities which are indispensable for comprehending the true nature of revelation, prophetic guidance, miracles and the recondite facts of mute reality, and should be written by one who can put his trust in the Prophet not as a national leader or statesman but as the Apostle of God sent for the guidance of the entire humanity. Only the life of the Prophet so written can be placed before every unbiased educated person (whether a Muslim or a non-Muslim) without any reservation or specious reasoning. Accordingly, the writer (speaking of himself) has placed more reliance on the original sources in describing the events and character of the Prophet and narrated them in a way that everything speaks for itself and allows the reader to arrive at his own conclusion. The life of the Prophet is a living portrait, conveying the feeling of the good and the sublime, for which the writer has no need to philosophise or draw any inferences. In its charm and grace, harmony and excellence, and effectiveness and appeal, the life of the Prophet does not, in truth and reality, need the polish or refinement of any writer or the exposition of an erudite scholar. All that one needs attempt is the narration of facts selected and arranged harmoniously, in a simple and unaffected style.” (Muhammad Rasulullah: The Apostle of Mercy, Haji Arfeen Academy pg. 3)
As the above critique has attempted to demonstrate, Dr. Meraj Mohiuddin’s novel attempt at presenting an accessible and relatable biography of the noble prophet of Islam, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, is a mixed bag. While the biographical sketch is furnished with laudable visuals and a sincere attempt at critical examination, it fails to provide a narrative firmly rooted in the original sources and one free of the hyper skeptical misgivings of an antiquated Orientalist discourse. Instead of a simple, fluid, and unaffected narrative with source material that speaks for itself, Mohiuddin dilutes his work with quote after quote from questionable authorities on Islam’s most critical historical period, notably Montgomery Watt, Reza Aslan, and Karen Armstrong. As a result, the reader is left with a rather charmless exposition, one starving for the grace of spiritual realities that are necessary for a harmonious understanding of the true nature of revelation of which al-Nadwī speaks above. Certainly, it does not help that the author is neither an erudite Islamic scholar, historian, or experienced writer. However, a heavier dependence on original, credible, and critical sources could have, to a great degree, remedied the author’s inexperience and inaptitude. More importantly, the Revelation project could have and should have utilized the services of content editors and reviewers well-versed in the Islamic historical critical tradition.
So, while Mohiuddin’s passionate first foray into the world of sīrah writing is indeed “clear” and “eminently accessible” as its endorser Dr. Sherman Jackson asserts, it is questionably “based on some of the best Western scholarship on the life of the Prophet” as he also claims. It should also be fair to disagree with the following endorsement of the book by the respectable scholar and revered Muslim leader, Imam Zaid Shakir, who states: “Many biographies of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) have appeared in recent years. None, however, display the scholarly depth, methodological precision and factual clarity of Meraj Mohiuddin’s, Revelation: The Story of Muhammad (pbuh).”
It is our belief that if Dr. Mohiuddin addresses the several key concerns highlighted in the above review it is possible to remedy the book’s failings while also retaining its unique contributions. No doubt, the author is to be commended for his use of visual aids, tables, and explanatory notes to make otherwise seemingly complex lineages, family and tribal relationships, and geographical movements accessible to the average reader. It is not our intent to allow readers of this review to disregard his noble contributions in this regard. Mohiuddin’s laborious inclusion of visually appealing design, typesetting, etc… will appeal to both beginner and advanced audiences hungering for quality presentations of the beloved Prophet’s biography.
To Mohiuddin’s advantage is the fact that his own material in Revelation is relatively less marred by the discourtesy, poetic license, revisionism, and factual error that is the focus of our critique. This fact alone encourages us about the possibility of a revised edition that addresses the book’s most glaring issues by entirely or almost entirely omitting the Watt, Aslan, Armstrong (and to a certain extent others) quotes. If the author chooses not to enrich his work with original, primary sources and with the superior research of works recommended in the first subsection of this review, at the very least a removal of the aforementioned passages should limit the potential harm of reading his book uncritically. The reviewer can sympathize with the daunting nature of such a proposed revision and the inevitable extraordinary change of appearance that it will entail. However, we are also of the belief that the author has demonstrated a certain degree of sincerity and passion for the prophetic biography that will hopefully serve as sufficient motivation for the production of a significantly modified second edition.
For the reader,
Bilal Ali Ansari