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Looking for a hero for all mankind
emel magazine, 2006


I have not seen the offending cartoons nor do I wish to, but I am familiar enough with the knee-jerk response of the bulk of the Western media with anything positive to do with Islam or the Muslim world. At lectures, public readings and talks you pick up aspects of this same blind, aggressive stereotyping time and time again. The questions always fall - like a tabloid news headline – into just two subject areas. An obsession with sex (often expressed by aggressive statements about the Prophet’s wives) or violence (a similar obsession with jihad). Any attempt to gently lead the discussion towards some understanding is strenuously resisted, let alone an attempt to look into the shared ethical values of all the faiths. As the editor of a leading newspaper candidly told me, after we talked about trying to produce some more insightful features, “the trouble is that my readers are either bored or afraid [of Islam]” – and by inference had no taste for any other relationship with it. I have however tried to bridge this gap, as a self-professed Anglican deeply imbedded in the literary and historical culture of the British Isles. I have striven to talk and write about the Prophet as a heroic figure for all mankind to cherish – not just for those who define themselves as Muslims.

It is not easy, writing about the early history of Islam. I have got used to spotting that eyebrow flicker of incredulity when I meet Muslim writers and they hear that I have written a biography of the Prophet Muhammad followed by a book about the first Four Caliphs. I know exactly what they feel, but are too polite to say. So I have started saying it for them. It should take a dozen lives of scholarship before I attempt so much as a single chapter. I should first spend a century immersed in the 30 volume histories of Waqidi, Tabari and Ibn Sa’d, and another hundred years on the commentaries on the commentaries of these masters, backed up by an exact and critical knowledge of each of the seven dozen-volume editions of the Hadith. I should know Ibn Ishaq and the Koran by heart and then torture the texts of the early grammarians for the exact shade of meanings of early Arabic verbs before penning so much as a single line. I cap it all by admitting that I can only read the prime texts in English translation. Only then can the conversation proceed in more interesting directions.

We might discuss the difference between Sunni and Shia interpretations. This is not just a matter of modern-day faith (reflected today in its most graphic form by the difference between how a writer from Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran would describe the events) but is also rooted in the prime sources. For the early historians were all writing within the highly politicised environment of 9th-century Abbasid Baghdad when doctrinal differences between the Sunni and Shia were being refined. Historians had to combine life-preserving prudence with their own regard for truth, and did this by providing multiple versions of the critically important events – and leaving it to the reader to make their own judgements. No one ever quite knew where to stand with the Abbasid dynasty, for they were supposedly pro-Shiite yet generation after generation conspired to quietly murder the true descendants of the Prophet Muhammad – the blood-royal of the Shiite cause. Nor is this innate division between Sunni and Shia interpretations restricted to Muslim writers. It normally takes but a few pages before you can spot the ‘inclinations’ of even the most supposedly neutral Western historians or home-grown Marxists – in much the same manner that the French Revolution or English Civil War always tends to be coloured by a live political agenda.

Next we might touch on Orientalism. In essence this is Edward Said’s charge that practically all Westerners commenting on the East (that mixed bundle of historians, linguists, artists and anthropologists) have only studied the region so that they can master it - or subconsciously belittle, ravish or exploit it as ‘the other’. This is still a highly charged issue, much animated by the personal rivalry between Edward Said and his scholarly bete-noir, Bernard Lewis, fought out in the journals and well-heeled universities of New England not on the battlegrounds of the Holy Land. Said was an Arab Palestinian and Lewis a London-born Jewish scholar, a Professor at SOAS before he moved to Princeton where he became the eminence grise of the Neo-Cons in his retirement.

The real crunch point however (and one that is rarely addressed in public) is that the basic thrust of Western scholarship over the last thirty years has been to undermine the authority of all the traditional sources of Islamic history. The argument goes that since nothing was written down for 130 years after the Prophet’s death, that they cannot have been transmitted with any accuracy. The questing, questioning linguistic inquiries of John Wansbrough and Patricia Crone led the way and helped encourage a brilliant revival of scholarship - though it is astonishing how quickly their tentative suggestions have become a new orthodoxy. I was amazed to find that a university text book dismissed the entire early period of Islam as the mythologizing creation of the historians of Baghdad. So much so that the period before the written histories is labelled “proto-Islam” with an implicit suggestion that early Islam might be more usefully construed as a Jewish-Arab Messianic movement that aspired to reconquer the Holy Land.

It was at that moment that I decided that silence is a greater evil. I was annoyed by these dangerous speculations, but even more horrified by the way that one of mankind’s truly epic stories was being so casually airbrushed out of history. This is an epic that I know from my own travels to be the cherished moral frame, the pattern book of belief and the cultural references by which hundreds of millions navigate their way through life. I neither mind that I will be dismissed as a traditionalist by western academics or as a meddling Orientalist by Muslim scholars. I know where my loyalties stand. I remain true to the story tellers, especially to the Prophet’s young wife whom Urwa, the greatest of the old oral historians praised thus, “What is what I recite, compared to what Aisha could tell.”

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