REVIEWS OF: Heirs of the Prophet
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THE GUARDIAN With the immediacy of yesterday
It is never straightforward for a westerner to have more than a passing interest in Islam and the Islamic world. Over a thousand years of rivalry and conflict, from the crusades to the Suez crisis and beyond, have created a widespread unease towards anything t do with Arabs or Muslims. Christians are wary of a newer religion that accepts Jesus as a prophet yet denies he was the son of God; liberals despise Islam for being 'conservative' or 'anti-women'; pacifists loathe its warrior spirit. The result has meant that Islamic studies in the west has largely been the preserve of two mutually suspicious groups: converts and academics. Converts, naturally, are by and large concerned with increasing their numbers; academics, perhaps as a reaction to this, although I have never satisfactorily been able to explain it, often develop a revolution towards their subject matter, with an odd combination of lethargy and venom.
Given this, it's not surprising that ignorance surrounding Islam - its rites, beliefs, its stories and its prophet - runs deep in the west. An average person probably knows more about far-off Hinduism and Zoroastrianism than he does about our religious neighbour. Imagine a dinner party where a friend turns round and declares he's become a Buddhist. At worst there will be mild curiosity and a circular conversation about the meaning of life. But change it, and instead of 'Buddhist' your friend says 'Muslim'. It's a very different scene: the cultural memories of centuries of rivalry between Islam and the west kick in, and all of a sudden your friend is placed beyond the pale.
None of this is helped, of course, by the current climate. We can argue for ever that there is never a 'clash of civilizations' taking place, but events would appear to be speaking for themselves. Extremists are close to taking over in both western and Islamic contexts, with the middle ground becoming increasingly depopulated. More and mor the question is: whose side are you on?
It was a question that dogged Barnaby Rogerson as he set out to write his highly entertaining new biography of Muhammad, the founder of Islam and, according to Muslims, the last God's prophet on earth. A veteran traveller in North Africa, Rogerson became entranced one day by an old Arab postcard seller's account of a 1,300-year-old story about Muhammad's son-in-law Ali, 'events told with all the immediacy of yesterday'. Inspired by the experience, he followed the man's example the next day by sitting down and telling his fellow travellers what he knew about the life of Muhammad himself. The inevitable question 'Are you a Muslim?' and 'Do you intend to become a Muslim?' were put to him, from both westerners and Arabs. 'I was on the side of a good story', he replies simply.
And the story of Muhammad's life is a fascinating one, regardless of your feelings towards the man or Islam. An illiterate orphan, raised in the desert and trained as a merchant on the camel trade routes that criss-crossed Arabia, he defies his tribe to found a new religion, establishes a world language, and creates an almost unstoppable force that only 100 years after his death has conquered an empire stretching from the Pyrenees to the Hindu Kush. It's an epic on a biblical scale, with great battle scenes, love, jealousy, betrayal, self-sacrifice and the word of God. 'Only by marrying the best qualities of certain characters from European civilization - a combination, say, of Alexander the Great, Diogenes and Aristotle, or the Emperor Constantine, St Paul and St Francis - can you begin to understand the measure of the man,' Rogerson says. 'even when viewed in an entirely secular perspective he remains a superhero.'
True to his word, Rogerson recounts the tale with the love and artistry of a master storyteller, vividly recreating the world of sixth- and seventh century Arabia, a land of both honour and cruelty - a cultured backwater, largely overshadowed by the three great empires of the day: Byzantines to the North, Sassanid Persians to the east and Ethiopians to the south. We live through the prophet's early years as an apprentice on the camel train and later as a successful merchant before, at the age of 40, he experiences his first revelation on a mountainside outside Mecca, and hears the divine order 'Recite!'
It is the beginning of his mission, and the first of a series of revelations that will last until his death; later they will be collected and written down in a book that will become the religious and linguistic cornerstone of an entire civilization: the Qur'an, meaning 'the recitation'. From here, Muhammad's story is one of rejection and persecution, his followers murdered and attempts made on his own life, before, fleeing Mecca, he finds refuge in the northern oasis of Yathrib (today's Medina), and the tide begins to turn. Victory over the Meccans eventually comes after an eight-year war, and by the time of his death, two years later, he has rid the peninsula of polytheism and succeeded in uniting the tribes of Arabia behind his new, monotheistic creed.
The man who emerges from the tale is no simplistic God-inspired guru, though. Muhammad comes across as a complex individual, complete with occasional doubts about his mission and methods. When the first revelation comes to him he is convinced he has been possessed by a jinn or evil spirit, and climbs to the top of Mouth Hira with 'murder in his heart', only to be saved by an image of the Archangel Gabriel. Despite being divinely inspired, Muhammad insisted he was just a man, something many Christians misunderstand: only relatively recently have westerners stopped referring to Islam as 'Muhammadism'. He is an example of the best of men, but it is his message that makes Muhammad so important in the eyes of Muslims.
However there are seeming contradictions in the prophet's behaviour that makes summarising his life difficult - ordering the massacre of a Jewish tribe of Medina on the one hand, yet liberally forgiving his enemies in Mecca on the other; restricting Muslim men to four wives while marrying at least 10 himself (one of his wives, Aisha, was wedded to him at the age of six). These are the parts of the story that westerners usually find hardest to swallow, and to his credit Rogerson does not balk at detailing what might be less palatable moments in the tale, offering instead brief possible interpretations before moving on with the narrative. His gloss, if anything, is sympathetic, and his admitation for Muhammad is evident on every page; but this is not hagiography.
Scholarly works on Muhammad have tended to bog themselves down in arguments over sources, or new theories cunningly devised to undermine their rivals in the field. While obviously knowing his subject inside out, Rogerson has cleverly avoided this trap, concentrating instead on the tale itself, freeing up the flow of knowledge blocked by the academic approach. Some will scoff, others will simply ignore it, but the book is designed for the general audience, not for university dons. If, as the medieval Arab philosopher Al Ghazali suggested, people oppose things because they are ignorant of them, then this is an important book, and couldn't have come at a more opportune time.
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THE DAILY EXPRESS - Barnaby Rogerson revels in the prophet Muhammad's life story…
His is a remarkable story, often misunderstood in the west, of a man who changes those around him and, by founding a new religion, Islam, changes the world itself. For more than one billion Muslims he is revered as the Prophet of God, chosen conduit for the Koran, the very world of God.
The Prophet Muhammad is by any view a religious giant. His life can inspire all who search for God as well as those who simply wish to have a greater understanding of the Islamic world. Barnaby Rogerson, a respected travel writer, eloquently follows the Prophet's journey, set against the rich background of the Middle Eastern landscape, from childhood to religious leader and conqueror.
Muhammad was born in 570 AD, in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. It was a world of Bedouin worship of many gods, but with outposts of Jewish and Christian influence that were to find their own resonance in the Koran. He became a merchant skilled at the care and breeding of camels and with a knowledge of the caravan trading routes that crossed the hostile desert, something he was later to use to great effect in his military campaigns. He quickly became respected for his integrity and wisdom in business and private life. He was also deeply searching for God, praying, fasting, and giving food to the poor. Then in 610 his life changed forever. During a visit to Mecca, already a centre for pilgrimage, he escaped the crowds by decamping to a mountainside cave. One night, as he lay in the cave, he awoke suddenly to feel his whole body and inner self caught in a vice-like grip. It was as if an angel held him in a terrifying embrace. He heard the commandment: 'Recite!' He obeyed and the most wonderful words burst from his lips , like breath being exhaled. It was the first of many revelations which came to form the Koran: it contains more than 6,000 verses , divided into 114 surah or chapters.
From a small band of followers, forced to leave Mecca because of prosecution and hardship, by example and later through military conquest, The Prophet united and transformed the Arab peoples. By his death in 632 AD the foundations for a world religion were in place. Rogerson's book reads almost as an eye-witness account. He revels in the daily and family life of The Prophet, with the religious carefully interwoven. A first-rate and highly readable book.
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SUNDAY TIMES In the beginning - Philip Mardsen
However much we might know, I think that most of us non-muslims would admit to gaps in our knowledge of the Islamic faith, the text of the Koran and the life of Muhammad. That does not, of course, prevent us having firm opinions, conducting long arguments about the Muslim world and its role in the great global conflict, nor of soaking up the prejudices and half-truths of others as ignorant as ourselves. But then how may times was Marxism brought into arguments by those who had never opened a copy of Das Kapital or Engels's Anti-Duehring?
So, in these uncertain times, I would recommend the following. Journalists, policy-makers, war pundits, lounge-bar sophists, habitués of radio phone-ins, all thinking people - before placing Islamist, Muslim community, terrorism or bellicose too closely together in a sentence, spend some time at the source (or as near as translation and 14 centuries will allow). Hours alone with the Penguin edition of the Koran in one hand and Barnaby Rogerson's stimulating biography, The Prophet Muhammad in the other, will be well rewarded. In mainstream Islam there are no tiresome theologians, no intricate Christology, no endless hagiographies. There is, in large part, only the hypnotic clarity of the Koran and the epic story of the life of Muhammad.
Rogerson's book is a straightforward account of the life and its historical context. Born to the powerful Quraysh tribe of Mecca in AD570, the Prophet was granted none of the material advantages of his kin. His father died before he was born and his mother was left with only five camels. She dies several years later. Muhammad's early years were spent in the desert, in the charge of a group of Bedouin. At the age of eight he was circumcised, and left behind the domain of women and children, sheep and goats, to join the male world, the camel world. Four years later he joined his first trading caravan, and from then uuntil he was fourty, that was his life - crisscrossing the desert between Syria and Yemen and the great cities around the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates, what is now Iraq. At that time, the expansionist towers around Arabia had temporarily stopped expanding. The Aksumites from Ethiopia, who had reached the gates of Mecca the year Muhammad was born, had withdrawn; the Persians and Byzantines had struggles closer to home.
The traders of Mecca (from their lumbering cargoes of leather and incense) were amassing great wealth. But the wealth was corrupting. Already a great pilgrimage city, Mecca had become tainted with numerous cults and idolatry. It was in purging these that, later on, Muhammad and his followers were to be principally engaged. As a trader, Muhammad was known to be trustworthy and diligent. He was a shy man, with a rich streak of humility and egalitarian instincts.
He joined a group of hanif, religious seekers who explored the religious traditions represented in the desert communities of Arabia: Judaic, non-Chalcedonian Christian of all shades, Zoroastrian. But at the time there was little to distinguish him from his other hanif or any of his other questing contemporaries. That changed one night in AD 610. With his family, Muhammad was in the habit of retreating during the pilgrimage season to a cave in the hills above Mecca. It was there he received the first of his revelations in which he was urged by an angel to 'Recite!' The Koran (meaning 'recital') is made up of this and subsequent visitations.
In Mecca, his claims to be the conduit for the word of God won him a few devoted followers, but many more enemies. In AD622, fleeing assassins and persecutors, he settled in the oasis of Medina. Here he built his power base, defeating (and in one famous case massacring) the local Jewish clans. In AD630, Mecca capitulated to the Muslims and, by the time of his death two years later, Muhammad had achieved what nobody had before: he had united Arabia. The stage was set for the most rapid establishment of a religious empire the world has ever seen.
How much can we learn about present day Islam from reading a life of Muhammad? Rogerson's account succeeds in highlighting the way that, from the outset, faith and political power in Islam were linked. Islam is also a way of life. Much of the Koran concerns the rules of day-to-day living in a just and harmonious community, and Rogerson's book, full of colourful details of oasis life, helps put many of these in context. But more than that, an understanding of the time of Muhammad shows how much faith of Islam was forged by its first battles - the greatest of which was to return the peoples of Arabia to the pure monotheism of the desert.
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NEWSWEEK - The Story of Muhammad Told Anew
When travel writer and historian Barnaby Rogerson first heard a Tunisian storyteller give an impassioned account of an incident from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, he was instantly captivated. The audience of modern Muslims alternately groaned and laughed, gripped by the ancient saga. The experience ultimately propelled Rogerson to write 'The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography', in an effort to bring the story of Muhammad - which he calls 'the Shakespeare, the Aeschyllus, the Euripides, the Milton, the Pinter, the complete works of mankind combined in one coherent tale' - to western audiences. It succeeds wonderfully.
Entwined with Rogerson's well-told yarn are insights into the origins of Muslim culture and practice. He explains the avoidance of alcohol and gambling, the call to prayer and even the minaret, that 'architectural exclamation mark on the horizon'. He doesn't shy from tackling more fraught questions, including the meaning of jihad, or the implications of the brutal battle Muhammad fought to establish Muslim dominance over Bedouin tribes.
Biographies of Muhammad often consist of an endless sequence of conquests and wars. But Rogerson delves deeper, into the spiritual and moral framework of the prophet's life, placing into historical context things like Muhammad's polygamy or his massacre of a Jewish tribe at Medina. Rogerson's lush, lively description of how a new world religion grew from the life of a single remarkable man proves that with understanding, fearful differences can become a source of wonder.
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Francis Spufford - Smell the frankincense...This admiring portrait of the Prophet might still not entirely persuade all Western readers.
Biography is not quite as central and unproblematic in Islam as it is in Christianity. Christians believe that God's most important action in all human history was the sending of a person, Jesus. Muslims believe that it was the sending of a book, the Qur'an. And much Islamic thought has therefore seen the Qur'an as a perfect, timeless thing, existing in the will of God since the beginning of creation and just waiting for the right moment in 7th century Arabia to be delivered to humanity.
Compared to the permanent majesty of God-in-the-book, biographies of the Prophet must always be secondary, and also have a sibtle potential to disturb, with their reminder of the time when the retrospective certainties of Islam were still coming together.
Christians need the four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament to get closer to God-the-person, but Muslims don'd need lives of Muhammad. Yet they have rejoiced in them all the same, reading over and over how the prophet was born, in AD570, into the merchant aristocracy of the city of Mecca, and how he lived quietly as a seeker after truth, happily married to a widow with a trading business, till the night in AD610 when the Angel Gabriel seized him, and squeezed him, and compelled him to recite the first verse of what would later be the Qur'an.
Then, how he fled Mecca in 622 to found the first Muslim state in the oasis of Medina, and how he returned to Mecca in triumph at the end of his life, as the ruler of all Arabia.
To Muslims, he is the perfect man, the example of examples, the model all should emulate; and the events of his lifetime form the underlying story, endlessly retold, by which the Islamic world understands both the past and the present.
As Rogerson puts it, 'it provides all the parallels one might ever need for the goodness, the wickedness, the comedy, majesty and tragedy of mankind… It has all the ingredients a Muslim might ever require for reflection on the ways of the world…'
His biography of the prophet was sparked by hearing Muslim friends relaxing around a café table in Tunisia after a day guiding tourists, and talking through an incident of the late seventh century as if it were happening right now, with a cast of variously innocent and villainous characters everyone knew.
He resolved to write a book for Westerners vivid enough and immediate enough to enable us to join that circle, at least in imagination. It is a fascinatingly contradictory piece of work. On one level, it is extremely traditional. The author has achieved his immediacy by using a sort of modern equivalent of the lush voice of old-fashioned travel-writing about the Orient.
He can sound almost Edwardian as he evokes the beauty of camels in the desert, or the 'breathless virility' of the pure Arabic language of the Bedouin. You think of Gertrude Bell, of T E Laurence, of Freya Stark - of the tradition of ceremonious imaginative response in English to the imaginative datum of Islam. It works very well.
Rogerson can do the epic scale, the show-stopping geography, the pressing presence of the three empires contending for influence in Muhammad's Arabia. He makes you smell the frankincense. And traditional too his courtly civility to a religion that's not, I think, his own, despite some ambiguous discussion of conversion early on.
Just as descriptively, he always inclines toward enchantment rather than scepticism or deflation, so when dealing with ideas he faithfully endorses the orthodox Muslim judgment of them.
You will not find a single word of criticism of the Prophet in this book. I'm not surprised to read that, in its original form as a 7,000 word essay, it attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales' interfaith committee, who considered distributing a free copy to every school child in the country. It is a book that shakes Islam warmly by the hand, and says, 'Jolly good!'
At the same time, he draws quietly on a large amount of recent scholarship which pious commentators in the Muslim world have often preferred to ignore, because it seems to inject an unwelcome contingency into holy events.
It has become much clearer over the past few decades that there were complexities to the Muslim experience in the very first years of Muhammad's mission that didn't make it into the later accounts. Rogerson sensitively incorporates new work on the Christian and Jewish presences in Muhammad's Arabia, and on the nature of the Meccan paganism he rejected, with its three-faced fertility goddess., al-Lat, and her sky-god consort, al-Lah. He is not writing a revisionist biography, but there the new material is, for those who want to think about it.
What he communicated wonderfully is how extraordinary Muhammad must have been as a character, and how attractive, in that place and that time: the shy businessman with the glowing expression, whose tender consideration for the rights of all ignored clan and tribe, whose revelations came out of his mouth as verses too powerful for a poetry-revelling society to resist.
It isn't always possible to share the attraction, though, as a westerner reading the book. The prophet's life followed a rising curve to victory, away from a ministry of preaching and persuasion to one conducted through sieges, raids and cavalry charges.
As it progressed, it diverged more and more from the model in the Christian gospels for how a holy life should go - still a template deeply embedded in Western culture. Jesus never wanted a poet assassinated. Or allowed anyone to be tortured. Or presided over the mass-execution of 700 prisoners.
Barnaby Rogerson suggests that modern western sympathy with Muhammad may falter at the moment when he changed the rules to allow himself more than four wives, but there are quite a few other candidates.
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When the prophet Muhammad died in 632, a tempest of political intrigue and deceit blew over Islam, transforming it forever. In this fast-paced and compelling tale, travel writer Rogerson (The Prophet Mohammad) conducts us on a fascinating journey back to seventh-century Medina and the various schemes that led to the division of Islam into Shia and Sunni factions. The 50 years after Muhammad's death witnessed a succession of caliphs who attempted to carry the Prophet's message forward. Rogerson concentrates on
the leaders who ruled in these years immediately after Muhammad's death and traces the split between Shiites and Sunnis to Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, and Aisha, Muhammad's wife. Ali was assassinated in 661, after being passed over three times as a successor. For the Shia, the vision of Islam was compromised with Muhammad's death. The Sunnis, on the other hand, believe that the first four "Rightly Guided Caliphs" provided models of the ways that humankind should live. Rogerson provides portraits of all these
leaders to illustrate their love of Muhammad and his message. Helpful tables of key characters in the Prophet's life and genealogies of Muhammad and the four caliphs round out Rogerson's charming and captivating chronicle.
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British author Rogerson follows up his biography The Prophet Muhammad with a history book about Islam, but it is not an academic or reference work, such as Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples. Rogerson uses epic language to enliven the early years of Islam for a Western audience, first establishing the story of Muhammad, his exile from Mecca to Medina, and his time with each of his wives and his beloved cousin, Ali. Rogerson then at greater length chronicles the rise and fall of each of the loyal men who were to become caliphs of Islam following Muhammad's death in 632 C.E. While he does an excellent job of bringing the desert landscape to life, Rogerson bogs his account down a bit when he stops to detail every empire-building border skirmish. Unfortunately, his colorful account also quickly glosses over the philosophical implications of the Sunni-Shia split referred to in the subtitle. Consider pairing this swashbuckling history with Reza Aslan's historical overview of Islamic thought, No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Best suited to public libraries.-April Younglove, Linfield Coll., Portland Campus Lib., OR Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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A well-crafted glimpse into the origins and early years of Islam, even then torn by dissension and violence.
Imagine that the Reformation and Counterreformation had been waged soon after Christ died, and the hard feelings between Shiite and Sunni Muslims become more comprehensible. Rogerson (The Prophet Muhammad, not reviewed), a writer with experience covering the Arab world, offers a lucid explanation of the Sunni-Shia split, which took fullest shape with the assassination of the fourth caliph, Muhammad's nephew Ali, in 660-a murder committed even though the revered prophet had declared Ali to be the gate into "the town of knowledge" that he himself symbolized. Rogerson adds most interesting twists to this well known tale by casting it in the context of the long-standing rivalry between the two Arabian towns of Mecca and Medina, which, he writes, represent two halves of the Qur'an with "two quite different tones," the verses from Mecca addressed to the whole of humankind and those from Medina addressed to the political and physical realities of Arabia at the time of Islam's birth. This rivalry ocassionally blossomed into war, and it seems to have been waged well into the caliphates that followed Muhammad's death; in some ways, the author suggests, the rivalry persists. The four caliphs of that first century of Islam had different agendas and interests, but they expanded the new religion's sphere to embrace an unprecedented empire; as happens with power politics, they also initiated and suffered intrigues that betrayed Islam's peaceful promise, culminating in the murders of Muhammad's immediate descendants in what is now Iraq, when, in Rogerson's memorable phrase, "seventy heads had beenrolled out from bloodied leather sacks on to the palace floor of the governor of Kufa."The result, centuries later, is sectarian division that shows no signs whatever of healing-and that figures heavily in the world news. Rogerson capably explains its beginnings.
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"Dissensions," Muhammad presciently declared 10 days before his death, "come like waves of darkest night, the one following hard upon the other, each worse than the last." In this book, readers find sobering confirmation of the Prophet's words. Rogerson shows how deep disagreement sundered Islam into Shiite and Sunni factions almost at its birth. Probing the five decades after the Prophet's death, Rogerson limns a tale of military conquest undone by internal betrayal. Readers will marvel at the genius of the four caliphs who forcefully spread a small Arab religion across Africa and well into Asia. Through heroics on battlefields entirely unknown to Western readers, Muslim armies repeatedly defeat larger and better equipped Persian and Byzantine foes. But victories against external enemies do not prevent divisive intrigues. Among the principals in these intrigues, several striking figures emerge, including the generous nepotist Uthman and the versatile merchant Amr. But the tragedy that Rogerson unfolds centers on Muhammad's beloved young widow, Aisha, and his longtime confidant, Ali. Neither the caliphate nor a unified Muslim world can finally survive their prolonged dance of mutual enmity. Refreshingly accessible to nonspecialists, Rogerson's account of that tense dance will help American readers understand the passions on the streets of Baghdad.
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by Barnaby Rogerson