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The Messenger; The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad- By Tariq Ramadan
Published by Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books

Read this book, but be careful to read it with an alert awareness of its sub-title. It is an act of piety, a beautifully articulated sermon that selects incidents from the life of the Prophet that can inspire the conduct of modern Muslims. It blends textual criticsm with an alert appreciation of contemporary concepts and other faith traditions whilst remaining grounded on an absolute bedrock of belief. So that while some incidents are deconstructed to reveal inspiring early role models for Islamic democracy, spiritual self-sufficiency, ecology and womens rights, the Angel Gabriel also makes frequent quite matter-of-fact appearances as the ambassador-messenger of God.

The Messenger cannot be considered an impartial historical biography in the western tradition - still less a defensive apology. Indeed those familiar with the habitual points of western interest in early Islam (which pretty much follows the tabloid code of sex and violence) will find this work a most frustrating document. Where are the pages devoted to the Prophet's marriage to his child-bride Aisha, or upon his dispensation from the other believers' limit of four wives, or how the Prophet's own adopted son Zayd divorced his own wife Zaynab, so that she could also join the household of Muhammad? There are similar blank spaces around many of the bloody military encounters, assassinations and executions that occurred during the lifetime of the Prophet.

But this is to sidestep the purpose of the book, which is to find ŚMeanings' from the life of the Prophet to uplift, challenge and inspire modern Muslims. Judged on these parameters, Ramadan has certainly succeeded in creating an elegant, inspiring account full of learning and challenging inquiry worthy of multiple readings. Nor does he loose sight of the animating purpose of true religion, to charge mankind with love and compassion, and subdue the brutal realities of the competitive hunger which we all share. In his words, the aim of Jihad (the spiritual struggle of a Muslim) is in, Śresisting the dark temptations of the inner self." He also cautions his reader with the declaration that, "deeply, simply, he who cannot love cannot understand [religion]."

Ramadan's account of the boyhood of Muhammad is a fine example of his style. For he concentrates not just on the orphan's sense of familial loss and exclusion from the urban society of Mecca but the positive gifts that came through his desert upbringing. How the shepherd-boy was removed from the hypocritical obedience of formal religious practice, how his mind remained unfettered by rotelearning and his individuality unblemished by schooling. How his formative first years in the desert strengthened his self-sufficiency, how he faced the everyday facts of life, creativity and death unshielded by any of the veils of cosy domesticity. How his freedom from books gave him a delight in the power of the spoken word and in the oral traditions of the desert. So that quite aside from the conventional Muslim belief in an angel-dictated Koran (to which Ramadan wholeheartedly subscribes) Muhammad is acknowledged to be a master of spoken Arabic in his own right. For side by side with the Holy Book there are the multi-volume collections of his sayings which form an additional platform of inspiration to Muslims. Short, apparently simple phrases that are full of multiple readings, such as "Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a wayfarer."

Ramadan is also pragmatic enough to re-examine conventional assessments of the Prophet's marriage to his first wife Khadijah who is always depicted as a forty-year old heiress. Using an alternative historical source and the fact that Khadijah bore six children after her marriage to Muhammad, he convincingly suggests that she was a twice-widowed 28 year-old. Richer, older and more experienced than Muhammad certainly, but possibly only three years apart from the 25 year old caravan-merchant that she wooed. This might be considered a mere footnote detail but for the fact that whole studies have been built around this age difference (even such masterly surveys as Maxime Rodinson's biography of the Prophet indulge in imaginative interpretations of the psychological frustrations of Muhammad's early married life).

In his assessment of the Prophet's mystical Night Journey (where he flew to Jerusalem and from there to heaven) Ramadan is carefully circumspect, "Muslim scholars have, from the outset, pondered the question of a purely spiritual nature or whether it was also physical." Here he might be seen to be a cautious fence-sitter but for his detailed quotation of the three Koranic verses that refer to the journey. For the tradition of dissenting views can be seen to have even entered into the text of the Koran, "Will you dispute with him concerning what he saw?"

In his assessment of the Hijrah, the migration of the Muslim community from the persecution of Mecca to the freedom of the oasis of Medina, Ramadan is able to address the true audience for his book - the Muslim communities now resident within Europe and America. He explains that the Hijrah, (just like the 20th century journeys of many Muslim families) was no accident, but a cautious and well-planned event. It was a rational decision for the faithful to break away from their tormentors and march to freedom. Just as many Afghans, Egyptians, Saudis and Iraqis have been forced to take over the last hundred years. The Prophet Muhammad took two years over it, carefully discharging all the debts he owed to non-Muslims in the process. He honoured the different traditions of Medina, his new home, just as Muslim migrants must do today. Like the Prophet they can also use the act of migration as a spiritual tool, to help shed mere national or tribal customs in order to define what is truly and inherently Islamic. Ramadan is also careful to remind his readers that the Prophet only came to the oasis of Medina as part of a carefully agreed legal contract with the existing inhabitants. This contract, developed over two separate series of negotiations, did not demand the conversion of the natives but merely bound all the inhabitants to help defend the oasis against outside aggressors. This contract would be honoured and respected throughout the lifetime of the Prophet. So that although he might be the unquestioned leader of the Muslim exiles from Mecca he never did more than request the assistance of the men of Medina when setting out on campaign. It is good that modern Muslims should be reminded of this and how the period of persecution in Mecca helped unite their community of a few hundred souls, while the freedom of Medina helped breed conflicts and schisms as the community expanded into tens of thousands in just ten years.

He also reminds his readers that if Medina is to be sited as a pattern book of the perfect Muslim state they must also embrace other aspects from the lifetime of the Prophet: the freedom of women to speak out, to pray, study and learn, that their leaders should follow his example and "consult them [the people] upon the conduct of affairs". Other examples of the Prophet are unlikely to be followed either today or tomorrow, such as the time when he permitted a delegation of visiting Christians (who he had failed to convert) to pray in the central mosque of Medina. Nor do the modern leaders of Islam cherish the poor (the people of the bench) in anything like the manner of the Prophet whose natural humility dictated that he continued to sew his own clothes and repair his own shoes until his dying day.

But that is the great worth of this book. To be a true Muslim is a lifelong intellectual challenge, not a single act of obedience.

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