- Paperback: 112 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press, U.S.A.; Reprint edition (9 Dec. 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0192876058
- ISBN-13: 978-0192876058
- Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 0.8 x 12.9 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 451,666 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Muhammad (Past Masters) Paperback – 9 Dec 1999
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a moving introduction to the prophet and a very necessary one (Listener)
About the Author
Michael Cook is a Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of several books on the history of the Middle East.
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Top Customer Reviews
I particularly enjoyed Chapter 2, a concise presentation of the traditional account of Muhammad's life, as opposed to other chapters where the author attempts to question the historical reliability of the traditional sources.
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The main flaw in this book is that it presents as authoritative information which is in reality quite controversial. For example, his chapter on Muhammad's life includes a brief phrase about the satanic verses incident (without calling it that) that fails to describe differing points of view on the subject. The whole chapter on the Prophet's life, and much of the rest of the book, has perhaps also been too much influences by anti-Semitism in the Middle East arising after the founding of Israel. He also reports lots of traditions outside the mainstream (such as Ishmaelite Arabs who followed Jewish law) without giving a clear indication of how they might have fit into the larger scheme of things.
His chapter on "The Sources," while perhaps the most controversial, does give a fair presentation of the dilemma scholars face as to whether the Islamic tradition about the Prophet is fundamentally correct or fundamentally a later invention. I disagree with his conclusion, but it's his book. Here he presents enough of the evidence for interested readers to make up their own minds.
Given the contraints of this series, Cook may have done all he could. This is an interesting work, but there are probably better ones out there.
He wrote in the Preface, "My own reservations about writing this book arise from different grounds. Muhammad made too great an impact on posterity for it to be an easy matter to place him in his original context... The result is that the only aspect about the book about which I feel no qualms is the brevity imposed by the format of the series. The attempt to write about Muhammad within such a compass has brought me to confront issues I might not otherwise have faced..."
Here are some additional quotations from the book:
"As might be expected, the Jesus of the Koran is still recognizable as the Jesus of the New Testament... There are, however, divergences. For no obvious reason the Koran insists that Jesus was not really crucified... But the crucial point of divergence is the insistence that Jesus, though a messenger of God, was not His son, still less God Himself." (Pg. 32-33)
"We may end this account with a brief relation of the future course of history as it appeared to early Muslims... The Muslim community will break up into a mass of conflicting sects... Eventually God will send a redeemer... This redeemer, the Mahdi, will receive allegiance at the sanctuary in Mecca, whence his emigration (hijra) will be to Jerusalem; there he will reign in justice... Thereafter the Antichrist (the Dajjal) will appear from Iraq, reducing the Muslims to a remnant... In the hour of their need, Jesus will descend to earth in armour and lead them against Antichrist..." (Pg. 41)
"There is a rich body of traditions as to how the Koran was collected and edited... the traditions are not a model of consistency. We learn that some of Muhammad's followers already knew the whole Koran by heart in his lifetime---yet subsequently it had to be pieced together out of fragments collected from here and there." (Pg. 67)
"The results of this research can perhaps be summarized as follows: First, nothing resembling the Koran as such is to be found in any other tradition; the book remains sui generis, and if it had predecessors, we know nothing of them." (Pg. 78)
It was Muhammad's ability to appropriate the concept of monotheism and alter it slightly to suit the local environment in Arabia, which is largely responsible for the emergence of the Arabs on the stage of history. According to Cook, Muhammad's genius is rooted in his ability to articulate a monotheistic message, contrast it with the polytheistic surroundings, propagate the message, and have the political acumen to outwit his opponents. Hence he was able to firmly implant the concept of monotheism among the Arabs who, Cook presumes, are less sophisticated than the ones among whom the concept originally emerged, the Israelites.
Cook's approach to discussing the career of Muhammad is quite original. He approaches the subject from the viewpoint of the monotheistic tradition at large. This is best illustrated by the titles of chapters 3-6: "The Monotheist Universe", "Monotheist History", "Monotheist Law", and "Monotheist Politics". Viewing the Prophet's career from this angle certainly does give one new insights into the significance of his message and life.
Consequently, the details of Muhammad's life do not receive extensive attention in Cook's book. The chapter dealing with Muhammad's biographical particulars is only thirteen pages long. The bulk of the book deals with the nature of Muhammad's monotheistic message, the manner in which he articulated it, and the methods he used to outmaneuver his opponents and eventually triumph. Along with his descriptive narrative of historical events, Cook liberally offers his personal insights into what could have been, what should have been, and what is, the hidden meaning behind a certain event or declaration of the Prophet. Many of these asides are very colorful, some of them even comical.
For the most part Cook refers to information and facts which have been widely accepted by the adherents of Islam, but at certain crucial junctures he resorts to citing obscurities and absurdities to illustrate a point. The opening paragraphs of chapter 4, "Monotheist History", are a case of such absurdities. The way Cook's narrative progresses one gets the unmistakable impression that most Muslims believe that the world is about 6000 years old, with some disagreement among some scholars. Even though it is an undeniable fact that certain Muslims in the past did estimate that the world was 6000 years old, these calculations have no basis in the Qur'anic narrative or the Prophetic tradition, and they certainly are not in any way a part of the Islamic orthodoxy. Why does Cook make an issue out of something which is not even remotely connected with the teachings of Muhammad and the belief system he advocated? His motives for having taken the trouble to go through such a discussion are quite dubious. There are a few other such dubious instances in the course of the book.
After finishing chapter seven entitled "The Sources", dealing with the sources of Islamic beliefs and law, one wonders if any of these sources are authentic and trustworthy. Beginning with the Qur'an, the primary source, Cook notes that the book "is strikingly lacking in structure" (p. 68). He goes on to note that in the Qur'an that "God may appear in the first and third persons in one and the same sentence, there may be omissions which, if not made good by interpretation, render the sense unintelligible; there are even what look like grammatical errors" (p. 68). These are very serious issues which Cook raises. The reader is left on his own to discover the cases of such "extraordinarily conservative editing", to use Cook's own words, because he does not provide any examples to illustrate his point. It is the height of intellectual cowardice to raise such controversial issues and offer no evidence to support one's position. Such an approach in academia is akin to a little child hurling insults at a perceived adversary. The second source for Islamic law and beliefs, the Tradition, is an even more flawed source than the Qur'an, according to Cook. He notes that there are many conflicting reports related to a single event in the Prophet's life. Additionaly, in the vast body of traditional narratives, it is often impossible to distinguish between "... genuine historical information and material that came into existence to explain the very Koranic passages that concern us" (p. 71). Here Cook goes into a lengthy discusson on the meaning, or the lack thereof, of ildf and rihlah to illustrate his point. I must admit I did not clearly see the relevance of this discussion to the issue at hand.
Cook states bluntly that the only reliable sources regarding the career of the Prophet are those which stand outside the Islamic tradition, which he labels "external evidence". He admits that some of this material can be traced back as early as CE 633-34, meaning after the Prophet's death, and most of it is from an even later time period. Cook is especially keen to focus on a few works in Greek, Syriac, and Armenian which refer to Muhammad's life, the authors of which are unknown to Cook or anyone else. But it can be said with certainty that none of these chroniclers could have known Muhammad personally or even been to the Arabian peninsula. It must be kept in mind that all non-Muslims were expelled from the peninsula long before most of these accounts were written. Some of the information contained in these sources contradicts some of the accepted data related to Muhammad's life. The fact that Cook prefers this "external evidence" and rejects the accepted sources speaks volumes about Cook as an academician. The data contained in these sources is far more suspect than the accepted sources.
Besides Cook's proclivity for accepting dubious sources upon which to base his research and opinion, there is even more direct evidence that he is hopelessly confused. This is especially evident in his concluding remarks, particularly his assertion that Judaism and Christianity are "profound pathos". In essence Cook says that the Islamic view of universe remains faithful to authentic reality, or to put it more bluntly the Islamic message is the "Truth". He reaches this conclusion after spending 88 pages doubting everything from the sources on which Islam is based, to the stability of Muhammad's psyche, and even the validity of a monotheistic worldview. In the face of such stupendous contradictions one has to doubt not only the methods used by the author to reach his conclusions, but the conclusion themselves. Because if his conclusion about Islam is correct there has to be a more sound method to arrive at it. Similarly his assertion the Judaism and Christianity represent "profound pathos" should also be categorically rejected, because the method used to reach the conclusion is no different than the one used in the case of Islam.
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