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Rebalancing the account
on 21 December 2006
The life of the Prophet Muhammad has always polarized opinion in the West. After 9/11 and 7/7 it has become increasingly difficult to find balanced accounts of Islam and its founder. Having read Robert Spencer's "The Truth About Muhammad", which was relentlessly hostile, I was looking for something rather more sympathetic about Muhammad's life. I found it in Barnaby Rogerson's book.
Rogerson is an excellent storyteller, a professional, in fact. In the preface, Rogerson tells how, when taking Western tourists around Roman sites in a Muslim country, he heard groups of men sitting around in cafes telling tales from the days of the Prophet as if they were fresh and new. "I was on the side of a good story," says Rogerson. "The life of the Prophet Muhammad is a story of overpowering pathos and beauty. It is history, tragedy and enlightenment compressed into one tale." And that's how Rogerson tells it.
He has the knack of taking the reader into the picture, of conjuring up the sights and sounds and smells of Arabia in the days of Muhammad. And he gives us a sense of the struggles that Muhammad and his early followers went through, of the Prophet's family, and of the harsh life of the Arabs in the desert. He tells it in the end as a tale of triumph over challenge, but never implies that victory was a foregone conclusion.
But - and it is a big but - I was conscious throughout that Rogerson had omitted much of the very difficult episodes of Muhammad's apparent cruelty that Spencer includes in his book. In fact, my first reaction to Rogerson's book was that he was a Romantic, that he had to some extent sentimentalized Muhammad's story and had evaded these difficult episodes. The problem with writing a biography of Muhammad that is accessible and readable for the non-scholarly Western, non-Muslim reader (which is what I am) is that the writer must inevitably abbreviate the story and cannot really acknowledge the difficulties that a historian would have with the very limited primary sources for the life of Muhammad.
This is not to say that Rogerson avoids reference to sources. In fact, he has included a useful note on sources, as well as a timeline, maps, profiles of the main characters in the story, and a glossary of the 99 Names of God. But the main issue, as with all historical material, is one of interpretation. What do the various episodes mean? What frame of reference do we wish to put on the story of Muhammad? Spencer starts with harshly negative assumptions and sets out to prove what he already believes about Muhammad. Rogerson, on the other hand, starts with positive assumptions and sets out to show the beauty and majesty of Muhammad's life.
I have to admit I was repelled by Spencer and beguiled by Rogerson. Beguiled, but always a tad suspicious that he was carried away with the story and not conscious enough of where there could be difficulties and different views of what he was asserting about Muhammad. Somehow, I heard the echoes of Fitzgerald's translations of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam in Rogerson's voice.
Never mind, I shall now read Rogerson's "The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad" and move on to the next part of the story of Islam. It is essential that we understand Islam's history and try to avoid the hatred and prejudice that so many in the West accept as the "proper" reaction to Islam. However, we must also acknowledge that extremist voices have captured the attention of the media and, indeed, of the Muslim community. It is my belief that any form of religious extremism is, as Baha'u'llah, Founder of the Baha'i Faith says, "a world-devouring fire".