Top positive review
4 people found this helpful
A judicious and lucid account
on 23 August 2012
Muhammad: All That Matters is a judicious and lucid account of the life of the founder of Islam by a leading Western academic and Islamic scholar. The dialectical style -- where Sardar first presents one case as strongly as he can, and then the counter-case, and finally a synthesis -- may be unfamiliar to many English readers (though those with a German background will recognise it immediately) which at times gives the impression that the author is telling us what to think. However, the balanced position that he comes to is nuanced and intelligent, though solidly Islamic.
This is the substance of his argument about the sources and reliability:
We know more about Muhammad than any other prophet, argues Sardar, asserting the mainstream Islamic view.
However, since none of the sources are contemporaneous, what we know is uncertain.
Nonetheless, to dismiss everything entirely, as some Western scholars have done, is unreasonable. Therefore the nuanced position is to tell the entire story, based on the best available materials, but to point out areas which seem to be doubtful or exaggerated.
From a Western scholarly point of view, this is giving an enormous amount of benefit of the doubt to the accounts. From an Islamic point of view, it is highly liberal. Ultimately, argues Sardar, it comes down to belief. However, to be informed of the life of Muhammad is not a matter of belief, but of information, and therefore the main bulk of the book is given to telling the story of his life.
From that point Sardar tells the story as accurately as he can, introducing key Islamic concepts as he goes. The book finishes with an assessment of the character of Muhammad and his key ideas.
If you are not a Muslim, then there will always be a sense reading this book of being an outsider looking in. There are things which Sardar suggests it is necessary to believe in order to make sense of Muhammad that are at odds with much of Western thought. However, this book gives us as good a window for looking in as I've ever seen. Even if you are unwilling -- in purely general terms -- to accept the underlying framework of God, prophets, angels, and so on, you come away with a much richer understanding of what Muslims believe, and a detailed narrative account of Muhammad's life.
Not all problems in the world will be solved by understanding each other, but the West's failure to comprehend and engage with the fundamental values of the Arab world has not helped matters. This book should be enough to give any interested but relatively uninformed reader a head start in understanding what is important to Muslims, and it does so in the least polemical way possible.