When the Communist Soviets were our enemy, a lot of Americans developed an interest in the USSR. Know thy enemy. Then when we feared that Japan would overtake us economically, many Americans developed a cult taste for all things Japanese. It is perhaps this reason as well as the pure notoriety of Islam in today’s culture that I picked this book. Who is Muhammad? What did he preach? What legacy did he leave? I’m not brainwashed. I don’t believe there is anything inherently violent in Islam. In fact, there is hell of lot of violence in the Old Testament including genocide. I know that there is a particular brand of Islam, Radical Islam, that has warped the religion just as there is a particular brand of Christian Fundamentalism that focuses on fear, violence, exclusion, persecution, and war. If you read about Jesus, you would be shocked that any Christian could overlook the poor and be desirous of wealth and power. I wanted to know if this applies to Muhammad. What I already know is that Muhammad was not just a preacher but a powerful political leader. Much more is known of Muhammad than Christ, and arguably, Christ’s existence is up for debate. I also read a book about ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the latest leader of the Baha’i religion, and it’s rather odd having a religious leader photographed and his conversations recorded in the modern era (20th century). Whereas Jesus has this almost mythical, ethereal, debated existence, we know so much more about Muhammad and ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
This is a gigantic book, so I am reviewing it as I go. Some of the interesting things to note. As with many old stories of the age, there are a lot of claims that seem magical or supernatural. An army that tries to destroy the temple of Muhammad’s family is destroyed by birds who kill them with pebbles. Muhammad relays how as a kid, two men in white opened his heart, took out some black thing, and put his heart back. It almost makes you wonder if some extraterrestrial alien intervened throughout human history. Instead of “men in black” you have the men in white performing open heart surgery and saving this future prophet from heart disease. Then again, you simply have to doubt the authenticity of anything from the past. Even today, we have our urban myths that once fully investigated turn out to be false. Even today, people claim that aliens perform autopsies on them. If Muhammad were alive today and told people of this experience, we would simply classify it under alien autopsy claims.
It is also interesting to note that during his days, Arab town folk would send of their babies to be suckled and raised by nomads to give them the desert life experience thinking that the town life corrupts or weakens them. This is fascinating. I read before that the Koran is a lyrical and poetic document as much a religious one, and the book explains how Arabs valued eloquence and poetry at that time.
At an early age, Muhammad is told by some Christian who lives in a cell (the author never explains what that exactly means) that he will become a prophet. I don’t know about you, but you can really influence a kid’s life by making such prognostications. Just tell any kid, you will grow up to be one of the greatest artists, athletes, writers, poets, singers, whatever, and chances are, that kid will be gravitated toward that prophecy. Muhammad gets married at 25 to a woman 15 years his senior and only later in life, in his 40’s, does he start having revelations and seeing the angel, Gabriel, after spending lengthy time in solitude. There are countless stories of spiritual leaders going off into solitude and then having visions or hearing things. Could this be the result of solitary confinement?
One of the frustrating things about this book is that it often digresses and indulges in side stories that are not critical and strongly relevant to the biography of Muhammad. I really doubt many people will read the entire book front to back. It could easily have been cut in half by getting rid of all these side stories.
Predictably when Muhammad starts preaching about only following one god and getting rid of idol worship, just like Jesus, he stirs up controversy and resistance from the status quo. This is a common theme in history, and what you never read about are the countless people who tried to change the status quo and were murdered or imprisoned early on and were never heard of again. Fact is, religious history follows the laws of evolution (so long as you discount the stories of miracles and assume the religious leaders who failed also claimed to have performed miracles). Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, they’re all here, because they survived resistance by those in power or were valued and adopted by those in power. There are countless religions that simply became extinct, because they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, because those in power at the time, successfully destroyed them or saw no use for their existence. And even when religions do succeed, they are warped and contrived by those in power. If Christians truly followed Christianity, they would help more of the poor and weak and be more forgiving of their enemies, but throughout history, Christians have amassed wealth, exacerbated poverty, discarded the disabled and weak, and their armies have committed genocide. If Jesus appeared today, he would be shocked by what people have done in his name, and he would condemn most Christians as completely ignorant of what he preached. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the US government accused him of being a terrorist and imprisoned him at Guantanamo Bay.
I had to skim much of the book, because there were so many unnecessary side stories and people that just appeared out of nowhere, and even when describing important event, the author wasn’t very clear, and you often wondered what happened. It was very frustrating. I’ve come across a lot of old history books like this where the language used is so vague, indirect, and meandering that it takes a major effort to keep focused. There is a certain style of writing, perhaps you can call it modern American, which is so clear, concise, and organized and often used for biographies. In fact, we still have a long way to go. This book could have used a timeline and list of important characters. It only has a hardly legible map and Muhammad’s family tree.
As far as I could tell, Muhammad starts out in Mecca. After he starts seeing the angel Gabriel and believes he is a prophet, he starts preaching about only one God which pisses off his entire family, so he leaves and sets up in Medina. His own family tries to destroy him, but he prevails in battle, but he also loses to them and signs a peace treaty. I’ve read elsewhere that he was a great general, but this book doesn’t make him seem all that innovative and successful. Most surprising is that the battle fatalities seem remarkably low except in one case where he attacks a Jewish town and slaughters several hundred men after they surrender and then he takes their women as slaves or for ransom. The town had sided against Muhammad in a recent battle. It sounds harsh, but it is nowhere near what Moses did to many tribes in Israel which did nothing against him. You simply get the feeling that back in the day, people routinely would attack a town, and if the town was particularly annoying, they would kill all the men in that town. I thought it was more of a Mongol thing, but apparently, it was almost universal, except the Mongols did it by the hundreds of thousands. Life must have been incredibly harsh back then. I’m not one of those historical relativists who say that times were different back then, so it wasn’t so bad to have slaves or slaughter all the men in a town after battle. Morality is morality. Muhammad does not come across as a general who was overly petty or vindictive, but none-the-less, it wasn’t above him to massacre prisoners of war.
In the end, he finally conquers Mecca. I thought he had conquered much more than just neighboring towns. I guess Islam spread after he died. At the end, you don’t get the impression that he created a religion that espouses unnecessary warfare, terrorism, or inhumanity. In fact, you could argue Moses was much worse than Muhammad. Only Jesus comes across as the pacifist, peace-loving hippie. But then you wonder why Christianity was so violent, genocidal, and imperialistic. As you may guess, it isn’t really the prophet or messiah that controls the followers’ actions, and some extremists just cherry pick the bible or Koran to suit their needs.
Most notable is that when Muhammad lived, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side-by-side, and although, there were battles between Jews and Muslims, there were also battles between Muslims and Muslims as well as alliances between Jews and Muslims. Muhammad after all married a Jew. How can Muslims say they want to wipe the Jews off the face of the planet, if Muhammad married a Jew? Near the end, one of the most important revelations of Muhammad for our times is this one, “For each We have appointed a law and a path; and if God had wished He could have made you one people…. So vie with one another in good works. Unto God ye will all be brought back and He will then inform you of those things wherein ye differed.” After reading this, I realized more than ever how rotten and evil the extremists and radicals are, and how they focus on our differences and try to make us believe that we are all fighting each other to the death. This only exists in their minds. So many Christians are paranoid of Muslims and think the goal of all Muslims is to take over the world. Muslims could think the same of Christians. Fact is, if you read the bible, Koran, or even the biography of Muhammad, you would know that different religions have lived in the same areas and lived in peace. Ethnic and religious cleansings happen, but they are the exception, and it is not even the result of religious leaders calling for the massacre of other religions but rather national politicians using religion as an excuse to destroy political opponents who happen to have different religious beliefs. In other words, politicians abuse religion to solidify their base while attacking their political opponents.