Number of pages: 144 pages
Author: Karen Armstrong
In her book “Muhammad: Prophet for our time”, Karen Armstrong described the social, economic and political conditions in the peninsula, especially in Mecca and Medina before and after the emergence of Islam. Her objective is to present an overview of Islam throughout the life of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Thus, she started by explaining the principles and traditions of the Meccan society and the place Mecca occupied in the peninsula, before talking about the birth and childhood of the Prophet. Then, she described how he received the revelations from Allah and how his people reacted to his new Message. In the third chapter, the author talked about al hijrah and the way the prophet and his companions Al-Muhajirah escaped from Quraysh’s abuse and moved to Medina. After that, she described the new life of Muslims in Medina, their cohabitation with Al-Ansar (Helpers), Al-Munafiqun (Hypocrites), and the Jews. In the two last chapters, Armstrong focused on the wars and treaties between Muslims and their enemies, and finished his book with Fath Makka (The Victory of Mecca), when a great number of people converted peacefully to Islam. Moreover, the author gave, throughout the book, an insight on the personality of the Prophet and his relationship with his women, companions and enemies.
In what follows, I will present some extracts from the book and my personal comments on them.
Muhammad’s converts eagerly awaited each new revelation; after he had recited it, they would learn it by heart, and those who were literate wrote it down. They felt moved and stirred by the exquisite language of their scripture, which, they were convinced, could only have come from God. It is difficult for a non-Arabic speaker to appreciate the beauty of the Qur’an, because this is rarely conveyed in translation. The text seems wearyingly repetitive; it has no apparent structure, no sustained argument or organizing narrative. But the Qur’an was not designed to be read sequentially. In its final form, the chapters or surahs of the Qur’an have been arranged arbitrarily, beginning with the longest and ending with the shortest, so the order is not important. Each surah contains essential teachings and it is possible to dip into the text at any point and imbibe crucial lessons.
This description of the Qur’an gave me a new vision of it. It is true that you can start reading the Qur’an at any point and you still feel it logic, consistent and that the messages it contains are stand-alone.
Instead of succumbing to the jahili spirit, the Qur’an urges Muslims to behave with hilm, a traditional Arab virtue. Men and women of hilm were forbearing, patient, and merciful. They could control their anger and remain calm in the most difficult circumstances instead of exploding with rage; they were slow to retaliate; they did not hit back when they suffered injury, but left revenge to Allah. Hilm also inspired positive action: if they practiced hilm, Muslims would look after the weak and disadvantaged, liberate their slaves, counsel each other to patience and compassion, and feed the destitute, even when they were hungry themselves. Muslims must always behave with consummate gentleness and courtesy. They were men and women of peace: “For true servants of the Most Gracious are they who walk gently on the earth, and who, whenever the jahilun address them, reply ‘Peace’ (salam!)”
I liked the way the author insisted on the notion of Hilm in Islam and repeated it in many places of the book. Even Muslims sometimes forget this principle considered among the main basics of Islam. Hence, it was for me a good reminder, especially when it comes from a non-Muslim person.
Islam and Peace
Muslims were not supposed to be men of war; they were characterized by the spirit of hilm, a peace and forbearance that allied them with the Jews and Christians, the People of the Book. Instead of posturing aggressively as the Quraysh had done at Hudaybiyyah, the true followers of Allah prostrated themselves humbly before God in prayer: Thou seest them bowing, prostrating, seeking bounty from God and good pleasure. Their mark is on their faces, the trace of prostration. That is their likeness in the Torah, and their likeness in the Gospel. It was not violence and self-assertion, but the spirit of mercy, courtesy and tranquillity that would cause the ummah to grow, “as a seed that puts forth its shoot and strengthens it and it grows stout and raises straight upon its stalk, pleasing the owners.” The war was over; it was now time for a holy peace.
Finally Muhammad quoted the words that God had spoken to the whole of humanity:"Behold, we have created you all out of a male or a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of him. Behold God is all-knowing, all-aware."The true karim was no longer an aggressive chauvinist, but was filled with reverent fear. The purpose of the tribe and the nation was no longer to exalt its superiority; they must not seek to dominate, exploit, convert, conquer, or destroy other peoples, but get to know them. The experience of living in a group, coexisting with people—some of whom, despite their kinship, would inevitably be uncongenial—should prepare the tribesman or the patriot for the encounter with foreigners. It should lead to an appreciation of the unity of the human race. Muhammad had managed to redefine the concept of nobility in Arabia, replacing it with a more universal, compassionate, and self-effacing ideal.
The author dedicated two chapters to Jihad (Struggle) and Salam (Peace), in which she explained that Muslims were obliged to fight their enemies because they were abused and tortured by Quraysh and forced to leave their homes and families and move to another city. Quraysh also allied to other Muslims opponents and attacked them in Medina. In addition, although Quraysh broke the treaty with the Prophet, Muslims entered Mecca peacefully without fight. This is the real image of Islam and Muslims. The terrorist groups that pretend today to be Muslims and misused the word Jihad to kill people don’t belong to Islam, the religion whose name’s root comes from SLM (To be in Peace).
Each recitation began with the invocation: “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate (al-Rahman) and the Merciful (al-Rahim).” Allah was a masculine noun, but the divine names al-Rahman and al-Rahim are not only grammatically feminine but related etymologically to the word for womb. A partially personified female figure was central to nearly all the early revelations. We find veiled allusions to a woman conceiving a child or giving birth; the image of a woman who has lost her only child, and the poignant evocation of a baby girl, murdered by her disappointed parents. This strong female presence was remarkable in the aggressive patriarchy of Mecca and may explain why women were among the first to respond to the message of the Qur’an.
I don’t agree with the explanation the author gave to Allah’s names, and how she introduced the feminine side in it. It is true that the origin of al-Rahim and al-Rahman is “Rahem” (Womb) which is feminine, but the words itselves are masculine. So, the explanation is not correct. Maybe the author wanted to show how Islam came to free women from the injustice of the Jahili society, but it wasn’t a good idea to use Allah’s names to express this idea.
Matters came to a head over the question of wife-beating. The Qur’an forbade Muslims to inflict violence upon one another, and the women began to complain to the Prophet when their husbands hit them, demanding that they be punished as the Qur’an prescribed. Some even started to refuse sex to their abusive husbands. Muhammad was revolted by the very idea of violence towards women. “The Prophet never raised his hand against one of his wives, or against a slave, nor against any person at all,” Ibn Sa‘d recalled. He “was always against the beating of women. ”But he was ahead of his time. Men like ‘Umar, Ibn Ubayy, even the gentle Abu Bakr beat their wives without giving the matter a second thought. Knowing that Abu Sufyan was mustering a massive army against Medina, Muhammad had to give way in order to retain the loyalty of his men. “Very well,” he told his indignant companions, “beat them, but only the worst of you will have recourse to such methods. ”A revelation seemed to give husbands permission to beat their wives but Muhammad did not like it. “I cannot bear seeing a quick-tempered man beat his wife in a fit of anger,” he said. Yet again, the conflict with Mecca had compromised his vision and forced him to adopt a course of action that, in more normal circumstances, he would have preferred to avoid.
I am not sure that ‘Umar and Abu Bakr used to beat their women and I don’t agree with the author for many reasons:
1. I find it contradictory with other stories I have heard about this two companions of the Prophet and others. For example, I know that a man saw ‘Umar’s wife yelling at him when he was leaving the house, and when he asked him why, ‘Umar said that he has to be respecting and patient with the woman who washes his clothes, cleans his house and takes care of his children. How such a person could beat his wife?
2. When the author in another place told the story of ‘Umar’s conversion to Islam, she says:
‘Umar rushed home, and was horrified to hear the words of the Qur’an issuing from an upstairs window. “What is this balderdash!” he roared as he burst into the room. The reciter fled in terror, dropping the manuscript in his haste, while ‘Umar threw his sister to the ground. But when he saw that she was bleeding, he felt ashamed, picked up the manuscript, and began to read the surah. ‘Umar was one of the judges of the poetry competition in ‘Ukaz, and realized at once that he was looking at something unique. This was quite different from a conventional Arabic ode. “How fine and noble is this speech,” he exclaimed with wonder, and immediately the beauty of the Qur’an diffused his rage and touched a core of receptivity deeply buried within him.
From this story, we understand that ‘Umar considered beating women as a shame, that’s why he regretted having hit his sister and read the manuscript modestly because he was seeking the truth, and once he found out that Qur’an can only be sent by Allah, he decided to convert to Islam.
3. The author shouldn’t have put Al-Farouq ‘Umar Ibn-Al khattab in the same sentence with the hypocrite Ibn Ubayy or compare him with the later. I find it inacceptable.
4. ”A revelation seemed to give husbands permission to beat their wives but Muhammad did not like it”. This situation is not possible, because the Prophet knows very well that Allah is the All Wise and every order from him is surely good for Muslims, so he can never criticize it or feel bad about it.
The hijab verses have become extremely controversial. They would eventually—about three generations after the Prophet’s death—be used to justify the veiling of all women and their segregation in a separate part of the house. But they must be seen in context. They occur in Surah 33, which also deals with the siege, and must be considered against this frightening backdrop. These directives did not apply to all Muslim women, but only to Muhammad’s wives. They were prompted by the thinly disguised threats of Muhammad’s enemies, the aggressive encroachment upon his personal space, and the abuse to which his wives were subjected almost daily. The poisonous atmosphere of Medina after the siege had compelled Muhammad to change his personal arrangements. Henceforth there would be no open house; instead of crowding freely into his wives’ apartments, Muslims must approach them from behind a protective screen. The word hijab comes from the root HJB: to hide.The curtain established a threshold; it shielded a “forbidden” or “sacred” (haram) object, like the damask cloth that covered the Kabah. In times of vulnerability, women’s bodies often symbolize the endangered community, and in our own day, the hijab has acquired new importance in seeming to protect the ummah from the threat of the West.
The explanation of Hijab as given by the author is not complete. Indeed, she focused on the Hijab as the protected screen that applied only to the Prophet’s women. But she ignored the other Hijab that applied to all Muslim women, or what we call nowadays the veil, which is the fact of covering the whole body except the face and hands.
Marriage with Zaynab bint Jahsh
Zaynab bint Jahsh had always been close to Muhammad; she was his cousin, but she was also the wife of Zayd, his adopted son. Muhammad had arranged the match himself shortly after the hijrah, even though Zaynab had been far from enthusiastic: Zayd was not physically prepossessing and she may even then have been interested in Muhammad himself. Zaynab was now in her late thirties, but, despite the harsh climate and conditions of Arabia, she was still extremely beautiful. A pious woman, she was a skilled leather-worker and gave all the proceeds of her craft to the poor.Muhammad seems to have seen her with new eyes and to have fallen in love quite suddenly when he had called at her house one afternoon to speak to Zayd, who happened to be out. Not expecting any visitors, Zaynab had come to the door in dishabille, more revealingly dressed than usual, and Muhammad had averted his eyes hastily, muttering “ Praise be to Allah, who changes men’s hearts!” Shortly afterwards, Zaynab and Zayd were divorced. The marriage had never been happy and Zayd was glad to release her.
I find it disrespecting to talk about the Prophet this way. The author here seems to forget that Muhammad is a Prophet and treats him as a common person who can fall in love with the wife of another man. Besides, all the marriages of Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) were for religious reasons, except for Khadija whom he married before becoming a Prophet. In the case of Zaynab bint Jahsh, the Prophet married her to show to Muslims that there is no problem in marrying the ex-wives of their adopted children, which was forbidden in the Jahili society.
The book can be a good start for people who have no idea about Islam and the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), but it can’t be a solid reference in the matter, because it contains some incomplete or incorrect ideas that can be wrongly interpreted. So I rate the book 3/5.