The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography
by Barnaby Rogerson
240pp, Little, Brown, £14.99
It is never straightforward for a westerner to have more than a passing interest in Islam and the Islamic world. Over a thousand years of rivalry and conflict, from the crusades to the Suez crisis and beyond, have created a widespread unease towards anything to do with Arabs or Muslims. Christians are wary of a newer religion that accepts Jesus as a prophet yet denies he was the son of God; liberals despise Islam for being "conservative" or "anti-women"; pacifists loathe its warrior spirit. The result has meant that Islamic studies in the west has largely been the preserve of two mutually suspicious groups: converts and academics. Converts, naturally, are by and large concerned with increasing their numbers; academics, perhaps as a reaction to this, although I have never satisfactorily been able to explain it, often develop a revulsion towards their subject matter, with an odd combination of lethargy and venom.
Given this, it's not surprising that ignorance surrounding Islam - its rites, beliefs, its stories and its prophet - runs deep in the west. An average person probably knows more about far-off Hinduism and Zoroastrianism than he does about our religious neighbour. Imagine a dinner party where a friend turns round and declares he's become a Buddhist. At worst there will be mild curiosity and a circular conversation about the meaning of life. But change it, and instead of "Buddhist", your friend says "Muslim". It's a very different scene: the cultural memories of centuries of rivalry between Islam and the west kick in, and all of a sudden your friend is placed beyond the pale.
None of this is helped, of course, by the current climate. We can argue for ever that there is no such thing as a "clash of civilisations" taking place, but events would appear to be speaking for themselves. Extremists are close to taking over in both western and Islamic contexts, with the middle ground becoming increasingly depopulated. More and more the question is: whose side are you on?
It was a question that dogged Barnaby Rogerson as he set out to write his highly entertaining new biography of Muhammad, the founder of Islam and, according to Muslims, the last of God's prophets on earth. A veteran traveller in north Africa, Rogerson became entranced one day by an old Arab postcard seller's account of a 1,300-year-old story about Muhammad's son-in-law Ali, "events told with all the immediacy of yesterday". Inspired by the experience, he followed the man's example the next day by sitting down and telling his fellow travellers what he knew about the life of Muhammad himself. The inevitable questions, "Are you a Muslim?" and "Do you intend to become a Muslim?" were put to him, from both westerners and Arabs. "I was on the side of a good story," he replies simply.
And the story of Muhammad's life is a fascinating one, regardless of your feelings towards the man or Islam. An illiterate orphan, raised in the desert and trained as a merchant on the camel trade routes that criss-crossed Arabia, he defies his tribe to found a new religion, establishes a world language, and creates an almost unstoppable force that only 100 years after his death has conquered an empire stretching from the Pyrenees to the Hindu Kush. It's an epic on a biblical scale, with great battle scenes, love, jealousy, betrayal, self-sacrifice and the word of God. "Only by marrying the best qualities of certain characters from European civilisation - a combination, say, of Alexander the Great, Diogenes and Aristotle, or the Emperor Con- stantine, St Paul and St Francis - can you begin to understand the measure of the man," Rogerson says. "Even when viewed in an entirely secular perspective he remains a superhero."
True to his word, Rogerson recounts the tale with the love and artistry of a master story-teller, vividly recreating the world of sixth- and seventh-century Arabia, a land of both great honour and cruelty - a cultured backwater, largely overshadowed by the three great empires of the day: Byzantines to the north, Sassanid Persians to the east and Ethiopians to the south. We live through the prophet's early years as an apprentice on the camel trains and later as a successful merchant before, at the age of 40, he experiences his first revelation on a mountainside outside Mecca, and hears the divine order "Recite!"
It is the beginning of his mission, and the first of a series of revelations that will last until his death; later they will be collected and written down in a book that will become the religious and linguistic cornerstone of an entire civilisation: the Qur'an, meaning "the recitation". From here Muhammad's story is one of rejection and persecution, his followers murdered and attempts made on his own life, before, fleeing Mecca, he finds refuge in the northern oasis of Yathrib (today's Medina), and the tide begins to turn. Victory over the Meccans eventually comes after an eight-year war, and by the time of his death, two years later, he has rid the peninsula of polytheism and succeeded in uniting the tribes of Arabia behind his new, monotheistic creed.
The man who emerges from the tale is no simplistic God-inspired guru, though. Muhammad comes across as a complex individual, complete with occasional doubts about his mission and methods. When the first revelation comes to him he is convinced he has been possessed by a jinn or evil spirit, and climbs to the top of Mount Hira with "self-murder in his heart", only to be saved by a vision of the Archangel Gabriel. Despite being divinely inspired, Muhammad insisted he was just a man, something many Christians misunderstand: only relatively recently have westerners stopped referring to Islam as "Muhammadism". He is an example of the best of men, but it is his message that makes Muhammad so important in the eyes of Muslims.
However there are seeming contradictions in the prophet's behaviour that make summarising his life difficult - ordering the massacre of a Jewish tribe of Medina on the one hand, yet liberally forgiving his enemies in Mecca on the other; restricting Muslim men to four wives while marrying at least 10 times himself (one of his wives, Aisha, was wedded to him at the age of six). These are the parts of the story that westerners usually find hardest to swallow, and to his credit Rogerson does not balk at detailing what might be less palatable moments in the tale, offering instead brief possible interpretations before moving on with the narrative. His gloss, if anything, is sympathetic, and his admiration for Muhammad is evident on every page; but this is not hagiography.
Scholarly works on Muhammad have tended to bog themselves down in arguments over sources, or new theories cunningly devised to undermine their rivals in the field. While obviously knowing his subject inside out, Rogerson has cleverly avoided this trap, concentrating instead on the tale itself, freeing up the flow of knowledge blocked by the academic approach. Some will scoff, others will simply ignore it, but the book is designed for the general audience, not for university dons. If, as the medieval Arab philosopher Al-Ghazali suggested, people oppose things because they are ignorant of them, then this is an important book, and couldn't have come at a more opportune time.
· Jason Webster is the author of Duende: A Journey in Search of Flamenco (Doubleday) and is currently writing a book on Moorish Spain.