The life of the prophet Muhammad

From the manuscript Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, 1307. Depicting Muhammad and an angel
Professor Martin Forward works at Aurora University. He has taught Islam at Cambridge and is the author of Muhammad: A Short Biography (1997)

When Mohammad died in 632, most of the Arabian peninsula had converted to his new religion. Soon a rapid expansion of the faith across most of North Africa followed, untill a caliphate was established. During the Middle Ages, Islam became the sworn enemy of Christian Europe. Even so, it is through Islamic custodianship that much of the legacy of classical Antiquity survived.  The animosity between cultures seems to have reached a new peak in the wake of the war on terror following 9/11. Today, there is hardly a more controversial historical figure than the prophet Muhammad, the man who, in 610 A.D., at the age of 40, sought refuge in a mountain cave and was visited by the angel Gabriel. We talked with a well-known moderate, British proponent of interfaith dialogues, Methodist and historian, Martin Forward.  We asked him to introduce Muhammad to those of us unfamiliar with his life.

Historyradio.org: You have studied Muhammad and written a short biography of the man, what attracted you to this subject?

Muhammad has had a very bad press in the west as a false prophet, an epileptic, a cardinal who went bad and founded another religion out of spite, and a host of other bad things. These criticisms arose in part out of people dissing what they fear. Islam was a threat to Europe’s Christian identity for over 1,000 years: as late as 1683, Ottoman Turks laid siege to the gates of Vienna. But they also arose out of a genuine puzzlement: why, Christians thought, did Muslims need another religious founder after Jesus? Why could they not accept him and his religion?
So I found him a fascinating figure and wanted to see what I thought of him. Writing it out helped that process!

Historyradio.org: In the West, we often compare Muhammad to Jesus, but how fair is that comparison?
Muslims compare Jesus with Muhammad. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet, Messiah and son of Mary (but not of God). Christians, as I have said, often regard Muhammad as a fraud, though there is no obligation, in their religion, to have a point of view about Muhammad at all, since he post-dates it. Understandably, Muslims are often disappointed that Christians can’t find fine things to say about Muhammad when they themselves hold Jesus in high regard. Equally understandable, Christians are disappointed that Muslims high regard for Jesus misses (from their perspective) the important point about him and his role in salvation.

Historyradio.org:  Do all Muslims have the same view of Muhammad? Are there differences within sects or traditions?
There are different views but they’ve been submerged by the dominant one. An early view, that of the Mutazilites, didn’t see him as a passive recipient of an inerrant scripture but gave him a much more positive role in its manufacture. There views were quickly abandoned as innovative, though they re-emerge in the writings of Muslim modernists in Egypt and India (e.g. Syed Ameer Ali’s “The Spirit of Islam”) Shiahs tend to emphasize Muhammad as a charismatic leader whose descendants may inherit some of that spiritual power, whereas Sunnis are more cautious about this. But the vast majority have the view that he is the last and greatest prophet, after whom there will be no more prophets.

Historyradio.org: What sources do we have about his life, and how reliable are these sources?
The Qur’an and the hadith (traditions). Muslims and until recently, western scholars of Islam, have taken a conservative view of these and see them as closely linked to the historical life of the prophet and as reliable guides to it. But radical recent western historians now often regard the Qur’an as a work that wasn’t fixed and finalized until many years after Muhammad’s death. Muslims don’t accept this, but the evidence is quite compelling that, e.g., some of the Qur’an is post-Muhammad. (John Wansbrough and Patricia Crone are famous exponents of this view).

Historyradio.org:  What sort of a man was he? Was he an educated man?
Many Muslims believe him to have been illiterate and this has the advantage of highlighting the miracle of the Qur’an and its divine provenance. Since he was a member of a distinguished clan, and the husband of a wealthy businesswoman, Khadijah, it’s likely that he was able to read and write (though, as I say, many Muslims don’t believe so,) and to do basic math.

Historyradio.org:  We often hear that Muhammad was a military man, and that as such he cannot be worthy of being praised. How should we deal with this issue? How do Muslims deal with it?
Islam was the most successful religion of all, in its infancy. Within a few years, it had destroyed the Persian Empire, and vastly reduced the territories of the Byzantine Empire. Within a century Muslims controlled much of the Middle East and North Africa, and had entered Europe as conquerors through the Iberian peninsula. Islam’s success was based on military power. This isn’t a problem for Muslims, God being on the side of the righteous, though it conflicts with views of Jesus as the prince of peace. To Christians, Muhammad seems to be a violent sort of prophet. To many Muslims, Jesus seems to have been an unsuccessful one, dying before he could implement his vision in any concrete ways.

Historyradio.org: Describe for us the sort of tribal culture he was born into?
He was born into a distinguished clan, the Quraysh. Clan life was originally desert based and gave its members an identity and a loyalty. You could, e.g., raid another clan but not your own. Mecca, the town where he was born, was on the silk route. Many scholars suggest that greedy capitalism was beginning to subvert tribal values at the time of Muhammad, and see this as the background to the Qur’an’s condemnation of those who oppress the poor and needy.

Historyradio.org: How did Muhammad regard women?
This is a minefield. He had many wives, and had them veiled out of respect, though he didn’t require other women to be veiled. He limited wives to four, for others, and some Muslims claim polygamy was a concession to circumstances, to protect and look after widows of the Muslims who died fighting against pagan Meccans. One of his wives, Ayesha, was very young, and his marriage to her nowadays would be regarded as pedophilia. But it wasn’t a problem then, if you compare it with practices in Greek and other cultures.

Historyradio.org:  There is the very difficult topic of Muhammad’s relationship with the Jews. How should we today interpret his military actions against Jews?
Muhammad saw them as thorns in his side, preventing him from implementing his vision; fifth-columnists, if you like. He acted as leaders of his day did, removing them in a ruthless fashion. But he wasn’t a modern anti-Semite, regarding Jews as intrinsically sub-human. In the Middle Ages, Jews often did pretty well under Muslim rule, as opposed to Christian rule.

Historyradio.org: Why is it so important for some Muslims that we don’t show artistic representations of Muhammad.
Like Jews, (but unlike Christians) Muslims believe that God is incomparably beyond our power to depict him artistically or in any other way. Muhammad is the messenger of God. and so should be afforded the same courtesy.

Historyradio.org:  What do the sources say about his appearance? Do we know anything about what he actually looked like?
I summarize his appearance in my book. There I write: “He was of average height or a little taller. He was strongly built. His complexion was fair. He had a hooked nose, and black eyes flecked with brown. He had a good head of hair, and was bearded. He had a large mouth, which occasionally broke into a warm smile. His was a mobile body: he turned his whole self to look at somebody, spoke rapidly and to the point, and was often in a rush.”