A Path-Breaking Western Book on Sirah

Amid the plethora of the Western writings on Sirah (Prophet Muhammad’s illustrious life and career), the book The Humanity of Muhammad: A Christian View by Craig Considine. Clifton, N J, USA, Blue Dome Press, 2020. Pp. 165. ISBN: 978-1-68206-529-7, stands out on several counts. Although authored by Craig Considine, Professor at the Department of Sociology…

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Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai

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Amid the plethora of the Western writings on Sirah (Prophet Muhammad’s illustrious life and career), the book The Humanity of Muhammad: A Christian View by Craig Considine. Clifton, N J, USA, Blue Dome Press, 2020. Pp. 165. ISBN: 978-1-68206-529-7, stands out on several counts. Although authored by Craig Considine, Professor at the Department of Sociology at Rice University, Texas, USA, who is an American Catholic of Irish and Italian descent, this book brings out cogently the Prophet Muhammad’s greatness, his pioneering role in forging religious pluralism, his concern for equal rights and opportunities for all, his anti-racism, his emphasis on seeking knowledge for the benefit of mankind, his emancipation of women then reeling under injustice and oppression, his reinforcing the Prophet Jesus’s essential teachings and his unflinching commitment to truth.

So doing, Considine surpasses some of the finest tributes paid to the Prophet ﷺ earlier by few Western writers down the ages, ranging from Henry Stubbe (1622-1676) to Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, and in our times by Rainer M. Rilke, R. V. C. Bodley, Michale Hart, Annemarie Schmimmel, Karen Armstrong, Fred M. Donner, John Adair, John L. Esposito, Frederick Quinn and Matthew Dimmock. In our times when Islamophobia is rife and Islam/Muslims are demonized, this book which seeks to build bridges between the two major faith communities, Christians and Muslims, is highly welcome.

Instead of harping incessantly, like the Western media and majority of Western writers on the clash of civilizations, it marks the doors wide open for “the dialogue of civilizations.” Considine deserves accolades for this noble, life-enriching initiative.

The significance of Considine’s study consists in it being a trend-setting, rather trend-reversing work. For this is a sordid historical fact that since the West learnt about Islam in eighth century, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ has been a hate figure on whom the most despicable calumnies have been heaped. His depiction in the oral literature, romances and in both ecclesiastical and popular literature has been in terms of his being an archfiend or a son of Satan, heresiarch, anti-Christ, false idol, and god of the villains, murderer, morally degenerate person and impostor. This repulsive image was deliberately fabricated in the West in order to discredit Islam/the Prophet ﷺ and to arrest the spread of Islam, particularly the Western Europe. For Islam had established itself firmly by the tenth century in Spain and up to Central Europe.

According to Matthew Dimmock, Professor, Sussex University, U.K., the image of the Prophet ﷺ in the West regrettably reflects “the history of misrepresentation or the misrepresentation of history” (Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Modern English Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2013). Norman Daniel’s two tomes, Islam and the West: The Making of An Image, (Edinburgh University Press, 1958) and Heroes and Saracens: A Reinterpretation of Chansons de Geste (Edinburgh University Press, 1984), John V. Tolan’s Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (Columbia University Press, 2002) and Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today (Princet on University, Press, 2019) and Abdur Raheem Kidwai’s Images of the Prophet Muhammad in English Literature (Peter Lang, New York, 2018) document the unpalatable history of the Prophet’s vilification in the West. Among those influential Western writers who have distorted Sirah in varying degrees down the centuries are: Dante, Peter the Venerable, Thomas Aquinas, Raymon Llull, John Mandeville, Martin Luther, Humphrey Prideaux, Voltaire, John Lydgate, and most of the Western biographers of the Prophet ﷺ. Against this regrettable backdrop one realises what an epoch-making step towards affirming fairness and truth is the present book! For it demonstrates “how Prophet Muhammad embraced religious pluralism, envisioned a civic nation, stood for anti-racism, advocated for seeking knowledge, initiated women’s rights and followed the Golden Rule.” (Considine, on the flap of the book).

His “Introduction” (pp. 17-27), interlaced with his biographical anecdotes, is very instructive: how as a 16 year old student in a purely Christian setting of a small town, Needham in Massachusetts, US, he learnt first about Islam/Muslims through the traumatic and deplorable 9/11 tragedy. It was no doubt a perfect recipe for sowing Islamophobia into his very young heart and mind. However, God has His own ways of turning one to guidance. At 19 he was fortunate enough to join a course on Islam taught by the distinguished Muslim scholar, Akbar S. Ahmad. The opening lecture unravelled before him an entirely new, different spectacle: the pivotal place of knowledge in Islam, the concept of a loving, forgiving God of the entire humanity, not of Muslims alone, Prophet Muhammad’s sagacity, and the vast common ground between the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religious traditions. All this struck him, changing as it did his perception about Islam/Muslims.

Although his formative years coincided with the furore flared up by Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” the Western media’s consistent vituperation of things Islamic, US’s imperialistic, arrogant aggression against several Muslim countries, the emergence of devilish misdeeds by Daesh/IS while invoking Islamic sacred symbols, and the Prophet’s character assassination through cartoons, he stood his ground and pursued objectively his study of Islam.

Remarkably alive to the Islamophobia raging today, his book opens with this perceptive observation: “In the ‘Western World’ today much remains unknown about Islam … some think of Islam as a political ideology bent upon world domination, and some consider it an oppressive and/or violent doctrine contrary to the freedoms and values we cherish in the 21st century.” (p. 11).

Equally gratifying are the noble objectives behind his writing this book: “to build stronger bridges of understanding and peace between Christians and Muslims, to uplift our common humanity, and to defend the honour of Prophet Muhammad, who has been depicted by many Christians throughout history as the anti-thesis of Jesus. (p. 13 Emphasis mine).

Divided into 6 chapters and conclusion, this study focusses on the life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ for pressing home certain truths which have gone unnoticed, what to speak of their recognition. In Chapter 1 he identifies several incidents related to Sirah, which underscore the Prophet’s unflinching commitment to tolerance and peaceful coexistence, with a pointed reference to his meeting with the Christian delegation from Najran, his pact with the Christian monks of Mount Sinai and the early Muslims’ hijrah under his instructions to the Christian state of Abyssinia (pp. 29-48). Chapter 2 demonstrates how sagaciously the Prophet ﷺ forged the ummah in the nascent Islamic state of Madinah, with the local Jews as equal stakeholders. Insightfully, Considine establishes the affinity between Prophet’s vision and of the US Founding Fathers, and between the Islamic and American values (49-58).

Chapter 3 illustrates the Prophet’s anti-racism and non-racism and his preference for inclusiveness and diversity, much ahead of his times (pp. 59-63).

Chapter 4 brings into sharper light the premium Islam/the Prophet ﷺ place on seeking and disseminating knowledge and on reflecting on and harnessing the signs of Allah and Nature. This training went a long way in the Muslims’ contribution to an array of disciplines in the heyday of their civilization from 9th to 13th centuries (pp. 65-87).

Chapter 5 points to the Prophet’s relationship with women and his egalitarian steps for ensuring respect, equality and fairness for them. Needless to add, in the pre-Islamic world, especially Arabia, woman was no more than a commodity abused by men at every level. (pp. 89-95).

Chapter 6 brings out vividly some distinctive features of the Prophet’s conduct: his kindness, mercy and humility. The commonalities in the teachings of Prophet Jesus and Muhammad (peace be to them) are also affirmed, with a view to familiarising Christians with the true teachings of Islam (pp. 97-112).

His “Conclusion” marks a strong plea for cordial relations between Christians and Muslims in the spirit of pluralism and peaceful coexistence (pp. 113-118).

The 5 Appendices in the work reinforce the Prophet Muhammad’s striving for the cause of Inter Faith understanding and cooperation and his tolerance and catholicity of mind in treating with respect the adherents of other religious, particularly Jews and Christians. Appended to the work are the following historical documents: 1) The Constitution of Madina, 2) The Prophet’s Farewell Sermon, 3) The Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai, 4) The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the Bey of Tripoli of Barbary and the USA on 3 Ramadan 1211H/4 November 1796, and 5) Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, the document signed by Pope Francis and the Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb on 3 February 2019.

What initially attracted Considine most to Islam was the Prophet’s exhortations for seeking knowledge. While he was an undergraduate student he realised that although Judaism, Christianity and Islam “share many similarities including belief in the oneness of God, the divine revelation of Prophets, the angels,” he was puzzled as to why the Islamic faith was not considered part of the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” (p. 20) Even in the face of his first-hand observation of the banning of certain elements of Shariah by several state and local governments in the US during Obama’s reign, the atrocities perpetrated by Daesh in the name of Islam, the Muslim Ban in the US, and the anti-Islam rhetoric across the world he champions “the dialogue of civilizations” as the only way out for world peace and happiness. It is gratifying to note that the Pope Francis has been actively pursuing Inter Faith dialogue, as is evident from his recent engagements in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

Considine reports with much delight and as a worthy example, the Prophet Muhammad’s reception of the Christians of Najran in 631. How he set the first laudable instance of building the bridge between Christians and Muslims comes out from this report. When these visiting Christians expressed their desire to perform their prayer, the Prophet ﷺ told them: “You are followers of the one True God, please come, pray inside my mosque. We are all brothers in humanity.” (p. 24. Emphasis mine). On the basis of the Prophet’s treaties with the Christians of the day, which granted them freedoms of religion and conscience in the Islamic state, Considine exclaims: “Going beyond religious tolerance, the Prophet in fact advocated for religious pluralism… As a Christian, I do not simply respect these kinds of teachings. I love them.” (p. 25).

Notwithstanding the explicit Qur’ānic exhortation and the Prophet’s noble example, non-Muslim minorities in some of the Muslim countries are regrettably not treated fairly. Moreover, Muslims being a minority community in so many countries should be all the more sensitive to this issue. While extolling the tradition of religious pluralism in the teachings of the Qur’ān and the Prophet ﷺ, Considine justifiably draws attention to the reprehensible instances of the injustice meted out to the non-Muslims, especially in the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In this context he aptly invokes several Qur’ānic passages which accord a special status to the People of the Book i.e. Jews, Christians and other monotheistic faith communities.

Equally pertinent is his reference to the enviable practice of religious freedom and pluralism in the early history of the Muslim world. This is illustrated at its sharpest by the following observation by the Israeli author and former member of Knesset, Uri Avnery: “The Muslim Spain was a paradise for the Jews … there has never been a Jewish Holocaust in the Muslim world.” (p. 31)

Considine adjudges the Prophet’s practice of religious pluralism in the light of eminent sociologist, Diana Eck’s criteria of religious pluralism (2006) premised on these four basic elements: 1) Robust social interaction and authentic relationship with members of other faith communities, 2) Actively seeking and understanding the beliefs and practices of others, 3) Fulfilling commitments to others  notwithstanding holding our deepest differences with them, and 4) Inter Faith dialogue and self-criticism. (pp. 32-33)

Apart from citing the Prophet’s worth-emulating example of having received a Najran Christians’ delegation with warmth and respect, and the early Muslims’ first hijrah to the Christian country, Abyssinia and the spirit of goodwill and understanding among the Christians and Muslims there, Considine draws attention to the little known but highly significant 2nd century Hijri, document “resting in the library of the monastery of Saint Catherine’s at Mount Sinai in Egypt, authorized by Prophet Muhammad that guarantees protection and other human rights to the Christians of this ancient community.” (pp 38 and 127-130).

Likewise, he records with delight and admiration how like the Arab Muslims, the Turkish Ottoman empire too, provided the Jewish and Christian minorities with legal autonomy and authority. He buttresses his stance with the comments by other Western scholars, Karn Barkey and George Gavrilis, which speak highly of the millet system in the Ottoman empire, which ensured freedom and justice to Jews and Christians in the best spirit of tolerance and religious pluralism. (pp.42-43).

Considine showers praise upon the Prophet ﷺ for his unprecedented accomplishment of the civic nation state building in Madinah in an amazingly short period of time. On the authority of Ignatieff, he defines a civic nation as “a community of equal rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.” (p. 49). For him, the Constitution of Madinah epitomises the idea of a civic nation. Discerningly enough, he quotes John Andrew Morrow (2013) on the excellence of the Islamic state of Madinah carved out by the Prophet ﷺ: “A unique system which had never existed before and which has never been since despite honest efforts to emulate it.” (p. 52). He traces out the influence which the Prophet’s model state exercised: “Muhammad’s ideas in terms of incorporating religious, ethnic and racial minorities is similar to the words used in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens, a document passed in 1789 by National Constituent Assembly of the French republic.” (p. 53).

In a similar vein, he draws attention to the common characteristics between the Prophet’s vision and of the US Founding Fathers. (pp. 54-58) As to anti-racism, in his estimation, the Prophet ﷺ was the world’s first anti-racist: “As I frequently touch upon in my invited talks around the US and the word, Muhammad was much more than merely a non-racist. He was an anti-racist.” (p. 60).

Regarding the emphasis on seeking and expanding the domain of knowledge by the Islamic and Prophetic teachings, he makes this telling observation about the Muslim Spain: “Between the 8th and 15th centuries, al-Andalus was one of the world’s centres of learning. Universities such as those in Cordoba, Granda [Granada] and Seville enrolled Jewish, Christian and Muslim students who learned about a range of subjects largely from Muslim teachers. Women were also encouraged to study in al-Andalus.” (p. 67).

Considine grows lyrical about the Prophet’s another great achievement, according women freedom, rights and respect. For substantiating this, apart from citing several Qur’ānic passages and the Prophet’s directives, he quotes the distinguished scholar of comparative religion, Karen Armstrong: [The Qur’ān] “gave women rights of inheritance and divorce centuries before Western women were accorded this status.” (p. 90).

Considine condemns France and other Western countries which have banned hijab, branding it as an assault on the basic human rights of women to control their own bodies and minds.” (p. 93).

Of a similar courageous import is his denunciation of “the so-called Christian West” [that has] invaded countless number of Muslim-majority countries … and their near destruction” in the 20th and 21st centuries (pp. 97-98).

He demolishes another negative stereotype against Islam/Muslims – of Jihad which is carried out occasionally for self-defence (pp.101-102) According to him, forgiveness, love for humanity and humility are some of the distinctive features common to both Prophets Jesus and Muhammad (peace be to them).

His brilliant “Conclusion” testifies to the Prophet Muhammad’s Messengership: “I am by no means the first Christian or “non-Muslim” to recognise Muhammad as a prophet… He cared deeply for – loved – his fellow human being… The life and legacy of the Prophet remind us about the possibilities for human beings, especially Jews and Christians, to live side-by-side in peace and harmony.” (p. 117-118). What a befitting tribute to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ whom the Qur’ān brands as “mercy unto the world. (Al-Anbiya 21: 107)!

The scholarly apparatus of the book is impressive: “Glossary” perceptively and accurately explains a range of things Islamic, particularly Jihaddhimmi and Caliph (pp. 144-146). It is heartening to note his references to several recent Muslim writings in his “Bibliography” (pp. 147-151). Readers will benefit also from Considine’s two other major books, Muslims in America and Islam in America. In the present depressing period of Islamophobia witnessing the churning out of numerous Islam-bashing writings in the West, Considine’s book is all the more valuable for promoting Inter Faith understanding and peaceful co-existence and for recognising the genius of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

[The writer is Professor of English, with two Ph.D.s in English, one from Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh and the other from the University of Leicester, UK. He has a special interest in Literary Orientalism, English Translations of the Qur’ān, Inter-Faith Dialogue and Islam in the West. Author of 40 books, Professor Kidwai has overseen the organisation of hundreds of Faculty Development programmes as Director/Project Coordinator of the UGCHRDC/Union Ministry of Education’s Centre for Academic Leadership and Educational Management (CALEM). [email protected]]